The God who becomes dust

August 28, 2012 | 20 comments

I’m off to the CNMC! This post was originally published on August 4, 2010.

I made an early-morning holy hour a couple weeks ago. The stars were still out when I pulled into the Adoration chapel’s parking lot, but the first row was almost full; there was only one space left.

When I walked into the entry hall I was deeply moved, as I always am, to see that the sign-in registry was full all through the night. The Lord is never left alone; weekends, weekdays, holidays, the middle of the night during a bad storm — someone is always there with him. Each hour has at least one committed “adorer” in addition to any visitors who stop in, and then there are coordinators who are on call 24/7 to fill in at the last minute in case the scheduled person can’t make it. I glanced at the logs from 1:00 AM, 2:00 AM, 3:00 AM and noticed that sometimes there were two or even three people there. Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night, it gives me a surprising sense of comfort to know that, at this very moment, someone is up at the parish Adoration chapel.

There were about eight other people in the warmly-lit room with me that morning. It was silent, and a I could smell the fresh flowers that people had brought in. As I prayed, I couldn’t help but notice everyone’s gestures of respect to the Lord in the Eucharist: each person bowed before sitting or exiting, many people getting down on both knees. Some touched their faces to the floor. Nobody turned their back on the Lord. Per the standard Adoration chapel etiquette, we would each walk backward to get to the door when we left.

I’ve often written about the tremendous love I almost always see and feel in Eucharistic Adoration. As I settled into a row of seats in the chapel, kneeling to say a mind-clearing opening prayer, I sensed it once again. I gazed up at the consecrated Host and began to pray, thinking that I’d never felt more palpable peace and joy in a place in my life.

And then, as usual, my overly-analytical brain ruined the moment. Instead of the lovely introductory prayer of thanksgiving I’d planned to say, I said instead:

I can’t believe I believe this.

I thought of the people around me, and all the people I’d run into in Adoration chapels over the years: successful business executives, brilliant engineers, people with little education but razor-sharp street smarts, and I thought:

I can’t believe they believe this.

It is, after all, a pretty outrageous claim: God takes the form of bread? We’re all here because we believe that what looks like a wafer up there is actually God?

When I first heard that Catholics still maintain the ancient teaching that the consecrated Communion wafer is literally the Body and Blood of Christ — that the bread ceases to exist and only God himself remains — I thought: “Dude. Seriously?” As I’ve said before, it seemed impossible that a lifelong atheist could ever believe such a doctrine. Is there a modern religion that has made a more outrageous claim?

Long story short, I found all the theological reasoning behind it to be impeccable (a quick summary of all that stuff is here for those who are interested). And then, once I began receiving the Eucharist every Sunday, my doubt was washed away. In the past few years, I’ve had few moments where I wasn’t intimately aware of the Lord’s presence in the consecrated Host.

But this was one of them.

As I knelt there in the Adoration chapel that morning, I had this gut reaction of finding it all so hard to believe.

Again, doctrinally I never had a problem with it. My resistance was just this visceral reaction of feeling like it would be somehow disrespectful to accept that God Almighty, the Lord of all, the Force behind creation, would deign to take the form of a wafer! It’s almost too much to believe that GOD becomes BREAD, I thought as I looked at the monstrance.

Then, out of the blue, a thought popped into my mind:

But you believe he became dust?

I don’t know where that came from. I can’t say with certainty whether it was an answer from on high or just my subconscious, but, wherever it was from, it struck me like lightning. I let the words sink in, and the more I considered them, the more I understood the root of my resistance to this doctrine: arrogance.

Since my conversion, I’d never questioned that God became human. That seemed reasonable enough. Because, you know, I’m human, and I’m pretty important and valuable (the thinking went). But that whole looking-like-bread thing? Outrageous.

Basically, I had a scale in mind that looked something like this:

But those words — You believe he became dust? — shocked me into realizing that my scale was ridiculously off. As I was reminded six months ago at Ash Wednesday Mass: “You are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” We humans are infinitely valuable, but only because we were created by God, in his image. Without his life in us, our future is dust — literally. Without him, we would not exist at all.

