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The Limits of Metaphor?

September 23, 2018

In our age of instant communications, 'rapid' and 'real-time' news, we have perhaps become desensitised to 'sound-bites'. Or have we? The media frequently distills highly complex controversies to single terms: "Vatileaks", "Brexit", are simply recent examples. The use of such literary devices to gain attention cannot be disputed. But, does this come at too high a price? Are we contributing to an 'instant culture'; serving the attention span of the average gold-fish (no offence to goldfish devotees)? These questions are posed, not by way of provocation but to promote reflection. After all, how we express ourselves reflects not only what is exercising our thoughts, but also, evidences who we are. One need only consider the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18:9-4).

It is fair so say, however, that we also express who we are by our actions. Take for example the publication in Ireland of the sale of items used during the recent papal mass; with Chasubles valued more highly than the chalices and ciboria which had been used to administer the Blessed Sacrament. Equally, in the Church - as with all social communities - there is the very real potential for a material disparity between declaration and action. Elsewhere, I have termed this disparity a 'translational deficit'. Such a deficit attests to two important matters: a) obligation; and b) non-performance of that same obligation. As to the former, the obligation requires the Church (i.e. all of the faithful) to continue in their efforts to build up the People of God in response to the universal call to Holiness. The latter can be seen in the lack of adoption (or indeed outright rejection) of the values, normative principles of action and theological truths which -according to Church teaching- ought to actuate all that we are and do. Thus, a translational deficit which not only casts a very real shadow over the authenticity of our shared commitment to the mission of salvation, but also imperils salvation of souls. 

This may be considered too wide a topic for an article of this kind. However, I have been prompted to write this short article by two events in the past weeks; the first personal, the second appearing in the media this morning.   Almost two weeks ago,  I delivered a short parish presentation of an hour or so. The subject:  'Liturgy".  There was a good attendance; some receptive, others less so. It transpires that certain attendees may have anticipated discussion around such matters as choice of hymns etc.  What they received was somewhat broader. Namely, a suggestion that "liturgy" is the work of the people of God which should attest to all that we are, and all that we believe. In simple terms, it should transport ourselves and others to the reality of Christ. Viewed in this way, liturgy is as much concerned with our preparation to visit a Church and encounter the real presence of Christ in the Tabernacle as it is about the prayers we utter once we are there. It demands essential preparation in the heart to make us receptive to an encounter with the sacred for which we are unable to claim any right or entitlement save for the grace of God itself.   I suggested that it was, through examination of our own conduct, in preparation for and participation in the communal acts of liturgy that we are faced with another species of translational deficit: one which permits the utterance of the creed without fully embracing in a conscious and deliberate way, what that same creed demands of us as the populo Dei. I posed a question: if we truly believe that Christ is present in the tabernacle, why do we encounter anything other than silence or praise prior to participation in the Eucharist? Is it because we believe that the Eucharist is an elaborate symbolic re-enactment and nothing more? 

This dissonance between belief and action is also redolent of the challenging reports of the past few weeks concerning the Church's response to allegations of abuse.  It was in this context that I encountered the second prompt to write this article, namely: the front cover of the most recent edition of Der Spiegel. Superimposed upon the silhouette image of Pope Francis, one finds the words: "Du sollst nicht lügen" (The shall not lie). 

There is no adjective sufficient to convey the impact of the current crisis.  In so many ways, this is a situation without paradigm. A state of affairs for which there is no adequate metaphor.    What do these two prompts have in common? 

In times such as these, it might be thought that we are in need of aphorisms not metaphors.  In order to reflect upon the meaning of our present times, are we able to identify or  formulate a statement which not only accommodates the modern demand for brevity, but also conveys truth as distinct from conjecture? 

Two spring to mind. First, from proverbs: [23:7] 'as a man thinks in his heart, so is he..." Second, "The word of God is alive and active" [Heb. 4:12].  These are realities. Living and true. If our creed is to represent more than the recital of words, the Word of God must live in our hearts as our principal treasure; our first and only boast. Perhaps then, the disparity between belief and action, principle and practice may be repaired.  As a Church, our efforts will continue to be in vain, unless and until these principles are given precedence.  They find both expression and fulfilment when the reality of the real presence, with which the Church has been entrusted, is restored to its central position.  Unless and until we re-engage with this reality and restore sacramental adoration to its rightful place as the summit of all that we are and all that we would wish to be, our labours are in vain.   What of the rest: our ideologies, subjective opinions, personal protestations, demands, prejudices, preferences and challenges?  Detached from the reality and centrality of the real presence, our protestations have the quality of white noise. It may be thought that if the Church is to retain an authentic voice, it must be one which draws upon this single reality as the kernel of its mission; founded upon a lived engagement with the person of Christ.

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