City of God by Sara Miles

Sara Miles is one of my very, very favorite authors, a part of the small handful that if they have a book coming out I get it and read it immediately.

Sara has a new book out--City of God--and it was my honor to give the book an endorsement. Here is what I wrote:
A poignant, gritty and joyous vision of the city of God as we experience Ash Wednesday on the streets of San Francisco's Mission district. Page after page I had to stop when I found my heart aching or tears flowing because of the beauty and truth of what I had just read. Profound, inspiring, unforgettable and ultimately life-changing.
That's pretty gushing. But it's true.

To get my endorsement Sara's publisher asked if I'd like a PDF copy of the book or a paper copy. I said paper so I was sent the book printed on one-sided 8 1/2 x 11 paper. A stack about two inches high. I three-holed punched the stack of pages and put it in a big three-ring binder and took it on a trip with me, reading most of City of God on the plane and in the airport.

And page after page, as I flipped through that big binder, I had to pause and stop reading. I'd read a passage that would just blow me away, theologically or emotionally and often both. I would set the binder down on my lap, breathe and look out the window taking in what I had just read.

Listen, it's hard to recommend books to others. Some authors really speak to us but not so much to our friends. Haven't you wildly recommended a book to a friend, a book that blew you away, and your friends went "Meh" after they had read it? You feel offended and rebuffed. Shouldn't everyone love your favorite authors and books?

My point is, I can't guarantee you'll react the same way I did to City of God. All I can say is that if there is an author who speaks to my soul right now it's Sara Miles.

Let me try to explain why.

If you've read Unclean you'll recall that in the last chapter of the book I make an argument that the Eucharist might be used as a ritual of hospitality, a liturgy of welcome. But a critical feature in that vision is that the Eucharist would be practiced as open communion, as an expression of Jesus's radical, even wasteful, embrace of humanity. All of humanity.

Anyway, when I described this vision of the Table people often asked me what it all might look like, this "liturgy of welcome" that can erode the psychological obstacles to hospitality that I describe in Unclean. Basically, Unclean ends with this intriguing theological notion but what people really want is a practical example of what all this might or could look like in a church.

So two years ago, teaching a class for Rochester College's Missional Leadership Degree (the only graduate program I teach a theology class for), I was at this point in discussing Unclean, how the Eucharist might be used as a liturgy of welcome and inclusion. And, as expected, the students asked for examples. And I struggled to give some.

But after the class my colleague for that class, Natalie Magnusson, asked if I had read Sara Miles's Take This Bread. Natalie said Take This Bread is a great illustration of what I was trying to describe.

So I rushed out and bought Take This Bread and read it. And I was blown away. Here, in Sara's conversion story and her starting the food pantry at Saint Gregory's Episcopal Church in San Francisco, was an example of I was trying to articulate in Unclean. Not only was Sara converted, at the age of 46, through Saint Gregory's practice of open communion, Sara went on to connect the Eucharist with the food panty she soon started, sharing food with the poor and needy in her neighborhood. The food given away at St. Gregory's every weekend is given away in the sanctuary, the food stacked up around the Eucharistic altar. The symbol couldn't be more clear: the food shared at the pantry is the same food shared in the Eucharist. 

Here, as clear as a bell, was a vision of what I was trying to describe in Unclean. Open communion ritually connected to the sharing of food with the poor and broken. 

Here was a liturgy of welcome. Here was a ritual of hospitality.

If you want to see Unclean enacted and incarnated read Take This Bread.

And so I became a Sara Miles fan. 

City of God is in many ways a sequel to Take This Bread. If in Take This Bread we see the Eucharist "given away" to the world as a liturgy of inclusion in City of God we see this happen with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. City of God is the narrative of a single day, Ash Wednesday, where Sara and others take the ashes "to the streets," imposing ashes on those passing by or working in the Mission District in San Francisco. 

In the final climatic scenes of the book, as the ashes are smudged on the foreheads of the diverse neighbors living and working in the Mission district, this ancient ritual of the church reveals "the City of God" in our midst. The ashes and the words "dust you are and to dust you shall return" reveals, in the middle of a bustling work day, the shared and sacred bond of our fragile humanity. A bond recognized and hallowed as the ancient ritual is "given away" to the world. 

