The Magical Eucharist, Part 2
How a psychic nun unleashed a social revolution
Juliana of Liege1
In 1210, in the city of Liege in what is now Belgium, an 18 year old girl named Juliana had a vision. A full moon appeared before her with a small fraction missing, as if someone had pinched a tiny sliver of pie. This vision would appear again and again over the next 20 years, though Juliana would keep it to herself.
13th century Europe was torn by conflict and deep polarization; conflict between the pope and the Holy Roman emperor; conflict between the emerging middle classes and the old landed nobility; these created a quagmire of frequently shifting factions and loyalties. It was women, above all, who found themselves caught in the middle. War, crusades, and other complex social developments meant there were fewer men to marry, and the other traditional option for women, religious orders, found themselves overwhelmed with more people than they could absorb or care for. Women flocked to Liege, where emerging industries created employment opportunities and women could own property.
All the single ladies of Liege, with no place in a traditional family or in the monastic orders, learned to do for themselves; they organized into loose, relatively egalitarian communities that worked, prayed, and helped those less fortunate. Some women became anchoresses, living as hermits in the city, attached to an existing parish church; some lived together in houses or groups of privately owned neighborhood houses; these became known as the Beguines.
Though they would later prove to be too threatening to the church and either be executed as heretics (like Marguerite Porete) or absorbed into church-approved monastic and mendicant orders, in the early days, in the early days they were greatly admired by male clerics for their wisdom and accomplishment. The Beguines and anchoresses often had deep friendships with male monastics and priests and even became mentors and spiritual directors to some of them. They also originated many of the spiritual practices that would come to characterize the high Middle Ages.
Think about this: you are a woman living in this deeply polarized time; the old systems and structures that you would have once depended on for security are eroding; there is deep polarization and constant fighting. In that sense it was not unlike our own, although there was a key exception: In the Middle Ages, conflict could mean an axe to the head or being burned at the stake. So what did these women do? They prayed for peace and they put their hope in Christianity’s primary symbol of social love and unity: the Eucharist.
Though Juliana was attached to a proper monastery, Mont Cornillon, she was deeply networked with the Beguines and anchoresses. She was admired for her deep learning and intelligence; she was also what we would today call clairvoyant and psychic: like so many of these female saints, she received visions and prophecies and had a keen intuition. As this moon with the pie-piece missing appeared to her again and again, she slowly received an interpretation: The moon was the Church’s liturgical calendar, the missing piece was a feast dedicated to the Corpus Christi, Latin for the "Body of Christ”: the Eucharist, Holy Communion.
Julianna got the feast approved locally, in Lieges, before she died, and the original liturgy was almost certainly written by her in collaboration with a young monk named John. In 1264 the pope would command the whole church to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi with a liturgy significantly re-worked by Thomas Aquinas, though portions of the original remain. It is still celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.
An Orgy of Good Vibes
Strangely, although the centerpiece of the whole Mass was the communion, most people didn’t even eat it. In order to receive the sacrament, you were required to rigorously examine your conscience for sins and go to confession; many people understandably opted out of this. 6 years after Juliana had her first vision, at the Fourth Lateran Council, the Vatican decreed that everyone had to go to confession and receive communion at least once per year; this is also when the doctrine of Transubstantiation, the idea that the bread and wine literally became the flesh and blood of Jesus, was imposed.
And yet the people loved the Eucharist. They believed it had a real power that did not necessarily require consumption, to simply gaze upon it was to be blessed. When the priest held the thin bread high above his head, people would shout “raise it higher,” and scramble to see over one another’s heads. Some literally popped in to see the Host raised and then slipped out as soon as they got a glimpse.
There was a deeper symbolic understanding behind the Eucharist and the ritual that surrounded it that spoke very strongly to them as well. In St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he builds a metaphor of the church as “one body with many members,” each part having a different form and function, yet part of a greater whole; each belonging to the other, unable to function alone. When the large wafer was broken into pieces, it was understood both to be a re-enaction of Christ’s sacrifice as well as a symbol of the way each person in the congregation was called to sacrifice, to give up some of their own rights and demands for the other in order to be joined together into a more peaceful, harmonious whole.
