Wednesday, June 24, 2015

We Are Blind To Ourselves

The Bread of Life
  There is a Protestant radio station just two clicks away from the local Catholic station on my radio dial.  I was listening in my car on my way to work recently, and heard a brief snippet of the non-Catholic station.  Someone was saying: ". . . The importance of sin.  So, we'll be taking a walk through John's Gospel this morning . . ."  At which point, as I turned to the Catholic station, I thought to myself: "But what will he say about John chapter 6?", where we find "He who eats my body and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him" (John 6:53).  Interestingly, the first thing I heard when I arrived at the Catholic station (The Presence FM) was a priest discussing . . . John chapter 6.  
    Now, one might say this was just a coincidence, but if so, it certainly is a very suggestive coincidence.  As it happens, it reminded me of something I'd been mulling over since my recent post on Pascal's Wager.  I had quoted an atheist critic of the Wager, who said "most disbelievers disbelieve simply because they knows of no compelling evidence or reasons to believe."  In that particular post I dismissed this assertion as no more than unsupported opinion, and pointed out that, if true, it actually undermined the argument it was supposed to be supporting.  And I really don't know how one could prove it anyway, or disprove it, given not only the impossibility of knowing what is in another person's heart, but our own inability, at times at least, to recognize our own true motivations.  I do know that a number of non-believers have told me explicitly that they turned away from God not because they were persuaded first by rational arguments, but because His laws forbid doing things they wanted to do; in other words, they had an incentive to disbelieve.  I suspect that for all of us, whether or not we find something to be "compelling" depends, to some degree, on whether or not it is what we want (or expect) to hear.
    I think something like this may be at least part of the reason that our separated brethren in the Protestant communities similarly seem to miss the more "Catholic" passages in scripture (missing, for example, what seems to us to be the rather obvious import of Christ’s Eucharistic Discourse in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel).  Let me hasten to add that I'm not equating them to atheists in other respects; on the contrary, very many Protestants have a deep and sincere faith, and live exemplary Christian lives (case in point: the relatives of the nine people murdered last week at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, whose willingness to forgive the killer [here] is nothing if not Christ-like).  They have been formed in a tradition, however, that to varying degrees has rejected the incarnational aspects of Christianity as it was understood and practiced for the first millennium and a half after Christ said "You are Peter, and on this Rock I will build my Church." (Matthew 16:18) They simply can not maintain their understanding of what Christianity means and at the same time take at face value what Jesus says here:

I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh." The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. (John 6:51-55)

Pieter Breugel's "The Blind Leading The Blind"
  It is part of our nature, of course, to be blind to ourselves, and to interpret things from our personal perspective, which is as true for Catholics as it is for protestants and atheists.  I think that is a very large part of the reason why formal prayers, including private devotions (the rosary, novenas, etc) and liturgical prayer such as the Liturgy of the Hours play so prominent a part in traditional Christianity. There is certainly a place for spontaneous and personal prayer; sometimes it’s appropriate and necessary to focus on ourselves and needs of which we are consciously aware. There is a danger, however, that we can start to see our spiritual lives as being primarily about . . . us.  That is the reverse of what St. Paul is talking about when he says: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20) Liturgical prayer, on the other hand, is "inside out" prayer, which flows from us toward God. Instead of trying to draw God to us,it pulls us out of ourselves and unites us with Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church.  That is the beautiful and powerful symbolism of the traditional manner of saying Mass with the whole congregation, including the priest, facing the East together, not looking to ourselves or at each other, but as one body looking outward at the rising sun (literally ad orientem), representing the God who rises again and brings us life.  
    Liturgical prayer is just one tangible way in which the Church reminds us that we are part of something bigger, that we are “members” of the Body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians chapter 12). We need to be reminded that, like Jesus’ Disciples, we sometimes need to be told how to pray (see Luke chapter 11 and Matthew chapter 6), and because we are both soul and body we need tangible reminders, and concrete means of praying to the God who is pure spirit.  Like St. Thomas, we need to touch Christ’s wounds (see John chapter 20).  And, of course, unless we eat his body and drink his blood we have no life in us.