This great Feast of Corpus Christi falls just a couple of days after my brief stay with a distant cousin who is a charismatic evangelical. It leads me to compare and contrast how she and I understand and experience the presence of Jesus.
As I was making and eating breakfast in her house the other day, I couldn’t help but overhear a long video she was watching of a British charismatic preacher on her smartphone. I have no idea of his name or anything else about him. All I know is that he was blubbering on and on about the beautiful, light-emitting countenance of some woman at prayer, putting her image up on stage, and exclaiming “look at her! wow, wow!” again and again, with some biblical quotations inserted between these ejaculations. Later I was upstairs but could still hear the recording vaguely because of the open floor plan. By that time he had moved on to something else, and all I could hear was the word “Jesus” seemingly as every fifth word, taking on a chanting sound.
We had chatted a little over breakfast, speaking over the repetitive preacher’s voice. I lamented that there isn’t any noticable Catholic charismatic presence in my area, which surprised her. She revealed that she first got involved in the charismatic movement participating in a group that was largely Catholic decades ago, and much to her surprise, she “could tell that Jesus really loves these people!” She talked about her prayer groups, and how her son when he was in high school used to sit in these meetings and remark that he felt like he couldn’t even stand up because the presence of Jesus was so heavy in that place.
I entirely sympathize with the desire to have a tangible feeling of the presence of Jesus. Growing up, I had been mildly jealous of my cousins who had this experience of prayer and worship so different from my straight-laced Calvinist upbringing. When I was in high school and my boyfriend was old enough to drive, we would often attend an Assemblies of God church instead of going with our families to Sunday services. I loved the freedom to lift my hands in prayer, or kneel, or otherwise let my body express my emotions as the Spirit moved me. And yet, it always felt to me like they were trying to conjure an emotional experience, and to measure their Christianity by their emotional fervor. Notably lacking was any talk about serving God and neighbor by how we live our lives. In fact, I stopped visiting that church when the pastor left his wife (my piano teacher) for another woman, quite unapologetically.By their fruits you shall know them. How can the presence of Jesus be true when there is no talk about taking up our Cross? And doesn’t Jesus himself say that whenever we care for the sick, visit the imprisoned, and welcome the stranger, we do it, not for, but to Him? I do not mean to suggest that charismatics don’t care about the works of mercy; indeed, this cousin is providing a very generous one to my family. But the presence of Jesus isn’t confirmed by theatrics or emotions, but by how our lives conform to His.
Between us and the perfect God-Man, however, is a vast chasm of insufficiency and concupiscence. There is no way that we can attain by our own effort–whether it be developing virtue, works of mercy, or prayer–to a life conformed to God’s perfection. Only He can effect the transformation by offering His real presence, undeserved, in slow but constant drips that slowly erode away the crust of sin and reveal the image of God that lies within each of us.
My cousin was right to say that Jesus loves those Catholic charismatics very much, but her assessment was quite incomplete. Jesus loves every one of us very much, which is why He offers his True Body, his Real Presence, to the world every day, every hour, in these bite-sized morsels we call the Eucharist. Perhaps what drew my cousin to the charismatic movement initially was seeing this authentic Presence that these Catholic charismatics carried within them, animating their worship and prayer with a dynamism of the Holy Spirit that needed no gimmicks.
The charismatic style of prayer and worship is not for everyone; the Holy Spirit works through an infinite variety of characters and charisms. In the Eucharist, Jesus is as powerfully present to the reserved nun bowed in prayer, or the father stoically wrangling a toddler, as He is to the worshipers who lift their hands in ecstatic praise. Sadly, few realize this, so few receive His Presence frequently in faith and awe and openness to its burning transformative potential. But Jesus thirsts infinitely to pour out his True Blood into our hearts, until someday we will become like Him, and be able to behold His Presence, not as an oppressive weight, but face to face.