THE ABIDING PRESENCEHow many and how great are the mercies of God scattered through the life of each one of us! They are like the midnight stars in number and beauty, like the countless flowers that bedeck the fields in a summer's walk! But of these graces there is one that surpasses all the rest in splendour and worth, as the sun excels the stars, namely, the abiding presence of Our Lord in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
This, the richest of all God's graces, the most royal and Divine, is due to the love Our Lord bears to His creatures. One might have thought that in shedding His Blood and laying down His Life for our redemption, He had reached the limits of all generosity, for who could have desired or imagined anything greater? But the mind and heart of Our Saviour could rise to heights of nobler bounty and munificence, and He would not only give us His Blood and His Life, but would also bestow His own very Self upon us. All things are possible to God, and what He wills He is able to accomplish, and thus it is we have the most Holy Eucharist, as His permanent gift.
As a Sacrament to be received by the Faithful, it is a spiritual food given to our souls, lest we faint by the way, as the manna was given to the Jews in the desert. But Our Lord's Divine goodness goes further than the simple words of Institution imply, for He meant His presence to be not merely a passing act at the time of Consecration, but a permanent and abiding dwelling amongst His people. Had He given Himself to us to be our food only, this would indeed have been on His part a most royal generosity, but He has exceeded even this, and grants us to enjoy His enduring presence upon our Altars in every Catholic Church, not in one favoured spot only, but even in the lowliest churches scattered over the face of the globe, thus realising His word of old: " They shall make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in the midst of them " (Exod. xxv. 8). And this, too, till the end of time : " Behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world " (Matt, xxviii. 20). This is indeed the completion and perfection of the wondrous gift of the Eucharist, the continual, abiding presence of Our Emmanuel, "God with us."
And what kind of presence is it we have here? It is the physical, corporal presence of Our Lord, as He lived among men, the incarnate Saviour of the world, the same that trod this earth of ours, suffered and died for us, except that He no longer has the capacity to suffer or die, for He is now in His glorified state. It is the same heart that beat with sympathy for suffering humanity, full of love and mercy to sinners, now as then. Moreover it is permanent amongst us, night and day, from January to December, from century to century, Our Lord, God made man, Our Creator and Redeemer: "Jesus Christ, yesterday and today, and the same for ever" (Heb. xiii. 8).
What profit does Our Lord derive from this continued presence among us ? None whatever. Before time was, God existed, infinitely happy in Himself, before any created thing came into being, and He would continue to be infinitely happy in Himself alone, were all creation to be suddenly swept away and destroyed. His presence on our Altars is simply an unselfish act of love towards man : for us He died once on Calvary, for us He now lives again in the Tabernacle. He can only lose hereby in the honour and dignity due to Him. As the rock in mid-ocean is swept by the angry waves and the boisterous winds, so is Our Lord on the Altar surrounded by the crimes and sins of the world. On the one hand, His own followers too often fail to come and pay their homage to Him by occasional visits, or perhaps even refuse Him their presence at the Sunday offering of Holy Mass, while, if they do appear before Him, they often treat Him with irreverence and disrespect. On the other hand, the outside world knows Him not, or treats Him only as a fable to be laughed at, and blasphemes His holy Name. All this, and more, He would have spared Himself, had He not in His bounteous charity given us His abiding presence on the Altar. Here He remains, most anxious to benefit His creatures: He loners to gladden and comfort our hearts in their sorrow, to heal the wounds of our souls, to cool the ardour of our passions, to pardon and forgive our sins, to feed and nourish our souls, hear our petitions, and grant our requests. Such is the life of Our Lord in His Sacramental form, all for our benefit, without gain to Himself.
This perpetual Divine Presence confers upon us also many other advantages of a signal kind.
