True conversion comes when divine truth overthrows our understanding of something or of life itself; where reason and earthly judgement is overcome by the revolution caused by God revealing Himself to us. We are often unready for such a thing; rather, we are struck at our inner depths. It is nothing short of a new birth. The great struggle of modern times is to let loose our grip on the illusory onto which we hold ferociously. There must be a break with a certain habit of mind and a willingness to grasp for the words that capture the truth revealed to us. This is so for every generation and one might say particularly so for our generation. There are certain things, especially the central mystery of our faith and its enormity, that cannot be learned from books, sermons or retreats. We either murmur in protest and gradually move away from the truth or we allow ourselves to hold fast to Christ in a dumbfounded trust in His claims to be the Bread of Life. Guardini writes: "Every believer worthy of the name must sometime undergo the danger of scandal and its trial by fire." Even with a dim conception of things we must choose as it were to allow ourselves to be drawn into Jesus' sacrifice of self and all of its personal implications for us. There is no genuine belief without battle and so Guardini tells us: "Nothing helps but to warn ourselves: Here is the steepest, highest pinnacle of our faith (or the narrowest, most precipitous pass through which that faith must labor if it is to reach full, essential freedom). Experience has shown that those who water down reality here at the summit of Christianity continue to do so all the way down the line: in their conceptions of the Church, of the Incarnation, of Christ’s divine Sonship, of the truth of the triune God." We are faced with truth faith's supreme test: a perfect self-emptying love that we are called not only to receive but imitate and become. There is no life without it.
TWO THINGS are necessary for true understanding. The first is the ability to compare, differentiate, and discern causal relations and interdependencies. This is important, but more important is something unteachable, a certain sensibility to the essence of things. This quality has nothing to do with that watchfulness which is quick to notice a danger or an advantage; animals too have that faculty. It is equally far removed from curiosity, from eagerness to experience the unknown and the extraordinary for their own sakes. Avidness for experience is at best but a forerunner of the essential attitude; more often it is a caricature of it and renders a man as incapable of genuine enlightenment as would indifference. The real prerequisite of enlightenment is an intellectual and more than intellectual readiness to be struck and shaken by the revelatory impact of a thing, not because of any personal fear or desire, for here we are already beyond the range of intent and purpose; not for the sake of diversion, for at this level things cease to belong to “the interesting.” Confronted with the hidden meaning behind some image or pattern of images, a man is moved to disclose it, and to clear for it a path into the open, that truth may come into its own.
Sensibility to the essence of things also exists, though of course in a different way, in the realm of faith. Here the “birth” of a truth, the emergence of its essence into the light and spaciousness of recognition, are made possible not by any contact of intellect with significance, but by the power of God’s light, grace. The object does not step from the world to confront the mind capable of discovering it; it does not exist in itself at all (in the manner I of earthly objects, which can be grasped, plumbed, exploited by exhaustive study); it exists only in God and must be “given,” revealed by the divine word and received by faith. It always remains a mystery that transcends the created mind. Revealed truth is neither a continuation nor a new dimension of earthly truth, but something that completely overthrows earthly truth. And not only does it over” throw it, it brands it as untruth. When a man accepts divine truth in the obedience of faith, he is forced to re-think human truth. The conversion he must make embraces his whole conception of the universe, which he must conceive anew in its entirety. His readiness to do so is the measure of his enlightenment. Yet in all this upheaval his natural reason stands firm, for the Logos who speaks in revelation is the same Logos who created the universe. Thus the depth of a man’s true knowledge depends upon the impact of the divine knowledge he has received. The point that is “struck” lies much deeper than mere intellectual readiness for truth, somewhere in the inmost depths of new birth and the new man.
Revelation presents twentieth-century believers with a special difficulty. We are latecomers. Our generation has heard the sacred tidings time and time again. Moreover, we live in an age that is constantly reading and writing and talking and hearing. There is such a continuous turnover of words, that our “coinage” is worn smooth and thin; its stamp has grown blurred. Instead of truth we have truth’s caricatures; instead of knowledge, the illusion of already knowing. Only with great effort can we free ourselves from illusory knowledge to pause, look up and passionately inquire into the clear-cut, genuine truth of things. Are we then doomed to become incapable of possessing divine truth? Certainly not, for truth is meant for all ages; however, we must recognize and apply ourselves to this century’s particular barriers to truth if we wish to clear them. Above all, we must relearn composure, meditation, absorption-precisely the things that the different chapters of this book have attempted to describe. We must break the strings of habit, must rid ourselves of fateful seeming-knowledge; we must remint our words so that they may again speak clearly, truthfully.
The Lord’s memorial is the central mystery of our Christian life. It has taken the form of a meal at which He offers Himself as the food. We were taught this in the Communion instruction of our childhood; we hear it repeated again and again in sermons and retreats; we read it in religious books. Yet are we really aware of the stupendousness of the thought?
It must have been important to the Lord that His hearers were conscious of it, for when He proclaimed the establishment of the mystery He stressed the enormity of it in a manner that could not have been accidental. His words at Capharnaum sound quite different from those of the actual establishment, where they are frugal and calm. During the tremendous act that took place on Maundy Thursday He no longer dwells on its tremendous significance. The great test of faith has already taken place; the decision has fallen, and those who hear Him now have already proved themselves. For at Capharnaum Jesus so drastically confronted His hearers with the otherness of the divine that they were not only struck, but struck down. The report reads: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). The Jews “murmured about him because he had said, ‘I am the bread that has come down from heaven.’ And they kept saying, ‘Is this not Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How, then, does he say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ ” (John 6:41-42).
