The French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose Phenomenology of Perception was published in 1945, renounced his Catholicism in the late 1930s, citing its incompatibility with his leftist politics. Jean-Paul Sartre, his co-editor at the leftist magazine Les temps modernes, wrote that Merleau-Ponty, “asked that Catholicism reintegrate him into the unity of immanence, and this was precisely what it couldn’t do.”1 Catholicism, for Merleau-Ponty, remained concerned with the inaccessible transcendent. His interest was in making sense of what one experienced here; how what one saw impacted how one was. 

I do not think there is a sort of crypto-Catholicism at play in Merleau-Ponty’s work. At best, Catholicism operates as a useful analogical tool, its truth claims glossed over as unimportant, but its doctrines used at the service of his phenomenological project, which is concerned with a description of perceptual experience situated in a permeable relationship between the body and the world. 

Instead, my approach is to use specific aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s thought to aid in theological investigation. In this way, I model the approach of Merleau-Ponty himself, though likely not as he intended. Midway through the Phenomenology of Perception comes this Eucharistic analogy: 

The sacrament does not merely symbolize, in a sensible way, an operation of Grace, but is the real presence of God and makes this presence occupy a fragment of space and to communicate it to those who eat the bread, given that they are inwardly prepared. In the same way, the sensible does not merely have a motor and vital signification, but is rather nothing other than a certain manner of being in the world that is proposed to us from a point in space, that our body takes up and adopts if it is capable, and sensation is, literally, a communion.2

Within this analogy, there are two theological claims about the Eucharist. The first is that the real presence of God occupies “a fragment of space” which is recognizable by the communicant if the communicant is sufficiently inwardly prepared. The second is that the sacrament is sensible via human perception in a way both physical and not: the operation of grace is made sensible in the sacramental sign. This begs a philosophically informed theological question: what, precisely, is sensible in the Eucharist? How can human persons perceive the real presence of God fragmentized in space? 

Even if he himself is not interested in pursuing these questions, Merleau-Ponty does, in my reading, provide the philosophical means to consider them in the Phenomenology of Perception, namely in his conceptions of habit and presence/non-presence. 

To boil down Merleau-Ponty’s fundamental claim in the Phenomenology of Perception: there is a fundamental indeterminacy in our relationship to the sensible world. Perception does not rely on a readymade conceptual map of reality that we use to neatly make sense of what we see. Neither does perception happen in a predictable or causal way: we do not passively experience the world as a chain of causes and effects. Instead, things reveal themselves to consciousness in an incomplete and imperfect way, which depends on our positionality and our habitual actions and is made possible by our bodies, which mediate our sensation and perception of the world. 

This means that each sensory or perceptual experience is temporally new, even if we may remember having such experiences before. For Merleau-Ponty, we do not merely rely on intellectualized memory to understand these similar experiences.3 If we did so, we could not fully recognize them. Instead, memory works to confirm the “physiognomy of the givens.”4 For example, recognizing a painting we have seen before is not simply a matter of associating it with our memory of seeing it. Instead, we recognize the painting because we encounter it in a similar way to when we encountered it in the past. In other words, each moment of recognition is a lived moment, not a stale return to an isolated memory. Recognition for Merleau-Ponty is recognizing our experience of something. The more we do something, the more our actions become habituated. The stronger the habits we form, the easier the act of recognition. 

Habits are also fundamentally active. Throughout the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty discusses how we “gear into” the world during perception. Our bodies meet the waiting teeth of the world’s rumbling cogs—we click into place. Our senses, our intellect, our entire perceptual apparatus meets the world as it is. Perception is an experience in media res, it happens in conjunction with a world already in motion. An understanding of the object of perception happens in real time. 

Each perception then, for Merleau-Ponty, “begins anew for itself.”5 The one who perceives does not impose a constituting form upon the world but works with a form that is already given by the thing in the world. The thing in the world has a form that seeks to be viewed from a certain “optimal distance.”6 Take a leaf—it is only until one approaches the branch on which it grows that individual leaves begin to distinguish themselves from the mass of foliage. Each sense experience is new. 

But what of the thing which appears, that which is perceived? 

Basically, every object of consciousness appears embedded in a phenomenal field of vision. Our initial encounter with an object is imperfect, a partial encounter with an indeterminate world. What does this mean? The object as it appears to consciousness is not one aspect of a fully comprehended world that rises to the surface when we gaze upon it. As Merleau-Ponty puts it, “we must not consider reflection a simple return to a universal reason, setting it up in advance in the unreflected. Rather we must consider reflection to be a creative operation that itself participates in the facticity of the unreflected.”7 What we see, what we gaze upon, has its own facticity, its own there-ness and this-ness. This facticity is not known to consciousness prior to the moment of encounter with the object. We can only reflect upon, can only engage in the process of perception with an object as we see it, not before. An object is present to consciousness when it appears. Those objects which do not appear to consciousness, those which we don’t or can’t see at a given moment, are absent until they are fixed by our gaze and open themselves to our reflection. In a way then, those objects which are present to us as they appear to us are also absent in that as soon as are gaze leaves them, they fade into the background again, they lose their explicitness. Presence and absence co-exist in each object. Every thing that appears can disappear to consciousness; every presence becomes an absence with the turn of a head.  

