The Eucharist, eternal source of poetic inspiration

The cult of the Eucharist has been reflected throughout the centuries in numerous literary and poetic works. Moreover, some cultural references, such as Chesterton or J. R. R. R. Tolkien, have been characterized by a great Eucharistic devotion.

Maria Caballero-February 17, 2024-Reading time: 8 minutes

Adoration of the Lamb, Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece

"Adorote devote, latens deitas.../ Te adoro con devoción Dios escondido"... The liturgical hymn of St. Thomas Aquinas along with others like the reiterated "Pange lingua" continues to resound in our churches after many centuries. Not only him, St. Bonaventure, St. John of Avila, St. Maria Micaela founder of the Adorers and so many others inflamed with divine love transform their high level theological studies into poetry or essays and continue to sustain the faith of the Catholic Church in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Until reaching St. John Paul II and his Encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia" (2003), followed by Benedict XVI who in his apostolic exhortation "Sacramentum caritatis" (2007) picks up the torch to gloss a central truth in his papacy, the gift that Christ makes of himself revealing to us his infinite love for every man. A love that allows mere mortals to become what they receive, to become one with God. This idea has been glossed by St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Leo the Great and St. Francis de Sales, among others. Because to receive communion is "to quench one's hunger for Christ," said St. Teresa of Calcutta; and not to do so would be like "dying of thirst by a fountain," said the Holy Curé of Ars, another great devotee of the Eucharist. Consequently, prayers, hymns and Eucharistic poems run through Western history around the feast of Corpus Christi and its processions, which continue to be celebrated with unusual splendor in Seville, Toledo and many other cities. As the hymns of the International Eucharistic Congresses of the 20th century also testify: "On your knees, Lord, before the tabernacle, / that keeps all that remains of love and unity, / (...) Christ in all souls and in the world peace /" (Pemán y Aramburu, Barcelona 1952). In fact, Pemán worked these themes in "El divino impaciente" (theater, 1933) and the "Canto a la Eucaristía" (1967). Centuries ago, love for the Eucharist filled the life of another laywoman whom Pope Francis declared venerable: "the madwoman of the Sacrament", Doña Teresa Enriquez, lady of Isabella the Catholic who founded the first headquarters of the Eucharistic confraternities in Spain.

Traces of the Eucharist in literature: the autos sacramentales

But let us leave aside the saints, in spite of their metaphorical capacity, to focus on another aspect of the question: the Eucharist, gift of God and central mystery of the Christian, has generated a great literature from the Middle Ages to the present day. Due to the brevity of space, we will only make a few brief comments on this process.

It is not strange that in a theocentric society, the autos sacramentales arose in Spain in the Golden Age (XVI-XVII). They were allegorical plays in verse in one or several acts with a Eucharistic theme. They were performed on the day of Corpus Christi with great scenographic apparatus and glossed biblical, philosophical, moral and especially Eucharistic themes. The characters were abstractions, symbols that embodied ideas such as good and evil, faith, hope, charity and the Eucharist. Given their theological complexity and doctrinal subtleties, the success of the autos sacramentales in a people with a very high rate of illiteracy is paradoxical. Almost all the great authors of the time wrote them: Timoneda, Lope de Vega, Valdivielso, Tirso de Molina... But the summit of the genre was reached by Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681), writer, playwright and priest who wrote more than eighty autos sacramentales, with a close theological connection between the feast and the play represented, whose Eucharistic theme is always essential. He defines them as follows: "Sermons / put in verse, in idea / representable questions / of Sacred Theology, / that my reasons / cannot explain nor understand, / and to the rejoicing he arranges / in applause of this day".

