Eucharistic Adoration consultation at Saint John’s University

I’m starting a book project on transubstantiation. I’m interested not only in the history of real presence and its context in systematic and sacramental theology, but in its understanding among lay Catholics and its place in Catholic eucharistic piety today. I have several smaller projects related to this book underway, but one of the most interesting is a study of Eucharistic piety and practice among young adult (millenial) Catholics. I was privileged to begin this study by hosting a Eucharistic Adoration workshop and consultation on May 7, 2012 at the Saint John’s Abbey Guesthouse with six students from the College of St Benedict. Audrey Seah and Julia Smucker, both finishing their master’s degrees at the Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary, helped me with the discussion and the theological unpacking that followed. I am very much obliged to all eight students for their insights in what follows.

I contacted the students through the Eucharistic Adoration group at St John’s, which schedules 24 hours of perpetual adoration once a week. Six students came on the study day before finals, bringing a contagious enthusiasm and deeply developed spiritualities. We met at daily mass, where it was easy to pick them out in the small crowd, even though I did not know any of them before. We prayed together with a palpable joy, introduced ourselves and ate dinner at the Guesthouse.

After dinner, I brought out copies of the current Give Us This Day, gifts from Liturgical Press. The students flipped through them eagerly, offering pertinent comments on the readings for the day and the contributors. They looked at the upcoming feast days. I hated to interrupt this discussion for the Pange Lingua video I had brought as an icebreaker, but I did. After the Pange Lingua, I asked an introductory question, and the women fell upon the topic with such hunger that I did little but listen and learn for the rest of the evening, a very brief two hours and change!

One of the most interesting aspects of the conversation, to me, was how readily the women identified that the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was not just a fact about reality, but also a discipline, an interpersonal communion that required their active recognition and full participation. Christ is everywhere, they acknowledged, but recognizing his presence everywhere, and his special presence in the Eucharist, is hard work. It takes commitment — which is sometimes seen among their peers as something that holds you back, especially with respect to marriage. Committing to a specific hour of adoration weekly, though, enables them to pay better attention during the eucharistic celebration and to receive communion more mindfully.

They have specific practices they use during adoration to develop these powers of recognition. They all use formulary prayers, especially the Divine Mercy chaplet and the rosary, but they spoke much more about self-expressive prayer practices. Journaling is a primary one, as is praying out loud. Some of them sing when alone in adoration. They use different postures to focus on different kinds of prayer. They might use the orans, for example, to open themselves up to God, or kneel or bow to express humility.

These postures are complemented by imaging practices that reinforce one’s faith in the real presence of Christ and also underscore the unity of Eucharistic adoration and celebration. These practices include remembering the Eucharistic celebration at which the host was consecrated, seeing the scriptures through the actions of the mass, imagining Jesus standing behind the host or sitting on the altar, reflecting on the crucifix behind the host and remembering that it also stands behind the altar at mass, speaking to Jesus in the host, and stopping by the chapel even when the host is not exposed to pray.

These women have been through periods of spiritual dryness, suffered with problems of self-image, experienced great joy, and read many books. Their spiritualities are diverse, but all generous and realistic, even practical. They go to adoration to enhance their discernment of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and to develop their intimate and personal relationship with Jesus. They eat and drink the flesh and blood of Christ at the celebration at least once a week to share the cup of the sorrows and joys of the world with the whole community, living and dead, and to prepare themselves to serve.

They are inspiring people, and I am grateful for their wisdom.

I intend to continue this project, and will post more thoughts as it progresses.

23 comments

  1. Thank you for this lovely reflection and for your honor for and curiosity about this practice and the young women who commit to it. I cross a lot of borderlines: Independent/Old Catholic priest/bishop with the Blessed Sacrament reserved two places in my home sunroom chapel (consecrated Bread in a traditional wooden tabernacle which was a gift and consecrated Wine, perpetually semi-exposed in a tiny clear glass box with stained glass vine and branches image and scripture quote)…medieval women’s theology scholar who treasures many traditional practices…and deeply feminist and ecumenical liturgist and hymnwriter who frequently and profoundly transforms them…so accustomed to connecting deeply on some points with vorh radical traditionalists and radical progressives as well as often being frustrated by their anger and scorn for their opposite numbers, sometimes including me (in reality and/or perception!) So it is nice to virtually “meet” someone else who works out of boxes, values the whole tradition including today, and crosses borders, if my sense of you is correct…and not surprising that we share two utterly cool and also interestingly hybrid spiritual friends both met through my previous participation in a clergywomen and friends blogring–Cody Maynus, who may have mentioned me to you, and Michelle Francl, on whose FB status I often see your comments.

