Sunday, August 17, 2008

What Does the Eucharist Mean to You?

In the year of Our Lord, 1928, on a bright Saturday morning in May I made my First Holy Communion. At the eight o’clock Mass in the great Paulist Mother Church, St. Paul the Apostle, I knelt at the altar railing and received Him. As the priest placed the Sacred Host on my tongue he said:

“Corpus Domini Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam”
(May the Body of Jesus Christ protect your soul into life eternal…)

Even though I did not know a word of Latin, I was acutely aware that something very important was happening to me. Even though I was trying scrupulously to obey Sister’s stern command “Don’t let your teeth touch the Host”, I just knew that I was experiencing something very significant. Dr. Robert Coles, the eminent child psychiatrist from Harvard, has done extensive work indicating that young children can have profound awareness of “reality”, uncontaminated by the immersion into the “practicalities” of adult life. Even though children commonly indulge in fantasies and even white lies to support the fantasies, they are capable of amazing insights into what really “is.” At the age of 7, I was in touch with the Reality that my Saviour Jesus Christ was extremely close to me at that moment. It was only in retrospective adult life with God’s help (and the help of my avocation as a psychologist), that I was able to put words onto the “feeling.”

Euphoria with a touch of ecstasy

By some kind of blessed dynamic I have had the same basic experience for over 80 years--- with the expected and predictable emotional variations and vacillations---soaring, at times and dry as dust at others. But always with the same childlike trust in and attachment to the Eucharist. Such an attachment has taken me through painful periods of failure, loneliness and confusion. Not only I, but multitudes of believing Catholics over the centuries have experienced the same dynamic. One contemporary of mine comes instantly to mind—Cardinal JJ O’Connor who beautifully described the role of the Eucharist in what he called the greatest temptation of his life: a trial of faith. In Okinawa where he was a young Naval Chaplain, he spent many hours alone in the Quonset type chapel—wrestling with the Lord before the Eucharist (called the Blessed Sacrament by Catholics). Only the flickering Sanctuary candle punctuated the intense darkness. But in time the young officer arose stronger and clearer to become ultimately the Premier Prelate in the American Catholic church.

This experience is well known to Catholics across the board. G. K. Chesterton, the towering English genius, Claire Boothe Luce, the American intellectual, Jacques Maritain, the French philosopher and scores of high level Catholics, all have responded the same way. It is core to the Catholic experience. Fr John Catoir, the respected host of the Christophers, when asked why he is a Catholic, responded in a mille second: “because of the Eucharist….” He, the famous TV host, the lawyer and theologian, knows full well that other Christian groups do offer a form of “Communion service.” But he also knows none, save the various “Orthodox” churches, holds the same belief as Catholics. When the Catholic “receives” the Eucharist he really believes that he is receiving into his own soul Jesus Christ, i.e. God. While receiving the Host under the “appearance” of bread and wine, the Catholic believes that he actually receives the Lord Himself. This is neither symbol nor memorial nor transient reminder as is more common in Protestant churches. Hence, the Catholic usage of the term “Real” relative to the Eucharist. The Lord is really there deep within my soul! Hence, on entering any Catholic chapel or church where the Eucharist is reserved in the Tabernacle, Catholics genu-flect ( bend the knee to the floor) or make some sign of obeisance and adoration to the Lord before them.

From my days in Africa, I recall the Protestant minister acquaintance saying that if he believed what we believe, he would crawl on his hands and knees to the tabernacle to adore his Lord. He, like anyone, could read the biblical basis for Catholic belief in Luke 22, Matt 26, Mark 14, John 6 and 1Cor 11 but he could not accept the “hard” saying in John 6. Some people can. Some can’t. Of course all believers of any group believe that God is transcendentally present every where. In the scripture, prayer groups, charity behaviors the Lord resides. Everywhere. However, the Eucharist is unique in a super special manner. This is a personal and unique mode of Presence. Some years ago, the then American president attempted to defend his sexual exploits by saying that it all depended on what is means. When is “is” is? The late night standup comics had a field day with semantics. But we Catholics explicitly state that Jesus is there in Person. This astounding statement is symbolized in the Sanctuary lamp which burns 24/7 signifying His quiet and awesome Presence.

But one doesn’t need an IQ of 140 to see and practice this Catholic “thing.” In my own family, working class and fairly low on the socio-economic scale, it was rare to find anyone with a high school education but devotion to the Eucharist was pervasive and matter of fact. It is a truism that some people are educated well beyond their intelligence but it is also reasonably obvious that the reverse can be true. An uncle (called J.J.) never finished elementary school (for economic reasons) and was literary-wise, profoundly limited. But he “understood” the Eucharist, at least viscerally. In his last days, seriously ill in the hospital, he pleaded: “I gotta have Holy Communion…” Devoid of a college degree and association with intellectuals, he, nevertheless, had an almost pragmatic grasp of what the Eucharist means ---particularly when we suffer the various “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” He “knew” what the Eucharist means. A friend of mine, in the investment business and an honors graduate of a prestigious Catholic University, told me that in his highly stressed life there are only two instances when he experiences “ecstasy.” One, having sex with his wife and, two, when he receives the Eucharist. How that statement would please Pope John Paul II.

