Discovering the Real Presence (Part 1)

Editor’s note: The following meditation by David A. Bovenizer on the consciousness unique to the modern era evokes a mood by way of complementing the adjoining excerpt from This Is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence, by Mark P. Shea.

There once was a boy of 12 or so, who stood at sunset on the shore of a pond where he was wont to camp now and again, and where he hoped to have a cabin, where he read Thoreau and the Gospel of John, and watched the sundry creatures of God.

The ripples of a muskrat’s swimming way glistened in the twilight, and a crow sailed silently into the surrounding woods. It was a perfectly pastoral scene, and it invited a pastoral seeing. Untutored then in the via negativa, but schooled of sunny days and starry nights, our lad expected Jesus Himself to appear, for the scene suggested that the Perfect Man should emerge — naturally — from its depths, and kneel to drink, perhaps to fish, or to walk — naturally — upon the water. He did not, of course, appear, and that single fact alone was enough to reveal to our wistful lad’s not-yet-uninnocent mind that Nature is not quite home. And he wrote this (poor) poem:

Great God, behold my prayer:

Make me in Your will,

Heavenly Father,

As are the birds

As are the trees

As is all of life around me. Use me,

Dear Lord, to glorify You

As do all other works of Your Hand.

For all that is alive is alive in

Your will,

And possesses a beauty that is beyond my ability to understand.

May I be as the creatures whose very life and every act

Are a glory to Your Name.

Please, O God, may I also be.

Do you remember Longfellow’s “My Lost Youth”?:

I remember the gleams and glooms that dart

Across the school-boy’s brain;

The song and the silence in the heart,

That in part are prophecies, and in part

Are longings wild and vain.

And the voice of that fitful song

Sings on, and is never still:

‘A boy’s will is the wind’s will

And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.’

Our lad knew, too, a bit later, his Schiller:

Were once our beings blent and intertwining,

And therefore still my heart for [T]hine is pining?

Knew we the light of some extinguished sun—

The joys remote of some bright realm undone?

But most of all our lad knew the absence of meaning, and thus began his pilgrimage unto the discovery of the meaning of absence (and Absence), and of the Presence Who comes in the form, not now of a Man upon a shore (though assuredly that, once, long ago) but of the Host in priestly hands.

Ours is the age, Robert Bolt was noting at the time (1960), which has been given “freedom and opportunity” but which manifestly has not been given an understanding of what freedom and opportunity are for. Ours is the time, too, Gabriel Marcel had discerned a generation earlier, which aches with the ache of the “nostalgia for being.” Now this generation and two hence, this nostalgia — which actually of course is the quest for a recovery of human be-ing — takes the harmless form of collecting antiques or restoring a ’57 Chevy. For others, sports suffice, or cooking, or model trains. Some re-enact battles of the War of ’61, but some (not surprisingly, somehow) prefer the direct stimulus of drug or the ecstasy, however fleeting, however doomed (or, now, diseased) of sensuality. Some succumb to the promise of self-help, or sink into psychosis; some find titillation in engineered things and postulate a telos in technology. Some—and often these are among the most gifted — seek purpose in profession or social activism, as though energy could embody essence. Some of these our best, too, pursue meaning in politics through the intoxicating elixir of ideology or the dramatic possibilities of power. Others, by the millions now, embrace the energies of evangelical emotion or the charismatic consciousness of music and hands lifted high unto heaven. And others, if only by stumbling, rediscover the path to Rome, and encounter the Christ at last in Eucharist.

What does it mean to “follow Jesus”? For our lad, way back when, it meant, simply, taking Jesus at His Word. This is a common enough quest, and it is precisely the quest shared by Mark P. Shea, whose eloquent little book of enormous import, This Is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence, prompts these reflections on a pilgrimage into the Catholic Church, and in her to the Jesus made present in bread and wine.