    1. Yes, Laura, I have virtually encountered you through both mutual friends! Nice to see you here too.

  2. When I was in high school (before V2) there was a certain natural association with praying in a church (before the reserved Sacrament) including my praying the Divine Office.

    So on my way to Grandma’s house for lunch (she lived near my high school) I stopped by the local church to pray a portion of the Divine Office. It was a very dark church dominated by an ornate lamp that hovered over the middle of the sanctuary. In retrospect there was a kind of homely comfort to the place, a cave of refuge (along with grandma) in the midst of my adolescent day.

    During times when we had all day exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, there were two kneelers in the sanctuary where we altar boys took our hourly turns. I would of course pray a part of the Divine Office, usually Matins and Lauds because they took up the whole hour. Usually those kneelers were in the altar boys sacristy where I prayed a portion of the Divine Office before Mass.

    At home, in an alcove of my bedroom, I had a little chapel where I prayed the Divine Office when I was at home (morning and evenings). So while I had a Divine Office spirituality that could easily dispense with prayer in a church building, it was in fact seamlessly integrated with it.

    What has occurred since V2 is that church buildings are really not very conducive to prayer; so I never think of going to pray there, even to arrive early or stay late. When I do have to arrive early to get a seat I bring my Bose headphones and CD player to screen out the noise while I pray.

    I would be curious about what opportunities young people have to pray in church, especially as those opportunities relate to the architecture of the church, and the use of the Church for worship, and the reservation of the Sacrament. Perhaps there are enough students at Saint John’s that had various high school experiences that might enable you to explore these dimensions.

    Sounds like interesting research.

    1. This is an illustration of the problem of either/or instead of both/and.

      The best worship places have two spaces – one for private prayer, one for community prayer. The notion of having the tabernacle in a space separate from the altar reflects this. Placing the tabernacle elsewhere creates a space for silence.

      Eucharistic adoration as a practice has bee to some extent become a symbol of the Reform of the Reform. This is unfortunate.

  3. Maybe because I wasn’t raised a Catholic, I find it hard to understand eucharistic adoration. I know many people like it very much but to me it seems like an artificial and distancing way to try to be with Jesus. It appears to be gaining popularity, though.

    1. Crystal, “distancing” how? I get the sense from people who have a strong devotion to Eucharistic adoration that it is an intimate, rather than distant, encounter with Christ.

    2. re: crystal watson on June 1, 2012 – 7:41 pm

      Crystal, your observation is apt. Eucharistic adoration is unique to the Roman Rite. Some Anglicans also practice the devotion. The practice arose from three cultural and theological streams: the gradual decline in the reception of communion, the consequential popular notion that viewing the eucharist in some manner substituted for its consumption, and the reinforcement of Catholic doctrine on the eucharist especially during and after the Reformation. The renewed emphasis in the 20th century on frequent communion (beginning with Pius X) and newer theological developments have brought adoration under criticism.

      I could see how a convert, received into the church after having been taught more recent developments in eucharistic theology, might find eucharistic adoration to be a strange or out-of-place practice. Although that might be true from an intellectual standpoint, there are deep cultural reasons for why this practice persists.

  4. I guess it seems distancing to me because when I try to be with Jesus/God I do it in imaginative prayer (Ignatian) and Jesus is there to talk to, to talk back. But I don’t see how there can be interaction with a host, even a host that has a real presence. It’s like Jesus has been reduced to a safe, manageable, portable, symbol, a symbol that can only be found at church. Don’t mean to be offensive, just trying to express how it feels to me.

  5. As counterpoint, I’m a convert who is partial to eucharistic adoration. In this age of disenchantment, I feel very blessed that providence has allowed this at least to survive even for those of us in out in small towns where Catholicism is both thin in numbers and self-identification; those of us who are “paganus,” to turn a phrase.

