Notes on A Key

Commentary on Abbot Vonier's A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, published by Zaccheus Press.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Sacraments are often described as "signs that effect what they signify." They might also be described as "causes that signify what they effect."

These two elements of signification and instrumentality are both essential to a Sacrament. Abbot Vonier writes on p. 20:
Whenever the sacramental doctrine is either falsified or deflected from sound tradition the cause has been this, that me, who ought to have known better, in one way or another ceased to visualize the double concept of signification and causation. The two concepts are strictly inseparable in this matter of the sacrament. The sacrament must be cause in such wise as actually to represent the past, the present, and the future; and it must be sign in such wise as actually to effect the thing which it proclaims.
Keeping in mind that the Eucharist is an efficient cause, a tool, simplifies dealing with the charge that it is just some sort of magical rite, nor the priest acting the part of magician. (The very term "hocus pocus" is said to have been coined in mockery of the phrase, "Hoc est corpus meum.")

Given that the Eucharist is a tool or instrument of grace, it is clear in Catholic thought that the Person who uses the tool is none other than Christ Himself. And He uses it freely; the priest does not summon or conjure Christ with word or gesture. The tool is, remember, the very sacrifice of Christ, a sacrifice offered once in time that exists always in eternity. Since He has directed His priests (ordained priests in a particular way, but also every Christian baptized into His priesthood) to "do this," it is by His own will, not the priest's, that the bread and wine are transubstantiated.

The thought that the Sacraments are tools in the hands of Christ may also cause us to reverence them more than, perhaps, we already do.

As for the other essential element of a Sacrament, that it is a sign, meditating on this may help clean up some confusion about the fourfold presence of Christ in the Mass. Of the four -- priest, congregation, word, and Eucharist -- only one is sacramental, only one is a sign of Christ's passion that effects His passion. On p. 21, Abbot Vonier makes this "bold hypothesis":
If the priest at the altar brought down Christ from heaven in His natural state as a full-grown man, this would not be a sacrament at all, for the event would lack the very essence of the sacrament, representative signification.... It might almost be said that if at any moment in the sacramental process, Christ in His natural condition were to step in, the sacrament would at once be made meaningless.
My point here is not to rank the various ways Christ is present in His Church according to importance, but merely to observe that there are various, substantially different ways He is present, from which it follows that the various ways cannot be treated indifferently or identically.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Let me go all the way back to page 1 for a moment.

Abbot Vonier begins his book on the Eucharist with a chapter on faith. This is because he follows St. Thomas in understanding the Sacraments -- of which the Eucharist is the most excellent -- to be "certain signs protesting that faith through which man is justified."
The power of Christ's passion [Abbot Vonier quotes St. Thomas on pp. 2-3] is linked up with us through faith and through the sacraments. This, however, in different ways: for the linking up which is by faith takes place through an act of the soul, while the linking up which is by the sacraments takes place through the use of external things.
So the Sacraments are signs of faith. Faith in what? The power of Christ's passion, regarding which Abbot Vonier makes this observation:
Before it is at all possible to think of man's enrichment through the grace of Christ's redemption we have to assume that much greater result of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross which is aptly expressed in the term "Atonement," by which is meant, not directly the benefit of man, but the benefit of God: that full restitution of what had been taken from God through man's sin, His honor and glory. Christ's act on the Cross has given back to the Father all that was ever taken away from Him by man, and the divine rights have been fully restored. [pp. 1-2, emphasis added]
This passage contains two ideas we don't much think about these days. The first is the "divine rights," which we tend to assume God is too loving to insist upon.

The second is the idea that Christ's passion was not only, or even primarily, directed toward us. Mankind had offended God; mankind must atone for that offense. That atonement is a distinct matter -- although, of course, inseparably effected by the same act of obedience -- from our redemption.

In the Nicene Creed, we say, "For us men and for our salvation, He came down from heaven." The "for our salvation" is obviously a reference to our redemption. Perhaps we can understand the "for us men" as a reference to the atonement Christ effected, "for us" in the sense of "in our place."

What does all this say about the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Sacrifice of Christ?

It says, I think, that thinking of the Eucharist only as a gift from Christ to us is to miss the far more important fact that it is a gift from the Son to the Father. We are not so much given the Eucharist as invited to join Christ as He gives it to the Father, like young children invited to sign the gift card on an older brother's present to their father. The father, in turn, accepts the gift as coming from all his children.

And so, even as we believe in faith that the Eucharist is an instrument of our sanctification, we should also regard it as an expression of Trinitarian love in which we are invited to join.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

On page 15, Abbot Vonier quotes the O sacrum convivium [which happens to be indulgenced]:
O sacred Banquet, wherein Christ is received, the memory of His passion is recalled, the soul is filled with grace, and there is given to us a pledge of future glory.
We are (or should be) used to the idea of the Eucharist as a "re-presentation" of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary, that it makes present in our churches the one sacrifice offered once and for all outside Jerusalem nearly two millennia ago. We understand, indeed many of us can testify, that receiving the Eucharist confers graces upon the receiver. We might even occasionally think of the future glory pledged by the Eucharist -- the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, Who is now seated at the right hand of the Father.

