Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Psychology of the Eucharist

A week ago, I returned from a 5 week vacation in Europe. It was a combination of a study abroad program, church mission trip, and holiday as I traveled in Italy, Estonia, and England. The class I took in Orvieto, Italy was entitled "Medieval Spirituality and Art" and I would like to discuss a few of the things I learned, particularly about the Eucharist, a.k.a. The Lord's Supper, a.k.a. Communion.

Taking Eucharist in Orvieto is a special experience because it was in that relatively obscure city that the doctrine of transubstantiation was firmly established as a doctrine of the Catholic church. In the 13th Century a priest was performing the Eucharist when the bread mysteriously dripped blood as he blessed it. The Duomo (main cathedral) of Orvieto was built shortly after to house this miraculous cloth. The Corpus Christi celebration was established by the pope after the duomo was built to honor the Catholic belief in transubstantiation.

I should begin by pointing out the points of disagreement I had going into this trip about Catholic views on the Eucharist. First of all, I did not believe (and still do not) that the bread and wine became the actual body and blood of Christ through transubstantiation. I also disagreed with how Catholics excluded Protestants from taking Communion. And I did not share the belief that the Eucharist should be a daily event, taken in the Mass, but should be a special event. I point these out because I want to convey that I am examining Catholic beliefs and practices as an outsider.

So, as an outsider, I would like to share the insights I gained regarding the Catholic Eucharist and why my complaints were softened in many ways. But first I want to ask you a question: what is the central focus of a Protestant church's design? The podium. The spoken word is the central focus. For Catholics the podium is offset, preaching is secondary. At the very center of the Catholic church is the altar table where the Eucharist is situated. That is to say, the actual body of Christ is the central focus. I point this out because I want to convey a sense of the importance of the Eucharist to Catholic spirituality.

Now I believe the best place to begin is with the doctrine of transubstantiation. As a Baptist, I have never received a push to believe that "Communion" was about eating the actual body and blood of Christ. I've always believed it had symbolic content; that the elements were meant to remind us of the death and resurrection of Christ, his atonement for our sins, and our call to be resurrected with him. So the doctrine of transubstantiation has always superfluous, because I felt like I had enough respect for Communion by treating it as a spiritual connection with Christ.

But I began to wonder, might there be a benefit in believing that the elements are Christ's actual body and blood? Well, perhaps the most obvious benefit is the feeling that there is a constant presence of the miraculous. It is a remarkable thing to believe that bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ every time you attend Mass. In fact, pious Medieval peasants would often rush from one cathedral to the next within their city (there were usually several), knowing the exact timing of the liturgies, so that they could witness the blessing of the elements, where they are believed to turn into the actual body of Christ. Now I can understand that kind of piety. It would certainly mean something to me if I were to witness what I believed to be a miracle everyday. In fact, I think I would gain a deeper sense of God's presence within my community, as a result.

But a sense of the miraculous was not all that there was to gain. The Catholics, as you probably know, hold the Virgin Mother in high regard. I, however, did not realize there was a connection between the Eucharist and Mary until this class. For just as Mary held Jesus in her insides (her womb), we could hold Christ in our insides (our stomachs). There would be a shared experience between us and the woman who gave Christ birth and nursed him, who knew him intimately as both human and divine. They would gain a sense of closeness with Christ through their connection with Mary and through their physical closeness with his body. I could go into why they held Mary in such high regard, but that is a longer post than I can write here.

Now I have always objected to the exclusion of Protestants from taking Eucharist. In fact, I did not take the Eucharist in Italy and was saddened that I could not (they never said I could not but it was common knowledge). But I always thought that it was a matter of pride - that the Catholics thought they had it right while Protestants had it wrong. But I now see it differently. Catholics believe that the Eucharist is the actual body and blood of Christ. Now as a Protestant I may believe in Christ, just as they do, but I do not believe in transubstantiation. So when I took Eucharist, I would treat the elements differently than they would. So Catholics exclude those who do not believe in transubstantiation because we could potentially profane the elements by our lack of faith. (We witnessed nuns run out of the cathedral with the chalice and return with a new cup of wine because a bug apparently landed in the wine!) Now that sort of reverence is something I can respect, even while disagreeing with the outcome.

I write all this in the hope that your view on the Lord's Supper might be expanded. My assumption is that the majority of my readership are Protestant. But I hope that, regardless of your religious affiliation, you gain more clarity on your own views of the Lord's Supper and what can be gained through this sacrament of faith in action. May you all be blessed by the presence of Christ in your lives and through the fellowship that comes through his life, death, and resurrection.