Of Velcro Curlers and …

So there’s this table with household items for the taking, discards that have seen better days. But my two granddaughters disagree; they see a treasure trove. The girls insist on bringing home a curling iron with a broken plug-in, an ugly candlestick, a roll of tensor bandage, a well-worn snowman stuffy in Christmas decor, and a massive container of velcro curlers. I’m rolling my eyes — really, girls? Their ear-to-ear grins keep my mouth shut, lest I deflate their victorious spirits as they bring home the spoil.

I have a category for such things — junk. I also know exactly what each item is supposed to be used for. And I honestly did not think that my 8 1/2 and 7 year old granddaughters would know what to do with most of their treasures, let alone need them. Well, I was wrong.

On the drive home my assumptions were, well, thrown out the window with the kind of light-hearted ridicule only granddaughters can get away with. In the rear view mirror I saw the tensor bandage being strung from the car’s ceiling, held in place by — what else? — a curler! Then curlers were hurled onto it, sticking to the bandage, causing giggles and bursts of excitement. Look, Oma, we’re playing a game! Who would have thought velcro curlers and tensor bandage could generate so much fun and joy?

Clearly, young minds display a limitless curiosity, not to mention boundless energy to explore and invent, to engage and to create. My old adult-mind thinks it knows everything — well, on some days anyways. But my two girls refuse to think in boxes and rigid categories. Instead, they give their imagination free reign to discover new purposes for grown-ups’ discards in startlingly fun ways.

As the days rolled on, their energy-level sharply contrasting with mine, and their physical flexibility stretching my rickety, aching bones beyond their limits, the girls’ ability to see beyond the surface of things was ever so evident, to the point of creating their own humour. “It’s complicated to say complicated!” said the younger one in frustration. She stopped, realized what she just said, and the two burst out laughing, repeating the phrase over and over sprinkled with contagious giggles. Strangers and dogs drew their heartstrings, turning them into friends and objects of affection. Even the bumble bees who have made their home under our front step were greeted with vintage Franciscan-style affection and respect. The girls saw toys and friends and games where grown-ups see annoying bugs and caterpillars, dead sticks and branches, leaves and rocks, unapproachable strangers and dogs, useless string and ugly candlesticks, spoons and tensor bandage and, well, velcro curlers. Wow, to go through life like that all the time …

The world is a magnificent place, with places to explore and people to meet and things to discover, only limited by our own imagination. Who would want to curtail or even destroy such childlike trust, unbridled joy and freedom of spirit? Sadly, too many harmful events are suffered by too many children, equally deserving of the boundless trust and enthusiasm my dear girls exuded. No wonder Jesus favoured children and condemned those who harmed them: He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. … If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones (…), it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:2, 6) Childlike trust and wonder make it obvious that the kingdom of heaven is indeed a present reality, here and now. Because the kingdom of heaven is a quality of seeing and loving and engaging and cherishing and playing.

How do we as grown-ups foster an ongoing, childlike openness of vision and a vibrant imagination? Why do so many of us lose that capacity along the way? Not only children suffer harmful effects of the sins of others inflicted upon them; too many adults go through life never tasting fullness and wholeness, never trusting and loving, never coming to full bloom. Too many adults live under the burden of sins, their own or those of others — betrayal, abuse, abandonment, neglect, violence, discrimination, oppression, exploitation, persecution. There are kids, too young for the task, who are forced to look after parents, robbed of a carefree childhood. Other kids see and hear and feel things no child ever should, scarring their fragile spirits with a pain they don’t understand. Still others are on the run, with or without parents, dreaming–longing–deserving the safety and love my granddaughters take for granted. Such children have trouble seeing the fun and games in an ugly candlestick, tensor bandages and velcro curlers. I have come that you may have life, says Jesus, and have it in abundance. (John 10:10). When you’re 8 1/2 and 7 years old, and have been blessed with a safe home and a loving family, Jesus’ words are a no-brainer. But when the bruises of living cause permanent, gaping holes in our spirit, and build concrete walls of protection around our heart, Jesus’ words sound ludicrous and unattainable.

The week of my granddaughters’ visit saw our house turn into a war zone, with household items baptized into prized toys and games, and harmless garden bugs scurrying into hiding places. It saw quiet evenings turn into an exciting, sometime quarrelsome, competition over who’s first falling asleep — me every time, while Grandpa policed them until 11pm most nights. These little monkeys saw me drive a round-trip of 500km to take them half-way home where they fell into Dad’s loving arms with glee, not to forget their teacup Yorkie who came along to greet them.

The giggles, the twinkling eyes, the infectious curiosity and imagination have left the house; everything’s back into its place or cupboard, category and box. My body is in recovery mode, sleeping non-stop for nearly ten hours on the first night after their departure. My days are slowly resuming a regular routine, and I am returning to work. But the joyful witness of these amazing little people lingers in my heart and in the rooms of our home, their giggles still sounding off its walls.

The well-worn snowman stuffy stayed at our house, waiting for the girls’ return at Christmastime. Oh, the ugly candlestick? We adorned it with a candle, lit it in the dark at bedtime while saying thank you to God for the blessings of the day, including for the times we argued and managed to make up with one another. Their young eyes glowing in candlelight sang more hymns of praise than any words could capture.

Drawing from that twinkling glow in those young eyes, my heart prays for all, young and old, who deserve love and mercy, for all who are weighed down by pain and distress, for all whose life history has slammed shut doors of freedom and happiness, for all who long for the unbridled joy and freedom of spirit which my dear granddaughters live with such abandon and unselfconsciousness.

And the curling iron? Well, let’s put it this way. Certain things are simply much less versatile than bugs and caterpillars, tensor bandages and velcro curlers, better kept in their particular category of use. With all due respect to my lovely girls’ innovative ability to re-purpose junk, the curling iron with the broken plug-in magically disappeared, never to be found again.

Marika (left) and Kiana (right) in front of Oma’s church

Transubstantiation Revisited

An article in a well-reputed Catholic publication caught my eye recently. It reported from an extensive survey among Roman Catholics that a significant majority no longer believe the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, i.e. that the bread and wine in the Eucharist actually undergo a permanent change into the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The same article quoted Bishop Robert Barron, who has posted a video-response to these survey results.

Pity, really. As an Anglican, I say pity, really. As a woman priest, I say pity, really. For many reasons, I say pity, really. From the very beginning of our formal ecumenical dialogue, Anglicans and Catholics have shared a significant agreement on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, forming deep connective tissue between our two traditions. On the other hand, this increasing variance in belief among Roman Catholics on the Eucharist is not unknown to Anglicans. The Anglican large-tent ethos means that there exists the entire spectrum of Eucharistic understandings, from mere symbol to literal notions of the Real Presence of Jesus in the bread and the wine. To Roman Catholics this is most disconcerting, to Anglicans this is a fact of life. “Feed on Him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving,” says the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

Some people argue we should do away with the term transubstantiation, as its original and precise meaning in philosophy is so little understood today. But instead of discarding it, can we expand its meaning? Is it possible to rescue the term and infuse it with fresh insight, so that it comes alive anew for today’s faithful?

We speak of transubstantiation when referring to ordinary food and drink — bread and wine — being transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus at the Eucharist. If we are willing to play with expanding the term, what about this: women engage in a type of biological “transubstantiation” every time our bodies grow another human being. The new life generated by the marital union is literally fed by the mother’s own body and blood.

In her yes, Mary became the first person to offer to the world God’s holy body and blood through the birth of her son Jesus, our Messiah and Lord. Through God’s gift of growing new life in her womb and nourishing it with her own body, every woman knows something about the mystery of transforming ordinary food and drink into new life – a profound Eucharistic transformation, culminating in the great Eucharistic Sacrament of the Incarnation of God’s own Son Jesus. Have we really tapped the sacramental significance of this glorious and mysterious wonder of biological transubstantiation called pregnancy?

God deems both male and female bodies worthy sacramental vessels, capable of transforming ordinary food, ordinary events, and ordinary situations into the radiance of the risen Christ present and active in the world. Without negating the reality of sin, our bodies are created to be living sacraments; both male and female bodies are created to make God physically present in the world through word and deed, just as our Lord Jesus Christ revealed. We make God in Christ present every day when we make giving ourselves to another a gift of love, mercy and beauty. Long before any of us end up in a marriage bed, and those who never do this in a marriage bed, we gift the world with our very selves in the quality of our love, our compassion, our forgiveness.

In one of his Lenten sermons a few years ago Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, urged all of us to offer our bodies and blood as a daily Eucharistic sacrifice and gift to the world, thereby transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary presence and action of God:
Let us try to imagine what would happen if the laity, at the moment of the consecration, said silently: ‘Take, eat, this is my body. Take, drink, this is my blood. A mother of a family thus celebrates Mass, then she goes home and begins her day made up of a thousand little things. But what she does is not nothing: It is Eucharist together with Jesus! A [religious] sister also says in her heart at the moment of consecration: ‘Take, eat …’; then she goes to her daily work: children, the sick, the elderly. The Eucharist ‘invades’ their day which becomes … Eucharist. (Zenit, March 12, 2010)

Every time we drink the cup of blessing that we bless, we share in the Blood of Christ, thus committing ourselves to be poured out in love for others. Every time we eat the Body of Christ, we are called to offer our own bodies in sacrificial love for the healing of the world. Daily gifts of self redeem relationships – with one another, as well as with creation and with God, whether in the marriage bed, in school or the workplace, at the recycling depot, in the dance recital or the communion procession. Our body is an integral expression of our personhood, thus affirming creation as male and female in the divine image as “very good.”

