Imaginative literature has power to illuminate spiritual truths of the Eucharist


RITE & REASON:One of Maupassant’s short stories casts the celebration of Mass in a revealing light, writes DR KEVIN WILLIAMS

SINCE THE International Eucharistic Congress last June, several contributors to this column have written of the Catholic Church’s rich theology of the Eucharist.

One of the most compelling avenues to an understanding of the impact of the Eucharist on the lives of individuals is through responding to the treatment of the sacrament in great works of literature.

Imaginative literature has the potential to reveal insights that illuminate our ways of looking at the world.

An example of a text of such a character is a famous story entitled La Maison Tellier (The Tellier Establishment) by Guy de Maupassant. The story deals with the First Communion Mass for a small child in a remote Norman village. The girl’s aunt comes to the event with a group of her friends from the town of Fécamp. The mood is set for the event by a description of the choir singing before the Mass. The priest says the preparatory prayers and then the Kyrie Eleison is sung and “a strong emotion, an anxious anticipation, the approach of the ineffable mystery clutched at the hearts” of the congregation.

As the liturgy continues, the priest stammers “very softly the mysterious and supreme words”.

It is then that one of the aunt’s friends starts to weep as she remembers the innocent days of her own First Communion. These tears are “contagious” and soon affect the “whole gathering”, which also begins to sob. As the priest transubstantiates the “body of God”, a “devote awe” seizes the communicants.

Then it comes to the part of the liturgy where the children “shivering with a divine fever” approach “the holy table” to receive for the first time “the sacred host, the body of Christ, the redemption of the world”.

This prompts the eruption of “a sort of craze . . . the rumbling of a delirious crowd, a storm of sobs with stifled cries”. The priest is so affected by emotion that when he finishes distributing Communion, his legs start to give out under him and, after he has drunk “the blood of his Lord”, he throws “himself down in an act of frantic thanksgiving”.

As the people calm down, the priest moves between the rows of communicants, who are lost in “ecstasies of happiness”, and then proceeds to address the congregation. “My dear brothers, my dear sisters, my children,” he announces, “I thank you from the bottom of my heart; you have just given me the greatest joy of my life. I felt God descend upon us at my beckoning. He came, he was here, present.”

The celebrant then goes on to address directly the female visitors in the following words, “Thanks above all to you, my dear sisters, who have come from so far away, and whose presence among us, whose obvious faith, whose active piety have given us all a salutary example.”

He goes on to describe them as the edification of the parish and tells the congregation that it is “sometimes enough for a single, select ewe to make God decide to come down upon the flock”.

The irony of this commendation is that the women are prostitutes and the girl’s aunt is the madam of the brothel in which they work – a fact of which the reader is all the time aware.

Overall, the story can be read as an ironic reversal of the conventional profile of participants at the Eucharist.

To receive the Eucharist worthily, a person must be in a state of grace but women who make their living as sex workers would, in principle, be considered unlikely to be in the state of grace. Yet the women are represented as kind, sympathetic, warm-hearted and generous-spirited, and capable of exercising a powerful religious influence.

What Maupassant shows is that those whose lifestyle is at odds with traditional moral theology can exhibit many of the qualities that are commended in the Gospel.

The story contains a further ironic resonance because the contribution of the prostitutes to the liturgy will remind readers of Jesus’s acceptance of Mary Magdalen and the adulterous woman.

God indeed does work in mysterious ways.

Dr Kevin Williams lectures in Mater Dei Institute, Dublin City University, and is working on a study on religion and the literary imagination

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