academia, Anglican, Asian American, Audrey Assad, baptism, Catholic, charismatic, Chinese, Christian, communion, Congregation of Holy Cross, Corpus Christi, Eucharist, Flannery O'Connor, forgiveness, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ignatius of Loyola, Jesuit, neo-Calvinist, neo-Reformed, Pentecostal, Real Presence, reconciliation, sacred heart, social science, Tobit
Today is Corpus Christi Sunday. The evangelical Anglican church that I attend probably doesn’t care very much, but I do. In fact, I care quite a lot, even though, unlike Churl and Audrey Assad down below, I actually don’t feel much need for myself to actually become Roman Catholic, much as I hunger and thirst for greater catholicity and for the Anglican and Roman Catholic communions to keep getting blown together by the Spirit. But still, I do believe in the Real Presence, I am looking forward to Pope Francis’s worldwide eucharistic adoration, and I celebrate Corpus Christi Sunday.
Why? especially because I’m not planning on becoming a full-blooded Catholic, remaining instead as what Churl calls a ‘knock-off Mars bar’ (don’t you worry, Churl, no offence given, no offence taken). My answer: Corpus Christi Sunday changed my life.
About four years ago, I was in a very similar predicament that I am currently in: I was doing a graduate degree in the social sciences while longing to study Christian theology. I hope I’ve made progress in both, especially in bringing the two together, but as it happened, my journey–in the middle of thesis writing that time, no less–took me to a retreat at a Congregation of Holy Cross house of studies in Berkeley, CA. I knew the house superior, as he was my creative writing mentor when I attended a Holy Cross high school in the Bay Area, and as soon as I got there, he piled on the Balthasar, O’Connor, and Hopkins and told me to read it all. I was very obedient, or so I think I was. I also read some Michael Ramsey during that time, I think, but shh.
In any case, during those two weeks, I had to do something I’d never done before: attend daily mass. I had served as a pastoral apprentice for three years at various Chinese Anglican churches before that, so I had some vague idea of what the liturgy was going to be like (not that I could do it from memory, like my pre-new rites Catholic brothers and sisters). Those two weeks, we read through the Book of Tobit for the first reading; though the Thirty-Nine Articles (#6) knocks off St. Jerome to say that it’s a book that ‘the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine,’ I have to say that the story of Tobias and Sarah, the demon Asmodeus, and the archangel Raphael made for a lot of good fun at 8 AM every morning, especially among people who saw the book as part of the canonical Hebrew Scriptures. One of the mass attendees, a staff worker at the Jesuit theological school across the street, told me after mass one day, ‘I love it every time we get around to Tobit. It’s such a thrilling story, don’t you think?’ (Confession: I then went and read Judith to see what that was like. Even more scandalous.)
I also wore a black hoodie to mass every morning to see if I could be mistaken for a Franciscan monk and given communion; I was asked if I was an ordained Anglican priest (I’m not, and don’t plan on being one), but no, unfortunately, it didn’t work. But it did get me, good evangelical Anglican that I was, exposed to Corpus Christi, a solemnity I’d never heard of (OK, at that point, I hadn’t heard of a lot of stuff; I had no idea, for example, what the heck the ‘sacred heart’ was, even). I was exposed to Corpus Christi because the last Sunday I was at this retreat was Corpus Christi Sunday that year. Yes, I know that Corpus Christi is usually celebrated the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, but like many Catholics, the Holy Cross Center did it on the Sunday.
I didn’t actually go to mass that day, and I didn’t take part in any procession (true story: the first Corpus Christi procession I ever saw was in The Godfather, Part 2). Instead, I went to a Chinese charismatic church (gasp!). My fifth-grade Sunday school teacher was a children’s pastor at that church, and come to think of it, it was pretty meaningful that I got to see her on Corpus Christi Sunday because she was the first to teach me a high view of communion. She even advocated (unsuccessfully, unfortunately) for us kids to be able to go downstairs whenever the adults had communion and to simply observe if we weren’t baptized yet (we were credo-baptists, and I was baptized when I was nine, but that’s a long story–the short version is that my best friend was getting dunked, so I wanted to as well). She told us that communion is a sacred moment that we should get to observe and even partake of, as it’s a moment of being very close to the Lord. If my charismatic auntie didn’t know how close she was to the Real Presence, I hope she finds out some day that she set me on a sure course toward acknowledging the Real Presence in the Eucharist.