Rather than whatever prayers I’d planned to say, I let my mind wander to spend some time thinking about who and what, exactly, God is. I thought of this mind-boggling video that hits home the unfathomable enormity of his creation. I thought of the universe’s time scales, on which the entire life of planet Earth is nothing more than a blip on the radar screen, and all of human history not even that. And suddenly that scale looked a whole lot different. After about fifteen minutes contemplating the Creator, it looked more like this:

I looked back up at the monstrance, and it all fell into place. The fact that God becomes what appears to be bread is shocking; but it’s no more shocking than that he first became dust.


  1. Dean

    This is so helpful.
    . I too am a convert and i always tell myself that if I can believe the incarnation then the Real Presence is reasonable. Why do I want to tell God that he can become a man but he cannot go further? And how intimate theReal Presence is! He is not only “God with us” but God in us. He “enters under our roof.” and in English our mouth has a roof!
    I love your writing and and have followed your comments since entering the Church. Thank you for using your writing so beautifully to serve our Lord and his Church.

  2. Megan

    Wise words, I can relate well. Enjoy the conference…wish I could be there!

  3. Kallah

    Beautiful, beautiful reflection. Perfectly captures the essence of adoration!
    I know you will be meeting hosts of people at this conference, but my cute husband is there at the St. Benedict Press and Tan Books table – if you were able to get him a signed-Anything for me, I would be starstruck 😉

    (his name is Jason!)

  4. LuAnne

    Oh yes – and yes again. The “measureless distance” between ‘me’ and ‘Him’ is so very great. Only bridged by the Cross.

  5. Becky

    This is wonderful insight. I’ve had the similar cognitive recognition of the truth while at the same time experiencing cognitive disbelief. I get a little self-conscious sometimes because I have many friends and family who knew when I was an anti-religious agnostic, so it’s quite humbling to think what they must think of me thinking that this wafer is our Lord, especially when there are many of them who are Christian but not Catholic. I wish it wasn’t so hard to believe, but then I think that perhaps it is I who makes it hard — that in fact, it’s quite easy. Your post helped me see that perspective a little better. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Serena Rainey

    I have trouble believing it despite the miracles on record, and even though the Eucharist is the main reason I became Catholic in the first place. I was at Mass with a friend and went forward for a blessing, and I felt the blessing all right — but at the same time, I could feel the intense light and sweetness flowing to all the people who were receiving communion, and I wanted to receive it, too.
    A piece of bread. Not only that but the humblest form of bread, unleavened and unseasoned, really just flour, a tiny bit of flour, yet that’s God.
    A baby, just a temporarily homeless newborn, cold and swaddled in a trough, yet that’s God.
    It takes a lot of faith.

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  8. KelleyAnnie

    Very interesting thoughts, Jen. I’ll certainly be considering them.

  9. Dan F.

    That’s a really great insight. I plan on stealing it the next time I’m discussing this with some of the high school kids in my parish. 😉

  10. Kathleen

    Is there a place to learn about the “gestures of respect to our Lord in the Eucharist” and “standard Adoration chapel etiquette”? When I go to Adoration, I KNOW I’m doing things wrong, I’m just not sure what the right thing is!

  11. perfectnumber628

    This is really beautiful and makes a lot of sense. I love your graphic with the “measureless distance.”

  12. David Casper

    Wow. What a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing this awesome reflection.

  13. Jane

    When you look at a crucifix you understand how much Jesus loved you. When you look at the Sacred Host you understand how much Jesus loves you NOW. – Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

    • Gina

      Ooooo – love that quote! Never heard it. Thank you so much for sharing.

  14. Marcy K

    I remember when you first posted this post and your graphic really made a big impression on me. I have not forgotten it. It is a pleasure to read it again. Thanks! It was a pleasure seeing you at CMN!

  15. Erika

    Love it, Jen! I’m stealing your visual charts about existence for my high school class!

  16. Lauren

    I can totally relate to your previous understanding. This really knocked me back a bit. Thank you so much!!!

  17. Mina

    That’s actually an interesting picture. Humans as finite creatures, not substantially greater than bread, and then God at an infinite distance from both. It illustrates the nature of monotheistic beliefs quite nicely.

    But should you ever have the time, please do try something: First, open your mind. Then take the picture you posted as a basis and try to imagine something even greater than God. What could that be like?

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  19. @JesusSIster

    I hope you don’t object to my tweeting this post today. When I asked God at Ash Wednesday if I should blog something today, this blog post was the only thing that came to mind. I have a feeling God wants this shared rather than anything I would say today.

    Working hand-in-hand
    We build Kingdom grand

    ~ @JesusSister (on Twitter)

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