The Eucharist and My Catholic Conversion

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Below is a two-part story I wrote for a professor from Guadalajara, Mexico, which she translated into Spanish for her blog. Here it is in English.

Part 1: The Perpetual Availability of Jesus Christ

I was not raised to believe in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, nor was I raised Catholic. However, as an evangelical Protestant, I always had a serious desire to truly experience God through prayer, Scripture, and worship. I would wake up in the middle of the night to pray, spend long hours reading Scripture, attend Bible studies, and play music for church services. When I was four years old my parents helped me pray a prayer that some Protestants teach guarantees salvation: to accept Jesus into my heart. When I was seven years old my father baptized me, a memory I will always cherish. When I was ten years old, I was so afraid that my prayer to accept Jesus had not worked, or that I had sinned since then, or that I did not take it seriously enough, that I knelt in my bedroom in the middle of the night on at least one occasion, and asked Jesus to come into my heart again if it had not worked properly the last time, or in case I had fallen away through some unknown sin or error. If my memory serves, I did this on multiple occasions—I was struggling with what, as I was taught, was a purely subjective grounding for my experience of grace and salvation, and it was not satisfying me. As a young man, I was devoted as best I knew how to experiencing the true presence of Christ in my life, but was perhaps led into over-scrupulosity given this purely subjective grounding: focus on salvation by a single prayer, which lacks the objective grounding of salvation by which God saves us not by any merit of our own, but by his gracious merging of human and divine wills in the work of the Holy Spirit through reception of the Sacraments, by the blood of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, who we are mystically incorporated into.

[The idea that salvation is exclusively tied to praying a prayer to receive Jesus into one’s heart is not only a relatively recent innovation in Church history, but also stems from taking a single verse in Romans out of context, chapter 10 verse 9: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Besides ignoring other biblical passages that make salvation more complicated (for instance, 1 Peter 3:21: “…baptism now saves you;” or James 2:24: “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone;” or Galatians 5:6, “For in Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision availeth, but only faith working through love”), it also misses the context of Romans wherein St. Paul is describing the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5, 16:26) that is now ours in Jesus Christ, contrasted with the “obedience of the law” under Moses (cf. Deuteronomy 30:14). In Romans 10, Paul is contrasting these two forms of obedience, and focuses on the importance of hearing and obeying the call to have faith in Jesus Christ, which includes obeying his commandments, such as being baptized. Finally, St. Paul’s use of the word ‘salvation’ throughout his letters is complex, and often refers to making it safely through the coming judgment as much as it does the initial acceptance of faith on the part of a believer.]

In late high school and early college, I was increasingly dissatisfied by my experience in churches, especially in worship. My father was a pastor, and imparted to me a love of the Scriptures, theology, and prayer. I was especially interested in the idea of the Incarnation, that great mystery of God become man. However, something felt unsettling to me about the churches I was a part of. In response to such a great mystery as the Incarnation, simply singing songs and listening to a sermon felt cheap. Deep down, I felt that something was missing. If God truly became man, it seemed to me that the deep profundity of this reality should be reflected more potently during church services, especially in worship. But I did not really know what this meant.

In college, I went through what I would call, in St. John of the Cross’ language, a “dark night of the soul.” As a young man, I had enjoyed a richly vivid relationship with Christ. When alone, or on walks, I would have a vivid, comforting, and lasting sense that Christ was with me, was supporting me, was speaking to me in the depths of my soul. But in college that sense was stripped away, and in its place, especially in my daily time of quiet prayer, was what felt like a blank and looming wall of icy silence. It seemed that God had withdrawn his presence from me, and I could do nothing but go through the motions of my daily habits of prayer and devotion meaninglessly, emptied of presence.

