Bringing Sorrow to the Lord’s Table

Sarah White
Wednesday, October 20th 2021
I had Cause to say, It is the voice of my Beloved, Behold he commeth–Skipping over the Mountains & leaping over the Hills: And I believe he never leapt over higher hills. […] Mean while there was a Scripture brought to my mind with irresistible power, I Sam. 1.18: The woman went away & did eat & was no more sad. By free Grace I found a blessed change on my frame […] On the morrow I went to the Table of the Lord, & found it a good day indeed.[1]

This quote comes from the spiritual autobiography of a Scottish widow named Elizabeth Blakader who, while attending a Communion service in 1689, was delivered from despair by a memorable assurance of God’s grace. The quote, which I came upon in the course of research on early Reformed views of the Lord’s Supper, strikes me as remarkable for a few reasons. It’s fascinating to see the Scriptures she chooses to describe her experience and how she applies them. She even quotes Song of Songs 2:8 to describe communing with her “Beloved” (something she might well have heard from the preachers of her day—Samuel Rutherford being the most famous example of a Puritan preacher who loved to apply Song of Songs to the love between Christ and the soul).

Hannah: Emptiness

I think most of all, though, I love the reference to “the woman”—Hannah—who went from sorrowful fasts in the Lord’s house to feasting and joy: “So the woman went her way, and did eat, and her countenance was no more sad.” I’ve come to find this unobtrusive text so comforting. Notice, it’s not after Hannah conceives the longed-for Samuel that her face is “no more sad.” That event is some distance in the future. Already, though, having poured out her sorrow before the Lord, her heart is lifted, and she finds strength to go and eat, to partake of life again. As far as we know, she isn’t yet assured that He will answer her prayer in the way she hopes. Her joy originates from God himself. Not from a particular desire fulfilled, no matter how good that desire might be in itself, or (as Eli finally affirmed with a blessing) how right it is to fervently bring it before the Lord.

Charles Spurgeon sums it up well:

Still more of preciousness [Hannah] found growing out of her sorrow: she had evidently learned much of God. Driven from common family joys she had been drawn near to God, and in that heavenly fellowship she had remained a humble waiter and watcher. […] She now knew that the heart’s truest joy is not in children, nor even in mercies given in answer to prayer[.][2]

He adds that Hannah later sang “My heart rejoiceth in the Lord,” not “My heart rejoiceth in Samuel.” Perhaps her long waiting taught her to rejoice in a way she wouldn’t otherwise have done so readily. It sounds like Elizabeth Blakader, too, had learned how to be “a humble waiter and watcher” upon her God.

Fullness at the Lord’s Table

Something else I love about the quote is that Blakader finds healing in the Lord’s Supper. She connects Hannah’s fast-breaking with her own emergence from sorrow as she receives the sacrament.

One of the things that drew me to the Reformed faith was its tradition of piety surrounding the Supper. In my denominationally ambiguous days, I remember a pastor giving an offhand taxonomy of Protestant views of the Eucharist and neatly disparaging the Reformed view as “No Presence.” Even in my confused mid-20s, I knew that wasn’t right.

Over the next few years, I dug more deeply into the history of the Reformed tradition, and I found that hunch confirmed even more than I’d expected. Elizabeth Blakader received the Lord’s Supper in a distinctive context, at a gathering called a “communion festival.” Of course, the Reformed tradition held a high view of this sacrament from earliest days—Calvin described it as something God gave to our limited human capacities in order to “seal in our consciences” his promises and “to deliver us from all doubt and uncertainty.”[3] Later that century, the Scots Confession of 1560 echoed this emphasis on the Supper’s role in deepening the believer’s assurance. In the sacrament, the Christian’s faith is exercised, and Jesus Christ becomes, by the Holy Spirit, “the very nourishment and food for our souls.” In the middle part of the 17th century, in some rural Scottish parishes, these beliefs were manifested at “communion seasons,” regional, multi-day gatherings which included a series of preparatory sermons, reaching an emotional climax with the Lord’s Supper observance. Often, the Supper itself was distributed around successive seatings at a table. Though various historical factors contributed to this practice, it seems to have been designed to instill Reformed teachings in a tangible way. It’s easy to trace the movement from repentant sorrow to the joy of renewed covenant with Christ in the shape of a “communion season” and to imagine how this pattern overlaid Blakader’s experience.

I wouldn’t necessarily hope for a return to this practice in my church today. For one thing, Blakader’s experience seems to have bordered on the ecstatic (not unheard of at such gatherings, which, in their rarity and dramatic framing, could be very emotive). The “blessed frame” she cites is the kind of thing that doesn’t last long, for most of us. I don’t know how long it lasted for Elizabeth, though it was apparently meaningful enough for her to have written down a testimony after the fact. Such things call for great caution, I think. It can be easy to become fixed on the desire for a certain religious feeling and to become disconsolate when such an experience seems beyond our reach. We should expect joy in the sacrament and not come sorrowing to the Lord’s house; but the joy is sourced completely outside of us. Remembering that can be a constant battle for any believer.

I think that is why Elizabeth Blakader’s mind rested on Hannah when she thought about what she experienced at the Supper. Even if her partaking of the sacrament was not the ideal—because of the fact that it was removed from the ordinary rhythms of worship and extracted into a more rare and exceptional setting—it also reveals, more clearly than that, a solid truth that did get through, even to humble congregants like her. She knew that the Lord was coming to meet her, “by free grace,” and that after eating with him, she could go away heartened. And her experience certainly dramatizes for us the importance of seeking the Lord where he promises to be found—in his house and ordinances.

Even if you aren’t grieving childlessness like Hannah, or widowhood like Elizabeth who identified with her, each of us comes empty to the Lord’s Table. It’s the truth of who we are as helpless, sinful creatures. And Christ graciously displays his promises to us and seals them in our souls through tangible things. You can pour out your sorrow on the Lord; you can partake spiritually of him and be nourished by him; and you can go your way without a grieving face, because whatever happens next, he’s with you. He promises this in every age in his church, and the promise is even stronger than our longing.

Sarah White is a writer and editor living in western Pennsylvania with her husband and Basset Hound.

[1] Elizabeth Blakader, “A Short Account of the Lords Way of Providence towards me in my Pilgrimage Journeys,” quoted in Leigh Eric Schmidt, Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism, 48.

[2] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “A Woman of a Sorrowful Spirit.”

[3] John Calvin, Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of Our Lord, sections 5-6.

Photo of Sarah White
Sarah White
Sarah White (M.Div., Yale Divinity School), lives in western Pennsylvania with her family.
Wednesday, October 20th 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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