Chapter 19: Eucharist and Mystery

Before reading this chapter, ask yourself or discuss with friends: What do you understand by mystery?  What mysteries do you see in the Eucharist?

The Last Wave

In the 1977 film, The Last Wave, directed by Peter Weir, an Australian Aboriginal is accused of murdering another Aboriginal. He is defended by a white lawyer, David. All sorts of weird happenings take place: rain falls from a cloudless sky, David’s car mysteriously fills with water, David discovers there is some remote family connection with Aboriginals, an Aboriginal mysteriously appears in David’s home, the bath overflows though no one has been in the bathroom.

David tries hard to show the accused is innocent but he fails. David’s father, a Church minister, tells David he is sorry he lost the case. David says, “Dad, why didn’t you tell me there is mystery in life?”  His father says, “But, David, my whole life has been mystery.” David thumps the table, jumps up and shouts, “No, Sunday after Sunday, you stood in that pulpit and explained away the mystery.”

What is Mystery?

In this book I have no intention of ‘explaining away the mystery’. In fact, it’s my wish to increase your appreciation of what is inexplicable at the heart of the Eucharist. At the same time we are entitled to comprehend as much as the human mind is capable for those who wish to do so. Saint Anselm (1033-1109) said, “Theology is faith seeking understanding.” Faith comes first, understanding follows.

Many people who have faith and who readily accept all the Church teaches, are not interested in pursuing the understanding. That is a gift they can treasure. My sister-in-law has that gift; she can’t understand why my brother and I even spend time discussing things beyond our comprehension. Like many others we have curious minds, we want to know more. “Yes, I believe, but how is this possible?”  “What’s it really mean?”  “If that’s the way that is, then how do we explain this other matter?”

Mystery and Mysterious

We must distinguish between ‘mysterious’ and ‘mystery’. By ‘mysterious’ I mean a ritual which has elements that provoke a sense of the other world through strange and alien words, gestures and props. Let me conjure up a scene from my imagination.

You’ve strayed into a temple in a foreign land where you find a ceremony going on: men and women dressed in strange costumes and face masks; chanting in a foreign language; an altar with what may be animal body parts and weird containers with coloured, undefinable liquids; clouds of sweet smelling incense; gestures that make no sense to you. It’s fascinating and ‘mysterious’.

This is not what I mean by ‘mystery’. Mind you, some of our ceremonies in the past, and maybe even today, had some of those elements and were fascinating because they were ‘mysterious’. The language was foreign and the back of the priest obscured what was happening on the altar. One of my colleagues said he had a non-Catholic aunt who believed the priest had a lobster on the altar in front of him and all his gestures were designed to keep the lobster out of sight of the people. That’s absurd, of course, but when you can’t see what’s happening, that’s as good an explanation as any for someone who hasn’t had any instruction.

Sacred mysteries are also different to ‘murder mysteries’. When the novel begins you don’t know who the murderer is, but as the novel progresses the detectives, and you the reader, begin to find the clues which eventually lead to the murderer. This is a mystery that is solvable, whereas mysteries of religion are unsolvable by definition. No matter how deeply we investigate these mysteries, no matter how many ‘clues’ we find, the mystery will always be there.

Mystery in the Eucharist

Some people say there is no mystery any more in the Mass. We understand the language, nothing is hidden from our view, the ritual is open and transparent. I would prefer to say the ritual is no longer ‘mysterious’ but the ‘mystery’ is still there. For me the mysteries in the Eucharist are:

  • the presence of the risen Christ in the assembly, in the Word and in the bread and wine
  • the unity these different forms of his presences bring to the assembly
  • the collapse of time that allows the death and resurrection of Jesus to be a reality for us now
  • our transformation along with the transformation of the bread and wine
  • our reconciliation with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus, remembered in the Eucharist

You might think of other mysteries.

Arching over all these mysteries like a multi-coloured rainbow is the huge mystery of God’s love for us. Why does the infinite God love us so much when we have hurt him so deeply?   Why does Jesus bother with us?

But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

Saint Peter Julian Eymard, the founder of the Blessed Sacrament Congregation, discovered the centrality of love for his spiritual life.

… the love of God, contemplated in the mystery of the Eucharist became the centre of his life and the personal distinctive mark of his apostolate. (Andre Guitton, translated by Conrad Goulet, Peter Julian Eymard, Apostle of the Eucharist, published by Blessed Sacrament Fathers, Philippines, 1994, p.257)

The Eucharist leads us into the mysteries of love, and having been led into these mysteries, we can only wonder. The Eucharist was sometimes known in the early Church as ‘the Mysteries’. The final phase of the entry into the Church for newly baptised adults is called ‘the Mystagogia’, that is, learning about the Mysteries.

The Eucharist leads us into the world of the sacred and we need to be sensitised to this other world so that our inner spirits can make contact with the Great Spirit, the God who loves us so much he allowed Jesus to die for us.

When we participate actively in the Eucharist we move into a wonderful space where human logic doesn’t always apply and science is inadequate. This is where that dimension of our being called ‘the spirit’ feels at home. Here ritual with all its symbolism, poetry, music, dance, is a powerful force. Mystics are familiar with this landscape and there’s something of the mystic in all of us. As I quoted in Chapter 9, Kahl Rahner says

The devout Christian of the future will either be a mystic, one who has experienced something, or will cease to be anything at all.

Allow the mystical side of your being its full development.

Mystery in the Atom

There is mystery in the natural world, in matter itself. Matter is composed of atoms which, originally, were considered to be indivisible. Then atoms were found to be composed of a core of protons and neutrons with electrons revolving around them.  Further experimentation has led to the discovery of up to 200 elementary particles, mostly short lived. None of these particles can be seen by even the most powerful microscope.