It is worth nothing however that for Merleau-Ponty, the horizons of our perception are only made possible by our body, which he is careful to note is not a thing among things, but instead is the very means by which we can perceive anything at all. Its absence is inconceivable to consciousness. As Merleau-Ponty argues, “the presence and absence of external objects are only variations within a primordial field of presence, a perceptual domain over which my body has power.”8 Our bodies exist with a schema, an interconnected lattice of parts that interact with each other and the world. How and what the body does help to structure it. My arm just isn’t connected to my shoulder; my arm brushes aside a curtain or shields my face from the sun. Our interactive bodies are how we experience reality.   

Now, consider the liturgy of the Eucharist. How can we conceive of the Eucharistic moment phenomenologically? The experience is a ritual one. Understood another way, it is habit. We come to the mass having received the host before, expecting to do so again. Yet each time the host is placed into our waiting hands or upon our tongue is new. It is this ritual action which helps us understand the experience in terms of our perception. When we perceive the host, either raised above the congregation, or consumed and incorporated in a sensory way into our embodied experience, we perceive it anew, and situate our current lived experience with it amidst all our previous ones. To use Merleau-Ponty’s language: our bodies become “geared into” the experience of Eucharistic consumption. This provides a phenomenological accounting for the anamnestic “do this in memory of me.” Remembering is incomplete without doing; the ritual reenactment of the Eucharist is both memory and participation, and imperceptible without both. 

When we receive the Eucharist, we are not doing so in a vacuum. We come to it out of the rushing world, encumbered by our failures as well as our histories. We experience it historically: there is no ritual memory without the flow of history. As a result, just as there is an “optimal distance,” at which to view a thing in the world for Merleau-Ponty, so too is there one from which to “view” the sacrament. The Catechism states that “Anyone who desires to receive Christ in Eucharistic communion must be in the state of grace.”9 To use Merleau-Ponty’s language, the communicant must be “inwardly prepared.” This presupposes that the sacrament appears differently depending on how prepared one is—to approach without sufficient preparation (in the eyes of the Church, a full confession) means an impoverished view of the sacrament. The Eucharist comes into view fully when we can approach it with eyes open, barriers removed. 

But what, precisely, comes into view? On one hand we have the presence of the unleavened bread, the paper-thin communion wafer. On the other, we have Christ, really present in the Catholic understanding. There is an overlapping presence. In the words of the second Eucharistic prayer, the Spirit comes upon the bread and wine “like the dewfall” to begin their becoming the body and blood of Christ.10 

God’s presence is perceptually absent in its invisibility but present in its Eucharistic reality, a host fogged with imperceptible dew. We draw near to this absent presence; we fix the disc raised above the altar with our intentional gaze. As we habitually consume it, our bodies rustle against another. It is here the phenomenon of a present absence rises to the surface most clearly: the mystery of God in the Eucharistic bread and wine is imperceptible, yet our bodily schema perceives it, nonetheless. This is seen in our solemn consumption, and in the ritual practice of the congregation which surrounds us. The body of Christ is on our tongues and sharing our pews: we are experiencing its non-presence in our embodied consumption of it alongside the rest of the church. 

Ultimately, the communal and embodied practice of the Eucharist is a habit of encountering–through habitual, ritual, communal experience–a present non-presence.  

The Christian tradition, in a way, is all about making sense of a present non-present, of a God who emerges and disappears, and then asks to be experienced in that absence. A God who became flesh in history, then died and rose again, then departed, leaving only a noncorporeal Spirit and an exhortation: “do this in memory of me.” The immanent and the transcendent are entangled within each other from the beginning of the tradition —it is no wonder that the Eucharist is no different. 

We consume the Eucharist in community, which immerses us in the world. A phenomenological analysis reveals the incarnation aflame at the heart of the entire Eucharistic experience—the ineffable God is, in a sense, incarnate in us through our ingestion of God’s present-non-presence. You are the “very thing that you received,” St. Augustine writes in one of his Easter homilies.11 Doing the Eucharist, then, habitually consuming it, directs us toward the world, where God is. 

If Sartre was right, and Catholicism failed Merleau-Ponty, the fact remains that the source and summit of Catholic life, when subjected to phenomenological analysis, does not resist the immanent but is defined by it.

  1. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Merleau-Ponty vivantIn The Debate Between Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, Jon Stewart, ed., Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 574.
  2. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, Donald Landes trans. (London: Routledge, 2012), 219.
  3. Ibid., 141.
  4. Ibid., 20.
  5. Ibid., 46.
  6. Ibid., 316.
  7. Ibid., 62.
  8. Ibid., 94-5.
  9. Catechism of the Catholic Church, accessed December 20, 2023,, 1415
  10. Eucharistic Prayer II” In The Roman Missal: Renewed by Decree of the Most Holy Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, Promulgated by Authority of Pope Paul VI and Revised at the Direction of Pope John Paul II. (Washington, DC: Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), 644.
  11. St. Augustine, “Sermon 10: On the Eucharist—Easter Sunday” in Selected Easter Sermons of Saint Augustine. Phillip T. Weller, trans., (St. Louis: Herder, 1959), 104.

Jack Nuelle is a Ph.D. Student at Loyola University Chicago where he studies French phenomenology and 20th and 21st-century Catholic systematic theology. His writing has appeared in Commonweal, America, and the National Catholic Reporter, among other outlets. Find him on x @j_c_nuelle.