A Tale of Two Tables
Susan R. Holman

I was twenty years old and had just returned home to Boston after my first year as a transfer student at Valparaiso University. The move to the Midwest had been tough in many ways, but in my second semester I’d found an exciting new church and, there, welcoming and like-minded new friends. Meanwhile, back at home that year, my parents had moved from the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) church of my childhood to a new LCMS parish some miles away. On one of the first Sundays back home that summer, my parents’ new pastor asked to have a few words before the service. He’d been talking with my mother, he said, who told him I was communing in another denomination. “You realize,” he said, “this means you cannot eat at the Lord’s table in this church.” It did not matter that I’d been spiritually grounded from infancy in the same deep mysteries of incarnational theology that he himself represented. It didn’t matter, as I tried to explain despite feeling completely up-ended, that my beliefs on the Eucharist had not changed since I’d memorized Luther’s Small Catechism in confirmation. I was out, simply because I had chosen to eat at another (Christian) table. I returned to campus with much to ponder in the fields of my double major: nutrition and psychology. It was something I would continue to ponder over the following several decades of research and writing on hunger, poverty, and illness across early Christian history.


Food, whether it is used in religious ritual, therapeutic dieting, or ordinary breakfast, lunch, and dinner, is supposed to be good for you. It is supposed to sustain life, to restore and heal. Even when we misuse it—eat or drink excessively, practice fad diets, suffer eating disorders, or cook and feed others to gain their affirmation and praise—it is still (usually) because we see food as something good, something we want to be happy about, something with the potential to satisfying those deeper physical and spiritual hungers, something to make us better.

Holy eating gets at this connection. Indeed, to eat in any religious ritual setting is, usually, to engage in a tradition that sees food as part of a deliberately healing therapeutic narrative. In Christianity—an incarnational faith that emphasizes God coming literally in a physical body—spiritual health is thus tightly intertwined with a literal affirmation of fleshly stuff that God uses to enter and change our body to the core of our being.

Across cultures, food has long been the number one ingredient in medicine. Before our modern focus on molecular and cellular manipulation of chemical elements in laboratory pharmaceuticals, internal medicines were made up (mostly) of herbs, liquids, and edibles. Thus, healing substances mattered in part because of the effect they had directly as they touched our lips, our tongue, our teeth, our taste buds, our body’s absorptive capacities, our choices to chew and to swallow. And, if food is meant to be good and to heal, then obviously food can also affect health by its absence. Insufficient or unhealthy eating may result from our lack of choices: when food is withheld, or when it is unavailable because of poverty, living in a “food desert” lacking nearby grocery stores or affordable fruits and vegetables, or if we suffer a health condition such as diabetes or celiac disease, that wreaks havoc on our metabolism. There are many kinds of starvation, malnutrition, and food failures that affect health and illness, whether of the body, the soul and spirit, or in communal relationships. As food and religious history scholar Rachel Brown put it, “Food is essential to identity formation because food has a double function of solidarity and separation” (2015). Both solidarity and separation have their dark sides: those who are not included.

These uses, failures, and abuses matter, and sometimes even connect, in ordinary medicine, in public health, in household food distribution, and in religious ritual practices. The corporal process of such eating—or being deprived of it—may spiritually inform our mealtime meditation and conscious focus related to health and healing during what we call “taking communion.”

The idea of the Eucharist affecting our physiologic health begins in the New Testament. In 1 Cor. 11:27-30, Paul said that some folk were literally sick or dead because they ate “in an unworthy manner.” Across history this idea has shaped church views, policing “open” or “closed” communion regulations, catechetical instruction, and practices such as confession. In the early second century, Ignatius of Antioch, pleading for unity in his Epistle to the Ephesians (20), ordered them to “break one loaf, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote which wards off death but yields continuous life in union with Jesus Christ” (trans. Richardson, 1996: 93). Gregory of Nyssa made a similar medical analogy in his fourth-century Catechetical Oration, based on the nitty-gritty process of how we digest. In Chapter 37, he wrote,

