The Holy Food of the Heart and Soul

In the course of a typical week, normal experience encompasses a broad range of feelings from wakefulness to sleepiness, from hunger and thirst to fullness and satisfaction, from busyness to relaxation, from restlessness to peacefulness, from loneliness to sociability, from pleasure to pain, and from health to illness. All these universal feelings and more accompany a person’s typical life and workaday world, for a human life allows for a whole spectrum of emotions that inform man’s consciousness. Unlike animals limited to sensory experience governed primarily by pleasure and pain, human nature possesses a sensibility that feels not only desire, fear, joy, and sorrow but also tenderness, compassion, gratitude, and wonder.

Human nature experiences appetites like hunger and thirst, passions like love and anger, and refined sentiments like the appreciation for beauty, awe at the grandeur of God and the glory of creation, and a sense of wonder at the miraculous and the transcendent. There are the feelings one encounters at work like friendliness or irksomeness of others, the feelings one experiences at home like the affection and joy of family members, and the feelings evoked by the surprises and accidents of the day. These emotions fill the days of all people and form the human condition.

However, these daily occurrences do not inevitably include a particular emotion that accompanies the sense of the divine or sacred known in the holiness of a church. To be absent from a church where the Holy Sacraments are celebrated and where Christ dwells in the tabernacle and to live an active life that does not include a weekly or regular contact with the holy diminishes from the richness of human experience and starves the life of the heart and soul. Man by nature is a religious being who needs spiritual nourishment, the uplifting of the mind, heart, and soul to the divine.  When the priest says “Sursum corda” (Lift up your hearts), he asks the worshippers to enter the holy realms that elevate the spirit and ennoble the mind and to contemplate the divine mysteries that probe the meaning of life, death, love, and suffering. Without the lifting of the heart or the experience of the holy that penetrates to the heart of man, human life remains devoid of spiritual joy and lacks the richness of an abundant life. C.S. Lewis once remarked that not reading the great books was like never having swum in the ocean, never having tasted wine, and never having been in love. To live and not to know the classics was to be deprived of some of the quintessential human joys that offer the taste of life’s great goodness. To live and to exclude the holy, to be alive and never to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist is to suffer the absence of precious heavenly food that nurtures divine life in the human soul.

Without this lifting up of the human heart man’s existence remains mundane, and the pursuit of success, wealth, fame, and power dominates a person’s worldview. While the world offers many pleasures and diversions, it does not offer the fruits of the Holy Spirit that have a divine source: “charity,  joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity” (Galatians 5:22-23). When a person’s heart is lifted up, experiences the holy, and receives the Body and Blood of Christ, his range of emotions expands and his consciousness increases. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet he discovers that “There are more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (I. v. 166-167).  Fully aware of the human, natural, and worldly, a person who encounters the sacred and the spiritual in the presence of a holy church where God dwells in the tabernacle acquires sensitivities that expand his knowledge of both the natural and supernatural world. Although “The heavens declare the glory of God and the earth showeth his handiwork” as the Psalmist writes and although “the invisible things of God are known by the things that are visible” as St. Paul testified, the greatest sense of the holy is reserved for the sanctuaries where the holy mysteries and sacraments occur.

In Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop Bishop Latour visits the church on a cold, lonely December evening to pray for comfort and strength to carry the many crosses that weigh upon his soul as the shepherd of the Mexicans and Indians in the American Southwest. When he enters the church, he sees Sada, a poor Mexican woman shedding “tears of ecstasy” in the great joy she feels in returning to the Catholic Church she loves after a nineteen years’ absence. A slave to an American family that forbids her to attend Mass, Sada, without proper winter clothing, boldly ventured on this cold night to return to the faith of her fathers, rejoicing that once again she is in the presence of the Holy Sacrament and seeing the red light of the sanctuary lamp: “She kissed the feet of the Holy Mother, the pedestal on which they stood, crying all the while.” Spiritually famished and thirsty, she cries tears of happiness in beholding “the holy things of the altar.” Risking the loss of employment, facing punishment from her slave owner, and traveling in the cold of winter without warm clothing, Sada yearns to fill the void in her life with the heavenly nourishment the Church offers to all who hunger and thirst for spiritual life and find it in the sacredness of a Catholic church.

While many of life’s experiences evoke religious sentiments like gratitude for the blessing of a marriage or the gift of a child or a sense of transcendence through the wonder of beautiful art, these moments resemble the rays that emanate from a higher source. A person glimpses the attraction of purity through a child’s innocence, savors the great goodness of life in the pleasures of eating, drinking, and loving, and appreciates the words of the Psalm “Taste and see the sweetness of the Lord,” but these too are the effects that have a first cause. Occasionally one encounters the luminous image of God shining in human beings when they reveal the depths of their loving hearts as Hawthorne’s story of “The Miraculous Pitcher” illustrates.  In Hawthorne’s version of the myth of Baucis and Philemon, the elderly couple practices the ancient law of hospitality by always welcoming travelers into their home and accommodating them with unstinting generosity. When two Greek gods in disguise visit their village with the shabby appearance of poor beggars, all the villagers spurn them because the destitute travelers do not appear affluent enough to reward them handsomely.   While the villagers will give hospitality if they have the assurance that they will receive in return, Baucis and Philemon show no partiality toward the visitors and receive rich and poor alike with bountiful hearts that give without expecting to receive and that give gladly and liberally for the pure joy of helping fellow human beings. On this occasion the couple offers all the provisions in the house to provide an ample meal–the simple fare of breed, cheese, milk, honey, and grapes. They even deprive themselves to serve their guests. To the Greek gods, however, the meal does not consist of simple fare but a banquet fit for the gods.

