Blaise Pascal: The Eucharist and the Most Hidden God

If one were to rely solely on the indexes of the Pensées, for example in the Brunschvicg or Lafuma editions, and look for the word “Eucharist,” the findings would be meager and one would miss some of Pascal’s most significant suggestions. His devotion to the Blessed Sacrament is demonstrated during his final sickness and at the moment of his death. During that time of Jansenist austerity, one needed grave reasons in order to receive Communion, and the doctors did not consider him to be in a state to keep the eucharistic fast, nor to be sick enough to receive the Eucharist as Viaticum. Gilberte Périer recounts:

He very much desired to receive Communion; but the doctors opposed it, saying that he would not be able to keep the fast, unless it was at night, which they did not want to do without necessity. And in order to receive the Viaticum, it would be necessary to be in danger of death, which they did not consider to be the case, so they could not advise it. This resistance angered him, but he was forced to surrender to it.

His sickness, however, worsens, and Gilberte secretly “prepares the candles” and everything that was necessary for Communion the next morning. During the night the sickness caused violent convulsions and his loved ones feared “that they would see him die without the sacraments after having asked for them so often and with such insistence.” But Pascal recovered calm and lucidity. Thus, the priest of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, Fr. Beurier, could say, “Behold our Lord, whom I bring to you, behold him whom you have so desired.” “He made an effort, and he stood up only halfway, in order to receive him [the priest] with more respect. Questioned on the principal mysteries of the faith, he responded clearly: ‘Yes, sir, I believe all of it, and with all of my heart.’ He then received the Holy Viaticum and the Extreme Unction while crying. He thanked the priest, who blessed him with the holy ciborium, and he said, ‘May God never abandon me!’” These were his final words. After his thanksgiving, the convulsions resumed and he died twenty-four hours later, August 19, 1662, at one in the morning. He was thirty-nine years old.

Thus Pascal had accomplished in his person that which he wrote about a while before concerning the death of his father, Étienne Pascal, in a long, pious letter to his sister on October 17, 1651: the union of the Eucharist and death. “In sacrifices the principal part is the death of the host . . . the achievement is the death.”

Such an admirable devotion forms a part not only of Pascal’s soul, but also of his thought. This thought is, in a single movement, an original apologetic, a critique of knowledge, and a spiritual meditation or a mysticism. Mystery, for Pascal, is the source of intelligibility, and the eucharistic mystery especially is the most enlightening for the eyes of the heart. It is simultaneously an apotheosis of the hidden God and the touchstone of Catholic truth. The formulations from the important letter to Charlotte de Roannez (October 1656) are well known:

This strange secrecy, in which God is impenetrably withdrawn from the sight of men, is a great lesson to betake ourselves to solitude far from the sight of men. He remained concealed under the veil of the nature that covers him till the Incarnation; and when it was necessary that he should appear, he concealed himself still the more in covering himself with humanity. He was much more recognizable when he was invisible than when he rendered himself visible. And in fine, when he wished to fulfill the promise that he made to his apostles to remain with men until his final coming, he chose to remain in the strangest and most obscure secret of all, which are the species of the Eucharist. It is this sacrament that St. John calls in the Apocalypse a concealed manna; and I believe that Isaiah saw it in that state, when he said in the spirit of prophecy: Truly thou art a God concealed. This is the last secrecy wherein he can be. The veil of nature that covers God has been penetrated by some of the unbelieving, who, as St. Paul says, have recognized an invisible God through the visible nature. Heretical Christians have recognized him through his humanity and adored Jesus Christ God and man. But to recognize him under the species of bread is peculiar to Catholics alone: none but us are thus enlightened by God . . . the heretics, seeing the perfect appearances of bread in the Eucharist, do not think to see in it another substance. All things cover some mystery; all things are veils that cover God. Christians ought to recognize him in every thing.

It is a memorable text, which places the Eucharist at the center of the Catholic faith, at the heart of the obscurity where God himself desired to be submerged in order to be more ardently searched for. In a way, he comments on the Adoro te devote, latens Deitas, the hic latet simul et humanitas, and the Jesum quem velatum nunc aspicio. It is an adorable mystery that invites contemplation and not the subtleties of the intellect. Yet, Pascal prepares an “apology” and his first movement is to vigorously attach eucharistic belief to a totally naked faith.

How I hate these follies of not believing in the Eucharist, etc.! If the Gospel be true, if Jesus Christ be God, what difficulty is there?

Impiety, not to believe in the Eucharist, because it is not seen.

Nevertheless, he neither ignores nor disregards the theological controversies. And although he did not intervene in the post-Cartesian eucharistic debate, one can perceive a trace of it (which is, in my opinion, irrefutable) in fragment 512, which demands a brief analysis: 

It [the host] is, in peculiar phraseology, wholly the body of Jesus Christ, but it cannot be said to be the whole body of Jesus Christ. The union of two things without change does not enable us to say that one becomes the other; the soul thus being united to the body, the fire to the timber, without change. But change is necessary to make the form of the one become the form of the other; thus the union of the Word to man. 

Because my body without my soul would not make the body of a man; therefore my soul united to any matter whatsoever will make my body. It does not distinguish the necessary condition from the sufficient condition; the union is necessary, but not sufficient. The left arm is not the right. Impenetrability is a property of the body.

Identity de numero in regard to the same time requires the identity of matter. Thus if God united my soul to a body in China, the same body, idem numero, would be in China. The same river which runs there is idem numero as that which runs at the same time in China.