Those who have through treachery received poison neutralize its pernicious effects by another drug, but the antidote, like the deadly drug, must pass within the vital organs of the individual…. What is this? It is nothing else than that Body which was shown to be superior to death and which became the source of our life…. Yet it is not possible for anything to penetrate the body, unless it is mingled with the vital organs by way of food and drink. (trans. Srawley, 1917: 107-8)

In the Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy still today, the congregation just prior to the Eucharist prays aloud in unison the words, “May the communion of Thy Holy Mysteries be neither to my judgment, nor to my condemnation, O Lord, but to the healing of soul and body” [my emphasis]. Thus, as any properly trained Christian theologian will tell you, the “medicinal” power of such eating, whether it is spiritual or physical, is due not chiefly to the calories and crumbs or drops of grain, gluten, yeast, alcohol, sugar, and water in our mouth, throat, and gut; rather, the healing effect happens in the truth and presence—though different denominational groups word it in different ways—of Jesus Christ, God in flesh, whose very corporeal body cells lived among us in real time and still today continue to shape the life of our spirits—and bodies, and many of our life choices.

When I take communion these days, it is this masticating, sensory reality that I ponder: how to engage with Jesus. After all, he told his disciples, “do this in remembrance of me,” not “do this as a public statement of your confessional alliance.” While “remembrance” is for many of us far more than a symbol that points to mindfulness, nonetheless any “worthy” eating and drinking surely calls us to think with our heart and focused concentration about what we are doing. Physically I am required—there is no other way—to experience the Lord’s table by permitting—even causing—his bread to be torn into bits by my teeth and digestive enzymes. This reminds me that my life indeed depends on Jesus’s willingness to be torn apart, as it were, for my sake. I must move my body, physically coordinating it with others in the communion line. This reminds me of my connections—and obligations—to others in consequence of this eucharistic community. I must attentively watch clerical hands to get the elements into my mouth and not on the floor. This reminds me that I must be open to my own needs, to others’ willingness to interact with me, and that I have choice and agency. I may even risk sharing communal germs in the air or on the wine-drenched cup (or spoon in the Orthodox tradition), as it passes from one mouth to another, though, happily, scientific research suggests that risks of infection by practicing “common cup” communion are extremely low (Pellerin & Edmond, 2013).

Whether you worship in a community of “closed” or “open” communion, most clergy today will respect your conscience if, for example, you occasionally choose to opt out when both you and they agree that you are otherwise welcome to partake. The difference in closed communion churches is that you are also expected to respect the pastor’s conscience as an over-the-rail pharmacist. A priest or pastor’s ordination vows (or interpretation of them) may obligate him (or, perhaps sometimes, her) to apply limits, even perhaps refuse you, whether they wish to or not. This is true not just within Lutheran groups, of course, but as standard doctrinal practice among Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and (I am told) even some Baptists and Presbyterians.

Like all meal etiquette, however, the application can get messy. As I learned in the years that followed my unexpected excommunication, the conscience of many clergy in fact allows them to occasionally, economically, “flex” the rules. And at times such flexes seem nothing less than pure and holy comedy.

Several decades after my college experience, I again spent a season of Sundays in that same church when my father, in his final illness, needed me to be his driver. The pastor had changed but the rules had not, as I knew from a phone conversation I’d had with this new pastor several years earlier. The conversation had left me resentful, not of his policy—which I understood—but of his apparent inability or unwillingness to hear me in theological conversation. One Sunday as I sat in a pew in the back, watching this pastor at that distant altar rail, I found myself thinking, “You know, I’m tired of being grumpy about this issue. I’m tired of carrying this chronic resentment.” For my own benefit I said to myself as loud as I dared, “I forgive him!” A few minutes later, when the service ended, I shook the pastor’s hand at the door in this new spirit. And in that moment, this cleric—who knew only that I had by then signed on with the Anglicans and Episcopalians—said, in the most welcoming New England manner, “I hope you know that you can receive communion in this church.”

You could have knocked me over with a church bulletin.

To this day, I do not know whether this extraordinary dispensation was an expedient of his pastoral care for my father’s illness, or if it was a comic miracle, a holy “coincidence” related directly to my act of forgiving him moments earlier. Medicine of immortality indeed.