In my years as a Police Chaplain, (NYPD-retired Detectives division) I met many striking examples of men with limited classical education who were endowed with clear and practical vision into the vital matters of living. One of my detective friends who had strayed from the Faith for years, was attending the funeral Mass of a colleague slain “on the job.” He insists, without qualification, that as he entered the Church he “heard” a voice saying to him: “I have missed you.” Shortly, thereafter, he went to Confession and has been attending Mass daily ever since (a two year period). I wonder whether or not the voice in his head was his own soul saying to the Lord in Eucharist, “I, the detective, have missed You, the Lord.” Still, meta-verbal speech is not uncommon. I recall the famous incident when Francis of Assisi heard the Lord speak to him with the command “Re-build My House.” The Lord may really have spoken to this cop but who knows! We can only assess the truth by its fruits. The Lord speaks in many ways under many guises.

A most illustrative example comes from the remote parish of Ars in France where the sainted cure, John Vianny was parish priest. Vianny questioned a retired, old farmer who spent hours in the church each day. He asked “What do you say to Him?”, a question which implicitly states deep belief in the Eucharistic Presence. The retiree, knowledgeable in raising crops but untrained in theology, said “I look at Him and He looks at me.” This is the deepest form of prayer. It is mystical. It is without words but profoundly unitive with God. While most of us cannot reach the sublime level of this holy man, most of us can find deep peace and calmness in just “being there.”

This Presence, even if misunderstood, has been utilized by Hollywood and modern literature. I recall the powerful sequence in ‘The Informer” when Gippo, (played so marvelously by Victor McLaglen) staggers to the Catholic Church, to drop before the Eucharist to die, his body riddled with bullets and his soul pleading for forgiveness from the Lord . Who can forget the dialogue, in Beckett, between the Archbishop of Canterbury (played by the incomparable Richard Burton) and the Lord present in the Eucharist? Or the final and moving scene in “The Fugitive” in which the priest (played by Henry Fonda) goes to the Church to die in the Eucharistic Presence? Or the touching scene in AJ Cronin’s “Keys of the Kingdom” wherein Fr. Andrew Chisholm, the young missionary (played by Gregory Peck).arrives in China, alone and desolate? He says Mass, alone, believing that the Whole Court in Heaven is with him---but especially that Jesus is Present right there! The Eucharist is right there with him! He is consoled and encouraged. How I can relate to that! How many times in my tour of Africa, I felt so far from home and family and all those things so valuable to me. But it was the Mass and the Presence of Jesus in the Tabernacle that sustained me. All the fancy high level talk couldn’t reach me. But the Eucharist could and did.

We find a huge belief in the Eucharist in Graham Greene’s works—“Heart of the Matter”—“The Power and the Glory. The blockbuster hit by Evelyn Waugh, “Brideshead Revisited” was lavished in Television, movie and novel. A central theme was, of course, Catholicism with all it mystery and awe and confict.. The Eucharist is so important to this wealthy family that a chapel is in the house itself with Jesus residing in the tabernacle! After each meal they process to thank Him for His gifts to them. All levels can find this Gift. The normal and healthy. The neurotic and self seeking. The wounded. The very poor and the very rich. The perplexed and the confident. The lonely and angry. But those who find it, find the ability to be grateful. The very term Eucharist derives from a Greek word meaning “Thanks.” When I visit my Greek dentist, we have fun when I say what sounds like “Ef-cara-sto” to thank him and he replies what sounds like “cala calor” which means you are welcome—all based on the traditional ancient Faith in the Eucharist!

Whence this prize? This Eucharist? Is it family matrix? Social structure? How come I, the priest with an Irish mother and a Russian Jewish father have this gift? Why do not my Jewish cousins (who are smarter and probably better people than I), have it? Why is this? I say Gift because I think the capacity to believe is part of God’ grace. But a gift can be lost or mistreated. It must be nourished and guarded and loved. I know that even if the classic Eucharistic understanding eludes me and even though I am highly educated with a high I.Q. and it eludes me intellectually, still, it suits me and helps me. For this I am filled with gratitude and like the poor old farmer in France, I just want to look at Him and have Him look at me. After 80 years with the Eucharist, I have reached this plateau of love and gratitude. But what does the Eucharist mean to you?

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