In 2009, a Catholic priest and professor of theology at Notre Dame University, Fr. Richard McBrien, declared the following: “Now that most Catholics are literate and even well-educated, the Mass is in the language of the people (i.e, the vernacular), and its rituals are relatively easy to understand and follow, there is little or no need for extraneous eucharistic devotions. The Mass itself provides all that a Catholic needs sacramentally and spiritually….Eucharistic adoration…is a doctrinal, theological, and spiritual step backward, not forward”.[i]
I want to conclude my series of homilies on the True Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist by speaking about one of the significant ways that we come to find him: Eucharistic Adoration. I’m like a large number of Catholics who do not ascribe to Fr. McBrien’s viewpoint, that Eucharistic Adoration serves no purpose and is a step backward. Eucharistic Adoration flows from a belief in the power and presence of Jesus in the consecrated host, and he invites to come close.
How do I know time spent in adoration bears fruit? I see it in the people who avail themselves to it. They tend to be people who are moving toward greater peace; who are comfortable in the stillness and quiet; who are slowly finding their way through the difficult questions and employ God’s guidance in doing so. Who doesn’t want to be any and all of that?
As Catholics, there’s no doubt that we are people of symbols. Just look at all the elements that engage our senses: the smells, the sounds, the visuals. As I mentioned recently, these elements inform our consciousness in ways that words and doctrine cannot. But the Eucharist is not merely a symbol.
There was a famous author of the early 20th century, born in Seattle and educated at Forrest Ridge Academy of the Sacred Heart. Her name was Mary McCarthy. As a young woman, she abandoned her Catholic faith, declaring herself an atheist. It was some years later, living in New York and having gained notoriety, that she encountered at a dinner, a budding young writer named Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor, a Catholic, was shy and spoke little in this meeting. Her host, Mary McCarthy, in an effort to draw her out, to get her talking, confessed that she too had once been Catholic, and that even still, regarded the Eucharist as a powerful symbol. O’Connor responded to her host, “Well, if it’s a symbol, I say ‘to hell with it’”.[ii]
If you’re familiar with the powerful, raw and jarring writings of Flannery O’Connor, you know that as an artist, she was a master of symbolic language and imagery. But she also knew that the Eucharist is more than symbol. A symbol is something that calls to mind another reality, but a sacrament is an actual breakthrough of grace[iii]. It is principally made available to us in the Mass and flowing from that is the invitation to Eucharistic Adoration.
Eucharistic Adoration is not only for pious mystics and contemplatives. Figures like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, whom we celebrate for their active social justice responses, advocating for the poor and embracing those who are dying, also saw quiet time for reflection before the Eucharist as the daily sustenance to help them live out God’s call.
So for us normal folks—perhaps neither contemplatives, nor social justice giants like Mother Teresa or Dorothy Day—What are we to do, what are we to pray in our time before Jesus, present to us in the Eucharist? Perhaps it’s time for spiritual reading or to intercede for others who need our prayers. But maybe it’s nothing more than to rest in him, to be seen, as we see him. And in that rest, perhaps it’s to sort through the difficult questions, seeking his presence and guidance:
What do you see as you see me, Lord?
What’s on my heart today that I need to bring to you, Lord, and to sort through?
What’s keeping me from having greater peace?
Making time for adoration may mean getting past fears: fears that if I give my time to him, I may not have enough for everything else; fears of facing the hard questions about myself and whatever change it may demand of me. And I realize how hard it can be for us to simply sit still, as our attention spans gradually become like that of the common housefly. But ultimately, the evidence in its value is seen in those who overcome these fears and make time to come before him in the Eucharist, those who find greater peace, stillness and patience. Just ask them—just observe them to see—if that closeness and time with our Lord, aglow in candlelight, and present to us in the monstrance, is indeed well-invested.