Recently a friend of mine undergoing a conversion asked me, “If the Eucharist is really God, then why aren’t people clamoring to get to church to receive the Communion so they can have God dwelling inside their body physically in addition to spiritually?” What a great question! I have to admit that for many years I had a lukewarm appreciation for Christ’s gift. We are taught as Catholics that transubstantiation means that the host and wine are literally turned into the body and blood of our Lord (via the reenactment of the Last Supper in Mass), yet to our senses of smell, touch, vision, and taste they remain as before. But doctrine tells us that on receiving the Eucharist is actually God traveling down an esophagus, into a stomach and digestive system, and then throughout an entire body. Do you believe that?
My epiphany came upon my “digesting” St. Faustina’s famous diary Revelations of Divine Mercy. Among the many mystic revelations and visions she received, there are dozens focused explicitly on the Eucharist. Over several months a few years ago, I read them all together and finally understood that we should indeed be clamoring to get to mass to receive Christ intimately in the form of His Eucharistic gift. St. Faustina wrote, “The most solemn moment of my life is the moment when I receive Holy Communion. If the angels were capable of envy, they would envy us for two reasons: our receiving of Holy Communion and [the privilege of] suffering.” In another entry, Faustina wrote about an image being exhibited over a monstrance on the altar of Christ when the priest exposed the Blessed Sacrament: “Rays of light pierced the sacred host and spread out beyond the church to the rest of the world, and beyond that I saw throngs of people of all countries and heard these words, ‘These rays of Mercy will pass through you just as they passed through the host.’” She promised Christ, “It would be difficult for me to live through the day if I did not receive You. Holy Communion is my shield.”
Last year a physician I know converted to Catholicism. As a cradle Catholic, I was moved by his devotion to become Catholic and his relentless pursuit of RCIA. Several months after his first communion and confirmation, however, he jarred me on the sideline of a soccer field when he admitted to me something he said he had kept on the down-low: “Wes as a scientist, of course, I know that under the microscope the host will look identical before and after the mass, and therefore I don’t really take it seriously that this bread changes INTO Christ, into God.” It hit me like a ton of bricks to hear that, because I knew that many think this way. And I am reminded of the famous dinner party at which Flanner O’Connor was questioned by the elite of New York society about her modern interpretation of the “symbol” of the Eucharist as a Catholic literary scholar. O’Connor shocked the room by announcing, “Well, if it is just a symbol, then to hell with it!”
We read in John 6:27 after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, “Do not labor for food that perishes, but for that which endures unto life everlasting, which the Son of Man will give you.” In the original Greek, the verb Jesus is recorded to have used was not a figurative “to eat” but rather he taught that we must “gnaw or munch” on the Flesh of Man in an animalistic manner. Thus, he presents Himself as real and enduring food. As a physician, I incorporate science into my faith to acknowledge that the Eucharistic meal enters into the actual workings of every cell in our bodies. This potent reality must change life intrinsically even down to the most basic of events such as generation of heartbeats, breaths, and (yes) sight.
How much do we long for Him? Poignantly, I had the privilege of witnessing true hunger for Christ during the Christmas season in the intensive care unit (ICU). As the attending physician, I was overwhelmingly blessed by a dying patient who came into the hospital having suffered for 10 to 15 years with a chronic disease that led to severe sepsis. He brought with him a shadow box that he had built to contain icons including crosses, water and soil from Golgotha, and a rosary (see picture). He called this an altar and begged me through gasping breaths at the end of his life to receive Viaticum (“food for the journey”). I could see that for him, nothing else mattered. On receiving the Eucharist, I watched my patient shiver and the closing words of Flannery O’Connor’s “The Enduring Chill” echoed in my mind:
“The old life in him was exhausted. He awaited the coming of new. It was then that he felt the beginning of a chill, a chill so peculiar, so light, that it was like a warm ripple across the deeper sea of cold. His breath came short…A feeble cry, a last impossible protest escaped him…and the Holy Ghost continued, implacable, to descend.”
And my patient died within the hour, equipped with the only food that will never perish.
Wesley Ely, MD, MPH
Vanderbilt University Medical Center