The God who becomes dust

iStock 000010996529XSmall The God who becomes dustI made an early-morning holy hour a couple weeks ago. The stars were still out when I pulled into the Adoration chapel’s parking lot, but the first row was almost full; there was only one space left.

When I walked into the entry hall I was deeply moved, as I always am, to see that the sign-in registry was full all through the night. The Lord is never left alone; weekends, weekdays, holidays, the middle of the night during a bad storm — someone is always there with him. Each hour has at least one committed “adorer” in addition to any visitors who stop in, and then there are coordinators who are on call 24/7 to fill in at the last minute in case the scheduled person can’t make it. I glanced at the logs from 1:00 AM, 2:00 AM, 3:00 AM and noticed that sometimes there were two or even three people there.

There were about eight other people in the warmly-lit room with me that morning. It was silent, and a I could smell the fresh flowers that people had brought in. As I prayed, I couldn’t help but notice everyone’s gestures of respect to the Lord in the Eucharist: each person bowed before sitting or exiting, many people getting down on both knees. Some touched their faces to the floor. Nobody turned their back on the Lord. Per the standard Adoration chapel etiquette, we would each walk backward to get to the door when we left.

I’ve often written about the tremendous love I almost always see and feel in Eucharistic Adoration. As I settled into a row of seats in the chapel, kneeling to say a mind-clearing opening prayer, I sensed it once again. I gazed up at the consecrated Host and began to pray, thinking that I’d never felt more palpable peace and joy in a place in my life.

And then, as usual, my overly-analytical brain ruined the moment. Instead of the lovely introductory prayer of thanksgiving I’d planned to say, I said instead:

I can’t believe I believe this.

I thought of the people around me, and all the people I’d run into in Adoration chapels over the years: successful business executives, brilliant engineers, people with little education but razor-sharp street smarts, and I thought:

I can’t believe they believe this.

It is, after all, a pretty outrageous claim: God takes the form of bread? We’re all here because we believe that what looks like a wafer up there is actually God?

When I first heard that Catholics still maintain the ancient teaching that the consecrated Communion wafer is literally the Body and Blood of Christ — that the bread ceases to exist and only God himself remains — I thought: “Dude. Seriously?” As I’ve said before, it seemed impossible that a lifelong atheist could ever believe such a doctrine. Is there a modern religion that has made a more outrageous claim?

Long story short, I found all the theological reasoning behind it to be impeccable (a quick summary of all that stuff is here for those who are interested). And then, once I began receiving the Eucharist every Sunday, my doubt was washed away. In the past few years, I’ve had few moments where I wasn’t intimately aware of the Lord’s presence in the consecrated Host.

But this was one of them.

As I knelt there in the Adoration chapel that morning, I had this visceral reaction of finding it all so hard to believe. As a wise philosopher once said: “Dude. Seriously?”

Again, doctrinally I never had a problem with it. My resistance was just this visceral reaction of feeling like it would be somehow disrespectful to accept that God Almighty, the Lord of all, the Force behind creation, would deign to take the form of a wafer! It’s almost too much to believe that GOD becomes BREAD, I thought as I looked at the monstrance.

Then, out of the blue, a thought popped into my mind:

But you believe he became dust?

I don’t know where that came from. I can’t say with certainty whether it was an answer from on high or just my subconscious, but, wherever it was from, it struck me like lightning. I let the words sink in, and the more I considered them, the more I understood the root of my resistance to this doctrine: arrogance.

Since my conversion, I’d never questioned that God became human. That seemed reasonable enough. Because, you know, I’m human, and I’m pretty important and valuable (the thinking went). But that whole looking-like-bread thing? Outrageous.

Basically, I had a scale in mind that looked something like this:

god value scale The God who becomes dust
But those words — You believe he became dust? — shocked me into realizing that my scale was ridiculously off. As I was reminded six months ago at Ash Wednesday Mass: “You are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” We humans are infinitely valuable, but only because we were created by God, in his image. Without his life in us, our future is dust — literally. Without him, we would not exist at all.