The protest is directed not at the mystery of the Eucharist, which has not yet been proclaimed, but at Jesus’ claim to be, in person, the bread of faith, eternal truth. What does the Lord do? He does not mitigate what He has said; He does not attempt to explain by pointing out His place in the sacred prophecies. He goes still further, pressing the sharp point of the blade home. “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the desert, and have died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that if anyone eat of it he will not die. . . . If anyone eat of this bread he shall live forever.” Now they feel the fu]l shock of the blow: “and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:48-52). It would seem to be high time to modify these words, or at least to explain them. Instead of coming to the rescue of His floundering hearers Jesus adds: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life everlasting and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, abides in me and I in him” (John 6:53-57). At this the first split runs through the group of disciples: “Many of his disciples therefore said, ‘This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it?’ ” (John 6:61). Jesus’ closest followers are hard-pressed, but He does not help them. He forces them to a decision of life or death: are they ready to accept the fullness of revelation, which necessarily overthrows earthly wisdom, or do they insist on judging revelation, delimiting its “possibilities” from their own perspective? “Does this scandalize you? What then if you should see the Son of Man ascending where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some among you who do not believe” (John 6:62-65). “The Jews” who first “murmured” against Jesus have already dispersed. Now also “many of his disciples” leave Him. Jesus turns to the remaining hard core: “Do you also wish to go away?” (John 6:68). Still not a word of help, only the hard, pure demand for a decision. Peter replies: “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast words of everlasting life, and we have come to believe and to know that thou art the Christ, the Son of God” (John 6:68-70). They do not understand either, but struck by the power of the mystery, they surrender themselves to it. They are dumbfounded but trustful; at least most of them. Not all, as we see from Jesus’ reply: ” ‘ Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’ Now he was speaking of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon; for he it was, though one of the Twelve, who was to betray him” (70-71).
It was to such rigorously tested men that Jesus entrusted the mystery of the Holy Eucharist; it was they who at the Last Supper first received the sacred nourishment.
Apparently there is no genuine belief without battle. Every believer worthy of the name must sometime undergo the danger of scandal and its trial by fire. Some, the intrinsically shielded children of God, are enabled to come through; certainly not the majority. We too must have felt the enormity of what took place at Capharnaum, of that which so incensed the Jews and so shocked many of the disciples that they declared Jesus’ words intolerable and left Him. It was the shock that probably shattered Judas’ faith, the other eleven saving themselves only by a blind leap of trust to the Master’s feet. The impact of the message of Capharnaum by no means leaves an impression of idyllic and sentimental wonderment, as the average book of devotions suggests. It is an unheard-of challenge flung not only at the mind, but, as we see from the stark scene at Capharnaum, at the heart as well. There stands Christ and declares that He desires to give Himself to us, to become the content and power of our lives. How can one person give himself to another-not things that he possesses, or knowledge or experience or help or trust or respect or love or even community of life-but his body and his soul to be our food and drink! And He means it really, not “spiritually.” The quotation on which the Symbolists base their theory: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing” (John 6:63) by no means indicates that Jesus’ words over the bread and wine were intended to mean: “My spirit shall fill you; my strength shall strengthen you.” He might have said this, but He did not. The whole point of the speech at Capharnaum is its insistence on real flesh, real blood, real eating and drinking- “in the spirit” of course, but that means in the Holy Spirit. The Lord was referring to sacrifice, yes, but not as the hearers’ familiarity with temple sacrifice would suggest; not in the general, impersonal sense of the Old Testament, but in the intimate mystery of faith. The glorious reality of Jesus’ sacrifice compares with the disciples’ dim conception of it as the risen body of the Lord in the full power of the Holy Spirit with the body that stands before them.
Nothing helps but to warn ourselves: Here is the steepest, highest pinnacle of our faith (or the narrowest, most precipitous pass through which that faith must labor if it is to reach full, essential freedom). Experience has shown that those who water down reality here at the summit of Christianity continue to do so all the way down the line: in their conceptions of the Church, of the Incarnation, of Christ’s divine Sonship, of the truth of the triune God. The test of Capharnaum is in truth faith’s supreme test. The man who refuses to master his feelings when they stand between him and God is unfit for the kingdom of God. This is where the great conversion, the change of measuring-rods takes place. Not until the earnestness of the decision has been felt and the danger of scandal faced and overcome, does the miracle of this ultimate mystery unfold. Then, suddenly, as if self-understood, comes the blissful knowledge that love perfectly fulfilled can give not only all it has, but all it is: itself. No earthly love is ever perfectly fulfilled. To love in the earthly sense really means to strive for the impossible. St. John gives us the clue to the otherness of divine love: not only does God love, God is lover He alone not only desires to love, but can love “to the end” (John 13:1).
Jesus desires that men receive and make their own the gift of His vital essence, strength, His very Person as fully and intimately as they receive and assimilate the strength and nourishment of bread and wine. He even adds that the person who is not so nourished cannot possess ultimate life. No earthly gift of love, even if it were possible, could ever be the perfect gift that Jesus’ self-offering is-utterly devoid of accompanying impurities and toxins. He is total purity, total power, total vitality and more: the prerequisite of that immortal, ultimate life which alone is capable of existence before God throughout eternity. Jesus really means what He said at the Last Supper: “Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where thou art going, and how can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’ ” (John 14:6).
Meditations Before Mass