I was recently dipping into a new history of our Order in the twentieth century* and came across an interesting account about a certain Dom Alexis Presse, abbot of Tamié in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a reforming abbot and an expert on early Cistercian history and liturgy. “But he was not merely a historian, and dreamed of bringing his Order back to its original practices by sweeping aside all that had been added since then, especially since Rancé and Lestrange.” (200) As abbot he got into trouble for suppressing practices such as Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament in his own community, even forbidding his novices to make “visits” to the Blessed Sacrament. A gifted and visionary person, it appears that he was less than diplomatic and that he became increasingly arrogant and unstable, resulting in rebukes even from sympathetic friends such as the great Dom Anselme Le Bail of Scourmont. The sad outcome of an extended conflict was that he ended up being secularised and, supported by some of the French bishops, went on to form a community outside the Order.

That is an interesting titbit of history, the details of which I won’t go into. But I raise it here because of the comment of the authors of this history who judge his approach “overly archaeological” and ask “Had the Holy Spirit inspired nothing good in the Church since the sixth century?” (206-207) I am interested in this because the shift in Eucharistic understanding and practice in the late Middle Ages, and the persistence in emphasis on the Holy Gifts outside the Eucharist, is something that also concerns me. The authors of this history, like vast majority of Latin Catholics, seem to accept that this development was a good thing. And to simply object to it on the grounds of “archaeology” does indeed seem problematic. There have, after all, been many developments in the history of the Church; the question is how we discern which of them are genuine developments and which involved a shift in meaning that represent a departure from the tradition. Do such innovations really matter?

I have previously noted Father Louth’s discussion of the reversal in understanding concerning the mystical Body of Christ in the twelfth century, based on Cardinal De Lubac’s work Corpus Mysticum. A few months ago a friend sent me an article entitled “The Eucharist in the West” by the Irish Jesuit Michael McGuckian (New Blackfriars, March 2007), which also draws on De Lubac’s work which had showed that prior to 1050 the term Body of Christ had referred to the Church and that the Eucharist had been referred to as the Mystical Body, but that that after this the Eucharist became the Body of Christ and the Church came to be referred to as the Mystical Body. Father Mc Guckian comments:

De Lubac opines that the change can be considered ‘good because it was normal’, but it seems to me that the change in terminology betokens a most profound change in mentality, and it is from this shift that I take my cue as to what is going on here. I suggest that the change results from the loss, among Western Christians, of the sense of the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Church. (146)

McGuckian traces this loss of consciousness of Christ’s presence in the Church back to Saint Augustine, who in his conflict with the Pelagians conceded that “the bride without spot or stain” will only be revealed in heaven, and to the emphasis on the institution that resulted from the Gregorian reform and was further strengthened in reaction to the Protestant Reformation. He writes:

The suggestion I am making is that this loss of the sense of the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Church encouraged our concentration on his presence in the Blessed Sacrament. The Church, for us, has been a focus of disunity, and failing to find our consolation in the presence of Christ through his Holy Spirit in the Church we sought our peace in the Blessed Sacrament, and this has led to an imbalance in our spirituality. St Paul simply said ‘You are the body of Christ’ (1 Cor 12.27), and the concentration on the Eucharistic body must not be allowed to distract us from that primary mystery, to which the phrase, the Body of Christ, should spontaneously refer. Sacrosanctum concilium 7 teaches that Christ is present in different parts of the liturgy, but especially in the Eucharistic species. Pope Paul VI, in Mysterium fidei 38, teaches that the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species is a presence ‘surpassing all others’. It seems to me that the considerations presented here call for a review of these affirmations. On the simple principle that the whole is greater than the part, one must affirm that the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic liturgy as a whole surpasses the presence in the Eucharistic species alone. The mystery of transubstantiation and the miraculous presence of Christ’s body is more accessible to our imaginations than the mystery of his presence in the people, in the presiding Bishop and in the proclaimed word. However, those other presences surpass the presence in the elements in their personal quality, their dynamic force and their effects on our spirits, and are not to be undervalued. And surely we must affirm that the presence of Christ through the action of his Holy Spirit in the Church, which includes all the rest, is the most important, the most fundamental, presence of Christ on earth. There is need, it is being suggested, for a contextualisation of the Eucharistic presence in the larger whole, and the proper recognition of the absolute priority of the presence of Christ in the Church. (148)

While this touches on themes that require considerably more background, reflection and working out, it seems to me that being concerned at certain developments in the western Church in second millennium is not simply about “archaeology”. It is not simply about a romantic desire to return to the old because it is old, but rather because the changes that have occurred have impoverished our consciousness of the fundamental Christian mysteries. Of course, I cannot comment on Dom Alexis’ motivation in these things, but that is where my interest lies.