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About the Eucharist (Holy Communion) and its Meaning

One way of approaching the meaning of the Eucharist is as a Sacrament in the church; the form it has in the Orthodox church today is one of the most original and beautiful. Indeed the Holy Eucharist has a central place in the church, and in all Christian churches. The Last Supper, also called the Lord's Supper, is recorded in Matthew 26: 26-8, Mark 14: 22-4 and Luke 22: 17-20 and also in the Epistle to the Corinthians.

Yet, the Eucharist holds in itself much more than the regular practice of receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the churches! The idea of this article is to examine the different meanings eating has.

Original Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
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The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. Painted 1494 and 1498, Leonardo abandoning the traditional method of fresco painting, depicted the scene "a secco" on the wall of the refectory. This technique and environment factors had contributed to the eventual deterioration of the fresco, that has undergone numerous restorations, the most recent being 1999, where various scientific methods were employed to restore the original colors and where possible to remove the traces of paint applied from previous attempts to restore the fresco. Extensive measures have been implemented to protect the fresco from further exposure. To ensure that the fresco be kept at room temperature, since restoration the visitor intake has been restricted to a group of 25 admitted every 15 minutes. The fresco is in Milan Museum.

The word itself, Eucharist, is from Greek and means "thanksgiving". The origin of the custom is from the first century; my concern is not the history of the Sacrament, but its meaning. The Eucharist is given towards the end of the Liturgy (called Mass in the Catholic and Anglican churches), the word "Liturgy" means "work of the people". The Liturgy is preceded by a Fast, which can be anything from just the day one takes part in the Eucharist, or it can be much longer; the longest Fasts last 40 days. These are generally the times of self-examination; breaking the habit of eating can also reveal other habits in us. This time is also a preparation for Confession, the Sacraments which is a preparation for the Holy Communion. This whole process of fasting, Confession and Communion is known in the Slavonic language as "Govenie". The idea of Govenie is to arrive at Metanoia, a Greek word meaning "to turn", to take another direction, and through Metanoia to be united with God.

The Sacrament of the church is a very serious matter; it is in the Sacraments that God acts, not "I". To sin means "missing the mark", going the wrong way, with the "I" of the moment. The meaning of Metanoia is to turn completely away from our selfishness and from acting according to our own will. The expression "to die" is used for this process; to "be born" is to live according to the Will of God, in this life, now, and not in some distant future. It is in this sense St. Seraphim of Sarov said: "I have no will of my own". Jesus Christ gives us an example of acting according to God's Will; He is God and Man. He is also the New Adam of our being to be born in us.

In the Bible sin has also another meaning going deeper into the nature of man. This is also in connection with eating; it is related to the "Original Sin" according to which, on the suggestion of a snake, Eve gave Adam an apple from the "Tree of Knowledge", which he ate although he had been told by God not to. This is exactly where we are all at still today: we all eat from the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad", which in our days has many good names: science, psychology, philosophy, progress, being in our head etc. In our heads we believe that we can do; that we can rule the world, that we have knowledge of our own, that we know what is good for us and what is not and that we can enjoy the fruits of our actions. It does not take much to realize what kind of a dream this is, more often than not it is a nightmare! The insanity of humanity can be seen in our inability to control our numbers, which results in many other problems. But not only just outside us, we have all of us and in us an insane mind. According to God and the Bible instead of eating from the Tree of Knowledge we should eat from the "Tree of Life". In other words, to live our life, to take fully part in it and experience it as it unfolds. In other words to be, instead of thinking.

Eating is more than a Sacrament of the church - it is a cosmic truth and a cosmic event. Everything living "eats". In nature eating is a continuous exchange of substances and energy. It is in eating that we take part in life, like all other living beings on the earth. Whatever we eat becomes part of us; what we don't eat comes out. This goes even deeper in our life!

The food we eat is not only the physical food, bread and wine. To help us to digest, assimilate and transform the energy we receive at various levels, we have also been given air, the breath. We are also given impressions; the sense impressions, the feelings and the thoughts. All these together form our nourishment.

What about impressions? What impresses us? Anything that we experience can "make an impression", more or less permanent. We can hear impressive music, see an impressive landscape, taste and impressive food, smell and impressive perfume, touch an impressive body etc. Also a thought and an emotion can be impressive.

The Rebel Who Does Not Eat - That's Me!

Since childhood I have said no to some foodstuffs, mainly on the grounds of "I don't like it". One of these foods was oats porridge; I remember how the popular Finnish children's radio man uncle Markus, in Finnish Markus setä, once told me on the radio when I was about six years old, that it is important that "you Reijo there in Munkkiniemi also eat oats porridge every day". In a similar way I have refused to eat certain impressions, in other words said no to some experiences. Examples of these are many: from having never got involved into a fistfight to being afraid of darkness, let alone play with snakes and such!

If I am accused of something that I find unjust then my answer has been to "run away", a habit that I learned at the age of five when I run away from the Kindergarten in Munkkiniemi, in the middle of a beautiful park, every time I was taken there! I "didn't like to be there".

To live according to my likes and dislikes does not get me anywhere. To grow inwardly I need food, but to get anything out of it I have to learn to take it in and to digest it. Learning to take it in is to learn to pay attention and to be aware of what is coming, whatever it is. In fact: eating is connected with learning; whatever we have assimilated becomes part of us;: we have learnt it!

The Last Supper Ponte Capriasca
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An early copy of Leonardo's Last Supper can be seen in Ponte Capriasca, nr. Lugano, Ticino, Helvetia. The painting is most likely made by one of the pupils of Leonardo. The characters and traits of the Apostles marry up with the 12 signs of the Zodiac, like in so many medieval works of art.

Bread and WineBread and Wine

Friedrich Weinreb on Eating

Friedrich Weinreb

According to Friedrich Weinreb eating and mealtimes are something very special: they are a religious experience; when we eat and drink we connect our life in time, the endless, with the eternal. All religions want to make this connection between life here on earth and the eternity.

Basing his writing ("Vom Essen und von der Mahlzeit") in the Hebrew language ( meal = achol, everything = chol) he writes: "In everyone who eats the nourishment becomes part of him, becomes one, forming a Unity." He goes on to say that this same process takes place with our sensory impressions, thoughts and feelings, which all serve as food in their own way.

Weinreb writes: "We know that life here in the flow of time is a life in the unconscious. That is where the dreams come from. Nobody can be in control of their dreams and can't define them beforehand. A great part of our behaviour comes from the unconscious world in us. All our experiences, thoughts and feelings, are archived and kept there."

G. I. Gurdjieff on Eating

Gurdjieff was born (around 1870) in a Biblical setting in Armenian Alexandropol (now Gyumri). His early years and private education towards priesthood was given in the Russian Orthodox community in Kars (now in Turkey).

He has been told to have defined his mission by the following words: "To live and teach so that there should be a new conception of God in the world, a change in the very meaning of the word."(Needless to say that his views are not accepted by the representatives in all the churches!)

Gurdjieff's ideas of eating, as told by P. D. Ouspensky in his book called "In Search of the Miraculous" are defined with the three kinds of food:

  1. the ordinary food we eat
  2. the air we breathe
  3. our impressions

Gurdjieff goes on to explain the cosmic laws of the Octave and Three, which are both presented in the Enneagram, a symbol, which he made available in Russia when starting to teach in 1912 in Moscow. Simply put: the ordinary food octave needs the octave of the breath and further the octave of the impressions to enable the digestion to be full and complete.

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