[in lieu of Thanksgiving travels, I am offering a few re-posts, hoping long-time Obstat readers have short-term memories! This post, as I recall, was kind of a manic stream of insights that still feel a bit fractured. But here it is anyway…]
While I was researching medieval mysticism for my dissertation, I fell in love with the work of Marguerite Porete, a French mystic and author of The Mirror of Simple Souls, who was burned at the stake in 1310 after being accused of heresy by the Inquisition. Her writing is dense and filled with paradoxical twists that, if you allow, break your thoughts open to new perspectives on the nature of divine and human love as they were revealed in Christ Crucified.
Why Be Good?
In particular, she lays out a really robust critique of any and all who love God or neighbor for the sake of getting something in return. Only when we lose this mercenary motive, finding our only “why” in God, can we rightly receive what love does, in fact, receive from the beloved.
To understand this paradox, she affirms, one must first be willing to taste the death of self, a death that is baptism’s loveliest flower, grace’s highest work. The self-consumed seeker-of-God, the one who is unwilling to risk surrendering the things they cling to, will never “get” this truth and, Porete argues, will always judge self-forgetfulness an impossible goal.
Save Me, O Lord
Like so many of the women of her time who were able to share their theological thinking in writing, her emphasis was on the central importance of cultivating the “interior life” in service to the reform of the Church. In particular, she describes with remarkable rhetorical power the utter uniqueness of the human soul in all creation; a soul stamped with the divine image, created as the only true Temple where God is pleased to dwell in all His fullness. In a favorite quote of mine from The Mirror, she sums this point up succinctly:
God has nowhere to put his goodness, if not in me; no place to put himself entire, if not in me. And by this means I am the exemplar of salvation, and what is more, I am the salvation itself of every creature, and the glory of God.
What an exalted view of a single soul!
For Porete, if one person permits God to “have his way” in their deepest self, the whole of creation is changed as God’s Kingdom extends its claim and sinks its roots more deeply in humanity’s rocky soils.
The Mass provides an analogy. We affirm in faith that the consecration of bread and wine in the Eucharistic Liturgy serves to further the subversion of the Old Creation by means of the in-breaking of the New Creation, and that by giving way to the glorified dead-risen Body of Jesus. Transubstantiation, a philosophical term coined in the medieval era to express the mind-bending mystery of this marvelous exchange, affirms not that the bread and wine are somehow invisibly concealing Christ’s bodily substance “inside” the molecular structures of the sacred species, but rather that the bread and wine have passed-over into an absolutely new state of being, having become, by the Spirit’s re-creative power, signs that are what they signify.
When that insight came to me, it floored me. It still floors me. This whole image of Eucharistic Liturgy as the “passing away” of this world into the next through our humanity has long inflamed my theological imagination and haunted my prayer.
The Present Future
St. Paul affirms (1 Cor 7:31) that “the world in its present form is passing away.”
I’m looking out the window right now. Nice evening. But it doesn’t seem to be passing away to me. So, how so?
Catholics would point not to an impending Rapture, or to an unrealized future eschatological date, but to the Sacramental Liturgy as the God-wrought time and space where this “passing away” finds its present, even if mysterious, fulfillment. It is in the holy Eucharist above all that we find the most radical locus, the real foretaste and promise of the passing over of one creation into another. Here, now. In fact, when Aquinas privileged the word transubstantiation to describe the “change” that happens to the bread and wine, he was well aware that this neologism was really a nonsensical affirmation in the standard Aristotelian parlance: in this world substances don’t change their identity while remaining in appearance what they once were. It just doesn’t happen in the natural order.
But at Mass we are no longer simply in the natural order — the New Order has come. By coining such a metaphysical anomaly, a “freak of nature,” medieval theologians were making ample space for mystery, and affirming the radical newness of a Reality that has no other analogue in the rest of our present creation. By so doing, they simultaneously bound the mystery of the law-breaking Body of the Risen Christ — walking through locked doors! — with the new-law-making Eucharistic Food and Drink.
And how fitting it was that ground zero of this Passover from one creation into another, of the old into the new, is what Tolkien called the eucatastrophic (“literally “good catastrophe”) event of the Passion — that dramatic event of violent destruction that sealed as one finite creature and infinite Creator. The divine-human Substance of the God-Man, crushed like wheat, pressed like grapes, makes way for an ineffable novelty.
“Behold, I make all things new.” Rev. 21:5
Dangerous Food, Drink
Note one important fact: Jesus commands us to eat and drink this subverted, changed, transubstantiated, super-substantial Meal, inviting us to risk ingestion that we might be implicated in the very newness of the New Creation that cascades from the open side of Christ.
As with the holy Virgin, the transformation of one life by this transubstantiating grace hastens the arrival on earth of Heaven in us, and advances the all-triumph of the unselfish King who spends his entire treasury on the communion of the poor who cry out day and night, “Come!”
What do the these neophytes look like? In the words of a report given by a pagan official, Aristides, to the Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), who was seeking justification to maintain the illegal status of Christianity, those who were caught “celebrating Eucharist on Sunday” were different:
This is really a new kind of person.
There is something divine in them.
What’s so “new” about them? Aristides goes on:
They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If a man has something, he gives freely to the man who has nothing. If they see a stranger, Christians take him home and are happy, as though he were a real brother.
They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit of God. And if they hear that one of them is in jail, or persecuted for professing the name of their redeemer, they all give him what he needs. If it is possible, they bail him out. If one of them is poor and there isn’t enough food to go around, they fast several days to give him the food he needs.
On You Rests the Good of All
Returning again to Porete’s vision of salvation-for-all-in-me, it’s really a Butterfly Effect theology. To wed oneself to Christ’s desire for the salvation of all is to first desire to be saved oneself in the manner that God himself desires; to become new so as to renew all things.
As St. Seraphim of Sarov had it, “Be yourself at peace with God and thousands about you will be saved.”
Were St. Therese to have denied the Christmas grace to love her father more than herself that Christmas eve of 1886, several years later Henri Pranzini may well have died unrepentant under the guillotine.
My point? Upon your daily, minutely “yes” to God, consummated in the transubstantiating fire of the Eucharistic feast, the salvation of all depends.
Love would have it no other way.