In any case, that year was a particularly difficult year for me because three years in the ministry apprenticeship meant that I had made a lot of enemies. This is not to say that everyone who does ministry makes enemies this early on in their career, but in case you couldn’t tell, I can be fairly outspoken, and I was confused on where I stood in relation to the neo-Reformed tribe, so that made for a fairly combustible combination. Suffice it to say that I lost some friends, managed to alienate others, had others alienate me, and suffered a few dating rejections too (as the kid in Love Actually says, there’s ‘nothing worse than the total agony of being in love’). As Corpus Christi Sunday was coming to a close, this charismatic auntie took me into her home for a session of healing prayer.
Yes, now that I’ve said the two words ‘healing prayer,’ you now know how deep in the bowels of Pentecostalism I was at this point. I saw my priest friends at the Catholic house of studies the next day and tried to explain why I had missed not only mass, but pizza and movie night, and I said that it was some kind of Ignatian thing where you imagine rooms and people who have hurt you, etc. etc. The priests looked at me really funny, like I had gotten involved in some kind of crock science, and if you know what ‘healing prayer’ is, I’ll bet at least one eyebrow has gone up on your face in both curiosity and ridicule. Let me confirm for you your worst fears. ‘Healing prayer’ is indeed sort of like the Ignatian exercises, except that you never get out of the first week and you focus on sins done to you, which is why you need ‘healing.’ Most people I’ve seen come out of ‘healing prayer’ thus have this sort of euphoric feeling of having dealt with everything bad in their lives, only to sink into a complete malaise and paralysis the week afterward because you just raised your awareness of stuff, given it a hurtful hermeneutic, and said that you dismissed it when you really didn’t. As a warning to the wise, then, if anyone ever approaches you to do ‘healing prayer,’ just go find a proper Jesuit spiritual director.
I had no such warning, but God is both humourous and gracious. I won’t describe to you in lurid detail what I imagined or saw or confessed, but suffice it to say that while my charismatic auntie wanted to keep taking me to the agony in the garden because my ministry experience was apparently very agonizing (it was, to be sure, but that’s a different post), I didn’t want to leave the Upper Room. I think as I described what I saw in the Upper Room and all the people I wanted to forgive (turns out, in hindsight, that I should probably have been asking for their forgiveness…OH WELL), she was like, ‘OK, can we finally go downstairs now? What’s with the Upper Room?’
It takes time to reflect on these things, but as I think back on that healing prayer session now, I think I was just basking there in the Real Presence, at least virtually speaking. Indeed, during those two weeks, a lot of eucharistic things happened. Yes, I was introduced to daily mass, the sacred heart, and Corpus Christi. Yes, I couldn’t get out of the Upper Room during healing prayer. But probably the most significant thing was this: the week prior, on Trinity Sunday, I returned to the church of my childhood after years of not having darkened its doors, after its multiple scandals had devastated many of my childhood friendships, and in an act of forgiveness and reconciliation, I took communion there.
It was in that act that I learned what a schismatic I had been for so long. Having left that childhood church after my friendships were devastated by Toronto Blessing crazies, a sex scandal, a leadership crisis, and the ostracization of our entire Cantonese congregation, I had been wandering, looking for a home, a place that I could agree with and a place where no more bad political stuff would ever happen. I never found it. So I wandered from church to church, even working at some of them, and in time, I also took on a sort of neo-Reformed persona to be able to articulate a theology of why I wasn’t about to stay at a church that failed to preach the Gospel. As my theological system lay in tatters, my social science thesis in disarray, and my personal church history littered with skeletons, I finally realized in that moment of deep forgiveness that I was the schismatic.
And that is why, as a Chinglican, I celebrate Corpus Christi.