Rather than whatever prayers I’d planned to say, I let my mind wander to spend some time thinking about who and what, exactly, God is. I thought of this mind-boggling video that hits home the unfathomable enormity of his creation. I thought of the universe’s time scales, on which the entire life of planet Earth is nothing more than a blip on the radar screen, and all of human history not even that. And suddenly that scale looked a whole lot different. After about fifteen minutes contemplating the Creator, it looked more like this:

god value scale2a The God who becomes dust
I looked back up at the monstrance, and it all fell into place. The fact that God becomes what appears to be bread is shocking; but it’s no more shocking than that he first became dust.

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34 Responses to “The God who becomes dust”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Though as a big fan of charts and graphs, I have to say that the scale for Bread and Me is not the same. God did not look like you, or, that is, look human. He became human. But of course he didn't become bread, he just looks like it. And I am in no way trying to imply anything you wrote needed correcting, this is totally a graph thing with me! I hope I remember to pray about this during my next visit to the Blessed Sacrament.

    Thank you always for sharing your thoughts and prayers. I very much appreciate all your posts.

    Oh, and one more question, for you and for any other readers- you mention backing out of the chapel. The parish I'm in does also have perpetual adoration, and is a pretty careful, by the books parish. That's code for "no liturgical dancing here". But I've never seen this backing out, but it strikes me as pretty neat. Our chapel is set up with the door kind of right behind and to the side of the altar, with a rather narrow walkway, so you'd really only have to turn sideways for a few steps, but I don't recall seeing anyone doing this. Then again, I'm usually trying to make sure my 2 yo isn't tearing apart the heating elements along the floor or getting anywhere near any of the candles, so maybe I've missed it. Thank you!

    chris

  2. dottie says:

    Dude, that's really food for thought. Thank you.

  3. Lauren @ Magnify the Lord with Me says:

    What a beautiful reflection, Jennifer!!! I love your graphics- they bring it home.

    And I haven't seen the backing out either- but love that and will definitely do this in the future!

  4. Lenetta @ Nettacow says:

    It would be interesting to see a post on adoration ettiquite. (Oh, how I wish blogger had spell check for comments sometimes…) I've read about double genuflecting, but that's about it.

  5. Stephanie Y. says:

    Awesome. Thank you for sharing that. I love it when God can take a wandering distracted mind and turn it into something profound.

  6. Lacey says:

    Thanks for sharing….definitely gave me something to ponder today.

  7. Shirley says:

    Beautiful! I would definitely call that little voice the Holy Spirit. Even though I'm a cradle Catholic, I too find myself thinking, "I can't believe I believe this!" Like you, I've read the doctrine and found it overwhelmingly convincing. I was surprised when I read that you think arrogance is the root of your disbelief, but I can see that you're right. Thank you for sharing…this really helped me!

  8. Sr Anne says:

    I'm with you every step of the way, except maybe for that backwards thing. It seems more like the protocol for a potentate than for a Savior. And I've seen some really weird iterations of it.
    Church documents on the liturgy call for a simple genuflection, whether the Eucharist is exposed in the monstrance, or remains in the tabernacle; a way to affirm the Lord's complete presence to us, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity whether we see the sacrament of his presence or not.
    But if public prostrations and walking backwards can get the majority of Catholics just genuflecting properly again, that would be a good thing!

  9. Marcy K. says:

    I thought this was absolutely beautiful but I have a question. Pardon my mental block, but when did God become dust? In the quote "…and unto dust you shall return" refers to us not God, and Jesus and his body ascended, so I'm confused as to God becoming dust. Please explain a little more.

  10. Josephene says:

    Marcy, Jenn will likely answer your question, but I think she means God became human (and we are but dust). Perhaps the inspired question was posed in this way to remind Jennifer (and now her blog readers!) that humans are but ashes to be returned to ashes, and we are not close to the Most Great side of the graph. (I don't how it works, but graphs can be so funny!).

  11. Loretta S. says:

    About the backing out practice – I only recently and rarely have gone to Adoration. Although I'm a cradle Catholic, I've only recently reawakened my faith. And yet, when I've gone to Adoration, I've instinctively felt the need to not turn my back on the monstrance. Weird that there is an actual practice for that. And I've also felt the need for a little veil, although I have no desire to wear one to Mass. Odd that…

  12. Michelle says:

    Thank you so much for this! It drove home the fact that I REALLY need to get to Adoration.

