Divine Portal of Heaven
by: Dr. Gary D. Knight
Anyone venturing to write or speak about the blessed Sacrament is immediately daunted by the sheer majesty of the subject. It’s even maladroit to call God a subject or object of inquiry. Against any prefatory remark: “may we penetrate the mystery of Christ”, flies the fact of He who penetrates us. Even ‘penetrating us’ goes awry, for we have no heft or density for Him to solve. All things are in His knowledge, in Him have their being, ‘darkness comprehending it not'. Only the light of faith can begin to reflect something of the light of God shining in and through this wondrous portal, the sacred host.
The words ‘in and through’ echo the canon’s through Him with Him and in Him, to glorify the Father and Holy Spirit. For we’d be amiss right away if thinking of any physical membrane or impersonal diaphanous cloak draping a portal, through which we peer dimly into Heaven. Jesus himself is this portal: as He said while walking in our midst “I am the way”, “I am the gate”. It’s very personal.
The sacred host is the only place where our bodily eyes can peer into eternity, even the vat of mercy that Jesus bestows from his own heart. There was, to be sure, a historic moment when pagan and unbelieving swordsmen could glimpse into this luminous well. Longinus pierced the side of Christ from whose heart flowed blood and water. By the Holy Spirit one of them even stuttered “truly this was the Son of God”.
Here are three witnesses: the water, the blood, and the Spirit. Now we are blessed to encounter that living fountain in an unbloody manner, as Jesus offered it to his apostles at the last supper. The blood and water would come soon enough: that evening in His agony, but Jesus attested “I will not again drink of this cup till I drink it with you in my kingdom”. In the ‘now’ made everlasting in my memory, His presence is given us in the holy eucharist. Some brothers and sisters, petulant like Absalom against his faulted father David: David who retained authority to compose the Psalms, wonder that we worship and adore a ‘piece of bread’. Is bread not a symbol of spiritual feeding and our being pared and shared to our community?
The idea is pious, but it is temporal and horizontal. It is far short of the Divine real presence of Christ in the flesh hypostatically united with humanity, fed us to nurture our supernatural souls. O Christ, from the divine mind you created us; in our bodies you bonded yourself to us. Gazing on the Lord who allows Himself to be held gently in a monstrance, is to behold the great salvation of souls. ‘It is the Lord’ said John, with the eyes of faith. If ashore He cooked fish for labouring disciples at sea, so now He prepares for those in exile a place in heaven, a place to which we gaze in Him. That “I am closer to you than hands and feet” we feel all the more proven in this presence.
Frequent encounter makes us sound. For a time after the second world war, up to and through the Vatican council, catechists and others charged with pastoral care thought that adoration of the blessed sacrament presented in pyx or monstrance was ‘exterior’. There might have been too little interiority in people’s expression of faith (it may have been the case, but would that we had the numbers or zeal today) and their guess was that ‘arms length’ devotions like adoration were part of the problem. It was a terrible guess. We have, rather late in history, come to realize just how bad this guess was when it comes to adoration. The very pointedness of adoration is disconcerting; and with its own reward the effort to struggle past this engenders conscious prayer, like nothing else. Think of chaffing against the grain with an avoided acquaintance, knowing that a matter like neglect to attend a wedding or graduation needs attending to. With a halting effort made to broach the subject, it’s amazing how soon you both can move to a new level of friendship. A reason that prayer is so compelling in Jesus’ presence is that no-one can really be at arms length before Him. His appealing love is not some sort of debatable potentiality, but most potent reality. If preferring our mental category or image of Christ to being found by Him in the presence, we soon cool to its personal plenitude. That happens even if we have a practice of ‘protestative’ prayer: to recite or sing psalm 23 is not in itself to know the shepherd. What I’m calling protestative is what Shakespeare caricatured ‘methinks thou doest protest too loudly’. It may be a gong or cymbal clash rather than the sincerity and truth that the Lord calls for, and which we can hardly dress up when kneeling before Him. O Lord, let me hear your own protestations of love, not mine feigned.
