Flannery O’Connor and Walter Ciszek on the Eucharist
In preparing a homily for the Feast of Corpus Christi, this Sunday, I reread two of my favorite passages about belief in the Eucharist, which I thought I’d share with any priests or deacons looking for some inspiration for a homily, and with any Catholic eager to reflect on this great feast.
They could not be more different, or more the same. The first is from a letter Flannery O’Connor, the Southern writer, sent to a friend describing a now-famous literary gathering in the late 1940s or early 1950s, where Mary McCarthy, the well-known writer and essayist was in attendance. It is contained in the collection of letters The Habit of Being. The two spar a bit over the Eucharist. The second, which occurred around the same time, is from He Leadeth Me, by Walter Ciszek, S.J., an American Jesuit interned in a Soviet labor camp for many years on the (false) suspicion of espionage. He tells of his own experience of the Eucharist in a most dire situation. First Flannery, then Servant of God Walter.
"Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. [Mary McCarthy] 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."
“When I reached the prison camps of Siberia, I learned to my great joy that it was possible to say Mass daily once again. In every camp, the priests and prisoners would go to great lengths, run risks willingly, just to have the consolation of this sacrament. For those who could not get to Mass, we daily consecrated hosts and arranged for the distribution of Communion to those who wished to receive. Our risk of discovery, of course, was greater in the barracks, because of the lack of privacy and the presence of informers. Most often, therefore, we said our daily Mass somewhere at the work site during the noon break. Despite this added hardship, everyone observed a strict Eucharistic fast from the night before, passing up a chance for breakfast and working all morning on an empty stomach. Yet no one complained. In small groups the prisoners would shuffle into the assigned place, and there the priest would say Mass in his working clothes, unwashed, disheveled, bundled up against the cold. We said Mass in draftystorage shacks, or huddled in mud and slush in the corner of a building site foundation of an underground. The intensity of devotion of both priests and prisoners made up for everything; there were no altars, candles, bells, flowers, music, snow-white linens, stained glass or the warmth that even the simplest parish church could offer. Yet in these primitive conditions, the Mass brought you closer to God than anyone might conceivably imagine. The realization of what was happening on the board, box, or stone used in the place of an altar penetrated deep into the soul. Distractions caused by the fear of discovery, which accompanied each saying of the Mass under such conditions, took nothing away from the effect that the tiny bit of bread and few drops of consecrated wine produced upon the soul.
Many a time, as I folded up the handkerchief on which the body of our Lord had lain, and dried the glass or tin cup used as a chalice, the feeling of having performed something tremendously valuable for the people of this Godless country was overpowering. Just the thought of having celebrated Mass here, in this spot, made my journey to the Soviet Union and the sufferings I endured seem totally worthwhile and necessary. No other inspiration could have deepened my faith more, could have given me spiritual courage in greater abundance, than the privilege of saying Mass for these poorest and most deprived members of Christ the Good Shepherd’s flock. I was occasionally overcome with emotion for a moment as I thought of how he had found a way to follow and to feed these lost and straying sheep in this most desolate land. So I never let a day pass without saying Mass; it was my primary concern each new day. I would go to any length, suffer any inconvenience, run any risk to make the bread of life available to these men.”
Would we say, or do, the same as Flannery O'Connor and Walter Ciszek?
I found O'Connor's letters to be something of a literary Rosetta Stone to understanding the Christian, and particularly Catholic, underpinning of many of her novels and short stories, which with their jarring plot developments can make it difficult at first to see beyond her Southern Gothic style.
Scott Cairns gets at this far better than I in the following poem (Cairns is an adult convert to Orthodoxy, important here in his use of "mysterion" rather than "sacrament" and the reference to the spoon used in Orthodox reception to the Eucharist):
Adventures in New TestamentGreek: Mysterion What our habit has obtained for us appears a somewhat meager view of mystery. And Latinate equivalents have fared no better tendering the palpable proximity of dense noetic pressure. More familiar, glib, and gnostic bullshit aside, the loss the body suffers when sacrament is pared into a tidy picture postcard of absent circumstance starves the matter to a moot result, no? Mysterion is of a piece, enormous enough to span the reach of what we see and what we don't. The problem at the heart of metaphor is how neatly it breaks down to this and that. Imagine one that held entirely across the play of image and its likenesses. Mysterion is never elsewhere, ever looms, indivisible and here, and compasses a journey one assumes as it is tendered on a spoon. Receiving it, you apprehend how near the Holy bides. You cannot know how far.
