Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Why Matter Matters: The Eucharist as Center of a Culture (Part II)

September 7, 2021


The following is the second half of a discussion with Dr. Timothy O’Malley, the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life and Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, on his latest book Real Presence: What Does It Mean and Why Does It Matter? A helpful guide for catechists and theology teachers, the book is also an accessible read for anyone seeking to understand the Church’s doctrines on the Eucharist and the role devotional life plays in forming a Eucharistic worldview. (You can read the first part of the discussion here.)

Robert Mixa: In the Scripture section of your book, you focus on the importance of divine dwelling. And I really liked how you show that to be a central theme from Genesis to the book of Revelation: God desires to dwell with his people. Can you elaborate on the connection between biblical divine dwelling and the Eucharist? 

Dr. Timothy O’Malley: The Bible is concerned about presence in a surprising way. I think in Genesis, God comes to Adam and Eve and shares an intimate communion with them, promising them divine life. And yet, what is essentially the cause of the fall but a kind of absence, right? There’s no longer that intimate walking with one another in the garden. And then you move throughout the Scriptures, and you see God becoming increasingly present to his people. And certainly Abram’s call is rather extraordinary. Abraham did nothing. He was not worthy to be called. And yet God chose to be with this people and to make this people his people. And it continues in the Exodus, where God increasingly becomes very intimately present. He hears the cries of Israel in the desert, or in Egypt, saying “we’re suffering under the slavery.”

What does God do? He hears their cries. In fact, they don’t even know him. And yet God hears their cries. The Scripture is pretty clear that they’ve forgotten the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and yet God hears them, comes to them, dwells with them, and accompanies them as they leave Egypt through a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. And eventually they build the tent of meeting where God would dwell with them and come in the middle where Moses beholds the face of God, right? Presence is everything. And then there’s the eventual building of the temple, where God will dwell in their midst. Of course, there’s the horror of the temple’s destruction after the Babylonian Captivity and a new sense of where this presence will come.

All of this language of presence comes to be taken up in the New Testament when St. John in his Gospel says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, or pitched his tent among us, becoming this presence. The very presence of divine life dwelling among us in a human being with a human heart. 

This is actually why I love the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It’s the most Eucharistic of doctrines: in this flesh-and-blood heart dwells the God-man, right? The flesh-and-blood heart and love of God. And so, as you read the Bible, it really is a story about an increasing presence. And so the Eucharistright on the road to Emmaus and in the recognizing of Jesus and the breaking of the breadis not a sort of sudden interruption into the Scriptures. It’s part of a coherent narrative and where God will really dwell among us. And it’s why in the book of Revelation we see that heaven, or the heavenly presence, descends and transforms the earth; and in every church throughout the world and every tabernacle, the beginning of that transformation is taking place.

I really liked your description of the heavenly manna, the Law, and the tabernacle as forms of divine dwelling. 

I always appreciate the reclamation of the Law as a presence. I think we Christians very dangerously dismiss the Law. It’s a frequent preaching motif, but really the Law is this dwelling. It’s the flesh and blood and body dwelling of God amongst his people, through the keeping up of the divine will. And, of course, the Law is very intimately linked to presence. And even when the temple was destroyed, it was the keeping of the Law that kept alive the presence of God as much as possible.

In the last part of your book, you focus on six women—three medieval, three modern—devoted to Eucharistic Adoration. Why did you choose these six women?

I wanted to feature three medieval women from Germany: Mechthild of Magdeburg and Mechthild of Hackeborn (a name that I think is too infrequently bestowed on children today—we need more Mechthilds out there!), and then Gertrude the Great of Helfta. They come from communities where they were likely Cistercians or Cistercian-like.

Mechthild of Magdeburg was a consecrated layperson, but Gertrude the Great and Mechthild of Hackeborn were both from Cistercian monasteries that followed the Rule of Saint Benedict very intensely. But they both had Dominican confessors who likely taught them Aquinas’ theology around the Eucharist. And what you see is that in their reception of this doctrinereally of Real Presence and transubstantiationthey come to understand the intimacy of Eucharistic communion in a distinctive way that advances St. Thomas’ work.

If you think about theology as an echoing through history of the mystery of Christ, then they’re receiving it and reechoing it. They understand the encounter with Christ in the Eucharist as transforming their senses and what they see. And so devotion and doctrine for them go together as intimately as possible. 

That’s what I wanted to highlight. Here are three women whose devotion to the Blessed Sacrament was intimately tied to the doctrine and whose advancing doctrinal understanding led to further devotionso much so that it was the work of these women that was translated into high German and eventually became some of the first literature translated into the vernacular. They influenced all sorts of religious practices around the Blessed Sacrament, including the Sacred Heart of Jesus (which would later get picked up again in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France). And so you can see an echoing in a development of the doctrine in a different mode, right? So that’s why I really liked those three women.