This was physically enacted in the passing of the peace that took place in the Mass. Today it is usually a simple handshake, though COVID seems to have devolved it into a tepid wave or a flash of two fingers shaped in a hippie peace sign. For most of Christian history, it was called the kiss of peace and was taken very seriously as a mark of love and goodwill between brothers (or sisters) in Christ; it was a proper smack on the lips, though by the middle ages it had become a kiss on one or both cheeks. It was supposed to be a single-sex performance, with men and women sitting segregated in church, however, this seems to have been commonly ignored as priests often complained of people using the peace to get it on with their sweethearts (not to mention there were surely gay people able to to take advantage of the kiss). Eventually, in an attempt to evade this problem, as well as to prevent the spread of plague, icons were passed for people to kiss instead. This created a new problem in that people demanded to kiss the pax, as it was called, in order of rank. Despite these controversies, parishioners often reported feeling a great deal of charity and goodwill toward their fellow-man after leaving Mass. It was common to pay priests to say masses for the souls of departed family or the health and wellbeing of living kin, but the degree to which people cultivated genuine bonds of relationality was exemplified by the large number of special masses performed for friends.
It seems strange to think of the Middle Ages as a time of love and good vibes, because we think of it as Game of Thrones, with everybody running around massacring wedding guests and shooting crossbows into their mistresses. While what we see on TV is an exaggeration, it certainly was violent in a way that is very alien to us. Our political conflicts involve a lot of shouting and angry words; we rarely worry that they will erupt into war. The invasion of the U.S. Capitol in January 2020 was upsetting because it was so extraordinary. We live in an age where loneliness and isolation are epidemic; people have fewer and more distant friendships than ever before. It is easy to forgo the discomforts and sacrifices necessary to be in relationship when your life does not depend upon it.
Because the Eucharist was so powerful for people, the church took great pains to protect its secrets. The words of consecration over the Host were deliberately mumbled and the key actions performed behind a screen; the fear was that if people were able to replicate the rite themselves, they would use it for all sorts of magic and conjuring. It’s easy to see this as an example of the church simply protecting its power and hegemony, and while that is undoubtedly true, there was another concern: That if people were able to perform the Eucharist on their own, they would have no need of the institution that kept them bound to one another in Christian love. The infinitely splintering Protestant sects that would develop after the Reformation would certainly seem to bear this out.
Religion is a tricky word these days. It’s a topic that is not polite to mention; it’s seen as an unending source of conflict and oppression. The root of the word, ligare, means to bind or connect, and can be understood as that which binds humans to the divine, like chains or ropes. But ligare is also the root of the word ligament, the connective tissue that binds together the bones in our skeletons. We can understand religion as a system of practices, symbols, and beliefs that keep us working together. A story about who we are, why we’re here, and where we are going together. Practices like singing and dancing, or a kiss or a touch, that unite us on an embodied level. Symbols that remind us of our interdependence with another.
A Moveable Feast2
Medieval church feasts were generally not solemn, joyless affairs, they were days in which laborers were freed from work and the drama and grandeur of ritual was heightened, providing a spectacle for all. The feast of Corpus Christi became one of the most festive, beginning with a mass and followed by a procession in which the Host was carried through the streets. These processions became elaborate parades with flat-bed wagons depicting biblical scenes recounting the whole trajectory of fall and redemption, essentially the early version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Each wagon was sponsored by a different guild, an association of tradesmen or craftsmen; there were guilds for stonemasons, carpenters, weavers, etc; there were also guilds that were more religious in nature, organized for the purpose of charity or providing supplies and decorations to the church. The floats became a medium for art and creativity to flourish.
One of the most famous Corpus Christi celebrations was in York, where the parade tableaux became elaborate plays drawing spectators from far and wide; the church had to hold religious ceremonies on the following day. Corpus Christi became a celebration of community, with all the various factions of the city coming together to provide a joyful entertainment. Its theme was the body as metaphor for society, with different groups that might sometimes be in conflict with one another coming together to form a greater whole. In the words of one scholar, “the opposites of social wholeness and social integration could be both affirmed, and also brought into a creative tension, one with the other. The final intention of the cult was, then, to express the social bond and to contribute to social integration.”3
Of course the medieval city was not a perfect model of spiritual love and equality. There were entrenched hierarchies and social inequalities and some people, like Jews and Muslims, were excluded or pushed to the margins; the Corpus Christi processions reflected this. But it’s easy to criticize the ways in which the past did not live up to our ideals; more difficult is appreciating the way change occurs in slow steps over the long sweep of time.
