Column Beurskens: Lampshades
The procession of the Holy Sacrament moves slowly along the fields of Asselt, a little village at the banks of the river Meuse in the province of Limburg in the Netherlands. The church of the village has as its patron saint Saint Dionysius. The priest had just told the mass-servants to put on the bright-red shoulder-covering. O yes, the lampshades … said one of them, because of their gold-brocaded rim. This meant that it was a super-solemn event. It is only a few times a year that they are used, the lampshades.
In the procession the Holy Sacrament is being carried by the priest under a canopy, the heaven, as it is called in local vernacular. Underway it is put on a resting altar at one time. The road around it has been decorated with flowers, laid out in artful patterns. It makes one think of the beautiful and intricate decorations in Buddhism, which are made of colored sand or butter. Tomorrow it will be gone, or withered. The seemingly useless effort done to the transitory shows devotion to the eternal. The choir sings the tantum ergo sacramentum. One sees that the people are impressed. The pastor calls it the white march of the community of the faithful, analogous to the white marches in Belgium at the occasion of emotionally impressive moments.
Indeed, it is very difficult to come up with a suitable title for the event. It seems an anachronism. The procession in no way fits into the times. Just as likely one could see a group of Hara Krishna monks dancing through the fields, of which one would nevertheless surmise, that it wasn’t typical Dutch folklore.
Afterwards in the café in the beaming sun people agreed, what a pity it was that the procession isn’t understood anymore nowadays, especially not by people who could profit by it so much. The world under the heaven has not much to connect anymore with the world along the road under the so brilliantly blue sky of that day. Strange, alienated, are words that could fit.
Alienation however is also a word, that is used in psychology for many people who are in some kind of distress. There are people, who feel alienated from our time, who don’t feel at home anymore in our beloved Limburg; the lonely university-student, the burnout yuppy, the numerous depressed people, who engulf the aid-workers.
Søren Kierkegaard says, that man can only be contemporary in two ways: in his own time or with Jesus Christ. There is no other reality. A human being can know his own time or he can stand under the cross on mount Calvary, together with John and Mary. He can comprehend himself in his own time or sit down at the last supper or on the shores of lake Galilee. Events in history are covered in shrouds. They only come to us in a deformed way. We can hardly understand saints, or not at all. Other cultures are strange to us. In many a culture in Africa and in a Tibetan monastery we don’t feel at home.
But for many also their own times are strange. They don’t manage in it anymore and they feel unhappy. Science does its utmost to put things right, but it only partially succeeds. The alienation that people feel remains. The anachronism therefore is not in the procession, but in the world around it, which is alienated from reality. The distressed and unhappy human being isn’t analyzing the world around him incorrectly. This is not a plea for a journey back to old folklore or cosy traditions, but it is a plea to go back to the essential, to the not-alienated. Because there is more… as our national catholic broadcasting network so carefully puts it.
As I say to my little nephews and nieces … the first Holy Communion is the greatest feast in the life of a human being, a statement which carries well, since after all as a present they get more than just a rosary. The church, the faith, and very concretely the Eucharist have not only been to me supportive and inspiring, but also salvatory and even nakedly and coarsely life-saving. She often was the only thing around, the only oasis in the vicinity, and nothing is exaggerated about that.
Meetings, in which people search for salvation together, one encounters in every religion, but there are no sacraments. Catholic liturgy professes, that Jesus himself attends in person and this cannot be taken literally enough. Once I got into a conversation with Sister Sujita Kallupurakkathu, the Indian Mother-General of the Sisters of Our Lady. She had worked among the poorest of India. There she met Jesus, she said. A friend of hers, a Hindu revolutionary and anarchist, once visited her and wanted to accompany her to mass. She explained to him, that the Holy Sacrament was in the tabernacle, after which he laughingly remarked that he now finally understood Christianity. You have made your Jesus harmless by locking him up. She found this wonderful. However, the Hindu had understood in an instant. Participating in Catholic liturgy without the eyes of faith reduces it to absolutely nothing, to a Punch and Judy show. However, with the eyes of faith, it can save lives. George Tyrrel, a nineteenth century theologian, discovered about the church … this feeling for reality! Here the old business is being continued by the old firm, in the old way … When Herman Finkers, a famous Dutch comedian, has once again attended at a mass, which wasn’t conducted very inspiringly, he thinks … whatever you do, you won´t drive me out of the church. That´s about the momentous importance he attaches to it and in this way he is a witness of his own.
In the procession we walk through town with Jesus himself. Jesus himself walks through town, that is simply the only thing that can be said about it. To give hope to people without hope. What would it touch a human being to his core, -who in the deepest of his soul is convinced that he is lost, because he sees no sense in life-, when he could meet Him face to face, who could save him? Jesus promised after all himself … because I will be with you until the end of the world. Where two or three are present in My name, I will be there with them.
It is the Umwertung aller Werten, the upheaval of all values, of the Western intellect, but it has to happen. Jesus says during the last supper … this is my body that has been given for you; do this as a memory of me . It is not the place here to get involved in the discussion about the real presence of Jesus in the tabernacle, in the bread, but it is of course absolutely essential, and fantastic at that.
Where two or three are present in My name, I will be there with them. Jesus doesn’t say … when people are together and speak to each other about my life and my message I will be their inspiration, but he says I am with them. Kierkegaard says at this point, that the only path of salvation for a human being, which suffers from alienation, goes through Jesus. He is the only one who can solve the alienation of out time. In the Eucharist man, who considers himself lost, simply meets his savior all the time. The water I will give him will be in him source for eternal life … Jesus says to the Samaritan women. She met him at the well. In the scant sentences which are said about her, it appears that she knows the storms of life, and she talks about him who will explain everything. And then suddenly Jesus says … I am He, who speaks with you. This happens in every mass. That is the terremoto, the earthquake, of catholic liturgy.
Mass, in essence, is always the same. A human being can think, that he comprehends it completely, but then some day there will be a sudden instant of utter amazement, which sheds over it a beautiful new light; wherever it takes place, be it a great mass in front of Saint Peter’s basilica, in a tiny reed church on lake Titicaca, or here in the churches of our poor Limburg. The sacrament of the Eucharist is a source of healing for man in great distress, the first finding being often, that existence makes sense and that is already a miracle itself for many. Also moments of personal recognition in the ancient texts are consoling. Man in suffering feels himself addressed to continually. He is not alone and his problem apparently is universal and timeless. It is about the terms of the problem of existence, la condition humaine, itself, and apparently there is a solution.
Some time ago I was in Phodéle, the birthplace of Domenikos Theotokopoulos, el Greco, the Greek, who worked almost all his life as a painter in Spain. In the small village there is a monument of the university of Valladolid … en memoria de la gloria immortal, of el Greco; To the immortal glory of el Greco. The heavy language moves one a little. After all it not exaggerated, since it is used, because his art contributed to know Jesus better. That is because it is eternal. That is also what the procession is about. It is a call of Him Who is, even to the poorest, to participate in la gloria immortal of existence. And that is also why everything and everybody needs to turn out for the procession, even the lampshades.