The Real Presence

Yesterday was Holy Thursday, a day in which we remember our Lord’s Last Supper, at which Jesus broke bread and said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Following that, He held up the cup of wine and said, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.” Therefore, it seems fitting to reflect upon the Holy Eucharist, and in the pages containing yesterday’s readings, Magnificat offers a powerful witness, written by Father Kevin O’Reilly, to this most magnificent and unique gift:

Dorothy Day and the Coffee Cup

One of the most inspiring Catholic converts of the past century was Servant of God Dorothy Day (1897–1980), who was praised recently by both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI for her holiness and her heroic work with the poor. She was a social activist greatly admired by believers and non-believers alike. However, many of her atheist colleagues regularly asked about her simultaneous devotion to the poor and to her Catholic Faith. How could she be so dedicated to those in poverty, and yet believe in Jesus Christ at the same time?*

The answer became clear one day in the early 1970s when a young priest was invited to say Mass at the offices of the Catholic Worker newspaper. There are various accounts of what happened that day, but eyewitnesses report that, while preparing for Mass, the priest strangely asked Dorothy Day for a ceramic coffee cup. Thinking nothing of it, she gave him the cup, only to be be shocked minutes later to see that same cup used as the chalice for the Mass. The priest, who was clearly having personal issues, celebrated Mass with the coffee cup and, after Mass, angrily threw the cup in the garbage and stormed off.

People were horrified. Yet, without saying a word, Dorothy Day approached the garbage can and genuflected before it. Then, she took the coffee cup out of the garbage and kissed it. Thereafter, she went out to the yard behind the office, took a shovel, dug a hole, and buried the cup. Finally, she genuflected before the patch of dirt.

Why? To her, that coffee cup had become a sacred object, as it had held the Blood of Christ and could no longer return to being merely a coffee cup. One witness said that “I learned more that day about the Eucharist than from any book or sermon.” Furthermore, it is said that the priest, moved by her actions, never celebrated Mass disrespectfully again.

This story reminds me of two things: first, of an experience a friend of mine had. One morning at Mass, the squirmy toddler in her arms reached for the chalice as Lisa was bringing it to her lips. Some of the wine (which had been consecrated into the Blood of Christ) sloshed out and landed on her shirt. Following Mass, Lisa asked the priest what she should do. He told her to wash out the stain in a bowl of water and then pour the water into the ground.

Secondly, I am reminded of the Miracle of Lanciano:

 

*Honestly, this question makes no sense to me.

  1 comment for “The Real Presence

  1. Brian Terrell
    May 19, 2017 at 11:13 pm

    a reply to Rev. Kevin O’Reilly

    Dear Father O’Reilly,

    Several friends have drawn my attention to your meditation, Dorothy Day and the Coffee Cup, published in Magnificat for Holy Thursday. As one who knew Dorothy Day and who attended many Masses in her company at the Catholic Worker in her last years, I have always been puzzled by this story since it first surfaced about 20 years ago. Last summer, after I expressed my doubts about its accuracy as a witness for the Diocesan Inquiry of the Cause of Dorothy Day in New York, I did extensive research into the question. My conclusions were published in the National Catholic Reporter, January 27, 2017. (https://www.ncronline.org/news/people/true-lesson-dorothy-days-coffee-cup-mass)

    There are, as you say, various accounts of the story, but your version stands out in several ways that I would like to address.

    In the earliest telling of the story of the buried coffee cup, the celebrant of this Mass is regarded only with charity and is portrayed as a well-intentioned errant who was gently and successfully put right with a word. Just a few years ago, some writers began strangely to question this priest’s motives for the first time, labeling him “trendy,” a “celebrity priest” who “flouted the Church’s norms,” even a “radical,” as if that were a suspect thing to be. The viciousness of your attack on him, however, is unprecedented.

    “Eyewitnesses report” you say, “that, while preparing for Mass, the priest strangely asked Dorothy Day for a ceramic coffee cup. Thinking nothing of it, she gave him the cup, only to be shocked minutes later to see that same cup used as the chalice for the Mass. The priest, who was clearly having personal issues, celebrated Mass with the coffee cup and, after Mass, angrily threw the cup in the garbage and stormed off.” Where did this come from? Who are these eyewitnesses? Who besides yourself has ever reported the priest’s “personal issues,” his anger? Who else but you has told of his throwing the cup into the garbage and storming off? “People were horrified,” you say. Another new twist. Who was horrified and to whom and when did they express their horror? “Dorothy Day approached the garbage can and genuflected before it,” you tell us. Has this astonishing detail been recorded elsewhere? Why did your eyewitnesses choose to tell you what they apparently had not revealed to anyone else for almost half a century?

    One witness that you quote is clearly Jim Forest (“I learned more that day about the Eucharist than from any book or sermon.”) but his testimony differs sharply from your eyewitnesses’. Jim never ascribed anger and “personal issues” to the celebrant. Jim cites a column by Dorothy in 1966 (not the early ‘70s) supporting his story, and in it she tells of a young priest who, far from horrifying anyone present, was simply doing as he thought was expected of him. You might be aware that Jim has recently clarified his story to say that he did not actually witness the alleged cup burial and that the celebrant was Father Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy’s dear friend and a profoundly devout priest. Dorothy in her own telling, interestingly, denies that she was present for the Coffee Cup Mass at all, but says that she only heard of it later from others.

    The best efforts of more serious scholars than I have not unearthed a single eyewitness to the basic story, much less to the unsavory details novel to your version, but you have several! Historians and those charged with inquiring into the question of Dorothy’s sanctity would be grateful to know your sources, I am sure.

    However innocent its beginnings, I fear that the Coffee Cup Mass story has turned into a poisonous and malevolent game of telephone. In this version of the game, the point has not been to preserve a story straight through multiple re-tellings, but instead the aim has seemed to be for each story teller in turn to add one more pinch of hate and distortion to the one that preceded, until a once beautiful parable capable of telling eternal truths is finally reduced to an obscene cartoon.

    I cannot help but wonder, Father O’Reilly, what part you play in the game? Do you actually have eyewitnesses, or did you create them as a literary device? I am trying to be fair to you. Whoever is the source, your version of the story is clearly the invention of someone suffering from the anger and “personal issues” so unjustly projected onto the memory of a holy and good pastor who taught Dorothy Day an important lesson many years ago. Whether they are only in your head or they exist in some dimension of time and space, your alleged eyewitnesses are liars and their testimony is venomous.

    I am afraid that your meditation rises to the level a small public scandal, at least. What, I wonder, made you imagine that retelling the story as you claim it has been told to you could be edifying to anyone at all? The vision of Dorothy Day genuflecting before a garbage can is a little less insulting only for its sheer humor. Imagine the iconography it will inspire! I like a good joke, but even as a parody, it seems a strange meditation to offer thousands of Catholics, and on Holy Thursday, too! The fact that they did not see a red flag when they accepted your story for publication does not speak well of the editors and publishers of Magnicat. I hope that some explanation and reparation will appear in a future issue.

    May Dorothy Day and her holy companion Dan Berrigan pray for you, Father O’Reilly. As for your eyewitnesses: If they be of flesh and blood, may they be healed, corrected and purged of their meanness. If they live only in your head, may your soul be exorcised and freed of their malignant influence.

    Wishing you Peace,

    Brian Terrell
    Strangers and Guests CW Farm, Maloy, Iowa

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *