Sir Bors and the Host: The Orthopraxy of Transubstantiation

Campin-mass-of-saint-gregory-1440
Robert Campin, ‘The Mass of St Gregory’, 1515
When I came across the following passage in P M Matarasso’s translation of The Quest of the Holy Grail (my review here), all I really thought at first was, ‘Look! Sir Bors believes in transubstantiation!’ The book being from 1225ish, that’s no big surprise — this is a decade after its official promulgation as dogma at Lateran IV. It’s what follows that interests me, though.

First, the text. Bors is spending some time with a hermit, as Knights of the Round Table do:

So the good man began mattins; and having sung that office he robed and commenced the mass. After the blessing he took the Lord’s Body and beckoned to Bors to come forward. He obeyed, and knelt before the priest, who said to him:

‘Bors, do you see what I am holding?’

‘Yes indeed, Sir. I see that you are holding my Saviour and Redeemer under the guise of bread. I should not be looking on Him in this wise were it not that my eyes, being mortal clay, and thus unapt to discern the things of the spirit, do not permit my seeing Him any other way, but rather cloak His true appearance. For I have no doubt that what I look on now is truly flesh and truly man and wholly god.’

At these words he was overmastered by weeping, and the good man said to him:

‘You would surely be insensate if you received so holy a thing as you describe, without manifesting your love and loyalty all the rest of your living days.’

‘Sir,’ affirmed Bors, ‘while I live He shall have my whole allegiance, and I will ever do as He commands.’ (The Quest of the Holy Grail 9, trans. P. M. Matarasso, p. 180)

Sir Bors demonstrates here his great faith — the faith that will sustain him to the very end of his journey to and then with the Holy Grail. He believes the faith handed on to him from Mother Church. What he sees is not what the truth. Transubstantiation is an almost Platonic thing, isn’t it? This is not the reality, the reality is something other.

‘Do not mistake what something is made of with what it is,’ as famously stated by a character in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

But whether we believe in transubstantiation or not, it is Bors’ chivalrous response to the Eucharist that should humble us all:

while I live He shall have my whole allegiance, and I will ever do as He commands

We should, ourselves, give our whole allegiance to Christ the King, should we not? But do we? Where do our real allegiances lie? With our family? With our nation? With a political party? With a social movement? With a business organisation? With a cause? With our job? Any of these may be worth supporting, but always second to the Kingdom of God:

Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Mt 6:33)

Bors beheld a miracle at the Mass. Bread and wine become Body and Blood. Who would not pledge allegiance to a God who worked such wonders?

Shouldn’t we?

Mystery

When my wife and I were visiting our family back in Canada at Christmastide, a significant number of us dined at Boston Pizza in Prince Albert, SK, one day for lunch. As we enjoyed the tasty delights of our pizza and endless refills of pop, my brother who is an Anglican priest (as opposed to my brother who is a comic-book encyclopaedist or my sister who is an editor), sitting across from me, declared, ‘No one writes mysteries anymore.’

‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘P D James does. They’re pretty good.’ I flitted through my memory, noting that Conan Doyle, Chesterton, Sayers, and Christie are all, indeed, dead.

Then he said something along the lines of, ‘I mean no one writes actual mysteries. All people write are solutions. Everything has an explanation in what we write. People don’t write books that are about mysteries anymore.’

Something like that. It was longer, but it was also early January, so I forget. But the gist of what he and I exchanged in that moment at lunch was, indeed, that we don’t write mysteries.

If we meet a mystery, we want an explanation. We are uncomfortable with vast uncertainties, so we come up with systematic explanations of them so the mystery will go away. I recall that I pointed out that this was the key to Luther’s sacramental theology, that he did not believe in either transubstantiation or consubstantiation, yet certainly not the Zwinglian vision of a spiritual symbol. According to This Is My Body, these were all insufficient because they sought to explain with human philosophy what was ultimately a mystery to be left in reverence. Is means is. This is Christ’s body; this is Christ’s blood. End of story. Receive it in faith, do not explain it with philosophy.

God Himself(s) is a mystery as well. No matter how well an Aquinas or a Bonaventure can go into the relations of the Divine Persons, the very doctrine of the Trinity remains always beyond reach. And that is mere doctrine; FatherSonHolySpirit Themself stands beyond us in a big way.

Yet he does invite us in.

A mystery is not simply hidden. It is a hidden thing, or a hard-to-understand thing, that invites us in. We are called to go further and further in. This is how it is related to mystery cults, religions that involve secret initiation ceremonies that unite their worshippers with a god in some way. God invites us in, and we are drawn further into his mystery as we go through life with Him.

Thus the mystic enters the mystery of the Triune God through prayer, ascetic practice, meditation, contemplation, worship, sacrament, daily work, and daily life, finding These Person everywhere and pervading everything. St. Hildegard and Lady Julian are granted visions; St. Thomas Aquinas is given insight; St. Gregory Palamas enters the mystery of God and finds Him beyond articulation. Evagrius Ponticus says that contemplation of the HolyThree is the highest goal of the Christian life.

And the more we know El, the more we realise how little we know of This OneThree Who isare everywhere yet beyond everything.

And so, having delineated the boundaries of what it is safe to say in our tomes of systematic theology, having uttered the Creed with utter sincerity, having sought to see the Creator God in the face of the poor, we reach a place where only groans can express these thoughts.

We enter the cloud of unknowing, having ascended Mt. Sinai.

The apophatic takes over.

The DivinePerson(s) — ‘God’ as we like to call ‘Him’ — is without beginning and without end. Temporally and spatially.

Is not human.

Is not made of matter.

Is invisible.

Is unchangeable.

Is unchanging.

Is uncaused.

Is immortal.

Is a variety of things of which we can only really say what He is not.

He is a(3) Person(s) and ready to for us to encounter, love, and experience Him.

Are we ready to enter into this glorious mystery? Or shall we play in the shallows of definites and clear answers instead?