The fragment does not belong to the preparatory bundle of the Pensées. Was it intended for the Provincial Letters? This is doubtful. But, despite the authority of Armogathe, it seems uncontestable that he is thinking of Descartes and specifically the letter to Mesland on February 9, 1645. Léonce Couture, Henri Gouhier, Michel Le Guern, Francis Kaplan all think this. Armogathe’s argument is quite specious, and incidentally he hesitates in his view, but he argues that the fragment goes against the letter. His argument is not topical, for, to state it quickly, having read the contentious points, one can very easily provide the opposite interpretation.

It is not clear whether Pascal knew the name of the author of the letter. He does not provide it. The beginning makes an allusion to the totus Christus of the Council of Trent (Canons 1 and 3; Denz. 1651 and 1653). It expresses Clerselier’s fear and the content of the statement that was crossed out on the original copy. Pascal’s complaint is that the author inclines toward consubstantiation, the association of substances, rather than towards conversion. But, union is not conversion, the soul united to the body does not become the body, the fire does not become the wood. If there is not a prior change of bread into the body the soul is not sufficient. The hypostatic union (where the divine person is the subject, the hypokeimenon, of the man), on the contrary, makes Christ a divine man, whereby all his actions are attributed to the Person (according to the communication of idioms, the perichoresis). However, the example applied to the Eucharist is not ad rem, for there is not a substantial union, but a transubstantiation, a conversion. The eucharistic equivalent to the hypostatic union would be impanation.

The second paragraph does not present difficulties. It is the soul that determines a human body (a Cartesian thesis), but not just any body. The condition of the union of the soul to a corporeal matter is necessary, though it is not sufficient. The bread must have become the body. And the body is not just any body. Today, one would say that it is a structure. Impenetrability (antitype) is a general property of bodies. Moreover, this does not contradict Descartes, who refused the interpenetration of the parts. But he tends to reduce the body to the dimensive quantity of the bread. Yet it is the body of Christ that is in the Eucharist, with his flesh, his limbs, his blood, etc. . . . and this is not an impanated body.

The final paragraph, a rather enigmatic one, treats the numeric or material identity. One would suppose that if one is in Paris, while one’s soul is united to a body in China, this body in exile would be the same identical body, as in the phenomena of bilocation or of duplication of the body. How can we understand the last phrase, which resumes [Descartes’] example of the Loire? It should be understood with an exclamation mark that brings out the irony and the absurdity of the statement. Pascal pushes to its absurd conclusion the fact that the matter of the river (water and the earth of the riverbed), though channeled, is in constant flux. Thus, every river that flows would be the same as any other. But simultaneity does not create identity, the required material identity. Pascal’s example therefore builds on the bond between the hic et nunc of the conservation of the species and transubstantiation, whereas Descartes tended to disjoin them in making the species the median surface. The objection, however, is not very relevant to the extent that the river appears transportable like the integral soul, and because Pascal transposes simultaneously that which coincides locally for Descartes.

It is not that Pascal mocks the explanations, but that he simply does not care about them. He prefers to place the Eucharist back in its natural milieu, which is Catholic doctrine. It is appropriate that it retain its character as a test of faith: “As Jesus Christ remained unknown among men, so His truth remains among common opinions without external difference. Thus the Eucharist among ordinary bread.” It is a lapidary remark with great significance. The exquisite soundness of Pascal’s spiritual theology appears again in fragment 554: “At the Last Supper He gave Himself in communion as about to die; to the disciples at Emmaus as risen from the dead; to the whole Church as ascended into heaven.” And in the laconic fragment 666: “The Eucharist. Comedes panem tuum. Panem nostrum.” The parallel here is striking.

Besides these traces of his meditation, the Eucharist, just as Christ himself, enters in the prophetic and symbolic view of Revelation and is a part of the Pascalian apologetic. The Eucharist, “after the Lord’s Supper” is the “truth after the type,” which does not stop it from remaining a type itself, panis angelorum, panis viatorum. “Christians take even the Eucharist as type of the glory at which they aim.” Indeed, it is peculiar to the sacraments, and to a preeminent degree to the Eucharist, that they be simultaneously truth, reality, as well as figurative: res et sacramentum. This indissoluble duality allows the eucharistic faith to avoid vanishing into symbolism or getting bogged down in a crass material signification. “The subject of the Holy Sacrament” is, with the Incarnation and indulgences, a cornerstone of the Christian and Catholic truth, as seen in the beautiful fragment 862 on heresies (“The source of all heresies is the exclusion of some of these truths”):

2nd example: On the subject of the Holy Sacrament. We believe that, the substance of the bread being changed, and being consubstantial with that of the body of our Lord, Jesus Christ is therein really present. That is one truth. Another is that this Sacrament is also a type of the cross and of glory, and a commemoration of the two. That is the Catholic faith, which comprehends these two truths which seem opposed. The heresy of to-day, not conceiving that this Sacrament contains at the same time both the presence of Jesus Christ and a type of Him, and that it is a sacrifice and a commemoration of a sacrifice, believes that neither of these truths can be admitted without excluding the other for this reason. They fasten to this point alone, that this Sacrament is emblematic; and in this they are not heretics. They think that we exclude this truth; hence it comes that they raise so many objections to us out of the passages of the Fathers which assert it. Finally, they deny the presence; and in this they are heretics.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is an excerpt from The Eucharist in Modern Philosophy, translated by Jonathan Ciraulo. Reprinted with the kind permission of The Catholic University of America Press. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Featured Image: Joachim Beuckelaer, Kitchen Scene with Christ at Emmaus, 1560s; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Xavier Tilliette

Xavier Tilliette, SJ, (1921-2018) was professor emeritus at the Catholic Institute of Paris, having taught also at the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome, the Lateran University, and the Centre Sèvres in Paris.

Read more by Xavier Tilliette