My friend John, a very intelligent and faithful Catholic, told me the following story when he was one of my students at Boston College. John’s friend, ‘Isa—a very intelligent and faithful Muslim—expressed an interest in understanding the Catholic faith (not out of any doubt of his own) and asked John to take him to Mass. After Mass, John asked ‘Isa what he had thought of it. ‘Isa said, very slowly and thoughtfully, “Do Catholics really believe that thing, that piece of bread, is not bread at all but Jesus Christ (blessed be his name)?” (Christ is a revered prophet to Muslims, though not the Son of God.)
“We do,” said John.
“Your Church teaches that he is really present there, yes? That what’s there is the man who was God?”
“Yes. The formula is ‘Body and blood, soul and divinity.” “And you believe that?”
‘Isa made as if to say something, but stifled it. John assured him he would not be offended.
Finally, reluctantly, ‘Isa said, “I don’t understand.”
“I understand how you feel. It sounds very shocking.”
“No, you don’t understand. That’s not what I mean. You will take it as an insult, but I don’t mean it to be.”
“I promise I won’t take it as an insult. But I really want to know what’s on your mind.”
“Well then. . . . I don’t think you really do believe that. I don’t mean to say you’re dishonest, but . . . .”
“I think I know what you mean. You can’t empathize with anyone who believes something so shocking. You don’t see how you could ever get down on your knees before that altar.”
“No, I don’t see how I could ever get up. If I believed that thing that looks like a little round piece of bread was really Allah Himself, I think I would just faint. I would fall at His feet like a dead man.”
John looked carefully at my reaction as he reported ‘Isa’s words. My eyes opened, and he smiled. “What did you say to him?” I asked.
“Nothing. Then, after a while, just ‘Yes.'”
John is a wise man.
This story got me thinking about the ills of our culture both outside and inside the Church. Every American knows our culture is in crisis. And every Catholic knows that the crisis has infected the Church as well as the world. But what is the root of the disease—Liberalism vs. Conservatism, Newchurch vs. Oldchurch? Yes, but that is only the formal structure of every conflict—new vs. old.
Is it infidelity vs. fidelity, then? “Fidelity”—to the “deposit of faith”—adds both a personal dimension of moral responsibility and a theological dimension of content to “conservatism.” But this is not enough; we must ask what part of the “deposit of faith” is in peril. It seems to be the supernatural. Modernism, the master heresy of the modern era (as Gnosticism was to the ancient era), is essentially the denial of the supernatural: It means reducing God to goodness, Christ to a good man, the Holy Spirit to something like “school spirit,” scripture to man’s word about God instead of God’s word about man, and divine institutions to human ones. Is that the deepest source of the crisis, then?
No, it goes even deeper. Even the destruction of Modernism would still only be a victory of doctrine. As St. Thomas Aquinas says, the primary object of faith is a reality, not a proposition (though propositions are indispensable). Not the proposition “God exists” but God; not the doctrine of the Resurrection but the reality of the Resurrection; not the creeds about Christ but the real presence of Christ, is the crux and crisis. It is a crisis of Christlessness.
“Real presence” is impossible to conceptualize, for it is not a “what” at all, but the “thereness,” or “hereness,” of the “what”; not essence but existence. It must be shown, not defined. Whenever God shows up in scripture, it is His real presence that makes all the difference. Job’s three friends talked about God as if He were absent, but Job talked to Him, however confusedly, for his faith was in God’s presence. That faith was rewarded when God appeared to Job but not to his friends and approved Job’s speeches, not theirs.
Throughout the Gospels we find Jesus constantly doing just that: showing the difference between mere concepts and real presence. He did it when He proved the Resurrection to the skeptical Sadducees on the basis of the first five books of Moses alone (which was all that they accepted as divine authority), by connecting three names for Himself that God had revealed to Moses: “I AM WHO AM,” “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and “the God not of the dead but of the living.” “For all live to Him,” He concluded (Luke 21:38).