    And I REALLY need to work with our parish to try and get perpetual Adoration instituted. There's got to be a way to do it.

  13. ~ Nona says:

    That does it!

    I'm leaving early to attend 5:15 PM mass so that I can spend special time in adoration!

    Thanks for the reminder — and, btw, sometimes I think the same thing, i.e., I can't believe that I really believe this!!

    But I do.

  14. Anonymous says:

    MarcyK – God became one of us, and we are nothing but dancing dust. Ergo, God became dust. I'm guessing that is what Jen meant.

  15. Marilyn says:

    Jennifer, thanks for this post. It inspired me to go to adoration today with my two children. We only spent a few minutes unfortunately, but it was Beautiful. God bless.

  16. Jen says:

    Except for the fact that God continually assures me of my position other-wise, I often consider myself to be even lower than bread…say, when I've yelled ridiculously at my preschooler or pouted over something my husband said. In those moments, I am sure a loaf of bread is of greater worth:) But He has grace, and for that I am always and ever grateful.

    (All that to say that I love the charts and the thought that HE became like dust to make me, mere dust, capable of being eternal. thanks for sharing…)

  17. Elizabeth Mahlou says:

    I think sometimes we humans simply think too much. The priest who gave my seriously retarded son his first communion asked me if I thought he could understand transubstantiation. My reply: "a lot better and a lot easier than I!"

  18. Robert B. Heath says:

    The thought that has come to me is: we're either worshiping God, or we're idolaters. The first time this came to me was when I went to a Charismatic healing Mass, and at the elevations, which were prolonged, there was a soft murmuring of "Amen," "Praise Jesus," "Praise God," "Praise Him."

    And I thought, if an unbeliever walked in now, he'd believe we are worshiping what appears to be bread.

    So really, we are either totally misguided idolaters, worshiping a piece of bread and a cup of wine, or we really are worshiping the true God under the appearances of bread and wine.

    I love when it is so obvious, because then an unbeliever has to either totally dismiss us a nut-cases, or take some time to ponder the whole business. And pondering can lead to faith.

  19. Ray Ingles says:

    You've gone from atheist to believer, so you can probably understand where this question is coming from:

    You've said, once I began receiving the Eucharist every Sunday, my doubt was washed away. What if we did a double-blind test?

    I mean, I know that chemically, no one can tell the difference between consecrated and unconsecrated Host. But if it has an effect on people… could they tell if they were getting unconsecrated Host?

    What if we did a 'Folgers crystals' test at a few churches? (Arranging consent among all the churchgoers would be ethically required but practically impossible, sure, but go with it for a minute.)

    One of several guest pastors over the course of the year would be an actor, just playing the role of priest. The wafers handed out would just be bread. (Like I said, consent for this study would be essentially impossible, but…)

    Would the parishioners be able to pick out the ringer at a better-than-chance level?

  20. Fabiola Garza says:

    Ray Ingles-

    Te he- It's not that simple. Let's take the experience of Prayer for example. Every single time I pray God is present but I'm not necessarily experiencing a top of the mountain moment. Mother Teresa didn't feel God's comforting presence for years. Prayer is supposed to be transforming whether we feel it or not, and our heart has to to be open and willing to receive grace.
    It is the same with the Eucharist. We open our hearts and God does what he wants with us in that moment. What we feel or don't feel can't change the fact that it is Jesus that we are receiving.

  21. Ray Ingles says:

    Fabiola – The thing is, when prayer, too, is looked at by science, no effect is found. It doesn't affect the outside world, it affects the believer.

    I mean, a bunch of mosques in Mecca were facing the wrong direction for years, but nobody noticed a difference. No change in the outside world, same effect on the 'inside world'. A whole lot of people would conclude that the effects of those prayers were, well, psychosomatic.

    We humans are awfully good at fooling ourselves. Double-blind studies are a major way to see if something's just in our head or not. I'm not a huge fan of Philip K. Dick's books, but he made an insightful point once when he said that "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."

    Does the power of the Eucharist flow from belief, or vice versa? Does the power of the Eucharist go away if you stop believing in it? That's the kind of question an atheist would ask.