A few years later, after graduation and marriage, things began to slowly shift. My studies of church history, theology, and Scripture were deepening into a greater awareness of orthodox Christian belief, as well as the Apostolic and Catholic heritage, begun in Christ, that extended even to our own age. I was especially attracted by the works of the Desert Fathers and monastic spirituality, and was finding myself increasingly drawn to Catholic poets, novelists, and theologians. I continued to experience inexplicable frustration at the Protestant church I was attending, but was developing a better theological vocabulary with which to describe my unease: I began to think that the logic of the Incarnation, and the thrust of the Biblical story, should impact the form of worship more deeply, and should radically alter the way that, as a Protestant, I was trained to view the Church. In other words, I longed for a deeper vision of salvation history—that the Old Testament, New Testament, and the Church represented a single unbroken narrative of God’s work in and with and through humanity. But I had a troubling sense that what I experienced week to week at churches was not meaningfully tied to that whole narrative. I vividly remember a particular conversation I had with a worship leader who I played music with at a church in Los Angeles, CA. He was frustrated that, the previous Sunday, the congregation did not break into more passionate, excited worship when he had reached a dramatic and emotional climax in the chorus of a particular song. He said he was trying to think of a better way to both challenge and comfort people—to call them to more fervent worship without offending them by suggesting that they weren’t worshipping hard enough. Basically, he was just frustrated that more people were not spontaneously raising their hands during the song, or acting more emotionally responsive. I remember that what I said to him surprised even me. I responded, “I’m uncomfortable with the notion that we should use music to manipulate people into worship, and should interpret whether or not they are worshipping well simply by their external mannerisms. In fact, I find that whatever I might need on a given Sunday—to be challenged or to be comforted—happens for me from Christ when I receive communion.” My comment was returned with blank stares, and the conversation quickly diverted into other matters. But I think that comment was really God speaking through me to only one person: myself. God was drawing me into a deeper awareness that communion—the Eucharist—is the true center of Christian worship and Christian life.

In May of 2014 things shifted dramatically. I had what I will call my St. Paul on the Road to Damascus experience with the Eucharist. I continued to seek God’s presence in prayer, study, and Scripture, and continued to feel frustrated by my experience at Protestant churches. My long-time friend, James, who was the best man in my wedding, invited me to stay with him in Pittsburgh, where he was working on his doctoral degree. I enjoyed seeing the city and the university, and meeting his friends. But I could never have expected that a simple, humble, and faithful act that James performed that week would change my life. James, a practicing cradle-Catholic, took me with him to the Pittsburgh Oratory of St. Philip Neri so he could receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He attended Mass at this oratory regularly, and also took me to Mass there the following day. However, something significant happened to me while I sat in the chapel waiting for him to enter the confessional booth. I found myself awkwardly imagining all of the people going into the small, dark wooden cubicle and whispering sins privately to a priest. I wondered how anxious they all must have been feeling while waiting in line. The doors opened and shut as each absolved penitent exited, and a fresh penitent entered. I watched one person come out of the confessional booth, and noticed that she immediately went to a pew, knelt, crossed herself, and began praying. I realized that this was something I could do too—this chapel was meant for prayer.

So, I directed my gaze forward and began to pray. I do not recall anything I prayed about; all I recall is that my eyes were suddenly drawn to a golden sun-burst sitting on the altar, a baroque metal monstrance with gold and white rays emanating from a single point, held up by a stand, sitting on the altar. I thought how beautiful the sun-burst was, and looked closer. I noticed that a white communion wafer rested inside a central circle in the middle of the golden sun-burst. In that moment, many of my studies about Catholic doctrine, readings of Catholic theology, and literature, and especially my life-long struggle to form an intimate prayer-life with God came rushing into a single phrase that, inaudibly but obviously in the depths of my soul, impressed upon me these words that I believe were given to me by Jesus Christ as a gift: “I am always available to you here.” For some reason, those were the words that I needed—expressive of the perpetual availability of God to man in the Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist. And, of course, by “here,” I understood that he did not mean only in the Pittsburgh Oratory, but everywhere that his true presence resided in a consecrated Host. In that moment, it was as if the last piece of a puzzle, which made the rest of the puzzle make sense, was inserted in my soul, and I immediately sensed that all other Catholic teachings must be true in light of the supreme and sublime teaching of the real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist: sacraments, holy orders, the Magisterium, the communion of saints, the Queenship, Motherhood, and co-redemptive role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and other doctrines appeared to me as necessary and integrally connected realities stemming from the single reality that Christ himself, truly present in the Host, is the literal center of Christian worship.