He did it when He berated the Pharisees, with ironic humor, for keeping their noses in their books instead of looking to Him—the book was wholly about Him! (John 5:39-40)
He did it in His parting words to His apostles, when He left them with the only thing powerful enough to transform the world: not comforting words about Him but His real presence: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
This is what transformed them from confused cowards into saints and martyrs. Instead of being shaken by the world, they would now shake the world. How? What converted the world’s longest-lived, successful, and hard-nosed dictatorship—the Roman Empire—into “Christendom”? Not just Christ’s theology or teaching, not just Christ’s morality or example, but Christ’s real presence, in His Body the Church and in His Spirit. And it was meant to continue.
A Long Retreat
Why has it stopped? Why are the Christian soldiers no longer marching onward but retreating?
Because we no longer understand this “real presence,” this difference between Christ abstract and Christ concrete; because we no longer understand St. Paul’s startling one-word definition of “wisdom,” “righteousness,” “sanctification,” and “redemption” given in I Corinthians: Christ. That is why his decision to “know nothing but Christ Jesus” to those sophisticated Corinthians was not a “know-nothing” anti-intellectualism or a minimalism, but a maximalism.
The crisis of faith in the Church is a crisis of faith in Christ’s real presence. The deepest root of the dullness and ineffectiveness of most parishes, laity, clergy, homilies, liturgies, music, catechesis, programs, and all the extra Martha-like activities, is not outright heresy or apostasy but simply remoteness—not, as the “liberals” say, the Church’s remoteness from “the people,” but from The Person.
Let’s ask ourselves honestly: Why have Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Pentecostal Protestant sects and denominations been so much more successful throughout the Americas during the past generation? Why would a Catholic, who is in possession of the fullness of the faith, the full gospel, exchange it for a faith that is only partial? It is not primarily because of a disaffection for the things Catholics have and Protestants don’t—history, tradition, popes, saints, sacraments, etc. Rather, it is due to an affection for the one thing Catholics have but don’t know they have—in fact, the main thing Catholics have: Christ. These Catholics never knew Jesus Christ in the Church, but they did find Christ present in the souls and lives of Protestants.
Do you think I exaggerate? I teach philosophy at Boston College—one of the top Catholic universities in America. Eighty percent of my students are Catholics who have had twelve years of catechism. Yet when I ask them what they would say to God if they died tonight and were asked why they should go to Heaven, only one in 20 even mentions Jesus Christ. (Only one in 20 Evangelicals, Pentecostals, or Fundamentalists would not know that answer.) This is worse than a “problem;” this is an inexcusable scandal, an unmitigated disaster.
Ironically, the Church has a presence these Protestants do not even claim to have: an objective and perfect real presence in the Eucharist, worthy of worship, not just a subjective and imperfect presence in souls. Christ is really, truly, objectively, fully present in the Eucharist—hidden under the appearances of bread and wine—as He was in the streets of Nazareth or on the Cross.
And that’s what we’re neglecting!
The central problem of the Church today is that most of the generation now becoming adults—the generation educated by CCD texts full of deadly platitudes—simply do not know Jesus Christ. They are not merely unaware of right doctrine about Him (though that’s tragically missing too) but of Christ Himself, His real presence. Nothing less than Christ could have Christianized the world, nothing less than Christlessness has de-Christianized it, and nothing less than Christ can re-Christianize it. What happens when Christ’s real presence is known? Read the Gospels and find out. The Gospels are not mere historical records; they continue, they happen, for the One they present is not dead and gone and past but alive and here and now.
Where is He present now? In His Church. This means essentially two things. First, He is present in the Church’s sacraments, primarily in the Eucharist. Second, He is also present in the Church’s members, in the souls and lives of those who have believed in Him. What a tragedy that so many Protestants do not know that first presence! And what an equal tragedy that so many Catholics do not know the second!
