Arts and Culture

The Eucharist as Touch

Third in a series

I AM ENJOYING re-reading Ronald Rolheiser’s “Our One Great Act of Fidelity: Waiting for Christ in the Eucharist” (New York: Doubleday, 2011). Re-reading the book seems even more enjoyable and profitable than my first reading. Insights seem to be leaping off the pages. This has happened with other books that I have re-read and it is a wonderful experience. If I ever meet Rolheiser, I hope to express my gratitude for this book and for others.

What has interested me in the early sections of the book is the stress on the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In my own eucharistic devotion, I emphasize the Real Presence, which I think many Catholics, who have stopped attending Sunday Eucharists, have either forgotten or no longer sufficiently appreciate. How can someone who believes in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist regularly miss Sunday celebrations?

When people neglect the Eucharist does this weaken faith in the Eucharist and eventually lead to lack of belief? Or is it lack of belief that leads to missing Mass on Sundays? I don’t know the answers, but I do know that I should do whatever I can to help Catholics appreciate God’s gift of the Eucharist to us.

In stressing the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Rolheiser writes the following:

“For whatever reason, we tend to shy away from admitting how radically physical the Eucharist actually is. Saint Paul didn’t share that fear. For him, the physical communion that takes place in the Eucharist, between us and Christ as well among ourselves, is as real and radical as sexual union. For example, he argues against sex outside of marriage by saying that our union with Christ and each other in the body of Christ is so intimate and real that, in effect, we would prostitute that Body if we were to have illicit sex. Strong words, but they are predicated on a very earthy conception of the Eucharist.” (p. 24)

Rolheiser’s emphasis on the physicality of the Eucharist reminds me of how often mystics use sexual imagery to comment on their relationship with God. The book of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Old Testament, “The Song of Songs” or “The Canticle of Canticles,” has received various interpretations. In the book, a man is pursuing his wife who has been unfaithful. There are detailed descriptions of the wife’s body. One obvious interpretation of the book is that the man is God and the wife is the Jewish people who have been unfaithful to God. God lovingly pursues His people and forgives them. Another interpretation is that the author is trying to illustrate a mystical experience he has had with God and the best imagery he can come up with to describe his relationship with God is sexual imagery.

In a philosophy and literature course that I teach at St. John’s University, I have the students read Ron Hansen’s novel, “Mariette in Ecstasy.” In the novel, a 17-year old girl enters a strict convent in the year 1910. Soon after entering, she begins to have wounds that resemble the stigmata. It is not until the last page that the reader can decide whether Mariette’s wound are authentic or whether she is psychologically disturbed or perhaps a fraud. Hansen weaves the plot so well that a nun to whom I recommended the book misinterpreted the last page. When Mariette describes her relationship with Christ, she often uses sexual imagery. I have to prepare students in class for that because many are not familiar with how mystics speak of their relationship with God.

What Rolheiser’s emphasis on the physicality of the Eucharist can help us to realize is how great God’s love is for us, and how intense and strong the union is between God and us, and between us and others celebrating the Eucharist. We really are brothers and sisters in Christ.

As with all mysteries, we can reflect more and more about the Eucharist. However, our relationship with Christ in the Eucharist should not be merely intellectual or reduced to reflection. The relationship between us and Christ in the Eucharist should be profoundly personal. We are called to surrender to God’s love and to give witness to that surrender in our lives.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).