Kneeling Before the Gates of Paradise

What wonders we American Catholics have seen. Schools, whose joists were sawn and spiked by the hands of men who would send their children there, now empty, crumbling; whole orders of nuns doffing their habits, then their faith and reason too, worthy societies dwindling into a few old men with beers and a shuffleboard table, or a few old ladies with flowers; pipe organs dismantled, hymns sent down the memory hole or, worse, sissified; statues torn from the walls by a New Model Army of ecclesiastical vandals, deep funds of knowledge about Christ and His Church allowed to trickle away into the banal and the secular, a feel-good paganism that would have made Cato turn in disgust.

After night comes the morning, and through the cracks in the deadest parking lot the crocuses will poke their way. So I believe the hidden stirrings of life are with us now. Yet I like to think there is one object at the heart of all those acts of destruction—and at the heart of our hopes for a new life for the Catholic community. Its symbolism suggests a division that unites: the threshold of the deepest mystery our Church on earth professes. I mean the communion rail.

The rail I remember from my boyhood was installed in the 1950s by a pastor with fine taste in ecclesiastical art, who understood what the Eucharist was all about. Picture a cream-color base and lintel, joined by vertical posts of veined red and sea-green marble, with a mosaic medallion in the middle of each post. Each mosaic portrayed a symbol of the Eucharist: a basket of five loaves, two fishes, a bunch of grapes, an anchor, the Lamb.

Those symbols were mysterious to me. Like the rest of the art in the church—the strange wardrobe in the vestry, with a relief carving of a pelican pricking its breast, and the words Pie pellicane, Jesu Domine running in a rectangular frieze all around the doors—they gave me the sense that I was verging upon realities before which the mind must bow in silence. The rail helped to instill that reverence: You had to approach it by three steps, as it was set above the pews, nor did you walk behind it unless you were serving at Mass. You knelt at it.

What was it like to kneel there? Let me say what it was not like. It was not like that web of cheats and frauds called “the real world.” In the real world, you wait in the checkout line at the grocery store. You wait in line for a ticket to the movies. You wait in line at the ballpark. You wait for your number to be called at the delicatessen. You wait, per saecula saeculorum, at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

It was not like that. People approached the altar from the three columns of pews as the Spirit and their legs moved them. Since there were usually two priests communicating the congregation, and since the people kneeling didn’t have to worry about others stepping on their heels if they prayed for a moment after receiving our Lord, you just waited for places to open up and then knelt down. And as you watched the priest and the altar boy come toward you, you’d see others receiving: old ladies, children, carpenters, secretaries, musclemen, strangers and friends, and sometimes enemies. But there you were all together, kneeling, perhaps saying a silent prayer. It’s hard to persist in a grudge against the fellow who is kneeling beside you, and who dare not touch with his hand the body of Christ.

That rail was removed, as so many were, in the assault of the new puritans of the 1970s. Nothing should separate the laymen from the altar; we were to focus on ourselves as a community of faith, rather than on the Eucharist as an object of cultic worship. So now most Catholics receive the wafer unleavened by faith that it is anything other than a quaint symbol, a modestly caloric cracker, a ticket at the deli. We receive in line, individually, watching the shoes of the person ahead of us. We cannot pause to pray afterwards. “Move on!” says Etiquette to the hungry beggar. “What do you think this place is?”

Those who instigated the change, ignoring all the sodalities and leagues and guilds and choirs that thronged the churches of their youth, said they wanted to foster the spirit of community among us. I’ll grant them the blacktop of good intentions. But they mistook the nature of communities, religious or otherwise, and they mistook the Eucharist. Beyond weakening the faith of the people, they failed on their own terms. They vitiated or destroyed community.

It may be hard for us American alienists to imagine, but a true community is not exactly chosen. You are born into it; you stumble upon it; it reaches out to get you, and you yield to its embrace. It is more than a club, which each member elects for his own purposes. Indeed, unless something stands beyond and above the community, to which it turns in allegiance, the community is little more than an aggregation of egos, a pack of self-seekers who happen to agree on the same avenue of profit. The excisers of God from our public square have it all wrong. It is the transcendent that unites a people to fashion a public square in the first place. No altar, no community.

