Writing about prayer, one contributor to Secondsightblog.net tells us that he finds himself unable to get behind the tangible “accidents”of the Eucharist – and through to the Real Presence. That doesn’t surprise me since faith is evidence of things not seen. There is mystery here and, as Frank Sheed told us, mystery is not a blank wall but a path to be endlessly, and fruitfully, explored.
Around 50 years ago, two theologians of huge stature (Rahner and Schillebeeckx) began to interpret the Real Presence in the language of Structuralism. They used terms like “transignification” and “transfinalisation”. Here, one did not speak of substance or identity but of signs and purposes. The Eucharist was a sign of the body and blood of Christ, or derived its purpose, and so its meaning, from its function. The approach was understandable. For example, I have beside me a flat-topped object with four legs. Is it a stool or a table? I reply that it is not a fixed substance but is defined in terms of what I recognise it to be (sign) or what I use it for (purpose). The question “What actually is it?” simply has no meaning.
But if we apply that approach to the Eucharist we find that Christ’s claim that we actually eat his body and blood has turned into a metaphor. The phrase “real presence” is void of meaning.
Paul VI’s encyclical on the Eucharist, Mysterium Fidei (1965), covers broad ground but its essential message is that the body and blood, soul and divinity are actually and really present. Indeed, they are a sign and can also be described in terms of purpose, but this in no way changes their reality. This, he emphasises, is a mystery which can only be grasped through faith.
And perhaps it is best to leave it at that. After trying to untangle the knot through concepts such as substance and accidents, which are favoured by the Church, I am left with saying: this is the outward appearance of bread and wine but in reality it is as the Church defines it and as Jesus described it. I cannot reconcile the two but I have ceased worrying.
In fact, any kind of discussion involving terms like substance, form or identity often founders on the difficulty of definition. For instance, how do you define identity (surely relevant to the mystery of the Eucharist)? Thanks to Plutarch we have the paradox of Theseus’s boat, which I will pose in colloquial form.
My friend Joe is a skilled carpenter and boat builder. Some years ago he built a small rowing boat. Being a perfectionist his habit was to replace any part of the boat which was in the slightest damaged or worn. The first two or three planks he replaced gave me no philosophical difficulty – it was clearly Joe’s old boat with a few repairs.
But the day came when he had in fact replaced every single part of the boat. When I suggested that he had made a new boat with a different identity he denied this, saying: “The shape and length of every replacement piece has been dictated by the form of the boat so there has clearly been a continuity of identity because of the continuity of the form.”
But I had a better idea. Joe never throws anything away. When I looked under the tarpaulin at the back of the shed I found all the pieces and planks he had removed. So I put the old boat together again. Every part had to be put into the only place it could fit – the form was preserved. And I asked him to tell me whether the two boats shared the same identity. Joe is still scratching his head, but you may agree with me that identity can be a difficult concept. And the difficulty may continue to plague us when we consider that the whole identity of Christ is actually present wherever the Blessed Sacrament is found. Thus we have a specific set of accidents in a particular place at a particular time which, to our senses, are bread and wine, but in reality is Christ who is eternally omnipresent. No wonder that our human, philosophical concepts are hard to apply.
I found some help in Blaise Pascal’s Lettres Provinciales, his famous attack on 17th-century Jesuit moral theology. Pascal presents the idea that both we and the blessed in heaven receive Christ whole and entire. The difference is that we receive him under the veil of the apparent bread and wine while the blessed receive him directly. Our indirect perception is made necessary by the limitation of our human understanding.
Following Pascal’s line of thought, it seems to me clear that the blessed in heaven can receive Christ directly because that takes place in eternity – outside time and place. We are, however, bound to the limitations of the earth. So the reception fittingly takes place through a medium which we encounter at a particular time and in a particular place. The veil, or the “accidents”, of bread and wine enable us to do this.
I have always thought of praying for the souls of the dead, or asking them for intercession. But now, it seems to me, I can pray with them. We are all on our metaphorical knees imbued with the Real Presence of Christ – they directly and I through a glass darkly.
So how do you see the Real Presence in the Eucharist? I think that we can deepen our understanding by listening to others’ experience.