Monday, March 5, 2012

Learning to appreciate mystery

When the term ‘transubstantiation’ was coined, the church framed it in philosophical categories.  Thus, an essential transformation takes place to change the essence (what a thing is) while the accidents (what a thing appears to be) remain unchanged.  The substance, what literally ‘stands under’ the appearance becomes the body and blood of Christ.

The term had become de rigueur in religious parlance from then, and it has led many priests and seminarians to simply rely on the usage of that word to say that something extraordinary happens at the consecration.  The reliance on the use of a coined phrase somehow relieves the human mind of any further need to ponder on the reality of what one is confronted with, and it can be a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it leaves the ‘nuts and bolts’ to God, and engenders the priest to be aware that it is not he who is doing anything great.  It humbles one greatly.

On the other hand, it could lead one to a case of being somewhat jaded because it is mystery that one is not meant to understand but instead, to behold in awe.  Beholding is not something that comes automatically to the average human person whose patience and tolerance for a gentle unfolding is becoming shorter and shorter as the centuries go by.  One needs a certain innocence to know how to behold and a certain willingness to be awestruck.  One needs a certain docility in order to be led.  But the average person living in this day and age is one that resists being led and formed, but instead wants to lead and form, and to chart one’s own course in life.

Actually, this ‘problem’ is not new.  Even when the phrase ‘transubstantiation’ was applied, questions were asked about when exactly did the transubstantiation take place.  Was it when the phrase was uttered?  Or was it the placement of the consecrated hands of the priest over the gifts?  However, the more important question to be asked to these questioners, which I am not sure if they were asked or not, was “why is there a need to know”? 

What we do with knowledge somehow reveals our inner disposition.  By knowing this, can we can pin it down to the exact moment of the exact word and the precise moment of the specific liturgical hand action that ‘nails’ down the transubstantiation moment, would we be better disciples of Christ and fellow transformers of the world and people who are willing to live the values of the Kingdom of God in the world?  I'm not sure.

Or is this information going to allow us to ‘switch off’ and do our own ‘stuff’ till the important moment comes, so that we will then suddenly sit up and pay attention?  In those days, it would have meant stopping our fingering of our rosary beads, or in our current-day situation, to put our phones down and stop checking on our Facebook accounts on our iPhones because ‘God’ is happening now.

When we live separated and compartmentalized lives in our spirituality, we are only tuned in to God when we think we should be.  We dictate when we ‘allow’ God to come into and ‘disturb’ our lives.  Indeed, too much detailed knowledge about God and how he works, can ruin our ability to be awed by God.

I have been asked by so many Catholics – when is the cut-off moment when it is considered that one has actually missed Mass?  Is it at the start of the first reading, or the end of it?  Or is it at the start of the proclamation of the Gospel? 

These kinds of questions are considered reductionist in nature, because it reduces very much our ability to behold in its entirety what God really wants to offer us in life. 

When we find ourselves unable to appreciate mystery, unwilling to ponder anew or are irritable with any form of waiting and contemplation, we do our spiritual lives more harm than good.  Pithy, trite and short answers to the ‘why’s’ of life do not form the heart of a person to make one wise.  No one goes through any book that has the phrase ‘for dummies’ on the cover ever has a comprehensive and wide understanding of anything that requires discipline and sedulous patience, serious reading that leads to an unfolding of something that is rich and deep.  Yet, we do seem to want quick fixes for tough mysteries. 

I have realized in my years as a confessor that it is the people who are willing to really sit and talk about their lives rather than just listing out their sins that are the ones who are most able to experience transformation.  It doesn’t mean that those who opt to just list the sins do not receive God’s forgiveness.  They both do, without a doubt.  But there is something to be said about the willingness of a soul to want to really address an issue that keeps one from living a life of grace that helps one to experience a deep conversion. 

So, I keep reminding myself - 40 days of Lent may be a bit long and arduous, but experiences that are rushed through are hardly transformative. Thank God that there is no "Lent for dummies".


  1. As usual Padre, I enjoyed reading your entry. In discussing the theological concept of transubstantiation and the moment when the Lord becomes present, I am often reminded of the Te Deum. In it I am aptly reminded that our Lord is hidden under the mysterious veils of bread and wine, but it is an act of faith that He is indeed there. It is faith that guides the one to trust enough in the divine message of our Lord and we must have faith to let go enough to trust in Him. I have experienced a long journey back to Rome and it has been my experience that our Lord is always talking to us, but we (humans) are often too distracted to pay heed to our conscience and to His message of love and guidance. Sometimes those distractions are like you said, the objects of media like phones and Facebook, but other times it is our pride and our presumption of knowledge. Let us all pray this Lent to quiet our minds and our hearts and be as children of faith, humbling ourselves before our Lord and casting out those things which separate us from Him.

    1. Apologies, I just realized I wrote Te Deum, but I had meant to write Adoro Te. Mea culpa =)

  2. You said that “it ( transubstantiation) is mystery that one is not meant to understand but instead, to behold in awe. Beholding is not something that comes automatically to the average human person...........” and to behold one needs a certain innocence, a certain willingness to be awestruck, a certain docility..........

