Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Book Recommendation: Eucharist by Bishop Robert Barron

Eucharist, by Bishop Robert Barron, is an excellent explanation of the importance of the Eucharist as a sacred meal, sacrifice, and the Real Presence of Christ. It is short - a little over 100 pages long - but rich in content. Bishop Barron establishes his arguments by drawing on Salvation History, Church history, and Thomistic philosophy and theology. Throughout, he does so in an accessible style appropriate to a wide readership, one that both assumes the intelligence of the reader yet demands little prior knowledge of formal theology. Without relying on obscure jargon, he explains all his points from first principles, guiding the reader through to the conclusions, without shying away from the most conceptually difficult aspects of eucharistic theology.

As the Second Vatican Council famously told us, the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. I propose in light of this that a focus on the Eucharist should be seen, therefore, as both the first and the final lesson of any scheme of catechesis, for it is the illuminating light that gives understanding and meaning to all other Christian teaching and the end to which it is all directed. The Eucharist is not simply the icing on the cake of the Faith, it is the principle that causes the existence of the fundamental matter from which cake and icing alike are formed; and which arranges it in such a way that it delights us. I would recommend this book as a worthy foundational text for such catechesis.

Finally, he explains profoundly and powerfully why full acceptance of the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist (aided of course by our best understanding) is so important in giving us the happiness that we all desire in this life.

When I was in the process of conversion to Catholicism in London nearly 30 years ago, the first books that were recommended to me before I began my personal instruction were short texts written by the English priest Msgr Ronald Knox, himself a convert, who died in 1957. These were the Mass in Slow Motion, The Gospel in Slow Motion, The Creed in Slow Motion, and finally The Belief of Catholics. These were foundational to my grasp of the Faith, each was a simple and accessible text that was nevertheless written on the assumption of an intelligent reader who is lacking the basic information, as good as any of this type that I have seen. It seems to me that Bishop Barron’ Eucharist is a good complement to Knox’s instructional booklets, focusing on particularly noteworthy lacks in our times: first, the lack of faith in the Eucharist as sacrifice and as Real Presence, and second, a lack of understanding as to why this sacrificial real presence is at the heart of the Christian Faith.

Barron begins in the introductory chapter with a description of the book (and film) called Babette’s Feast by the Danish author Karen Blixen, because, he says, poets often ‘say it best’. He explains how the different aspects of the Eucharist that he will focus on later on in the book are symbolized within the story of a maid who came into money and sacrificed it all, giving her mistresses, two austere Lutheran sisters, and their guests a sumptuous feast. He refers back to this imagery throughout the book.

One of the great flaws of contemporary instruction in the Faith, often coming from the pulpit but not restricted to it, is to oversimplify difficult topics, or to avoid them altogether. As a result, nearly all people are put off by this patronizing approach, which treats all as though they are too stupid to understand. Nobody likes to be treated as though they are stupid - least of all those of us who are - but all are flattered if they are treated as capable of intelligent thought, even if we are not. It is far better, it strikes me, to assume intelligence and lose a few in your explanations than to lose most by assuming the listener or reader will not understand and trot out trite simplifications. In this text, Bishop Barron, in the manner of the brilliant and natural teacher that he is, tackles theologically difficult ideas without ever resorting, at least without full explanation, to what would be, to many people, overly obscure jargon. Having said that, his use of language is deliberate and precise, and he had me reaching for a dictionary from time to time, which I didn’t mind at all. His chapter detailing the development of Eucharistic theology through centuries will be enlightening to many, I think. Certainly, I learned a great deal about the history of the perception of the Real Presence through this chapter.

