This photo of a homeless man with “invisiblemanitus” cleverly expresses the primary disease from which not the homeless, but the rest of us, suffer: defect of sight. Thomas Aquinas reminds us in Pange Lingua that in the eucharist, our ordinary senses fail us. (The wordplay of that verse is itself a theology: the Word of God efficit, makes; the senses deficit, fail; faith sufficit, suffices.)
I don’t think we’ve forgotten, in the present day, the failure of our senses or the need for faith. But I think that sometimes we forget what faith means and are struck by a hopeless nostalgia for what (we think) we can never have: the clear vision of God’s unalterable and saving truth, through our own eyes.
The early church mystagogues would scold us, as they did their contemporaries, for such despair. Faith, in their homilies on the sacraments, was not a desperate clutching at something that seemed impossible (“I shall believe it is the body of Christ despite the fact that it looks like bread, in defiance of my senses”) but was the gift of God that bestowed on the believer spiritual senses, which perceived in the bread and the cup the beatific vision of God and thus could affirm that the Eucharist was spiritual food and spiritual drink for eternal life.
For the early church, the Eucharist was a kind of discipline, a stretching of our own eyes towards the eyes of God, in which we practice seeing the body of Christ not only in the elements on the altar, but also in our invisible brothers and sisters. There is no magic required for such vision, but only unconditional love formed from gratitude for the forgiveness of sins.
Let us have hope and pray for such spiritual vision.
[For more on the spiritual senses and the eucharist, see Georgia Frank’s article, “‘Taste and See’: The Eucharist and the Eyes of Faith in the Fourth Century,” Church History 70:4 (2001) 619-43.]