I know I’ve posted this before, but I’m struck at how beautifully Flannery O’Connor expressed herself regarding both the Eucharist and Church history. First, she famously had this to say of the Eucharist, as recounted in a letter she wrote in December of 1955:
Flannery O’Connor“I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, A Charmed Life). She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. The people who took me were Robert Lowell and his now wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.
Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”
This touches on a point that I find fascinating. I find that while Protestants tend to overestimate the importance of our differences on justification, there’s a tendency to underestimate the importance of our different understandings of the Eucharist. Understanding this difference as one of degree (whether Christ is spiritually or physically Present) would be as misleading as supposing that it was just a difference of degrees between Arianism (which said that Christ was of a similar substance as the Father) and Catholicism (Christ is of the same substance as the Father). In the case of Arianism, it’s the difference between Jesus Christ being God or not. In the case of Protestantism, it’s the difference between the Eucharist being Jesus Christ or not. For us, the Eucharist is everything, period.
On a related note, Flannery O’Connor succinctly pointed out the illogical ecclesiology and Church history within Protestantism, in a July 1959 letter to one Dr. T.R. Spivey:
We mean entirely different things when we each say we believe the Church is Divine. You mean the invisible Church with somehow related to it many forms, whereas I mean one and one only visible Church. It is not logical to the Catholic to believe that Christ teaches through many visible forms all teaching contrary doctrine. You speak of the well-known facts of Christ’s life – but these facts are hotly contested – the virgin birth, the resurrection, the very divinity of Christ. For us the one visible Church pronounces on these matters infallibly and we receive her doctrine whether subjectively it fits in with our surmises or not. We believe that Christ left the Church to speak for him, that it speaks with his voice, that he is the head and we are the members.
|Juan de Juanes, The Last Supper (1560)|
If Christ actually teaches through many forms then for fifteen centuries, he taught that the Eucharist was his actual body and blood and thereafter he taught part of his people that it was only a symbol. The Catholic can’t live with this contradiction. I have seen it said that the Catholic is more interested in truth and the Protestant in goodness, but I don’t think too much of the formula except that it suggests a partial truth.
The Catholic finds it easier to understand the atheist than the Protestant, but easier to love the Protestant than the atheist. The fact is though now that the fundamental Protestants, as far as doctrine goes, are closer to their traditional enemy, the Church of Rome, than they are to the advanced elements of Protestantism. You can know where I stand, what I believe because I am a practicing Catholic, but I can’t know what you believe unless I ask you. You are right that enjoy is not exactly the right word for our talking about religion. As far as I know, it hurts like nothing else. We are at least together in the pain we share in this terrible division. It’s the Catholic Church who calls you “separated brethren,” she who feels the awful loss.
I had to fight the impulse to put every sentence in bold, because she manages to capture everything I could say in a few short paragraphs. She points out the inherent contradictions within Protestantism, sees the brewing chaos within mainline Protestant (back in 1959!), and yet, she’s not triumphalistic about it, but pained. As much as I love Flannery’s writings for her sharp wit and keen insights, the most beautiful thing to emerge from her writings is a true Christian love for the Eucharist and for her neighbor, even for those she disagreed with.