I’m Medieval peasanting my way to Eucharistic Coherence

When I heard that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops planned to speak out on eucharistic coherence, my eyes bugged out. They were going to talk about something American Catholics cared about, that is pertinent to our life and world today, that is inherently important? Our U.S.C.C.B.? There are a handful of individual bishops I admire, but as a whole, the U.S.C.C.B. can be depended on to put out documents called things like “De dispositione sellarum navalium” (loosely: “On Rearranging Deck Chairs”). But a statement about eucharistic coherence sounded like they got hold of something real, something we could really use right now. I decided to pay attention.

But I have been busy, and every time I opened Twitter, I realized that more of the “Biden-Communion-U.S.C.C.B.-will they-won’t-they” discourse had gone on without me. There had been another podcast, another bit of analysis, another impassioned personal essay and countless other hot takes, and I wasn’t keeping up. I feel a sickening tug of guilt, like when you didn’t do the homework and you thought you could skate by, but the teacher just announced that the thing you didn’t read is definitely going to be on the test.

If this is you, I am here to tell you: This will not be on the test.

I am not saying that the issues of who can and cannot, should and should not receive the Eucharist aren’t important or relevant. They’re important because the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, and if questions about it are not relevant to us, then what possibly could be?

And it’s relevant because so many people do take their moral cues from public figures, for better or worse. Some Catholics took their cues from Donald J. Trump, and now some are taking their cues from President Joe Biden. It’s relevant because non-Catholics are learning about what the church considers important. It’s relevant because many of us are still raw after having peeled ourselves painfully away from what has become of conservatism. Many of us care fervently about protecting the lives of the unborn but also about protecting the lives of immigrants and people of color and prisoners and gay people, and we are tired of being told we have to choose one side or the other if we want to be on the side of Christ. Many of us care about the Real Presence, and because we love the Lord, we do not want to see his precious body and blood treated like a weapon or a bribe or a talking point.

Coherence is what we need, eucharistic and otherwise. This is not a coherent age. Retweets and ratios and podcasts and hot takes, yes. Banging gongs and clashing cymbals, yes. Coherence, no.

But coherence generally comes from simplicity. And simplicity comes when you cut away everything that doesn’t absolutely need to be there, even if it is interesting or titillating or gets you lots of clicks. So simplicity is what I’m going for. It is what I call “Medieval Peasanting.” Read the rest of my latest at America Magazine

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Image: Detail of a bas-de-page showing Dunstan healing injured peasants. Image taken from f. 197 of Decretals of Gregory IX 

On lace, and loss

So there I was, scrolling through Amazon to find a dress suitable for my daughter to receive the body and blood of Christ in.

Because of The Thing We Are All Tired of Talking About, her First Communion was delayed a year, and I suddenly realised the lovely, very suitable dress all her older sisters had worn won’t fit her. With little time to spare, we started online shopping.

“Let’s see if we can find something a little bit old fashioned, you know what I mean?” I suggested gently.

I have seen some of the monstrosities out there: First communion dresses that look like slinky club wear; first communion dresses that look like not even wedding dresses, but wedding cakes, bristling with ruffles and petticoats and little sprays and fountains of fabric.

I wanted my child to wear something pretty and special, but also tasteful and maybe even demure. Something that would signal to her that it was a significant occasion, but not something that would make her the center of attention, because that honor ought to belong to Jesus.

Forty minutes later, I said, “LOOK, THIS ONE HAS A DETACHABLE CAPE WITH RHINESTONES AND BUTTERFLIES ON IT AND IT’S IN YOUR SIZE, OKAY?!”

We didn’t buy that one. We did buy one with butterflies and sequins on it, though. It’s not demure or tasteful, but she loves it to death, and as long as the Chinese factory doesn’t screw up the order, it should arrive on time. And that’s that.

This is what happens, more and more. I still have standards, but I give them up so easily. I let go of the things that once seemed to matter so much, and it barely makes a ripple in my conscience.