    What struck me about what you said was that to behold, to appreciate and to experience mystery- depends on the beholder.....his attitude and personality, something very similar to what Fr Rolheiser shared in one of his writings. He talked about porous personalities, citing the example of his mother who in a ‘situation of fragility and helplessness, dropped to her knees and turned to God as if by natural instinct and how today this kind of response is no longer our natural instinct’.........(as opposed to a buffered personality or what is termed ‘self-sufficient humanism’ in the secular world today) The stress he placed on getting in touch with this - “ our inner porous self– namely our deep down fragility, helplessness, insubstantiality and lack of self-sufficiency was not to instill fear but rather ( surprisingly!) – gratitude.........for “it is only when we realize that we are not in control and our lives and our safety are in the hands of a great and loving power beyond us that we will bend our knees in gratitude, both when we are joyous and when we are afraid.’’

    I believe that it must be this child-like openness and trust that enables one to appreciate the mystery that is God and to live in His presence daily. One of the first oblate to the Christian Meditation Community and a close friend of Fr John Main- Rosie Lovat, shared fully in the life of the community by giving of self and service. After her death, one of her diary entries read...... “ I will never get used to the wonder of baking bread, saying my mantra to the rhythm of the breading – putting my whole heart into it – then at Mass, it becomes the Body of Christ. What greater happiness could there be? ........” I feel that Rosie not only beholds and appreciates the Mystery but lives fully the Mystery. Beauty truly lies in the eye of the beholder!

    God bless you, Fr


  3. Dear Fr Luke

    While there is no 'lent for dummies', there certainly is 'catholism for dummies'. I think I am no closer to understanding this mystery of transubstantiation What has changed? Where? How come I can't see or feel it? What's wrong with me?

    When I was younger, I tried in vain to identify when the highest point of the mass actually occured, believing it be an epochal moment - a make-or-break moment where there is either a great leap forward or annihilation. Today, contemplating this mystery is like a paradox. A mysterious paradox as I get excited in one one way and calm in another. But I'm still 'blur' as to when it actually occurs, and ready to pinch myself to guard against imagining things.

    I am extremely guilty of trying to compartmentalize and even suppress my spirituality. But God works in strange and compassionate ways, with both soft prompting and astute representatives. And having taken more than a single step on that journey of a thousand miles, I realize that in suffering there is beauty and I see Catholism now as not about looking for the magic moment of change, but rather living a way of life consistent with God's love.

    God Bless.

  4. Have you been to magic shows with your friends? Many will be intrigued with the performances but there would be this one friend who after the magic had ended and the lady saved would turn around and asked, “Did she die?” Somehow, there is a disconnect in this person’s brain who could not relate to the same lady being “sawed” moments ago and was later standing up.

    And I am most certain that you had many times sat down patiently with your parishioners explaining to them the spirituality of why we carry the Rosary or the Brown Scapular only to be asked at the end, “So Father Luke, must we carry them to have special power to protect us from evil?” What about those moments when you tell them that the blessing of sacramental is meant for the ears of the person using the sacramental only to be rebuked, “Just bless lah, Father. I will tell so-and-so bless by you can already.”
    Finally, if you had given your discourse above as a talk, they would be at least one person who would come to you with “Great talk, Father. I learnt a lot. But so how? OK to be late right?”

    In the first example, I believe that there are some people whose minds are too educated in logic and science, they cannot appreciate mystery. Everything has to be understood. We cannot “stand under” the mystery of having bread and wine changed into body and blood of Christ.

    In the latter examples (I got carried away), I believe it is a result of the world having sold us the advantages of instant coffee, instant oats, instant information on smart phones. The path to prosperity and success is depended on quickness. Our modern world is so geared towards instant gratification that even in spirituality, we need instant karma!
    Hence, with where our modern education is heading and where the seductions of our secular world are leading us, we really NEED our priests to constantly remind us of the beauty in beholding and of appreciating the mystery who is God. Only when we are able to do the above right, would we then be able to allow God to unfold our own mysteries, especially the suffering ones, in life and to live well.

    To end this on a cheeky note…”So, when is the cut-off moment when it is considered that one has actually missed Mass?” My guess is that it started 2,000 years ago and has never ended. Jesus Christ had finished his works on Calvary but as Church, we are asked to continue his life, passion and resurrection even today. We participate in Masses and the Church gives us seasons, of Advent and Lent, so that we can have deeper appreciation of the different aspects of this mystery. We are just too dumb a human race to know it all at once.

  5. Dear Father, I read your blog on Monday morning but could not figure it out. Today I read the sharings of dummy and sf and don't feel so stupid. I also was looking for the magic moment and really like sf I ask where? I feel solidarity as I also feel 'blur' although I attend mass everyday and are not inclined to supress my spirituality. It IS a way of life and we are too dumb as a human race to grasp what ww have all at once.

    Thank you.