Friday, November 12, 2010

Perception and Reality

Every once in a while, just for old times’ sake, I like to take out the old broadsword and blue paint.  A post on a comment thread discussing Catholic theology sent me running to the storage room where I keep said accoutrements.  I guess I am a little sensitive on the subject because I see the same pernicious thinking I saw on the comment line pulling Catholics away from their faith, and when I am not in the mood to whop them upside the head for fulminant stupidity, it just makes me want to weep. ( Apropos the whopping upside the head part, God clearly has a good deal of work left to do with me....)

What set me off was this statement:  When Jesus spoke about His body and His blood, he was just speaking metaphorically.  For starters, could the language be any clearer?  Even a friend of mine raised Methodist was stunned to find that his own denomination did not believe in the Real Presence.  He’d simply accepted it on faith all these years, totally our of step with Wesley and his companions.

If Catholics really understood what the Eucharist is, and believed, you couldn’t keep them from mass.  If they really understood the Eucharistic Lord, they’d never led a bad homily, a grouchy priest, or abysmal liturgy keep them away from church.  If they really understood, there wouldn’t be seats enough in church or masses enough in schedules to hold the faithful.  People would be falling over themselves to attend adoration--no matter what time it was.

The problem is, even those of us who have some inkling don’t really understand, and there are a whole lot of us who have wandered off the reservation because we’ve bought into the notion that logic, knowing and understanding are more important than--or the predecessor or--belief.  And human logic simply tells us that the consecrated host can’t really be anything other than bread, the consecrated wine nothing more that fruit of the vine.

That is, of course, backwards.  We don’t understand to believe.  We believe so that we may understand.  Nowhere was that more evident than when Christ Himself preached on the subject.  Those who needed to understand first, who took the verdict of their own mind above the act of faith, grumbled about the difficulty of the teaching--and left.  Those who knew--really knew--who Jesus was, even though it was then only the faintest glimmer--remained behind.   “Where would we go? Who else,” Peter said, “has the words of eternal life?”

When you get right down to it, that belief is a matter of both grace and will, as is anything in the spiritual life.   That annoying comment thread, the one in which a fallen away Catholic insisted that Christ was speaking only metaphorically, keeps gnawing at me, at that part of me that demands reason and explanation.  I kneel in mass, and I see the host, and it looks, for all the world just like bread to me, and the cup takes just like what is it that makes me so very sure, so certain that when I receive it, I receive Christ Himself?It all started out, I think, as mere intellect.  

After all, the language is pretty clear, the context striking, and, begging the pardon of my Protestant friends, one has to tie oneself into intellectual knots to get around the very, very plain meaning of the statement This is my body...this is my blood.  Nothing in the words affronted my intellect except, of course, the fact that it seems a bit--well--incredible.

Enter intellect again.  This is, after all, God we are talking about.  Nothing--and I mean nothing--is beyond His abilities.  So, improbable as it might seem, possible it is.  Score another small victory for the mind.

Ah, but there was still that part of the mind that said: it looks just like what it was before.  I can’t perceive anything different.  How can it be anything different?    That prideful part of me that seems to think nothing can be unless I understand it to be so, and understand how it is so--or at least, understand that it is reasonable.

Eventually, that sort of thinking led me back to the very premise of my faith, one that I sometimes have to remind myself of from time to time unless I too wander out of the garden. Simply put: There is God.  I am not He.

So, if God wants to be present for me under the appearances of bread and wine, or to be incarnate in a stable in Bethlehem, so much the better for me.  And the more I ponder both, the deeper that well seems to be. 

I began to realize that by understanding had begun to make its way from my intellect to my heart when, after  some time of attending daily mass, I found real disappointment in the days that I could not go.  Not the disappointment of appetite or addiction, like someone accustomed to drugs who suddenly feels the pains of withdrawal, or the disappointment of the athlete, who feels restless and incomplete without his daily workout.  It was the same disappointment, the same emptiness inside that I feel when travel takes me away from my groom, or when days are too busy for us to touch base, even for a moment, in the course of our work.  The deep, keen disappointment of missing the presence of my nearest, dearest friend.

I believe, even though I cannot possibly understand.  There is precedent for that, even in my material life.  I believe in the structural integrity of the Empire State Building and my Avalon even though I haven’t a real clue about how they are put together.  I believe in the love of my husband, even though I try it mightily on some days.  And I believe in them both for the same reasons: I have experienced them in a very, very personal ways.

And because I made the choice to risk the assent of faith, and step out in the belief that what I was told--the building supports you, the car will drive, I love you, Christ is truly present.--was true.Oh, the rewards!   Help me to see You with my heart more than with my mind. I believe Lord, help Thou my unbelief!

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