Blessed things

Yesterday I saw a priest bless a tray of chalk and leave it out for people to mark their doorposts. Looking at the tray brought back a flood of experiences: the palms of Palm Sunday, holy water, votive candles, prayer cards, etc. All these things are blessed, which is an extremely odd category.

My first experience of the blessed is of something that excluded frivolity and mere usefulness. You shouldn’t play with blessed things – a blessed palm was not just another leaf on a tree that, as a child, you could sword fight with. You wouldn’t put a votive candle on a birthday cake if you were in a pinch, or fill a water gun with holy water, even in hopes of making a mass blessing easier. Likewise, the mark of the merely useful is to be disposed after use, but one can’t just throw palms in the trash after Mass, or dump excess holy water down the sewer. But this negative description arises from a positive reality: the blessed thing, even if it is by nature merely useful becomes a thing in itself by being blessed. The palm takes on an identity in blessedness so far as it is elevated above the merely instrumental and homogeneous existence of the merely physical. If you pull out water from a cistern for drinking, you might just as well dump it back in, but if you pull out the same water to bless it the same does not apply. It’s been permanently set apart from the homogeneous existence of the source water it was taken from. Blessedness thus involves making something an individual, of setting it apart from an undifferentiated mass and making it a thing in itself. This would make sense of the connection between being blessed and receiving a (personal) name.

Objections to blessed objects come from two sides: on the one hand we might deny them altogether, saying blessedness is a purely extrinsic quality or ‘Cambridge’ property. To call something blessed tells us nothing about it, but only about our purely contingent and ungrounded opinions about it. Certainly a Naturalist would say this, but various theists might say it also, and these would run the gamut from deist to liberal christian (‘liberal’ in the 19th century sense, not the modern political sense). On the other hand, there is the more traditional protestant tendency to see things as really blessed, but only as useful and not as things in themselves. Some Reformed sects, for example, have a communion service which sees the bread as blessed, but the sect then makes a point of feeding it to an animal after the service is finished, so as to stress that it is only blessed so long as the community uses it for commemoration. But it’s hard to see how this view can escape the gravitational pull of the first one.

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6 Comments

  1. Aron Wall said,

    January 5, 2015 at 4:21 pm

    “Some Reformed sects, for example, have a communion service which sees the bread as blessed, but the sect then makes a point of feeding it to an animal after the service is finished, so as to stress that it is only blessed so long as the community uses it for commemoration.”

    Citation needed. Which sects do this?

  2. Aron Wall said,

    January 6, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    I don’t believe it. I would have thought that this would be sufficiently scandalous that if a religious body did it consistently, it would leave some public record on the internet and people’s minds. You know, like how everyone knows about snake handling and how Mormons wear funny underwear. Are you sure he didn’t mean just that it happened one time during the Reformation, or something like that?

    • January 6, 2015 at 1:13 pm

      What’s so scandalous about it? If you have a theory that the blessedness is in the use by the community and is not a permanent mystical feature given to things, then feeding it to animals is a wonderful way to avoid scandal.

      To approach the same problem in a different way: even Protestant sects that accept the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist don’t practice Eucharistic adoration, and we couldn’t aid ecumenical efforts by trying to have common Eucharistic adoration. Even where the sacrament persists outside of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, it’s blessed character is too tied to use by the community to make the blessed thing a permanent object of sacred power – in fact, the Reformation is hard to separate from the sustained effort to rid the world of just these physical loci of sacred power. Belief in such things seemed like one of the main problems they sought to reform.

  3. Aron Wall said,

    January 6, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    You seem to be assuming that a random churchgoer would be so well aware of the Reformed theology in question as to not be scandalized. That seems highly unlikely, given how difficult it is for denominations to clearly teach their distinctives to a diverse congregation. And churches have vistors. Don’t you think that the Methodist cousins, when they see the pastor feed the remaining elements to the church dog, would say something about it on their blog, and then the whole internet would be discussing whether it’s an appropriate form of iconoclasm or not?

    To feed the Eucharist to dogs is by its very nature a scandalous act (i.e. one capable of causing problems for other people due to an appearence of sin), insofar as it has at least 2 possible interpretations (a. the dog IS consuming the Eucharist, b. the dog is NOT consuming the Eucharist)—at least one of which is unacceptable on any particular theological view—and the physical act itself does not, apart from theological explanation, say which interpretation is correct.

    So a pastor who accepted one interpretation would have to do quite a lot of work to make sure nobody in the congregation accepted the other interpretation. (“Pastor, I didn’t know we taught that dogs have souls!” “No, you see, we do this because we aren’t Catholics…”) Much easier to just throw the elements in the garbage bin afterwards, when nobody is looking. Not that *that* doesn’t bother me somewhat, as a Protestant with some rather “high church” leanings, but it’s much more conventional and therefore causes less gossip.

    My main point here is that I don’t think there’s any group which could possibly do this as a policy without causing a great deal of theological gossip and discussion, which would be easily findable on the internet, and therefore I am highly skeptical that there is any church which has a policy of feeding the Eucharist to animals, regardless of whether in the abstract it would fit some supposed Reformed view of the Eucharist.

    I think that there is no such church, and that the fact that you heard it about a generic “some Reformed sects” instead of a specific group, is because it’s gossip unmoored from fact. One thing we can all do for ecumenical relations is not pass on unverified rumors about the doctrines and practices of other groups of Christians.

  4. Lucretius said,

    January 16, 2015 at 9:25 pm

    I think this is connected to the difference between the Apostolic Churches’ view of Grace and the Protestant (non Methodist) view. Catholics see Grace as an internal, ontological change, while Protestants see grace as an external, legal definition of sorts. Remember that Luther was a big fan of William of Ockham and theological voluntarism. So Luther would say that God’s grace is Him declaring a person saved, and covering up the person’s sinful nature with Christ’s Divine Nature (Luther uses an allegory of a cloak, I believe), while a Catholic would say that God gives a person Grace, which cleans up his soul and makes him participate in Christ’s Divine Nature. Thus, in the Catholic view, a person with sanctifying Grace is a blessed object in itself, while in the Lutherian view, a person with grace is only blessed in so far as he has such blessedness declared onto him by God externally.

    Under the Lutherian view of grace, Purgatory makes no sense, since Christ’s sacrifice would cover all sins simply because it was declared so, while in Catholicism, if we die before sanctifying Grace cleans us from all our sins, we have to go to a place where the rest of the cleaning takes place. In Luther’s grace, the internal is inherently corrupt, and Christ is just externaly smothering it up, while traditional Grace is fixing our corrupt interior, sanctifying it through Christ. You can also see where the Calvinistic version of total depravity comes from.

    What are your thoughts on this? You are definitely more informed and intellegent then I am. Does this seem to be the correct way of viewing both views?


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