Now, even these particles are found not to be the most elementary.

In the current view, all matter consists of three kinds of particles: leptons, quarks and mediators. The mediators are the particles by which the four fundamental interactions are mediated. (Oxford Dictionary of Physics, Oxford University Press, 2000, p.162)

The ‘four fundamental interactions’ are:

  • the well known force of gravity
  • electromagnetism which we observe in magnets and electrical appliances
  • the strong interaction which binds together the particles in the nucleus
  • the weak interaction which is responsible for the decay of atoms.

It’s beyond the scope of this book – and beyond my ability – to go into further detail. I just want to make the point there’s mystery at the heart of matter itself.

God of Mystery, 2003 (artist: Patrick Negri)

God of Mystery (Patrick Negri, 2003)

Mystery in the Cosmic Universe

The current scientific view of how the universe began is what has become known as the ‘big bang’ theory. About fourteen billion years ago the whole universe consisted of a tiny point. This tiny point contained all the matter, all the forces and even all the space of the present universe. This tiny point exploded in a cataclysm beyond our imagining and continues to expand to this day, forming the universe we see around us. What can we say about that tiny point?

“In the Beginning,” the story goes, the universe was created in a state of perfect unity. Nothing existed except the unbroken wholeness of the superforce. There was no matter, no particles, no gravity, no electromagnetism, and no nuclear forces. But this perfection reigned for a mere split second, because the violent explosion of Creation caused the budding universe to expand, and as it expanded it cooled, shattering the original unity. (Margaret Wertheim, Pythagoras’ Trousers, Fourth Estate Limited, London, 1997, p.215)

The 13.7 billion year evolution of the universe has formed particles, atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies, planets and life as we know it today. What also developed were the four forces that govern the universe. A major preoccupation of scientists in the twentieth century, and which is continuing in the twenty first, is to link these four forces together by a mathematical formula. This is referred to as the Theory of Everything, TOE, the Holy Grail of scientific research. Scientists are trying to find one equation that will give an explanation of all the physical phenomena that are now known and which remain to be discovered. Einstein spent the last decades of his life in the quest for TOE but was not successful. However, many scientists are hopeful that String Theory will be the answer.

String Theory proposes that all matter is composed, not of particles, but of strings that vibrate in many different ways. The different ways of vibrating form the electrons, protons, neutrons and other particles that constitute all the matter of the universe.

In string theory the basic objects are not particles, which occupy a single point in space, but one dimensional strings. These strings may have ends or they may join up with themselves in closed loops. Just like the strings on a violin, the strings in string theory support certain vibrational patterns, or resonant frequencies, whose wavelengths fit precisely between the two ends. (Stephen Hawking, The Universe in a Nutshell, Transworld Publishers, London 2001, p.52)

String theory requires the universe to have eleven dimensions. We are familiar with the three dimensions of space: length, breadth and height. Einstein proposed time as another dimension, and that was hard enough to accept. But eleven dimensions? The seven dimensions we are not aware of, that is, those other than length, breadth, height and time, are extremely tiny and curled up so we do not notice them, the theory says. This concept is utterly beyond our imagination and seems very bizarre, but many scientists think String Theory has the best chance of explaining some of the mysteries of nature.

The concept of matter made up of vibrating strings leads to the beautiful metaphor of a string orchestra for the universe. When Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) coined the phrase ‘the music of the spheres’ he may have had an intuition closer to the truth than he realised. Many scientists take delight in this more poetic description of the cosmos. It allows for the right brain as well as the left, and allows for a more spiritual slant on nature rather than just cold mathematical formulas.

(Reproduced by courtesy of the artist Michael Leunig)

Stephen Hawking in the conclusion of his book, A Brief History of Time, has this insightful comment:

Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?   The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the question of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. (Bantam Books, UK, 1995, p.184)

What breathes fire into the equations? The source of the ‘fire’ has to be a force beyond physics, beyond anything material, nothing less than a supernatural force. In the final line of his book, Hawking says the ultimate question for everybody, including philosophers and scientists, is to ask why it is that we and the universe exist at all.

If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God. (p.185)

Perhaps that’s a brash statement, but it shows Hawking too is fascinated with mystery.

I love the way science keeps on discovering new mysteries, each one of which deepens the mystery of the cosmos even more and enriches our spirituality beyond what we could ever have imagined.

With these few thoughts on science I’m not trying to give a full explanation of these ideas which are very difficult to understand. I would be satisfied if they give you some concept of the mystery there is in the world around us and help you to see this mystery as part of the mystery of God.

‘Wonder’ is a precious God-given faculty that opens us to mystery and leads us to contemplation. It’s summed up in that delightful little childhood verse:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!

I think we may spend much of our time around the table of the heavenly Eucharistic banquet exploring the mind of God without completely knowing that mind even though we have eternity in which to do it.

What has this talk of science got to do with the Eucharist? I suggest that when we celebrate Mass we need to be much more aware that we are entering into what is perhaps the greatest mystery of all. There is mystery in the physical universe from the atomic level to the cosmic level, there is the mystery of the human person and our relationship to our Father/Mother/Creator in the mystery of love. All these mysteries are summed up in the extraordinary mystery of the Eucharist, the mystery of mysteries.

The spirituality of the Eucharist brings together all the mysteries of the material world and all the mysteries of the world of spirit into one unified mystery. With tongue in cheek, I suggest we dare call the Eucharist the Theory of Everything.

See: Albert’s Story and Philip’s Story

Chapter 20: Eucharist and Living Simply