Deep Magic, Powerful Medicine
In my own spells and prayers, the best ones are those that take a while to work, as the big requests always do. They change me in ways that aren’t always easily perceptible, opening me up to possibilities that I couldn’t imagine, releasing me from attitudes and beliefs that I didn’t even know were standing in my way. Sometimes it’s only in hindsight that I can see how they have been at work.
Juliana’s magic was to receive a vision that would only be fully realized after her death, born of a desire to heal the divisions that were tearing her city apart. What the feast became in the late middle ages probably did not quite live up to the longing in her heart, but who is to say what it might yet become? As a friend said to me the other day, “We are only two thousand years into this Jesus thing.” The earth has been evolving for 4.5 billion.
The earliest rite we have for Holy Communion is from the Didache, a Christian teaching text dating to the first century AD. It says “As this broken bread scattered on the hills was gathered and became one, so too, may your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.” A somewhat different image from the one we now know, but still possessing the essential magic of separated parts becoming whole.
I once had the good fortune to see the late spiritual teacher Malidoma Somé speak to a small audience; something he said has always stuck with me. “You must find your medicine,” he said, encouraging us to look within ourselves rather than depending upon him or any other guru for the answers. “Each person has their own special medicine to offer the world, you must learn what yours is.”
Groups of people are bodies, ecosystems just as you and I are; perhaps they too have their own medicine, or at least have the potential to. I have no desire the demand the rest of the world bow down and worship Christ; I don’t think that was his purpose, precisely. He came to offer his medicine, his magic, to allow it to work its way into our hearts; perhaps Christianity is just the imperfect vessel he left to carry and diffuse it into the world until it has fully done its work.
I’ll leave you with a story of a strange magical synchronicity that occurred yesterday, as I was writing this essay. I had just completed the section on Juliana of Liege and decided to go walk to my local food co-op. This is something I do often, and I have my established path for getting there.
This time I felt guided to take a slight detour, down a different route. As I walked, I heard music, and then saw a small mass of people gathered in yards along one side of the street. On the other side, on the roof of a low building, a band was performing. A festival or a block party maybe? But as I grew closer, I suddenly heard the words in my head: “This is the Corpus Christi.”
I saw a man in a T-shirt with the words “The Church,” and asked him what was going on. It was just a random concert, he said, and didn’t seem to have any idea of its purpose beyond that. The band was nothing special, just the kind of loose, generic classic rock sound you often hear in an evangelical praise and worship band. I assumed it was some kind of church outreach event and resolved to move on, but felt strongly guided to sit down and listen. The band began to play a song I didn’t recognize, but they sang about reaching out and loving our neighbors, because “that’s the way God planned it.” It was the cheesiest, simplest platitude of the sort I usually despise, but I began to tear up, just slightly, eyes hidden behind my sunglasses.
That was the last song of the day and afterward, I did some investigating. It turned out the organizers were a secular neighborhood association doing a series of rooftop concerts featuring local acts. The band was not a praise and worship band, they just sang a song about God wanting us to love one another. And yet that’s the song I walked in on, on a day when I was writing about a festival of social love and connectedness.
I don’t know what it meant, exactly, but I do know that when we are willing to receive the medicine, to trust its work in our hearts and minds, we get little signs along the way, little nudges that it’s working, encouraging us to keep following the threads. In that moment, it was enough for me to know in my heart that the magic of the Eucharist is real.
My sources for this essay are Barbara Walters, The Feast of Corpus Christi; John Bossy, The Mass as a Social Institution 1200-1700; and Mervyn James, Ritual, Drama, and Social Body in the Late Medieval English Town
A moveable feast means the date varied from year to year, like Easter and unlike Christmas, but I used to think it meant a party on wheels. The medieval Corpus Christi was both.