On Trying to See Through Veils

“In a split second, my heart was touched. I believed. I suddenly perceived the piercing feeling of innocence, the eternal infancy of God.” —Paul Claudel

(photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

On Christmas Day in 1886, a young man of 18 years and seemingly no faith wanders into Notre-Dame Cathedral. He has come to hear Vespers.

Suddenly, while standing in the midst of the crowd, hearing the voices of young children singing the Magnificat,a flash of lightning falls out of the sky, as a result of which everything changes. “At that moment,” he tells us, “the event that would dominate my entire life happened. In a split second, my heart was touched. I believed. I suddenly perceived the piercing feeling of innocence, the eternal infancy of God.” 

Several years of hard fought struggle are to follow before he returns to the full practice of faith, but for young Paul Claudel the future trajectory was fixed that day. Forever. There could be no turning back to the lapsed state of living as though there were no God. Because, as he will later insist with a vehemence that more and more became him, God had quite clearly shown Himself to him. “God exists, God is here, God is someone: He is a person like me. He loves me, He calls me. Je crus!” 

It was as if a door had all at once been thrown open. “In the end, I had to give in! O door,” he exclaims, “you must let the guest in; trembling heart, you have to let in the owner. Someone who is within me, more me than myself.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that nothing like this has ever happened to me. My faith, the maintenance of the things I believe, has never drawn its fire from a single Pentecostal flame that I could see, not even the merest match that I could feel the heat coming from. If there were epiphany rays, I certainly have never seen them. Or at least not any that I was aware of from the place where I stood. 

Or knelt. 

How many are the times I’ve taken Jesus on my tongue and not known it was Him! The warm fuzzy feeling people report having experienced — that has not been my usual sensation on returning from the Communion rail. Yes, of course, he was there, offering himself unmistakably to me, and everyone else queuing up to receive Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. But did I see him? Did I actually know that here is God, come down from Heaven to break himself to become food for my soul? Of course not. 

Let me say it again. I do believe, most emphatically I do, in all that Mother Church commands me to accept. The Real Presence is not a hallucinogenic event. And when it happens, it takes place in real time. Yet I do not know this, not in any exact scientific way. But I believe it.

Indeed, recalling St. John Henry Newman’s precise coupling of the adverbs — “firmly and truly” — which he ascribes so beautifully to the figure of the dying old man in his Dream of Gerontius, I too am prepared to join both mind and heart in professing the truths of the Catholic Church. 

Again, these are truths that point to God and the whole of the supernatural life — but I can neither see them nor have direct knowledge of them. Mystery is not like crunching numbers in an accounting class. The Trinity is not reducible to a problem of the higher math. And the mystery of Our Blessed Lady, whom we believe to be both Virgin and Mother, is not accountable on the basis of obstetrical science.

“The real question,” says Father Louis Bouyer, “is how the Christian is to strive towards that blossoming of the realities of his faith which are only given to him in this life under the veil of the sacraments.” And in order for this to happen, it must first reckon with that pesky little word veil, which clearly conveys the fact that none of this is subject to empirical or sensible study. We move in darkness here. Maybe not that dazzling darkness, of which the saints and the mystics speak, but a real and necessary darkness all the same.

Hans Urs von Balthasar expresses it well when he writes of “certain privileged hours when God allows man to perceive, either in a flash of intuition or in a moment of peaceful contemplation, vast panoramas of divine truth beheld almost from God’s point of view. At such times the incomprehensible can be lighted up in a shattering instant and penetrates into the believers field of experience.”

Nevertheless, he cautions, we are not to go looking for such moments of vision, nor to regret not receiving them. Because in doing so we risk losing the handle of hope, which is the virtue for those of us still on the way, who have not yet arrived at a place where all the veils have fallen away. “But whoever loves and believes will not demand any such gnosis… he prefers to remain in an attitude of receptive trust…” True sonship, in other words, which is what happens to the creature when touched by the transformative powers of grace, “does not try to seize what does not belong to it.”

At least not yet, that is. And if and when it comes, it won’t be necessary to seize it. God will have freely bestowed it.