1. It confers honour on us and our Religion. The Angelic Doctor says that what really elevates a man or a nation, imparting honour and dignity to both, is God Himself and the favours lie deigns to bestow upon them. All that Our Lord took from our human nature He turns to account for our salvation, inasmuch as the Body and Blood He assumed in the womb of His holy Mother He gave for us in the work of our redemption, and in the Eucharist He gives Himself to us as a perpetual memorial of His Sacrifice on the Cross, honouring us with His abiding presence amongst us. We have no reason to envy our first parents in Eden, nor the curtained Tabernacle in the desert, nor the golden Temple in Jerusalem. For God is near to us everywhere and is accessible to us all. "He hath not done in like manner to every nation" (Ps. cxlvii. 20), and His abasement in this Sacrament is our honour and exaltation.
2. His presence is our consolation. Life is truly an exile and a pilgrimage through barren lands, where thorns and thistles abound, where the heat makes every effort a burden, where hurricanes and storms sweep the desert. What a boon to the weary traveller is then the shady tree, how welcome the sheltering rock, how acceptable a willing guide! All this is Ou. Jesus to each of us, by His perpetual presence with us. He is the rock whence streams of grace flow to our souls, the pillar of cloud sheltering us in the heats of passion, the
column of fire enlightening us in the darkness of doubt and trial, our special comforter in the day of sickness and the hour of death. From the Tabernacle, as from a watch-tower, He looks out upon us in our struggles against wind and wave, prompt to console, and give what help we need.
3. It beautifies and enriches the life of the Church. Apart the wondrous grace and influence of the Holy Eucharist, as Sacrament and Sacrifice, there has sprung up in the Church a special worship of the Abiding Presence, which has developed into a variety of forms of devotion. The feast of Corpus Christi is one of these. S. Juliana, who had great love and zeal for the Blessed Sacrament, was chosen of God to be the instrumental cause of this feast being instituted in the Church. She saw in vision the emblem of the Church, under the form of a bright shining moon, but there seemed to be one spot on its surface whence no light came, and it was revealed to her that this dark spot represented a gap in the cycle of ecclesiastical feasts, the absence of one especially dedicated to the honour of the Holy Eucharist. The result was the introduction of Corpus Christi, by Pope Urban IV., in the thirteenth century. Thereupon there grew up a number of devotions, which enrich the life of the Church, having for object the adoration of Our Lord in His Real Presence on the Altar.
a. The first and most natural of these is the practice of making Visits to the Blessed Sacrament, a beautiful devotion, proof of lively faith. As visits to our friends are a social duty which we must perform, so our faith tells us that, Our Lord residing on the Altar, we must go and visit Him, pay Him our homage of adoration and love, and beg the graces we need in our daily lives. S. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi made a score of visits every day. S. Aloysius spent most of his free time before the Altar, while S. Francis Xavier often took his repose there during the night. All the Saints used to visit the Blessed Sacrament before putting their hands to any great undertaking. Can we not imitate them in this loving practice ? A little more love, a little more zeal, and we should be glad to go and visit Our Lord in His solitude, and help to repair the indifference of the world to His Presence. The lone lamp of the sanctuary is too often, even during the day, the only sign of life He sees! This practice of visiting the Blessed Sacrament is a private devotion only. But
b. A public devotion is Benediction, which enlivens and sanctifies the evening of day, as the Holy Sacrifice consecrates the morning. It is a service of incense and praise for Our Lord's perpetual presence, when He is raised amid flowers and candles to bless us, as He used to bless the little children brought to Him, and blessed His Apostles before ascending to Heaven. We cannot in a better manner bring to a close a day of care or toil, than by coming to seek this blessing on our lives.
c. The highest point of Catholic ceremonial is reached in the solemn procession of the Blessed Sacrament, whether within the walls of the church only, or out in the open air, among the trees and flowers, with censers swinging, and hymns of gladness rising on the air. This is especially true of the procession of Corpus Christi, because it is more universal, and usually made with greater pomp and display.