Not all clergy care about conscience. For some across Christian history, ironically, “closed” communion was synonymous with a violent force-fed Eucharist. We find references to this practice in a range of sources. Augustine, for instance, defends this practice when it was used in the forced return of the Donatists in early fifth century North Africa following the Council of Carthage in 414. In his Letter 185 to Count Boniface, Augustine defends the practice on the basis of Luke 14:23, “Compel them to come in,” although more than twenty years earlier, in 392, in his Letter 23 to Maximin, Augustine seemed to be against it, writing, “Let there be no intimidation…” Perhaps the most violent cases of such forced Eucharist are those described in the third part of the Ecclesiastical History of John, bishop of Ephesus, under the sixth-century Chalcedonian emperor Justinian. Justinian enforced the “mainline conservative” views of two natures in Christ, a doctrine codified in the council of Chalcedon in 451. John and many other Christians across Egypt and the eastern part of the empire considered this doctrine heretical because, they said, it “divides Christ our God into two natures after the union and teaches a quaternity instead of the Holy Trinity” (trans. Payne Smith, 1860: 7). John and his fellow “miaphysite” or “monophysite” (meaning “one nature”) Christians—energized by and loyal to the teachings of Cyril, bishop of Alexandria—agreed on a human-divine connection in Christ, but insisted that it could only be rightly understood as “one nature.” Because of this serious difference in views on the divine physical body itself, miaphysites refused to commune with Chalcedonians. The problem was that the Chalcedonians were politically dominant (even though Justinian’s wife, the empress Theodora, had during her lifetime balanced her husband’s views by favoring the miaphysites, including John). Forcing this recalcitrant party in his empire to, as Ignatius put it, “break one loaf,” Justinian ordered enforced unity. Church police across the empire turned the screws on miaphysites, seizing property and persecuting clergy who refused to lead the way and willingly partake in Chalcedonian communion. John’s most gruesome story, extant only as included within the ancient Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre Chronicle (known also as the Chronicle of Zuqnin), describes how one Chalcedonian bishop, Abraham Bar Kaili, forced such eating on a priest named Cyrus in John’s hometown in eastern Turkey:

[Bar Kaili] had the Eucharist brought and gave orders to hold the priest, to fill a spoon (with the Eucharist) and to put it in his mouth. (But) as he shut his mouth, they could not insert the spoon into it. Then the bishop gave orders to bring a whip, to stick its handle into (the priest’s) mouth and in this way to get the spoon (also) into his mouth. They held his teeth apart (so forcefully) that they were nearly pulled out. With the handle (of the whip) inserted into his mouth he mumbled, not being able to move his tongue nor to speak normally to them. He swore, saying: “By Christ’s truth, if you put the Eucharist into my mouth, I will spit it out upon your faces.” Thus in bitter wrath and threatening (him) with death they inserted the spoon to one side of the whip and poured the Eucharist into his mouth….

Of all the violence the miaphysites suffered, says John, they considered this forced eucharistic feeding most toxic. In Lives of the Eastern Saints, John repeatedly describes the effects of the “enemy’s” eucharistic elements on the bodies of his fellow miaphysites as directly contrary to health, indeed, as poison, the torturers “diluting their blasphemies like a drug with honey” (trans. Brooks, 1923: 99). Here, in short, we find a “closed communion” group—the Chalcedonians who believed only their view was true and proper—not saying, “You can’t eat with me,” but saying, rather, “I am going to make you eat with me, whether you like it or not, because it will be good for you, even if it kills you.” These were, we must also keep in mind, two church parties that did accept one another’s baptisms. As the priest Cyrus insisted, before Bar Kaili’s men murdered him, “The Eucharist given by such force is not the Eucharist.”

Force-fed Eucharist is not limited to such stories from early Christian history. We find the same practice in the persecution against French Huguenots (Protestant converts) in France in the 1680s, when military force to commune the dissidents “scandalized many devout Catholics” (Johnston, 1986: 483). Since the seventeenth century, force feeding has continued to be used in political violence against prisoners that sometimes also includes the forced crossing of religious boundaries: on eighteenth century slave ships (Jennings, 2010: 179), in force-feeding devout Muslims in Guantanamo which human rights lawyer George Annas calls “more in the realm of war crimes and crimes against humanity than medical treatment” (2017), imprisoned Irish Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland in the 1970s (Miller, 2016), and educated women imprisoned for their views on women’s suffrage at the turn of the twentieth century (Pankhurst, 1913; Williams, 2008). In terms of food’s effect on the integrity and health of the self, such stories point to an attempt to impose involuntary reification of the victim’s body and world by such eating to erase self-identified meaning and to create an altered cellular digestive identity.

