Right now, my students are concluding their reflections about the nature of reality in the study of metaphysics. Right now they are focusing on Rene Descartes, a mathematician and scholar known as the Father of Modern Philosophy. Like many before him, Descartes was on a quest to attain “perfect” knowledge that was stable and certain, and so he began by casting doubt on virtually every form of knowledge people accept as true; that is, he rejected the “common sense” view of what is real. Though he was a devout Catholic, Descartes even went so far as to entertain the idea that his entire life and perception of the world were a cosmic joke perpetrated by a Divine Deceiver. Only then did he arrive at the one thing that must be true. He writes, “this pronouncement ‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true every time I utter it or conceive it in my mind.” Certainty of one’s own existence is fine as far as it goes; indeed, St. Augustine said as much, though in different words. The problem with this idea, however, is the implication that what makes me who I am is my mind. I am essentially a “thinking” thing, a kind of disembodied consciousness with little if any contact or concern with the material realm.
Those of us who have been quarantining ourselves at home can see the shortcomings of this idea. We don’t simply have bodies; our bodies are our connection with the world. In a time of social distancing, we can communicate with others through many forms of social media, and yet we still feel a certain sense of loss that comes with isolation. On the other hand, there is a danger to understanding reality only in a physical sense. The American writer Lionel Trilling says that “In the American mind (metaphysic), reality is always material reality, hard, resistant, unformed, impenetrable, and unpleasant.” We must acknowledge that reality has both material and spiritual dimensions, and God, who created both, also reveals himself in both.
In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter claims that King David was real, and his tomb was still in Jerusalem; at the same time, David was also a spiritual person who prophesied the coming of Christ.
Likewise in the Gospel of Luke, we hear the delightful story of the road to Emmaus, in which the disciples recognize Jesus in both his interpretation of the Scriptures and in the Breaking of the Bread, that is, the Eucharist. St. Gregory the Great explains the “real presence of Christ,” namely that Jesus “refrains from showing them his face which they might recognize, [so that they might do this] by themselves inwardly in the eyes of the mind, for they inwardly both loved and doubted.”
Friends, the reason we Catholics come to Mass, worship Our Lord, receive the sacraments, contemplate the Scriptures, and practice charity, is precisely because we too are a mixture of both love and doubt. Love helps us see beyond the apparent picture of the brute world to behold creation charged with the presence of God. We are not perfect models of holiness, but we can be led by God to a deeper understanding of his will in our lives. The Risen Jesus had a real body, which is why he can eat with the disciples. This is why I thank you here at St. Mary’s for feeding Christ even today. By your generous donations to our Food Pantry, you care for the Brothers and Sisters of Christ, who are truly in need. God bless you for seeing his face in others.