Choosing the better part

Choosing the better part

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Christ's Offering of Self


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).


Romano Guardini

Meditations Before Mass

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Mimicry or Liturgical Form?


While the title of this reflection may seem obscure, what it addresses is a point of understanding that is often confused in our thinking about what we are participating in at Mass.  The Mass is no mere simulation regardless of how permanent the form of commemoration it seems to be to us.  It is not an action that commemorates certain events vividly and activates the emotions and senses of the individual - as many forms of devotion do such as the Way of the Cross or Passion Plays.  Even Adoration does not capture the permanence of the "
act of Jesus’ commemoration, into which the believer is meant to enter, and in which he should actively participate." The Sacred Act of the Mass is translated into symbols and it is not a play but liturgy.  Guardini ties it explicitly to the Incarnation: "When God’s Son came to us, He did not reveal Himself directly as the Logos; He became man. Here in a man’s human body lived divine reality, a reality which did not manifest itself in mysterious radiance or overwhelming power, but which was translated into the body, gesture, word, act of the man Jesus. In that man God was heard and seen, as St. John so vividly expresses it: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. And we saw his glory-glory as of the only-begotten of the Father-full of grace and truth”  The Mass moves much along the same line: "The bread assumes a new, special aspect; it becomes host. The cup becomes festive chalice; the table, altar. In place of the presiding master we have the delegated priest. The words spoken no longer spring from the immediate feeling and inspiration of the officiator, but are strictly prescribed. Jesus’ memorial had to assume this form if it was to remain a permanent part of the believers’ Christian life." The task of the believer then is a great one and must be renewed daily to avoid distortion: "The believer must also follow the “translation” into symbols of everything that is taking place. When we watch a person we love, we do not merely observe his expression and gestures; we try to interpret those external manifestations of what is going on within. Here we have something similar, only greater. . . In His presence His[Jesus'] followers should not merely reflect on God, they should behold God with the vital gaze of the new man. The liturgical action of the Mass is a formal rendering of Jesus’ act of making His Father 'visible.'"

HOLY MASS is the commemoration of the Person and redemptory destiny of Christ.

There are various forms of commemoration; one is that of the monument, a constant reminder to forgetful men of something that has been. This great form of commemoration is used chiefly to stimulate the national or ethnic memory. Rarer, but also impressive, is the memorial in which something transitory by nature is given “permanent form” through the continuation of its action; for instance, memorial flame, which, carefully guarded in some sanctuary, burns unceasingly. Essentially something that expires quickly, flame is the symbol par excel fence of the self-consuming. Here its natural action is brought to a “standstill,” remaining just active enough to attract the attention and stir the mind. Water may be used similarly, the play and rustle of a fountain acting as a perpetual reminder of something past but unforgotten, a symbol of unstinted generous service. Whatever form it takes, a commemoration of this kind has the basic characteristic of something continuous, unchanging, that steadily holds its ground in the passing flow of life with all its haste and inconstancy.

It would be perfectly possible to commemorate the Lord in this fashion. Indeed, it is often done, for example, on a mountain peak or at some other significant spot where a cross has been erected. There the cross is not only a sacred image, it is also a monument. But in the Mass it is different. The memorial that Christ established is commemorated in the form of an action which itself commemorates an event or series of events: the life, death, and resurrection of the Savior. To be rendered present -not only as an act of the mind or heart, but in its own full reality-this event must be represented in the form of an action which begins, unfolds and ends. Into this passing act, so perfectly expressive of our own fleeting existence, steps the eternal. Thus all that exists in absolute permanence in God is packed into the brief span of an earthly event.

The believers’ participation is likewise an act. Not a mere beholding and adoring, but co-operation. However inviolable from the standpoint of Christian teaching the adoration of the Eucharist is, and however fundamental and necessary the clear position it holds against error, there is a danger of its forcing the basic, active nature of the Lord’s memorial into the background of the believers’ consciousness. When the host is exposed for adoration, it gives an impression of permanence quite opposed to the act of Jesus’ commemoration, into which the believer is meant to enter, and in which he should actively participate. In what form does this sacred act take place?