  22. Jennifer @ Conversion Diary says:

    Ray -

    Would the parishioners be able to pick out the ringer at a better-than-chance level?

    Great question. My dad recently asked me something similar.

    My guess is that, no, people probably wouldn't be able to pick the fake. And I think the reasons for that are 1) the power of the Eucharist depends on a person's loving openness when receiving it (more on that below), and 2) God is not bound by physical means (i.e. he would certainly bless the people who thought they were receiving the Eucharist, just as he channels grace to our Protestant brothers and sisters who don't have the Real Presence at the communion services).

    "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."

    That is a great quote. I completely agree. As it relates to the power of the Eucharist and communion with God, I would say that a quote along the lines of "You receive love in proportion to the love you give" would have more explanatory power. If a person walks up to receive Communion with a blase, closed attitude, he won't receive as much grace as someone who comes to the Lord with an open heart and mind. (I wrote about that more here.)

    I know how that sounds: it sounds like we're telling people to want to believe it, to pretend that they believe it, and eventually — voila! — they convince themselves that it's true.

    I can't prove that that is not the case, but can only point out that we're dealing here with matters of love, and engagement in love is not something that can be done through analysis alone. To some extent, you have to want it, actively seek it, and put your own effort into the process.

    (Okay, my kids are tearing up the living room as I write this, so I don't have time to edit. Sorry for any typos. Hope that helps! Thanks for your comment!)

  23. Louise says:

    Jen,

    St. Thomas Aquinas had a similar thought regarding God becoming man and then taking on the appearance of bread. The beginning of the third verse of his song "Adoro te Devote" has had me pondering this very subject for a while. Here's that verse, and a translation:

    In cruce latebat sola Deitas,
    At hic latet simul et humanitas:
    Ambo tamen credens atque confitens
    Peto quod petivit latro paenitens.

    On the cross Divinity alone lie hid,
    Yet here Humanity as well is hidden:
    Both, however, believing and confessing
    I seek what the repentant thief sought.

  24. Louise says:

    Actually, the whole song is too awesome not to include:

    Adoro te devote, latens Deitas,
    Quae sub his fuguris vere latitas:
    Tibi se cor meum totum sublicit,
    Quia te contemplans totum defecit.

    Devoutly I adore you, hidden Deity,
    You who truly lie hid under these species;
    To you my heart submits completely,
    Because in contemplating you it fails totally.

    Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur:
    Sed auditu solo tuto creditur:
    Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius:
    Nil hoc verbo veritatis verius.

    Sight, touch, taste in you are deceived:
    By hearing alone it suffices firmly to believe;
    I believe whatever said the Son of God;
    Nothing is truer that this word of Truth

    In cruce latebat sola Deitas,
    At hic latet simul et humanitas:
    Ambo tamen credens atque confitens
    Peto quod petivit latro paenitens.

    On the cross Divinity alone lie hid,
    Yet here Humanity as well is hidden:
    Both, however, believing and confessing
    I seek what the repentant thief sought.

    Pie pellicane, Iesu Domine,
    Me immundum munda tuo sanguine,
    Cuius una stilla salvum facere,
    Totum mundum quit ab omni scelere.

    Lord Jesus, pious pelican,
    Wash me, unclean, clean with your Blood,
    A drop of which can save
    The entire world from every sin.

    Iesu, quem velatum nunc aspicio,
    Oro fiat illud quod tam sitio:
    Ut te revelata cernens facie,
    Visu sim beatus tuae gloriae. Amen.

    Jesus, whom veiled I now perceive,
    I ask for what I so thirst come to be:
    That discerning you with face unveiled,
    Blessed I may be in the sight of your glory.
    Amen.

  25. Ritaevon says:

    Loved your post. I must survive in an area –at this stage of my life–with very little access to the Eucharist–either for daily mass (& communon) or adoration. It is possibly one of the greatest hardships I've ever known…Please remember me in your prayers…

  26. Hendy says:

    Scanned the link to impeccable reasoning… what exactly is the reasoning you find impeccable? Or do you just mean reasoning stemming from a pre-existing acceptance of scripture?

