Every fall, at the beginning of my undergraduate course “Exploring Catholicism,” I ask students to compose a religious self-portrait. I invite them to consider their sense of God, their experience of liturgy, and their present faith stance. I assure them that what they write will not be graded.

The purpose of the exercise is to allow me to gain some understanding of who they are and the perspectives they bring to the course. The weekend I spend reading through their submissions is one of the richest of the semester...and the most humbling. The students are invariably honest in their sentiments, searching in their questions, serious about their hopes for themselves and the world in which they live.

I learn something about the evolution of their religious ideas, the persons who have influenced them, and, not infrequently, the tragedies they have already experienced: parents or relatives lost in the Twin Towers, dear friends dead far too young, relationships that have seemingly failed.

What is both astonishing and consoling is how a phrase heard when they were young-from a teacher, a homilist, in a reading-can remain with them, like seed sown in fertile ground, bringing forth fruit in a providential season. It is almost as though the words bear a spiritual charge, a “surplus of meaning,” that will be more fully disclosed later. Perhaps it was thus for the prophets of Israel, as their half-formed messianic yearnings flowered into a rose from Jesse’s stem.

Asking my students to share their faith journey leads me, inevitably, to reflect on my own. It ever evokes from me gratitude for those whom God has given me to guide my way. I too ponder those life-giving words that have provided orientation and inspiration from early on, even till now. Among them are words from Psalm 26: “I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of your house, and the place where your glory dwells.” I first came upon them as an altar server, in the stately prayer that accompanied the Lavabo. The cadence and alliteration of the Latin impressed itself upon the ten-year-old I was then: Domine, dilexi decorem domus tuae et locum habitationis gloriae tuae.

The beauty and glory of the Lord’s house always shone with special splendor at Christmas Midnight Mass. Music and silence, fragrance of incense and festal decoration added density to the wondrous refrain: Dilexi decorem domus tuae! But even as a youngster, I somehow knew that the beauty of God’s house surpassed these physical aspects, however imposing-that what truly mattered was, in Hopkins’s phrase, “God’s better beauty, grace.”

And, along with countless others in those days of Tridentine Catholicism’s final flourishing, I sensed that “grace” was not something to be accumulated, but a relationship to be cultivated. The celebration of what we reverently called “the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” culminated in receiving the body of the Lord. “Grace” bore a human form and face. When we were instructed by our teachers to pray, “I love you, Jesus my love, grant I may love you always, then do with me as you will,” they were drawing, knowingly or not, upon the “Jesus mysticism” of the great tradition of the church. Long before the word “mystagogy” was recovered by theology and pastoral practice after the Second Vatican Council, they were leading us toward the mystery of Emmanuel, God with us.

Christian piety has long marveled that the physical place of the Lord’s birth, Bethlehem, means literally “house of bread.” It also ponders with wonder that the beauty of the Lord’s house, the dwelling place of God’s glory, is no temple, however awe-inspiring, but the humble bread of the Eucharist, the sacramental presence of God’s own Son. This “Bethlehem” has no barriers. It stands vulnerable to every profanation, yet it prevails, as Zechariah foretold, by “the tender compassion of our God,” whose radiant Christ enlightens “all who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,” guiding them “into the way of peace.”

I have noted with joy, these past years, a marked rise in Eucharistic spirituality among undergraduates. One often finds a palpable hunger for the Eucharist that is transformative, integrating worship and witness. Centered on the celebration of the Eucharist, fostered and deepened by Eucharistic adoration, it embraces care for the homeless, concern for the hungry in body and in spirit.

The unique beauty that is Christ’s Eucharistic body cannot be reserved to oneself, hidden away like buried treasure. It must be broken and shared for the life of the world. The glory of the Word incarnate, born once in Bethlehem, continues to dwell in our midst: Jesus, beloved beth-lehem, living bread, Emmanuel.

Published in the 2007-12-21 issue: View Contents

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is a longtime Commonweal contributor.

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