IT is proverbial that we are sometimes blindest of all to the most familiar things: the old house, the cherished walk, the parks and gardens where we are accustomed to while away the hours. Like good friends they do not need the reassurance of a long and searching scrutiny. We are at home with them and can find our way about them. Anything more is for the visitor, the dilettante, the tourist.
This is especially so regarding religious matters. We have staked our claim here, and have wandered in and out since childhood. Here most of all we have our home. It is almost inevitable as a consequence that here we can be blindest of all.
Let us take the most sacred moment in our daily worship and describe it as though to a stranger.
‘The bell rings for the consecration’, as we say. The priest bows down upon the altar as though he were trying to seclude himself from the people and their concerns. The congregation stops its coughing, and feet-scrapings and bead-rattlings, and each member of it gradually becomes a little pool of silence. For each of them is waiting, waiting alone and solitary, so it seems. But for what? For something to adore. After the first bell all the eyes are raised, eyes like those of children about to look upon their parents’ gift until now hidden from them. This is what they were waiting for, the Host, the white Wafer under which their God lies hid. The priest has done his work unfailingly as he always does, and the object of adoration is presented to those reverent eyes. So many lips murmur softly to themselves the words that confess the Lord’s divinity and his real presence, ‘My Lord and my God’. For many the main part is over. They have seen their Lord. They have gained their indulgence. The chalice contains and yet hides the Precious Blood. They look at it when raised, for that is what some missals direct them to do. ‘Look at the chalice’, they are told, ‘and then bow down to adore the Blood of Christ.’ But the Blood moves the people less for the simple reason that they cannot see It.
The coughing checked in masterly fashion for the few moments of the adoration returns harsher than ever for a little while, but then gentler, more reverent. So it is with the shuffling feet and the dangling beads. The congregation is now in the presence of God. What better sign of his presence could the Lord have given to his elect than this Host, white and pure and radiant, even its shape — circular, and so without beginning and end—betokening divinity?
No reader, I suppose, would either query the general accuracy of this description or fail to be somewhat saddened at the deficiencies in the appreciation of the Mystery that it betrays.
Our people, in the main, give little more than notional assent to the Eucharist as a sacrifice. The Mass is thought of sometimes as Benediction with rather different rubrics. We must admit that our laity often do not know what it means when they are told that they should be offering with the priest.
I want to suggest that the real reason for this lack of comprehension is that there is no practical understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. Because many people’s whole spirituality is directed to Christ as God it is seriously lacking in many respects. Christian prayer is not only prayer in which our Lord figures but in which he figures as Mediator. Our people are praying with great piety and zeal, so much so that we are inclined to forget that it is not always according to knowledge. For they do not know practically that ‘through him (Christ) we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father’.
They do not offer, then, with the priest because the priest is offering to the Father and they are unaccustomed to thinking of prayer as directed to the Father. When the priest raises his hands at the altar they take it for granted that he is just giving them a view of the Host so they can adore It. After all, the priest used to have his back to them and had to raise the Host high for them to see. They cannot—and perhaps with every justification cannot — recognise this elevation as a sacrificial attitude because the priest does not raise his hands in any case until the words of consecration are completed. No wonder they think the priest’s task is wholly separate from, and antecedent to, their own. The habit they have acquired of bowing down accentuates their seeming exclusion from the sacrifice. For no outside observer would think this ostrich-like behaviour symbolic of an attitude of sacrifice. Hands raised high to heaven, yes, that would be fitting, hands outstretched, eyes held aloft, that would indeed be a sign of an oblation to the heavenly Father. This general collapse over the benches certainly is not.
As for the Host Itself on which they concentrate in affection almost entirely, it would be something if they could recognise It as bread. As it is, It may satisfy their aesthetic sense but It is scarcely calculated to remind them that they are hungry. They feel the proper attitude is, as before, adoration, so that Communion as a habit appears to some to be rather overdoing the familiarity. We should emphasise to them that the Eucharistic bread is not a symbol of Christ’s divinity but of his flesh and we were meant to hunger after it: the very condition of salvation is feeding on that flesh in faith and in the Eucharist. When our people do not know this effectively, they are quite content with their adoration. The Family’s bread remains undistributed, and nobody seems to be hungry . . .
