The Magical Eucharist, Part 1
Why I just can't quit the body and blood
Some years ago I did three nights of ayahuasca with a shaman in Seattle. The whole experience was quite wild for me, and it took me a year or two to fully integrate. On the last night, as I was coming down from the trip, the aya spirit told me that taking the eucharist would help me integrate the experience.
Once I had arrived back on earth, I felt frankly bewildered and unclear as to what, exactly, had just happened to me. I felt as though I had been blown apart and put back together in a mixed-up, crazy, way. I had no way to make sense of it, but as I drove back to Tacoma (where I lived at the time) the next morning, I realized it was Sunday.
I hadn’t been to church in quite a while, but I found that I could just make a service at the Episcopal church close to my house if I went straight there. I arrived a little late and slid into a pew and settled in for the liturgy. I was anxious to get home and I didn’t really want to be there, and I kept willing the scripture readings and hymns to go faster so we could get to the main event, I could get my wafer, and leave.
At one point, maybe during the creed, words were spoken referencing Christ’s resurrection, and I started laughing out loud, in the middle of church. I had been struck with the image of Jesus waking up from a long, weird trip of descending into the underworld and thinking, “what the fuck just happened to me?” That was exactly how I felt.
I took my communion that day, and weekly for several months after. I began to believe that there really was a mystical presence in the eucharist, changing and integrating all these mixed-up parts of me from the inside out.
Communion of the Saints
I mention this because, as part of the research I’m doing for this so-called book that is something like a spiritual geography of Britain, particularly as it relates to the divine feminine (maybe, right now I haven’t written a lick but am just following threads and slowly piecing together what I trust will become a larger vision), I have become very interested in the way medieval people understood the world, the earth, and spiritual matters, and a big part of that is the Eucharist.
I love medieval Christianity in part because it’s such a rich community of spirits. I was jealous of Catholics growing up, because all I had as an evangelical Protestant was Jesus; they had Mary and St. Francis and a host of other saints, one for everything you can think of— lost items, lost causes, plumbers, firefighters, marriage, psychics, journeys, going to the bathroom (okay I made that last one up). My mother had a crumbling old book from the 1880’s that we called “The Family Bible,” full of birth, marriage, and death records from my Catholic ancestors. It wasn’t actually a bible, but a Baltimore Catechism. That was where I first learned that the “communion of the saints” was unbroken by death, which was why you could talk to the saints and ask them to bother God on your behalf. Not that you couldn’t talk to him yourself, but it never hurts to have somebody put in a good word for you.
Protestants like to pretend veneration of saints is a popish perversion, paganism in a thin veneer, which is partly true but also not. The truth is communing with the dead is a Christian practice from very early on, as the great historian of late antiquity and early Christianity Peter Brown documents in his book The Ransom of the Soul: Wealth and the Afterlife in Early Western Christianity.
Of course, that’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of pagan DNA in the way the cult of the saints develop. It’s not that that ancient or medieval Christians would have thought of themselves as pagan or were secretly practicing it contra church authority. Some of them may have been, but more often, when people became Christian, many of their old practices and beliefs were, in a sense, baptized and integrated into the new religion. The same kind of thing happens today to some extent. Evangelicals interested in proselytization take marketing concepts and develop a whole theology around them. Trappist monks go to a Zen Buddhist retreat, realize what they experience in that setting is what the Christian mystics were talking about, and develop Centering Prayer.
The Medieval era in Europe was definitely Christian, but it was in sensibility and understanding much closer to the pagan world than ours is today. When we practice astrology or witchcraft today, they are essentially modern reconstructions that are a product of minds formed by Protestant Christianity. I don’t care if you identify as Christian or not, if you live in a western country, you have ideas about your identity and how you relate to the world, what this world even is and how it works, that are profoundly Protestant.
Studying the medieval world, the thing that strikes me is how much their understanding of themselves, the world, and how it all hangs together reminds me of Eastern religions and animism. It is much more holistic, the boundaries between people, earth, and other beings are much more porous and fluid, and it is deeply, magically enchanted, which is not to say that it is blindly and mindlessly superstitious. There were some silly beliefs, to be sure, but there are in our time as well. Some of the worst offenders are strict rational materialists who treat any experience of the numinous as demonic distortions that deviate from the gospel of Science.
All this comes back to the Eucharist because, as a witchy psychic paganish kind of Christian raised in the “all Jesus, all the time, nobody but Jesus” world of fundamentalist Christianity, I often wish I could just get rid of him. Maybe drown him in a bog like the Druids did with their sacrifices. Honestly, isn’t 2000 years of being Jesus Christ Superstar enough? Can’t he take a backseat? If I could just get by with Mary and the saints, I would. The problem is that they keep pointing the way back to stupid old Jesus with his bleeding wounds and sacrifice for our sins and trying to have his cake and eat it too by being both God and human.
Not only Mary, et al, but even the pagan spirits! Some of you know that I love the goddess Hekate, and that the name of my newsletter, Torchlight, is an allusion to her. Earlier this year, I decided to rekindle a dedicated practice I had to her. I was practicing this devotion to her at the beginning of 2020, when she gave me a strong message to get out of New York City, stat. I moved to the Hudson Valley right before the pandemic hit.
You know what that annoying hag told me? She kept pointing me back to Jesus! “Check out the connections between us,” she said. I did, and that’s a very interesting story for another time, but the point is, Jesus just will not stay in the tomb, no matter how much I want him to.
There’s something about Jesus that is necessary for all this Mary and the saints stuff to hang together. The community of saints, which includes us, exists because it is part of a larger body, what Christians call the body of Christ. It is what allows the influences that make up the Christian imagination—indigenous pagan, Jewish, Greco-Roman— to coalesce.
The Protestant Reformation, in many ways, with its aggressive attacks on anything perceived as pagan or magical, cut people off from the enchanted pagan world, from the practices that tied people to their ancestors and to the land. The RC church itself changed considerably in response to the Protestant critique. I am not a Catholic, and there are certainly many things the reformers were right to protest, and the Reformation freed us from the stranglehold of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but there were also real, valuable practices and ideas that were lost as a result. I felt that loss as a child, and felt a strong pull to the mass, the saints, Mary, and the rosary on the few occasions my mother took me to a Catholic church.
One of the theological disputes between Catholicism and various Protestant sects is the issue of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, and whether or not it was merely a symbol of Christ, or whether it contained what was called the Real Presence. There was a lot of absurd theological hairsplitting— one of my favorite examples is the assertion, made in defense of the Catholic doctrine that the Eucharist quite literally became the body and blood of Christ when blessed by a priest (aka Transubstantiation), that the reason it still looked like bread and wine was that God knew we’d be too grossed out by actual flesh and blood, so he kindly pulled a fast one on us.
Many protestants, including Luther, believed in a real mystical presence, but stopped short of transubstantiation. It seems like a silly idea, but in some ways the question was really, “Is this some real magical shit, or is it not? Does it have the ability to affect us both spiritually and materially?” I believe that it is and does. There is something in it that has the power to integrate us into a greater whole, both internally and on the collective level. I’m going to explore that more in parts 2 and 3.