Stars and the Excess of Clarity

Spent some time stargazing a while back, when I couldn’t sleep.

No telescope, just the naked eye, a dark neighborhood and a willingness to wonder. I was digesting a bit of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, and it had stayed with me through evening’s pass – the sight of the stars, the early, wise writings of a monk.

Does the fact that we can no longer see the stars have anything to do with our loss of wonder? These things, the stars, and all creation – they are more splendid, perfect, beautiful and lasting than anything man can create or even conceive.

It seems like when we were more aware of milky ways and horizons, it was easier to believe. Could Joan of Arc have led her army, could she even have thought to, could she have trusted enough, without having a sense of something greater, bigger than herself?

We have obliterated the stars with our artificial light – but perhaps we’ve blinded ourselves, too. Without the wonder, the greatness of the galaxies in our sight, we’ve lost the ability to believe in, or expect, miracles.

When you cannot see the glory of God’s creation, how can you wish to glorify the Lord? No longer seeing anything greater than ourselves, we turn inward, we worship our own thoughts, our invention, our desire.

Each generation–and perhaps my boomer generation more than any other–thinks of itself as the most enlightened, most informed, most aware, but how can that be?

We see the world through 19 inch computer screens, and 40 inch television screens. We melt the sand to create 36 inch windows, and we think that’s as big as the world gets.

We’ve narrowed our perspective – made it boxed sized and so have boxed ourselves in. And then we blame God for not giving us miracles anymore – and we blame religion for making us expect them.

We are such fools. Merton had it more right than I had realized when he wrote:

The devil is no fool. He can get people feeling about heaven the way they ought to feel about hell. He can make them fear the means of grace the way they do not fear sin. And he does so, not by light but by obscurity, not by realities but by shadows; not by clarity and substance, but by dreams and the creatures of psychosis. And men are so poor in intellect that a few cold chills down their spine will be enough to keep them from ever finding out the truth about everything The devil does rob us of clarity by casting us about in shadows. But he fools us into thinking that the shadows are light. Our illumination is only illusory.

And this is why we need the Eucharist. As Merton writes:

I tell you there is a power that goes forth from that Sacrament, a power of light and truth, even in to the hearts of those who have heard nothing of Him and seem to be incapable of belief.

And called the Eucharist:

…that tremendous, secret and obvious immolation, so secret that it will never be thoroughly understood by a created intellect, and yet so obvious that its very obviousness blinds us by excess of clarity; the unbloody Sacrifice of God under the species of bread and wine.

Blinds us by excess of clarity. Yes.

There is a wonderful story about Dorothy Day,
who progressed within that excess of clarity until she had denuded herself of all of her worldly possessions except for her breviary and her jar of instant coffee. Even if I could let go of everything but my breviary, I don’t know if I could embrace the humility of instant coffee, but here is the story as Deacon Greg tells it:

Back in the 1970s, when there was a lot of liturgical innovation going on, Dorothy Day invited a young priest to celebrate mass at the Catholic Worker. He decided to do something that he thought was relevant and hip. He asked Dorothy if she had a coffee cup he could borrow. She found one in the kitchen and brought it to him. And, he took that cup and used it as the chalice to celebrate mass.

When it was over, Dorothy picked up the cup, found a small gardening tool, and went to the backyard. She knelt down, dug a hole, kissed the coffee cup, and buried it in the earth.

With that simple gesture, Dorothy Day showed that she understood something that so many of us today don’t: she knew that Christ was truly present in something as ordinary as a ceramic cup. And that it could never be just a coffee cup again.

She understood the power and reality of His presence in the blessed sacrament.

Which is really the sum and substance of what we celebrate on this feast, Corpus Christi. The reason for what we will do today – celebrating with the monstrance, the music, the procession – isn’t to glorify an inanimate object, a bit of bread contained in glass.

It is to remind the world that in that bread we have been given Christ.

Not an idea. Not a symbol. Not an abstract bit of arcane theology. No. It is wider and deeper and more mysterious than that.

Look at that host — and you look at Christ. Everything we are, everything we believe, everything we celebrate around this altar comes down to that incredible truth. What began two thousand years ago in an upper room continues here, and now, and at altars around the world. The very source of our salvation is transformed into something you can hold in the palm of your hand.

That’s a homily that deserves a full reading.

And:

“The hidden treasure… is Jesus himself, the Kingdom in person. In the Sacred Host, he is present, the true treasure, always waiting for us. Only by adoring this presence do we learn how to receive him properly-we learn the reality of communion”. (Pope Benedict XVI, address to Religious and seminarians, Altotting, Germany, Sept., 11, 2006)”

Lots to think and pray about. How humbling it all is!

About Elizabeth Scalia

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