When I taught high school theology, certain questions would come up year after year. One of those questions was how we can believe the doctrine of trans-substantiation when it seems to defy what our senses perceive. To address this question, I would talk to the students a little bit about Aristotle. (It's my belief that students should study at least a year of philosophy before tackling the more difficult subject of theology.) Aristotle spoke of the qualities that determine the nature of physical things. He separated them into two basic categories: substance and accidents. Substance refers to the stuff of which a thing is made, while accidents refer to all those other qualities that allow us to know what a thing is. To illustrate the point, I drew a simple picture of a tree on the whiteboard and asked the students what it was. They dutifully responded it was a tree. I pointed out to them that of course it wasn't really a tree. In reality, it was merely synthetic markings on a synthetic surface. So while my drawing did not have the substance of a tree, still it had the sufficient accidents of a tree. ("Accidents" can be understood to mean all those things our senses perceive that allow us to know what something is: shape, proportions, specific parts, and other things we perceive with our unaided senses.)
I then pointed out that, if we take a real tree to a mill, it can be cut up into boards. Once we do that, the tree is no longer a tree because we have changed the accidents of "tree" to those of "board." We certainly know the difference between a tree and board when we see them. Yet the board is the same in substance as the tree from which it came. We could then take the boards and fashion them into a dog house. In doing so, the accidents have once again changed, yet the substance stays the same. The point of all this is to demonstrate the simple reality that, as human beings, we often change the accidents of physical materials while the substance of them remains intact.
In my recent novel, Masaru, I include a scene in which a young convert in 17th century Japan has a discussion about this very topic with his friend and mentor, a priest from Portugal...
Are you ready to receive the Blessed Sacrament?” Father Olivera put this question to Shiro as they walked the path that meandered alongside the Kuma River. Now that Shiro and his mother were baptized, they would be able to fully participate in the memorial of The Lord’s Supper. Father Olivera took the opportunity on this day to see if his young friend understood what this meant. A warm breeze caught the loose folds of the priest’s cassock, making the sleeves billow and flap about like the koi nobori banners flown on festival days.
He had first arrived in Japan when he was only a few years older than Shiro. He’d felt a calling to the priesthood, as well as adventure, from an early age. When the Society of Jesus opened Japan’s first seminary on the island of Amakusa, just south of Nagasaki, young Manuel jumped at the opportunity. Upon his ordination, Father Olivera was assigned to the inland city of Hitoyoshi and all the outlying villages in the Kuma region. Over time, the language and customs of the converts he served, now well into the thousands, became as familiar to him as those of his native Portugal.
“I am not certain,” replied Shiro. “It is a hard thing to believe. I have been coming to Misa for many months now. I see the pan. I do not see that it is anything other than pan.”
Father Olivera looked up at Shiro, and then turned his gaze again upon the path. “Yes, well, that is certainly something worth considering.” They continued a short distance until they came to the small Shinto shrine they often passed on their walks. At the entrance stood the customary tori, the bright crimson wooden structure of two vertical posts and two horizontal crossbeams, the gateway representing the transition from the mundane to the sacred. At the river’s edge, a small fishing boat lay moored to a nearby maple tree. Father Olivera went over to the tree and, placing his hands upon it, he asked Shiro, “What do we call this?”
“What do you mean?”
“What is the word for this thing I am touching?”
“You know it is called ki.” Shiro might have wondered about such a childlike question, but he knew Father Olivera well enough to know that his questions always had some purpose.
“And what is the actual stuff of which ki is made?”
Shiro pondered this for a moment before answering with the Japanese word for wood. “Moku?”
“Yes, moku. So, you agree we can say that moku is the stuff of which ki is made?”
“There are other parts, such as the leaves, but yes, I do agree.”
Following the length of rope to the empty boat, Father Olivera asked in a similar way, “And what do we call this?”
“You know it is called fune,” replied Shiro, speaking the word for boat.
“Indeed. And what is the stuff of which the fune is made?”
“It, too, is made of moku.”
“We know this to be true. We even know the man who cut down and hollowed out the tree to make it. And, having done so, he now has something quite different from that with which he began.”
“Yes,” Shiro agreed. “Ki and fune are quite distinct from one another.”
“And yet both are moku.” Father Olivera stepped away from the river’s edge and back toward the shrine’s entrance along the path.
“And what about the tori? Was it not also constructed from ki taken from the forest?”
“Yes,” answered Shiro. “I agree with all you say, though I do not understand what any of this has to do with the pan and the Blessed Sacrament.”
“My young friend, my question is this. If man, himself a creature and limited in his powers, can transform a thing into something else, while the very substance of the thing remains the same, would it not also be possible that God, the author of all creation and whose powers have no limitation, could change the substance of a thing while its form and all appearances remain the same?”
[If you find this sort of thing interesting, the publisher is currently running a five-book giveaway for Masaru. It costs nothing to enter, but ends April 8th!]