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Saturday, July 20, 2024
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Simcha Fisher: On fly ashes and flexibility

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Pope Francis celebrates Mass earlier this year, joined by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, US. PHOTO: CNS

Scoot! out the side door went the priest, right in the middle of Mass. He came back immediately, and picked up where he left off, which happened to be just after the consecration.

Later, he explained what happened. He had just drunk up the last of the consecrated wine — the Precious Blood — when he felt something moving in his mouth. It was a fly, a live one. “If I were a saint,” he said, “I would have swallowed it. But I’m not, so I spit it out.”

I had a momentary relapse into self-righteous hypothetical martyrdom. When I was young and fervent but completely untried, I always assumed I would be perfectly willing to face down a lion, be burned at the stake, have my legs twisted off, or whatever, because surely I would remember it was Jesus we were talking about, here. I was pretty sure that, when it came down to it, I’d come through.

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And I would definitely have swallowed that fly! So I allowed myself to think, for a moment last Sunday.

Then I remembered that I’m not really like that. Sometimes I come through, sometimes I don’t. Usually I don’t. Usually I take the easier route, either sheepishly, or without even thinking about it, just out of self-preservation. I know it’s Jesus we’re talking about. But I still spit out that wine.

By which I mean: I pretend I’m asleep, and I let my husband deal with the puking kid at 3am, even though I told him I love him. I don’t make eye contact with the beggar at the intersection, because I have plans for that ten bucks. I realize I have time to pop in to adoration, and I keep on driving, because I’d rather use that time to paint my nails.

A bold yet dangerous pose as far as accidentally eliciting insect protein goes. God meets us in our particularities. PHOTO: CNS

So, what about that fly our priest couldn’t get him self to swallow? The priest didn’t do anything wrong. The Church, in her wisdom and her compassion, and during her thousands of years of mulling things over, has decided there is a procedure for those times you find a fly in the Precious Blood. Ideally, the priest ought to swallow the fly (or spider, or whatever), but if it just grosses him out too much, that’s cool, too. Here’s the scoop:

According to “De Defectibus” from the Council of Trent, which discusses possible defects during the Mass and what to do about them:

X. 5. If a fly, or spider, or anything else falls into the chalice before the consecration, the priest should throw the wine into a suitable place, and put other wine, mixed with a little water, into the chalice, offer it, and continue the Mass. If a fly or anything of the kind falls in after the consecration, and it is an occasion of nausea to the priest, be should take it out and wash it with wine, and after Mass burn it, and put the ashes and wine into the ‘sacrarium’ (a special drain that empties directly into the soil, rather than into the sewer pipe). But if it is not an occasion of nausea, and involves no other risk, he should drink it with the Blood.

As far as I can tell, these guidelines are still useful and legitimate today.(Redemptionis Sacramentum contains the much more recent instructions, but De Defectibus really drills down into the details!) In other words: A priest can simultaneously fully believing with his heart, mind, soul, and strength that that consecrated wine is actually Jesus Christ — and still not be able to make himself swallow that bug.

And the Church understands this. God made you human, and He is not going to be mad at you for acting human. So there is a way of dealing with both the priest’s understandable bodily weakness and with the incontrovertible truth of transubstantiation. And it involves fly ashes. This is what we call “attention to detail,” and it’s something you only do if the details are really, really important, as in “This is God’s actual body” important.

My husband once remarked that the Church can be flexible because she is so strong; whereas human beings, in their weakness, cannot afford to be so flexible. We will find ourselves snapping in half. Instead, we should find shelter within the Church’s flexibility, and gather courage from her strength. That is what the Church is for. The “De Defectibus” guidelines show this very clearly. The Church will make room for us.

The Church does not compromise on truth; but she is not heartless toward humanity, as humanity struggles to live according to that truth. She does not bend so far as to say that the truth is not the truth, but she doesn’t pretend we can all be heroes every time.

She doesn’t say, “Oh, well, no one should have to swallow a bug, so let’s just say that, if there’s a fly in there, it’s not really Jesus’ body, blood, soul, and divinity. Do what you like.” No. But neither does she say, “If you really, truly believe in the sacrament, then you have no other choice. Down the hatch, or you’re out.” She makes allowances for our humanity without denying Christ’s divinity. She is, in short, incarnational all the way down.

And if when we can’t even get ourselves to work even within the Church’s leniency — when we do fail in faith, hope, and love, if we allow ourselves a disastrous amount of flexibility, more than the Church grants us? Then there is confession, which is yet another example of the Church making room for us.

It’s Jesus we’re talking about, if you’ll recall: Jesus, who found room in a stable to bring salvation to the universe. There’s room for you, there, too. You don’t even have to swallow any flies.

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