A crisis of presence

4 09 2019

I had this odd dream where I was in the parking lot of the Catholic church in my hometown lecturing a couple of women about Origen and the Real Presence. I think the gist of what I was saying is that Origen perceived the presence of the Lord more in the Word than in the species of the Eucharist. As I was fast asleep, I don’t quite grasp the logic here. But I did read recently Jean Danielou’s book on Origen where Danielou states how Origen wanted to remove his listener from the carnal understanding of the Word of God and focus him more on the spiritual understanding. In that context, the traditional (modern?) understanding concerning Catholic piety of the Eucharist being the sole or only important presence of God would be something that Origen would object to.

Here I don’t want to get into arguments about whether the early Church thought that the material Eucharist itself to be infused with a divine substance and thus sacred. One could have a cultic understanding of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity) without it being as central to devotion as it has become. In my opinion, the early Church probably followed that sort of secretive attitude towards the actual Eucharist for reasons of persecution, but also because the ancient world was one of sacred actions and symbols. One did not expose one’s mysteries to the eyes of the vulgar multitude. If anything, the bread and wine were a means to an end. The end is Christ’s presence in the Church as a Temple constructed from Living Stones, i.e. the Faithful. This presence was eschatological in that it reflected a New Heaven and New Earth that would come into existence at the end of the world, as well as the transcendent Celestial Liturgy that is happening right at this instant. In that regard, what good would the Hidden Presence of God be in some particle of bread and wine? It wasn’t something that could be talked about all too much because it was a symbol (gasp!) of a more exalted reality.

My experience in the Eastern Church further explains this emphasis on the “symbolic” character of the Eucharist. I remember being in a Greek Catholic church where a lot of Roman Catholics were coming for pilgrimage. I noticed a lot of Roman Catholics trying to look at the altar (the Royal Doors of the iconostasis were open.) I later spoke to the priest and observed that Roman Catholics tend to look toward the altar because they have been taught that this is the place where God resides, whereas the design of the Orthodox church represents God’s presence in a more “disperse” manner. I recall from Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter (either the novel or the movie based on it, it was a number of years ago) how the protagonist enters a church and a priest explains to her how the Church is God’s body. The Orthodox church, covered in icons of the saints with a wall of icons blocking the view the sanctuary, best represents this to us in our context.

These ideas aren’t mine of course, but a summary of a lot of the nouvelle theologie of last century, specifically Henri de Lubac’s book, Corpus Mysticum. De Lubac claims that the corpus mysticum for the early Church would have been the actual material Eucharistic species, whereas the corpus verum was the Church just as I explained it above. It was only in modern times that all of this was switched around: the Real Presence refers to the presence of Christ under the accidents of bread and wine, whereas the Mystical Body of Christ is the Church. There are dozens of really solid theological reasons why this occurred, but I am not going to get into any of them here.

The reasoning (excuse?) for this reflection was the recent rather un-astonishing news of how few Catholics believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist. The traditionalists ride to the rescue here talking about lack of catechesis and liturgical abuses, but I have long believed that this is putting the cart before the horse. People aren’t stupid: when they are told that this is “the Body of Christ”, they know what they are supposed to believe. I would argue that they are incapable of believing it. It’s not simply because the modern secular mind refuses miracles. It also has a lot to do with the inability of the modern mind to process symbolism, and perhaps more importantly, with an inaccurate idea of who or what God is. The latter cannot simply be communicated via catechesis because it involves how people live their lives and how they see the world. It is a matter of first principles, and not memorized rote statements in a catechism.

The New Theology of last century could be blamed for all of this, but I would insist that it didn’t create the problem. Theologians like Danielou and De Lubac were trying to solve the rift in consciousness that secularism had caused by returning to the sources of the Christian mysteries. But due to their own political biases, they could apply none of these ancient insights consistently. The Christian West had long ago adopted an “either / or” legalistic approach to many metaphysical issues. The Eucharist, more specifically, the white unleavened Host, gradually became the center of piety, to the point that this little white dot in the monstrance was God and everything else wasn’t. The modern Popes (also portrayed in the 19th century as little white prisoners in their Tabernacle of the Vatican), upon seeing a decrease of Faith in society at large, could come up with no other solutions than giving the “Little White God” to the faithful as much as possible, even altering the traditional times and orders of services to do so. The Eucharist became the solution and the end of Christian life, but what the actual shape and character of Christian life was, no one really knew. But if we just gave “Jesus” back to the people (so many surmised), things would sort themselves out somehow, because sanctifying grace or something.

