In an appendix to the Book of Common Prayer, the liturgical book that Anglicans have been using ever since Henry VIII revolted against the Catholic Church, you can find a doctrinal statement called the Thirty-Nine Articles. Each article addresses a specific theological position that was held by the Anglican Communion. (Today, this statement would be extremely debatable.) Back when I was an Anglican pastor, I led a small-group study of each and every article, which we went through in painstaking detail. I remember, at the time, substantially agreeing with most of them.
These are the same Articles about which John Henry Newman wrote Tract 90. He was trying to prove that they could be interpreted in a Catholic manner. Newman famously failed in his attempt and, shortly after, departed Anglicanism to be received into the Catholic Church. In retrospect I’m sure he was pleased, in that particular effort, to have been a failure.
I, too, failed to remain Anglican. I was received into the Church in 2010 and am now a Catholic priest. I failed upward in spite of myself. I tried to make sense of my dearly held beliefs but couldn’t. Isn’t that the way it always is with God’s grace—to fail, as it were, all the way to Heaven?
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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At the time I converted, I’d already come around to a Catholic understanding of theology, but there was still one particular Anglican belief I had trouble letting go of. It can be found in Article 25, which says,
The Sacraments are not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them.
The Anglican reformers were upset about the pomp and circumstance of Catholicism—particularly Eucharistic processions and the habit of the Catholic faithful to refrain from receiving the Eucharist every Sunday. Instead, these lay Catholics were content to simply gaze upon the Host in the hands of the priest. Rumor has it that this custom of the pious gaze is why bells started to be rung at the elevation—it alerted the faithful to look and see Christ held aloft for that precious moment.
For many, viewing the Host was a supreme moment of devotion. The Anglican reformers, however, didn’t accept this as legitimate. To them, the Eucharist was meant for one purpose and one purpose alone—to be eaten. If you weren’t there to receive the Eucharist, then why bother? And what was the point of the Corpus Christi procession, which was purely for the purpose of displaying the Host to a crowd? Why in the world would you expose the Sacrament in a monstrance and then simply return it to the tabernacle? Eucharistic adoration seems so passive, without purpose, functionless, and thus was written off as Catholic superstition.
When I became Catholic, I wasn’t entirely convinced of the value of a holy hour. Specifically, I didn’t see a scriptural basis for the habit. I didn’t mind that it existed; after all, I had come to trust the Church implicitly. But I also didn’t envision a future in which Eucharistic exposition and benediction would make up an active part of my devotion.
How wrong I was!
In my recently-published book with Sophia Press, The Forgotten Language—How Recovering the Poetics of the Mass Will Change Our Lives, I recount the time that Cardinal Burke, unbeknownst to himself, schooled me in the Scriptures. As a Protestant, I had prided myself that I knew the Scriptures backward and forward. My opinion had always been that, because Protestant theology is heavily based on scholarly interpretations of the Bible, I knew my stuff far better than Catholics. Even after conversion, I held that prideful belief. Then I attended a Corpus Christi Mass at the Cathedral in St. Louis. Cardinal Burke was the homilist. During his exhortation, he quoted Exodus 16:31-32:
Now the house of Israel called its name manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey. And Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Let an omer of it be kept throughout your generations, that they may see the bread with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.’”
I, with a graduate degree in theology, who considered myself an intellectual, had never noticed Exodus 16:31-32.
Manna is a forerunner to the Eucharist. It gave life in the desert as a gift from God to be eaten and save the people from starvation. Notice, however, that not all of it was meant, at least immediately, for eating. For the good of the people, manna was also meant to be displayed. The people would see and remember with gratitude how God had provided for them.
I looked further into the Old Testament antecedents to the Eucharist. That’s when I discovered Showbread, which was special bread that God commanded the priests to prepare each week and place on an altar in the Holy of Holies. On the great festival days in Jerusalem, the priests would lift the bread up and show it to the people, announcing to the gathered faithful, “Behold how precious you are to God.” The Showbread was also called the Bread of the Presence, meaning it was a display of the miraculous face of God to His people. The people didn’t eat the bread. They looked at it.
God was teaching His people to gaze upon His presence, to linger with Him. He was establishing communion with them through a beautiful, aesthetic display. He revealed His majesty, even if in a veiled manner, and in doing so created a connection between Himself and His children. In this sense—that of connecting the particular to the universal, this drawing of individuals into the heart of God—it is a poetic moment. It exists for beauty and beauty alone.
Our faith isn’t meant to be limited to what’s functional. We don’t only eat the Eucharist as a matter of spiritual survival, as if the whole experience of the Mass is transactional and none of the other poetic elements matter. The Eucharist is so much more—the beauty of it, how lovely it is, how precious it is. In response, we also make our sacrifice at the altar. True devotion is a relationship. It’s connective and communal. It’s empathetic, reaching out to God and neighbor.
By this author:
The Forgotten Language$17.95
Yes, of course, the primary purpose of the Eucharist is to be eaten. This is what Christ desires, that we consume Him and become more like Him in both His death and His life. But there’s a reason the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a mysterious, overlapping set of beautiful symbols. The Eucharist is the mystery of our faith, a precious jewel, and it won’t do to narrow the Blessed Sacrament down to the functional act of eating.
Perhaps we could say that there are two ways to eat—with the mouth and with the eyes. When you look at Christ in the Eucharistic Host, you consume beauty. Christ imparts something to you as a gift. Equally important, though, is that in the Eucharist, Christ is looking back at you.
Let me explain by way of the poetic. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes, “I look out, and the tree grows in me.” He looks out a window and into the garden. He sees a tree, but the tree strikes him as so lovely, so noble, that it somehow becomes part of his inner space. It’s like an interior atmosphere, he says, in which a bird flies. We might, as Catholics, describe our Eucharistic gaze as a holy dove hovering soundlessly between sacrament and soul.
In another poem, “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Rilke describes a ruined marble statue on display at the art museum. He spends a long time studying it. Eventually, the statue begins to glow under his attention, “like a lamp, in which his gaze, not turned to low/ gleams.” Beauty makes a sacred connection. So much so, Rilke says, that “there is no place/that does not see you.” He has a transformative moment that will change his life. The statue carries its own creative beauty, living and active. This beauty breaks down the borders that separate the viewer and the viewed.
Do you see what this is? This is a description of unitive love.
Now, imagine how much more powerful the attention is that we give to the Eucharist during a holy hour or at the elevation of the Host during the Mass. How much more do the ashes of our interior fires burst to flame under the lightning of Our Lord’s tender, protective look? It’s like sparking a candle for the dead, a flicker of prayer so powerful it rolls stones from graves, and Beauty itself is carried from the darkness, the hew of a new dawn. In giving Christ our gaze, He looks back, and we are forever changed.