It was March 19th, 2004. Emotions ran high as we prepared to watch my 19 year old sister enter a Carmelite cloister. The morning hours were spent with the knowledge that these would be some of the last moments when we could have physical contact with her. Postulant garb was laid out in one of the bedrooms and we helped my sister assemble her outfit. There were no instructions and we weren’t extremely skilled in habits, but it did provide some amusement. We gathered to take our final pictures together and we were doing so well until my emotions got in the way. Each of my other sisters managed to smile and have beautiful pictures but with me, I just began to weep. These emotions were re-echoed on the faces of everyone else in the room. Even my dad returned with reddened eyes and I had only once seen him cry at this point. Eventually I pulled it together for a terrible picture and we proceeded to the chapel.
In the chapel we prayed a prayer together as a family. Then we said our goodbyes and it was a funeral of sorts. With a twinkle in her eye, joy evidenced by the peace in her countenance, my sister glanced back at us and spoke her last words to us before entering the cloister:
I’ll see you in the Eucharist.
My sister was instructed to knock on the door with the strength of the banging on the door being equal to how long she desired to stay. The door was lucky to remain unscathed. Cloistered sisters with long veils lined the inside of the hallway once the door opened. A small sister, the Reverend Mother, stepped forward and instructed my sister to kiss the cross and then kiss the floor. All too soon, my sister was swept inside, the door closed, and the singing of the sisters faded and we were left only with aching hearts and wet faces.
At that time, the words she spoke did not resonate in my heart or bring me any consolation. Instead, I almost felt more of a sting from them. What was that to me when what I wanted was my sister present to me in her humanity, in her voice a phone call away, in her embrace when I was crying, in her presence at Christmas? I wanted her physical presence not simply a spiritual connection.
Over nine years have passed since this blessed day and the Lord has worked wonders in this heart of mine. Yes, I do still desire the presence of my sister when I think of getting married or having children. Of course I would want her to visit my house or hold my children. But I have come to understand this mystery of the presence of the Church in the Eucharist.
This past semester I taught the New Testament and I realized the profound beauty that is found in the book of Acts. We were covering the part where Saul encounters Christ on the road to Damascus. Saul hears this Voice ask, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” One of my favorite lessons was talking to my students about how Christ associated Himself with His apostles and that to persecute the Church was to persecute Christ. This lead to talking about how if the Church is the Body of Christ, then when we receive the Eucharist we receive Jesus and the universal Church. Of course they began to wonder how we can be eating each other, but I stressed that when we receive the Eucharist we are united to the entire Church–the Church Triumphant, Suffering, and Militant. And then I shared with them the story of my cloistered sister and how this beautiful mystery of the Eucharist is what helps me endure our separation.
The beauty of receiving the Eucharist is of course found in the reality of receiving Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Yet I think Our Lord reveals His deep goodness in that by receiving Jesus we are intimately linked to one another. When I receive Our Lord I am connected with my sisters in religious life, with my friends scattered across the country, with my grandparents hopefully in Heaven, and with the saints who have gone before me. I’ve come to understand this unifying aspect of the Eucharist through my travels to Europe as I encountered the beauty of Christ in basilicas, shrines, and places of martyrdom. I deepened this understanding as I met the Church in Honduras and realized that we are one body, that though I may never see them again we are united through Christ, but tangibly through the Eucharist.
Each Catholic has their own special devotions but mine is to Our Lord in the Eucharist. I love priests–because of their kindness and holiness but primarily because they make Our Lord present to me. They make tangible Christ’s love by giving me the Body of Christ. They make tangible Christ’s forgiveness as they absolve me from my sins through the ministry of the Church. I remember sitting in Honduras with the pyx in my hands that held Our Lord and wanting to just rest forever. I’ve heard stories of people being martyred for the Eucharist and I desire the same. A group of sisters came and spoke at my college one time and they said their fourth vow was defense of the Eucharist with their lives. I found that incredibly attractive. At times I’ve thought that my love for the Eucharist should lead to me being an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion but I nearly shake when I think of holding Jesus and giving Him to others–I’m not certain I could remain calm throughout that.
On this Solemnity of Corpus Christi, I encourage you to renew again your love for Our Lord and to remember that each time you receive the Eucharist it is a personal encounter with the living God. Yes, the consecrated host tastes the same as bread but He is truly present. A student of mine argued with me that Jesus was spiritually present but not physically present. Not so. He is physically present albeit in a different way than the physical body we have. It is a mystery of the Church. Christ understands humanity through and through. He knows that we need Him and that we desire a physical presence. Deo gratias! He gives us that presence by leaving His very self.
Wherever you are—regardless of the time difference, physical distance, or culture–we are united through the power of the Eucharist.
I’ll see you in the Eucharist.
Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, take me into your very self and open my heart to the love that surpasses all understanding.