For millions upon millions, the sincere striving to apply to everyday life the Scriptural precepts of Jesus and the maxims of the Epistles of the New Testament is of course of paramount importance. “A personal relationship with Jesus” is the central characteristic of “evangelical” faith and practice, and the hallmark of evangelical missions, as Shea remembers poignantly. But even the foremost evangelical theologian of our time — Carl F.H. Henry — has wondered for a generation whether evangelicals have attained an “identity” more precise than an exuberant testimony to the experience of conversion. More recently, James Davison Hunter has written trenchantly of the penetration of evangelical subcultures by the narcissistic tenets of the enveloping American culture. And all the while, the more “charismatic” branches of evangelical faith — the Assemblies of God especially — both here and in Latin America, have added millions to their memberships, even as the “mainline” Protestant denominations have witnessed the defection of millions of their own.

But whether there is anything specifically “Protestant” about evangelicalism remains a curious question. What could evangelicals be said to “protest” against? If the answer is Catholicism, the answer could just as well be said to be Protestantism, at least so far as the major Protestant denominations are concerned. Arguably there is a sole exception: the conservative Presbyterian denominations which strive to sustain distinctly “Reformed” or Calvinistic doctrines and practices. Yet — as our one-time lad could attest, for the Reformed tradition was his own — what is it that Reformed churches intend to reform if it is not the Catholic Church herself?

These denominational questions are somewhat beyond the purview of Mr. Shea’s examinations, though he very much puts the central Catholic teachings of Church, Eucharist, and priest-hood to the test which for Protestants is the sine qua non: the test of Scripture. And in Mr. Shea’s judgment, the Scriptures are more manifestly the basis of Catholic teaching than of any of the Protestant alternatives. Indeed, it was in resorting to the Scriptures, and in a rigorous if also singularly winsome testing of Catholic teaching against the biblical Word, that he came to “discover” the mysterious but therefore wholly certain truth that the Risen Lord actually is present in the Eucharist.

This is My Body is not, however, a tract. Argumentation is conspicuous by its absence from Mr. Shea’s pages. What the reader encounters, instead, is a witness born of evangelical piety — a witness to the joyous discovery that enthusiasm or tongues or the vastly enlarged emphasis of musical experience and expression in evangelical worship are longings for the presence of Christ that are futile of themselves but actually are fulfilled in the Catholic Mass. All of these elements of evangelical life and faith, Mr. Shea explains beautifully, are encompassed in the teaching and experience of the Eucharist.

How is it that Protestants generally, and evangelicals specifically, who continue to seek Jesus’ presence in their lives so passionately, and so sincerely, remain estranged from the Eucharist? Since Mr. Shea — and countless other works over five centuries now — explore the doctrinal debates that this question raises, let our lad serve as representative of another, almost non-doctrinal (re)discovery of Catholic faith.

Standing on the shore of that pond in his young life, our lad did not know even the name of Matthew Arnold, but he recognized at once some years later the sentiment of “Dover Beach”:

The sea of faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled;

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night wind down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

What was it about the England of 1867 that could make a man feel so? In The Disappearance of God, the literary critic J. Hillis Miller remarks the remarkably similar experience of several other writers of the English tradition during the nineteenth century. So similar were the experiences of Arnold, Robert Browning, and several others, in fact, that Miller wondered if the writers were recording not merely a subjective sense of God’s “disappearance” from the world, but His “disappearance” in fact. Did not Nietzsche, across the Channel on the Continent, suggest the same? Might not God actually have withdrawn himself from the modern Western consciousness by the time of the nineteenth century — as His self-evident pronouncement on the error and also the futility of the autonomy of mind (later, autonomy also of the will-to-power, presently of the sheer senses) central both to Protestantism and the subsequent Enlightenment? Might not the long gradual decline of Protestantism — in doctrinal force, if not yet in sheer numbers of adherents — indicate that the Protestant consciousness has completed its historical mission and purpose, and is no longer a viable vehicle for apprehending the sacred nature of creation, or for mirroring in time the principles of eternity?