One of the travelers comments, “An honest hearty welcome to a guest works miracles with the fare, and is capable of turning the coarsest food to nectar and ambrosia.” In awe at the profound goodness of the bountiful hearts of Baucis and Philemon, the gods show their gratitude by presenting them with the gift of the miraculous pitcher that provides an endless supply of milk. As soon as the pitcher is emptied to the last drop, it magically refills again, an inexhaustible fountain. The miraculous pitcher in its infinite supply of milk corresponds to the pure hearts of Baucis and Philemon for whom there is no limit to kindness or goodness. The human heart in its limitless store of love and abundance of kindness hints at the divine origin of human beings who radiate the image of God and evoke wonder—a human heart that testifies to the statement in Genesis that God made man in His own image. However, this experience of the greatness of human goodness—no matter how generous—does not approximate the awe that Sada feels in the presence of God when she beholds the red light in the sanctuary.

Religious emotions that emanate from the holy not only touch the heart as does the hospitality of Baucis and Philemon but also penetrate the heart to its depths. Religious emotions go beyond heartwarming feelings produced by human goodness. They reach the center of a person’s being where happiness naturally expresses itself in the form of tears—the happiness that comes from the knowledge of how much a person is loved, how good God is, and how immense is the gratitude for the miracle of life, for the beauty of the creation, for the blessings of marriage and children, and for the hand of Divine Providence in the course of a lifetime. These religious emotions illuminate the intimate bond between God and man—God calling, inviting, giving, and forgiving and man responding, receiving, petitioning, and thanking. Religious emotions evoke a total response of mind and heart that encompasses memories of past blessings, of prayers answered, of surprising graces, and of the deepest joys.

The experience of receiving the Sacraments offers the greatest of spiritual joys that plumb the innermost center of the soul. When a child is baptized, he not only receives remission of original sin but also acquires the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the deepest mystery of the Trinity. When youth are confirmed and they receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit—wisdom, knowledge, understanding, counsel, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord—they again acquire the most heavenly and precious of gifts which the world cannot offer: God’s divine life inhabiting a human being. When man and woman are united in sacramental marriage and vow an indissoluble love, they sense the touch of God’s divine hand bestowing the gift of husband or wife and granting the deepest desires of the heart. In such moments the presence, reality, and nearness of God evoke an awe that escapes perfect human understanding. How can God be so intimate? How can God give so much? How can God love me with such utter tenderness and specialness? How can God bless mortal flesh with divine life?

Sacramental life centers a person in the most important of all human relationships and reaches an even greater intimacy than the bond between mother and child and between husband and wife. The significance of Christ’s words, “He who loves father or mother  more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” alludes to this most primary of all relationships that undergirds the first commandment (“You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve”) and the great commandment (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”). The Song of Solomon that celebrates the nuptial love of man and woman as an allegory of the oneness between God and the soul depicts this deepest of unions and the sweetest of spiritual pleasures: “O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine, and your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is oil poured out.”

Thomas a Kempis explains the power of the Blessed Sacrament to bestow great blessings on all who partake of the Body and Blood of Christ in devout holy communion: “By it, our vices are cured, our passions restrained,, temptations are lessened, grace is given in fuller measure, and virtue once established is fostered; faith is confirmed, hope is strengthened, and love kindled and deepened.” In short, no aesthetic pleasure of art or music, no kind deeds of generous hearts, no intellectual delights of the life of the mind, and no worldly pleasures compare to the fruits of sacramental life that offer a fullness of joy and spiritual wealth that penetrates to the most sensitive parts of the interior life and transcends all other forms of human satisfaction. These sacramental gifts and joys communicate the peace that the world cannot give, only Christ: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27).

George Herbert’s poem “The Pulley” explains the spiritual joy or peace that God only gives. In the first stanza Herbert depicts God’s profuse generosity in the creation (“When God first made man”) as God empties a cup of blessings: “Let us (said he) pour on him all we can.” As man receives from God’s cup of bountiful blessings the gifts of beauty, wisdom, honor, and pleasure, God “made a stay” and withheld the jewel of his treasure and left “rest” at the bottom of the cup: “For if I should (said he)/ Bestow this jewel also on my creature, / He would adore my gifts instead of me, / And rest in nature, not the God of Nature.” Thus while God bestows all these precious gifts on man, God foresees that they cannot offer him the peace or spiritual joy that only God Himself gives and that passes all understanding: “Let him be riche and wearie, that at least,/ If goodnesse lead him not, yet wearinesse/ May toss him to my breast.”

As beauty declines, as wisdom does not perfectly satisfy and answer all questions, as honors flee and shift, and as pleasures lose their relish and delight, the weights of the pulley change. As the weight of beauty, wisdom, honor, and pleasure at the bottom of the pulley become lighter with time and experience, the weight of “rest” at the top exerts the force to lead man to God for the happiness, peace, rest, and joy that only God can give. A human life remains incomplete and unfulfilled without the satisfaction of the spiritual appetite and longing that only God offers in His sacraments, His peace, and His union with the soul. This great truth of course Augustine expresses in the famous line from the Confessions: “Our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you.”

image: Trinity College Old Library ‘Long Room’ — Dublin by Tony Webster / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

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