Well, things didn’t really turn out how they expected. In the developed world, the Church is being kept alive by immigration from the developing world. And in the developing world, the Church is being outcompeted by Protestant sects with more dynamism and adaptability. In terms of the Eucharist itself, the Church can’t decide who not to give it to, because refusing it to people will cause them to go elsewhere.  The Church still can’t determine whether it wants to focus on the hierarchical pecking order of clergy or the People of God as described at Vatican II. Liturgy is basically just a celebration of the community where the community becomes God, and as we all learned from our classes in Hegel, the community becoming God is the negation of God. And then there are the tiny minority of traditionalists who don’t really know tradition, in spite of endlessly posting about it on the Internet (their actual only stronghold).

I want to conclude by returning to my weird dream. I will admit to sounding like a broken record in stating again that I think that Catholicism has become too much of a carnal and political religion. This for me is key to understanding the crisis of the “Real Presence” among the faithful. Even when contemporary theologians try to soar on the wings of the Fathers, an in my initial invocation of Origen, they must return to Earth, to the brass tacks of who needs to be deprived of Holy Communion and other “pastoral” issues. Every time they try to break the bonds of the material symbol, they plop back down to the political reality of a one billion person institution. “Liturgical abuses” in this sense should not be seen as some demonic plot to destroy the Church, but rather as an attempt to catechize the masses that went horribly, horribly wrong. Yes, it makes no sense to call the Eucharist the “Body of Christ” without looking at the Scriptural and Patristic sense of what the Body of Christ was supposed to be. But apply that insight in a half-assed way and you get the mess we have now. I don’t think that turning back the clock is an option either, but I won’t go further into this, because in some sense I am just the bystander walking away from the burning building, whistling because at this point it is no longer my problem.

For us, God is primarily the ground of being. We are because God is. But God is beyond being merely that ground. He is infinite beyond our comprehension. He is free from  being only the Creator, even if we know Him principally as such. I think that is what the Fathers were trying to get at, but you can’t communicate this to people in fifty minute segments on a Sunday morning. Nor can you cram it down people’s throats through catechisms or political programs. Either people have this sense or they don’t. In some ways, it precedes Faith. It is the praeambula Fidei, you can’t even have faith unless you have that ability to taste the Transcendent first. We are too turned in on ourselves to even turn towards God in the first place, and I don’t think it is reasonable to expect this to get better any time soon. But understanding this at least will prevent some from agonizing over it. As I have said recently, this isn’t our home, and perhaps this unsettling crisis of Presence exists to communicate this to us all the more clearly.

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2 responses

5 09 2019
Gildas

Reblogged this on On The Ruin Of Britain and commented:
Interesting take on some of the pitfalls that emerged in trying to make frequent partaking of the Lords Supper an answer to the Roman Catholic Churches woes.

5 09 2019
cal

This post was very good.

Your point about most people understanding reminds me, analogously, to the Middle Ages. Yes, it was precisely because unlettered peasants were listening that they tried to steal the host, using it for crop fertility, protective amulets, and love potions. Certainly God’s power and presence would effect these positive benefits if brought to bear upon them. While the scholarly theologians groaned, implementing reforms to prevent this failure of practice, it didn’t work. It’s not enough for a probably uninspiring, or overbearing, parish priest to convince a mess of peasants about technical topics they barely understood within a semi-pagan framework (‘pagani’ meaning that old, rustic, agrarian religion) that strained against a half-baked lecture. Who has time to think heavily on this when you’ve got to get back to your crops, deal with family issues, and survive!

Perhaps while not so bleak (but perhaps equally ignorant), modern, average, lay Catholics are not so far from this point, though in a different way, in different paradigms, within a different frame of reference.

As a side note (still thinking rustically), I don’t think our destiny is to escape the world, but to die in it. Like seeds, we’re to be cast into it seeking a life that is fruitful and incorruptible through a way opened by Christ. Not that you’re looking to figure this out, but I like this glorious bit from Ignatius which, to modern ears, borders on the masochistic:

“Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ […] Pardon me, brethren: do not hinder me from living, do not wish to keep me in a state of death; and while I desire to belong to God, do not give me over to the world.”

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