Some titles: "El gran teatro del mundo", "La cena del rey Baltasar", "El gran mercado del mundo", "El verdadero Dios pan", "La lepra de Constantino", "La protestación de la fe", "Viático cordero"... In the first one, life is a theater where each character plays his role and is received at the end by the Author in the great Eucharistic dinner that rewards those who defended Christian values. And so, in all of them, an argument that always refers to the Eucharistic theme is glossed using allegory, a resource that satisfied his desire to play with abstractions and concepts. In "Lo que va del hombre a Dios", he tries to reflect his technique and intentions in this dramatic genre when he says: "It was in the style set / that Man should begin by sinning, / that God should end by redeeming / and, when the bread and wine arrived / to rise with him to Heaven / to the sound of the shawms". A sample of his poetic work is "Manjar de los fuertes": "El género humano tiene / contra las fieras del mundo, / por las que horribles le cerquen, / su libertad afianzada, / como a sustentarse llegue / de aquel Pan y de aquel Vino / de aquel cual hoy es sombra éste.../ Nadie desconfíe, / nadie desespere. / Que con este Pan y este vino.../ las llamas se apagan, / las fieras se vencen, / las penas se abrevian / y las culpas se absuelven".

The Eucharist in 19th and 20th century English essay literature.

For the brevity of the article, I cannot deal with it, but I can at least allude to the literature of the English converts that starts from Cardinal Newman and has its center in G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), so well studied by Pearce in his book "Converted Writers" (1999). A phenomenon of chain conversions (Belloc, Benson, Knox, Grahan Greene, Waugh, C. S. Lewis, Tolkien...). Most of them come from Protestantism and for them the Eucharistic theme is a priority. They will work it in essays, poems and novels. For Chesterton, since his conversion in love with the feast of Corpus Christi, believing in the real presence of the Blessed Sacrament was the very touchstone of truth, to the point of exclaiming after his first communion: "Today was the happiest day of my life". He confessed to being frightened before the tremendous reality of Christ in the Eucharist. And he added: "For those of my faith there is only one answer: Christ is on earth today, alive on a thousand altars; and he solves people's problems exactly as he did when he was in the world in a more ordinary sense".

Poets sing the Eucharist

Going back, in theocentric times the great writers did not forget the Eucharist, for example Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) in his poem "Alégrate alma mía": "Si en pan tan soberano, se recibe al que mide cielo y tierra; / si el Verbo, la Verdad, la Luz, la Vida / en este pan se encierra; / si Aquel por cuya mano/ se rige el cielo, es el que convida / con tan dulce comida/ en tan alegre día. / O wondrous thing, / Invite and He who invites is one thing, / Rejoice, my soul, / For you have on the ground / As white and as lovely bread as in heaven." Or Luis de Góngora (1561-1627): "Lost sheep, come / on my shoulders, that today / not only am I your shepherd, / but your pasture as well (...) Pasture, at last, today yours made / what will give greater astonishment, / or me carrying you on my shoulder, / or you carrying me on your breast? / Garments are of narrow love / that even the blindest see them (...)".

Already in the twentieth century it is surprising to find in Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), always in agonizing search of God, a beautiful and dense poem entitled "Eucharist" which opens as follows: "Love of you burns us, white body; / love that is hunger, love of the entrails; / hunger of the creative word / that became flesh; fierce love of life / that is not satisfied with hugs, kisses, / or with any conjugal bond. / Only eating you quenches our craving, / bread of immortality, divine flesh. / (...) To close with a request: "And your arms opening as in token / of loving surrender you repeat to us: / "Come, eat, take: this is my body!" / Flesh of God, incarnate Word, incarnate / our divine carnal hunger for You!". Much more surprising is the "Ode to the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar" (1928), by Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), which, despite the personal, free and almost bizarre nature of his writing, reveals a germ of faith in the poet from Granada. Because the generation of '27, although in its own way, also sought the divine that the modernists had already glimpsed with a certain exotericism, as is palpable in the publications of "Adonais" and also collected Ernestina de Champourcin in her anthology "Dios en la poesía actual" (God in contemporary poetry) (BAC 1976). As an example: a poetic fragment of Ernestina herself: "Because it is late, my God / because it is getting dark / and the road is cloudy / (...) Because I burn with thirst for You / and hunger for your wheat, / come, sit at my table; / bless the bread and the wine" (...).

