Editor's note: Maria Pia Carli, an undergraduate student at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, was given Honorable Mention by the Aquinas Center for Theological Renewal for her essay, "The Holiness Of God And The Mystery Of The Eucharist."
“This is the mystery of faith.”
Growing up Catholic, attending private Catholic schools up to the 5th grade, I was always perplexed and vexed by that line, even through adulthood. What is the mystery? And why is my faith full of mysteries? Even as a child the question of this mystery niggled at me. Obsessed with Nancy Drew books, my notion of the church mystery is that it must have involved some type of heinous crime. The strict German nuns in my school were too intimidating to ask. It certainly wasn’t explained during our First Communion preparation. First Sacrament prep back in 1979 was all about the don’t-do-this-and-only-do-that method. As a child, I accepted Jesus’ birth and death. However, the connections between Jesus being both God and man and what salvation meant were as expansive and complex as trying to understand the universe.
My faith conversion story is likely similar to other conversion stories. Being a cradle Catholic, abandoning the faith during my young adult years, and then coming around again after some type of compelling pivotal moment, is probably almost cliche. Catechesis ended for me at age 11 when my family moved from the Philippines to Guatemala. With our big move halfway around the globe, I lost the key connections to my faith: my Catholic education, and my devout extended family.
My parents enrolled me into a secular prep school where God and faith were almost never discussed. Theology lessons and catechesis were limited to my classmate Martha’s teachings. She would always say, in a very mature and confident voice, that man and woman were made only for marriage and that sex was only for the purpose of procreation. Her “only” statements were firm and non-negotiable; she spoke with mature conviction, authority and wisdom. Martha, a pious and devout Catholic girl, always had a steady boyfriend who was not from our school, a local boy from her neighborhood, with whom, it seemed to my naive 13 year old head, she was always making out with. Martha’s contradiction of a faith testimony rooted in her piety and humility versus her teenage dating lifestyle dominated by hormonal urges was all too confusing for me.
Still, the mystery continued to press on my adolescent mind. Like attempting to put together a 1000-piece puzzle with half of the pieces missing, this was my approach to trying to understand faith and church. At this stage of my life my grappling with the mystery had now extended to questioning the Eucharist. It sure looks like a tasteless wafer. How do I take the priest’s words that it is Jesus’ body and blood? How do I take Jesus’ words that the host is indeed his body and blood?
All I had to go by were the liturgy and the Word according to Martha. Could it be that the Martha-contradiction and the lofty liturgical language are what the priest meant by the mystery of faith? I still had no clue. I did not understand the transformation concept of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. I wanted to know the process. It irked me that no one ever explained the process and when I did ask adults like my parents, their answers never sounded confident. Instead, I was taught that “it is what it is but don’t think it is magic”, because God does not perform magic. Saying so is offensive to God.
The mystery and the Eucharist eluded me, haunted me all the way through my late 30’s up until that faith conversion I mentioned. My conversion happened after my dad died suddenly of an aneurism. His death catapulted me into realms of adulthood that I never fathomed throughout my young adult years. The pain of loss and grief was crippling mentally and physically. I was 36 years old, grieving my dad’s death when God lifted me up out of my sad stupor, got me dressed, wiped my face, brushed my hair and very tenderly, sweetly led me to a weekday Mass. Through the fog of sorrow, I found myself sitting in a mid-front, center pew, amongst strangers.
It was a Holy Thursday Mass. Something was happening to me as the liturgy unfolded. The rote parts and prayers now had weight and texture triggering all of my senses. My head was spinning and my heart was beating fast. I felt flush, worried I might faint. I felt a rush of feelings and emotions that are akin to that flood of emotions one gets before bursting into tears or laughter. I started to panic because I didn’t know what was happening to me.
And then it happened. The priest started the Eucharistic Prayer and held up the host- “Through Him, with Him and in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever.”
Something physically broke wide open in my chest and behind my eyes. This searing white heat and light seemed to gush through and out of me. I stared at the host poised high above father’s head yet all I could see was the Lord. That locked mystery that I had carried with me for so long broke free. Bursting into tears, heaving and crying in church, alone amongst strangers, I felt free and unburdened. Suddenly I could see the beautiful light streaming through the stained glass windows and I could hear my own prayers rising up to heaven. I could see and I was free.
Jesus was now in me and I in him. Without any elegant theological instruction, God instead very gently guided me my whole life to reveal my mystery of faith on that very Holy Thursday and taught me that despair, shame and hopelessness do not work with Him. Those human conditions do not rest with Him. God’s timing was perfect. This perfect moment brought me straight to the fullness of Jesus; body, blood, soul and divinity.