And all communities really do share this trait. The word community does not, as is commonly believed, derive from union, but either from the Latin moenia, the walls that surround and protect a town, or from munia, the shared duties or offices that those people within the walls would perform. We may think of it this way: A community is a band of people who share, literally, the same munitions. The walls fortify them against attack and physically define who they are. We are the people who live here—and here is where our duties, our loyalties lie.

Take for example a pseudo-community to which I belong: professors of English literature. Time was when we understood ourselves as set apart by that oddball love of old and venerable poetry. But if the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer and Keats and all the other great English poets do not stand above you to command your wonder, then you have no Department of English but, depending on personalities, a pleasant clique or a pit of vipers. If the flag of your nation does not move your hearts with love and loyalty, even unto the shedding of your last drop of blood, then you have no army but, at best, an efficient corporation of mercenaries.

If your town owns no special days of memorial to honor your dead and to celebrate the truths to which you renew your devotion, then you have no town, but a geographical area, an arbitrarily bounded sector of population. If you do not see the banners flying over your field (and not just anybody’s field) and do not emulate the great men who once attained victory in your uniform (and not just anybody’s uniform) you have no team, but a roster of businessmen, overgrown entertainers, hardly worthier of respect than are those entertainers in Hollywood whose trade is to feign devotions they cannot imagine.

Thus when Jesus reminded His disciples, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” He was not only asserting that He was their source of unity. His parable also reflected two general truths about man. First, man belongs to a body. The vine has an inside and an outside; the branches are separate from the rest of the world that has not yet been won for Christ. Second, and more important, the branches are not branches at all without the vine. Unless they turn their gaze together toward the distant city of their quest, human pilgrims form not even a provisional and shadowy city here on earth. My comrade, my countryman, my friend is the man at whose side I stand, looking upon something that transcends us both, in whose surpassing light I can understand him as a friend.

An open marriage is none at all. But even a faithful husband and wife form at most an emotionally comfortable arrangement, not a marriage of souls, unless there is in their mutual love that Third who walks beside them on their road, whose name they may not even know, but who is the true object of their devotion. If they are Christian, they will learn to recognize Him most powerfully not in one another, but in sacrifice, in the broken bread and body.

It is hard to fathom how we Catholics can have forgotten that a community is defined by what it holds sacred and that it honors the sacred by keeping it separate from common life. The sacred compels distinctions; we stand before it at a reverent distance, that we may better behold its beauty. Without those distinctions, without that distance, we have familiarity but no intimacy. We walk brazenly over the ground that Moses feared to tread, even after he had taken the sandals off his feet.

Sometimes the sacred limits who may or may not see, or hear, or touch—the deep meaning of the veils that women used to wear. Sometimes it may be approached only on certain days, as in the Temple where the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies but once a year, on the Day of Atonement. Sometimes it demands proper attire: Try to go to a traditional black church in America wearing shorts. Sometimes it forbids certain otherwise ordinary actions: You do not walk over the military grave in the town commons. Sometimes it prescribes the extraordinary: gun-salutes, the blare of 50 trumpets. It may cordon the young from the old, or men from women, as at an Orthodox synagogue. In all cases it commands reverence in the form of ritual laws that a people understand and obey. In so doing it organizes them into a community—as there never would have been the Twelve were it not for the One.

Let the children of light learn a lesson from the children of sport, as a protestor against desacralized language in the liturgy once put it. Consider the “rules” of a minor-league baseball game. The field is immaculate, and off-limits to anyone but players, coaches, umpires, other officials, and groundskeepers. Were a fan to see teenagers sauntering across the infield, he would shake his head—this is something that is not done. He might even alert one of the guards. That field is laid out, with a few pleasant variations from city to city, in narrowly prescribed ways; and fans would protest if Pottsville widened its angle at home plate to 95 degrees, or if second base were moved off-center, or if the mound were raised another ten inches.

Every, field must have foul poles, a backstop, dugouts, bullpens, and a scoreboard. Every field must show the distance from home to straightaway left and right, and dead center. The players must wear uniforms, and trimly. They must comport themselves with decency on the field; no loud laughter, no antics, no running the bases backwards or otherwise making a travesty of the game. A manager may not come out of the dugout to argue about balls and strikes. If an argument with the umpire lasts more than a minute or two, somebody will get the heave-ho.

