Thomas Merton wrote, “The world is a sacred vessel”. However, the truth is the sacred vessels at the Eucharistic Altar hold our World, our Everything because the sanctification of the entire world proceeds from Christ’s sacrifice. Sacred Vessels, although seemingly mute, have silently spoken to me, triggering insights during Mass which faithfully echo what Scripture and Tradition teach us.
Small Chapel Experiences
I started going for daily Mass at a small chapel in my parish. Mass after Mass, beholding the altar right from the front-row chairs provided me with an almost ‘manger-side’ view and experience of Our Lord as I participated in the timeless truths of our Faith. The snugger setting made way for the most unlikely revelations about the sacred vessels of the Eucharist.
The day my eyes stumbled upon the sight of the chalice reflecting the paten with the host on it, I was moved beyond words at the blessing of this ‘micro’ apparition.
Thereafter, I yearned for a possible glance at the chalice and the ciborium kneeling close to the altar. Another day, when I could see the reflection of the paten with the host on it, I could also see the Roman Missal captured in the same view, representing to me Scripture and Tradition in the prayers pronounced by the priest. I was ecstatic. The Word made flesh making His dwelling among us! (cf. John 1:14)
For a moment, I wanted to turn to the rest of the congregation behind me and exclaim: “Did you see that?!” But the tenderness of the experience made me keep it to myself alone for a long time.
Does anyone chalice-gaze the way I do? Saint Thérèse of Lisieux seemed to have indulged in this at least once barely two weeks before her passing. Being too ill to be at Father Denis de Maroy’s first Mass, which he celebrated in Lisieux, she instead sent him roses, having first kissed them, to decorate his chalice. Afterwards, at her request, the sacred vessels were brought to her and she spent considerable time looking at herself in the chalice. Saint Josemaría Escrivá left a kiss each on the new chalices and patens kept in the chapel while on a retreat in Pamplona. This secret act of his is mysticized in #438 of his book, The Way.
Is it a distraction to observe sacred vessels during Mass? The value of these vessels of precious metal is not on account of what they are made of but because of Who they hold. Saint Augustine reminds, “Recognize in this bread what hung on the cross, and in this chalice what flowed from His side…” Again, Saint Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306-373) and Doctor of the Church encourages me:
O Lord, we cannot go to the pool of Siloe to which you sent the blind man. But we have the chalice of Your Precious Blood, filled with life and light. The purer we are, the more we receive.
Am I idolizing the chalice or the ciborium? Saint Ephrem exhorts that the “chalice which He blessed as the outward form of His Precious Blood.” Should it surprise me that I behold myself in these sacred vessels in which my identity lies mingled with the person of Christ? If we are fed and filled by the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ in partaking of the Eucharist, indeed, we ourselves transcend to be sacred vessels. I borrow from Saint Gregory of Nyssa:
[If] a man raises his eyes above the immediate, physical horizons of this world, […] he will see that [his] desire for the good and the beautiful is natural and intrinsic to him, and that his unwavering and joyous love for the blessed Image of which he himself is a copy is a seed within his soul.
Insights During Mass
This is borne out from my experience of another day when I had worn red to Mass. When the priest elevated the chalice, I saw red reflecting off the vessel and instantly recognized it to be Me, and next to me, my husband. Just to be sure, I adjusted my kneeling posture. “Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘in him, we live and move and have our being.’” (cf. Acts 17:28) Quite literally so!
Most days, I find ‘my seat’ to the right of the altar. But one day, somebody had already occupied it and therefore I took the corresponding seat on the left. I waited, wondering what message the holy receptacles would deliver me. From this present angle, I saw the candle with flame reflected in the chalice. “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
At elevation the same day, I could see myself and the entire congregation behind me captured by the polished exterior of the chalice. “[And] I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32).
Yet another time, I had come in for Mass with unforgiveness in my heart for my husband. Although we were seated next to each other, I sensed a great distance between us. My heart, however, softened as I found ourselves together in the silent outspokenness of the elevated chalice. Additionally, it mirrored the paten with the consecrated host. “So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (cf. Mark 10:8-9).
