In fear and trembling

Digby Anderson warns of the danger of regarding the supernatural as ordinary, especially in receiving communion, for if we do not fear God then we do not love him properly

 

Two sets of villains rightly receive frequent attention in this magazine. There are the secularists, atheists and pagans that surround the Church, mocking her and seeking to oust her from public life. Then there are liberals, nominally within the Church, who subscribe to the same secular agenda as her external enemies impressed by their 'science', cultural relativism and humanistic rights talk. But there is a third villainy and this one is not a nominal member of the Church but at her very heart. This villainy is sucking the sacred from all that was holy. Let me try to identify it.

Parallel dimension

Few people today read the novels of Charles Williams, who died in 1945. Williams sets his novels in two dimensions. They contain very human people who do very human things in the English pre-war and wartime world. Then there is a supernatural world parallel to the material one, a world of spirit, angels, devils, elementals. In Williams' stories, this other world is not content to be an other world, a parallel world, but keeps breaking into this world. Magic stones, holy beasts, Holy Grails appear in London and the home counties.

While the particular objects which irrupt may be odd, there is nothing odd for traditional Christians about the ideas of dual dimension or of irruption. When we are baptized we become citizens of another kingdom, a parallel dimension. We have one foot in this world, one in the next. We are a people in exile destined for complete inclusion in our true native home.

The Incarnation is the greatest irruption of all. The God of the Jews is to be found on mountains and in clouds where one dimension pierces another. We go on pilgrimage to Lourdes or Fatima where God has specially irrupted into this world.

But the place where most of us most of the time know irruption is in our parish church. Ronald Knox preaching on the parish church likened it to Jacob's bethel, a place on earth with ladders set into heaven, the angels ascending and descending.

Those ladders have their feet in the font and on the altar. At the moment of transubstantiation God, in that telling phrase, 'comes down on the altar. I think it was Meschler who likened Holy Communion to the Almighty floating to us 'in the frail skiff of the host'. The Mass is a service of supreme condescending irruption. The holy breaks in.

Supernatural irruption

There was a generally impossible ideal, popular in the Fifties and Sixties during the early years of more frequent communions, of living from communion to communion. Catholics were to live in the dimension of Communion and not just when they received the host. They examined themselves, when necessary went to confession, did penance, prepared for communion, received it, gave thanks for it and then recollected it three times in the day, then examined themselves again for the next day and so on, living the better part of their days in the dimension of the holy.

High on the agenda of liberals and modernists in the church has been the removal of anything which smacks of magic. And irruption smacks of magic. Liberalism will only tolerate the minimum of supernaturalism and even that denatured into 'natural' terms. Ordinary decent Christians, of course, do not share the intolerance of the supernatural. At least they are not ideologically opposed to it.

But look carefully. Do they really still behave as if they believe? In some of the churches I visit, the queue for communion does not look to me like people 'in fear and trembling' at what they are about to receive. And it is not just looks, mere accidentals. They don't go to confession before communion. They all make their communion, on all occasions. Is it plausible that all the people all the time are really prepared, really recognize the All Holy?

I do not think we (we ordinary decent Christians; I'm not talking about the liberals here) really see the magnitude of the daily irruption on our altars. Of course the Fifties/Sixties ideal was, for most, unattainable. But if we cannot live up to it so often, why receive communion so frequently? To do so unworthily is to fail to identify the holy. It is no surprise we regard the supernatural irruption as ordinary if it is received by all so often.

No surprise too because we have made our churches look less and less like the house of the Almighty. New churches look like health centres. The music inside is not special music for the holy but secular ditties. The language of the Mass is not the language of the angels but vernacular, the language of the ordinary for the ordinary. What happens at Mass is a meeting of the community rather than a terrifying encounter with the Maker of heaven and earth.

De-sacralization

Of course we think something good is happening on the altar and we value our communions but we don't look, behave or talk as if we have just glimpsed and tasted another world. At the heart of our religious life, in church, things have been de-sacralized. The sociologist of religion Peter Berger has noted that medieval people really did go to bed in fear lest they die in the night unprepared. We don't have, many of us, that ability to fear the truly fearful. We can be afraid, but it is mostly fear of getting the wrong cholesterol score or of the credit card bill.

Of course, fear is partly feeling and T.S. Eliot wrote that that was just what Williams achieved, not a teaching or a theory but a feeling. I'm sure we all subscribe to the right theory and teaching about the Real Presence, but that is not the point and it is not enough.

We don't fear him who is truly fearful and that means we don't love him properly either. For you love someone for what they are, and God is just that, God. This loss of the sense of the sacred is partly the fault of the liberals. But more it is to do with us and our having all the incompetencies of modern man. The way back is just that, a way backwards, and it is we ordinary Christians who have to take it. \ND\

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