4. It was the faith, the lively faith in the Real Presence that led our Catholic ancestors to raise those noble cathedrals and majestic churches that stud the lands of Christendom, as dwelling-places for the Lord of Heaven, under the sacramental veils of the Eucharist. What labour and time and money must have been expended on these magnificent fanes by the Monks and church builders, in the ancient days of faith. Not for the sparse Catholic populations of those ages, not for the wants of the Faithful were they reared up to the Heavens; no, it was a higher and loftier motive that animated our forefathers herein, a motive of love and zeal for the glory of God ; they felt they must do all that human genius could devise, and human power effect, to make the dwelling-place of Jesus as worthy and becoming as could be: "I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of Thy House, and the place where Thy Glory dwelleth" (Ps. xxv. 8).
Then see the monastic churches built by the Monks of yore, at a vast cost again of time, money, and labour, for the same object as the cathedrals, namely, for the glory of the Blessed Sacrament, the chanting of the Divine Office, and the worthy celebration of the Holy Mysteries. They, too, were adorned with a profusion of wealth of gold and silver ornaments, till a rapacious king laid sacrilegious hands on their possessions, seized and carried off all that was considered worth taking away, and then when the inmates themselves were driven forth, their monasteries and churches fell into decay, yet still remain, noble and majestic in their ruin, to tell of their beauty and splendour in a former day. What ruins more magnificent, though so desolate, can be found than Fountains Abbey, or Tintern, Tynemouth Priory, or Finchale ?
" Time-honoured structures of a distant day, Eloquent in ruin, solemn in decay."
These masterpieces of architecture, be they standing yet in all their strength, or laid low in ruins, were distinctly the outcome of lively faith in the Abiding Presence of Our Lord in the Tabernacle, raised to make Him dwelling-places on earth, as noble and worthy as man could make them.
5. So, too, in humbler ways, we still endeavour to beautify and adorn our churches and chapels with wealth of flower and candle, richness of embroidered vestment and gilded statue, along with music and harmony, pealing anthem and hymns of praise. The Faithful are invited to contribute of their alms for these objects, whether through Altar Societies, or in other ways, reminded by their faith that nothing can be too rich or too good, nothing too magnificent for Him who dwells upon our Altars, to receive our homage and loving care.
From this Divine fact of the perennial presence of Jesus Christ in His Sacrament of love have sprung into being Religious Orders, whose sole purpose is to render perpetual adoration night and day to their hidden Lord. Never is their sacred worship of praise and adoration interrupted, from the year's opening to its end, and never is His Divine Majesty sacramentally enthroned without His faithful watchers at the Altar steps. Thus is the service of adoration and thanksgiving continually poured forth, and thus is reparation made for the sins of the unbeliever, the worldly, the heedless, the forgetful.
As practical conclusions to these considerations, the least we, as individual Catholics, can do is to come from time to time to the foot of the Altar to our sacramental Lord who dwells there, instead of forgetting His presence, and leaving Him for days and weeks together, without approaching to adore Him, or ask a single favour of His Bounty.
When we do appear before Him, let it be with all reverence and recollection. The very Angels fear to whisper in His presence; how much more should we stand in awe, when we enter the house where He dwells..
So far from neglecting the services of the Church, especially Holy Mass, if we do but enliven our faith, we shall be only too pleased to attend as often as we may, bringing others with us, especially our children and those who may be dependent on us.
Instead of disdaining the Heavenly Banquet prepared for us in this august Sacrament, and excusing ourselves therefrom, like the guests in the Gospel, be it our endeavour to go to the Holy Table frequently, even daily if we can, according to the ancient custom of the Church, now being revived by the present Holy Father.
Finally, let us make what efforts we can to adorn and beautify the house of the Lord, that one especially in which He has chosen to dwell in our own midst, and be willing to give some portion of our substance, our time, or our labour in the service of Him who has given all to us, His own unfailing presence included.
In these ways we may be able to offer some sort of compensation and a return of love to Our Lord for His Abiding Presence amongst us, and prove our appreciation of His condescension and His long-suffering patience.