Every game must start with the National Anthem. The fans stand at attention, and many of them sing. Men from all walks of life, bankers, bricklayers, carpenters, lawyers, policemen, many of whom can never be prevailed upon to sing “On Turkey’s Wings” or other twaddle at church, will take off their caps and place their right hands over their hearts, and sing.

True fans would not have it any other way. Indeed, they form a loose community precisely because they love the game that is so defined, with its odd commands and prohibitions, its misty tradition, its saints Musial and Williams and Ruth and all the rest; its legendarium of Big Train and the Iron Horse and Dizzy and the Mick. They love and honor the separation between the stands and the field, between fan and player—between life outside the stadium and life within.

Now consider how many rules of the sacred we Catholics have tossed aside, and how much we have lost thereby in community. Take away that communion rail. What follows?

We obscure the ground of our union, Christ. So does our vision blur as we hastily draw too near to what surpasses our comprehension. We cannot see the whole Vine, so we turn to a few of the branches—or treat the Vine as if He were but a branch. We shunt His tent to the side, relocating it in a cloakroom, as if it were a tacky armchair of Grandpa’s that no longer matches our decor, but that we haven’t yet made up our minds to get rid of. The space between ourselves and the sacred is breached, not by the grace of Christ who gives Himself to us in the Eucharist, but by ourselves, heedlessly.

And that should bring us closer together? It places the laity—or the most bustling members of the laity, usually women in pant suits—in closer proximity to the priest. But the signs are wrong. The sanctuary is not a sanctuary. For Anybody may enter, dressed in almost any fashion, reading Scripture in a voice that is occasionally, but rarely, better than the priest’s. But the Anybody who enters the sanctuary has chosen to do so, along with a passel of other Anybodies. That choosing changes the communal nature of the Mass.

No longer are the people one, led by their priest as together in humility they all kneel before the altar of God, with the priest and his few assistants, themselves perhaps priests-to-be, set apart from the rest, serving as visible signs of the transcendent reality to which the community pledges its devotion. Instead the people are divided. There are the folks in the pews, and the other folks, the churchly, pottering about the altar or the loft or across the sanctuary. Precisely because, at any time, Anybody can join that crowd, the attention-commanding laity in the sanctuary blunts the sense of the transcendent, and implicitly inverts the message of the gospel. For if we say that anyone who chooses may become a lector, even if we precede it with some minimal training, we imply that it is we who choose the liturgy, we who choose the gospel, we who choose Christ. Thus we take down the rail and erect an invisible barrier, between the Laity Militant who run everything and the Laity Suffering who endure it, between the priest and his duties, and between the whole congregation and Christ, who alone makes us one.

If that sounds too theological, let’s examine other practical measures the Church took in that same spirit of false communitarianism. Consider the fast from midnight to the moment you knelt at that rail. At some point in my youth we were told that the fast had been reduced to a mere hour before Communion. Since driving to church and the bulk of the Mass before communion took about an hour, the revision amounted, in reality, to a risible prohibition against eating a cookie after the Agnus Dei.

The result weakened the bonds of community. As the scholar Eamon Duffy has pointed out, for at least one morning every week the Catholic felt a hint of the hunger his poorer brothers might feel every day. On Fridays and in Lent, this solidarity was more obvious and more strenuously commanded. Rich as the shah you might be, but your table would offer only fish and other peasant fare. And the man sitting on the girder beside you at lunch might notice—and, if he were a decent fellow and not a Catholic, would respect you for your loyalty. If he were a Catholic, he might acknowledge the bond of brotherhood and ask you whether you attended the Polish church over the river, or the Italian one on the hill.

Or consider the holy days of obligation. What true American would want to celebrate the Fifth of July? Those holy days, falling in the week wherever they might, united Catholics by distinguishing them from the world. In that way they were as visible as a cross of ashes on the forehead. They focused our attention upon the commemorated events in the life of Christ, and upon the triune God who created the days of the week, and who will bring them to their consummation. But the foolish belief that in church one place is like any other, along with the sly implication that a priest is but a layman in sheepish clothing, leads inevitably to the loss of the holy day, the holiday. Even Sunday has been breached by the imprudent permission to celebrate the Lord’s day on the night before—as if modern Americans were ancient Hebrews, reckoning the day from the previous sundown. So now Catholics, without the sign of distinction, can play golf on Sunday morning alongside men who have not darkened any church door in decades.