My life-long fascination with the Incarnation found its fulfillment: the true body and true blood of the incarnate Lord was, in a sense, re-incarnate in every validly consecrated host during every Catholic Mass on planet earth. God has always been pleased to work through material reality in salvation history, through Noah, Abraham, Israel, King Solomon and David (especially in the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant), and ultimately in the Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ–why should he have stopped there? The Incarnation of the Son of God, and his sacrifice on Mount Calvary, casts a shadow across all of human time and space, extending even to the present day, through the Catholic Mass. God still works through material creation to enact our salvation–through his Body, the Church, through the waters of Baptism, through the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist, through the ministry of ordained priests. In receiving the Eucharist, each communicant is substantially and mystically incorporated into the saving events of Christ’s life, and I, a poor sinner, was blessed and grateful to have received a simple invitation. I did not understand all these things in their full depth, and it took years of more study, prayer, and conversation to fully understand what happened to me. But in that moment—in what I did not know at the time was Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament—I intuited the truth of the Catholic Church, was inescapably drawn to commune with the Eucharistic Lord in my heart, and knew that becoming Catholic was an unquestionable part of my future. After that day, my heart would beat faster when I passed or entered a Catholic Church, knowing that the Lord was reposing in the tabernacle. My heart leapt for joy at the truth of the Eucharist, but it took a few more years for my mind, my will, and my wife to follow. I still spent another 3-4 years in Protestant Churches; but, whenever I found myself disconnected from the Sunday worship or bored by another rambling sermon, I would bring before my mind’s eye the Monstrance bearing the Eucharistic Lord, and would find myself worshiping “in spirit and in truth.” I had truly found what I had sensed missing in Christian worship my whole life: the Real Presence of Christ, to which the faithful respond with reverence, service, and obedience.

Many people discuss worship as if its meaning were merely a matter of emotional stimulation (especially in songs) on the one hand or intellectual inquiry (especially in sermons) on the other. However, both of these needs are more truly met in the Eucharist, which Romano Guardini, in his book Meditations Before Mass, calls a “sacred act:”

God ratified what Jesus instituted. Man has here no call to create or determine; his task is to obey and act. Moreover, the institution [of the Eucharist] itself is entrusted to a special authority for protection and guidance.[1]

Especially in worship, our response to Christ’s true presence as king, high priest, and Lord entails, as of primary importance, action and obedience. The sign of our submission to the proscribed action and true obedience to Christ our king and high priest is our joyful, fervent, correct, obedient, and humble participation in the Mass where he promises to come again into our midst.

Part 2: ‘What the Truth hath spoken, that for truth I hold’

Above is the story of my recognition of the truth of the Eucharist; another exciting story is the one that Scripture tells about how Jesus Christ came to fulfill the old system of worship, enshrined in Israel’s sacrificial system, by instituting the New Covenant form of worship in the New Temple of his Body. Indeed, it is worthwhile to read the whole story of Scripture with fresh eyes in light of the fact that the manner in which Christians worship, and the gift that Christ gave us to worship his Body and Blood in a very specific way, is an essential component of the Gospel. The question, “how should Christians worship” is not of secondary importance to some more primary question about the essence of the Gospel—rather, the question “how should Christians worship” is entirely central to what the Gospel is, since it is all about how our King and High Priest, Jesus Christ, desires to conduct and order worship in his Kingdom, the Church, and ultimately draw us into eternal heavenly worship, of which our present worship is a foretaste.

