Crowding Around The Table

François Mauriac begins one of the chapters in his intriguing 1962 book What I Believe with a haunting scene of a Russian boy, now grown older, visiting the church of his childhood.

“At times I try to imagine,” Mauriac begins,

what goes through the mind of a young Russian boy, if he remembers the church where his grandmother took him secretly when he was small. When he grew up he perhaps returned there out of curiosity and looked at the candles burning in the semidarkness, breathed in the aromatic smells, listened to the chanting of the Psalms. . . .

Ever the novelist, Mauriac gives us a condensed, concrete picture of the massive shifts sweeping across the cultural landscape toward secularization. The setting is Soviet Russia. What would this boy be thinking, now grown older, returning to this scene of candles and smells and chanting and Psalms. He comes back, apparently, not because he wants to worship in this once-holy space, but rather out of dry curiosity. He has become, we come to find out, a skeptic, deeply suspicious of what was once bathed in spiritual light. This church for him is now bereft of meaning, an odd place, virtually abandoned, dark. It is quintessentially antiquated.

The now-grown boy comes “in the spirit of an ethnologist,” perhaps, a detached observer, a scientist, a philosophical materialist. What this boy now finds in this once-sacred space is a scene for “incantations of a black sorcerer and the sacred tribal dances.” Do such “benighted people” actually still exist? “This surviving animal of a species,” he contends, so “on the brink of disappearing,” will never bring back to life the now-dead rituals of an ancient faith. He now claims the “mystery of a materialist.” He has left behind the old mystery of childhood worship.

For Mauriac this is a sign of civilizational decline:

The feeling we all have of being witnesses to a twilight with no promise of dawn, the horror which fills our hearts at times that this Christian civilization of the West, so rich in works of all kinds and which, in spite of so many crimes, has done so much for the reign of Christ and given such laudable examples of holiness, that this civilization has started its decline and is at every moment threatened with being wiped out with one blow—this feeling, we must agree, makes it hard for us to practice the faith that we must nevertheless nurture within, faith in the unity of all men [and women] in Christ!

We cannot explain our own situation the way Saint Augustine would do “when the Roman world was collapsing everywhere.” For him the barbarian hordes sitting at the gates of the civilized world were the real danger. Perhaps we have some of that, but no, the “enemies of the West,” in our own time, are those who “were once Christians and are no longer. They knew Christ and refused Him. They have decreed the death of God.” “The truth of the matter,” Mauriac concludes, “is that Western Christianity has failed in its vocation.”

Mauriac answers all of this with another novelist’s stroke. These are alarming times—as we worry about the decline of our civilization, as we worry even about the physical annihilation of life on the planet. But Mauriac calls on us to imagine, that

whatever happens, even in a world three-quarters blotted out by a weapon of destruction, there will always be in the back part of some cellar a small group crowding around a table and a man anointed who breaks and distributes the Living Bread.

Sometimes I feel like the Russian boy who stepped into church where the once-meaningful rituals have become limp and lifeless. But, no, more strongly than ever, I imagine, with Mauriac, even in the face of societal hollowness, I am joining, “in the back part of some cellar,” a small remnant of believers huddled around the Lord’s table, where once again, as we always have, we receive the “Living Bread.”

This “Living Bread,” we remind ourselves in this season of Lent, is at the center of the mystery of our faith. It is the mystery of the incarnate Christ, alive as it has ever been. Though often declared exhausted of all meaning, as our young Russian boy observed, the living bread is nevertheless alive and life-giving and capable of reviving our discouraged spirits, capable even of igniting renewal across the land. Ultimately Mauriac paints a hopeful picture. Yes, in those back cellars of our broken world, we remember, and we receive, once again, the living bread that is the spark of new life everywhere.