For many young Catholics, at least when I was growing up, “transubstantiation” was the biggest word we knew. It refers to the process by which a priest transforms bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, the basis for the Catholic belief in the sacrament of holy communion.
I had lost my faith, what little I had ever had, by the time I was fourteen. By that time, the notion of transubstantiation seemed even more ridiculous to me than that an alchemist could turn lead into gold. Recently, though, I gained a perspective on a possible meaning of transubstantiation.
I was thinking recently about the word “sacrament” and I realized something that should have been obvious – a sacrament is an engagement with the sacred. Most religions have some notion of the sacred and have rituals or other practices to help people come into contact with it. The word “communion,” in the broadest religious sense, refers to this experience of the sacred.
Thinking about communion got me thinking about my mother, who died many years ago. Throughout her life, at least that part of it after I was born, she loved to go to church. She tried to go every morning, and she always received communion. As a child, I hated going to church and couldn’t understand why my mother enjoyed it so much.
Years later, after I had developed a regular meditation practice, I began to understand. Meditation gives me a feeling of rootedness and peace; often it brings me into communion with what I call the “sacred.” By this word, I do not mean something that has objective existence, but a particular state of mind wherein we experience depth and wholeness and the mystery of being. I find such communion a most joyful and sublime experience.(1)
I suspect that my mother got something of this same sense of peace and joy in going to church, and particularly from communion. She was a simple woman who had a hard life, which included an obsessive-compulsive disorder that caused her much distress. Thinking back, I am glad that she had this source of comfort in her life.
It is easy to mock religion. Many of its ideas and beliefs seem primitive and it is surprising to find them still embraced today. I think, though, that one should always understand something before criticizing it. If you don’t understand why people love their religion, you don’t understand religion. A major reason people love their religion is because it opens a channel to the experience of the sacred. Perhaps we need to find something in ourselves more primitive than our busy rational mind to gain that access.
Contemplating the similarity between the joy I find in meditation and the joy my mother found in holy communion, gave me a new insight into the word “transubstantiation.” Rather than the hocus-pocus whereby a priest turns bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, it’s about the spiritual process whereby an individual person turns a place or event, such as a religious sacrament, into an experience of the sacred; how a person moves from a secular mode of being to a spiritual one.(2)
What the priest does, perhaps, should not be so readily scoffed at. My mother needed to believe that Christ was really present in the host for the sacrament of communion to work, i.e. to produce the experience of the sacred. This is probably true for most other communicants, also. Most people think there is a significant gap between the sacred and our profane life here on earth. The idea that the power of transubstantiation is actually inside of us doesn’t make sense from this perspective. They need the intermediary of religious rituals to help them access the sacred. I suspect that many priests don’t really believe they have the power of transubstantiation in the traditional sense, but know they do have it in this psychological sense.
There is a similar phenomenon in shamanism. Shamans have been exposed for pulling material items from a sick person’s body, which is just a simple act of sleight-of-hand. The natural response of the skeptic is that this shows the phoniness of shamanism. I suspect, though, that shamans understood the placebo effect long before modern medicine. The shaman knows that the people need to believe that he or she is capable of a miraculous act for the placebo effect to occur.
The idea behind transubstantiation is irrational. But the experience of the sacred is neither rational nor irrational, it is trans-rational. Neither through the intellect nor the will can a person open the door to the sacred. Something like the Christian idea of grace is required; something that doesn’t respond to our bidding, but comes when the conditions are right. A rather rough analogy is how we access adrenaline.
There are those who want to create a “rational religion.” I believe that a purely rational religion could never help people experience the sacred, and without that experience, religion has little reason for existing.
Spiritual Naturalism grounds its beliefs in naturalism, which is based on rational methods. But it also explores spiritual ideas and methods, which open us to the trans-rational, to the experience of the sacred. It seeks to integrate these two aspects of our humanness. Through naturalism, we expand our selves through knowledge – to have the best ideas we can about the world in which we live and act. Through spirituality we seek a different kind of truth, including the experience of being part and parcel of something infinitely larger than our tiny selves: the great process that is Nature.
To experience the grandeur and awe-fullness of that truth, that is naturalistic communion.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Notes: (1) In an article titled “Communion,” published here in August 6, 2017, I give a much expanded account of the idea of communion as something found in all the great religious and spiritual traditions.
(2) In an article titled “The Sacred and the Profane,” published here in Sept. 5, 2019, I give an expanded account of the idea of the sacred in naturalism.