Quid Sumit Mus? A Different Take and Answer

Quid Sumit Mus? A Different Take and Answer April 6, 2010

It has often been asked, what would happen if some animal, such as a mouse, were to get a piece of communion and consume it. St Thomas Aquinas, representing the Western tradition, provided one way to answer this question. In it, we see an indication that Thomas wanted to keep the sacramental benefits for humanity alone. He follows a typically Western approach through his understanding of transubstantiation, and tries to find a well-crafted answer so as to explain why the animal would not receive the sacramental presence, even if they consume the accidents. There is much positive value in this traditional Western approach, and yet I feel it is lacking — it is lacking the Eastern, cosmic understanding of the work of Christ, and how his sacrifice was not just for humanity, but the whole of the cosmos.

If people do not want to address this concern with me, if they are fine with Thomas’ explanation, theologically, it is their right; but we do not have to see ourselves limited to Thomas’ answer, and we can look at it differently, from a cosmic approach, and come to a different conclusion. It is not that his general theology of transubstantiation, and the good which comes out of it when understood properly, is the problem — it is how it can be used, and was used, in some critical, secondary points to limit the sacramental presence which can be troubling. And it seems it is because of his lack of respect for animals which led to his a-cosmic understanding of Christ’s sacramental gifts. For me, as someone who is interested in animals and their role in the eschaton, this cannot remain the final answer.

Sergius Bulgakov has, as he often does, given me my own understanding of the cosmic significance of communion through his essay, “The Holy Grail.” In it he points out how Christ’s sacrifice was not just for humanity, but for the whole of the earth, and that the earth itself received Christ’s body and blood for its own sanctification, leading to Christ’s continued abiding in the earth itself:

The whole world is the Holy Grail, for it has received into itself and contains Christ’ precious blood and water. The whole world is the chalice of Christ’s blood and water; the whole world partook of them in communion at the hour of Christ’s death. And the whole world hides the blood and water within itself. A drop of Christ’s blood dripped upon Adam’s head and redeemed Adam, but also all the blood and water of Christ that flowed forth into the world sanctified the world. This blood and water made the world a place of the presence of Christ’s power, prepared the world for its future transfiguration, for the meeting with Christ come in glory.[1]

What is important here is that Christ’s blood mixes with the world at the moment of his sacrifice; that it is given to the world for its glorification and participation in the life of Christ at the height of his ministry. It is for this reason why Bulgakov points out the way Christ’s soteriological work is given not just to us (through the drop of blood given to Adam), but to the whole of the world. The physical, and not just sacramental, blood is contained in the world and is transfiguring it from within — the world is the world of paradise, graced by the love of God.

But, taking what Bulgakov has started here, we can look at Christ’s body as well as having been given up to the earth, not just at his point of sacrifice, but throughout his life. He was, after all, human. Our flesh is consistently dying, and going back to the earth — consumed by the things of the earth (fungi, animals, etc). Life on earth is, in effect, one long living death until we are transfigured in glory. Jesus’ whole ministry itself was one of constant giving of himself to others, but also of his body (and blood) to the world, which was already feeding off of him, and not just in the sacrament of salvation (the eucharist). Are we to imagine that the flakes of dead skin suddenly lost their essential nature when they fell off of his body? I do not think so. Although his body did not suffer corruption when in the tomb, he willingly entered the human condition, and experienced it for what it was. It would be rather docetical if his body did not experience the normal cycle of life and death that ours have; indeed, that it was possible for this to happen should be easily discerned in his circumcision, where his body was cut, and blood already poured forth from the wound. This shows us that his body acted as all human bodies acted before the resurrection.

This brings us now to the question of animal consumption of the eucharist. If we already see the world itself can be and is transfigured by his blood, by his physical blood, which provided the same grace as in the sacrament, then it becomes difficult to believe there would be no sacramental effect in an animal who consumes communion. It is clear that St Thomas Aquinas, and others who follow him and his theological reasoning, are trying to avoid scandal by finding a way to suggest animals do not experience the sacramental presence of Christ when they consume the carriers of that sacramental presence. But why is it seen as a scandal? Animals for Thomas have value in relation to human use and rule over them; he does not seem them properly for the kind of glory they contain. He denies rational souls to them, and so uses the lack of reason as a way to deny them communion.

While I strongly disagree with St Thomas’ understanding of animals, I do not want to enter that debate here.[2] If one begins to base arguments of sacramental experience on reason, and what one knowingly gets out of them, troubles begin, the kind we see such as in those debates which came about during the Reformation about the grace conferred upon infants in baptism. Or, we can bring it further, and mention the way infants receive communion in the East. To limit sacramental grace and experience to those who know what it is they receive will have consequences which have not been properly thought out. In such a light, I find this response, though I understand why Thomas produced it, is dangerous. The grace is a gift of God, and it transcends us, and helps perfect nature. Of course, one can and should point out, the more potential one has, the greater the benefits available to them in the sacraments; that would be a fine and important point which could be used to help differentiate the grace available in the sacrament to different types of animals, if they should ever partake of it.

Nonetheless, it still seems that the central concern is one which ignores Christ’s cosmic role, and wants to limit his work to that of humanity alone. It ignores the real world experience of Christ, the real work of Christ. What Christ himself offered to the world cannot be an abuse if the world, in one fashion or another, receives it. Of course, this is not saying we should be out and about and providing the sacraments to animals (that question is more complicated than this), but it does not mean we need to deny them sacramental grace if they happen to partake of communion. For me, what happens if a mouse partakes of communion is easily answered: the mouse receives the medicine of immortality, opened to them by God because Christ has already given everything, body and blood, to world and all that is within it. We do not have to assume that the sacraments, as we know of them, are normative for others beyond ourselves; he might have, through his sacrifice, offered other, normative ways of grace for animals. It is for this reason such extraordinary circumstances, when they happen, become the exceptions which prove the norm.

[1] Sergius Bulgakov, “The Holy Grail,” in The Holy Grail & The Eucharist. Trans. Boris Jakim (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Books, 1997), 44.

[2] See instead my essays “God and Creation: Are Humans the Only Ones Made in the Image and Likeness of God?”, “All Creation Sings The Glory of God: Who Are We To Kill Such Songs?” and “On The Mediatorial Relationship of Humans with Animals.”

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