By Mac Stewart
I live as a guest in a Catholic religious community. Every Sunday evening, the community adores Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. At the end of this time of adoration, the community members receive the benediction of the sacrament. At the beginning of adoration, they sing the hymn, O salutaris hostia, which asks the “saving victim” who opens wide the gates of heaven to give robust strength and help to those who toil under the belligerent pressure of hostile forces. At the end of adoration, they sing the Tantum ergo sacramentum, discerningly venerating so great a sign of God’s favor and goodness towards us, the new ritual which has superseded the ancient shadows given in the Law, faith supplying what the senses miss.
I love this time of adoration, sitting in the real and substantial presence of the Lord Jesus. I find it wonderful to look for an extended period of time at something that doesn’t have a backlight or endless hyperlinks. In appearance, it is so bare, and plain, and simple — a piece of stale bread sitting inside an ornate showcase (a “monstrance”). And yet it is underneath such humble vesture that the almighty and eternal God has chosen to make himself personally present to his people.
Adoration is not a replacement for the celebration of the Mass. It is rather an extension of it, a derivative opportunity to enter into the power of the one saving victim offered once on Calvary. It offers this opportunity in a way that fosters inward contemplation on that infinite gift, that eternal mystery, since it opens up a long period (often a “holy hour”) for sitting or kneeling in silent contemplation upon that mystery, perhaps with the help of Eucharistic devotions or scripture readings — like psalms that relish being in God’s presence, God’s dwelling place (27, 84, and 122 come immediately to mind).
A prayer that is often prayed at the end of benediction goes like this: “May the heart of Jesus, in the most blessed sacrament, be adored, glorified, and loved, with grateful affection, at every moment, in all the tabernacles of the world, even unto the end of time.” This is a moving prayer in any case, but it takes on special resonance when we remember that every Christian is a “tabernacle” of divinity, a dwelling place for the most sacred heart of Jesus. This means that, when we leave the presence of Jesus in the sacrament, we can just as readily find the presence of Jesus on the street corner outside in the form of the beggar, or when we arrive back home in the form of our family members. Even here, Jesus is to be “adored, glorified, and loved… at every moment.” We never have to leave the presence of Jesus, inasmuch as we carry him about in our hearts.
The remarkable 20th-century philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe tells a story about a mother who was attending Mass with her small daughter. At the time of communion, the mother went up to receive the sacrament, while the child remained at the back of the church quietly amusing herself. When the mother returned, the daughter stopped what she was doing, and looked with bright eyes at her mother. “Is he inside you?” the child asked. “Yes,” the mother responded. And so, the child promptly threw herself down prostrate before her mother. (Anscombe doesn’t say so when reporting this story, but we find out elsewhere that she herself is the mother to the child.)
To learn such veneration for the Lord Jesus is what the Christian life is all about. We have the opportunity for such veneration with every small act of generosity and love that we make for another person who bears the Word made flesh inside of them. The practice of adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is an excellent chance to sharpen our reflexes for such acts.
The great thing about adoration, moreover, particularly in the time of a global pandemic, is that it is naturally physically distanced. If you have a reasonably sized worship space, then no one will have to get anywhere near anyone else. There are no moving liturgical parts or necessary communion logistics. There’s not even any talking. The feast is to be had with the eyes. Medieval Christians were perhaps more accustomed to this than we are. We look for ocular feasts almost exclusively on electronic screens, where we can see dazzling images in bright colors moving vigorously around to enthrall us. The medieval Christian, by contrast, was more concerned to get the priest to lift the host high enough at the elevation to be able to see clearly as the worshiper uttered, “Ave, verum corpus” (even calling out at times, from what I understand, something to the effect of, “Higher please, Father!”).
Real presence is a great mystery, whether we’re talking about the way Jesus is present in the Blessed Sacrament, or the way I find myself in the same room as someone else. Most people in the world right now are feeling deeply the strain of having this latter form of presence with other people deeply curtailed. We’re having to make do with Zoom, and we’re all realizing how utterly insufficient this is for human beings to be in real relation to one another.
Churches should do their best to see that at least the former kind of presence is as available as possible to the faithful in Christ. Perhaps you could set aside a couple hours during the week when the church building is unlocked for any and all comers, the priest sitting quietly inside with the sacrament. If your parish doesn’t have a monstrance, maybe you could invest in one. If money is tight right now, then perhaps send people down to the local Catholic parish, and ask their priest — if they’re not already doing it — to dust off their monstrance and arrange times for adoration. It could be a lovely ecumenical moment, Christians sitting in the presence of Jesus together — at a distance from one another physically, but made all the closer insofar as they find themselves in more intimate communion with the body of Christ.
Fr. Mac Stewart is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America.