I have been thinking about the Eucharist a lot lately, the way a hungry man thinks about food — for the simple reason that I can’t have it. I can’t take Holy Communion at Mass because my marital “situation” (divorced and remarried outside the Church) prevents me from having a place at that table.
The Catholic understanding of the Eucharist has always made perfect sense to me. Although the “accidents” of form remain the same — all the physical attributes of bread and wine present to the senses — consecration by the priest transforms the essence, or “substance,” as Saint Thomas Aquinas calls it, into the body and blood of Christ. This is called “transubstantiation,” the transformation of the substance of the bread and wine.
Now, many things about the Church make me wonder why I’m still a Catholic, but transubstantiation is not one of them. More than just reasonable, the Catholic idea of the Eucharist strikes me as beautiful.
The terms “accident” and “substance” come from Aristotle, whose Metaphysics gave Aquinas a language for describing the phenomenon of the Eucharist. Aquinas also relies on another of Aristotle’s essays, “On the Soul,” where the philosopher argues that sense perception and the intellect have two different objects proper to their apprehension, that is, that perceiving and understanding are two different things. “All animals perceive,” Aristotle writes, “but few animals understand.” The senses perceive accidents of form; the intellect understands the substance of a thing. Aquinas doesn’t use the term “substance” with its modern, scientific definition as underlying matter, but rather to mean something like fundamental character. As Saint Augustine writes at the end of the Confessions, “Outside us, we see that a thing is; inside us, we see that a thing is good.”
The notion that the Eucharist might be just a symbol is like saying that the book my wife gives me as a gift is just the symbol of a gift. But it’s not a symbol; it’s a real gift, the gift itself. The essence or substance of the gift, its “giftiness,” if you will, is nowhere visible in the physical properties of the book, but the gift is no less real therefore. In fact, as the cliché reminds us, the gift matters more than the physical book: “it’s the thought that counts,” and that’s exactly right: in the Aristotelian terms Aquinas uses, the substance of the gift is available only to the intellect capable of understanding. And by way of the intellect, the gift is accessible only as the love my wife and I have for each other. It is our love that creates the gift. Anyone can possess the book. Only she and I can share in the gift.
Likewise, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist: invisible to the senses, it’s nevertheless as real as any gift and only accessible through faith in God’s love.
Nor does the gift merely symbolize that love. The gift I give my wife doesn’t symbolize our love; it is our love. It is in acts of love that love resides, not — with apologies to Saint Valentine — in the heart. More than a symbol, the Eucharist is one more way that God loves us.
Years ago, when Comet Hale-Bopp appeared in the sky, the members of a cult in California committed suicide believing that their souls would then be freed to join the spaceship hiding behind the comet. But one member survived. Interviewed on CNN weeks later, he told the interviewer that he had left a wife and son fifteen years earlier to join the cult and had had no contact with them since. Asked what he had to say to the child he abandoned, he replied, “I want him to know that I love him, I have always loved him and always will.”
But that’s not love. That’s a lie this man tells so he can live with himself after having acted abominably toward his own child. Such “love” is just a word, something we can say we feel in our hearts without having to actually be loving, without having to live in a way that shows others that we are always there for them, for better or for worse. Giving my wife a gift isn’t a symbol of something more nebulous; it’s our love itself, just one of many ways that I can love her.
Because love is palpable. You can smell it and see it and hear it and feel it.
And you can eat it and drink it. And if not, the hell with it.
• Jim Hale lives in Juneau.