My purpose in this essay is not to criticize closed or open communion, nor is it primarily to illustrate exceptions and deviations to these religious norms within the Christian tradition. I understand and I profoundly respect both of these liturgical views when they are practiced—by clergy and laity—in honest economies of conscience. I certainly know first-hand the sorrow that closed communion can cause, whatever its reasons, particularly as it divides not only “closed” from “open” communion church bodies but also divides the many “closed” communion groups whose members will happily talk to one another but who cannot ritually eat together. Both well-meaning clergy and laity face constant challenges in distinguishing theological doctrine from partisan or even ethnic politics.

My point here, rather, is that the religious use of food is—or should be—one of the healing arts. As an art that affirms the value of the body through processes as mundane and messy as saliva and gastric juices, the healing art of holy nutriture invites us to intentionally embrace mindful eating for the good of the spirit and the soul. Food therapy has many meanings, whether in its literal effects on the individual body, communal effects that ingestion has on society and culture, and/or spiritual effects on the interrelationship between body, society, and the divine. Christian history can help us understand context and, studied carefully, may also give us a broader perspective on modern views and practices. Spirituality is, at core, embodied. Health and healing concern choices not only in your doctor’s office, in your head, at the gym, the grocery store, or your bathroom medicine cabinet. They also dwell—no matter where you go to “join the table”—in your worship experience, in community engagement in church and world, in your teeth, and in your tummy.

Take, and eat.


Susan R. Holman is the John R. Eckrich Chair and Professor in Religion and the Healing Arts at Valparaiso University.


Works Cited

Annas, George J. “Force-feeding at Guantanamo.” Journal of Medical Ethics 43, no. 1 (2017): 26. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/medethics-2016-103579.

Augustine, Saint. Letter 185, to Count Boniface, trans. J.G. Cunningham, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1.1. Revised Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102185.htm.

Augustine, Saint. Letter 23 to Maximin, trans. J. G. Cunningham, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1.1. Revised Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102023.htm.

Brown, Rachel. “On Food, Religious Identity, and the Appeal of Muslim Extremists,” Culture War Reporters, June 10, 2015. https://culturewarreporters.com/2015/06/10/rachel-brown-on-food-religious-identity-and-the-appeal-of-muslim-extremists/.

Jennings, Willie James. The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

John of Ephesus. The Third Part of the Ecclesiastical History of John Bishop of Ephesus. Trans. R. Payne Smith. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1860. http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/ephesus_1_book1.htm.

John of Ephesus. Lives of the Eastern Saints. Trans. E. W. Brooks, Patrologia Orientalis, Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1923. https://archive.org/details/patrologiaorient17pariuoft.

Johnston, Charles F. “Elie Benoist, Historian of the Edict of Nantes,” Church History 55 (1986): 468-488.

Miller, Ian. A History of Force Feeding: Hunger Strikes, Prisons and Medical Ethics, 1909-1974. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. https://www.palgrave.com/de/book/9783319311128.

Pankhurst, E. Sylvia. “Forcibly Fed: The Story of My Four Weeks in Holloway Gaol,” McClure’s Magazine (August 1913): 87-93. http://www.unz.org/Pub/McClures-1913aug-00087.

Pellerin, James & Michael B. Edmond. “Infections Associated with Religious Rituals,” International Journal of Infectious Diseases 17 (2013): e945-e948. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23791225.

Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre Chronicle (Known also as the Chronicle of Zuqnin), Part III. Trans. Witold Witakowski. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996. Pp. 34-37, at 34.

Richardson, Cyril, ed./trans. Early Christian Fathers. New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Srawley, James Herbert, ed./trans. The Catechetical Oration of Gregory of Nyssa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1917.

Williams, Elizabeth A. “Gags, funnels and tubes: Forced feeding of the insane and of suffragettes.” Endeavour 32/4 (2008): 134-40. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19019439.

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