One of the few benefits of blogging is that friends occasionally send me clips or news items related to some peeve or crotchet of mine. The above-embedded promotional video for “Purity Solutions” is a classic example (click here to visit the website). I’ve long been suspicious of the steady encroachment of hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes into the sanctuary, but the suspicion has always lain at the murky level of instinct, below the daylight realm of rational explanation. Perhaps it is much like the horror religiosus most Americans feel at the sight of a woman’s unshorn underarm.
I’m not exactly sure why receiving the host from a sleek, metallic Pez-dispenser is any more comical than receiving it from a hand (or from a spoon, as in the Orthodox Church), or why wheels of wine-shots are in any way inferior to chalices. It could be the industrial manufacture (I can almost imagine a “Purity Solutions” salesperson rolling over it with a car to show that they use an alloy developed by NASA). But, if I had to take a stab, I would venture that I associate it with some narrowing of the spiritual horizon.
Each age, of course, has its metaphysical dream—the dream that regulates its idea of the good life and which, when threatened, becomes the focal point of its anxieties. Perhaps this is the deeper reason for our quasi-religious fixation with contagious illness. In the absence of a strong religious worldview, physical “health” has almost regained its place as Ultimate Concern. Physical health has always been the secular analog to Christian salvation (“health” and “holy” are etymologically related). And since a more scientific worldview places no principled limit on human desire, health becomes its practical limit. Contagious sicknesses, then, become the object of our deepest fears since they stand smack in the way of the metaphysical dream of our age: a life devoted to pleasure, yet free of baleful consequences for ourselves or those we love.
Nowadays, next to our anxieties over the invisible machinations of hostile microbes, the consolations of the consecrated host seem so pale and insubstantial. The host seems a shadow that gradually yields to the creeping concerns of “real” life.
Yet, it always fascinates me to read about the opposite and equally pervasive perceptions of other ages. In The Stripping of the Altars, for instance, Eamon Duffy describes the late medieval tradition of the “paxbred”:
The next ceremony which was elaborated on Sunday was the pax: just before his own communion the priest kissed the corporas on which the host rested, and the lip of the chalice, and then kissed the paxbred, a disk or tablet on which was carved or painted a sacred emblem, such as the lamb of God or the Crucifix. This pax was then taken by one of the ministers … to the congregation outside the screen, where it was kissed by each in turn … Primers often supplied a short prayer for use at this point, asking for peace in our times, and deliverance from enemies, spiritual or bodily.
According to this world view, it is the Eucharist that is energetic and contagious. Its influence “spreads” by oral contact from object to object and from person to person. To be sure, the deliverance from “bodily enemies” was also part of the metaphysical dream of late medieval England; but deliverance from “spiritual enemies” seemed somehow no less desirable, no less urgent. One gets the opposite impression: that, as the Eucharistic contagion advanced, then shadows were yielding to reality. The sanctuary invaded the saeculum, not vice-versa.
Modern epidemiology will, of course, never allow us to return to the “first innocence” of medieval Eucharistic piety. But it seems to me that the goal of the New Evangelization must be the attainment of a “second innocence.” How can we again believe in an invisible world of sacramental grace no less “alive”, no less part of our social imaginary, than the invisible bacilli teeming on our skin?