Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion
The Spiritual Memoir of a Twenty-First-Century Christian
By Sara Miles
New York: Ballantine Books, 2007
Review by Carl McColman
If, like me, you love stories like Chocolat or Babette’s Feast because of their eucharistic overtones, then you will simply adore Take This Bread, which is quite likely the most explicitly joyous eucharistic conversion story I’ve ever read. I’m struggling to avoid all the obvious gustatory puns: it’s a feast, you’ll eat it up, and so forth. There, I’ve gotten them out of me, so now I can just tell you what a delightful and theologically nimble book this is. Author Sara Miles begins with a candid assessment of the irony that courses through her story: the leftist lesbian atheist who in her mid-40s wanders into a church, receives communion, finds herself eyeball to eyeball with God, and then goes off and starts to live the gospel. Yee haw! And while Miles dances around the question of how she came to be in that church to begin with (the book’s major, and really only, misstep), she keeps her story gut-level honest by never shying away from her incisive criticism of churchianity (both before and after that momentous communion), her impatience with academic theology, and her willingness to acknowledge the messiness of juggling her emergent enthusiasm for Christianity with ongoing commitment to loved ones who do not share her faith.
But this is not really a book about conversion so much as it is a book about communion, which means it is a book about food. And so Miles treats us to lyrical tales of her youth working as a chef in Manhattan, grittily honest descriptions of what a meal with her impoverished friends and comrades in Nicaragua or the Philippines is like, and lavish detail concerning the food she has been giving away for the last few years at one of San Francisco’s most successful free food pantries — or the simple yet sumptuous meals the she and several others prepare for the volunteers at that pantry. As someone who clearly got the memo about the eucharist being at the heart of the Christian Mystery, Miles not only mines her lifelong love affair with food for its spiritual meaning, but she integrates faith and sacrament and her political sensibility in her rapidly expanding ministry to feed others, confident in her understanding — and ability to articulate — that feeding poor people is arguably far more eucharistic than anything a nattily robed priest with a ciborium full of hosts and a chalice of wine could ever hope to consecrate.
Like Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Avila, Sara Miles hints to her reader that she isn’t much of a theologian, only to dish up (eek, another pun) some of the finest theology this side of Vatican II and the Catholic Worker. What I really loved about this book was the way in which, despite its nearly flawless pedigree as a “liberal Christian” manifesto, Take This Bread manages to avoid the preachy sentimentality that poisons so much progressive Christian writing. This isn’t Matthew Fox or John Shelby Spong or Rosemary Radford Ruether, God be praised; Miles’ voice sounds more like Anne Lamott or Shane Claiborne. The only time her story seemed to veer close to politically correct progressive Christian-speak was when she recounted how participating in the brief opportunity for same sex couples to marry in San Francisco gave her an appreciation for the sacrament of marriage. But in the end, what’s truly memorable about that passage is her sheer vulnerable courage in detailing her transition from eyeing marriage cynically to suddenly being able to appreciate it. Her writing is all the more powerful for her polemical silence: she wastes no time arguing for “inclusivity” or justifying the Biblical mandate for hospitality; rather, Miles just lets her story rip, and in her matter-of-fact recounting of her work feeding the poor (and the church’s often less-than-gospel response to her ministry) and her vivid descriptions of the real men and women who simultaneously embody and yet blow away all the stereotypes surrounding that word “poor,” she allows truly revolutionary messages to gracefully dance through her narrative: that Christianity is about ripping down walls and ignoring the rules; that everyone, yes everyone is invited to the heavenly feast, and the more outrageous or “undesirable” they are, the bigger Christ’s smile; and that such staples of the religious right as moral rectitude and sexual purity (whatever that means) are simply non-starters in the postmodern paradise where Christ lurks today.
I can’t think of any higher praise to offer this book than this: before I was halfway through with it, I was recommending it to just about everybody: to an Episcopal layman who is also a Sufi cherag; to a trad-witchcraft high priestess; to a new ager who is also a prominent businesswoman here in Atlanta; to the director of religious education at my very middle class (if ethnically diverse) Catholic Church. Yeah, this may be a book about being a Christian and feeding “the least of these my brothers and sisters.” But you know, it’s also way, way more than that. It’s a book about doing life fully, joyfully, completely, about being honest about what does and doesn’t work and being willing to step outside of our collective comfort zone for the sake of answering an intuitively dead-on call. But even though I think this book will appeal to anyone who loves a tale full of passion and quiet confidence, make no mistake: this is most of all a book about how untameable the eucharist is. For Miles understands, like anyone else who’s really trying to tune into just how radical Christ was (and is), how the eucharist just keeps showing up in the most unlikely of places — creating community, manifesting love, making miracles happen… and always involving food.