What will happen if we also neglect the first? What sound will we hear to replace the great silence of eucharistic adoration? The same sound we hear from the National Council of Churches: the sound of coffins being built, the sound of dead logs falling.
And what will we hear if we rediscover His presence and adore Him? The same sound we hear in the Gospels: the sound of a blazing fire, the rattle of dry bones coming to life, the shouts of joy that ring through scripture and through the great old Protestant hymns.
Return to Joy
How do we get this joy back? Not by any gimmicks or human contrivance, but by recognizing the real presence and responding with adoration. And the primary place of the real presence is the Eucharist.
The primary reason for eucharistic adoration, however, is not the one we have been exploring so far: that it will bring passion and power and joy and life to us, our Church, and our world. Those are only incidentals! The primary reason must be to obey the primary moral rule, which I shall call Right Reality Response (the 3 R’s), or (in a single word) Realism. Adore Him because He is adorable, and present. Even if it didn’t save the world, the Church, or the soul, it would be the right thing to do, not just because of who we are, but because of who He is.
Right Reality Response is the ultimate basis for all morality. We must be moral because God commands it, of course; but also because it is good, or right; and it is good, or right, because it is true. And it works both ways: Not only do understanding and loving the truth lead to moral obedience, but obedience also leads to understanding the truth. Adoration trains us in the habit of seeing the Absolute as absolute and the relative as relative, instead of vice versa.
For in adoration we focus on Christ the center, and everything else then appears as it truly is: as a ray of light from that sun, the Son of God. We see the world in terms of Christ’s coordinates instead of looking at Christ in terms of the world’s coordinates. It is the great exercise in realism, since reality is Christocentric.
Even this great mental benefit, or “payoff,” must not be our primary motive, however. If we adored the Adorable One for the sake of something else, we would really be worshipping the “something else” as the end and using God as the means. This would reverse the order of reality, treating the End as a means and the means as the end. God has left us clear instructions forbidding this: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and then all these other things will be added unto you.” He commands us to adore Him for His sake, not for our sake; but He does this for our sake, not for His sake. His glory is to be our concern; our glory is His concern. That is what love is: exchange.
What holds us back, then? What is the objection to eucharistic adoration?
It’s not that it’s hard or requires any special gifts or education. The only requirements are faith and love.
Perhaps it would be a good exercise for us to get our objections out in front of us by inventing an imaginary objector.
True. Our faith is smaller than a mustard seed. But faith is like a muscle. And this is a compelling reason for strengthening our faith by exercising it through adoration.
“How can we exercise a faith we don’t already have?”
That’s like the question: “How can I read a book entitled How To Read A Book? If I can read already, I don’t need to read that book, and if I can’t read already, I won’t be able to read that book.” We can read a little already, and reading that book will help us to read a lot better. So we have a little faith already, and we can adore a little bit; doing that will help us to have more faith and to adore better.
“Well, it’s still hard. It doesn’t look or feel like there’s anything there but bread. Why couldn’t God have come out with some visible miracle to make it easier for us?”
Because He wants to strengthen our faith, and wean us from relying on our senses and our own minds.
“Then why doesn’t He give us more interior highs, mystical experiences?”
Because He doesn’t want us to rely on our feelings either, but on faith. If we relied on what the saints call “sensible consolations,” we’d get a spiritual sweet tooth.
“Why is that so bad? It would make us happier.”
Because we are happiest when we are most like Him, when our happiness is the most like His and the least like the happiness of animals or addicts.
“But there’s such a distance! He is a simple, pure spirit. We are complex and material.”
That is why He gave us a world, and an Incarnation, and a Eucharist. But even in this complex world He trains us to be simple. Our faith grows by getting simpler, not more complex. The saints’ faith was simple. Remember St. Thomas’s Eucharistic hymn:
Sight, taste, and touch in Thee are each deceived;
The ear alone most safely is believed.
