I was wondering, a while back, what kind of difference it might have made in my life to have encountered a perpetual Eucharistic Adoration chapel when I was a young man seeking some sort of religious grounding for my spiritual life. I’m wondering about it again as I sit before the Blessed Sacrament on another Sunday late-night. Specifically, I’m thinking about that year or so I spent huddled in my apartment, trying to piece together the shards of my shattered life in the wake of the disaster that was my twenties, and seeking a path to actualize my nascent faith in God.
Sitting in the Adoration Chapel each week, I see young people coming in and going out, some acting out elaborate and affected pieties, others more reserved and seemingly more recollected. I was drawn, at a similar age, toward a pentecostalism that promised to substitute an engaging and spiritually charged enthusiasm for the indulgent sensuality and attendant emotional crises I had been embroiled in, and was seeking to escape. I knew that I needed more than a prayer life, that I needed Christian community, that I needed to belong to something that was more than an idea – or worse, a projection of my own interior life.
But I was put off by the worldliness that seemed to underpin the life I witnessed in what I suppose I would have called organized religion. I was a thoroughly beaten young man at that point, an poor as dirt, and all but ready to embrace apocalypticism as the last station call for optimism. Pentecostalism in particular seemed constructed to marginalize me from the very community of the marginalized I felt spiritually bound to. On the surface, with its focus on the breaking-in to the world of the Spirit in charismata, it seems to exemplify the “in the world, but not of the world” ethos of the gospel. But in reality, it seeks the manifestation of God’s blessing in very concrete and even material forms. That’s why “the gifts” tend not toward a deep, quiet, and subtle prudence, but a public form that approaches spectacle. And that is also why the health and wealth gospel is so at home in pentecostalism. If the manifestation of God’s blessing is not actually the end of pentecostal faith, it is at least taken as evidence of the reality of grace in the life of the believer.
As a fragile, immature believer with nothing to show for my relationship with God but a deep sense of sorrow and repentance, pentecostalism was both intriguing for its promise of an affirming manifestation, and foreboding for its unspoken but unmistakable contempt for spiritual poverty and unapologetic humility. What is taken as being “not of the world” in pentecostalism is actually very worldly, insofar as it is public manifestation of blessing itself which is taken as the revelation “in the world.” In the end, I felt out of place in my poverty – not because I lacked manifestations like the glossolalia (which I had, even some fifteen years earlier, learned not to overvalue), but because I so thoroughly lacked the worldly successes that are taken to be signs of the blessing.
The sacramental economy stands in stark contrast to all that. The revelation of God is made manifest in the world in the simplest and humblest manner: a small piece of bread, water, a touching hand, a few softly spoken words. True, the Blessed Sacrament in Adoration is often enthroned within an elaborate gold monstrance; the places of worship themselves, where the sacraments are celebrated and dispensed, are often grand in form and rich in substance. Yet these displays of the wealth of the world are not understood as the blessings God gives to his people, but the blessings God’s people bring to Him in reverence. This is wealth that is “wasted” on God, as Judas had it, while God, in His manifestation, remains the bread of sacrifice: His depiction by the faithful being that of a Man crucified.
The sacraments, far from being evidence of the presence of the Spirit in the life of the believer in blessing, are evidence of the presence of the Spirit in the life of the Church, which the believer approaches in utter poverty and humility. Christ Himself, then, is manifest in humility, and the believer approaches in humility (“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you…”) to be joined in a sacramental communion of humility (“whosoever would follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”), in which the eschatological manifestation of God’s self-revelation in humanity (“by the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity”) is pregnant as a Spiritual first fruits of Eternal life (“the guarantee of our inheritance”).
What has become abundantly clear to me is that the extraordinary charismata of pentecostalism and related religious movements have emerged as some kind of substitute for the sacraments: one more compatible with the modernist spirit of the age. I find it no coincidence that the historical context for this reemergence of the charismatic gifts aligns with the powerful rise of Modernism as a broad philosophy of culture, as well as the emergence of phenomenology as an epistemological method. Epistemologically, Modernism is basically phenomological: able to perceive knowledge only in that which is experienced, which in reality reduces ‘truth’ to, at best, factualism, or, at worst, subjectivism. One could make the argument that objectivism and subjectivism are instead polar opposites which I am here conflating, but they share a common ground in the observing self, and in a difficulty (if not inability) to overcome a consequent self-centered rationalism in order to perceive the transcendent. Pentecostalism, of course, seeks the transcendent, but it seeks it in the experience of the self; in phenomena.
Likewise, it can hardly be a coincidence that the charismatic movement in Catholicism emerged in the decade of the modernizations following Vatican II, when a deep sacramental understanding seemed to evade much of Catholic culture: pizza was known to be offered as Eucharistic sacrifice in one of the more bizarre incongruities to emerge from the era; greater symbolism came to be sought in baptismal rites through the reintroduction of baptismal baths (such emphasis on symbolism exposing a growing vacuum of meaning born of a declining sacramental sensibility); lines were blurred between lay and priestly roles; confession fell into disuse; and marriage fell prey to contraception, divorce, and other – even worse – sacrileges.
Through the 19th and 20th centuries, Modernism sowed the seeds of a wasting dissolution in the liberal denominations that had held to a semblance of sacramental theology after the Reformation, made possible because their sacramentalism was in reality only formal or religious, not essential. From Luther’s denunciations of indulgences in the 16th century, to John Smyth (re)baptizing himself near the beginning of the 17th century, to Napoleon crowning himself Emperor in front of Pope Pius VII two hundred years later, the history of the West from the Protestant Reformation to the rise of Modernism is one of accommodating a religiously Christian society to a repudiation of the authority of the Church – a repudiation not only of authority as power or religious superiority, but of authority as an ontological reality, a sacramental gift: of the knowledge of the Church as the authentic and authoritative continuing presence of Christ in the world.
The repudiation of an authoritative Church by both by Protestant Christianity and early-Modern or Liberal skepticism did less to correct ecclesiastical abuses than it did to provide religious cover for skepticism, which carried on its own program of pseudo-orthodoxy in the guise of “science,” moving steadily toward Modernism’s atheistic naturalism, even removing God from the cosmos (never mind the curriculum), by first removing the presence of God among men in the form of the miraculous, including the sacraments, but more importantly in the form of authority in the Church – more important because religious anti-papists could happily hitch their wagons to the same “progressive” worldview, unaware of and unprepared for anti-clericalism’s final destination in godless totalitarianism. And now, majorities in these denominations cozy up to abortionists, and cluck their tongues at the sight of “conservatives” who are so unenlightened as to fail to embrace the new homosex norms…
Reacting against Modernism, however, were Fundamentalism proper and the main thrust of contemporary conservative Evangelicalism. They rejected the wholesale naturalistic skepticism of the miraculous, to say nothing of atheism, but they retained a skepticism of the miraculous nature of the Church, and formed (often after initial denominational schisms) an astoundingly fragmentary collection of staunchly anti-sacramental faith communities. Furthermore, despite fundamentalist hostility toward Modernism, it is widely perceived that fundamentalism and naturalism share a common set of (modern) assumptions about the relation of facts to reality, as is evidenced in fundamentalism’s insistence on facticity in its understanding of Biblical inerrancy. What seems less often observed is that pentecostalism, which emerged at about the same time as a sister movement, sharing similar concerns but eschewing the fundamentalism’s focus on dogmatic Biblicism for a more personal (and miraculous) religion of encounter with God, taps into the same mindset of believing exactly what is seen: experienced-based belief.
But experience is peripheral to sacramental faith, and experiential religion turns out to be a poor substitute for the sacramental life. The point of contact between sacramental manifestation and the believing community is faith in the power of God’s promise that He is indeed present, even despite appearances, if necessary. The point of contact, in other words, is not experience, not “what is seen,” but hope. Being rooted in hope, sacramental worship seeks no signs, but looks behind symbols to the realities they re-present, being open to the transformative movement of grace through the sacraments in ways that are often subtle – even humble. Not phenomena, but a still, small voice.
Despite my mildly Catholic upbringing in the 1960s, I think I would have been shocked, in the 1980s, to encounter God present under the form of bread, even sitting on an altar in a gold monstrance. I think I would have realized that, despite the trappings, God was, in all His glory, even more impoverished than me. I think that may have led me to see how profoundly true it is that for God, all things are possible, and that the meanness of my condition was not an alienating factor that kept me from full communion, but a vector for God to embrace me through the agency of His continued manifestation among men. I think I may have discovered the restorative and integrating power of genuine Christian community. I truly praise God for the Eucharistic faith of these young people; I hope they appreciate someday what a gift they have.