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Detecting the Eucharist: The Quality of Our Belief

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 05, 2013

There are quite a few accounts of the ability of various saints to “sense” the Real Presence in consecrated bread or wine, and there is evidence that this awareness is developed to some degree among many Catholics. On visiting a Protestant church, many have experienced a strong sense of “emptiness”. One could argue that this is a purely psychological response to our prior knowledge that the Eucharist is not present in this space. But I am not so sure.

Without doing fresh research, I can recall the details of two fairly famous instances of the detection of the Eucharist without prior knowledge. In the 14th century, St. Catherine of Siena lived for a time exclusively on the Eucharist, as a number of saints and mystics have done. On one occasion, the priest who administered the sacrament to her decided to test her awareness of the Real Presence, so during a communion call he presented her with an unconsecrated host. Catherine detected it as soon as he entered her room, and immediately raised a strong objection.

But this exquisite sensibility is not necessarily limited to Catholics. In the 19th century, before her conversion, when Elizabeth Ann Seton would go to the Episcopalian Church in New York to pray, she became convinced of the truth of the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence partly because she kept finding herself looking out the window and staring at the Catholic church across the street during her deepest periods of prayer. She was in some mysterious way being drawn to Christ in the tabernacle.

In light of these and other well-documented accounts, an experience quite common among Catholics may be seen in a new light. I am willing to wager that many of my readers have felt churches without the Eucharist to be empty even when filled with people, whereas Catholic churches seem to be somehow “full” even when no other human persons are present. By Faith, of course, we know the difference, and this ought to affect us profoundly; but I think it likely that, to some extent, many sense the difference even when they do not otherwise know where they are or whether the Eucharist is present there.

In most of us, I think, this sense would not be foolproof. Nonetheless, I believe there is something to it. Either way—whether or not this heightened sensibility operates in us only when we are in possession of the requisite intellectual knowledge—we should accept it as a genuine gift of grace. If, when we sense the Presence of Christ in this way, we treasure and reflect upon it, the overpowering reality of the Eucharist can be more fully impressed upon our minds, our souls and, yes, even our bodies.

One more saint insists that we deepen this impression. The great 16th century Carmelite, St. Teresa of Avila, had little patience with those who complained that they were not born into first century Galilee: “If only I had lived at the time of Jesus... If only I had seen Jesus... If only I had talked with Jesus….” To this Teresa responded: “But do we not have in the Eucharist the living, true and real Jesus present before us? Why look for more?” This is a serious question, with the deepest possible implications for our faith.

The Quality of Our Belief

In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Portia says that the quality of mercy is not strained. But we must surely strain to become merciful and, in a related sense, I think we typically fail to strain the quality of our belief. To take a telling example, I suppose that most of us “believe that we believe” in Our Lord’s power to heal. We think that if we had lived in the time of Christ, we would have had little trouble confidently asking Him for a cure or reaching out with complete trust to touch the hem of His garment (Mk 5:28). Even though I actually fear that I would not have become a believer at all, had I lived at that time, because of my reluctance to embrace “personalities”, I still assume that, if I did believe in Him, I could easily have obtained a cure from Jesus Christ in the flesh. But if this is true, why do we not have the same confidence when we pray before the Blessed Sacrament?

Those of us who have received the Eucharist have a far more intimate relationship with Christ than was experienced by His disciples before they began to offer Mass. A moment’s reflection on what we believe shows that this must be true. Yet we rather consistently fail to approach the Eucharist with the same confidence with which we presume we would have approached Jesus before His ascension into heaven. Surely this is a monstrous deficiency in our faith.

Fortunately, it is a deficiency we can correct by constantly reminding ourselves of what the Eucharist is, and by consistently striving to bring our needs to Our Lord as if He were wholly present to us in the flesh. For there is no “as if” about it. Jesus Christ is fully present to us—body, blood, soul and divinity—just as He was to those among whom He walked during His public ministry. Moreover, through our invitation to receive Our Lord sacramentally, we are assimilated to Him just as surely as the other food we eat is assimilated to ourselves. Again, the intimacy of our relationship with Christ cannot be exaggerated, except insofar as it is marred by our sins, including our lazy carelessness concerning what I have called straining our belief—stretching it to make it grow.

If we deliberately try to engage ourselves with Christ in the Eucharist, then we can be certain, despite our weaknesses and even our habitual sins, that we are very close to Him. Touching Him in the Eucharist is more powerful than Peter’s cry of “Lord, save me”, in response to which “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘O man of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (Mt 14:30-21).

It may well be helpful if, in certain situations, we have experienced a sense of the Divine Presence in the Eucharist. And if we have experienced it, we should certainly draw on that experience to reflect more fruitfully on Christ’s immeasurable Presence in our own lives. Our faith itself, even without this particular experience, should be sufficient to prompt us to go deeper. Yet how often are we satisfied by a very little faith! Our Lord’s response is the same now as it was then. Why indeed do we doubt?

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: eileen1636 - Dec. 07, 2013 8:57 AM ET USA

    what an intimate and private expresion you've put to words!It's what i learned as a jewish convert 7 years ago, but have wondered and watched .....there are many in the communion line that may forget the grandeur of the moment. Lord help us to know you in the most holy moment of our week............

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 06, 2013 4:38 PM ET USA

    The emptiness of the church lacking the Real Presence and the doubt that so many experience are foretastes of eternity without God. Doubt and fear are formidable opponents for human beings, and they are not so easily overcome in times of trial. Thus it is paramount that Catholics know who they are and what they have become (are part of) through the sacrament of Baptism. Far too many do not. St. Catherine speaks well of this beautiful relationship of the baptized with God and with each other.

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