A woman I know once suffered amnesia. One morning, her surroundings suddenly looked strange and she found she could not recognize her house or remember where she lived. Fumbling for the phone she tried desperately to call somebody for help. However, try as she might, she could not even remember the phone number of her best friend.
At this point something remarkable happened: Lifting the handset on the phone she found that her hand knew which numbers to press though her brain was at a loss to verbalize them. So she got through to her friend and was able to get help.
I think of this story sometimes when people speak of ritual or liturgy as a meaningless “going through the motions.” For many people in our culture tend to equate “understanding” (particularly of religious things) simply and solely with an ability to articulate verbally some set of ideas or feelings. The notion is that unless one can earnestly give a point-by-point description of one’s relationship with the Lord, that relationship is suspect. Thus, Catholics (who are often not very verbal about their faith and who notoriously do the same thing day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year) are often prime suspects for being members of the “frozen chosen”: spiritually dead ritualists who have a form of the gospel while remaining utterly immune to its reality. All those signs of the cross. All that standing and kneeling. All those “stock phrases.” Where is the true knowledge of the Lord in such ritual?
The orthodox Catholic answer: In our bodies, not just our heads, just as the woman above had the knowledge of her friend’s phone number in her hand as well as her head.
This is a strange notion to our modern culture, but it is very much a biblical one. Consider, for a start, the way in which the biblical writers use the word “know.” For them “knowledge” of persons (and particularly of the Lord) always has a bodily character to it as well as a spiritual one. Between husband and wife, for instance, the biblical sense of “know” has an explicitly sexual connotation: “Adam knew his wife” (Gen 4:1). Likewise, for the writers of the Old Testament, to “know” Torah is more than merely verbalizing it. It involves all sorts of different acts of physical ritual designed to make the Law, not merely a part of one’s mind, but a part of one’s entire being, physical and spiritual. Thus Deuteronomy enjoins the faithful of Israel to “bind [God’s commandments] at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead” (Deut 6:8)–a command taken literally in the use of phylacteries. Likewise the Old Testament is dominated by an enormous amount of prescribed physical ritual for the right worship of God: a ritual that is clearly addressed to the whole of our being and not simply to our heads or spirits. Worship, for the Old Testament Jewish mind, involves action, obedience, doing–not just words.
But we do not live under the Old Covenant. We are, says St. Paul, no longer under the Law. True enough. But we are still human and therefore still physical beings. This is why Jesus does not call us to be “free” from ritual and liturgy, only free from the burden of supposing that ritual can earn us the love of God. As he himself says, we are to worship God, not just verbally, but “with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and all your strength.” And this is rooted in the very essence of the New Testament: for when God revealed himself to us, he too did not merely speak or hand down some verbal concepts. The Word did not become word; the Word became flesh.
It is worth paying attention to this since modernity constantly conditions us to think of Jesus primarily as a teacher and to think of teaching primarily as “imparting ideas.” Now, to be sure, Jesus did teach. The Sermon on the Mount, the parables, the discourses are all verbal articulations of God’s revelation and begin Christ’s ministry just as the Liturgy of the Word begins the ministry of the Mass. His words are essential to us and will outlast heaven and earth. But his words, and especially the words at the end of his life are not ends in themselves. They point to the awful gesture of his death and resurrection: a gesture that is beyond words, deeper than words, untouchable by words. Thus, his last act with his disciples (and the very thing that inaugurates his Passion) is not a preachment, but a gesture. And a gesture which points not to an idea but to the physical fact of his flesh crucified for us: He took bread, broke it, gave it to his disciples and said, “Take this all of you and eat it. This is my body.”
This revelation through the body–through gesture–is the way in which the Risen Christ reveals himself as well. The disciples on the Emmaus Road talked and talked with Jesus. They heard a great deal of verbal articulation of the gospel from the lips of the Son of God himself. Nor was such talk fruitless. They felt their hearts burning within them. But they only came to know him through his gesture–again in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:30-31). It was, like all biblical knowledge, a kind of bodily encounter with Truth, not a mere mental understanding. It is thus, and not merely through memorization of his words that we know him. And so it is thus and not merely through the proclamation of his words that the Church down through the ages has followed him. We not only repeat his words, we repeat his gesture as well by taking bread, giving thanks, breaking it and sharing with his disciples.
This is the reason for all the signs of the cross, genuflection, bowing, kneeling, uplifted hands, responsorials, anointing, exchanging of greetings, rituals, and rites. We are learning, not merely with our heads, but with our arms and legs as well how to be like him. We are receiving, not just ideas, but a life from Christ. And life for him (and for us) is a bodily thing.
Are words then useless? Certainly not. “Preach the word,” says St. Paul. And he is only imitating his Master who preached throughout the Holy Land. This is why half the Mass is given to the Liturgy of the Word. But a gospel that is only words and addresses only our head is not the gospel of the Word made flesh. We need the fullness of the gift God has given us: a gift that is revealed not only in words, but in the breaking of the bread as well.