Archive | March, 2006

The Shell

26 Mar

Thanks to all who have left comments here since my last post, and/or have visited here to read what I’ve posted. I know I’ve slowed down significantly since I was posting almost every day into January. There’s only about another month and a half to go in my Philosophy of Religion course. While the class has been time-consuming (I have a second paper due in a couple weeks and continued reading), the instructor has been excellent and the course has been informative.

Work as a microbiology lab technician is, as usual, going well. It’s important to see the glory of God in even the workings of the tiniest living beings on earth. In a recent presentation to the Newman Club, a university student group I’m involved in that’s named after the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman, Edmonton Archbishop Thomas Collins spoke specifically about the role of academics in the Church. However, he pointed out that whatever career one has, or whatever one’s spiritual vocation (in the sense of the Holy Orders, Religious life, Married life, Single life, or Consecrated single life…), it’s important to do one’s best in that position. Essentially, each of us is called to apply ourselves completely in whatever we do to loving and glorifying God. Vocations, from the Latin vocare, meaning a calling, are gifts from God and must be used to the best of our ability. Lately I’ve tried increasingly to think upon this message and to apply it to my life at work as well as to my discernment of a spiritual vocation.

Speaking of the Newman Club, this past Friday’s topic was Bible study. We were treated to another superb talk and to great fellowship, interspersed with small group discussions. One of the questions was of particular interest to me. We were given the scenario of a group of seven-year-old children about to receive their first communion. The small groups were then asked how one would describe the purpose and importance of the Eucharist to children of that age.

I immediately thought of a question I asked during the previous day’s philosophy lecture about the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The class has been studying the use of religious language. Topics have included whether it’s possible to speak of God literally, symbolism in religious language, and the analogous use of religious language (i.e. use of ordinary characteristics to describe God. For example, to characterize God as “wise” could mean that God is wisdom itself, and that God’s wisdom surpasses human understanding or experience of wisdom, yet we still characterize God as “wise”). Anyway, I asked the lecturer, a Catholic priest, about the role of religious language in the different understandings of Communion between Christian denominations. Some Christians believe that the bread and wine received at Communion is purely symbolic of the Body and Blood of Christ. Other Christians (Orthodox and Catholic traditions particularly) take Christ’s words at the Last Supper literally:

“‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood…'”(Luke 22:20)

Catholics and Orthodox believe that the form of the bread and wine do not change with the act of Consecration during Mass, but that the substance of these species does change, hence the complex term “transsubstantiation”. This change in substance is due to special power granted to the priest by Christ duing the Consecration, when the priest is “in persona Christi”, Latin for “in the person of Christ”. At the Consecration the form of the host and of the wine stays the same. The chemical and physical properties, for example, remain identical. But something happens then such that the substance changes from bread and wine to body and blood of Christ. We consume the fullness of Christ in the Eucharist. Then our own substance (but not our physical human form) also changes in the sense that we gain special empowerment by Christ’s body and blood to carry out His mission. As St. Augustine commissioned us, “Be what you receive” at Communion.

Transsubstantiation is a highly philosophical concept such that I would have trouble describing it in a full post, let alone in a paragraph. It will have to wait for another blog post on its own. I had difficulty phrasing my question to a priest in a philosophy lecture where I was attempting to be sensitive to the non-Christians who make up the majority of my colleagues.

Never mind university students, many with extensive philosophy backgrounds; transssubstantiation would be way over the heads of most seven-year-old children. But we were asked to make seven-year-old children the target audience of a discussion about the Eucharist. The small group I was in discussed how one might focus on how Christ wants to be best friends with all children. Therefore, Christ comes to the children prepared to give everything he has to them, for no reason but because he loves each child so much. When Christ’s followers tried to block the children from coming to the Lord, Jesus rebuked them:

“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:16)

Children may then ask, should they be so mathematically astute: “If Jesus gives all he has to the first child, isn’t it impossible for him to give all he has to any other child(ren)?”, or “If Jesus is our best friend, why do we eat him?” These questions are difficult to answer. If anyone wishes, I would appreciate any thoughts in the comments to this post on these or other possible queries raised by seven-year-olds.

Pope Benedict XVI has a particular way of explaining difficult concepts to children. In one instance, he was speaking with an eight-year-old girl about Reconciliation. The girl asked why it was important to go to Confession repeatedly, especially when people often confess the same sins more than once. Pope Benedict spoke analogously of house-cleaning. When a house gets dirty, the people living in it need to clean it, despite the certainty that the house will get dirty again and need cleaning again, and so on…So it is with our souls and going to Reconciliation.

A scallop’s shell is shown on Pope Benedict’s papal crest. I noted this in a conversation with three friends of mine at a pub following our Newman Club gathering Friday night. Late-night conversations over a pint of beer are a good way to reduce the complexity of any convoluted discussions that may take place, but there we were discussing the role of the scallop’s shell.

On the papal crest, the scallop’s shell appears between depictions of the Moor of Friesing, a symbol of clerical authority in Freising and Munich (where Joseph Ratzinger is from) in the 14th century, and of the Bear of Corbinian, the Bavarian Archbishop who in legend traveled to Rome with a bear that he tamed and that followed him as a pack animal.

The scallop’s shell is a symbol of pilgrimage credited to St. Augustine’s writings. Along a pilgrimage, we slowly pick up knowlege in dealing with the struggles of the journey. The scallop’s shell is open, as opposed to, say, an oyster shell. The open shell, when placed in the waters of the ocean, is able to pick up water, but only a limited amount. The open scallop’s shell may also fill with other, smaller shells. In contrast, a closed shell is unable to allow much water or many shells to enter.

The water of the ocean is symbolic of God, who has unlimited knowledge. The scallop’s shell has become the symbol of this Pope, who, though brilliant, is limited in knowlege. He acquires his knowledge from God so that he may fill the smaller shells, the Church community that he carries with him in faith, with good teaching. We grow in knowledge, as children do in progressing to adulthood and on to eternal life, reunited with God. Within the Pope’s great shell are closed oyster shells, with much potential though they appear closed to the Holy Father’s knowledge that comes ultimately from God and is taught to the Church. We should pray for these closed oyster shells, that they may open and reveal beautiful pearls formed by the presence of abrasive sand, symbolic of struggle and suffering, that is turned into something beautiful.

Any other analogies of the shell are appreciated. As I said, one person, let alone three, is limited in intellectual capacity late in the evening in a pub. We still do our best, though. I’m happy to be back writing on the blog. I needed to come out of my shell.