"...much too frightened of that tremendous Reality on the altar."
With these words, G.K Chesterton explained why he put off his conversion to Roman Catholicism until the last 14 years of his life. It wasn't until recently, reading a sort of biography of Chesterton (Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God) that I realized what a late convert he was. It surprised me that the man who could write so intimately of confession in the Father Brown Mysteries had not actually "crossed the Tiber" when most of them were written. He delayed, in his own words (not that we can trust authors when they speak of themselves, but that's often all we have to go on), because he was "much too frightened" of the Sacrament of Sacraments, the Holy Eucharist.
I've been mulling over this thought the last couple of days because of something that happened in my own experience, being in the process of converting from a Southern/Independent Baptist upbringing to the Orthodox Church. There were many "tipping points" along the way--it might be better to describe them as a slow progress up the mountain. But for a long time I had been content with the idea of reading "sacramental authors"--Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton, but also Ratzinger and Vigen Gourian and Alexander Schmemann--and importing their ideas as much as possible into my own Baptist experience.
One day during a Sunday morning service in which we were to take "The Lord's Supper" (which at the church where I have been on staff the last 10+ years is done 2-3 times a year), one of the pastors stood up before communion and gave a little talk, reminding everyone that what was about to happen was just, and I quote, "just crackers and grape juice, and nothing more." My oldest daughter (6 at the time) wanted to know why the pastor "did not believe in communion." And that is when I knew we had to make a change.
But what is interesting to me, and what the Deacon who teaches the catechumen class at our new church pointed out to me, is the fact that people have to be reminded, not that something significant is happening in communion (though probably there are people who need to be reminded of that), but rather that nothing whatsoever is happening. There is a fear in these churches, quite justified, that the act of ritual itself will impart the sense that something significant is taking place. And that brings me back to Chesterton's fear, his intuition, about the reality made imminent on the altar.
Admitting that different Christians can mean very different things when they speak of "sacraments," it seems to me that the sacramental view of the world is the native language of creation. It is what even merely human rituals and even merely pagan religions hint at, so that if for a moment we let our guard down we find that our nominalism does not really hold up.
This is not to say that everyone understands fully what is happening. I am not sure that I ever will. But I see it as significant that it is precisely in these moments--communion, baptism, marriage--that even Baptists will revert back to traditional liturgical formulas. Without knowing why, after he spent several minutes telling us all that this was only juice and only crackers, the pastor proceeded to say "this is my body, which was broken for you" and break the bread, and "this cup is the new testament in my blood" and distribute the juice. There is an intuition, deep down in the quiet places of the heart, that something awful is happening, or ought to be happening, and that these words and no others will do.
What I have called nominalism, this insistence on seeing things for nothing more than they appear to be--we might say even less than they appear to be--is a defense. It is a defense against the terrible alternative of the world breaking in upon us, of showing itself to be the world, and the shift in gravity this might cause.
Let us stand aright. Let us stand with fear.