There is a lovely essay by Casey N. Cep in The Paris Review on the role of literary art in raising ordinary things to the order of sacrament. This “ministry” of the novelist or poet is not unlike (although it falls far short of) the act of the priest in the confection of the Holy Eucharist out of bread and wine. From among a number of sacramental resonances in literature, Cep calls out one with special meaning for me, as a Catholic who has lately fallen under the literary spell of Marcel Proust. It is the famous “madeleine episode” in the first chapter (“Combray”) of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). ”One cannot contemplate gustatory grace in fiction,” writes Cep,
… without thinking of that tea-stained madeleine, for it is only after biting into that cake that the narrator remembers his Aunt Léonie and all of the madeleines she used to serve him as a child in Combray. Moved from solipsism to communion with others, Proust’s narrator evidences the miracle of an ordinary meal becoming something more. The simple act of eating awakens an entire universe of memory and meaning:
‘And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me … immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was…and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine … and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.’
I agree with Cep, and add that a Catholic cannot observe the dipping of Proust’s confectionery morsel in that cup of tea without recalling the moment in the Mass, after the Consecration and before Holy Communion, when the priest places a Particle of the Host into the Chalice of the Precious Blood, saying:
Hæc commíxtio et consecrátio Córporis et Sánguinis Dómini nostri Iesu Christi, fiat accipiéntibus nobis in vitam ætérnam. Amen.
May this mingling and hallowing of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ be for us who receive it a source of eternal life. Amen.
Whereas the mingling of the madeleine and the tea evoked for Proust the memory of Time lost, the mingling of the Body and Blood of Christ — the bread and wine that appear to be, yet are no longer really there — recalls for the believer the Paradise lost in Eden, regained on Calvary, and renewed in the eternal Now of the Mass.
By laboring to embody certain singular “madeleine moments” in the structure of Art, Proust found a kind of salvation for himself. The Catholic, reading Proust, cannot stop there, cannot be content with spurious satisfactions of eternal longings. Yet he can and should find in Proust an echo of a common Search, wherein is indeed Something, Someone, to be found.