I believe all the Son of God has spoken;
Than Truth’s own word there is no truer token.
A modern equivalent is: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!”
“But how can sitting alone in an empty church address the urgent needs of a life and a society in chaos? It’s like fiddling while Rome burns.”
Your objection is very common, and very important. And my answer is not very commonly known or believed. Your objection assumes a whole “world-view” that is erroneous. We habitually see reality inside-out and upside-down. We see reality inside-out because we see matter as containing spirit instead of spirit as containing matter. We think of the material universe as the basic containing reality, and spirit as a tiny bit of light surrounded by an enormous quantity of matter, time, and space. But the whole universe is only a little hazelnut in God’s hand. That’s the vision God showed Lady Julian of Norwich: “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” That’s the true vision. Saints are not fools; they’re realists. We also habitually think of the soul as “in” the body instead of the body in the soul—as if a play were “in” its stage setting instead of the setting being “in” the play, as one of its dimensions.
We see reality upside-down because we think of earth as the foundation and Heaven as far away, “up there” somewhere, so religion becomes a kind of Tower of Babel reaching up. That’s upside-down, because the Church has its foundation in Heaven, and the New Jerusalem comes “down out of Heaven as a Bride adorned for her Husband,” according to Revelation. Heaven isn’t insubstantial; it’s far more substantial than earth. And God is not “watching us from a distance.” Heaven came to earth in Christ.
“But Christ ascended back to Heaven. He is in Heaven now.”
That does not mean He is not here. “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.”
“Is Christ in Heaven or not?”
Christ is not relative to Heaven, Heaven is relative to Christ. So Christ is not in Heaven, Heaven is in Christ, Heaven is wherever Christ is. And Christ is still here, in the Church and especially in the Eucharist. If you want to understand the Church, you have to see her as primarily a Heavenly reality.
“But the Church is a visible, earthly institution.”
It is primarily invisible, primarily Heavenly.
“That sounds Protestant.”
It is Catholic. It is the “mystical Body of Christ.”
“But how does that mean you can help the Church and the world by sitting in a dark building doing nothing?”
You can’t. But you can mightily help both by doing something: adoring Christ, who is really present there in the Eucharist.
“But what do you do when you adore?”
You let God do things. He forms our minds and hearts—if we give them to Him.
“That sounds Quietist, or Buddhist.”
Buddhists often understand the superior power of silence over speech, and of contemplation over action, better than Catholics do today. “By serving a cup of green tea, I stopped the war”—I’ll bet you don’t understand that saying, do you?
“No. It’s silly. How can drinking tea stop war?”
By changing souls, which are the sources of war. By touching the root, not the branches.
“What does that have to do with eucharistic adoration?”
There too we touch the root—the root of everything, Christ the Pantocrator. And when we touch this root—the root of all life—with our own root, our heart, we touch our candle to His fire. We touch a power infinitely greater than nuclear power, the sun, or the Big Bang.
“What power is that?”
The Blood and Body of Christ.
Your responses are getting wiser.
“But we can’t just sit around adoring all day.”
Can you do it for one hour?
“There’s so much else to do. . . .”
Yes there is, and that’s why you can’t afford not to give God five loaves and two fishes of your time so that He can multiply it. He really does, you know. Because it’s His—time is His gift to us, and it’s precious to Him when we give it back to Him. Try it; you’ll like it. Everything will fall into place once you acknowledge the Center.
“You said earlier that we shouldn’t do it for the sake of its payoffs.”
No, but they will happen anyway, if we do it because it’s right.
“Suppose I don’t feel a great desire for this form of prayer.”
Then pray for the desire.
“You’ve got an answer for everything, don’t you?”
No, but He does. Unless Philippians 4:19 is a lie. Do you believe it is?
“No. . . .”
Then you believe it’s true.
Then go. Do it.
“I have no more excuses.”
Then I’ll see you in church.