Many have noted a loss in fervour or avocation in faith when they withdrew from prayer as real conversation. Some pressed on, with such as the breviary or litanies or rosaries; but found ownership of words authored by others a battle up hills of increasing slope. For some resignedly trudging on, faith or the recognition of grace as a received share in the divine life lost all meaning and interiority. It lost the heat of friendship with God in Christ, or a stirring of the heart by the Holy Spirit. But happily, not a few went back to find, almost despite themselves, that time in the presence of the blessed sacrament set for adoration, slowly and marvellously revived their souls. There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.
Father Bob Bedard was a soul pained to be in horrid dryness. Before and after trauma as teacher of a class shot up by an armed youth (in minutes a young lady, young man, and assailant were all dead), father Bedard’s prayer life was in limbo. A deepening dryness had long term effects including clinical depression and dysfunction, where others had to pray for him. But he came slowly into wellness and the fulness of his calling through quiet time before the Lord in the monstrance. Jesus heals ! Father Bob went on to found a still growing and thriving community of priests and seminarians, the Companions of the Cross. Their ministries have extended into the United States of America, and have much reclaimed the Catholic charismatic movement from being strictly pentecostal, thanks mostly to their adoration chapels.
Some 35 years ago, the archdiocese of Toronto invited a Baltimore priest, father Joe Lupo, to come and try to inject new life into a vocational slump. In the aftermath of scandalous behaviour of seminary dons, even priests with promising protégées were wary, and few solid vocations were forthcoming. As well, parishes were in disconnect from each other, with many pastors in the field long-past burnout, with great dryness of spirit. Father Lupo had attracted the youngest of Canadian members of parliament, Sean O’Sullivan of nearby Hamilton, to leave behind a promising political career, and young father Sean instigated his invitation to stir things up in Toronto. Father Joe, already 80, was remarkable, full of zeal and not shy of what anyone saw as anachronism. He had a profound devotion to the blessed sacrament, spending much time in quiet adoration. At a ‘come and see’ weekend - including lay associates - father Joe asked “what can you guys suggest as a program of activity worth our engagement, that might deepen and animate the formation of our priests in seminary and after?”. One of us proposed a monthly all-night adoration program to circulate from parish to parish. We called it Nightwatch, and father Lupo grabbed it with both hands. Father Joe preached holy hour reflections monthly for a year, and parishes began to be receptive to this strange invasion of their usually staid churches every first Friday. In a few months the crowds attending, to midnight at least, were significant; and singing eucharistic hymns they kept from nodding off. People would report that they felt their flagging faith and moral strengths rejuvenated. Feeling his own age, father Lupo was recalled home, but left in place a superbly committed continuation in Spiritan father Ted Colleton, no youngster either. For a further few years, father Ted led Nightwatch adoration vigils followed by first Saturday morning Mass at dawn. Like father Joe, he preached holy hours, often having a reflection or litany led by a devout layperson at the top of an hour. It took no time in ecclesial terms for two outcomes. After 15 months, parishes were eagerly seeking to host a Nightwatch, their priests celebrating or concelebrating Mass with parishioners and choirs taking full part in holy hours for the ensuing adoration of Christ. Second, the number of new vocations or expressions of interest in priestly and diaconate formation saw a steady upswing, while more young people prayed for them. A third fruit was grapevine news trickling in that pastors had seen spiritual renewal, emotional and other healings, and an increase in youth participating in parish life. Their confessionals started to be used again, even with requests for regular hours. Some parishes began plans to establish perpetual adoration in chapels. With a rise in vocations inside of two years, father Sean took on their directorship. By 1988 Nightwatch was a going concern, limited only by the continued wellness of tireless father Ted. The harvest of true and prayerful vocations was inestimable. God rest your servants Joe, Ted, and Sean ! Near the end of my own sojourn in Toronto, I made late-night visits to a new perpetual adoration chapel. A regular visitor was one of the city’s auxiliary bishops. His prayer was that more bishops might avail of the wonderful encounter with their Lord, where He waits all night long. In Ottawa what struck me personally, besides the devout cell of St. Philip Neri who made something beautiful of eucharistic processions, was the adoration chapel set up by those who’d been praying for father Bob Bedard. In years after, he and the Companions found that not only their confraternity but the diocese benefited from the prayer-life that Jesus personally nurtured in the many souls who’d come to ‘watch an hour’ with Him. The most fruitful step for this extent of renewal is adoration.
