Andre Dubus, in a beautiful essay on the Eucharist, makes the following comment: “My belief in the Eucharist is simple: without touch, God is a monologue, an idea, a philosophy; he must touch and be touched, the tongue on the flesh, and that touch is the result of monologues, the idea, the philosophies which led to faith; but in the instant of the touch there is no place for thinking, for talking; the silent touch affirms all that, and goes deeper . . .” (Broken Vessels, Godine Pub. 1991, p. 77).
Like Dubus, my belief in the Eucharist is also simple: the Eucharist is God’s physical embrace of us, God’s touch. Nowhere is the body of Christ so physical, sensual, carnal and available for deep intimacy as in the Eucharist.
Lest this type of talk scandalize, it might be well to read St. Paul’s thought on the matter. Speaking of our union with Christ and with each other within Christ’s body, Paul points out that it is as real, as physical and as sensual as is the union of sexual intercourse.
Today we do not take seriously enough this radical physical and sensual character of the Eucharist. Rarely do we risk understanding the Eucharist in the earthy terms which I will propose here. We are the poorer for it.
The early church was less reluctant in this than we are. For it, the Eucharist was a communion of such deep physical intimacy that they surrounded it with a certain secrecy and barred all except the fully initiated from being there.
They practised something they called the discipline arcani. Part of this discipline was the practice of never speaking about the Eucharist to anyone except to fully-initiated Christians and to not allow anyone who was not fully initiated to attend the Eucharistic celebration. Our present practice within the RCIA of asking catechumens to leave after the homily is based upon this ancient discipline.
This secrecy, however, was not an attempt to surround the Eucharist with a certain mystique so as to intrigue others to be curious about it, as is usually the case with secrecy of this kind. It was not an attempt to create some secret cult. No. The secrecy was a reverence.
For them, the Eucharist was such an intimate thing that one didn’t do it with just anyone nor did one talk about it publicly—akin to not making love in public and being too exhibitionist about your intimacies. In their view, in the Eucharist you made love . . . and that is done with the bedroom door closed.
The shrouding of the Eucharist with this kind of quasi-sexual reverence is in fact most proper. In the Eucharist, Christ touches us, intimately, physically, sensually, carnally. Eucharist is physical, not spiritual; its embrace real, as physical as the incarnation itself.
In this way, Eucharist is more radical than is the Word. Indeed the relationship of the Word to the Eucharist is most accurately and profitably understood within the metaphor of physical embrace and sexual intercourse (and this may be more than metaphor).
The Word is sacramental, but it is less physical than the Eucharist. The communion it creates is less physical than is Eucharistic union. In a manner of speaking, the Word is a preparation for, a readying for, making love. Its role is to prepare us for Eucharistic communion.
The Eucharist is the touch, the physical coming together, the embrace, the consummation, the intercourse.
I suspect that this kind of comparison might scandalize and upset some of you. Comparing the intimacy of Eucharistic communion to sexual intercourse, isn’t this going a bit far? It is going far, admittedly; but it errs primarily in the fact that it doesn’t go far enough.
The mystery of the Body of Christ—God becoming incarnate, Christ leaving us the Word and the Eucharist, and the intimacy and communion that we experience with Christ and each other in the Eucharist—can, in the end, not be exaggerated. Its reality, including its physical character, goes further than we imagine.
This is not wild new theory; it’s wild old doctrine. Pius XII said as much in Mystici Corporis.
A friend of mine, a recent convert, is fond of saying: “I became a Catholic because of the Eucharist. I don’t really understand it, but I feel, always, its reality and power. Nothing is more precious to me.”
The Eucharist is more than sufficient reason to become a Catholic or, indeed, a Christian of any denomination. To be embraced physically by God is, on either side of eternity, all that one can hope for. Like Andre Dubus I long daily for that kind of touch.