It would be natural enough to take Christ’s command to “do this” literally, even in the external sense, and simply imitate what the Lord did on Maundy Thursday. Countless examples of commemorative folk-customs and festivals the world over testify to man’s fondness for dramatization of historical events. Christian thought too has expressed itself dramatically time and again. We have only to consider the age-old devotion of the Way of the Cross, originally practiced in Jerusalem itself, where Christians piously retraced the actual path Christ took from Pilate’s praetorium to Golgotha. Jesus’ bequest that the Last Supper and His imminent death be commemorated could easily have led to the perpetration of the communal meal in its original form, the Agape, the meal of brotherly love immediately followed by the celebration of the Eucharist. In this form it actually was celebrated for quite a long time. However, abuses cropped up very soon, and to judge from the sharpness of St. Paul’s criticism, they must have been grave:

So then when you meet together, it is no longer possible to eat the Lord’s Supper. For at the meal, each one takes first his own supper, and one is hungry, and another drinks overmuch., Or do you despise the church of God and put to l shame the needy? What am I to say to you? Am I to commend you? In this I do not commend you . . . For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes. Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily, will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself, and so let him eat of that bread and drink of the cup; for he who eats and drinks unworthily, without distinguishing the body, eats and drinks judgment to himself. This is why many among you are infirm and weak, and many sleep (1 Cor. 11:20-22, 26-30).

The oft-quoted words about eating and drinking judgment do not refer, as they are frequently thought to, to the wrong done by those who receive the sacred food in a state of serious sin, but to that attitude which makes the sacred meal the opposite of what it is meant to be: an expression of love between those linked by faith. What each believer brought was to be shared by all; anyone who preferred to eat his own food should take care that it at least would not differ conspicuously from the rest. Instead, the wealthy flaunted delicacies that embarrassed the poor; the one had too much and the other too little. Such lovelessness is the sin of unworthily eating and drinking the sacred nourishment of the Lord. Behind it lies the other wrong: emphasis on the physical nourishment obscures the central mystery of the feast. Such then, the consequences of the imitative form.

The attempt to commemorate Christ’s death in the same form would have similar results. It has been tried, and still is, in the popular mysteries or Passion Plays. People think in pictures, and the depicted scene thrusts its way into the living present. The origin of the Passion Plays indicates that they are definitely religious. Often they have been founded by some religious group; to take part in them is an honor which presupposes a fitting way of life. Rehearsal and performance alike are preceded by religious services and originally bore the stamp of profound piety. Nevertheless, from the start they have carried the seed of degeneration. Quite aside from the dominant position which the dramatic instinct quickly usurps, aside from the inevitable infiltration of pride and envy and all the evils connected with money and success, there is something in dramatization itself that offends faith’s instinctive modesty. Although this negative reaction makes allowances as long as the play remains simple and genuinely pious, and as long as it is produced rarely, it would consider it intolerable if the memorial which the Lord made the center of Christian life were to be commemorated regularly in this imitative form.

The memorial of the Mass is celebrated not in the form of a play, but of a liturgy. The object commemorated is not imitated, but translated into symbols.

The procedure is divided into several parts. The first part of the Mass consists in readings from Scripture and prayers corresponding more or less to the psalms of praise and the host’s account of the Exodus at the beginning of the Passover meal. Then in the Offertory the gifts of bread and wine are prepared. This is reminiscent of the disciples’ preparations for the Last Supper described in Matthew (26:17-19). Immediately after this, Jesus’ institution itself is carried out: blessing, thanksgiving, and the sacred meal. The original form has vanished. No longer is there a table around which the faithful gather; in its place stands the altar, and however close architectural arrangement has permitted it, it still remains essentially separated from the believer. At the altar stands the priest; opposite him, united as congregation, the believers. There are no bowls and pitchers, cups and plates on the altar-all these have been concentrated in paten and chalice. And even they are shaped to differentiate sharply from the customary instruments in daily use. The priest partakes of the sacred food and offers it to the believers in a manner entirely different from that of the ordinary meal. As for the food itself, its form has become so “spiritualized” that one can almost speak of the danger of its being unrecognizable as bread.