Several times, I have been blessed to tune in to the conversation between the eucharistic vessels, the Missal keeping company like a silent listener, and their beckoning to other sacred objects at the altar and in the ambience. Each of these precious exchanges during the Eucharistic celebration draws me into closer intimacy to the self-sacrificing Author of Life, speaking to me, teaching, counseling and consoling me through every part of the Mass. How sufficient is the grace from submitting to the Holy Eucharist! Over time, it scorched into nothingness every doubt, quenched all dryness of familiarity, infused joy in the place of spiritual sluggishness, displacing all brokenness with the soothing warmth of an ever-deepening relationship.
Catechism from a Forgotten Hymn
Is it not a fact that one hardly gets to know or speak about sacred vessels except when being prepared for one’s First Holy Communion? My circumstances did not allow for formal catechesis for First Holy Communion. One Indian Lenten afternoon, my parents drove me to the cathedral in the neighboring state (our parish and the church nearest to us); the parish priest hurriedly made me recite prayers and sent me for Confession with the Bishop. The following week on Maundy Thursday, I received my First Holy Communion along with a group of kids who received formal catechesis, since they lived closer to church.
My foundational information on sacred vessels came several years later from First Friday Mass regulars who sang an offertory hymn titled ‘On the Paten’. The hymn was curiously popular in India and some Asian countries but not beyond. A doctrinally and lyrically sound song—lyricist and composer unknown—that seems to have been overrun by the abounding stream of popular hymns in the Church since the Second Vatican Council. ‘On the Paten’ is by far the only hymn that comes to my mind that informs one of the names of the main sacred vessels, their purpose and the sentiments they must evoke.
On the paten with the Host I offer up my lowly heart All my life, my deeds, my thoughts Thine shall be as mine Thou art.
In the chalice let me be A drop of water mingled there. Lost O Jesus in Thy Love Thy great sacrifice I share.
When lines of the hymn perfectly synced with the time the celebrant takes to bless each of the species—there was not a doubt what ‘paten’ and ‘chalice’ referred to. The hymn made abundantly clear to me that those vessels were where my humanity as frail as a drop of water found its perfection lost in the Precious Blood of my Lord who made himself frail for my sake.
What happens at the altar during Liturgy of the Eucharist is hardly visible to anyone in the congregation of a large church. Yet, the stanza about the chalice was (like a veritable camera drone) delivering to me vivid images of the goings-on during those moments.
Mary: Vessel of Honor
Among the most beautiful of my chapel experiences is adoring the Eucharistic Lord with the statue of our Blessed Mother holding baby Jesus in her arms in the background. Soon to be beatified Venerable Fulton Sheen speaks of Mary’s maternity as a natural Eucharist:
All love tends to become like that which it loves. God loved man; therefore He became man. For nine months [Mary’s] own body was the natural Eucharist, in which God shared communion with human life, thus preparing for that greater Eucharist when human life would commune with the Divine.
The simplicity of the quote holds within itself such profound insight. The Eucharist, our celestial food, is made available to us through the ‘yes’ of Mary, a daughter of humanity. In the imitation of our Blessed Mother, we too must strive to be a vessel of honor ready to hold the Word of God, remaining in Him, so we bear fruits of love and service to one and all. (cf. John 15:4)
When one speaks about ‘mother’, ‘food’ is the next thing that comes to mind. When Jonathan, my son, was still a baby he would follow me around the room with his eyes from where he lay. When hungry, his eyes would light up at the sight of me in expectation of being fed. This is a universal expression of children of all ages yearning to be fed.
Saint Frances de Sales’ vivid words capture the sentiment:
When the bee has gathered the dew of heaven and the earth’s sweetest nectar from the flowers, it turns it into honey, then hastens to its hive. In the same way, the priest, having taken from the altar the Son of God (who is as the dew from heaven, and true son of Mary, the flower of our humanity), gives him to you as delicious food.
The reference to Mary as ‘flower’ meshes well with the image of a ‘chalice,’ the Latin root of which is ‘calyx.’ In botany, calyx refers to the whorl of sepals forming the receptacle that protectively holds the bud. Like an infant’s eyes gazing her mother, my eyes are ever trained towards this receptacle at the altar. “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season” (Psalm 145:15).
Here Is the Holy Grail
If the Holy Grail existed, it indeed remains lost until the Lord reveals it to whom He pleases. There is no one who has not experienced the torment of that ever-elusive precious object that, if found, could quench one’s desire for a life of everlasting happiness. The ones at Mass have found themselves there exhausted from their quest of this object of joy. There are many who do not realize that their search for joy ends at the altar of sacrifice.