Once again, here is a liturgy of welcome. Here is a ritual of hospitality.

There is more I could say about Sara's books, but let me end with this. This is what really speaks to me about Sara Miles, about why she's greatly impacted my faith.

Sara shows us how to reenchant the world. It's not just that Sara shows us how the Eucharist or Ash Wednesday can become rituals of welcome. What I love about Sara is how she uses these rituals to recover enchantment in a cold, dehumanized, secular and disenchanted world.  

More and more I've come to think that faith isn't belief in enchantment. Faith is, rather, the act of enchantment. Faith is the practice of hallowing.

This is important as a lot of liberal, progressive Christians struggle with disenchantment. Many liberal, progressive Christians feel like they've been left holding all these rituals from Church tradition, rituals that seem empty and hollowed out. Prayer, church, the Eucharist, Lent, anointing with oil, singing, the laying on of hands. Our religious doubts and theological sophistication make all these things seem quaint and superstitious. 

Why pray, for example, if you wonder if God even exists?

Disenchantment hits progressive Christians really, really hard. So hard they stop praying, stop going to church, stop singing, stop anointing, stop fasting, stop reading the bible, stop imposing the ashes. 

And why? Because progressive Christians often have a hard time believing in these things.

Which is why I love Sara Miles. Sara, if I'm reading her right, is as doubt-filled as any of us. But what Sara shows us is how all these rituals and liturgies can be used to reenchant and hallow the world. In her books you see Sara share the Eucharist, anoint with oil, pray and impose ashes. And in doing these things the world becomes sacred, holy and enchanted. Alive with the fire of the Holy Spirit. 

That's what overwhelms you in the final scenes of City of God. How this ancient and very weird ritual of the church opens our eyes to the sacred bond connecting us. The ashes help us see each other. Really see each other. 

The ashes take what was once a bustling city street full of stressed, weary and alienated strangers and transforms them into the shared humanity of the City of God. 

And when you see it happen it takes your breath away.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

5 thoughts on “City of God by Sara Miles”

  1. Thanks again Richard. In every "Lord's Supper" that I've taken part in, usually on the 5th Sunday, people have been warned to make sure their hearts are right before they partake. I like the idea that everyone is included although I must admit that I am rather two-faced when it comes to the idea.

  2. I attend an Anabaptist church for which closed communion is very important, but I'm of two minds on open communion. I'm at that church, because in imperial America, closed communion makes for a (ridiculously ineffective and unnoticed) prophetic statement, though it's not the service of communion that makes the loudest Anabaptist statement here. Closing Roman Catholic communion in Pinochet's Chile didn't look Anabaptist, but it made a prophetic statement precisely because of the catholicity of the RC church there.

    But such prophetic statements are aimed at an audience of the self-satisfied. The power of open communion among the outcast and weary, on the other hand, is undeniable.

    Thanks for the book recommendation.

  3. Thanks for bringing up Chile. I think William Cavanaugh's argument about closing communion to torturers in Chile is the most potent counter-argument to open communion. (To say nothing of Paul's "expel the immoral not even eat with such."). Subsequent to Unclean I engaged with Torture and Eucharist here on the blog.

    Basically, there are really good arguments on both sides of the debate.

  4. I've never read Sara Miles, but this post itself takes my breath away. When I was a member of an Episcopal congregation some years back, I argued for open communion; the liturgical words used to present the Eucharist were "The gifts of God for the people of God," and my reasoning was that "the people of God" meant everyone. My pastor was sympathetic, but the Eucharist remained restricted to "all baptized Christians". That issue aside, the notion of making sacred, of hallowing, and of re-enchanting the world through our actions strikes me as exactly right. Thanks for this post; I'll have to get started reading Sara Miles.

  5. I'm pretty sure Jesus would have had open communion--I'm not sure I would participate in anything else anymore. For when I feel "seen" in receiving the Eucharist, that is when I feel my breath taken away. Why not offer that to someone else? Why not step aside from our judgments about someone else's readiness and let the Holy Spirit work? Funny to offer ashes but not bread.

Leave a Reply