When considering the reality of the Lord’s true, miraculous presence in the Eucharist, it is important to start with a simple, child-like trust that the words that Jesus Christ says are true, and are “full of Spirit and life” (John 6:63). Jesus Christ said many things that are strange, obscure, and mysterious. Some of these were parables which he did not explain; others were parables that he did explain. But, many things he said were also authoritative acts, divine pronouncements, definitive decrees: for instance, giving his Apostles the Holy Spirit, predicting St. Peter’s denial, foretelling Judas’ betrayal, predicting his own death and Resurrection, describing the last days and the final judgment. Christ is the Word of God; he is the Logos, Eternal Creative Reason itself, and the words he speaks as a human being carry the weight of his divine glory, especially since he came to establish the New Covenant, fulfilling the Old Covenant with the Israelites, and since he asserted himself as bearing authority over this New Covenant directly from the Father. However, there is one specific thing that Christ taught which, since he first uttered it, has divided his followers and caused many to fall away. In John chapter 6, Christ gives the “bread of life” discourse, including one of the many “I am” statements in this Gospel. But unlike some of the others, he ends it with an unambiguously literal explanation: “Amen, amen I say to you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall have no life in you. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-57). Christ uses superlative, repeated language that takes on the character of a vow: “amen,” “indeed,” “eateth,” “life.” There is absolutely no textual warrant that he is speaking a parable or a metaphor. The Greek word for “eat” he uses here refers not to gestation broadly, but to the physical act of chewing: phagein. And what could Christ possibly be referring to except the Institution of the Eucharist, the Last Supper, at which he said of bread, “This is my body,” and said of wine, “this is my blood,” and gave it to his Apostles to eat and drink, commanding them, as often as they would do this, to perform this ritual meal in his remembrance (Luke 22:19, 1 Cor. 11:24)? The word “remembrance” in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin does not suggest a mere cognitive act of calling something to mind; for instance, the Hebrew word, zikaron, used to refer to the Passover, suggested a real reenactment of the event of the Exodus, suggesting that the participants in the ritual meal were somehow actually experiencing that event again in a new, substantial way. The Greek word used in the description of the Last Supper, anamnesis, and the Latin word, memoria, bear the same connotation—a substantial re-calling of a past event, a participation of partakers in a past event that now bears significant and substantial present reality. Just so, Christ’s loaded language here is a command to regularly perform a memorial ritual, an act in which the participants are enabled to join into the once for all, saving event of Christ’s Passion, death, and Resurrection.

So, real participation in the sacrifice of Christ, reenacted in the Eucharist, is the center of Christian worship. Good music is good; good sermons are good; but they are not the center of Christian worship. Christ, the very, very good new creation, by whose miraculous and substantial work as the Eternal Creative Wisdom of God has given us his true body and true blood in the Eucharist—He is the literal center of our worship, the Eucharistic Lord. God does not just want to save man from sin, but also wants to bring him back into right relationship with him, which looks like worship, praise, and adoration in its fullest degree. That’s why the sacrificial system of elaborately offering an animal, sprinkling blood, and consuming the remains was so important to Israel. But Christ came to fulfill that, and to give a new and perfect offering to be the center of our worship: himself, his body and blood. His sacrifice on the cross is made available, is mystically entered into, whenever his Body and Blood are offered as sacrifice at any Mass on planet earth. The Eucharist is the form of Christian worship that Christ gave us. Indeed, it is interesting that the only place in the Gospels when Christ uses the phrase “New Covenant” is when he is blessing the cup of wine as his blood at the last supper: “this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you and for many” (Luke 22:20, 1 Cor. 11:25).

In light of all of these details, it is becoming for us, minimally, to trust Christ’s words that it is his body, and that such a difficult teaching would be something real and definitive, especially if he gave us no other explanation after such incredibly strong language. This is the theme of the second stanza of a famous hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas, Adoro te Devote:

 Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur,

Sed auditu solo tuto creditur.

Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius;

Nil hoc verbo Veritátis verius.