It’s not just the strain of trying to shop with one particular kid; it’s the cumulative strain, the decades-long piling-up of aggravation and compromise and defeat and loss that wears you down, until suddenly you realize that the things you were super hung up on are only as important as so many rhinestone butterflies fluttering on the cape on a nine-year-old’s shoulders, and the only thing you should truly be pursuing is the sweet, sweet relief of being done with a task so you can get back to the things that really matter, such as going to bed.

Is this wisdom, or is it giving up? I truly do not know. If you wanted to illustrate my mid-40’s, you’d just have to draw a fist letting go, over and over and over again.

So many things being let go, if not forcibly removed from my grasp: Trivial things, and heavy things, silly things, precious things. Things that felt vital and irreplaceable for decades, only to reveal themselves as disposable, and not worth replacing.

I hope I’m not the first one to break this to you, but life is very fleeting and full of loss, and if you deal with its fleetness by grabbing on and trying to hold it back, you’ll just end up hurting yourself. Better to relax into the speed.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image by liyinglace via Flickr (Creative Commons)

In defense of, stay with me here, communion rails

I was talking to a fellow who works as a missioner with the Maryknolls in Tanzania. He’s still learning Swahili, and wasn’t sure whether the liturgy itself is much different from what he’s used to in the states; but one unmissable difference comes during the offertory.

Along with the bread and wine, parishioners will often bring up gifts of live chickens and goats for the church. These wander about the church grounds and are eventually slaughtered and eaten by the priests.

The frivolous thought popped into my head that I should have asked him about the architecture of the churches, because no matter what your liturgical leanings, you have to admit: If there are going to goats involved, it would be nice to have an altar rail installed.

I grew up in a church that had an altar rail. My family was relatively new to Catholicism, and our first experience of parish life was at a church so enlightened, it threatened to float away on the gaseous fumes of sheer liturgical reform.

We reached a breaking point when literal clowns made an appearance in the nave, and, after a little church hopping, we discovered a rather stodgy Polish parish nearby, where very little had changed since 1920 or so.

As I understood it, the bishop would stick his head in every once in a while, decide that a fight with a Polish pastor was a fight he did not want to have, and sagely hurry on back to the cathedral.

Altar rails were not, as many believe, abolished with Vatican II, but they did become less common. But this church still had and used one. We got used to it very quickly… Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Communion rail in All Saints, Newland
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Chris Brown – geograph.org.uk/p/5498877

Yes, you can catch the flu from the Precious Blood (thank God)

It’s flu season, and it’s a tradition: Some Catholic always claims we can’t get sick from drinking the Precious Blood at Mass. Why? Because . . . well, it’s Jesus! Jesus doesn’t make you sick.

And anyway, it’s alcohol, so that should kill any germs. And anyway! I mean really! How can we profess our trust that Christ is life, and then immediately turn fearfully away from receiving the gift of His blood?

At our parish, they stopped offering the cup during flu season, so the choice is out of our hands. There appears to be a fairly low risk of actually contracting an illness from sharing the chalice, because metal doesn’t harbor microbes well, and because the rim is wiped regularly. Still, there is some risk. I decided a few years ago that if I have good reason to worry about my family’s health, then we have good reason to reverently bypass drinking from the cup.

We know that what is inside that cup is actually the Precious Blood. Its substance is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ Himself. But it still has all the accidents, or physical properties, of wine: grapes, ethanol, etc. It sloshes like wine; it’s purple like wine; it has a little wobbly reflection of the fluorescent overhead lights in it, like wine; if you drink enough of it, you’ll get drunk, just like with wine.

And if it has other people’s germs in it, you might get sick from putting it in your mouth. Just like wine.

Harumph, you may say. I’m no fool. We most certainly can get sick from drinking from the cup – but that sickness is a small price to pay in exchange for receiving the Eucharist. After all, if Jesus walked through our front door during flu season, would we chase Him off because we might catch something?

