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October 2011

How the Light Gets In

Sunday Night Journal — October 2, 2011

There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
—Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

For those outside traditional Christianity, the whole Catholic (and Orthodox) emphasis on the Eucharist is weird, to say the least. Even setting aside the strangeness of the doctrine that the consecrated bread and wine become the literal body and blood of Christ, it might seem over-emphasized. With so much else on the Church’s agenda—worship, the struggle for personal virtue, evangelization, helping the poor and others in various kinds of need, it might seem a bit strange that again and again popes and theologians describe the Eucharist as the center and foundation of the Church and all it does.

Even if you stipulate belief in the improbable doctrine, aren’t other things just as important? The attempt to justify to the world the Church’s existence usually starts and ends with “all the good it does”: the charities, the hospitals, the schools, even the advocacy of those things. So why do we not, when talking among ourselves, treat doing good as the foundation?

In making our case to the world we naturally tend to pick something the world will understand. We know that the practical help that we render to the world rests on the foundation of what we receive within the Church—what we are taught, and what we eat and drink. But we can’t expect those outside the Church to understand the place of the Eucharist in that process.

Maybe so. Maybe we can’t expect them to understand it; sometimes we have trouble understanding it ourselves. But it isn’t only the practical, material good works that make the Church important to the world. Although its effects are subtle and not measurable, the mere presence of the Presence is even more significant, not only to those within but to the world at large, than any concrete activity of the Church. The world is made different by its presence. One who knows of it is changed, even if his reaction is incredulity and denial—the idea of it has entered his mind, and he knows that he lives in a world where it is not only conceived but believed, and such a world is different from one where it is not conceived at all. Even one who does not know of it is touched by its spiritual light, though perhaps at a great distance, which shines on everyone and everything in this world, whether or not they perceive it.

I assume that what Cohen was getting at in these lines is the idea that the world is never all right. It’s never whole and unbroken. It always leaves us wishing that something were different, that our hopes had been, for once, completely fulfilled, not smashed to pieces or at best only partly realized. And that those broken places are essential to us, because if we were perfectly at home and satisfied in this world, then we would be truly lost, not even realizing that we were in darkness.

Last Sunday at Mass, at the consecration, I saw the disk of unleavened bread raised by the priest for a few seconds as a small bright hole in the fabric of our world, letting in light from outside, allowing vision from inside, and I thought of Cohen’s words.

The presence of God in the Eucharist is the crack in everything. It’s how the light gets in. It’s nothing less than the Incarnation itself, continued in time, without which the world would be dark. Not completely dark, because there is some genuine light in each of us, and the better ones among us always try to nurture and spread it. But they can’t get very far, and they get confused about what the light is and what it requires of them. That little disk is like something out of science fiction, a portal through which another world visits and is visited by ours. The shape is conventional in the Latin rite and is not part of the actual doctrine, but it seems appropriate, suggestive of many things, one of which is an opening, a hole or a little round window. From a distance, it may be only a pinhole, but we have all experienced how bright even the faintest light can seem when there is no other. I’ve often thought that if one had eyes that could only see spiritual things, in the way that certain mechanisms detect only infrared light, or the way bats perceive by sound, the world would seem a pretty dark place, but every Catholic church would be seen to be illuminated from within, with light from the tabernacle pouring through the windows and doors.

Prayer request

There is a difficult situation going on in my family. Since this blog is open to the whole wide world, I won't be more specific. But I ask your prayers for a good resolution. Thank you.