But Abbot Vonier quotes this prayer in the context of discussing how, as he writes a page before, every sacrament
recalls the past, it is the voice of the present, it reveals the future.
A sacrament can do these things because it is a sign.

Being a sign of something else might be thought of as an imperfection, as though what really counts is the thing signified and the sign itself is ephemeral, passing from the mind as soon as what is signified is recognized. This isn't the case with a sacrament, though; the fact that it is a sign is what makes it capable of containing the past, the present, and the future all at once.

As St. Thomas writes (and Abbott Vonier quotes), when discussing whether a sacrament is a sign of one thing only:
...a sacrament properly speaking is that which is ordained to signify our sanctification. In which three things may be considered; viz.
  • the very cause of our sanctification, which is Christ's passion;
  • the form of our sanctification, which is grace and the virtues;
  • and the ultimate end of our sanctification, which is eternal life.
As I suggested, thinking of the Eucharist in these terms comes more or less readily to Catholics. Baptism, too, if we are aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death, and that if we have grown into union with Him through a death like His, we shall also be united with Him in the resurrection.

But what about the other sacraments? Do we ever think about how marriage recalls the past, or holy orders reveals the future?

I know that I tend to collapse the idea of a sacrament into an outward sign of an inward grace given by the sacrament. That's certainly true, but it's inadequate. If the graces received are all there is to it, then what's the point of the sign? To tell us particular graces are being received? Then why not just pray for those particular graces and skip all the fuss with the oil and the water and so forth?

Because, as Abbot Vonier explains, you need a sign if you want to tie the past, present, and future all together, and
to limit the sacramental power of signification to the present moment, to the transformation of soul which takes place when the sacrament is received, would be an unwarranted minimizing of the sacramental doctrine, and would leave much of our scriptural language unintelligible. (p. 16)

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

On p. 9 of the Zaccheus Press edition of A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, Abbot Vonier writes:
For the Puritain, faith is not in need of any help or adjuncts. Yet the reason given by Catholic theologians for the presence in the Christian dispensation of these external signs of internal faith [i.e., the sacraments] are chiefly psychological; man's nature being what it is, sacraments are indispensible to a full life of faith.
There are many arguments against the Catholic faith that, in one way or another, boil down to rejecting the claim, "Man's nature being what it is, sacraments are indispensible to a full life of faith."

Abbot Vonier points out one argument, that of the Puritain: "Faith needs no help." That may be true, but it isn't faith that is to be saved, it's man, and man can use all the help he can get.

Another argument pivots on the word "indispensible." God is not bound by the sacraments, so they aren't indispensible in the literal sense that salvation is strictly impossible without them (setting aside the question of how sacramental baptism by desire actually is). But they are indispensible given that man's nature is as it is:
Saint Thomas gives a threefold reason for the institution of the sacraments; but this threefold reason is really one -- man's psychology. However, the three factors are firstly, the condition of man's nature, being a composite of spirit and sense; secondly, man's estate, which is slavedom to material things and only to be remedied by the spiritual power inside the material thing; thirdly, man's activities, so prone to go astray in external interests, finding in the sacraments a true bodily exercise which works out for salvation.
As St. Thomas writes in answer to an objection in the same article Abbot Vonier references:
God's grace is a sufficient cause of man's salvation. But God gives grace to man in a way which is suitable to him. Hence it is that man needs the sacraments that he may obtain grace.
Some would object that the sacraments are suitable to man. Various strains of Manichaeism are still around, even within Christianity, that in effect deny that the spiritual can be expressed or signified by the material. There is something of a passive Cartesian dualism that forgets, if it ever knew, that we really are souls and bodies, not souls temporarily stuck in bodies; have you ever met anyone who thinks we become angels after we die? A healthy faith in the Incarnation and the Resurrection resist this error.

Then there are those who deny there is such a thing as human nature. Their difficulties with the Faith neither start nor finish with the sacraments, and so discussions with them shouldn't either.

It's those Protestants, or even those poorly catechized Catholics, who regard the sacraments as something somehow extra, and so extraneous, whom I would most like to exhort. Jesus tells us He came that we might have life in abundance. To prune back that life to the barest minimum, to keep it at subsistence level lest we be guilty of some sort of excess, is, in a word, un-Biblical.

A full life of faith is what Jesus preached, what the Apostles wrote of. It is a participation, even now, in the life of the Holy Trinity. Half-measures and bare subsistence are not God's ways, nor should they be ours. And because they are available in the Christian dispensation, a full life of faith requires, demands, yearns for, and embraces the sacraments.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Welcome to Notes on A Key, a blog for discussing the book A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, written nearly a hundred years ago by Abbot Vonier and published today by Zaccheus Press.

Look for posts here throughout Lent 2005.