Lasting supper: Alice Camille on Jesus as the Bread of Life

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Fruit of the vine and work of human hands, a meal shared in communion with a friend becomes for us the bread of life.

"How much do you want to know?" The question I asked my good friend was hardly casual. Dale and I were sitting in a hospital room, and he was in bad shape.

Eighteen days earlier I had gotten a call that an exploratory biopsy for a tumor on his brain had gone awry. The doctors had called Dale's brother first, but evidently he was out of town. Several phone calls down the line, the registrar at the seminary where we both worked was contacted, and she called me, since we were all friends.

When we first saw Dale, he was still in intensive care, unable to speak because of the hemorrhage caused by the biopsy. It was clear even then that the precipitated stroke had paralyzed his whole left side. He wasn't going to walk. He might not speak. Whether his memory was affected would not be known right away.

Several weeks later, Dale was moved to the rehab wing of the hospital. Now he could sit up, feed himself, and speak in phrases curiously devoid of proper nouns, which seem to have been excised from his memory. It was so odd to talk with my educated friend and hear him use elegant phrases and then stop, flummoxed by a name that he had known so well. "That circle of rocks on the other side of the ocean," he would say with frustration.

"Stonehenge," I would supply. I had to supply my name too, even though we'd been friends for 15 years. Names were gone for good, apparently. We would learn to live without them. Still, Dale knew who I was, by any other name. He had chosen me to be his agent for power of attorney by pointing at the name on the spine of one of my books when the lawyer asked him to designate someone. Dale had carefully laid out the book earlier, knowing it was the only way he could remember my name.

And finally invested with power of attorney, I had been able to obtain a copy of Dale's pathology report from the surgeon and had a discussion of his prognosis with her. Dale knew I had just come from that meeting, laden with the facts. But though I had sat with him for an hour, he hadn't asked about it, chatting about physical therapy and other rehab scuttlebutt instead. So finally I broached the subject as carefully as I could: "How much do you want to know?"

Dale looked away. I had never seen my friend frightened before. He was older than me, having celebrated his 63rd birthday just before he entered the hospital for what he had hoped would be a false alarm; I was just approaching 40.

Dale had lived his years with a gusto beyond anything I was capable of. He spoke seven languages, had traveled all over the world, was a scholar, athlete, sculptor, and poet. But now I saw his fear, and I shivered with the terrible knowledge that was in me.

Finally, he cleared his throat and said, "I need to have hope."

"We are people of hope," I confirmed, though I knew we intended different things by that word. And so I told him about the cancer and about the treatments being proposed, what the insurance covered and what decisions needed to be made at once.

I did not tell him that the surgeon cried when she told me how nice a patient Dale had been right up to the time of the surgery, and how she was still wiping her eyes when she told me, "Five months, if he does not respond to the treatment. Eighteen months at the outside, if he does. I'm sorry. His prognosis is very poor."

I said to Dale, "Your surgeon thinks very highly of you." His face brightened. "I thought she was wonderful."

Later that day, we arranged for him to receive the Sacrament of the Sick.

Into every lifetime comes the hour of crisis, and part of the definition of crisis is that we have little time to prepare for the emergency thrust upon us. Theologians sometimes discuss crisis as a "limit experience," the sharp sense of our mortality that we run into like a brick wall in moments of powerlessness, personal loss, sickness, disability, or a general feeling of being cornered arising from a lack of options. Our dying is the ultimate limit experience, of course, but many little deaths precede the inevitable one, and in each we get a bitter foretaste of what our humanity fundamentally implies. Being mortal means we die. Built-in obsolescence is part of the deal.

Jesus reached his limit--his "hour" as he called it--after his entry into Jerusalem, but the season of crisis began for him much earlier, as early as Chapter 6 in the Gospel of John. This extraordinary chapter is so important for understanding the whole gospel that the church proclaims John 6 in its entirety over five weeks of Sundays this summer. This cycle of readings, repeated every third year, is sometimes referred to as the Bread of Life discourse, and it can be challenging for preachers. Imagine supplying five different homilies in a row about Jesus and bread, starting with the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and proceeding through Jesus' revelation: "I am the bread of Life."

John 6 can cause a bit of a crisis for the preacher (and sometimes for the sorely tested assembly) but that's not why it's known as the chapter of crisis. It's here that Jesus lays discipleship on the line and forces the hour of decision: Are you with me or not? Many will turn away from him and go home at the end of this teaching. "This saying is hard," they mumble on their way out. "Who can accept it?"