Nor have our churches become more hospitable. Oh, they may be more amiable, in a superficial way. There’s a church I know with a big self-celebrating sign out front, advertising that “all are welcome”; another boasts “125 Years of Ministry.” But if you have no clear sense of who you are, or, more to the point, if you are not oriented toward the One who has set you apart, then you may welcome in the whole world, but you will have nothing to give it—and certainly you will have no Christian community to give. You may be a nice group of people who believe in Christ, even on Sunday, but you will feel more like a club than a community, and people will choose you or not, for the same reasons they might choose to belong to a historical society or the PTA.

Precisely in order to welcome people in, you must show that they are “well come”; that the place to which they have come is not like other places. Consider the false hospitality of a home where all is informality and negligence: people sit anywhere, eat when hunger moves them, have no expected roles to play, talk across one another’s conversations, and notice little beyond themselves. What honor is it to be invited there? Now consider being invited to the home of an Orthodox Jew. The mother prepares and serves the meal; the father leads in prayer; children sit at their own places at table. These small acts of daily liturgy unite them with other Orthodox families scattered across the world. To be invited to such a supper, as an outsider, is to share in the intimacy of a life beyond one’s own, a community bound by its devotion to God. Should the Lord’s Supper not be conducted at least as hospitably as that?

The ancient Athenians were hospitable. They invited strangers to the great City Dionysia to watch the winners of playwriting competitions—an Aeschylus or a Sophocles—examine on the sacred stage man’s struggle to find his place in a beautiful and terrible world, among mountains and beasts and gods. Always they set one great chair aside for the goddess Athena, patroness of the city. From the parades leading up to the day, to the honoring of the sons of slain warriors, to the plays and the awarding of prizes, everything spoke to the stranger, “This is what it means to be an Athenian; this amphitheater is not a place like others, for a place like any other would not be worthy of our gods.”

Have we forgotten what pagans knew?

Return to those mosaics on my church’s old communion rail: a basket of five loaves, two fishes, a bunch of grapes, an anchor, the Lamb. A childish banner on a wall, with fat felt doves and smiling faces, presents no mystery it is standard fare in elementary schools. But what do you make of those loaves and fishes, the grapes, the anchor, and the Lamb? Can we exhaust the meaning of that Lamb?

In my boyhood I used to hike up to a glacial hilltop, not because I knew it well, but because no matter how often I returned I could never know it fully. There was always some crevice I hadn’t seen, a cracked den for snakes, a tuft of wild roses, a view far down to the shoals of the river. I loved it for its unfamiliarity, and found it a congenial place for hard thinking, or for prayer. I seldom showed that place to anyone; but when I did, it was so that the other person could see a little of what I had seen. Thus on this earth are human souls brought nearer by reverence for what lies beneath or beyond words.

So it is with those mountainous symbols—with all the vertiginous heights of art and liturgy; the strangeness of a girl’s veil, the variegated light streaming from a stained-glass St. Patrick, blessing a rough shepherd who kneels on the green land before him; the pelican hymned in the ancient tongue; the purple of Lent; the hoods over the crowd of saints in Passiontide; the red days and fish on the calendar; the hushed places where no one goes, the objects no one touches; the sunburst monstrance, held by the priest beneath the folds of his garment; the Host within it, familiar and faraway, simple and incomprehensible; the water poured upon the child’s head, with his wail echoing to the silent trumpeting angels above.

These things knit the knot of community among us. We knew them, and that brought us together; we did not know them, and that brought us even closer. We did not touch, but were touched, did not choose, but were chosen; we obeyed, only because a voice had long preceded our hearing; we knelt, prompted by the One we did not know, closer to us than our very souls. Who is that fellow kneeling beside me as the priest comes our way? I may not know his name. But if the church is a true community—if we are one in our worship—then I know something more intimate about him than I know about many a man I have worked with, eaten with, chatted with for years. I know he kneels before the One we know and do not know. I know he has been brought, not by his will but by the grace of his Maker, to a place unlike any other. He and I are blind before the same vision. Were we to speak about it, we would have little to say. Amen would suffice.


Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

tagged as:
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...