Oh, come, all you who labor
In sorrow and in pain,
Come, eat This Bread from heaven;
Thy peace and strength regain.
In my freshman year at Michigan State University, I left the Catholic Church. This sounds much more dramatic than it would have seemed to anyone on the outside looking in. My period of wandering in the wilderness was not even 40 days and 40 nights, let alone 40 years. I left the Church for four weeks--a period so short that some surveys of religious practice would say that I was an "active Catholic" during that time.
Yet those four weeks may have been the longest of my life. I knew that I was missing something, but I did not know what it was. On the off chance that what I was missing was some spiritual solace (I doubted it, at the time) I went one Sunday to a venerable East Lansing institution, the People's Church ("nondenominational and nonsectarian"), and even received communion--some crumbly leavened bread and wine in a plastic cup. I left as empty as I came, never to return.
On the last Saturday in November 1986, I found myself walking along Michigan Avenue toward the state capitol in Lansing. It was a nasty night; the snow on the ground was giving way to the sleet that had soaked me from head to toe. A warm yellow light shone on the sidewalk up ahead, and as I came into its rays, I glanced up at the building from which it emanated: the Church of the Resurrection, a parish of the Diocese of Lansing.
Cold and tired, on impulse I pulled at the handle of the door, not expecting it to be unlocked. It was; and to my surprise, the light was coming not just from the vestibule but from the sanctuary. I had never been in this church before, so I decided to rest a moment while taking a look around.
As I entered the empty sanctuary and came upon the first row of pews, years of habit kicked in, and I turned toward the tabernacle and genuflected. And at that very moment, I realized that I was wrong; I was not alone. I sensed a presence--no, more than a mere presence: the presence of Someone, Whose presence I had not felt in four weeks (not even, or perhaps especially not, when receiving communion at the People's Church).
As a child, I had never doubted the Real Presence, and I cannot say whether, even in my short wandering in the wilderness, I ever lost faith in it. What I can say with absolutely certainty is that, on that Saturday night in November 1986, I had not entered the sanctuary of the Church of the Resurrection expecting to feel the presence of Christ. The experience was not a wish or desire; it was as real as walking into my home today and knowing, without seeing or hearing them, that my wife and children are there.
For Catholics, such experiences are so commonplace that they become something like background noise, like the transit of the sun across the sky, like the act of walking or chewing or breathing. Because this experience is so much a part of our lives, we often forget that we are indeed experiencing it.
There are times, of course, when we may be reminded. I have had the experience, and know many others who have, of walking into an unknown church in an unfamiliar town, and knowing immediately, without searching for a sanctuary light or a tabernacle, that this is indeed a Catholic church. Conversely, on Good Friday, when we walk into a church where the tabernacle is empty, we may genuflect out of habit before it hits us: Something--Someone--is missing; He is not here.
Our experience of the presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar is what we would expect if the teaching of the Church is true: that this is not mere bread and wine, but the Body and Blood of Christ. When we receive the sacrament worthily, we know the effects of grace. When we deprive ourselves of it because of our own sin, we know what we are missing. (And if we have had the misfortune of receiving it unworthily, we know that it does not return us to peace and strength, but heightens our unhappiness.)
Those times when I have made the effort to be a daily communicant (or at least to spend a few moments in front of the Blessed Sacrament) have been the most productive of my life. I mean that in many senses: They are the times when I have made the greatest progress in uprooting sin (or even simply bad habits); the times when I have been a better husband and a better father; and, yes, even the times when I have written more and written better and best fulfilled my duties at work.
I cannot say this about any other discipline or any other food--and not because I haven't tried. The difference is an experiential one; yet it is one that makes perfect sense in light of the teaching of the Catholic Church.
And I see the evidence of the graces obtained from Holy Communion not only in my life but in the lives of others. Most Catholics who pay any attention to their fellow parishioners know that there is a qualitative difference between the lives of daily and of weekly communicants. (Sadly, some priests are the exception that proves the rule: In celebrating Mass every day, they must receive, and the validity of the sacrament does not depend on their personal worthiness.)
Graces are not marks on a tally sheet; rack up enough, and you can enter Heaven, free and clear. Grace is the life of God within our souls, the action of the Holy Spirit Whom Christ promised to send to be our comforter and guide. The evidence of the truth of the Church's teaching on the Eucharist (and, more broadly, of Her teaching on the sacraments) is found in the lives of the men and women who approach the altar of the Lord in the fear of God and in faith.
Sadly, Catholics today all too easily lose sight of this. We are not only Christians but modern men, after all, and we have been taught from an early age that knowledge derives only from the strictest evidence of our external senses, and that nothing can be considered true unless we can conceive of a set of circumstances that could prove it false.
But even the strictest modern empiricist does not live his life according to such rigorous principles. To determine which direction is east, he does not perform an elaborate set of calculations based on the observation of heavenly bodies; he acts as if the sun rises in the east, because in a very real sense it does.
The narrowest of modern empiricisms can tell us nothing about the deepest truths of human life. How can you falsify a mother's love? More to the point, why would you want to? To prove that your mother's love is true? Such a demand is perverse, at best.
Yet we fall for it. We think that in order to defend the Faith, we must make our arguments on their terms, not realizing that their terms not only would have been rejected by the greatest minds of millennia past but are set in order to exclude all of the evidence that we know, from our own experience, proves the truth of the Faith. We point, for example, to well-documented Eucharistic miracles--the turning of the bread to flesh in both essence and accidents; wine that takes on the accidents of blood after the consecration--as if these are proof of the truth of transubstantiation.
They aren't. They may be miracles of a different sort, but transubstantiation by definition means that the accidents of bread and wine are retained, while the form changes to the Body and Blood of Christ. Such Eucharistic miracles tell us as little about the mystery that occurs at every Mass as would "scientific" experiments on the consecrated species.
The real evidence of the Real Presence of Christ lies in the change that the sacrament works in the lives of believers. That evidence is there for all who have eyes to see and ears to hear. That those who do not believe in Christ cannot see it is no surprise; indeed, it is to be expected. The greater worry is that we, in letting nonbelievers set the terms on which we understand our Faith, may close our own eyes and stop our own ears.
Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail;
Lo! o'er ancient forms departing,
newer rites of grace prevail;
faith for all defects supplying,
where the feeble senses fail.