  27. Hendy says:

    @Fabiola:

    "Prayer is supposed to be transforming whether we feel it or not, and our heart has to to be open and willing to receive grace.
    It is the same with the Eucharist. We open our hearts and God does what he wants with us in that moment. What we feel or don't feel can't change the fact that it is Jesus that we are receiving."

    Something I fail to understand is the continual reliance on god's non-overriding nature when it comes to whether we feel him or not. As a probably-deconverting-Catholic, now that I'm doubting it somewhat makes me angry on god's behalf (if he exists) that millions of people across the world can be hoodwinked by what must necessarily be utter crap.

    When I started questioning my faith I was appalled at the lack of evidence and even more frustrated by the fact that even though Christians think their evidence is superior to other religions in about all ways possible… people can still believe in Xenu, golden plates, Jesus making a stop in Utah on the way home post-resurrection, etc. It's crazy.

    Why is the real god revealed to humans in a similar way to all the fake gods? Christianity is unique in a few ways, but the basics are all there: one time, one place, ancient people, and some things that lead others to be convinced. But this has happened with countless other religions as well.

    Why not a universal sense that Christ = god which leads all other religions to fall on deaf ears?

    A pillar of fire/cloud in every major city on Christmas and/or easter?

    The parting of the seas to allow those being threatened with genocide to flee?

    Manna from heaven to feed the sick?

    I digress. The point is that to play the "free-will" card and state that I must be "open" to receive grace and feel anything I find to be false. God has presumably planted all kinds of instincts and moral intuitions (natural law if you prefer) inside of me and these are not considered to override my free-will.

    Surely god could infuse a hunger for himself that is at least as strong as the desire to eat or the repulsiveness of murder or eating feces.

    If the three examples above are not overriding my free-will, then neither would a sense of Jesus Christ of that magnitude.

    The best part is that I don't have to be open to any of the above. They just are. Now that would be a testament to god's existence and love for mankind.

  28. nicole says:

    Wow. I've been thinking a lot about the sheer audacity of this belief too, because my daughters are preparing to receive First Communion very soon. It sounds so silly to say to them that I believe that bread and wine is the body and blood of Christ. But I do believe.

  29. Anonymous says:

    My mother has been in the hospital for two weeks. She is often alone. I do not have time to be with her as much as I would like, and we have little family in town. My mother is suffering, and very lonely. I am sure somewhere in town there is a chapel with perpetual adoration, and the lord is never alone, which is nice. But I wish those people who volunteer to sit up all night with the lord would consider helping out the elderly, disabled, invalid, shut-ins, and hospitalized people who are often alone. When I was taking care of my mother on my own, not one person from my church so much as brough me a casserole. I know many of them attended daily mass and adoration.

  30. Anonymous says:

    @Hendy:

    You ask why a "real God reveals himself in the exact same way a fake god does."

    This is a good question, but I think further consideration of the evidence will reveal a big difference between the founding miracle of Christianity and many of the founding miracles of other religions.

    First, the founding miracle of Christianity was a public event. It was the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Jesus. It is based on the testimony of the apostles, all of whom would have known if the resurrection account were not true, and all of whom chose to die horribly for their conviction that Christ rose from the dead rather than deny that. That's startling; what is the probability that twelve people, all of whom knew that Christ wasn't who he said he was, would nonetheless choose to die for that belief rather than recant. Psychologically, its implausible.

    Compare that very public founding miracle in Christianity with the founding miracles in other faiths. Muhammad meets an angel in a cave. No witnesses, no public event. Just what Muhammad says. Same with Joseph Smith. No witnesses, no public event, just Smith and his claim that he met an angel.

    Now, you might choose not to believe any of these miracle stories. That's a discussion for another time. The point is that Christianity, unlike almost any other major religion, claims as its founding miracle is a *public*, *observable* miracle. This is utterly unlike the private and esoteric revelations that many other religions are based on. That is, just one persons alleged experience. That makes Christianity different, right there.

  31. Ray Ingles says:

    …all of whom chose to die horribly for their conviction that Christ rose from the dead rather than deny that.

    Well, church tradition says that. More precisely, a few church traditions, some contradictory, say that. Historically, that's not as established as the existence of Jesus himself.

    The question of how much historical support one needs before concluding a miracle occurred is a separate question, of course…

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