The Source and Summit of My Faith
As the wife of someone who has been vegan for 25 years, I thought I had seen it all. The chik’n nuggets, the “vegandelphia cheez steak,” the judgy stares. Now here we are in 2018 pretty close to the distant future & we have lab meat on one hand and impossible burgers on the other. One is real flesh & blood without the animal suffering. The other such a close amalgam that it’s hard for lifelong carnivores to tell the difference between its green pea protein & good old-fashioned usda prime.
We now live in a world where it’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to tell the difference between real & fake. It leaves some of us questioning “what is fake anyway?” Fake news. Fake lashes. Fake meat.
If I use filters on my photos on Instagram, is that fake? Or is it a few tweaks to tell the truth of a bigger story: the sky WAS that amazing the other night, but my camera didn’t capture it. Does the fake help us get to the real? Does my feed tell a story that’s also true? That resonates with my real flesh & blood life? Are they just two halves of one whole?
One thing I treasure about my faith is its ability to meet me in between the real and the seemingly unreal. It’s an earthly faith with physical signs of blessings: water, oil, bread, wine, incense, bells. These are physical markers that point us to the Mapmaker.
For fans of the hymn “Come Thou Fount” these are our Ebenezers, the stones that mark our victories.
I love that we take Jesus at His word & believe not just that the bread & wine commemorate His death & resurrection but that they also enact His death & resurrection. For the faithful, this transsubstantiation of bread to flesh and wine to blood is an actual change and an actual belief.
It’s something that sets Catholics apart from many of our Christian brothers & sisters & brings us more akin to the Asmat in Papua New Guinea who consume the flesh of their enemies or the funerary cannibalism of the Fore people. It’s a physical act for Catholics in a way that makes us more exotic old-world oddities than part of the secular humanistic millennial zeitgeist.
Things like moondust, pretty VSCO filters, holographic strobing, & hand lettered tarot cards are supposed to be pulling us away from the blood & guts of the world & toward a more serene, peaceful future. This era is showing us a world of our own creation instead of the world as it really is: gory, brutal, visceral, heartbreaking.
The faith I proport to believe in wipes away all the filters & confronts it with a participation in death and using it as sustenance for new life. It’s gorgeous & messy & it’s not something I always believed.
About five years ago, I had to really stretch to believe that the Body and Blood of Christ are as my church said they were: body and blood. I didn’t think of it much if I could help it. It was just something I did to get access to the good stuff: revelation & connection & vulnerability & love. Of course I thought about it, but I didn’t get it. It was true to me theologically but it didn’t resonate at a bone deep level.
It was that summer, five years ago, that I was volunteered to participate in Eucharistic Adoration. In layman’s terms: I was going to sit in a chapel for an hour or so & stare at a big gold candleholder with a piece of unleavened bread on top behind glass. Once a week. For three months. Yes, this crazy practice is something I actually did. And something that radically altered the substance of my own flesh & blood.
At first I would sit or kneel & say a bunch of rote prayers to fill the time. Then I would Bible journal letters to God to fill the time. Then a few weeks in, I started to just sit and stare. Then.
Then I started to listen.
What was right before me turned out to be what my heart had been seeking for so long: communion, belonging, mercy, kindness, strength, wildness, purpose, the silence of snow and the crack of lightning. It was there for me: in this tiny piece of bread that’s supposed to be flesh or at least symbolize flesh or at least remember someone who was once flesh.
The source & summit of my faith. In a piece of bread.
Even knowing that it’s a completely unmodern, unenlightened, un-woke thing to believe, I still sat with it long enough for it to have infected me past the point of reserve and metaphor.
This bread, this flesh, this Eucharist has replaced everything else in my heart and mind and is the very bedrock of my faith. It’s my home. It’s the place where my soul resides.
The way I feel about this idea of feeding on the flesh of my Savior was put so succinctly well in an interview with Catholic speaker and writer Eve Tushnet:
“Home is a strange word. I definitely feel that it’s the place where I need to be because of the Eucharist. That’s what initially made me sure I would need to become Catholic: Its vividness, its visceral quality, the fact that God would do this really emphasizes the importance of our bodies and the importance of the physical world. And also it’s very lurid and scandalous to people today, just as it first scandalized people when Jesus told them what he was going to do. And I think there’s something in that kind of shocking, fleshly, and even materially violent aspect of the Eucharist that responds to the world as we find it, which is shocking, and violent, and lurid. I feel like any religion that made it easier to understand or abstract away from that violence would be hard to believe.”
We live in a time where the real and unreal compete for our attention & cause us to question reality itself. What are we eating? Is it sustainable, traceable, ethical, biodynamic, & good?
What is flash & smoke? What is flesh & blood?
The makers of the impossible burger have let us know the science behind plants that bleed. They’ve patented it. They’ve gotten FDA approval. They’ve convinced a lot of skeptics at a lot of high end burger joints. Does looking behind the curtain make it less convincing? I’ve tasted one. It’s pretty damned convincing!
We suspend our disbelief for so many things: Harry Potter, Marvel movies, kitten face filters. We live in a post-binary world where the fake is real is fake is real is… We accept those contradictions in so many things.
What if we learned to live with the duality of Christ’s incarnation in the flesh? What if we suspended our disbelief & read this gospel story with fresh eyes. To the possibility that Jesus is saying exactly what He’s saying. That it’s real. It’s true. There’s no filter or metaphor or fable or parable. When He says “for my flesh is true food and my blood is pure drink” I ask you to consider it at face value. Not believe. Just consider.
Our world can be “shocking, violent, lurid.” How our hearts respond to that fleshly savagery is different for each one of us. Your answer could be in the metaphor and the symbol. Your answer could be in words and truth. Your answer could be in disbelief and fear.
As a Catholic, I am now living in a “catastrophe of faith.” I’ve been spending a lot of time wrestling with where these latest reports about the clergy abuse scandal lead me. We live in times that are “shocking, and violent, and lurid.” We live in heartbreaking times. After reading about 100 pages of the Grand Jury Report, I keep coming back to the reality of the Eucharist. It’s the one constant when everything else is falling apart. It’s the one thing that keeps me tethered to my faith.
This Sunday, Catholics all around the country heard this Gospel passage read aloud in Mass:
Gospel JN 6:51-58
Jesus said to the crowds:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world.”
The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you do not have life within you.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day.
For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.
Just as the living Father sent me
and I have life because of the Father,
so also the one who feeds on me
will have life because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven.
Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died,
whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
Upon hearing this and meditating on it, I couldn’t help but believe that it was put there for such a time as this. On a personal level, it brought me right back to those moments in Adoration when I knew for certain what I believed and what brought me back to this faith. I had to meditate on that gospel reading a few more times to remind myself of it.
The grave evil of my Church’s failures have shaken my faith and broken my heart. I have no excuses and no answers. I just know this one thing. This true thing: Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, and Jesus promises new life to those who eat His Flesh.
When you strip away the fancy filters and ribs, there is a heart beating at the center of my chest. The Source and Summit of my faith is clear and it dwells at the center of me. Finding that center connects the real and unreal, the true and the false, the living and the dead. It’s a blood that purges sin and evil and vice and a bread that sustains us and leads us forward.
I don’t know where we are headed as a faith. I’m not sure where I’m headed with my faith. I do know that if I listen to that still small voice that’s present every time I receive the Eucharist, I can trust the Hands and Heart behind it. I can live without despair knowing that my focus is on this One True Thing and the rest is something I’m just going to have to live with and wrestle with and fight with.
In these dark days, I look only to the Flesh and Blood of my Savior. He knew violence and heartbreak and betrayal and weakness and anger and He kept going. I hope I can too.