Chreia of Action (the four gestures)

“he took the bread, broke and blessed it, and gave it to them.”—Luke 24:30 (NET)

I collapsed on a log outside of Crabtree Meadows.   It was 7pm I had been going since 4am; my spirit tapped out by the round-trip to Mt. Whitney.   And that's when it happened, something no dad should have to experience in front of his wife and kids.  I cried and cried.  I was only 2 days into the hike and my heroic image was decimated .  Jed put his arms around me and said something to the effect, “It’s gonna be ok dad.”  Jeru shrugged like, “I’m not sure what’s wrong.  He was fine a few minutes ago.”  Julie stared in awkwardness.  I kept muttering under my breath, "I'm an emotional wreck."

6 Months Earlier:  there was the 4am "turquoise mist" epiphany while two doves cooed outside on a telephone pole,  then buzzing spiritual activity around the revelations of transitions, and all of that happening within my daily Pneumatic Meditations on Jesus temptation in the wilderness.    Add to that a small voice whispering to me to write and publish the journal you are now reading on "transforming in the wilderness" and I was convinced the JMT held another clue into the mystery on personal transformations.  

Crumpled up on the log, in poverty of soul and will, I knew what was at stake if I didn't complete the trail--more wandering about in untransformed and unrealized potential.  So much of my journey was already a wasteland, I was desperate to put an end to the wandering.

Earlier that morning when we passed Guitar Lake, I urged Jeru to keep on hiking (I didn't want her to see me crying).   My emotions careened from thought to thought.   Will Jed be ok?  (He had returned back to basecamp with altitude sickness).  Will Jeru make it to the top?  (She hadn’t eaten in two days).  Why, oh why, did we move out of the Presidio condo before we started this hike?  (Yep, we had moved out of our house in the Presidio, placing everything in storage, we were homeless).  God, I feel so foolish.  Am I a crazy person, one of those people hearing voices and talking to myself?    Bracing myself against a rock I buried my face into my balaclavas and cried.    

Birds.  Two birds flittered in my periphery.  Shooting up the steep to Trail Crest and then racing back toward me.  They kept me company for hours as I whispered and prayed all the way to the Whitney summit.   We, the birds and I, had some special moments together.  It’s all kind of weird, and now that I have descended from the thin air, and have my wits about me I'll just leave it at that.

After summiting Mt Whitney I knew I needed more than my gear, food and water to complete the 211 miles that remained on the JMT.   Moreover, if this walk was going to result in something more, something spiritually meaningful, I would need some physical disciplines and spiritual rituals.   The physical disciplines would stretch out my trail days, keep me there for more opportunities of God-moments.   The spiritual rituals would create habits of reflection and worship that would posture me to learn why the Spirit had called me on this hike.   One would keep me there, the other would keep me present.

The physical discipline of being up by 5am was a small controllable action that got me moving on the trail.   Additionally soaking my feet in the water for lunch and my whole body before dinner was the secret to fresh daily muscles and unblistered, unswollen feet.  

The spiritual ritual of stopping at each pass (12 of them) and listening to what God had been saying to me, observing what was happening in that moment, forced my thoughts to be present with the Spirit.   Then there was the highlight ritual of each day, sipping hot cocoa with the family and reflecting on the events of the day.  I underestimated the spiritual significance of this when I was planning the trip.   

Two examples come to mind, in those evening conversations with Jeru at Forrester Pass and Jed at the Swinging Bridge I watched the God who filled the Range of Light accompany my kids and speak through them.   There was the spiritual moment of maturation when Jeru fluttered from her chrysalis into a butterfly soul as she disappeared over Forester Pass into the golden morning and I heard the Voice whisper her future to me.   Jed mysteriously grew an inch in 3 weeks!   That night at Swinging Bridge camp, inquiring into the voice of God, I put my arm around him like so many times before, but this time I had to go under his arm (instead of the usual over) and in that wilderness moment I knew the young man he was becoming and how his becoming was also my becoming.   I was proud of him and thankful to God for me.

These habits (disciplines and rituals) allowed my mind to not be distracted with the minutia, or preoccupied in debating whether to quit when things got difficult.  Disciplines command the unwieldy nature of time freeing the mind to engage the Spirit and be present.  Once the habits were in motion I didn't waste mental space over what time I should get up and start hiking. Disciplines formed a muscle-memory that just took over when it was time to get in the ice-cold water each night.  The discipline provided me with the best possible chance to be there on the trail for another day, which was one more opportunity to encounter God in the wild.   Disciplines manhandle procrastination and became part of the non-thinking self.  

Henri Nouwen describes spiritual disciplines in a similar way: 

…the effort to create some space in which God can act.   Discipline means to prevent everything in your life from being filled up. Discipline means
that somewhere you're not occupied, and certainly not preoccupied. In the spiritual life, discipline means to create that space in which something can happen that you hadn't planned or counted on.

The custom and habit of Middle Eastern hospitality (let's call this discipline) meant the Emmaus Road companions didn't waste mental energy and emotional space debating about inviting a stranger to stay, they could instead focus on being present and being in the conversation with the stranger.  The discipline created space for a "something to happen that they hadn't planned or counted on."       

Even the habitual and signature manner in which Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave bread (let's call this ritual) meant that they didn't struggle in identifying who or what was happening; Jesus’ Four Gestures was his signature eating ritual and a recognizable spiritual sequence he moved through every time he ate.  When fed the 5000 (four gestures), hosted the last supper (four gestures), and broke bread with the Emmaus disciples (four gestures) and by this time,  it's no shock that they report "Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread." (v.35)  The bread-mannerism were an analogy for life--take, break, bless, and give.   Moreover, it was a way he lived his life--took his life, blessed it, broke it and gave it away.  

Scholars have identified these movements, the Four Gestures (took, blessed, broke and gave), as a Greek Chreia of Action, a common mnemonic teaching device used by Greek philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Diogenes) and Jewish rabbis (Jesus, Paul, Hillel, Gamaliel) to shape the character and behaviors of their students. 

Chreia (rhymes with “playa”) comes from a word that means useful.   Chreiai (plural)  were succinct repeatable actions or pithy livable sayings the teacher developed for the students.  Chreia of Action was the means by which the code and character of the teacher was imparted and incarnated in the students.  It was imitable, livable, doable.  

These two, discipline and ritual, worked together in the Emmaus Road encounter:

  • Discipline:  “Abide with us, for it is toward evening.”  (cultural discipline of hospitality)
  • Ritual:  “He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave.” (signature routine for intersecting spiritual realities with an earthly meal)


chreia of action

For our Emmaus to Pentecost jaunt through the badlands we suggest the following chreia of action (we explained the discipline of conversation yesterday, we will explain the other two in the coming days):

  • Conversation.  They were talking….  In their talking and debating these things, Jesus went with them. (14,15).  There conversation at this point is really about observation.
  • Reflection.  “Did not our hearts burn within us while he was speaking with us on the road…”   
  • Prayer“he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  At this point their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”    

Reflection:  What disciplines and rituals (chreia of action) do you have in your life that your family and friends recognize you in?

What do these disciplines/rituals speak about you?

How do these disciplines/rituals imitate Christ?

UPNEXT:  Na'aseh V'nishma