a reflection on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi
When I was going to Gonzaga I used to go to mass with Barb and her family. I wasn’t Catholic then, but there was something that felt right about the liturgy. It wasn’t any particular thing but more the cumulative effect of it over time. The tone. The atmosphere.
When I decided to become Catholic it wasn’t mostly because of an intellectual shift or conversion, though the four years I spent at Gonzaga involved a great deal of philosophy and theology and writing and thinking about the big issues college students should be thinking and writing about, and I loved that, I was inspired by that—but it wasn’t finally because of ideas that I became Catholic. It was because of Barb and her family and the Jesuits I knew and the feeling of sitting in the student chapel as the mass was being said and the light was coming through the stained-glass windows. The ideas I was encountering helped me make sense of that experience, helped me to name it, although the biggest idea of all was that ideas are finally limited, are secondary. That’s what dogma and theology are for, to proclaim that Jesus wasn’t just human. He was divine.
Divine: beyond our understanding.
For me it’s still primarily about the feelings I have at mass, to a greater or lesser degree, something in my chest sometimes, at the sternum, like a kind of slight pressure, and at the same time like a kind of hollowness. It’s like butterflies in the stomach, too, or like a lump in the throat, and sometimes it lasts through the whole mass. Or it’s a tingling.
More often it’s, again, a kind of cumulative sense of the mass and the Church, something that’s been building over the forty-five years I’ve been Catholic, a warmth or a feeling of rightness or a feeling of respect and admiration. It’s a little like the feeling I have for Dante or Shakespeare or Keats and all great literature: that it’s great, that it’s beautiful. With St. John Henry Newman and others in the tradition, it’s possible to think of the mass as a kind of poetry, as a great work of art that keeps happening and that we’re inside of again and again.
It’s like the smell of the lilies at Easter. It’s everywhere.
I don’t mean that we can prove the Real Presence by how we feel about it. Feeling is just one part of the equation, and feelings come and go. Ultimately, after we think through the theories and the terms, this is a matter of faith, of a leap we make from the limited evidence of our experience. It’s an act of obedience. It’s an act of surrender. It’s an act of longing.
In fact, the going away of the feeling, the absence of the feeling, is a really important part of the process, too. Because sometimes at mass, even often—let’s admit it—we don’t feel anything. We’re preoccupied, or we’re bored, or we’re angry, or even more we’re despairing and empty and bereft and the consecration and the elevation of the paten and the chalice have no effect on us at all, and it’s then that the Real Presence really becomes defined for us, when we can choose to turn away and give up on it or turn towards the emptiness and enter into it.
Of course: we need to prepare ourselves as best we can. We need to be as open and engaged as we can be. Of course.
But what did we think, that we could make the feelings happen whenever we want them to, just by being good–that the mass is a switch we can just turn on? What did we think, that we could see Jesus whenever we want to, all the time, when even his disciples didn’t recognize him at first, after the Resurrection, when he would just appear, then vanish? When even Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener?
When we don’t feel anything at mass, we’re joining with Mary Magdalene, we’re talking with the Gardener, we’re being reminded that Jesus is hidden in all things and that all we can do is recognize our own finiteness and weakness and pray for him to fall in beside us on the road again, to sit down with us at table, to show himself for just a second, before he vanishes again. Were not our hearts burning? the disciples ask, after their encounter at Emmaus.
When we don’t feel anything at mass, we’re joining with Jesus himself, who was hungry, who was sleepy, who must have been just as bored and tired and distracted as we sometimes are. Who was human, too. Fully human.
It’s really a good thing that we don’t always feel wonderful at mass, because that’s a sign that the feeling isn’t coming from us. If it were, we’d make it happen all the time.
The Risen Lord tells Mary not to hold on to him. We can’t hold on to him.
We always think of the consecration from the perspective of the bread and the wine becoming the Body and Blood. But it works the other way, too: the Body and Blood become mere bread and wine, and this is just as much of a miracle and maybe even more of a miracle.
The miracle is that Jesus didn’t come down from the cross. He emptied himself out. He so loved the world he came into it.
When at the preparation of the altar the deacon pours a little water into the wine, he says this prayer: by the mystery of this water may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.
I’ve talked about this many times before.
See the two movements there, intersecting? We go up, towards the divine, and Christ comes down, towards the human.
And then that water and that wine–water as a symbol of the human, wine as a symbol of the divine–they’re completely mixed up, they’re entirely blended together, we can’t separate them out once the water is poured. They are one substance, one reality, and that’s the reality that saves us. That’s the Beauty beyond all beauty.
It’s always all mixed up.