Friday, June 26, 2009

Vehige: Wondering What to Read?

Well, here's some old -- but true -- advice.

Keep reading the Holy Scriptures over and over again. With the Bible and the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas, one can attain anything.

Henri-Dominique Lacordaire, Letters to Young Men, 1902.

Can't get much more basic than that.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Woodward: The Feast of Corpus Christi

Jesus' use of similes and metaphors in his teaching -- the expression of spiritual truths by likening them to very material facts of everyday life -- invites a kind of backwards thinking when we come to interpret these scriptural images. Our tendency is to treat them in the same way we treat the use of metaphor and simile in ordinary literature. A writer seeks some vivid way of conveying what his beloved is like, and so he looks around at the world and picks something beautiful or pure or mysterious or rare out of it to liken his beloved to. He may decide (as Robert Burns did) that she is "like a red red rose." Or he may decide (as William Shakespeare did) that she isn't very much like "a summer's day" after all.

Burns and Shakespeare (and every other writer), in searching for likenesses between something they want to describe and something that all their readers will know, are forced to take the world as they find it and pick the imperfect simile or metaphor that comes closest to serving their purpose. Burns in my example is satisfied with his comparison; Shakespeare is not quite.

But when Jesus likened God to a father, or himself to a shepherd or a bridegroom or a vine, he was not having to take the world as he found it. The world, after all, was made for and through him. God knew that his son would someday compare himself to a shepherd long before he created either shepherds or sheep. He knew that he would characterize his relationship to his creatures as that between a father and children before there were any human fathers or human children. God as metaphor-maker has the unique advantage of creating the raw material for his own metaphors.

Today is the day set aside by the universal Church to celebrate Jesus as the "bread come down from heaven." So here are three brief meditations by Msgr. Ronald Knox that get to the heart of this great feast. The first elaborates this point about divine metaphors.

The true bread, the living bread, is not the common bread which we eat. The common bread which we eat is only a sham, a copy, an image of that true bread which came down from heaven. And if we ask what is the true bread which came down from heaven, he has given us the answer: "I myself am the living bread; the man who eats my flesh and drinks my blood enjoys eternal life." You see, we are so materialistic, our minds are so chained to the things of sense, that we imagine our Lord as instituting the Blessed Sacrament with bread and wine as the remote matter of it because bread and wine reminded him of that grace which he intended the Blessed Sacrament to bestow. But, if you come to think of it, it was just the other way about. When he created the world, he gave common bread and wine for our use in order that we might understand what the Blessed Sacrament was when it came to be instituted. He did not design the sacred Host to be something like bread. He designed bread to be something like the sacred Host.

And here is another passage from the same homily. It's one I try to call to mind at every Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.

Always, it is the things which affect us outwardly and impress themselves on our senses that are the shams, the imaginaries; reality belongs to the things of the spirit. All the din and clatter of the streets, all the great factories which dominate our landscape, are only echoes and shadows if you think of them for a moment in the light of eternity; the reality is in here, is there above the altar, is that part of it which our eyes cannot see and our senses cannot distinguish. The motto on Cardinal Newman's tomb ought to be the funeral motto of every Catholic, Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem, Out of shadows and appearances into the truth. When death brings us into another world, the experience will not be that of one who falls asleep and dreams, but that of one who wakes from a dream into the full light of day. Here, we are so surrounded by the things of sense that we take them for the full reality. Only sometimes we have a glimpse which corrects that wrong perspective. And above all, when we see the Blessed Sacrament enthroned, we should look up towards that white disc which shines in the monstrance as towards a chink through which, just for a moment, the light of the other world shines through.

And finally, here is Msgr. Knox -- who died five years before the Second Vatican Council was convened -- sounding quite Vatican II-ish indeed.

The sacrament of Holy Eucharist is meant to have a social value -- a social value to which, I am afraid, we Catholics are sometimes less alive than our Protestant neighbours. We think of receiving holy communion as a solitary act which only affects ourselves; if others are receiving it at the same time, that is only to save the priest trouble....That is not, you know, the way in which our Lord meant us, or the way in which the Church means us, to look upon holy communion. It is a sacramental assertion of that bond of fellowship which unites all the faithful, which should unite them, alas, more closely and more sensibly than it does. As the bread is made from hundreds of ears ground in the same mill, as the wine is made from hundreds of grapes trodden in the wine-press, so we, being many, are one in Christ; we become one body among ourselves through our incorporation into him.

[The quoted passages are from "Real Bread" and "Bread and Wine," collected in The Pastoral Sermons of Ronald A. Knox, published by Franciscan Herald Press.]