Remnants Of A Feast

Does God’s Grace fit in Tupperware?

Josh Retterer / 12.3.21

There is usually that one special dish a relative or friend makes that you look forward to each Thanksgiving. It changes from simply food to a gift. I feel that way about great stories, they are a gift from the teller. They never seem to stale. That’s how I think about Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion retelling of a Thanksgiving memory from the land of Powdermilk Biscuits and Lutherans. One learns not to uncover the casserole dishes before the prayer in these settings.

Everybody in the family knew that Uncle John couldn’t pray without talking about the cross and crying. Sure enough, Uncle John prayed, talked about the cross, and cried. Meanwhile, the rest of us shifted nervously from one foot to the other and longed for the prayer to end. All of us knew that Jesus died on the cross for us, but Uncle John had never gotten over it.

I never get tired of that story. I remember thinking it was funny when I first heard it. Now, enough abreactive experiences have given it a different emotional flavor. I deeply appreciate authors who attempt to describe what it feels like to have the Holy Spirit rummaging around inside you, or to badly paraphrase Simeon Zahl, who can help us see the effect on our affectIn The Love That Is God, Frederick Bauerschmidt points to one of the most famous examples of this type of exploration of the emotional reality of God’s interaction with us.

In writing his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo is not only pioneering the genre of memoir but is developing a theology of the working of God’s grace in human lives. One might even say that he has to invent the genre because of his conviction that grace typically works in subtle, hidden ways that become apparent to us only retrospectively when our past has been gathered together into memory. He tells the story of his first thirty years as a time of seemingly aimless wandering, driven by his appetites and ambitions, but also secretly driven by the Holy Spirit, leading him ultimately to Christian baptism and friendship with the risen Jesus. This twisting path of increasing agitation appears to reach a climax in the scene of the emotionally tormented Augustine in a garden, taking up a book of Paul’s letters and reading a seemingly random passage (Rom. 13:13–14), upon which “all the shadows of doubt were dispelled” (8.12.29). But Augustine is clear that, despite appearances, this sudden reversal is not a unique moment when grace begins to work but is rather a moment when grace’s ongoing work becomes clearly manifest. And though he receives enough light to move forward, he also knows that this is not the end of the story of grace’s work in him but rather a moment he will only understand fully when God’s final judgment on the world is passed.

The emotional vividness of the story is a gift, having the effect of helping Augustine — and us — remember not only what happened, but what it felt like when it did. Richard Coles describes in Fathomless Riches what meeting the source of all this grace did upon his person. 

But in the first rush of conversion it was all about feeling, feeling with an intensity that took me by surprise and dispelled any anxieties or reserve I might have about joining in. I prayed so intensely in those first months that I had a sensation of colour and movement rather than words or pictures. Perhaps that was because the words and pictures had yet to form, or perhaps that I was in a mental and spiritual crisis, but God was extraordinarily forthcoming, and had I come across a burning bush or a voice from a cloud, like Moses, I would not have been so surprised.

It was not only the mystery of God I encountered, but the person of Jesus Christ also, this enigmatic figure who I have never been able to shake off, who haunts me still, encountered in the echo chamber of Scripture and the feast of the Eucharist, and as someone who has just left the room, but whose vanished presence still alters the temperature and the currents of circulating air and leaves a fading music. Perhaps that does not sound like much, but in him I discovered forgiveness for my sins and my silliness and my hard-heartedness — forgiveness for more than my sins in the fathomless riches of his grace. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches us how to pray. Go to your room, he says, and shut the door, and there pray to your Father who is in secret. In all of us there is such a room, with a tightly closed door, windowless. We want it that way, because in it we keep those things that shame us, the humiliations we endure, our foolishness and cruelty, the very worst of us. That’s exactly where Jesus wants to meet us, and we dread it because his grace falls on us like a judgement; but in his revealing light we find not a misbegotten horror, like the Monster of Glamis, we find ourselves, nothing special, nothing dreadful.

These stories are like remnants of a feast, the kind you don’t throw out after a week. They’ll never stale because the supper of the Lamb is going on right now and will never, ever stop. Even years (or decades) later, its food is so good that you’ll cry happy tears — just like Uncle John. Hungry?


Extra helping: This song always had a bit of an Augustinian seasoning to my ears. 

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One response to “Remnants Of A Feast”

  1. […] Remnants of a Feast: “These stories are like remnants of a feast, the kind you don’t throw out after a week.” via Josh Retterer […]

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