[Taste and touch and vision to discern thee fail,

But the hearing only well may here prevail

I believe whate’er the Son of God hath told;

What the Truth hath spoken, that for truth I hold.]

After Christ says in John 6 that one must eat his body and drink his blood to have life, about half of his disciples leave in light of what they think is a ridiculous cannibalistic teaching. He turns to his Apostles, and asks if they will leave too; Simon Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Christ, the Word, speaks words to us that are life, aimed at bringing us to the highest form of speech, the highest form of worship: receiving his true body and true blood on our tongues. In the mystery of incorporation into his Bride, the Church, we also become what we receive. We become Christ, and bear his presence to the world in our very bodies, each communicant like a little monstrance bearing the peace and the presence of the Lord to the world. Our simple trust of Christ’s words—that the bread is his Body, and that the wine is his blood—can generate immense spiritual power, can overcome much darkness and evil, and can open us to a present life of blessing, and to an eternal journey “from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). This journey has the final destination of full union between God and his bride, the Church: true, perfected incorporation of humanity into the Most Blessed Trinity, by the Blood of Christ, through the Holy Spirit, to the Father.

But these heights of glory cannot be reached without, first, the humble and simple recognition of Christ’s body as bread, his blood as wine. Christ appeared humbly as a child born of a poor virgin in a cave; and he still comes to us humbly, quietly, as a lowly wafer meant to be consumed. He is the most fragile, most humble member who shows up at our Sunday Mass—meant to be handled, passed out, eaten. In this manner, Christ longs to be, through the correct form of the priest’s prayers, following the instructions given by Christ at the Last Supper, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, the literal center of our worship, appearing to us in a miracle just as glorious as the creation of the world, just as glorious as the Incarnation itself. The piece of Christian worship that non-Catholics are missing is a recognition that God’s miraculous action to seek out relationship with man in the Incarnation did not stop with Christ’s death, as if that somehow is automatically applied to anyone who expressed intellectual assent. God continues to seek out man—and to seek him out by actually perfecting him, by actually, substantially coming into his body, into his person—in the Church, in the Eucharist. St. Justin Martyr, as early as the 150s A.D. (just one or two generations after the Apostle’s ministry!), compared this teaching on the Eucharist with the Incarnation in his work The First Apology, Chapter 66:

And this food is called among us Eucharistia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood or our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.

The transubstantiation of the bread and wine into Christ’s flesh and blood is analogous to the Incarnation of God in that same flesh and blood; Christ’s real incarnate body and blood are made available to Christian worshipers in the Eucharist. God longs to incarnate himself into us, his Body, through being consumed in bread and wine.

As we see in John 6, this is a difficult teaching. But Christ leaves us no shortage of biblical and historical warrant for it. For those who are curious or skeptical, I would encourage a slow and prayerful reading of John 6, 1 Corinthians 10-11, and the differing accounts of the Last Supper, to start. One could also look to the First Apology of St. Justin Martyr, cited above, written around 155 AD, for evidence of the historical development of the Eucharist in Christian worship. In Chapter 66-67, St. Justin offers a clear description of what the earliest Christian worship looked like; it is basically a description of a Catholic Mass, with a central focus on the Eucharist. Before and after reading these things, go to Mass and mediate on the Eucharist, the “source and summit of our Christian life,” (CCC 1324) the truest “sacrifice of praise” (Psalm 49:14-16, Hebrews 13:5) in which Christ, our spotless lamb, is offered again to the Father for us and is fully available to us, as expressed in the beautiful words of the Catechism:

In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” “This presence is called ‘real’ – by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presences as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.” (CCC 1374)

Why does God do this? Why does he go to such lengths to make himself wholly and entirely present? Because of his voracious desire to save us, to be with us, to perfect us, to give us life, to redeem the world; to consume us in his love, to allow us to consume Him in order to learn his love.

[1] Romano Guardini, “The Mass as Institution,” in Meditations Before Mass, Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press (1939), 111.

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