To offer the doctrine of the Trinity as a remedy to much of this is not like offering any kind of cheap panacea. We were baptised into the Trinity. The Trinity lives in each of us. Each Person is personally united to each of us. It is the Trinity that is the home of all our wanderings. It must be obvious that our life of worship should be centred on the Trinity as Trinity.
We cannot go on with the pastoral neglect of this doctrine without, unconsciously at least, erecting many barriers to true devotion. To be able to pray to the Father in the name of Jesus is the very meaning of the Incarnation. For Christ is our Mediator with the Father. It is through him that we have access to the Father in the Spirit.
The ordinary Catholic, if asked, might fail to see what all the commotion is about. He only knows that there are three Persons in God and that God the Son became man and suffered and died for us. In worshipping Christ we are worshipping God. Isn’t that enough?
Naturally, we know it isn’t. Not only is it not enough but it is a dangerous dilution of the revealed word of God. But the mistake is easily made, for their priests and teachers do not, for the most part, present them with any richer Trinitarian doctrine.
The objection of the layman comes down to asking this fundamental question: ‘Does it really mean very much to say that the Father is God, the Son is God, and yet the Father is not the Son?’ If it means nothing at all we would be justified in addressing our prayer, as many do, uniquely to the Son. It is because that question is meaningful — in fact, is in the deepest sense of all meaningful — that it is not sufficient to pray to ‘Jesus because he is God’. And it is not sufficient simply because he is not the Father. Christianity is not the creed in which God is seen to be our Father, but in which God the Father is seen to be our Father. We are not just sons of God, therefore, but sons in the Son. The whole of our Christian life is a share in the Sonship of the Son, a participation, on our own level, of that eternal relationship of Son to Father.
To say, ‘Isn’t it enough to pray to Christ as God?’ turns out to be as curious a question as asking, ‘Wasn’t Christ praying to himself since he was praying to God his Father and he himself was God?’ We might ask with equal impropriety, ‘Didn’t God the Father become man, since the Son did so and he was God?’
Too often our people pray as if it were not the Son who came in our flesh, as if he had never revealed the Father to us or sent us his Spirit.
The divinity of our Lord is central to Christian belief; and yet its over-emphasis, that is, the emphasis on it to the distortion of the context in which we were meant to see it in God’s plan, has obstructed our insight into the divine economy. It has made us forget that the temporal economy of salvation mirrors forth the eternal relations, that through the Incarnation, Passion and Glorification of the Son we, too, were meant to be caught up with him, parcelled up in him, share his Sonship, and so pass with him into the full condition of being God’s sons.
The strange thing is that praying to Christ almost exclusively has made us even forget the role of Incarnation. For the Word was made flesh to be our Mediator with the Father — not just an intermediary between God and men. For ‘he is the Mediator of the New Testament: that by means of his death … they that are called may receive the promise of eternal inheritance, in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Hebrews 9:14-15).
To pray to the Father is necessarily to keep Christ ever in our minds for it is only in him that we can approach the Father at all. The Word was made flesh that suffering and dying for us he might bring us in himself to the Father. He accomplished this in his Spirit. The Spirit who is the mutual Love of Father and Son is given to us as a Gift. The Spirit is not a substitute or a replacement for Christ since Christ’s gift of the Spirit is also his own return. ‘And I will ask the Father, and he shall give you another Paraclete, that he may abide with you for ever. … I will not leave you orphans, I will come to you.’ (John 14: 16,18). So the Spirit’s task is to make Christ’s spiritual presence and power — for Christ by his Resurrection has become a living spirit — effectual in the world. The Spirit’s task is to make effective Christ’s mediation, so that through Christ we may be reconciled to the Father, and in Christ glorify the Father.
In our almost exclusive approach to Christ as God, then, we tend to lose the whole force of Incarnation for we are treating the Son as though he were the Father. We let slip from view the role of Christ’s humanity and move away automatically from a sacramental conception of our faith which is the correct one. Moreover, there is scarcely room for the Spirit at all. If the Father is dimly there in the background of our prayer (as one to whom Christ is to lead us after our deaths!), the Spirit simply does not seem to fit in comfortably anywhere. In our odd moments when the thought strikes us we realise very forcibly that the Spirit is also God, and address a few unintegrated invocations to him, hoping that this will make up for our long bouts of unaccountable neglect.