In the Eucharistic Prayer the priest prays,
by your Holy Spirit graciously make holy these gifts . . .
that they may become the Body and Blood of your Son . . .
But that’s not all:  “grant that we, who are nourished
by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit,
may become one body, one spirit in Christ.

Here are the words that signify the double transubstantiation. This transformation into oneness, into communion, is a thread that runs through the whole Eucharistic liturgy. We, being made one, pray the Lord’s Prayer, to “Our Father.” We share the sign of peace, and pray “grant (the church) peace and unity.” We approach the communion table together, joining our voices in song to express our spiritual union, to show gladness of heart, and to bring out more clearly the community character of receiving the Eucharist as one unified body.

All of this – the praying and singing, the sharing and processing – has but one major goal: This motley crew of saints and sinners is being transformed into the Body of Christ – transubstantiation. The Body of Christ receives the Body of Christ in order to be the Body of Christ in the world. We … are changed … This is the ultimate purpose of Eucharist: to change us! We say Amen to the sacramental Body and Blood of Christ, and to our own reality as Body of Christ. We say Amen to letting go of anything that would keep us from being the Body of Christ in our world.

Pope Francis echoed St. Augustine when he stated: 
Christ gives himself to us both in the Word and in the Sacrament of the altar, to conform us to him. This means to allow oneself to be changed as we receive. Just as the bread and wine are converted into the Body and Blood of Christ, those who receive them with faith are transformed into a living Eucharist. You become the Body of Christ. This is beautiful, very beautiful. … We become what we receive!

Really? Do we really … become … what we receive? As a people of the breaking of bread, we are a people of eternal life – life in its fullness. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, challenges self-examination, as Paul urges. How do we express such an abundant gift of life day to day as we live in hope and joy as well as in difficulties and pain? In spite of the daily challenges and trials, we learn to draw hope, joy and courage by living the Eucharist in daily service to those most in need among us. It is in daily service and gift of ourselves that we can stand shoulder to shoulder in a Eucharistic gesture of compassion, solidarity and justice.

Who among you is in need, asks Christ through the Lord’s Supper. Examine yourselves, and only then eat and drink, says Paul. How beautiful indeed and how powerful if this was really happening! Do most Catholics and most Christians take the discipleship challenge of the Eucharistic table into daily life, literally? Do most Catholics allow transubstantiation to occur in their own bodies–minds–spirits as a result of their eating and drinking at Holy Communion? Could a lack of taking seriously the obligation in discipleship that partaking in Holy Communion places upon us contribute to the erosion of belief also? It is curious that the comments following Bishop Barron’s video-response almost all blame the loss of reverence and solemnity in the liturgy itself. Hardly any pick up on Bishop Barron’s last words: “You take away the central teachings of our church at the doctrinal level, and trust me, you will take away our commitment to the poor. It belongs together as a whole.”

In response to Bishop Barron, and with all due respect, Christ is so much bigger than our human limitations in believing. While Bishop Barron makes a good point, I pray that he might find some consolation in the fact that other Christian traditions draw on a wide range of inspirations to sustain their commitment to the poor, including Scripture itself, the witness of Jesus, the cloud of witnesses (of which he mentions some significant ones), prayer and worship. While good catechesis and expanding our understanding of transubstantiation would greatly help, we can sustain one another in many different ways so as to keep our Christian discipleship fresh and faithful, accountable and open to continued perfecting. Let that ecumenical support become ever more real among us.

  • Part of this reflection comes from a retreat I developed entitled: Become what you Eat … Really? For more information, click here.
  • For more Roman Catholic responses on Transubstantiation from RC theologians (and one Anglican), click here, here and here.
  • This interview with Dr. Brett Salkeld is a fascinating read for ecumenical reasons.
  • To respond to a question from a reader, my personal theology on the Eucharist and my faith in the Real Presence of Christ has not changed from my RC days. And the Anglican tradition is not a different faith; it is another expression of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. For more on this question, click here.
  • A wealth of information and all the official agreements between Roman Catholics and Anglicans can be found here.