On a small side street in Bethlehem, just off Manger Square, there is an unassuming church complex made of smooth, sandy stone. Passing through the arched entrance gate, a visiting pilgrim will first enter into the ancient Byzantine Church of the Milk Grotto, built to honor the spot where a drop of Mary’s milk fell when she uncovered her breast to nurse the infant Jesus on their flight to Egypt.
At the back of the grotto there is a modern tunnel that leads to a serene chapel. At the heart of the chapel, a tabernacle featuring two iridescent olive trees shines behind a golden monstrance. In front of that monstrance, a single religious sister clad in red and white kneels before the milky white host at every hour of the day and night.
These sisters—the Perpetual Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament—keep watch here in this chapel, which was dedicated as the International Center of Prayer for Peace in the Holy Land in March 2016. The order has a monastery next door to the Milk Grotto Church. Although visitors can see through a pane of glass to the dazzling tabernacle, the silent, kneeling sister is completely inaccessible. The glass reaches from halfway up the wall to the ceiling, and the entrances to the chapel are locked. As sisters take shifts, they unlock the door and pass the key back and forth to one another.
Eucharistic adoration is not simply a private alternative of what ought to be a deeply communal celebration.
The Perpetual Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament were founded by Caterina Sordini, a slightly eccentric-sounding 18th-century figure who took the name Mary Magdalene of the Incarnation upon joining a Franciscan community. In the spring of 1789, Sister Mary Magdalene received a vision of Christ while she was in ecstasy. Christ appeared to her in the form of the Eucharistic host on a throne, surrounded by a host of virgins adoring him. Jesus asked Sister Mary Magdalene to found a society of sisters who would adore the Eucharist constantly, in reparation for the sins of the world.
As I read the pamphlet detailing Mother Mary Magdalene’s vision and watch the silent sister pray in front of me through bullet-proof glass, I find myself overwhelmed by a wave of discomfort, bordering on distaste. This order’s founding story sounds like a fairy tale; this practice of prayer in front of a piece of bread seems foreign and superstitious. I cannot make sense of it. It seems inimical to the communal life the Eucharist is meant to provide.
Communion and relationship lie at the heart of the Eucharistic liturgy: communion of the faithful with God and communion with the congregation as the body of Christ gathered at the table. The Vatican’s 1967 instruction on eucharistic worship, “Eucharisticum Mysterium,” notes regarding adoration of the reserved Communion host, “When the faithful adore Christ present in the sacrament, they should remember that this presence derives from the sacrifice [of the liturgy].”
Our physical appearance is molded by who we look at and who we seek to conform ourselves to over the course of a lifetime.
Thus, eucharistic adoration is not simply a private alternative of what ought to be a deeply communal celebration. Rather it ought to lead those who encounter it back to the heart of that communal mystery. How can simply looking at the host be a communal act? Why are these women spending all their time staring at the invisible God in bread? And as a pilgrim in the Holy Land, of all places, wouldn’t it be more worthwhile to visit the Church of the Nativity, down the road?
One possible answer to my question came from an unexpected source: a study conducted by the University of Michigan’s psychology department, which found that spouses married for over two decades begin to look like one another. In a controlled study, university students identified photos of couples and found the photos of couples after 25 years of marriage resembled each other more closely than the photos of the same couples when they first were married.
The researchers posit several potential causes for this facial convergence. One hypothesis is that human facial muscles move in response to emotion. The habitual use of these muscles over an extended period of time could permanently transfigure the physical attributes of a person’s face. When one person attempts to empathize with another—as each spouse asks about the other’s day, attempts to match and enter into the other’s moods and understand each other’s hurts and joys—the mental and emotional effort is matched by a physical effort. By sharing the other’s inner emotional state, the spouse’s muscles begin to mirror the other’s outer self. “One flesh” takes on a quite literal dimension.
As we kneel or sit in adoration before this piece of bread, Christians gaze at the face of God present.
The University of Michigan study notes that consistent, prolonged social contact may be the strongest basis for facial resemblance, potentially even more powerful than genetic structure in explaining resemblance among siblings. Our physical appearance is molded by who we look at and who we seek to conform ourselves to over the course of a lifetime.
In Eastern Rite Christian churches, the interiors are plastered wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with faces. These icons, images of holy men and women, are not static works of art or prayer props but rather active entities that draw the viewer into the mystery of love they portray. Liturgies in an Eastern rite church invite worshippers to come face-to-face with the living God by encountering the faces of the painted saints that surround the living saints gathered for the Eucharist.
Perhaps this strange Catholic practice of staring at what appears to be nothing more than a wafer of beige wheat can be related to both the tradition of Eastern icons and the transformative, empathetic gaze of spouses. Perhaps this ritual of gazing at the Eucharist can be a deeply communal, relational activity.
The Eucharist offers Christians communion with God not just through the liturgy but as a living icon. As we kneel or sit in adoration before this piece of bread, Christians gaze at the face of God present. Just as spouses seek to love with one another’s hearts, to truly live and feel with one flesh, so the Christian seeks to conform her entire self to the God of love.
I think again of the sisters at the Milk Grotto who seem to be passive, static figures. They kneel before God in what might appear to be an isolated form of prayer. But, perhaps, what they are doing is a radical act of peace in a war-torn and violence-ridden land.
As we absorb the peace, the availability, the radical and humble love of God in the Eucharist, we go forth to imitate that love—to be icons of that love for our neighbor. Perhaps the members of the body of Christ who gaze in prayer at the body of Christ in bread gain a family resemblance not only with the Son of God but with one another. As the Christian goes forth to bear her neighbor’s cross and share her neighbor’s joys, she can begin to glimpse the eucharistic face of God in her neighbor, too.