"Dios en la poesía española de posguerra", a book by M. J. Rodríguez (1977) attests to the religious upturn after the Spanish war of 1936, together with the anguish of the search and the longing for salvation, although not essentially Eucharistic. L. Panero, Dámaso Alonso, Blas de Otero, M. Alcántara, L. Rosales, C. Bousoño, B. Llorens, J. M. Valverde, M. Mantero, L. Felipe, V. Gaos, J. J. Domenchina, A. Serrano Plaja... Something explicable in a climate of existentialism and after the massacres of the successive wars.

And they are still singing it today

What is perhaps not so foreseeable is the upturn that at the end of the 20th century, in an atmosphere of desacralizing secularism, appears in a few young poets and continues right now. Beyond Murciano and Martín Descalzo, in the south of Spain and around (although not only) the Sevillian magazine and publishing house "Númenor", C. Guillén Acosta, J. J. Cabanillas (by the way, both coordinated an anthology, "Dios en la poesía actual", Rialp, 2018), the brothers Daniel and Jesús Cotta, R. Arana... have touched with unabashed and uninhibited naturalness religious poetry. I would like to close this article with a small selection of verses.

A fragment of "Eucharistia", by Guillén Acosta (1955) in his book "Redenciones" (2017) opens the set: (...). "And it is the daily need to know myself / turned to some tabernacle, / and from there wait for the moment to arrive / and reach to discover its mystery, that of bread, / which makes me give myself like the grain in the threshing floor / and in which I am transformed every time I ingest it".....

Another fragment of "Por tres" in "Mal que bien" (2019), by E. García Máiquez (1969): "My most solicitous ejaculatory / has always been: Sangre / de Cristo, embriágame. / (...) And I intone another ejaculatory: You / who made me in your image, / Trinitarian God, multiply me..."...

Appealing to context (Sta Maria del Transtévere) and suggestion, R. Arana (1977) touches the theme in "Let's make three tents", poem of "The last minute" (2020): "Little flock of Byzantine sheep / that minute by minute I watched / bleating in that golden vault / in a silence that also shines: / by your side I would stay / if there were a good shepherd, as there is, / in the heat of the mute and giant power / of that tiny lamp / and never return to the gray cement".

Impressive "Está sucediendo ahora", tenths by Daniel Cotta (1974) in "Alumbramiento" (2021) that express the Catholic faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist at the moment of the consecration: (...) "Now, yes, in the place / where those hands in flight / have just summoned / the Lord of earth and sky / on the linen of the altar! / That whiteness that comes forth / affectionate and beneficent / like a rising moon / is God in cloud-flesh, / is God descending in the dawn (...) / God is coming into the world... / and it is happening now".

Also "Con los ojos cerrados", by Jesús Cotta (1967) who surprisingly dares with a whole book of religious themes, "Acogido a sagrado" (2023), and says: (...) "Y llueva tu agua, / agua hecha vino, / vino hecho sangre, / sangre hecha gracia" (And let your water rain, / water made wine, / wine made blood, / blood made grace).

Another very recent poem, "Venite adoremus" (Esos tus ojos, 2023), by J. J. Cabanillas (1958) certifies it: (...) "It has taken nights, suns / the green flame of a standing ear of corn / and make you Your white bread and I adore you / as that king of snow adored / you, Child, my child, always a child"... He had already touched on the subject in Cuatro estaciones (2008): "The bells... Do you hear? It's already daylight (...). When have I arrived on this Thursday of Corpus Christi / Already the throne under the sun is in the street / (...). The Monstrance is approaching like a torch of fire / and the round flesh is ringed with Love"...

To close this block, it could be said that almost all of them write ambitious, audacious and uncommon collections of poems in the current Spanish poetry scene and express their jubilant faith in divinity from everyday perspectives. Something surprising, as surprising has been the trajectory of the young Carlo Acutius, declared venerable in 2020. A very modern boy, and very much in love with the Eucharist, who created a website on the genesis of the Eucharistic miracles of the world.

The authorMaria Caballero

Professor of Spanish-American Literature at the University of Seville.

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