Lindsay Byerstein offers thoughtful commentary on the Webster Cook-PZ Myers-Bill Donahue Eucharist kerfuffle. Some of the opposing comments on Byerstien's post are worth checking out, as well.
This story has reminded me of just how powerful Catholic feelings about communion can be. For many, those feelings aren't simply an expression of abstract theology. The feelings arise from the very fabric of early family experience, Catholic culture and the cult-y atmosphere of Catholic grade school of my childhood during the 1960s.
Catholic school was far more than just a religiously-slanted education. It was an immersion in a culture that set us apart from 'publics' as we sometimes referred jokingly to our public school counterparts. Although I attended a Catholic school in New York, I can chat about my memories with someone who attended a Chicago Catholic school during the same era and quickly feel a sense of cultural kinship. We have the same recollections - classrooms of 50 students, the same rules, the same student-teacher conflicts, the same punishments and rewards, similar nicknames for the nuns and a rich, provocative folklore that seems known only to those who attended one of the pre-modernized Catholic schools of my youth.
One tale that many of us probably recall, regardless of where we went to school, concerns the obligation to deal with consecrated hosts with the utmost care. I haven't thought about this story in years and I have no idea if there is any historical basis, whatsoever, for it. Anyway, I heard this story with variations in the details, but here's how it generally goes.
In pre-revolutionary Russia, a group of soldiers ransacked a church or an abbey and killed some priests. They scattered consecrated hosts on a wooden or dirt floor and left some badly injured monks or nuns for dead. This was back in the day when only priests could touch consecrated hosts with their hands. None of the monks who survived were ordained and, of course, neither were the nuns. The badly injured and bleeding survivors crawled around on the floor gobbling filthy hosts stomped into the ground by the manure-caked boots of the soldiers. They licked and gnawed at the floor until every last bit was consumed.
The takeaway for us was this: don't you dare ever touch a consecrated host. And don't you ever freak-n dare do anything to disrespect a consecrated host. It left an impression on a 10-year-old mind.
Yesterday, I decided to see if I could find anything on this story, so I ran some Google searches and came up with just one reference to it. Actually, it was a comment on a post in another blog. The story the commenter told was roughly the same as my recollection, but the post itself was even more interesting.
It's from a blog published by a priest. In this particular post, he recounts his personal experience with Eucharist Heroes such as a priest on a hospital visit who consumed, without hesitation, a consecrated host regurgitated by a dying woman who could not hold it down after receiving the sacrament.
I know a story like that might be disgusting to some people, but I understand where he's coming from even if I don't share the same reverence for consecrated hosts. Some people mock Catholic believers by calling the host a cracker, which, to me, is a little like mocking marriage as just a piece of paper. We all find significance in things that have little or no significance to others. Who we love, what we revere and the meanings we attribute arise from a complex of conscious and unconscious processes that have tended to favor the perpetuation of our genetic stock. Meaning and belief arise, then, in the context of mechanisms and processes related to survival. Perhaps that's why it can be so difficult to change our opinions sometimes and maybe that's why people sometimes react so strongly when they encounter challenges to their beliefs.