The remedy for all these difficulties is simple. It is to obey the injunction of Christ: ‘When you pray, say, our Father’. To address the Father is to know in an experimental way that we can only approach through the merits of the Son, and in the Spirit who makes Christ’s redemptive work operative in us. All our prayers become summaries of our Christian faith. They become ‘homely’ for Father, Son and Spirit come to us and make their abode with us. The very word ‘Father’ has about it all those proper resonances that should belong to it.
The attitude at Mass which was outlined above is only the symptom of a deep disquietude, and of a far – reaching maladjustment, in our worship, to Trinitarian doctrine. The effects are there in our secret prayer to God as well.
Praying to the Father does not mean that we must never pray directly to the Spirit or to Jesus. This would be contrary to the teaching of the Church and to her experience of God as expressed in many parts of the liturgy. We have been talking about an emphasis. Prayer to the Father which Pius XII called the ‘normal’ procedure helps to remind us that we do not and cannot pray alone. It is always through Christ and with Christ that we speak to God. Jesus is our Mediator, so that prayer is a chorus, an ensemble, a community affair. And the habit of speaking exclusively to Christ as God makes us feel unbearably the lack of a Mediator. We experience a kind of loneliness of approach that should be quite alien to the Christian spirit.
Jesus becoming the end of our supplications, we find ourselves alone, without merits, and we look around for mediators to help us. We choose our Lady above all for this role. Now I do not deny that in a most genuine and special sense our Lady is our intercessor. But she is not the ‘Mediator of the New Testament’. In practice the neglect of Trinitarian doctrine and the almost unique direction of prayer to Christ as God has tended to make us put our Lady in place of Christ in our approach to God. This should not be so. Protestants are very wrong in thinking that for Catholics it must be so. Let us just admit in all honesty that for too many Catholics it simply is so.
No Catholic would dream of attributing divinity to our Lady. Newman was clearly correct in thinking that anybody who makes such an accusation betrays his own Arianism. It means that he does not know what divinity is, if he thinks that the honours paid to Mary are divine honours which ought to be reserved for Christ.
Might it not be, however, that often what Protestants are really getting at and yet expressing so badly is that the practice of many Catholics in fact is opposed, by reason of the role given to Mary, to the apostolic injunction, namely, to pray to the Father through Christ. Devotion to our Lady must fit into the latter scheme and not supplant it. When a true harmony is achieved there is a resultant warmth about traditionally Catholic worship which is lacking in Protestantism as such. But it does no harm and will perhaps do much good to admit that sometimes Protestants have a much deeper sensitivity to the structural aspects of Christian doctrine than have many Catholics.
Lastly, on the subject of our secret prayer to God, we see that we can only become humble when our prayer is Trinitarian, for it is in Christ that we are led to the Father. If God were to take our present mode of prayer seriously one wonders if we should be heard at all, for we are speaking to Christ as God unaided. We are praying, that is, as if failure or success were uniquely dependent on us. But to pray through the merits of Christ is always to be heard because it becomes the prayer of the well-beloved Son who is always heard for his reverence. ‘Hitherto you have not asked any thing in my name. Ask, and you shall receive; that your joy may be full.’ (John 16:24). When we experience darkness and desolation in prayer, therefore, it is not as if our voices cannot pierce the heavens. For our supplications are simultaneously on the lips of Christ in whom we are incorporated, and who has already passed beyond the heavens. Not only is all liturgy heavenly liturgy, but all prayer is heavenly prayer. All this is a source of consolation.
The central action of the Mass, that most familiar of familiar things, has revealed to us by our description of it a crucial neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity. This neglect has led insensibly to mistaken emphases in many other areas of faith. And it is difficult to see how it could have been otherwise.
“Father, help us to pray as your Son taught us to pray and grant us even now to live in humble and loving obedience to your will. Through the merits of the same Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.”