  6. Eucharistic Adoration is good. Its essential context is the Real Presence of Christ in his Body, the Church. We share in the one Bread in the Eucharist, so that we become one Body in Christ. 1 Corinthians 11:29 says: “A person who eats and drinks without recognising the body is eating and drinking his own condemnation.” The “body” referred to here, from the context of verses 17-22, is the body of believers, where some were excluded, and Chapter 12 goes on the develop the reflection: “Christ’s body is yourselves” (1 Cor 12:27). The “Real Presence” in the Eucharist is not an end in itself, but serves the promotion of that Real Presence in the church. We have the various modes of Presence in the community assembled for Eucharist, each mode being a Real Presence complementing the others. Jesus, Emmanuel, said “I am with you always, until the end of time” (Matt 28:20). We are sent to be the Real Living Presence of Jesus Christ in the world of today and every day, so that the world will come to know the Real Presence.

  7. My experience has been that many of the folks who express an enthusiasim for Eucharistic Adoration seem to forget that Christ is also Really Present in the people we encounter. Some writer suggested we ought to genuflect whenever we meet another person. St. Benedict says to treat guests as Christ. I suspect the modern facination with Eucharistic Adoration has to do more with that “individualized, privatized, personalized” religion that puts me and god is a space outside the community, outside the Body of Christ. It also seems to make a thing rather than an action out of the Eucharist.

    1. These ideas about Eucharistic adoration are common, but were not representative of the women I talked to. My impression is that millenials may have a somewhat different experience of adoration than many would expect. In particular, for these women the experience of adoration generated a sense of respect for Christ in the other, and also supported a robust appreciation for and participation in Eucharistic celebration (the mass).

    2. I have to say, however, that many of the people I know who practice Eucharistic adoration are also among the most involved in apostolates of service, so I am very wary of the theme that such adoration is a temptation away from service. It can be true in some cases, but more often it seems a facile (and unworthy) form of denigration masked in virtue.

      1. Karl, I completely agree. Growing up in the Mennonite Church instilled in me a strong sense of the importance of service, which I continue to appreciate, but what was missing was the sacramental theology to feed that. That’s why I’m always looking for ways to connect the two.

  8. Another thought, it’s hard to imagine that eucharistic adoration was what Jesus had in mind: he said, ‘this is my body, take and eat’, not ‘this is my body, take and put in a monstrance and adore it perpetually’. Maybe eucharistic adoration has more to do with being Catholic than with being Christian? (PS – I wasn’t a Protestant before I became a Catholic, so this isn’t coming from there).

    1. Interesting – I’ve heard the same thing said before (“take and eat”, not “take and adore”), but I’d like to reclaim the both/and, which it now is, much more than at the origins of the practice. That is, because of frequent reception, adoration is more an extension of the Eucharistic celebration and communion than a replacement for it. And the other part of the both/and, seeing Christ present in the host and in other people, is especially vital. I love the way Padraig McCarthy has put it here: “We are sent to be the Real Living Presence of Jesus Christ in the world of today and every day, so that the world will come to know the Real Presence.”

      Along similar lines, someone has said, “If you step over a homeless man on your way to perpetual adoration, you have failed to acknowledge the body of Christ.” I believe this is very true and important, and I don’t think it means we shouldn’t practice adoration, but rather that our Eucharistic practices should affect how we see our neighbors.

      For me personally, also not having been raised Catholic, I have felt relatively free of the baggage that seems to be associated with adoration for some. I experienced it as enriching before I found out I wasn’t supposed to like it as a good post-Vatican II Catholic, and since then I’ve wanted to redeem it as part of a more dynamic Eucharistic theology. The workshop participants provided some great insights for that.

    2. That Jesus said “Take this all of you and eat it” rather than “Take this all of you and look at it” was something that the Reformers had absolutely right. If Catholics imagine that the host is consecrated for the express purpose of adoration, something has gone quite wrong. They all get eaten in the end, or should.

      On the other hand, it is important to remember that when the Reformers made this charge it was in the context of a Church in which many people received the Eucharist no more than once a year and for which adoration had become a substitute for reception. What can surprise Catholics is to find out that both Luther and Calvin wanted to encourage much more frequent reception of the Eucharist than was the practice of the time. The Reformed practice of four annual eucharistic celebrations that seems so paltry to us weekly (or daily!) communicants was all the the city of council of Geneva would let Calvin get away with. He would have preferred a weekly celebration.

      All of which is to suggest that, if Catholics in the 16th century had had an experience of eucharistic adoration as described by Dr. Belcher above, namely, constant reference back to the actual celebration of the community and regular reception, it is hard to imagine Luther or Calvin raising the concerns they did. As some of their theological descendants (like the Lutheran Robert Jenson and the Reformed George Hunsinger) have pointed out, there is no compelling theological reason to imagine that Christ’s presence could somehow cease while the eucharistic symbols persist. The Reformers concerns were liturgical more than theological.

