The Gentle Traditionalist on the Catholic Mystery: Supernatural Love

Rose Window, Santa Maria del Pi, Barcelona – photo by kind courtesy of Carlos Lorenzo via Flickr

Today we have another extract from The Gentle Traditionalist – my new book of dialogues about Catholic tradition.

In this particular dialogue, GT—the Gentle Traditionalist himself—explains something that many people today, particularly in the Anglosphere, find hard to comprehend.

That something is the Supernatural Mystery that IS the Church.

Now, why should that be particularly difficult to understand in the Anglosphere? Well, GT will explain—and, as he says, his explanation is hardly politically correct!

What I write may offend some folk—but it stems from thirty-four years experience of personal deprivation. For, as I have often said, I very much grew up in WASP culture, both in America and England. 

The result was that, for decades, I associated Christianity mainly with dull English sermons and ranting American televangelists —and most decidedly not the Eucharist!

And how many millions of Anglophones were (and still are) just like I was?!

Yet as GT says below – quoting Benedict XVI – the Church simply does not exist without the Eucharist.

Here is possibly the greatest tragedy of the Reformation, that its effects stripped millions of people of this understanding. By the Grace of God, I was only stripped for thirty four years. And for years now, daily Eucharist has been what sustained me in the dark. Amidst some of the deepest suffering of my life, the Mass was what ‘got me through the night’: transforming darkness to light.

That is what this extract is about. Here GT is explaining to his interlocutor GPL that one cannot understand the Catholic Mystery without faith.

And yet at the same time, GT says, faith is nevertheless supported by things we can see and feel through experience.

It is always a bit tricky ripping extracts out of a context. But hopefully, dear Lector, you now have sufficient explanation to make sense of the excerpt that follows:

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Gentle Traditionalist

GT: Tradition entails profound insight, indeed genius. For two thousand years, brilliant theologians, philosophers and saints have grappled with the Catholic Mystery. Profoundly learned, sophisticated people follow in their footsteps today. Alas, theology is often regarded as naive or dumb in modern culture. The boot is on the other leg. Modern culture is too dumb to understand theology.

Still, one can’t dispense with faith. Nevertheless, certain supports for faith are possible. The fact that millions upon millions of people took this up and were willing to die for it. That says something. If you’re willing to listen, anyway. Also, the Papacy.

GPL: The Papacy?

GT: Well, St. Peter was the first Pope. Peter is Petrus in Latin: rock. Our Lord told Peter he was the rock on which he would build his Church. “And the Gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” Two millennia later, the Church with her Papacy is still standing.

By comparison, everything else in the West looks transitory. Mighty empires have come and gone. We’ve passed through Romanism, barbarianism, feudalism, monarchism, imperialism, democracy…

GPL: Democracy isn’t finished, yet.

GT: As you say: “Yet.” As you well know, democracy is dying. Rule by democratically-elected governments has largely been transferred to mighty banks and corporations now. “It’s the economy, stupid.” St. John Paul II called that economicism—rule by the economy. Slavery to the market. That, too, will pass…

GPL: But not the Church?

GT: No. Yet that still isn’t proof either. Even if the Church outlasts 10,000 years of various different institutions, it won’t prove the slightest thing.

All the same, you asked me for “circumstantial evidence.” Some folk point out the sheer size of the Church. Catholics account for 1.2 billion people on this planet. The Orthodox Churches number another .4 billion. Protestants, by virtue of their Baptism, also belong to the Church (even if they lack most of the other Sacraments and aren’t fully integrated into it).

That’s over 2 billion people spread across every continent, in every country—at least where the Faith isn’t actively forbidden. There’s never been anything remotely like that in human history.

GPL: It’s impressive, I admit.

GT: But not proof. Still, it’s worth thinking about.

Ultimately, there’s one stimulus to faith greater than any other.

Alas, you might say it’s the Church’s “best kept secret.” People outside the Church have no idea what we’re talking about. They never experience it. At least, not without breaking Church law.

GPL: Never experience what?

GT: Well, the Sacrament, I mean—Holy Communion. People who have the Sacrament testify to its meaning. They go back and back, hungry. Many go every day. Those who don’t have it appear impoverished to us.

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My mind reeled. Just when his Christianity was starting to make sense to me, we were back to square one.

GPL: I am sorry, GT. I really don’t get this. I mean, how on earth does Jesus get turned into something you eat?!

GT: It is a tremendous mystery.

GPL: I’ll say!

GT: Tell you what—you’ll find a Bible on that stand next to you. Oblige me, would you—read it yourself. Just one bit: John 6:51–61.

Curious, I decided to indulge the old man. Reaching for the Bible, I flipped through the New Testament till I found John’s Gospel:

I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give, is my flesh, for the life of the world. The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying: How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father; so he that eateth me, the same also shall live by me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead. He that eateth this bread, shall live for ever. These things he said, teaching in the synagogue, in Capharnaum. Many therefore of his disciples, hearing it, said: This saying is hard, and who can hear it?