To this, I respond: Let’s not invent sins that the Catechism never imagined. There are many reasons that the Eucharist (unlike the unprecedented house call described above) is offered so frequently, and that it’s offered under both kinds. One reason is that, if you need to be prudent and forego this sacrament completely one day (by staying home sick), or forego one kind (by only receiving the more hygienic Host), then the Church, as always, is accommodating. This is for your own benefit, and also for the benefit all the other parishioners. You can come again another day, and our patient Lord – who made the world, germs and all – will be there, happy to see that you’re feeling better now.

We are all called upon to make sacrifices, including mortifying the flesh; but deliberately exposing oneself to potentially fatal disease, and possibly spreading it . . . you know, maybe just put a pea in your shoe, instead, or say the rosary on your knees. Taking unnecessary risks with your health doesn’t sound like piety to me. It sounds like pride.

But what about the original argument, that we can acknowledge it’s possible to transmit germs through the Eucharist, but it’s more spiritually elevated to dwell only on the pure, holy, and edifying aspects of the Eucharist?

That would make Christ something of a fool. Why would He bother to become incarnate, if He expected us to pretend He wasn’t? Why would he bother taking on a human flesh, if He wanted us to flutter our eyes politely and pretend His body isn’t a real body?

Being a Catholic is all about the body. It’s all about manning up and admitting that this hunk of meat we drag around – whether it’s athletic, soft, withered, paunchy, or bouncing brand-new – is what we have to work with. Jesus, like us, saw with His googly eyeballs, all stuffed with jellylike vitreous humor; He moved His limbs with the aid of diarthrotic joints and synovial fluid. He had boogers. Remember? “Like us in all things but sin.”

I have always felt uneasy around the caroling of certain overly lovely traditions: that the baby Jesus, at His birth, filtered through Mary’s hymen like a sunbeam through a window pane; that “Little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” Why shouldn’t He cry? I cry.

When I remember that He is really, truly a human, I remember that he really truly understands the burden of being a human. He doesn’t whisk our troubles away, or dazzle us with His divinity to distract us from the real world.  He sees our burden. He stands alongside us and helps us lift it, because He knows that it is real. Because He is real.

Isn’t our faith strange? It would be weird enough if we taught that the Blood of our Savior gave us mystical immunity from the flu. But the truth is even weirder.

What’s weirder still is that what looks all sloshy and purple, and what smells and tastes like something on sale at the Quik-E-Mart, is what will save our souls.

Weirdest of all: Christ is our Brother. His body had germs. His transubstantiated Blood has germs in it. If we don’t understand this, we’re in danger of making the Eucharist into something a little bit silly – something removed from us, something utterly beyond our grasp, something nebulous and magical, a trick. But the Eucharist is not magic, it’s better: It’s a miracle.  Miracles take nature and form it into something new, like clay becoming a cup. The Eucharist is not removed from the world; it transforms the world.

Well, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe God really does protect those trusting parishioners who hope in His mercy, and maybe He rewards their trust with good health. After all, saints have survived for years with no physical nourishment other than the Eucharist. St. Claire once frightened off an attacking horde of Saracens by holding up a consecrated Host.

But I don’t think I’m missing anything by thinking about germs. Thinking of God’s body, of His brotherhood with us, and thinking most of all of His suffering, and of His sympathy, helps me remember something it’s easy to forget, when I’m worn out, disgusted, flattened, fed up, and exhausted by this world and its disease: He is here with us, right now. He is one of us.

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Image: “The Increduity of St. Thomas” by Hendrick ter Brugghen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A version of this essay originally ran at Inside Catholic in 2009.

Hey, faithful Catholics, why are YOU here?

This plea goes for sinners whose souls are heavy with old-fashioned sins of the flesh, and also for sinners whose souls are heavy with the even older sins of pride and presumption.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly here.

Nobody told me!

ABEL_-_Figure_Kneeling_in_Prayer

 

This isn’t about Communion in the hand vs. Communion on the tongue. This is about the casual abuses we allow ourselves to commit — we faithful ones, we educated ones, we who have been told. We who should know better. Somebody told us. The one up there, hanging over the altar with His arms spread out, open to be abused, open to be misunderstood, open to be ignored — what has He done but tell us, over and over again, that He is here, giving Himself to us, because we don’t care?

Read the rest at the Register.