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"The True Believer" by Aidan Kavanagh

"The True Believer" by Aidan Kavanagh

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Published by: akimel on Mar 12, 2008
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05/24/2012

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THE TRUE BELIEVER
by Aidan Kavanagh, O.S.B.
There can be no doubt that Baptism and Eucharist are the two premier events in theChurch’s sacramental life. Not only do all the other sacraments flow from these two, butBaptism is the way the Eucharist begins, and the Eucharist is the way Baptism is sustained in thelife of the Church. This means that, far from being totally separate events, Baptism and theEucharist work in the closest tandem. Their content is identical: Christ dying and rising stillamong the members of his Church, only the idiom of its realization differs. In one case theidiom involves bathing, while in the other the idiom involves dining together.Over the past several centuries, Catholics have concentrated perhaps too much on theidiomatic differences that set Baptism and Eucharist apart from each other. The differences areobviously real. What is not so obvious is the equally real and crucially important identity of content shared by the two events. There is but one Christ, dying and rising, who pervades boththe Church and all the Church’s deeds. To be apart from him, in whatever degree, is, to thatsame degree, to be apart from the Church and its deeds. To be in him, whatever degree, is, tothat same degree, to be in his Church and involved in its deeds. As bands on a spectrum reflectone light, so into the convolutions of our lives the sacramental deeds of the Church refract oneChrist, who is dying and rising still.Yet all of the sacraments, Baptism and Eucharist assert this truth in the most emphaticway. I may live my own life in him without marriage or ordination, but I cannot survive withoutBaptism and Eucharist. Nor can the community of faith in which I live remain faithful withoutconstant access to these two. A eucharistic group that is neither baptized nor baptizing maybe bemany thing, but it is not the Church. A baptized and baptizing group that never celebrates itsdeath and life in Christ around the Lord’s Table may be a sect of some vigor, but it is not theChurch.It can be argued that, while Catholics have rarely been tempted to this second course, wehave perhaps come close to succumbing to the first. We may be the word’s collective expert onthe Mass, but we have had little to say or do about Baptism. This is an awkward position to be inif Baptism is the way Eucharist begins and Eucharist is the way Baptism is sustained in theChurch.For to know Christ only in terms of bread and wine can be to know him only in thedining room as guest and host. It is a valid enough knowledge. But it is inevitably partial andperhaps too civil—easily layered over with a brittle etiquette soon rendered obsolete whencultures change. It is a knowledge prone less to robustness than to niceness, reducing Eucharistto a sort of ecumenical high tea. The Lord as guest is readily sentimentalized. The Lord as hostis readily transformed into an indulgent therapist of whatever lusts are monetarily ours. Thisproduces arrogance in the young, depression among the old, and apostasy for the Church.Two main forces have traditionally balanced this tendency and checked its spread. Thefirst has been the attempt at keeping Eucharist as “banquet or meal” in tension with a perceptionof Eucharist as “sacrifice.” The tension reminds us that, however elegant the knowledge of this
 
dining room may be, it begins in the soil, in the barnyard, and in the slaughterhouse—amidststrangles cries, congealing blood, and spitting fat in the pan. Table manners depend uponsomething’s having been grabbed by the throat. A knowledge ignorant of these dark andmurderous “gestures charged with soul” is sterile rather than elegant, science rather thanwisdom, artifice rather than art. It is love without passion, the Church without a cross, a housewith dining room but no kitchen, a feast of frozen dinners, a heartless life. The pious (religiousand secular) would have us dine on abstractions but we are, in fact, carnivores—a bloody bunch.Sacrifice may have many facets, but it always has a victim.The second force that has traditionally balanced and checked the spread of a hypercivilized eucharistic knowledge of Christ has been baptismal. Here Christ is known not as he isin the dining room as guest, host, and food. Baptism’s knowledge of Christ is that of thebathhouse. It is not a mannered knowledge, for manners, etiquette, and artifice fall away as onetakes off one’s clothes. It is a knowledge of appalling candor, robust and intimate. It is lessmental than bodily, as when lovers are said to “know” each other. It is the inspired knowledge of the Song of Songs rather than that of the Epistle to the Romans, for God speaks not only in logicbut also in smell and in the feel of oil and warm water on the skin. God says much in Romansabout his union with humankind, but he says even more about the same mystery in the soft pornof the Song of Songs. There can be little doubt that more people have been willing to die for alover than for a doctrine of regeneration.This sort of knowledge is, of course, not awfully civil. It is rarely brittle and neverrendered obsolete when cultures change. It abides. Profligates and great mystics share it:converts and lover quickly learn it quickly. Only the conventionally pious avoid it, rather for thesame reasons, one suspects, that bourgeois society avoids having naked people to tea. Amannered situation cannot survive too much knowledge. Thus the noble aunt in Oscar Wilde’s
The Importance of Being Earnest 
, on being informed of her two grown nephews’ approachingbaptism, huffs that such a thing must be regarded as grotesque and irreligious.That a bathhouse Christ leaves those grown accustomed only to a dining-room Christuncomfortable is precisely what it should do. For the Great Civilizer was often uncivil, the MostNice distinctly un-nice, the Cornerstone of all subsequent conventions quite unconventional, thePeacemaker sometime unpeaceful. He was the Paradox Unequaled. Nothing less could haverecreated the world.To live in
this
knowledge, it is not enough to be a little mad. One has to be among theliving dead—dead to all that is not, alive to all that is. For the sin we call original separates usnot only from God but from all that is—his creation. It is an option that amounts to choosingourselves instead of all else and then attempting to recreate all else in our own image. Our sorrystate is the result of everything’s intractable refusal to accept our tacky little providence ascounterfeit for the Real Thing. Feeling rejected and then frustrated, we savage both ourselvesand everything that crosses our path, becoming alien in our own house. Death is the only exit.Which is why, when God came among us, even he had to go this way. Thus our Christiandinners are wakes, and our bathhouses are tombs—not for Christ but for ourselves. He sits at ourtable fragrant with the ointment of his own blood, and we dine not only with him but on him.
 
