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Reading, Desire, and the Eucharist in Early Modern Religious Poetry

Written by Ryan Netzley

Can you want something—desire something—that you have?

Modernity’s idioms, perhaps especially the idiom of psychoanalysis, push us to answer that question in the negative: desire presupposes lack. If you want something (a couch, a house, a child), you must not have it; once you have the couch, you may like it, or cherish it, or even esteem it, but—almost by definition—you don’t want it.

In his insightful and thought-provoking investigation of 17th-century religious poetry, literary scholar Ryan Netzley suggests that the Eucharist reconfigures our assumptions about desire and lack. If there is any moment in the Christian life when we can say God is present, God is here, it is the Eucharist. And yet, we feel and indeed cultivate desire at the altar. In the Eucharist, we want something that is precisely not absent. Indeed, the Eucharist trains “devotees to respond to an already existing divine presence” (and perhaps therefore to notice the divine in settings where God is less obviously but still present).

The Eucharist’s reordering of modern notions of desire is the presupposition of Netzley’s study. Through the lens of eucharistic desire, Netzley reads the spiritual poetry of George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, John Donne, and John Milton. In different ways, each of these four writers play with the concept of desiring what you have—that is, the concept of properly receiving the Eucharist. For example, in Herbert’s poems, Netzley finds persistent inquiry into what it means to “take” something—how properly to take a book and read it, how faithfully to take eucharistic bread and eat it. Herbert’s poetry is “an exercise in how to ...  respond correctly to a God to whom [devotees] already have access,” and the proper mode of reception, finally, is a taking that “refuses to fall back into passive-aggressive oscillations of humility and self-abnegation.” In a provocative riff on that theme, Netzley reads Donne to say that desire points not to our not being sated; rather, desire testifies to “divine overabundance or plentitude.” I want God not because God is absent; I want God because God is so superabundant that I keep wanting God past the point of my own satiation.

The eucharistic reframing of desire and Netzley’s subsequent reading of religious poetry would be quite enough reward for one monograph. But Netzley offers yet more. He notes numerous resonances between the Eucharist and poetry. Narrowly, in the context of early modern theological debates, thinking about the Eucharist and reading a poem required the same kind of inquiry; the problem of eucharistic theology, and the problem of any encounter with a poem, was the proper interpretation of signs. More broadly, if God is present through the Eucharist, is God not also somehow made present by eucharistic verse? Is reading not, then, an exercise of divine encounter, of divine presence?

In the context of those resonances, Netzley turns his attention to the topic of devotional exercise: both devotional practices writ large, and also the specific practice of reading. Netzley argues for the holy pointlessness—the aimlessness—of both the Eucharist and reading. Neither the Eucharist nor reading are things we undertake as instruments for some purpose. We do not receive the Eucharist to fill a lack, and devotional practices generally are “intrinsically valuable,” not “mere means to a more important end.”

While Netzley’s primary audience includes fellow scholars of 17th-century literature, Reading, Desire, and the Eucharist in Early Modern Religious Poetry has implications that go far beyond any one academic subfield. For the church, one implication is this: Netzley’s model of devotional practice is in tension with the language many 21st-century Protestants use to explain our recent “recovery” of spiritual practices and devotional exercises (fasting, fixed-hour prayer, etc.). We speak of these practices as having many salutary ends and purposes: they connect us with God, they prepare us for the challenging moments of our spiritual life, they make us more Christlike. What if we set aside these ends and began to imagine devotional exercise not as instruments but as ends in themselves, as divinely purposeless?

And then there is what Netzley has to say about love. In his chapter on Herbert, Netzley writes that the best kind of “taking” is “when one tastes, desires, and reads without treating any of these activities as a struggle, when, instead, one freely takes without presuming, or fearing, that one takes away.” Making the same point more sharply in the book’s introduction, Netzley writes, “Loving God, it turns out, is hard precisely because it does not promise the reassuring logic of accomplishment