Jesus, realizing that his ministry has turned the corner from being a success by worldly standards to being notorious by all but heavenly ones, puts the question directly to his disciples, "Do you also want to leave?"

Peter answers for the rest: "To whom shall we go?" If life is to be had in the company of Jesus, there is no place else for those who seek life to be found.

So Dale and I, fortified by the sacrament of the sick, moved from crisis to crisis over the next few months. Weeks of radiation therapy diminished the gains he had made in physical therapy, and he lost weight and appetite. The will to live itself seemed to wane.

When it came time to move him from the medical facility back to his home at last, it seemed that he was going home simply to die. We got him a wheelchair, had a hospital bed delivered to his address, and gathered up an assortment of medications from the pharmacy. How strange that this was now Dale's life, when a few short months ago he had been the most agile person of my acquaintance.

The results came back from the lab in due time, and there was some good news. The tumor growth was arrested, temporarily. But before long a new cancer site was found. And Dale and I reached a new season of truth-telling.

"Am I going to die?" he asked me frankly that day. He was lying on his adjustable bed, which was set up in the parlor so he could feel more a part of life going on all around him.

"Yes."

There is no easy way to say that to someone you love. I took his hand, as his eyes filled with tears and his mouth opened in a silent sob. For a moment we cried together. Then Dale grew angry.

"I need more time! I have things to do!" he insisted.

"What things?"

He motioned toward his shelves, and I pulled out the notebook he was indicating. Dale kept notebooks for everything: quotable quotes he read, poems he wrote, dreams he had. This one was a notebook of lists. He brushed through several pages and showed me one entitled, "Life Goals."

Sure enough, Dale had a list of his goals, including many he had already completed, like learning languages and traveling to exotic places. But Dale was pointing at some others on the list that had yet to be accomplished: "Climb Mount Kili-manjaro." "Write book about Cairo." Even climbing stairs was out of the question now, and he could hardly write more than his name. "I need 20 more years!" he declared.

"You may only have one more," I said softly. "What do you want to do with it?"

Dale was struck speechless at the idea. "Right now, I want to be alone," he said. So I left the room.

In less than an hour, though, he rang the bell we had rigged by his bed so that I would know when he needed assistance. I came in guiltily, the messenger blaming herself for the contents of the message. Dale smiled at me with unusual vigor. "Can I have herb spaghetti for dinner?" he inquired.

His question surprised me, and not only because of the context. Dale had shown a sincere lack of interest in food since his illness. No matter what our excellent attendant prepared, he seemed unimpressed, though he had always been a self-professed "foodie." On free nights, when the attendant was off and a variety of friends cooked or brought food, Dale was even less hungry, though he toyed with the contents of his plate politely. Tonight was my night to cook, which was always bad news for Dale. "I don't know how to make herb spaghetti," I said.

"But I do," he assured me, and gestured for help to get out of bed. This was also unprecedented: Dale wanted to prepare supper! He got into his chair and wheeled himself into the kitchen, and together we prepared a marvelous dish of pasta and herbs, and set a lovely table and opened a bottle of wine. Dale was in high spirits, and we laughed and talked like old times, and for that whole evening I almost forgot how sick he was, how close to death.

My friend had looked over the edge of the precipice, faced his fear, and found his courage. Dying was still ahead, but the crisis, miraculously, was behind us.

It is no wonder that the call to rejoin life and accept its terms was expressed that night in a meal. It is a meal to which Jesus calls his followers, because eating is an affirmation of life. When Jesus broke bread to feed the multitude, and later offered himself as the food that would not perish, he was beckoning them from the precipice of death and inviting them to a life that has no end. "Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst," he told them. But the crowds were still looking for loaves and fishes, and Jesus wasn't producing more of those.

They entered into a crisis of faith in this prophet, who called himself the living bread from heaven, comparing himself with the manna that sustained their ancestors in the desert. They wanted so much less than what he offered, just enough to get by until payday really, not this eternal life he talked about.

"I am the bread of life," Jesus assured them. The crowds wanted the kind of bread and the kind of life they could understand. They had plans, and they wanted assurances that Jesus was going to meet their agenda.

"Thank you for a wonderful day," Dale said to me, wreathed in smiles, on the night I told him he was dying. It was a wonderful day, one of the best I've had. To my dying day, I'll hope to have more of those.

This article appeared in the August 2003 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 68, No. 8, page 45).