Private Miracles

Despite rumors to the contrary, the Roman Catholic Church is skeptical of miracles. Quick to point out pareidolia where it occurs, looking like the Blessed Virgin in a tree stump or highway underpass, this is no credulous organization. Everyday miracles, doctrinal ones, of course are accepted. Transubstantiation is a quotidian miracle as the mass is no mere ritual. Flashier miracles—even some very impressive ones—are treated with suspicion and the rigor of Scotland Yard. When one of my regular readers pointed out the bleeding communion host in Kearns, Utah, I knew I had to check it out. As is to be expected in such cases, the Catholic Church does not disappoint. Some are calling it a miracle, but those who are do not speak for the Diocese.

Keeping in mind that my source for the story is Fox (Fox news seems more interested than most in this incident), apparently what happened is that a parishioner returned a host to the priest during communion. The priest put the host in a glass of water to dissolve it, but instead it began to “bleed.” Church officials were called in to investigate. There are several things odd here, although I’m no inquisitor, that make me wonder about the veracity of the story. First: Fox news. There are other outlets as well, so I’ll let that go at the moment. When a person was given a wafer at Nashotah House and for whatever reason turned it back in, the celebrant simply ate it. Priests, by definition believers in miracles, need not worry about germs. Protecting the host from desecration was the main thing. Putting it in a glass of water? I suppose that’s acceptable in some places, but even an Episcopalian would be shocked. And why was the host returned? Surely it wasn’t defective.

The Eucharist is the central rite of the liturgical churches, and it isn’t taken lightly. Although it is a miracle-laced event, it is expected that the transformation will follow the prescribed rite. I sometimes ponder what priests would do in the face of a genuine, unexplainable wonder. The side of the believer that yearns for validation would surely want to put it on Fox news for all the world to see. The private side would want to let it happen without any need to say anything about it. Keep it a private miracle. In a year when Starbucks red is a sign of an impending war, I wonder if a bleeding host is the most apt way to get the attention of the unfaithful when a simple cup of coffee will do.

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Ordinary Magic

ConjuringSpirits copyThe concept of grimoires, as well as being seasonal, has been on my mind as I finish up my paper for the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting next month. Grimoires, books of magic, have eluded, for the most part, the interests of scholars. Who takes magic seriously, anyway? Slowly our gaze is working its way away from our noses and out to the magical world beyond. Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Magic is a textbook example of what happens when you bring the two together (scholars and magic, that is). Like most collected works, the pieces range from fascinating to somewhat magical in their ability to cause the eyes to close. Nevertheless I learned quite a bit from this book edited by Claire Fanger. Magic is not nearly so rare as we like to claim it is.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from these essays is that grimoires were not only written by witches. Indeed, in the Middle Ages many of them were written by clerics and monks. They were avidly used by doctors, as science likely has its roots in magic rather than in some sudden enlightenment that matter is all there is. Medicine was still beholden to Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen. Humors and stars could make you unwell, and the wise physician would do well to pay attention to magic as well. Today we’re too sophisticated for that, but we still call the unexplained the placebo effect.

Although the church became the great enemy of magic, it was also one of its main sources. The Mass, with transubstantiation, seemed alchemical. Miracles of healing, known throughout the Bible, suggested that the improbable was indeed possible. A number of grimoires contained instructions to work such wonders. One of the most vehemently condemned was a book informing how to attain the beatific vision—a worthy enough goal—but it did so in a way that circumvented the power of the church. Garden variety magic was also available, of course, as were recipes calling for brain of black cat and blood of bat. Witches, after all, were mainly sought out by the church. Those with power are not easily compelled to relinquish it. It should surprise no one then that magic continues to thrive.

Lost Supper

Culture, for better or worse, involves a deep connection to religion. No matter how secular we suppose the world to be, profound connections to belief surface in the most unlikely places. Time magazine’s culture section this past week has a brief blurb on “Burger Blunders.” Having been a vegetarian for a decade-and-a-half, this short story might not have caught my interest had my wife not pointed out “the Ghost,” a burger offered by Kuma’s Corner, a heavy-metal band-themed bar in Chicago. “The Ghost” comes with an unconsecrated communion wafer on top, and this has raised some spirits, according to Time’s culture team. Even Protestants recognize the power of the symbol of the wafer, even if they can’t accept transubstantiation. In Catholic belief, however, prior to consecration the sliver of bread is just that—a bit of pressed wheat product. The wafer came to be preferred because it was more easily contained than the crumbs of a regular piece of consecrated bread.

Communion, or the Eucharist, is a ritual meal based on the Jewish Passover. According to the Gospels, it was during the “last supper,” a Passover seder, that Jesus instituted the ritual. Early Christians ate together, and, recalling the symbolism, gave special prominence to the bread and wine. Bread, however, produces crumbs. When theology got ahold of bread it became a sacred object, after it was properly consecrated. It was believed (is still believed by some) to be very powerful in that state since it had become the actual body of Christ during the ritual. Wafers, technically unleavened bread, had many advantages to the emerging theological sensitivities. Portion control, symmetry, and virtually no crumbs. I’ve attended many masses, and the extreme care for particle control is everywhere from ciborium to patten to sacred linens that cover the altar like a liturgical table cloth. They are all accessories to the containment of broken bread.

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Communion wafers, however, when unconsecrated are just bread (if even that). They are not made palatable as snacks, but are more easily available online than basic gears or recordings of your favorite musical. Heavy metal has always enjoyed its blasphemous image as one of the most in-your-face counter-cultures possible. It is also profoundly religious. (Note, I am not saying that heavy metal is Christian or even Judeo-Christian, but it does participate deeply in religious symbolism.) If robbed of its shock-value, it is just loud noise. By association, however, many people mistake the wafer itself for what it represents. Without the added ingredient of consecrations, however, the liturgical churches tend to say it’s just bread. If you’ve ever eaten it, you’ll know that that assertion requires faith sufficient to move a Big Mac.

Theophagy, Or How do you Like your God?

Ancient folk did not always want to be close to their gods. It really depended on the kind of god you worshipped. In a gross characterization we might suggest that ancient Assyrians and Babylonians preferred to keep their gods at a cautious distance unless needed. Mesopotamian deities (like their environment) were (was) unpredictable and capricious. And with moody gods, distance is on your side. The ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, with their steady and regular flooding of the Nile, felt that gods were friendly and helpful. It was good to have them near ⎯ indeed, as close as possible.

When it comes a step further than being close to a god, the options seem to be inhaling or ingesting a deity. Inspiration (breathing in) is a familiar enough religious concept today, as is theophagy, or eating deity. Theophagy is a regular practice in many branches of Christianity that believe in transubstantiation or consubstantiation. During these Eucharistic events, the communion elements are believed to either transform into or go along with the body of Christ. Christianity traces this concept to that of animal sacrifice where God was thought to consume the animal (or in very early culture, perhaps the human victim). Somewhere along the line the concept was reversed so that God could be consumed.

In preparing for my mythology class, I was reminded of Hesiod’s Theogany and the story of Cronus eating his children. This episode, dating from the eighth century B.C.E., has a jealous Cronos trying to prevent a takeover on the part of his kids by the extreme parenting measure of swallowing them. Not to worry, however! Zeus manages to be born on Crete and is able to free his siblings from the gut of his dysfunctional father. Cronus’ intention was to stop the gods by eating them while today theophagy is an attempt to absorb the deity. Ancient religions give us insights into modern religions, but only with a generous dose of evolution. It all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish by interacting with the gods.

Cronus has a little snack