What does the mouse eat?

What does the mouse eat? August 19, 2020

In browsing Keanu-related celebrity gossip items for the previous post, I came across another story that has an odd theological resonance: “Winona Ryder might have married Keanu Reeves for real on the set of Dracula.

This is an amusing story that emerged from the press junket the two actors did for their 2018 rom-com Destination Wedding:

Ryder revealed to EW that their movie love might extend off screen because she’s not entirely sure the pair didn’t have a real wedding back in 1992 while filming Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Musing about her feelings on weddings alongside Reeves, Ryder told EW, “We actually got married in Dracula. No, I swear to god I think we’re married in real life.”

“In that scene, Francis [Ford Coppola] used a real Romanian priest,” she added. “We shot the master and he did the whole thing. So I think we’re married.”

Reeves took the news in stride and joked, “It’s lovely to see you again.” But Ryder reminded him that they went through the entire ceremony and said their “I dos.”

When Reeves asked, “We said yes?” Ryder responded, “Don’t you remember that? It was on Valentine’s Day.” This left Reeves no choice but to conclude, “Oh my gosh, we’re married.”

This has echoes of some very old theological arguments about the nature of the sacraments.

It’s a variation of quid mus sumit, or “what does the mouse eat?” Like this wedding story, it sounds silly, but actually touches on some profound and meaningful matters. (Also, too, unfortunately, some long and very bloody wars were fought over this question, because sometimes when we Christians get to pondering the mysteries of divine grace it leads us to start killing one another really hard.)

Here’s the basic idea: Imagine a mouse creeps into a church and eats some of the bread that has been consecrated for the Eucharist. Is that mouse consuming the body of Christ and thereby taking part in the holy sacrament and receiving divine grace?

That question eventually became part of the conflict between competing Christian ideas of transubstantiation versus consubstantiation, which is to say the subtle theological controversy over which kings of which countries ought to receive Christians’ allegiance and taxes. But before that political proxy dispute arose, quid mus sumit was a way of raising some very interesting questions about our human role and capacities as the recipients of grace.

Thomas Aquinas kicked this question around in his Summa Theologica, where he suggested that sacraments only served as such when they were received sacramentally. Thomas argued that since the mouse (presumably — though how could we know for sure?) had no idea what the Eucharist was and had no intention of receiving that sacrament, it would not have been receiving the sacramental body of Christ when it snuck in to nibble on that bread even though that bread, he insisted, was indeed the actual body of Christ.

So, according to St. Thomas, if I’m reading him right, Winona and Keanu would not have really gotten married even though Coppola brought in an actual priest who led them in the actual ceremony of the sacrament of marriage. Because they were actors reciting lines in a script rather than two people actually reciting the vows intentionally, they were not approaching the ceremony sacramentally and, therefore, did not receive the sacrament of marriage.

Ms. Ryder and Mr. Reeves can probably rest assured that if either of them wants to actually get married in a church some day, they won’t first need to fly to Romania to secure an annulment.

I’m not a Thomistic scholar and I’ll admit that I cannot follow all of the arcane nano-distinctions asserted or derived from Aquinas’ response to “What does the mouse eat?” I generally know what words like “species” and “accident” mean, but the way they’re employed in this discussion can be bewildering for laypeople, Protestants, and others who haven’t spent years studying this stuff in granular detail.

I suspect that actual Thomistic scholars would agree with my conclusion in this quid mus sumit case study. They would probably agree that Winona and Keanu did not actually get married. But I suspect those Thomists would also object to the rather Baptist manner in which I raced to that conclusion. Does the mouse partake in the sacrament of the Eucharist? No. Do two actors reciting wedding vows in a script partake in the sacrament of marriage? No. But apply the same line of reasoning to an unwitting infant being led by others in the sacrament of Baptism and suddenly the argument becomes much, much, more complicated, apparently.

Anyway, while it’s unlikely that Baptists and Catholics will sort out our differences over the meaning of baptism any time soon, the bottom line is this: Winona and Keanu are both still single (if not, alas, available).

And since we seek a balance here between the ridiculous and the sublime, let me close with something sublime: Winona Ryder playing the title role in Mojo Nixon’s tribute to late-’80s MTV.

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