– May 2005
Vol. XI, No. 3
My First Year with the Eucharist
by Carolyn Foster
Not long ago I asked my spiritual director what the difference is between praying in front of the tabernacle and praying at home or while commuting to and from work. She responded with a simple but firm comment on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and added that some people do like to pray, for example, while walking in nature.
The question was a bit of a formality because the Holy Spirit was already forming the answer in my mind around this time — approximately a year after my baptism into the Catholic Church.
Several times in the past year I had wondered what it would be like to live during the time of Christ. I would think about the earth with His presence on it some 2000 years ago. I imagined myself as a nameless woman in the Gospels who sees Him pass by, or even meets Him.
Recently though, while thinking in this vein, I came to pray in front of the tabernacle, something I’d done only a few times before. Suddenly, I realized that I did not have to daydream about being near Him: I was meeting Him right then and there. Jesus stayed here on earth, truly present in the Eucharist, so that I don’t have to fantasize about meeting Him 2000 years ago.
Immediately after I was baptized (at the age of 30) I began going to daily Mass even though I had no example of anyone my age doing this. I started doing it because I love the liturgy — the readings, the music and the prayers. I saw a church as my Father’s house and I wanted to go there as often as I could, and I wanted to keep His Son company there. I imagined Jesus alone in the tabernacle while the world, oblivious to His outpouring of love and mercy, rushed by outside. The main reason I went, though, in its glaring selfishness, is that I was insistent on receiving as much spiritual nourishment from Communion as I could get. In a sense I was making up for lost time.
From the beginning of my time as a catechumen, the Holy Spirit gave me a deep faith in the doctrine of the Real Presence. However, it was almost a year after I was baptized that I experienced Christ being there — before I interacted with Him not as an idea in my mind or part of my beliefs, but as the Man God in front of me, in the Blessed Sacrament. Then, there He was, waiting for me, available to listen to all my prayers of hope and love, of fear and disappointment, and of small, daily needs and concerns.
I understand how Catholics who have been receiving Communion from a very young age can become disconnected from what is contained in the action of the Mass (Christ’s sacrifice) and in the consecrated host (Christ) we receive in Communion and remains in the tabernacle for us. Everyone is susceptible to becoming desensitized to what happens on a regular basis. Also, some Catholics lack proper doctrinal formation, as well as there being little in our secular culture to reinforce our sacramental way of living.
Christ though, the Man God of the gospels and of our prayers is here, truly present, waiting for each one of us to come to Him and to be with Him in churches on so many streets in towns and cities around the globe.
This past winter my grandfather was in the hospital and I visited him on several occasions. One day while taking a break from sitting with him in the intensive care unit, I found myself walking through the hospital halls following the signs for the chapel. Although I had a vague idea of what the chapel would look like, I was curious about it.
I peeked into the small, square, brown-carpeted room, empty in the center, with chair-lined walls and a table at what must have been the front. It was an ugly room and as non-denominational as it gets. This wasn’t a surprise to me. However, after months of attending daily Mass, receiving Communion and being in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, I became conscious of the true barrenness of the room. And then I realized that many places of worship must have this particular emptiness to them. The thought came to my mind, "no Blessed Sacrament, no church". My conversion went deep, the Holy Spirit was doing great work in me.
This attitude of "what’s the point?" without the Eucharist reminds me of a famous Flannery O’Connor letter. She was writing a friend of hers about a soiree she’d attended as a student at the University of Iowa’s writers’ workshop:
I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, A Charmed Life.) She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say…. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.
Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.
That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.
These last words are strong ones and perhaps if they thought about it, many Catholics would also feel the same way, although they may not be able to proclaim it so steadfastly.
Flannery O’Connor’s words impress me because of their fervor and boldness. They reinforce my own devotion to this sacrament in a culture where habitually spending time in front of the tabernacle is something incomprehensible or laughable.
Pope John Paul II implemented the phrase "Eucharistic amazement", and I wholeheartedly agree with his joining of these two words. One of the obvious amazing things about the Eucharist is found in the doctrine of the Real Presence: Christ is wholly and entirely present under the Eucharistic species. Something else that makes the mind reel though, is how accessible Christ has made Himself to us in His design of the Church and of the sacraments. Wherever I am during the day or evening — at work or at home or running errands — I have the knowledge that Christ is there for me, waiting, in whatever church is close by. I always have the option of visiting. A continual surge of love and need pulls me there, "For the contemplation of Jesus present in the Most Holy Sacrament, as a communion of desire, powerfully joins the faithful to Christ". (Redemptionis Sacramentum 135)
Catholics go to church and pray and listen and sing near the tabernacle. But many do not turn to it, focus on it, and acknowledge Christ’s presence there. They do not adore Him. Kneeling in the pews, many Catholics turn to the crucifix in prayer more readily than to the Real Presence of Christ. "To contemplate Christ involves being able to recognize Him wherever He manifests Himself, in His many forms of presence, but above all in the living sacrament of His Body and Blood". (Ecclesia de Eucharistia 6
In order to foster greater devotion to the Most Blessed Sacrament during this "Year of the Eucharist", the Church is granting a plenary indulgence every time one takes part in a sacred liturgy or pious practice in honor of the Most Blessed Sacrament, solemnly exposed or preserved in the tabernacle. This indulgence is granted under the usual conditions (sacramental Confession, Eucharistic Communion and prayers for the pope’s intentions, in a spirit of total detachment from any inclination to sin). The Church in her wisdom recognizes the needs of the faithful, even if they themselves do not. Therefore, she has set forth this program of encouraging us to deeply contemplate and adore the Eucharistic sacrifice and sacrament.
Since the day I was baptized I’ve scheduled each day around attending Mass. I discussed some of the reasons earlier. These are the ones I could assess during my days as a neophyte in the Catholic Church. Now though, I have another reason to add. "Sir, we wish to see Jesus" (Jn 12:21) the Greeks on pilgrimage to Jerusalem say to the Apostle Philip. I too wish to see Jesus and I am closest to this in front of the tabernacle wherein lies the Blessed Sacrament. It is here that I can truly say, "Your face, Lord, I seek". (Ps 27:8)
Carolyn Foster, a recent Catholic convert, is a freelance writer living in Toronto, Canada.