Once in awhile my wife and I will sit together across the room and quietly read. However taken we are with our texts, the prevailing atmosphere is of togetherness and openness for either to respond to a word from the other, even something simple like ‘fed the cat?’, or ‘shall I put the kettle on?’. It could be a line offered for comment, or expressed concern for a friend or family member. That loving concord is also what Jesus wants and awaits. A personalist philosopher (perhaps Norris Clarke) said “the essence of personhood is presence”. It is the radical essential of Christianity: the religion of the Person, starting with the adored persons of God. We are persons for one reason only: that God is Person (three times for emphasis, as a grade 3 teacher put it). If God is Person ever-present, our relationship with Him has to be personal always. What greater Presence to nurture this, than the living body of the divine Lord still and presently waiting for us? You may protest “living bodies must breathe.” Yes, and He does! Breathing on the apostles He said receive the Holy Spirit. Spirit means breath. This “you know not whence it comes or where it goes” is the Spirit of love between Father and Son - lacking in nothing: in no perfection, including and above all, Personhood. If we are alive then to His presence, the breath is already breathing. Many beautiful lines are penned on the experience of adoration - prayers very amenable to time in the Presence. One I found most memorable and true was, on being asked what he or she did for the great length of time sitting before the Lord, a saint said “I gaze on Him, and He gazes on me”. Elizabeth Browning, or Song of Songs could have said it no better. It is the concord of Love. Like the amicable time of spouses, where both may be musing, or one embroiders as the other writes, the soul can follow exquisite occupation with the Lord. David danced before Him, and if you’re alone together who says that wouldn’t please the Lord? You may find yourself unburdened and crying before Him; the gift of tears is not unusual. My own conversion was anointed by unbidden tears leaping from my eyes in the presence of the tabernacle, cradled in a dark church in Banff. My breath was taken away too, just to show that it is the Spirit who breathes. And oh yes, my knees buckled. Being on the knees is appropriate posture coming into His presence. Moses put his face to the ground, so you find yourself moved, or at the very least you recognize it as apt. Rising, your eyes meet and are greeted by the Lord. For He desires us to come and watch with Him, as much as he desired of the apostles after supper. Then He was in agony; now he compassionately heeds the torments of the world. In it but not of it , we need His presence to abide the constant sign of contradiction that he’s made us to be. God signifies wonderful ‘contradictions’ in making himself so available in the consumable host. The maker of all things has deigned to invest his Person in a piece of flatbread, making Himself so low as to lift us high. So low that we eat and grind this wheat, this crushed grain not raised by fermentation, to be communited ourselves in His exalted body and blood. The blood He bled dropped down, that we who drink are lifted up from gravity of sin. The grain for wheat of many hosts had been sewn and died in earth. But it rose, and how great the promise of our life in His flesh, when we ourselves will pass ! When you peer at the white gleaming in the lunette, what you are is full, not of reflected light (however aptly that connotes humility), but brightly of Him infused. The glow will hardly suntan others like Moses’ radiance: a pride of life, my unworthiness, will not let it; but God is the one to see a glow that pleases him. True humility is to be self-forgetting in rapt partaking of His presence: the praise or thank’s omission to be humbly phrased is its humility.