Adventures in New TestamentGreek: Mysterion
What our habit has obtained for us appears
a somewhat meager view of mystery.
And Latinate equivalents have fared
no better tendering the palpable
proximity of dense noetic pressure.
More familiar, glib, and gnostic bullshit
aside, the loss the body suffers when
sacrament is pared into a tidy
picture postcard of absent circumstance
starves the matter to a moot result, no?
Mysterion is of a piece, enormous
enough to span the reach of what we see
and what we don't. The problem at the heart
of metaphor is how neatly it breaks down
to this and that. Imagine one that held
entirely across the play of image
and its likenesses. Mysterion is
never elsewhere, ever looms, indivisible
and here, and compasses a journey one
assumes as it is tendered on a spoon.
Receiving it, you apprehend how near
the Holy bides. You cannot know how far.
Father: It is for these things that the soul years: stories of priests in love with the Lord. You often seem to anguish over the question of how the sexual abuse crisis happened. I say, again, it is unfaithful priests. How is infidelity in priests averted? Fr. Czikek tell us: "I never let a day pass without saying Mass; it was my primary concern each new day. I would go to any length, suffer any inconvenience, run any risk to make the bread of life available to these men.”
Great post, Padre. A+
Thanks for sharing both these profound experiences of the Eucharist. I will be trained to be a Eucharistic Minister tomorrow evening. Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J. is an amazing Jesuit. I didn't know he was one of the prisoners exchanged in 1963 during the US/Russia prisoner exchange during the Kennedy administration. I hope you write more about him
Actually, Flannery O'Connor was under Rahner's tutelage. She read and expressed great appreciation for his theology, along with that of Hans Kueng, Chardin, and others.
As a Southerner, Flannery O'Connor was pretty sharp in her critique of the triumphalistic notion of Catholic truth which tries to box that truth up inside any one church. In fact, one of the most persistent theological notions running through her work is the Rahnerian notion (rooted in patristic theology and the writings of St. Paul) that grace is everywhere, available to all, and perhaps available in particular to those we least expect to be recipients of grace.
It cuts to the question for many of us who are survivors of sexual abuse by priests, nuns and lay leaders.
How do we stay Catholic in our spirituality and beliefs and actions, while dealing with the insidious effects of trauma based in our religion.
None of it is easy.
But i am instinctively drawn to stories about heroic actions of a priest in a prison camp, and I read Flannery O'Connor for the first time in class just after I was sexually assaulted.
Some of this stuff is too private to say in a public place, but..... it's sad how I lost the Eucharist. I had a bad dream about something else being in the cup (semen), and my hands trembled too much later. When I was 12 the priest was angry about my retainer popping out when I went to communion - so how can I handle this? (I really actually thought about that!)
I discovered along the way that if there is something different in my experience I can handle it a little better, probably because I focus on that enough instead. It's a body problem, not a head problem, by the way. I didn't have any problem going to mass in Kenya.
What I will do now is identify the two principal leaders of this devastating Eucharistic error. The error of transignification. This is the view that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist means when the consecration at Mass is performed only a change of meaning or significance of the bread and wine takes place. Their substance do not change only a change of meaning or significance of the bread and wine takes place their substance does not change. The consecrated elements are said to signify all that Christians associate with the Last Supper. The bread and wine acquire a higher meaning than merely food for the body. But they remain bread and wine.
We get some idea of how deeply this error has penetrated Catholic thought, when we read what Karl Rahner writes about the Eucharistic consecration. Rahner therefore is the first of the two master teachers of profound error on the Real Presence. I will quote now from Rahner’s language, not always so clear, I chose the clearest part that I could find. Quote Karl Rahner, “the more recent approaches suggest the following considerations, one has to remember that the words of institution indicate a change. But not give any guiding line for the interpretation of the actual process. As regarding transubstantiation it may be said, the substance, essence, meaning and purpose of the bread are identical but the meaning of a thing can be changed without changing the matter. The meaning of the bread has been changed through the consecration something which served profane use now becomes the dwelling place and the symbol of Christ who is present and gives Himself to His own.” unquote Karl Rahner. From the Encyclopedia of Theology edited by Rahner and defining the meaning of transubstantiation. What takes place through the Eucharistic consecration the significance the meaning attached to the bread changes but the bread remains bread. Rahner’s ideas are permeating the Eucharistic theology of whole nations".
John Hardon SJ
William: As far as I know O'Coonor did not subscribe to the notion of the Holy Eucharist as "symbol"; however, I could be wrong...