      Adoration can, of course, be an expression of a poorly understood eucharistic theology, but my experience, reinforced by what Dr. Belcher reports above, is that that is rarely the case today. When it is the case, most of the people are so interested in learning more about the eucharist that it is easily remedied with the right approach.

      1. If Catholics imagine that the host is consecrated for the express purpose of adoration, something has gone quite wrong.

        Indeed. But hopefully Christians don’t believe that and haven’t been taught that.

        It also seems to make a thing rather than an action out of the Eucharist.

        I don’t see how adoring Christ in the Eucharist makes the Eucharist more a “thing” than an “action”, compared with receiving Christ in the Eucharist in Holy Communion. As I said in another thread, the adoration of Christ in the Eucharist is only possible (i.e. not actually idolatry) because the Real Presence is still present in the Eucharist, because the action and its effects are ongoing. It’s not a static presence either.

      2. “Indeed. But hopefully Christians don’t believe that and haven’t been taught that.”

        I suspect not, especially since those prone to adoration these days are, with only the rarest exceptions, regular communicants. But one could be forgiven for getting that impression, even were it not explicitly taught, if you always looked and never ate.

    3. I came across this quote from Ratzinger relevant to eucharistic adoration, while compiling remarks of his on the liturgical reform:

      “Trent had a very clear view of the words of institution and the inner finality of the realities of bread and wine, asserting that it is of the essence of this sacrament that it is ordered to reception (DS 1643: ut sumatur). But this awareness did not stop Trent going on to say that this ‘reception’ encompasses many factors: to ‘receive’ Christ essential involves ‘adoration’. Receiving Christ must involve all the dimensions of Christ; so it cannot be limited to a physical process. It also implies belief in the Real Presence. It is so hard to define this adequately because nowadays we no longer have a philosophy which penetrates to the being of things. We are only interested in function. Modern science only asks ‘How does it work? What can I do with it?’ It no longer asks ‘What is it?'” (The Feast of Faith, 92-93)

      1. Thanks for the quote. I’ll be writing something on this soon, so I’ll be sure to read this chapter.

  9. “Take, eat, not take, put in monstrance and adore” is a fun and easy thing to say, but we do many things Jesus didn’t explicitly tell us to do, and it’s not that we adore instead of eating.

    Anglican theologian John Macquarrie’s excellent essay on Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament also applies, in my opinion, to Eucharistic Adoration…

    http://www.stmvirgin.org/article82806.htm

  10. An Orthodox perspective might be helpful in thinking about reservation, from Schmemann on the Two Meanings of Communion.

    In the Orthodox tradition the Eucharist has always preserved its festal and joyous character. It is first of all the sacrament of Christ’s coming and presence among His disciples, and therefore the celebration –in a very real sense – of His Resurrection. It is the joy and the burning of hearts experienced by the disciples on the way to Emmaus as Christ reveals himself in the breaking of the bread.

    The day of the Eucharist was not one of the days but the Lord’s Day – a day beyond time, for in the Eucharist, the Kingdom of God was already “breaking through”

    …approaching the Holy Table is truly ascending to heaven. Eucharist is thus the feast of the Church or better still, the Church as feast, as rejoicing in Christ’s presence. Every time the Church celebrates Eucharist she is “at home” in heaven; she is ascending where Christ has ascended in order to eat and drink at His table in his kingdom

    For Schmemann the Eucharist is incompatible with fasting, the main expression of the Church as still in a state of pilgimage. Therefore Orthodox (uninfluenced by the West) do not celebrate the Eucharist during the Lenten fasting days. However Communion is distributed at the Liturgy of the Presanctified (a combinations of Vespers and Communion) on Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent.

    [In taking about fasting Schmemann distinguishes between brief total fasting in preparation for the Eucharist and ascetical fasting, the reduction of types and amounts of food during penitential seasons.]

    I think we need to come to terms with the fact that the Eucharist was taken home in the early church, and consumed there. In other words communion as food for the pilgrimage was a common practice outside of the Solemn Lord’s Day Celebration of the Eucharist.

    Piety of the reserved Sacrament should emphasize its role as food for the pilgrimage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *