In my last article, I wrote about a C. S. Lewis book I had recently finished reading. It’s called Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, and like the title suggests, it’s a bunch of fictional letters written to a fictional friend named Malcolm. It’s mainly about prayer, but it does cover a few other subjects. For example, in that previous article, I talked about Lewis’s defense of purgatory, and this time I want to look at some of his remarks about the Eucharist.
What C. S. Lewis Says
In this book, C. S. Lewis says that he’s not a very good theologian, and he simply has no idea what the Eucharist is. He doesn’t think it’s just a symbol, but he also doesn’t believe in the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (the idea that the bread and wine truly become the body and blood of Jesus while still retaining all the characteristics of bread and wine). He simply doesn’t know what to make of it, so he accepts it as a central Christian practice even though he doesn’t have anything helpful to say about it.
In particular, he gives two reasons why he doesn’t accept the Catholic view. Here’s what he says:
I can find within the forms of my human understanding no connection between eating a man--and it is as Man that the Lord has flesh--and entering into any spiritual oneness or community or κοινωνια [a Greek word that means “communion”] with him. And I find ’substance’ (in Aristotle’s sense), when stripped of its own accidents and endowed with the accidents of some other substance, an object I cannot think. (Letters to Malcolm, Letter XIX)
The Value of Eating Jesus’ Flesh
Let’s take these two objections in order. In my opinion, the first one, that he doesn’t understand how eating Jesus’ flesh unites us with the Lord spiritually, is much easier to answer. If you eat another person’s flesh, that doesn’t normally create a spiritual union between you and that person, and for good reason. Once you separate that flesh from the body, you also sever its connection to the person’s soul, so you’re simply consuming a chunk of isolated flesh.
However, the Eucharist is different. The Church teaches that this sacrament contains Jesus’ soul and divinity as well as his body and blood, so when we receive Communion, we’re not just eating a piece of isolated meat. We’re also also receiving Jesus’ soul and divinity, and that makes all the difference. We unite ourselves to him spiritually because we receive his spirit as well as his flesh.
Substances and Accidents
With that out of the way, let’s move on to Lewis’s second objection, and like I said before, I think this one is much harder to answer. However, before we do that, let’s clarify some of the technical philosophical language he uses. When he talks about a “substance” that’s “stripped of its own accidents and endowed with the accidents of some other substance,” he’s using the terms “substance” and “accident” the way the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle used them. For Aristotle, a “substance” is an individually existing thing, like a cat or a person, and an “accident” is simply the characteristics that a substance has. So for example, if we’re talking about a black cat, the cat itself would be the substance, and “blackness” would be one of its accidents.
Lewis uses this language because this is the way the Church has traditionally explained the Eucharist. We say that the substance of the bread and wine changes into the substance of Jesus’ body and blood, but it retains all the accidents of bread and wine. In other words, the bread and wine truly become the flesh and blood of Jesus, but they retain all the physical characteristics of bread and wine. It’s a miracle unlike anything else we’ve ever experienced, and that’s what baffles Lewis so much about it. He thinks it’s more than just a great mystery. For him, it’s a bunch of nonsense on par with a rock so big God can’t lift it or a triangle with twelve sides. He doesn’t think it’s a coherent concept, and to be honest, I don’t blame him for thinking that way.
The Eucharist Problem
What does it mean for an object to be one particular substance rather than another? For example, what does it mean for a rock to be gold rather than, say, coal? A lot of people would say that a substance is defined by its essential accidents, and I’m inclined to more or less agree with that. To use the example of gold again, this means that being gold is nothing other than simply having the essential characteristics of gold. Consequently, it doesn’t even make sense for an object to be one substance but have the accidents of another. In other words, my hypothetical piece of gold is what it is because it has the characteristics of gold. That’s just what it means to be gold, so if it has the characteristics of some other kind of mineral, it simply can’t be gold.
It’s not like there’s some sort of spiritual essence called “goldness” that attaches itself to the matter and makes it what it is regardless of what characteristics it may have, so when we really think about it, it’s tough to see how a substance can exist if all its accidents are gone. And the Eucharist is no exception. It’s reasonable to think that human flesh and blood is what it is because it has the characteristics of flesh and blood, so if the Eucharist has the physical characteristics of some other substance, it must actually be that other substance.
The Soul Is the Solution
However, if we look at my gold example, I think it gives us a clue that can help us unravel this mystery. I said that “goldness” isn’t some sort of spiritual essence that attaches itself to the lump of matter and makes it what it is, but when we talk about human flesh, there is a spiritual essence that fits the bill: our souls. Our souls animate our bodies and give them life, and in a very real sense, they make our bodies our bodies rather than just lumps of human tissue. Think about it this way. If you have a heart transplant, the old heart they take out of you is no longer you. It’s just a detached organ. Instead, the new heart is now part of your body, even though it was also just a detached organ before the procedure. And what enables that change? What enables your body to change its material components?
It’s our souls. When your old heart gets taken out, it’s no longer united to your soul, so it’s no longer truly you. Similarly, when your new heart is put in, it becomes united to your soul, so it’s now truly a part of your body. We can even go so far as to say that your soul defines what is and isn’t your body, and I would suggest that this is the key to understanding the Eucharist. The Eucharist is Jesus’ body and blood because it’s united to his soul even though it still has all the characteristics of bread and wine.
Admittedly, that’s highly speculative, and I don’t at all claim that it’s the last word on the subject. It’s just a start, not a complete explanation of the mystery of transubstantiation, but I think it’s enough to make the doctrine believable even if we still can’t fully wrap our minds around the entirety of this unparalleled sacramental miracle.