For the “unlively dead”, such things are grotesque and irreligious indeed. But for the“living dead” they are eucharists and baptisms, births and banquets in which Life is celebrated asit was meant to be.Having said all this, one would be less than candid if one did not admit that it suggests avision which seems to be will-nigh irretrievable in our parishes today. This may be so because ithas become difficult for us to take Baptism seriously anymore. Not only is it usually done ratherhastily, upon sleeping infants, in private, with a minimum of symbolic robustness (teacups of water and dabs of oil), it has also been allowed to float free of the community’s regular worship-life, especially at the Easter Vigil. And its normal finale—Confirmation and the reception of Holy Communion—has been separated into distinct parts often delayed for years or evendecades. We are thus left with a pastel, truncated rite that looks more like a modest exorcismfrom sin or a rather dispensable social occasion. By its universal association with infancy,Baptism itself becomes a grotesque and irreligious thing to force on normal, healthy adults. Thisbeing the case, pastoral emphasis has shifted away from Baptism to the more crucial rites andages such as Penance and First Communion for adolescents, with religious education andcounseling programs to match. The shift encourages us to become fixated on youth, leavingbaptized adults to shift for themselves, so far as they Gospel is concerned, and unbaptized adultsunevangelized.A Church such as this may not be apostate, but it is surely suffering from sclerosis. Itwill not hold its people for long if it moves into classrooms and office buildings, for it hasnothing significant to say in these places that everyone else cannot say as well or better. Tomutter to oneself is not the best way of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus dead and risen. Todo this as it should b done, the Church will have to be found speaking from places that teachersand bureaucrats never frequent, but which keep a hold in terror and fascination upon the humanspirit: tombs, barnyards, tubs, scaffolds, and smoking altars. The Church must tell about deathand life from sites where the two meet and wrestle. And it must say these things not only inwords but in “gestures charged with soul”—first of all to those who are old enough to be awarethat they are, in fact, participants in the match rather that spectators at it.It is a grim and serious business which must not be trivialized into mere ideology. It isnot a situation comedy, nor is its peculiar knowledge reducible to some new therapeutic fad.Precisely because the match is grim and serious, its winning makes true celebration possible.Only those how have stared death in the face, seen their own reflection there, and thrown both tothe ground in a bloody fight really know how to laugh. Having, like Dante, climbed down theshaggy sides of evil itself in their own conversion, these know an Easter morning when they seeGod. Then the wake becomes a banquet, the tomb an oasis where the waters of creation sparkleup fresh beneath the Tree of Life.It is so elemental an occurrence that it cannot be spoken of in mere prose. It requiressnakes in the grass, bread and wine on the table, water and oil in the bath, and luminous lambsstanding slain in courthouse squares. It cannot be put on a bumper sticker or in a missalette for itis not a text. It is the recreation of the world.If I really thought this occurrence and all that is implies were irretrievable, I woulddespair of the Church, for it is of this that Christ made his Church unique minister to the world.When he commanded the Church to go and teach, he did not mean physics or the social sciencesor liturgical ceremonial. He meant that it should go out from itself, announcing the Good News

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