As an example, here is a description of how he helps us to understand the principle of transubstantiation; referring to the work of theologian Msgr Robert Sokolowski, Barron writes:
Sokolowski argues that there are three ways to think about the relationship between spirit and matter. According to the first, which he calls ‘Darwinian’, matter is really all that there is, and we call ‘spirit’ is simply an epiphenomenon of matter. In this Darwinian reading, mind, and will, for example, are only refined brain functions.
A second way to understand the relationship between the two realities is what he characterizes as the ‘Aristotelian’. In this view spirit and matter exist more or less side by side and interact with one another in complex ways. Think for instance of the standard view of how the body and soul relate to each other.
But the third model, which Sokolowski calls ‘creationist’ or ‘biblical’ holds to the precedence of spirit over matter. According to this mode of interpretation, the properly spiritual - mind and will - preceded matter and can determine matter according to its purposes. Everything we have said about creation through the word is intelligible only in the context of this third framework.
Problems occur in Eucharistic theology, Sokolowski maintains, when we try to think of the Eucharist in either of the first two frameworks. Within a Darwinian framework, the Real Presence is just so much nonsense for matter is all that there is. Within an Aristotelian framework, the Real Presence comes to be thought of as a sort of inner-worldly change, some new and unprecedented way for finite natures - one spiritual and the other material - to relate to one another. But within the biblical context, things can make a bit more sense, for in this reading, God is not one nature among others, one being within the world, but rather the creator of the world, the ground of all finite things. And this God can relate to matter in a non-competitive way, become present through it, without undermining it. The supreme instance of this non-competitive involvement of God is of course the Incarnation and the Eucharist is nothing but a sacramental prolongation of the Incarnation. Thus God can use the material as a vehicle for his presence without ceasing to be God and without overwhelming the matter he uses. The Eucharist does not involve the supplanting of one fine nature by another - as though a tree becomes a leopard but continues to look and react like a tree - but the non-competitive presence of God within an aspect of the nature he has made. Thus concludes Sokolowski, when the Church speaks of Christ being substantially present in the Eucharist even as the material appearances of bread and wine remain, it is assuming this uniquely biblical perspective on the relation of spirit and matter.
In addition to explaining what the Eucharist is, he goes on, crucially in my opinion, to describe what this means for our lives, that is what happens to us Catholics who take communion as believers. We undergo a supernatural transformation - the partaking of the divine nature - that happens by degrees in this life so that we have, to put it simply, the greatest happiness that anyone can have in this life.

I became a Catholic not so much because the Faith is true - although I believed it to be so; not so much, even, because of the beauty of Catholic culture and the cosmos - although I responded so powerfully to both; but rather because I believed that both of these aspects of the Faith, so intimately bound up with it, indicated that I would be happiest as a Catholic who might be part of the very Truth and the Beauty that drew me into itself. In the years since I have wondered how many Catholics are really aware of what is on offer to them.

Fr Barron wrote of this happiness in just a couple of pages at the end of the book. It is a small proportion of this short book, but I hope people who read it will believe what he says:
Earlier in this chapter, we saw that many of the Church Fathers characterized the Eucharist as food that effectively immortalizes those who consume it. They understood that if Christ is really present in the Eucharistic elements, the one who eats and drinks the Lord’s Body and Blood becomes configured to Christ in a far more than metaphorical way. The Eucharist, they concluded, Christifies and hence eternalizes. Now, again, if the Eucharist were no more than a symbol, this kind of language would be so much nonsense. But if the doctrine of the Real Presence is true, then this literal eternalization of the recipient of communion must be maintained.

But what does this transformation practically entail? It implies that the whole of one’s life - body, psyche, emotions, spirit - becomes ordered to the eternal dimension, to the realm of God. It means that one’s energies and interests, one’s purposes and plans, are lifted out of a purely temporal context and given an entirely new spiritual valence. The Christified person knows that his life is not finally about him but is to be found above and not below. Wealth, pleasure, power, honor, success, titles, degrees, even friendships, and family connections are all relativized as the high adventure of life with God opens up. The eternalized person can say with Paul, ‘It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me,’ (Gal. 2:20), and ‘Here we have no lasting city,’ (Heb. 13:14).

The paradox is this: such a reconfiguration actually makes such people more rather than less effective and happy in this world. G.K. Chesterton said that when he was an agnostic and was convinced that he could be happy only through the use of this world’s goods, he was actually miserable. But when he realized that he was not meant to be finally satisfied here below - when he was eternalized through the Eucharist - he found, to his infinite surprise, that he became happy...This is why I tell people to be very careful when they approach the Eucharist. Were the elements simply symbols - inventions of our own spiritual creativity and desire - they would pose no particular threat. But since they are the power and presence of God, they will change the one who consumes them. When the communicant says ‘Amen’ and receives the proffered host and chalice, he’d better be prepared to live an eternal life.
The Catholic Christian life well lived is a happy life. That happiness is more authentic, deeper and more permanent than anything on offer to those who do not consume, authentically, the Body and Blood of Our Lord, and it is a happiness that transcends all human suffering. And I really mean the happiness of the sort that all people, regardless of their level of education know, deep down, that they desire - there is no need for nuance, or the depends-what-you-mean-by sophistry that in academic circles so often seems to accompany discussions of this goal in life. It is no-holds-barred happiness.

This is a truth, it seems to me at times, that even pious Catholics hesitate to believe is possible, and so diminish, at best, its realization in their own lives. And if we who are part of the mystical body doubt it, why should any who are outside the Church believe it either? This then is the task of evangelization for Christians: to demonstrate the art of living happily in good times and bad. Those who see such happiness and belief, and to whom we communicate knowledge of its source will, without any exception, convert if they believe it is available to them too..

Bishop Barron’s book cannot in itself transmit such happiness to anyone, but my hope is that it will lead people to the eternal banquet which is its source.

Buy here. Author: Robert Barron, ISBN: 978-1-943243-82-2, 136 pages; Publisher: Word on Fire Institute, Dimensions: 6 x 9

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