The Monster and the Monstrance: A Sacramental Worldview Beyond Mere Aesthetics

You eat directly the good God; you feed directly from God. And there’s nothing closer than touching. There is nothing closer than food. Than that incorporation, than the incarnation of food.
—Charles Péguy, The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, 35

The accomplishments of William Cavanaugh’s essay on commodity fetishism and the Eucharist are legion: it sends a shot across the bow to those who would be tempted to de-materialize and dis-embody the Eucharist or deny its liberative power in and beyond the polis. It deftly unveils the constitutive strangeness, even horror, of the zombie commodities which daily appear upon our doorsteps, eliding entirely the live contributions of the human labor it takes to conceive, source, produce, and distribute them. It marshals rich biblical and Catholic traditional resources in order to present a compelling alternative vision where the material is elevated, where human work is not only made visible, but celebrated and sacralized, and where everyone is extended the invitation to come to the table of giftedness. As the prophet Isaiah says in another context, everyone who is thirsty is invited to come partake: “you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isa 55:1-2).

The first question we might continue to reflect upon, considering his discussion of commodity fetishism, is the status not only of the commodities themselves, but also the implicated status of money. When things are changed into commodities, as Marx suggests, they come to “transcend sensuousness”; thus, money, as “the direct incarnation of all human labor” is at a double remove from the material. This double remove helps to resist the misinterpretation that what is really in the crosshairs of commodity fetishism is materialism as such.

No one who knows me well will be surprised that I thought immediately in this context of the poet and essayist Charles Péguy (if men are allegedly always thinking about the Roman Empire, I am always thinking of the French Catholic poet). Across many of his texts and especially in his posthumous Notes on Descartes, money is elevated as the symbol of modernity’s crass regime of efficiency and transactionalism. As I have noted elsewhere, “Péguy objects not only to the consumer capitulation to the rule of money, the deformative effects of its acquisition, its uses, misuses and abuses, but also and more fundamentally to its ersatz metaphysical status.” For him, money is a counterfeit mediation because

It is not an object itself in space or in time but only the means of acquiring or exchanging for the desired object; it is a strangely uncanny and empty ‘counter-object,’ amassed not as goods are amassed but as ‘that for which he has sold his goods’; it is the sacrifice and ‘mummification’ of the flux and freedom of the present for the security of a determined future (187).

Commerce and the worship of money presume to rigidify, ossify, or freeze everything into buyable allocations that should rather be “supple, free, living, fecund, non-interchangeable, non-homogenous, non-exchangeable, non-buyable and sellable, non-countable and calculable” (191). Péguy critiques modern attempts to economize everything (and thus to homogenize and sterilize them, effectively to make them dead and barren). “The modern intellectual world,” Péguy wrote in his Note on Descartes, “would do anything (and has done everything) in order to evade fecundity, freedom, life, in order to escape that present that is fecund, free, living. It has done everything to escape flux and the presence of the present” (184). So first, what, if anything, do we gain or lose when we consider not only the fetishism of commodities but also and perhaps more fundamentally the fetishism of money itself, especially in the context of how the Eucharist resists and undoes the modern tendency to economize, buy, count, calculate, and consume?

My second question has to do with Cavanaugh’s fascinating invocation—following Alexandra Dobra and in certain respects Pope Francis too (thinking of the “deified markets” and “sacralized” economic system in Evangelii Gaudium)—of the very theological word of the deification of markets and commodities. I am certainly compelled by this usage and understand the power and force of it, especially given Marx’s own self-understanding of commodity “fetishism” in the context of the African amulets invested with a certain spiritual power. Thinking of the long history of the doctrine of deification in theological history, however, it seems to me (at the risk of being pedantic) as if the most full-bodied notion of deification would sit uneasily with the falseness and deranging power of idolatry. In the tradition deification means being “partakers of divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4); or as in Pseudo-Dionysius, “the attaining of likeness to God and union with him so far as it is possible” (Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 1.3). That is, to be deified—at least in its strongest, most theologically rich sense—is not simply to claim a counterfeit divinity or invest spiritual power into something made by human hands, but is genuinely to participate in the dynamic, self-donative life of God, truly to be adopted in love as God’s sons and daughters, to be sanctified and transfigured by the indwelling presence of trinitarian love.

Maybe it is no accident that Marx recurred often to the metaphor of vampires. “Capital,” he wrote in Das Kapital, “is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks . . . The vampire will not lose its hold . . . so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.” Nor is it unremarkable that in his critique of the cult of money Charles Péguy invoked mummies and mummification, or that we referred earlier to the weirdness of commodified things in terms of the figure of the zombie. These monster metaphors, I know, maybe do something a bit different, a bit darker, too, than either the appeal to primitive fetishisms or to the theological language of deification. Both the monster and the monstrance are fundamentally demonstrative. I am convinced entirely by the argument that goods as commodities become imbued with a power not their own.

