By Sam Keyes
Like much of the world right now, the Church faces a kind of humiliation in the face of the current crisis. What can we do? All our talk of love and justice and incarnation can feel rather empty when the basic experiential dimension of Christianity — the sacraments, the liturgy, the public assembly — have been reduced to their barest essentials. To be sure, the essentials remain: the gospel is still preached, people are still baptized, and the holy sacrifice of the Mass is still offered. Nothing is stopping us from living in holiness and virtue. But some of the ordinary means of doing so have been stripped away. To say that man can live on nothing but rice and water in seclusion for a time does not mean that he has “everything he needs” in the fullest human sense.
I have heard calls for a “theological” take on the Church’s ready acquiescence to civic constraints about public activities. I take this to be a worry that the Church has given in too easily to the demands of the body at the cost of the soul. Is the Church not, in the most important sense, “essential” to human life? Are the sacraments and the assembly mere luxuries to be abandoned when the nation-state declares their inconvenience?
These are serious questions. The impression given by various ecclesial bodies, in their response to the COVID-19 crisis, has at times suggested a rather too easy capitulation. It doesn’t help that some of these same persons have for years operated with the public assumption that they were basically the useful spiritual arms of the liberal state, completely optional and only necessary for those who felt them to be so personally.
But we need not go down that rabbit trail of blame and anxiety. In the end, the “problem” is not one of theology but of discipline and prudence. If the Church, or a bishop, were to say, “Easter is canceled this year,” we would have reason to protest. But if an entire parish and its clergy were to come down with a virus (God forbid), we would not start saying that they were abandoning their Christian duties or giving in to the spirit of the age; we would simply recognize that they cannot do the impossible.
The near universal calls from many Catholic (and Episcopal, and other) dioceses to suspend public liturgy is a disciplinary, canonical recognition that it is not permissible to do something evil (in this case, knowingly aiding the spread of a pandemic that threatens many of the most vulnerable in our population) for the sake of something good. It does not matter how good the good is. This is a basic principle of Catholic moral theology where we often use the term “intrinsic evil.” Evil may result from an action (as, in this case, canceling public masses), but this is a secondary, not primary result. “Not having Mass” is not an intrinsic evil. The concrete situation matters.
In fact, we are still having Mass. We simply cannot “assist” as we normally do. Note how, in the Orate fratres of the Roman Rite, we pray that the sacrifice will apply both to us and to “all his holy Church.” We’re implicated, whether we intend to be or not, in the sacrifice of every Mass at every altar in the world. Priests continue offering this sacrifice whether or not they are able to do so publicly. In some places opportunities for eucharistic adoration have increased in inverse proportion to the number of public Masses. In others, sadly, even this has been taken away.
Thinking on the host remaining quiet in the Tabernacle, the English Catholic writer Caryll Houselander writes:
It is almost frightening to seek an answer to the question: “Why does God remain in our midst silent and passive, knowing and seeing everything, but saying and doing nothing, while cruelty, injustice, ignorance, and misery go on and on and on?”[/End Quote]
Today this passivity is all the more acute in its absence. Christ’s presence is completely hidden from us. We cannot visit the Tabernacle. We are in exile, as all of Lent and likely a good portion of Easter have become for us a kind of extended Good Friday.
Yet, Houselander continues:
It is a frightening question until we remember what it is which alone can restore humanity to happiness; that it is one thing only that can do it, namely supernatural life, beginning secretly in each individual heart; just as Incarnate Love began secretly on earth in the heart of Mary. It is the one thing only, the birth of the Infant Christ in us, Incarnate Love.
No voice of warning could effect this. That could make men tremble; it could not make them love. No armed force could do it, not even supernatural force. That could make men slaves: love is always free.
Love must begin from within. It must be sown in the inmost darkness of the human heart, and take root and flower from the dust that man is. (p. 91)
The seed sown in darkness and brought to life in darkness if one of Houselander’s central metaphors. There are, in other words, times of unavoidable rest. Rest can feel like a time of nothingness, a time of absence, a time of anxiety even. We are powerless to do anything. Passive like Jesus in the host:
In the host Christ is silent — in fact voiceless, dependent, even helpless. He is carried in the hands of men wherever they choose. His obedience is beyond death.
Think how aptly countless lives approximate to the Host. In His silence how many there are who must endure in silence; who, sometimes in tragic circumstances, have no opportunity to plead their case. How many, too, are silent through fear. Fear that a complaint may cost them a detested but necessary job. Fear of ridicule, like new children at boarding school, or boys and girls in the throes of first love. How many there are who are dumb-hearted, inarticulate, unable to express themselves, or who, though they long to unburden their minds to a fellow creature, never find a willing and sympathetic listener. And there is the religious silence, the “Great Silence” or Religious Houses, in which men and women bring their whole will to entering into the silence of the Host.
In His dependence and helplessness surely everyone, at the beginning and end of life, is included. Children, and old people in their last illness; and on any given day — since the supernatural life must be lived out fully every day — all those filling the crowded hospitals of the world.
In the light of the Host-life, shining upon the modern world, it becomes clearly visible that the power of love, of comforting, of healing and alleviating suffering is given to the most unlikely people; to those who seem to be the most restricted; that the most effective action belongs to those who seem helpless and unable to do anything at all, and that there is a tremendous force of contemplation, unrecognized, but redeeming, in the midst of the secular world. (p. 93)
The “host-life,” for Houselander, is a mystical approach to the Incarnation. The point, for us, is to remember that we do not encounter Jesus just because we go to Church. We encounter Jesus in our inmost selves, even as the collect used at Benediction insists: “O God, who in this wondrous sacrament hast left unto us a memorial of thy passion: grant us so to venerate the sacred mysteries of thy body and blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of thy redemption.” For Houselander, we are all living monstrances, bringing the host-life to the world.
None of this is to suggest that the sacramental economy is somehow optional. It is central. It is life itself in this world. But it remains even when it is hidden. We have placed such an emphasis in the last century on “conscious, active participation” that we think that we have to receive communion all the time to be in communion with God; we have grown so used to congregational responses and musical settings that we think these, in sum, constitute the liturgy. They do not. As Pope Benedict reminds us in The Spirit of the Liturgy, being conscious, active participants means, before anything else, uniting our hearts and minds with the central actio of the liturgy, which is the sacrifice of Christ that unites us to God.
A colleague of mine recently joked — amidst all the recent sudden discussions about moving our classes online — that maybe this term we will get a break. Honestly, I think we will. (I know my fuel budget will get a break with less commuting.) Many children are getting a break – more than their parents ever wanted! And, of course, there are some unwanted breaks that challenge personal and community economies in all sorts of ways. But I do not view our break from the status quo of the Church as a great tragedy, even in this season. It gives us a chance to recall what it is all for, and who it is all for, apart from our often-paralyzing obsession with activity. Perhaps, with the Spirit’s help, we can emerge from these months with something like a good night’s sleep in the ground, ready to bear good fruit.
Dr. Sam Keyes is professor of theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California.