It is important really to understand this process of translation from one sphere of reality to another. It exists not only here. In man lives a soul, but the life of that soul is not of itself visible; it is unable to express itself alone. To do so, it must first become gesture, act, word; it must translate itself into the language of the body in order for us to grasp it. Herein lies the true essence of what the German calls Leib-the vital unit of heart, mind and body, as distinguishable from the mere physique. Leib is not only a vessel or an instrument, but the visible manifestation of the soul. In Jesus this relation between body and soul reappears in sublime form. When God’s Son came to us, He did not reveal Himself directly as the Logos; He became man. Here in a man’s human body lived divine reality, a reality which did not manifest itself in mysterious radiance or overwhelming power, but which was translated into the body, gesture, word, act of the man Jesus. In that man God was heard and seen, as St. John so vividly expresses it: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. And we saw his glory-glory as of the only-begotten of the Father-full of grace and truth” (1:14).

The Mass moves along much the same line. The event which took place in the room of the Last Supper was in the form of the Passover as it was then celebrated. Jesus sat at table, about Him the members of His “household,” the disciples. He took a loaf of bread, broke it, and spoke over it certain words in the language He ordinarily used and in the voice usual to Him in particularly solemn moments. He handed the pieces to the guests, just as He had done earlier in the meal and during other Passover celebrations. He took the cup, also as usual, gave thanks, spoke the words of consecration, and handed it to the disciples. They ate and drank as they had always done. All this had the immediate form of daily reality, which it preserved for some time. But gradually it assumes a different form, the liturgical. Now the action loses its directness and becomes ceremonial and measured. At some points it only suggests; at others it elaborates on the essential, piously enclosing and veiling it. The bread assumes a new, special aspect; it becomes host. The cup becomes festive chalice; the table, altar. In place of the presiding master we have the delegated priest. The words spoken no longer spring from the immediate feeling and inspiration of the officiator, but are strictly prescribed.

Jesus’ memorial had to assume this form if it was to remain a permanent part of the believers’ Christian life. In its imitative form it could have been celebrated only very rarely; frequent repetition would have caused it to slip into the bizarre and embarrassing. In its liturgical form it can be celebrated at all times-on festive as on ordinary days-and in all situations, whether of sorrow, joy or need. It has now become genuine daily service.

Of course, like any other characteristic form, the liturgical too has its dangers: it invites independent development according to its own laws. Then the ritualistic action threatens to stifle the actual sacrifice, and the essential can be discerned only with difficulty through a tangle of forms. Moreover, the disparity between the liturgical and the realistic forms may so far remove the principal event from ordinary existence that it loses touch with everyday life. Not infrequently these dangers have become reality; for this reason, the business of liturgical work today is to do everything possible to present the original form in its full clarity and power.

The believer is faced with an important task: that of discerning the essential in what meets his eye. In the altar he must see the table; in the priest, the head of the congregation; in the host, the bread; in the chalice, the cup. He must recognize the Eucharistic Supper in the sacred act with its strictly prescribed wording. It is not enough, however devoutly, to “keep up with” a mysterious celebration’s prayers and hymns, readings and acts of consecration and offering. The believer must also follow the “translation” into symbols of everything that is taking place. When we watch a person we love, we do not merely observe his expression and gestures; we try to interpret those external manifestations of what is going on within. Here we have something similar, only greater. Speaking for himself and for his fellow apostles, St. John says: “I write of what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and our hands have handled: of the Word of Life. And the Life was made known and we have seen, and now testify and announce to you, the Life Eternal which was with the Father, and has appeared to us. What we have seen and have heard we announce to you, in order that you also may have fellowship with us, and that our fellowship may be with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that you may rejoice, and our joy may be full” (1 John 1:1-4). The passage is very important. Jesus was the living “Epiphany” of the Son, and in the Son, of the Father. He Himself said: “. . . he who sees me sees also the Father. How canst thou say, ‘Show us the Father’?” The reproving tone shows how essential was the point which Jesus was driving at and how self-evident it should have been. In His presence His followers should not merely reflect on God, they should behold God with the vital gaze of the new man. The liturgical action of the Mass is a formal rendering of Jesus’ act of making His Father “visible.”


Romano Guardini

Meditations Before Mass