A few years ago, I volunteered on my days off at a Head Start center just outside of San Antonio, Texas, working with children ages three to five. There were two classrooms, one consisting of slightly older children, with the younger children in the other class. I would typically spend my morning in the east classroom with the older children, and they would lay down for a nap at around 10:30 a.m. After the rest, their school day would be over, and they would be dispatched home, leaving the classroom vacant for the afternoon class. It was my habit to leave the classroom after the children laid down for their nap, either to take a break before the afternoon session or to head right next door to help with the younger children.
But there was one little girl, we’ll call her Adelaide, though that was not her real name. She often wore her dark hair in a long braid, and she had slightly brown skin that, while dark by the standards of my monochromatic Midwestern home, would have been considered practically anemic by South Texas standards. She was one of the meeker children, possessing a soft, winsome voice, and a disposition pleasant enough that even adults who can’t stand kids would have found her tolerable. As Adelaide laid down for her morning nap, I’m not sure what wild currents of unease circled about just underneath the surface of her soul, but she would often look at me with pleading eyes and make this request: “Mister Jack, can you sit here for a few minutes?”
Sitting around on hard plastic chairs that are made for children is something I’d gotten used to, and I was happy to oblige her request. Indeed, in a complex world in which human beings can be seemingly impossible to please, it’s incredible to think that my mere presence could somehow help to bring peace to the heart of a little four-year-old girl. I would sit there for several minutes, not too close to her, but where she could see me, humbled that I could bring such comfort to another human being by such a simple action—and not really much of an action, really. She just wanted me to be present, to be visible. That’s all.
God’s grace was operating there, and I was an undeserving mediator of that grace. During that time, though I was volunteering with children, I was not really walking in the grace of God and had succumbed to sin in many areas of my life. I think that part of the reason God sent me to those children, or perhaps sent them to me, was to soften my heart and help me become more like a child.
When I think of Adelaide today, she’s one of many people I’ll never see again in this life. Perchance we’ll meet in Heaven. But little Adelaide, I want to be more like you. Not that I want to relinquish my adult responsibilities, or to return the affairs of my life to a youthful state of simplicity. But I want to realize that I have no strength, no grit, no toughness of my own to brave the storms of life. I need the Presence of another to see me through.
The Catholic faith—which I would not come around to until a few years later—taught me that not only did God make His divinity present to us in the Person of Christ, but He left us that Presence to abide with us until He returns again. As a Protestant Christian, I could believe that God heard us when we prayed; I could even comprehend and accept that God was present everywhere, as Scripture teaches us. But I didn’t yet believe in this truth that now sets me free, that in the Most Holy Eucharist, the Lord Jesus Christ is truly present for us; His Soul and Body, Humanity and Divinity, are entirely, truly, and physically present under the appearance of bread.
The Eucharist reveals to us several things about God, things that had been foreshadowed to me in my experience with Adelaide. First, His humility, that He is willing to make Himself present to us at the words of the priest, whether the priest is worthy or not, whether the people are reverential or not, he still makes Himself present to us, day after day, in all Churches with Apostolic Succession where the Mass or Divine Liturgy is said. Just as I was willing to make myself present to Adelaide in the other children when I could have been anywhere else on a day off, Christ condescends a million times more to make Himself present to us, even though mostly the result is that most of us Catholics are cold towards Him and respond to His love with, at best, an ephemeral, circumscribed zeal.
Secondly, the Eucharist reveals Christ’s selfless love for us. The First Vatican Council teaches that God has no need of us. Thus, we add nothing to His majesty by worshiping Him. Similarly, Jesus gains nothing from being present in the Eucharist. In the Eucharistic elements, He does not maintain the physical senses He had in His human body. He does not suffer pain when His body is broken and eaten, but He is not able to gaze back with human eyes when we look at Him in the monstrance in adoration. He offers us such grace with His Divine Presence, yet in return, He receives no benefits at all and is often treated with cold indifference.
If I’m to become a child again, like Adelaide, this is my path: Through adoration of Christ in the Eucharist. He had always been there. He was there at Church, I drove by every day, and in Catholic Churches all across the globe. Even now, Jesus waits for me. He came to this earth before I could also ask for him, and he’s waiting for me. When I come to Him, and gaze on my Creator, the one for Whom my soul was made, whatever weight of sin or anxiety that I bring into His Divine Presence is swallowed up by His Infinite Greatness. I get a sort of comfort from being near other human beings I love, just like Adelaide was comforted by my presence, but I must admit that it’s hard to be in the presence of a mere human being for very long without feeling the need to speak. But when we are in the presence of Christ, in the Most Holy Eucharist, we remember that not only is He God, He is God the Word; He is the spoken Word of the Father, who reveals the Father’s Nature and the Father’s Love for the world. Though we can pray any sort of prayer in His presence, such as the Divine Office, the Rosary, or any number of extemporaneous prayers, it’s best to just start out with silence. If I’m honest, silence in prayer is a discipline that I seldom practice, but when I do, I am quite humbled by Him. I’ll never hear Christ unless I make a better habit of listening. Little Adelaide and I were mostly silent during naptime during these naptime overlays, yet words of comfort were somehow spoken to that child’s heart. How much more will our Creator, the Second Person of the Trinity, who is True God from True God, be for us the Word of comfort from God, speaking most clearly and most profoundly in His silence.