Appeal to vampires, mummies, and zombies means that those powers that, in Cavanaugh’s words, “appear to give [material items] an agency beyond human control” are not in fact divinities or gods but rather their darker counterparts, and at least in the case of the latter they are not supernaturally animated but rather “scientifically reanimated corpses.” In a consumer economy, any genuinely living element—chief among them evidences of human life and labor—are elided. And in this zombified system, the human being, as Francis put it in Evangelii Gaudium, “is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption” (§55). Maybe it is not braaaaains as such, but with the mindless, distracted ways in which human beings often consume, often without consideration of the harm our mindless consumption can do (environmentally, interpersonally, to ourselves), it might as well be.

I also cannot help but think in this context about the vision of the counterfeit horror-show Eucharist in the final pages of Dante’s Inferno. Lucifer is there, of course, in the lowest and coldest part of hell, gnawing without consummation and without end upon the bodies of Brutus, Cassius, and Judas, those Olympic-level betrayers who made it their business to economize their relationships simply in order to betray them, to turn persons, in acts of reification both large and small, into things. Scholars have noted Lucifer’s “zombie” qualities in Inferno Canto XXXIV: he is described as “a gigantic, hulking, masticating, and undead creature,” even as “animate death: sensate matter [neither dead nor alive] who moves, bats his wings, drools, and chews.”[1]

If, then, consumer culture does in fact imbue “transcendence in things,” we have to say clearly and in the very same breath that it, like Dante’s Lucifer, only possesses transcendence and “deification” in modes which are entirely counterfeit, upside-down, and parasitic, animated by that which only brings death and not life, and certainly not the life of participation in trinitarian love which deification language seems to invoke.

As Cavanaugh suggests, however, a robust theology of the Eucharist denies in its tenacious commitment to sacramentality the possibility of “dead matter,” even dead matter artificially vitalized. Everything is always already living, pulsing with life and Eucharistic thanksgiving, and ought therefore to be treated as such. Here we might be well served to consider how Dante’s Paradiso unstitches all the horrors of Inferno: instead of the counterfeits we see, not through a glass darkly, but face to face, the living God, who is as Pope Francis puts it the “common point of arrival.” Dante’s paradisial vision of the celestial rose, where all the souls are joyfully gathered together in eternal thanksgiving, non-competitive praise, and in relations of profound mutual interdependence, certainly witnesses poetically to Cavanaugh’s vision of the “convergence of humans and all creation in the love of God, which is what the Eucharist anticipates.”

Finally, while Cavanaugh quite rightly resists the de-evolution of the sacramental worldview into a “mere aesthetics,” I wonder if there is room for an aesthetics which is not simply in the order of the “mere”? Is there something akin, perhaps, to Joseph Ratzinger’s “darkened” aesthetics that has learned with Christ to incorporate profound suffering into beauty, that is, a cruciform aesthetics? Ratzinger writes,

Whoever believes in God, in the God who manifested himself, precisely in the altered appearance of Christ crucified as love “to the end” (John 13:1), knows that beauty is truth and truth beauty; but in the suffering Christ he also learns that the beauty of truth also embraces offence, pain, and even the dark mystery of death, and that this can only be found in accepting suffering, not in ignoring it.

Such a thing seems to me profoundly Eucharistic and in keeping with Cavanaugh’s lovely reflections on the twin vulnerabilities of Christ “in both the bodies of the poor and in the humble form of bread and wine.” A sacramental economy which undoes and reverses and heals a consumer economy, does so in part by the sacrifice which is at its very heart. To recur to Péguy once more, the poet illumines those free, self-sacrificial acts of love in the economy of salvation which allow God to be “perceived, seen, read, tasted, handed over in tradition in time and space—but also beaten, crucified, misread, ignored, and received unworthily.”

In Péguy’s poetry, the infinite God becomes “un tendre enfant laiteux,”[2] a tender milky babe subject to the exigencies of flesh, to the ravages of time, finally to the cross and to the spear. The infant body of Jesus is held in the hands of Simeon, “as one takes, as one holds up an ordinary child, a little child of a family of ordinary men; with his old tanned hands, with his old wrinkled hands, with his poor withered and puckered-up old hands, with his two shriveled up hands. With his two parchment-like hands.”[3] Christ has given his body “to the discretion of the least of the soldiers . . . to the discretion of the least of the sinners”;[4] it is distributed daily by “our sinful hands” in the Eucharist.”[5] This, of course, is our great privilege and a great responsibility, as is the extension of those same hands even and especially to the least of these.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay was first delivered as a response to the final lecture of the "The Only Solution is Love: The Eucharist and Catholic Social Teaching" series hosted by Michael Baxter for the McGrath Institute for Church Life.

[1] Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 34: Satanic Physics and the Point of Transition.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018.

[2] Charles Péguy, Le Mystére des Saints Innocents, Oeuvres Complètes de Charles Péguy (1873-1914), Oeuvres de Poésis T. VI (Paris: Gallimard), 20.

[3] Péguy, The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, trans. Julian Green (New York, Pantheon, 1950), 58.

[4] Péguy, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 83.

[5] Péguy, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 73.


Featured Image: George Frederic Watts, Minotaur, 1885; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70.


Jennifer Newsome Martin

Jennifer Newsome Martin is an associate professor in the Department of Theology and the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame. She is the incoming director of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture.

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