March 17, 2011
Reflecting on the vast changes that have taken place in our Catholic “spirituality,” I think the central place should be assigned to the evolution of our sense of the presence of God. I’m sure we all remember in the “old days” before the liturgical changes, the principal focus of Catholic life was on the “real presence,” the doctrine of transubstantiation and the holy orders which enabled it. The “real presence” was the most significant difference that separated us from the protestants … and it explains why there was such an energy on the part of “Catholics” to stay separate from them. We had the real presence, because we had real sacraments … and we had real sacraments because we had real “priests.”
Catholic life revolved around the real presence. The local parish church offered “benediction” at least once a week if not more; the movement for all-night vigils and extended “exposition” was very strong and expanding. And even in the most avant-garde monasticism in those days, the Little Brothers of Charles de Foucauld, their spiritual program was focused on a room set aside for the blessed sacrament where they spent hours in silence. The “mass” was important less because it was a “sacrifice” than because it was the time and place where Jesus’ “presence” was made real in the “host,” later to be kept reserved in the tabernacle. It was the center of Catholic life
If we were sometimes encouraged by retreat-masters to “practice the presence of God” because “God” was supposed to be everywhere, it was always something of an “exercise” of the imagination. In the blessed sacrament, however, we “knew” that Jesus was present, and even though not visible, our sense of certainty supported by the teachings of our infallible church made it seem easier to hold onto than the thought that “God” was everywhere. Maybe it was because the monstrance and the “species” were handled with such awe and ceremony. No one, remember, could even touch the host … that was reserved for the priest’s anointed hands. The very physical structure of the church building was organized around the altar and its golden tabernacle — a modern holy of holies. If “God” was present anywhere, He was there in the host. The small red sanctuary light in a dark church was a symbol and constant reminder that “God” was with us; we were always not far from where “God” actually dwelt physically on earth — the nearest Catholic church.
As the liturgical changes began to transform Catholic life, we became aware that the “real presence” as Augustine himself said, was secondary to the re-enactment of the shared meal — the eucharist — which, as presented in the gospels, was Jesus’ personally chosen symbol of his message and mission. The meal of love and remembrance among friends embodied the full significance of his obedience unto death — his reality among us as he saw it. He was assassinated by those who had no respect for humanity. The sacred meal he asked us to repeat in his memory celebrated the sacred humanity he shared with us. Far from being a defeat, his death was recognized by those who understood his message as a triumph over the vain attempt to dehumanize him.
It was as if the “presence of God” exploded out of the “host” and into “the Church,” the people of “God,” bearing the “Spirit” of Jesus and his love of people. We were suddenly encouraged to find God out in the world, in the hearts of people, near and far, and not locked away in the tabernacle of a dark church waiting for solitary individuals to attempt a private communication. The energy released by the liberation of “God” from the host into the world had a remarkable effect on our lives … those, I mean, that didn’t resist it. We began to understand the beatitudes as if for the first time … what it meant to hunger and thirst for justice, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to join the meek of the earth, and yearn for the inheritance that has been robbed by all those things that dehumanize us. We began to experience the “presence of God” everywhere through a love of people … a morality no longer focused on avoiding sin or pursuing personal purity and “perfection,” but on the “greater things:” compassion, justice and the community that is born from them.
But while all this is true, I wonder if we remember what a shock it was at the time, and how difficult for many, especially older Catholics — and the older Catholic in each of us — whose prayer-life had been forged and fenced by the golden vessels of “the real presence.” Many were severely disorientated. We, the younger ones mostly, were not. We caught the fire that was started and ran with it … according to our lights. It was a breathtaking time … but if we remember, the change was a shock, and even among us not all made the transition gracefully, and some not at all.
Then there was ecumenism. One of the “aftershocks” of the explosive “liberation of God” from the host was the tearing down of the walls of the enclosure itself. More and more of the ecclesiastical edifice, artificially isolated and insulated by Catholic “beliefs” for centuries, proved powerless before the winds that swept the world and to which Catholics responded. But it has gone even further. I believe we are seeing the “liberation of God” from Christianity itself as a local and necessarily short-sighted tradition, to the entire human family. “God” is indeed everywhere, and we should not be surprised that nothing can contain this “Spirit” of sacred humanity that breathes where it will.
The most “divine” thing about Jesus was that he was fully and profoundly human. Nothing human was foreign to him. And so there are no “foreigners” among us, not because we are commanded to it by our Teacher, but because of the very flesh we share. Any structure, physical, social or doctrinal, that stands in the way of our shared humanity, is ultimately doomed before the overwhelming power of this humanizing force. It is no longer in our hands, much less in the hands of any ecclesiastical authority. To find guides to help us through the rubble of this collapse, we have had to look outward … to others, to other traditions, to other visions and to science. But, through it all, there was never a doubt, never anything to worry about … the others, all the others, are also human. Their humanity can be trusted. The human “Spirit” Jesus loved so much has been there all along, waiting for us to open our eyes and discover it — to acknowledge the ties that bind — that we are one family. He died in defense of the sacredness of humanity, and we live in the spirit of his commitment. We are human, the way Jesus was human, and nothing human is foreign to us.
Science with its “shocking” discoveries is part of this volcanic eruption. It is flinging us even further from the parish church and out into “God’s” universal creation — what the Irish theologian and mystic John Scotus Eriúgena called the “Mask of God.” He was convinced that it is there that we catch a glimpse of what “God” is really like, as Paul said: “… as through a glass darkly,” and perhaps “grope after him and find him … for in him we live and move and have our being.” Science, of all things, branded since the days of “No-No” as the arch-enemy of all things good and holy, opens our eyes to the vastness, depth and creative power of the “presence of God.” God is indeed everywhere, for if there is a where at all, it is because God was there before us, present, waiting patiently for our arrival — for our eyes to become accustomed to the darkness and discern the sparkle behind the mask. And when we see how not only every bit of flesh but every particle of matter is charged with a brilliant creativity so “divine” as to have created, as from nothing at all, every single last form and structure and process and organism and person in the universe, we get a new understanding of the presence of that creative power we call “God” — what Eriúgena called Natura naturans. The entire Universe “created itself” out of “nothing” to show us exactly what we are dealing with. Our sacred humanity, so well served by Jesus’ “obedient” fidelity, we now see as one emergent item in an immense cosmic organism that runs wider and deeper than our eyes can see. Flying at the new altitudes provided by science gives us a perspective we never had before. We see now that it is not that “God” is present to us … but that if we are “present” at all — if we exist — it is because we are an emergent part of God’s presence. Our human flesh is simply a leaf and flower on this immense tree of irrepressible life. We are the products of an expanding evolving love-body so incomprehensibly selfless and universal that we despair at the attempt to find words to bear our thoughts.
But this sense of the presence of God is very different from the stillness of the cavernous stone temples of our youth. It may leave us “speechless” but it doesn’t leave us quiet. The very ground we stand on is holy … how can we keep from singing?