I wasn’t sure what to say. I liked Tracey. I didn’t want to offend him. Finally, I ventured “I am sorry to have to say it, GT. But this sounds stark, raving, cock-a-doodle-loop-dee-do bonkers to me.” GT just shrugged.

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GT: It was a hard saying then. It’s still hard today…

GPL: I am sorry. It’s too much. I don’t see how anyone in their right mind could possibly take this seriously.

GT: You’re confronted with a strange dilemma then, aren’t you? Because for two thousand years, people can’t have been in their right minds! And yet Christendom included countless brilliant philosophers, writers, artists, poets, scientists, composers and saints.

Their faith—along with that of countless lesser souls—built European culture. Go back to old Europe before the Reformation. Everybody, I mean everybody, takes this seriously. Doesn’t matter whether you’re in Paris, London, Moscow—or Reykjavik for that matter.

Right across Europe you have people eating His Flesh, drinking His Blood. Even in our tragic condition today, millions of human souls still regularly partake of the Holy Sacrament of the Altar.

His voice had lowered, taking on profound gravitas, as he said those words… “eating His Flesh, drinking His Blood… Holy Sacrament of the Altar.”

GT: Martyrs died for this. They’re still dying. But to you, it’s merely nuttiness—like Scientology or the New Age. Do you suppose future generations will die for No Name’s philosophy?

[No Name, it should be explained, is a New Age character in my book. You can read a dialogue about the New Age Movement with No Name hereRB]

Do you think a new civilisation could be built from faith in that?

This is the entire point of the Church. Her raison d’être: “The bread that I will give, is my flesh, for the life of the world…” This IS Christianity.

Now, I was slightly taken aback by the solemn reverence with which he spoke these words. But, still, I couldn’t help objecting.

GPL: Oh, come on. That can’t be true. Jesus was a great moral teacher, I’ll grant you that. Surely, that’s the central message: Love one another. Do unto others what you would have done unto you. Isn’t that the point—the Golden Rule?

GT: Yes—but you’re forgetting something.

GPL: And that is?

GT: It is actually difficult—tremendously difficult—to love one another. The best most of us manage is maybe our wife and children. And then only half the time at best. As for loving the rest of humanity—forget it! We need Him, His Body, His Blood.

That’s why Christianity isn’t just a rule. Or a moral system. “Jesus was a great moral teacher,” you said. Well, that’s a nice, modern, liberal perspective. Deliberately, insincerely, calculated to mollify people. “Oh yes, Jesus was a great moral teacher… we can all agree on that.” Unfortunately, when you think about it, it doesn’t hold water.

Something about the way he said “nice” grated on my ears. I knew, by now, he didn’t like that word.

GPL: Aren’t you being a bit dismissive? What about some gentleness here?

GT: I said I was gentle; I didn’t say I was a fool! Nor will I consent to foolishness! There’s tremendous incongruity here. To wit: Jesus was a great moral teacher who claimed to be God, forgave people their sins and told them to drink his blood.

You can’t be a great moral teacher and complete nutjob at the same time! You can’t have it both ways! Either Jesus was—how did you put it?—“stark, raving, cock-a-doodle-loop-dee-do bonkers”… or He was someone to follow, to die for, to base an entire civilisation on…

Forgive me, I must repeat myself. This IS Christianity— not the Golden Rule or any rules. You can have the Golden Rule without being Christian. You can obey Christian rules and still not belong to the Church.

Eating His Body, drinking His Blood, as Vatican II said, is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” The source, the summit. The beginning, the means and the end.

Forgive me, my gentle friend, but I really must be emphatic about this one sole thing. As Benedict XVI said, the Church simply does not exist without the Eucharist. It may not be “politically correct”—but it’s crucial.

… The English often have the whole idea of the Church mixed-up. You think it’s a place where someone preaches a sermon, you sing some hymns, maybe say a prayer or two. Then come home again. For Catholics, that’s a travesty of the Church! I warned you this wouldn’t be PC—but it’s the tragedy of the English-speaking world. Millions and millions of English people—also Americans, Australians, etc.—they all think a church is somewhere you gather on Sundays for spiritual instruction. Rules!

GPL: Only English-speaking people think that…?

GT: Well, it’s not their fault. You have to remember history. The Reformation never took hold in most countries like it did in England. So this state of confusion doesn’t exist in Greece or Russia or Spain. Plus, in some countries, they use separate words for Protestant and Catholic sites of worship. But in English, it’s just one word—church—for two entirely different realities.

To your ordinary American, a church is something like a meeting hall—an assembly room!

To a Catholic, it’s a place where the most sublime ritual on Earth is enacted.

God comes down to earth, bread and wine are transformed that HE might transform us.

Further extracts from The Gentle Traditionalist – including the first chapter – can be found in this archive of posts devoted to my book here.

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