And then for the modern women, a lot of people say, “We don’t need the doctrine anymore; we’re modern. We believe other things, now!” Folks like Flannery O’Connor, Simone Weil, and Dorothy Day demonstrate how the particularities of the doctrine and devotion to Real Presence enable us to understand the presence of Christ in that which is not just pretty or beautiful.

Flannery’s own vision of a Eucharistic transformation is found in her short story “Temple of the Holy Ghost.” It’s a transformed transformation. Sometimes I teach my students that it’s not a cult of the pretty but a reality transformed through the Blessed Sacrament. All that is hideous is being transformed or made strange. It’s a sort of re-seizing of a strangeness. 

With Simone Weil, the Eucharist is a counteraction to a kind of force or violence. If I were the God-man becoming present to the world, you’d know it, right? I’d force it upon you. There would be fireworks. There would be energy. And yet for Simone Weil, in a world of force and propaganda, Jesus does not impose himself upon us but gives himself freely in the Eucharist and allows the freedom of a response to this total gift of love. 

And, of course, Dorothy Day, who again is a counter-actor of a cult of the pretty, saw Christ radically in those who were without lovethose who were on the very margins of all social realitybut she saw the presence of love amongst them in concert with the Eucharist. It was her Eucharistic devotion that inspired her other work. High Masses were celebrated at the Catholic Worker Farm. I know that folks at Word on Fire are familiar with Dr. Larry Chapp, who, of course, is involved in the very same Catholic Worker Farm where high Masses were celebrated once upon a time.

I think you don’t have to separate the two. As a Catholic, you do not have to choose between radical Eucharistic solidarity with those who possess nothing and the Blessed Sacrament. I wanted to show how the tradition of Real Presence and transubstantiation, and their theological articulation, echo throughout history. And you could look at countless other saints and saints-to-be to see this advancement. It’s the echoing of this doctrine in time and space.

Your book shows how the Eucharist is actually at the center of everything. For somebody teaching at the high school level, what can they do to better teach the Eucharist and also call people to reverential practices when, perhaps, there is a lack of opportunity for partaking in such devotional practices?

First, I think it’s okay to teach the doctrine. We should understand that teaching the doctrine is not suddenly going to lead to a giant Eucharistic revival, right? My undergraduates don’t go to Mass. That’s not because they don’t understand transubstantiation; it’s because they don’t want to go to Mass. I’m very inspired by the work of Luigi Giussani and Communion and Liberation. His own educational method is to propose the doctrine in a way that woos people, that provokes them. I’ve tried in my book to do thatto help people think about time and what it means to dwell as a creature in time. And the doctrine of transubstantiation will help with this. We have to provoke and offer it as a hypothesis that makes sense of all existence in all reality. 

Second, I think we have to teach, along with that, all the kinds of Eucharistic art, culture, beauty, literature, and poetry that move along with it, right? The Eucharist is a center of a culture. It’s not just the Blessed Sacrament. The Lord dwelling among us has transformed human culture to the Blessed Sacrament. And so the more that we can introduce people to every dimension of Eucharistic culture the better—through altarpieces, music throughout history written for the Blessed Sacrament, poetry, literature, and mysticism. This is all part of a Eucharistic formation.

I must admit, if I was a bishop and charged to think differently about the catechetical textbooks and the conformity review process, I would rewrite the conformityparticularly on the sacramentsto do this. It would deal a lot more with the aesthetics, art, beauty, and matter. As I tell my undergraduates, matter matters. So I would compose texts that would allow for this encounter, with everything built around a sort of Eucharistic culture. 

And lastly, I think by matter mattering, reverence matters. Most Catholic schools, for example, don’t have a chapel, or if they have a chapel, they don’t use it for Mass. They use a gym, and gym Masses are notoriously miserable. It’s hard to have devotion to the presence of our Lord if the space you’re using is the same as all other spaces. The gym is the space that you use when you scream out to the opposing fans.

Matter matters. And so what kind of devotional dimensions are we including in our Catholic life together? Not that every Catholic school can just turn itself into a space of total Eucharistic devotion. I get that there are Catholic schools that are 35% Catholic. It’d be very strange (and difficult) to have perpetual Eucharistic Adoration at such a school. But what I’m saying is that the body matters and devotion matters. And so if we can reclaim some of those spaces at Mass, even if it’s a small group of students who really understand what’s going on at Mass in the Eucharistic Prayerthey know how to be devoted in prayer. I think that’s integral to a re-formation of the human person in this Eucharistic way of life.

Exciting thoughts! So instead of heavenly manna, it’s like heavenly matter; it’s the bringing together of heaven and earth. If that was communicated, I think it could really awaken many students to the Eucharist. In conclusion, I want to encourage everybody to read your work and other works in the Engaging Catholicism series. They address theological topics in a way that really helps catechists and theology teachers. Thank you, Dr. O’Malley.