Our lad, now long since a man, is among those who (somewhat like Mr. Shea) believe that some flaw intrinsic to the Protestant Reformation (the only term which encompasses both impulses of protest and reform) led finally to such a change in the very consciousness of Protestant countries so profound that God withdrew from view, was eclipsed from view, or slipped from view, so that the apprehension of Him became at best fragmented. The Protestant consciousness therefore could be said to be akin to cracked eyeglasses. Eventually this eclipse was felt by entire generations of Europeans and — though obscured by the ideology of “Progress” made regnant after Northern triumph in the Civil War — of Americans, too.

The demise of Protestantism and the consequent rise of the epiphenomenon of evangelicalism are among the symptoms of this uniquely American religious consciousness. For the discovery Mr. Shea reports actually is a rediscovery: that the bread and wine become the very Body and Blood of the Redeemer was of course the Church’s teaching from “New Testament times” ’til the Reformation—and even many Reformers struggled to maintain the historic doctrine of the Real Presence. But there is a sense in which the Real Presence is virtually unthinkable for many Christians, even deeply believing evangelicals. Is this not because modern consciousness, as it has been experienced and as the experience has been explored by the principal literary artists of the modern era, is defined by an alienation from the holistic vision of things, and of the thingness of things, and thus from the sacred element inherent in matter? Just such a r-discovery of the larger Christian—Catholic — consciousness of the plentitude of God’s activity in and through the Church, and so a rediscovery of Christ’s Real Presence was our lad’s, and in this rediscovery may be the Church’s foremost message to a Western worldview in the crisis of its death throes. For each individual’s recovery of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist marks one more individual’s emergence from the “iron cage of modernity.” For in the Eucharistic feast alone is to be experienced the incorporation of human nature into the Divine and the eternal. What, such individuals come then to ask, what but the Eucharist speaks so indomitably to the modern desire for apotheosis in time through reason, will, or sensuality? What, the seeker who has found (and been found) inquires, what does an age of spiritual famine more require than the nourishment of Christ Himself)

Though the observation is beyond Mr. Shea’s purposes, implicitly his fine little work demonstrates that, to an era whose intellectuals have abandoned even “waiting for Godot,” Christ Himself waits, presently, at the altar. Which is why the present may indeed be “The Catholic Moment,” and why, too, Mr. Shea has himself become a Catholic.

Modern history could be said to have begun, then, when corruptions in the Church led a growing number of men and women to protest, perforce in the intention to reform, the Church. Once beyond the bounds of the Church herself, the protesting fervor quickly engendered a new kind of individual consciousness previously un-known in the annals of time. “Opinion” proliferated to the degree that the very destruction of human life now is justified in the name of “individual choice.” Is this fact alone not sufficient evidence that modern human consciousness is profoundly divorced from human nature? Modern consciousness is essentially the consequence of mind, will, and passion acting autonomously of each other. Even the once common consciousness of matter, in the form of created life, now is fragmented: we moderns view it autonomously with the mind (as a “resource”), we manipulate it autonomously with the will (as a “commodity”), and we experience it autonomously with the senses (on a jog, at the beach). The very mode of modern consciousness has become oblivious of the matter of matter. Chesterton (as in so much else) struck to the heart of the matter (pun intended):

The root of (Protestant) prejudice is not so much a trust in matter as a sort of horror of matter. The man of this philosophy is always asking that worship shall be wholly spiritual, or even wholly intellectual; because he does really feel a disgust at the idea of spiritual things having a body and a solid form. It probably does really give him a mystical shudder to suppose that God can become as bread and wine; though I never understood why it should not give the same shudder to say that God could become flesh and blood.

To the Evangelical whose motto not so long ago was “I Found It!”, how sublime it is to discover — as Mr. Shea and our lad have come to discover — that the Christ Who once came “in the form and likeness of a man,” and Who assuredly will come in that transfigured form one inexpressibly great day, is in the meanwhile, as He pledged He would be, “lo, with [us] always,” every day. For to follow Jesus is to find Him, and to find Him is (mystery of mysteries, through the Mystical Body of His Church) to feed upon Him, when He Himself is become the Host.

By

David A. Bovenizer was formerly the Executive Editor of Crisis.

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