Sunday, 23 August 2015

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time. Read John 6: 60-69

"This saying is hard, and who can hear it?"
The people grew frustrated with Jesus, and many left Him.  He had promised them bread from Heaven that would bestow eternal life on those who eat it, and even better, the bread was His very self.  His Flesh, real food, His Blood, real drink, and only those who partake of it will be admitted to the Heavenly banquet.

Yes, it all sounds very nice, but what does it mean?  The people rejected Him because they couldn't understand.

When Saint Thomas Aquinas tried to explain the Eucharist - the Flesh that is real food and the Blood that is real drink - he used Aristotle's theory of being, wherein 'substance' (what something really is) is at least conceptually distinct from 'accident' (something's characteristics).  In the real world, of course, a thing's characteristics are always determined by what it actually is, and we never think of the two as being separable, but St Thomas posited that at the Consecration, the bread and the wine become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ in substance (transubstantiation), while mysteriously maintaining the accidents of bread and wine.

Very clever, but what does that actually mean, when you get right down to it?

Frankly, I don't really know, but I believe it - with all my heart I believe that what appears to be bread and wine, after the Consecration, really is the Body and Blood of Christ, and I believe it because Jesus said it and the Church has always maintained it, and that is good enough for me.

The error of those lost disciples, the error we all make sometimes, is this: I do not like having to rely on something other than myself.  I do not like being dependent on another, basing my security on another, making myself vulnerable by trusting something - anything - other than my own power, and because of this I am little prepared to accept something if I am not satisfied that I understand it.  I will not simply take things on trust.

This was the error of the Protestant reformers, who also could not accept Our Lord's teaching on the Eucharist, and who struck up the refrain, "Every man his own pope!"  Of the three great treasuries of the Deposit of Faith, Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium, the latter two had to be set aside because they required too great a trust in the Church - trust that the Holy Spirit could work through wicked men as well as good - and thus the 'Sola Scriptura' heresy was born.

This is the error of the modern empiricists, who will only believe something if it can be proved by the scientific method, and who will only accept things that are subject to their judgement and control.  Trust in mysteries beyond the scope of our probing is called 'blind faith', and this seems to be taken to be a bad thing.

This is my error, and perhaps yours too, when, in reluctantly shuffling along the path to holiness, I constantly put God off when He calls me to trusting abandonment to His kindly providence, when He invites me to do nothing more than believe His promises, promises He has never yet broken.

The trouble is, of course, that we must all of us trust something if we are to do anything at all.  The Universe is bigger than we are, and even if it weren't, we would still not possess and contain it in such a way as to make it immediately available to our introspection.  And so we must trust our senses, if we are ever to discover anything.  Our faculty of reason enables us to take a number of premises and, by applying certain rules we call 'logic', draw a series of conclusions.  The premises we use are based on prior premises which are ultimately grounded in axioms or first principles, and so we must trust our axioms and our rules of logic if we are to even think anything.  And so on.  Long books could be written on the human need to trust.

But consider this, too: if we only accept things we can understand, then, because we are not very clever, we will only ever think on things that are small, easily broken down and deeply unsatisfying.  If we only accept things we can control, then, because we are very weak, our lives will be full only of trivial, unimportant things.  If we only accept things we can subject to our own judgement, then, because we are not very wise, we will only know things which are small and profoundly unexciting.

The capacity and longings of the human heart are infinite.  I am not going to argue this point because deep down we all know it to be true.  If all my heart has to nourish it is the simple, the trivial, the small, then it will be left unsatiated to the point of despair, despair that, for all our busyness and pleasure and emotional ups and downs, we cannot keep at bay forever.

Christian beliefs are undeniably strange.  They make no sense, not because they are internally inconsistent - far from it - but because they are beyond our understanding.  They are too high for us.  Because of this, evangelisation seems an almost impossible task, and many admirable Christians make the mistake of going for a 'hard sell' to tackle people's unwillingness to trust that which they cannot understand or control.  But true Christianity is not hard to sell.  We are not trying to be the people who have all the answers, we are simply the people who know the One - the only One - Who does have all the answers.  Ultimately, it is the need to trust, that which seems to be the greatest obstacle to faith, which will prove its most effective herald.  I cannot express it more eloquently than Hilaire Belloc did at the end of his essay, "The Conversion of England", so I won't try:
"Though the need for satisfaction is universal it does not follow that men will turn to the source from whence alone it can proceed, but, at any rate, they will find no other. We gamble on that chance; we stake upon that opportunity. Those around us, for whose recovery we set out, are in despair, or, at any rate, will, each of them, at some time come up against despair. We alone can present the solvent to despair. And such men as come to know that the claim is made will not neglect it."

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