The feast of Corpus Christi got me thinking that I should finally write down my thoughts on transubstantiation, an awfully long and unwieldy word for a simple and deep mystery.
Let me get this clear. I don’t understand how a sliver of bread wafer and a sip of wine can actually become the body and blood of Christ. However, I feel that my faith as a Catholic hinges around the fact that the bread and wine are more than a mere symbol.
I first learnt about the Catholic belief in transubstantiation in a Protestant youth group. Our youth group leader wanted to inform us about errant Catholic beliefs so that we would never be seduced by them. He told us that Catholics actually believe that they are eating the body and blood of Christ. That made Catholics as bad as cannibals, except, of course, that we knew better. The bread and wine couldn’t really become human flesh and blood, and so the Catholics weren’t really practising cannibalism even though the belief that they were consuming human flesh was almost as bad as actually doing it.
Confused by this circular argument? So am I. When I left home and made friends with Catholics, I found them to be gentle, normal people who were quite clearly not cannibals. Hanging around with Catholics and eventually marrying into a Catholic family meant that I occasionally went along to Mass. It was only politeness. After all, I occasionally dragged my friends or husband along to my family’s Protestant church for some reason or another.
Slowly, over a period of years, I began to realise that something was going on in Mass which I had never experienced in a Protestant church. The first few times I attended Mass with friends, I was so preoccupied with how different it was from my own church, as well as worrying about when to stand up and sit down, that I don’t think it made much impact on me. I was disorientated by the fact that the sermon, which could last more than an hour in the church I was brought up in, and which spoke to my enquiring, analytical mind, lasted only ten minutes. Most of the Catholic Mass was a long prayer, words rising and falling, statement and response. Every time I tried to catch the words and hang onto an idea, it slipped away, superseded by another one. My husband said that it was like a meditation; you weren’t supposed to understand everything.
It was only relatively recently that I came to believe in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I was faced with a seemingly intractible situation, something I cared about very much and couldn’t change. I attended Mass with my family, because it helped me pray. I find it hard to explain what happened, but it seemed that in the midst of the suffering and the darkness and the helplessness, I experienced the presence of God in a much more real way than I had ever done before.
Sometimes, for brief moments, I felt God’s presence during the Mass, but more often it was afterwards that I realised I had more patience and peace to face my daily life. I began to long to go to Mass and if I didn’t make it one week, I felt as if I had missed something. There came one very difficult day when I felt an almost unbearable longing to take the Eucharist. The lady behind me must have sensed how I felt because she touched my shoulder and told me that I could go up for a blessing. I didn’t. It felt safer for me to stay seated and watch others go up as I had done for years and years.
By the time I decided to become Catholic, I felt physically, mentally and spiritually drained from the searching and questioning and from worrying about how others would react. Perhaps I looked on the Eucharist as some sort of panacea, a one cure which kills all ills. I asked our priest if taking the Eucharist would make any difference, and all he said was, “It will move you to tears.”
I’m very resistant to tears, especially in public places, but I have gone through the entire Mass damp-eyed on occasions. Once or twice, I have felt as if I was within Christ, singing with his words during the final hymn. This is the kind of experience which you can’t expect or demand. You can only be open to whatever gift is being offered at that moment. Sometimes I have brief moments of sensing God’s presence, and at other times the Mass seems quite prosaic, but I leave with a little more courage or faith. At other times, I have gone to Mass feeling quite self-satisfied, and have felt as if it has shone an uncomfortably bright light on dark corners of myself which I’d rather keep hidden.
I suspect that my faith wouldn’t have got very far without a belief in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Bringing the things which bother me, the sins and failings, and the situations which I am powerless to change to Mass, and abandoning them to God in the belief that he is there listening, is what keeps me going to church.
I don’t know how the bread and wine transforms into flesh and blood, but I know that it transforms me, and that is enough.