Fr Conor McDonough OP
As Catholics we all surely felt our faith was disrespected last month when the comedian David Chambers (‘Blindboy Boatclub’) described the Eucharist as ‘haunted bread’ on The Late Late Show. The celebration of the Eucharist is the raison d’être of the priesthood, so as a newly-ordained priest I felt particularly keenly the sting of this barb. My first reaction was defensive: how could RTÉ, the State broadcaster, air this ridicule? And regarding Chambers himself, my first thought was that he went too far in the search for a cheap laugh.
When I watched the clip in a more recollected mood, I had a different reaction: it wasn’t that Chambers went too far, but that he didn’t go far enough. When he opined that “they’re asking us to eat the ghost of a 2,000-year-old carpenter”, he underestimated the surprise of Christian orthodoxy. In fact, ‘they’ are asking us to believe not that there is just a ghostly, spiritual presence inhabiting the Host, but that the Host is the living, risen body of Jesus. ‘They’ are asking us to believe that this body is the turning point of human history. And ‘they’ are asking us to believe that our senses – sight, touch, taste – are confounded in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
But the only reason ‘they’ would ever dream of asking us to believe such a thing is because ‘he’ did so first.
Just have a read of John 6, where Jesus describes eating his flesh and drinking his blood as a way of remaining in him. We’re used to speaking in these terms, but Jesus’ first hearers were not: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (Jn 6:66).
If we have lost the ability to be astounded by Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist it’s perhaps because the near-universal practice of the Catholic faith in many parts of Ireland up until relatively recently had the side effect of making Christianity seem obviously and uncontroversially true, thus domesticating the dynamite of Christian orthodoxy. While it’s sad that unbelievers like Chambers and his colleagues ridicule the faith, isn’t it just as sad that we believers often accept the faith as true but not particularly interesting, and sometimes view the Mass simply as part of the furniture of our lives?
C.S. Lewis once said that one of the reasons he believed in Christianity was that it was “a religion you could not have guessed”: “If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up.”
This is not to say that the truth we believe is somehow irrational. Rather it is hyper-rational, so blindingly true that our minds react to it like blinking owls in sunlight, struggling to take it all in, amazed at this excess.
Thus, among the basic attitudes of the Christian believer ought to be wonder at the extraordinary mysteries of creation and redemption. When Tubridy and his panellists snickered about the Eucharist being ‘a scary concept’, they were certainly far from faith-filled wonder, but even in their unbelief they may have struck on something we believers should never forget: the truth of Christianity is unexpected, ever-new, and not to be tamed.
Catholics should certainly protest Chambers’ ill-mannered sneers, but there’s another road we should not neglect to take: to turn again to John 6 and Jesus’ teaching about his bodily, sacramental presence to us in the Eucharist, to hear these words again as if for the first time, and to make our own the faith-filled, awestruck words of Peter: “Lord, you have the words of eternal life.”
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One of the problems of thinking of the Christian faith as obviously true is that it makes theology redundant in the life of the Church.
Theologically ill-informed public discourse is partly a symptom of an impoverished intellectual life within the Church. Chambers claimed at one point in the discussion that the Church doesn’t want us to think critically. This impression is widespread among my peers, and it explains in part why so many counter-cultural believers of my generation have been drawn to the Dominican Order, which has, for 800 years, sustained a tradition of critical, but reverent, study of the mysteries of the faith.
Prayer, thought, careful reading and charitable debate: these elements of a medieval tradition are just what we need in 21st-Century Ireland.
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No wonder with mindfulness
Mockery often places us on the defensive, but it’s always worth pro-actively interrogating the worldviews of our interlocutors as well as defending our own. Besides mocking Christianity, here’s what Chambers proposed in its place as activities in which young Irish people find meaning: mindfulness and exercise. These are fine so far as they go, but aren’t they terribly mundane?
These activities rarely strike out towards the transcendent, and they shrivel into nothing at the limit of our earthly existence, death. And because of their this-worldliness, they are both easily appropriated by companies who install gyms and run meditation classes to fine-tune the cogs in their corporate machine.
Mindfulness and exercise: a religion we could have guessed.