How conceptual tools from real science and science fiction can help to illuminate the mystery of the Eucharist
In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time there’s a discussion about space-time that uses a four-dimensional geometrical shape called a tesseract (the square of a cube, as a cube itself is the square of a square) to approach the idea of a dimension outside space-time: a fifth dimension.
Via this fifth dimension, L’Engle imagines four-dimensional space-time being warped (or “wrinkled”) to bring distant points adjacent and allow instantaneous travel across any distance of space; thus, “The shortest distance between two points is not a straight line.” (A version of this discussion was filmed for the new Disney movie, but, alas, cut from the finished film.)
A “tesseract” for L’Engle is thus a “wrinkle in time,” similar to the familiar science-fiction device of a wormhole or a portal tunneling through space-time and connecting far-flung locations — for example, the wormhole in the TV series “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” connecting our Alpha Quadrant and the distant Gamma Quadrant. (Wormholes aren’t necessarily mere sci-fi; the concept is consistent with general relativity, though if they do exist it’s sadly unlikely that we would be able to traverse them. Even given a stable wormhole, crossing the event horizon would probably be fatal.)
Teleportation, another distance-defying sci-fi conceit familiar from “Star Trek,” is so far unrealized, though last year some news stories about quantum teleportation made waves with inaccurate suggestions that Chinese scientists had teleported a photon from the earth’s surface to a satellite in orbit.
The reality is a little different. “Quantum teleportation” involves the instantaneous transfer, not of matter, but of quantum information (qubits) between two photons in a state of quantum entanglement — though this is somewhat oversimplified and misleading, as I’ll explain.
Perhaps you’re wondering what possible connection there could be these exotic scientific ideas and the Eucharist. Some readers may fear an attempt to demystify or rationalize the Eucharist in quasi-scientific terms, very likely embarrassingly mangling both scientific and sacramental concepts.
The Holy Eucharist is one of the three greatest mysteries of the Catholic faith, along with the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation. Mysteries are realities that transcend the world of human experience, comprehension, and imagination; we can’t adequately picture them, nor can we study them with the tools of science.
Sacraments in particular are incursions of grace and encounters with Christ via efficacious signs; as such, they are miraculous and by definition exceed the scope of science, which studies the natural world. They can be apprehended only by faith.
Yet mysteries of faith are not irrational. Like the physical world discovered through science, mysteries of faith reflect and reveal the divine Reason. Both the scientist and the theologian seek in effect, if not always in intent, to “think God’s thoughts after him.”
Like religious mysteries made known through divine revelation, science reveals a world that exceeds the bounds of human experience, comprehension, and imagination. We cannot form an accurate imaginative picture of the world of quantum mechanics, any more than we can form an accurate imaginative picture of the body and blood of Christ being present under the appearances of bread and wine.
Yet quantum theory allows us to make true statements about the unimaginable world of quantum physics and to avoid certain false ideas — and theology does something similar in regard to mysteries of faith. (We can’t picture three Persons in one God, or one divine Person with two natures, but these formulas, based on divine revelation, exclude certain errors regarding the Trinity and the Incarnation that would otherwise be easy to make.)
Moreover, the physical world discovered by experience and experimentation offers us analogies for approaching mysteries of faith, including the Eucharist.
These are only analogies. Quantum physics cannot explain transubstantiation or Christ’s eucharistic presence in the Blessed Sacrament, which is a miracle. But trying to fathom what can be fathomed about the Eucharist and trying to fathom what can be fathomed about space-time and quantum physics occasionally present us with challenges that resonate with one another, and sometimes similar conceptual tools can be useful in approaching these very different areas.
Let me offer some examples.
When I was first trying, as a young non-Catholic, to understand what exactly Catholic theology claims in regard to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, I was much helped by the discovery that there is one important way in which Christ is said not to be present in the Eucharist.
He is said to be present really and substantially, physically and spiritually, in his body and in his blood, in his humanity and divinity — but he is “not present as in a place,” according to Thomas Aquinas, or “not locally present” in the words of Cardinal Newman.
Only in heaven is Christ’s body “locally present” or “present as in a place”; his mode of presence in the Eucharist is different and “nonlocal.”
What does “nonlocal presence” mean? To approach this idea, here are some practical implications:
- When the priest elevates the host, Christ’s body is not elevated in space. You can move the host around as much as you want, but Christ is not moved in space.
- Christ’s body is not spatially distributed throughout the host (“after the proper manner of dimensive quantity” in Aquinas’s language), the way locally present bodies are distributed in space, with part here and part there. Rather, the entire Christ is fully present in every particle of the host and in every drop of the precious “blood.” (I use quotation marks to emphasize that the contents of the chalice are the whole Christ, body and blood, as much as the host. When we differentiate between the sacramental “body” and “blood,” as if Jesus’ body and blood were separated in the sacrament, we are speaking symbolically, not literally.)
- As a direct consequence of this non-distributed mode of presence, when the priest breaks the host, Christ is not broken. And, of course, when we chew the host, Christ is not mangled.
- Also, obviously, twice as much Eucharist is not twice as much Christ. You don’t receive any more Jesus if you receive both the host and from the chalice, nor do you receive less if you receive only one or the other. Half a host, or any fraction of a host, or two hosts, are all exactly the same: the whole Christ.
One way to come at this idea is by analogy to L’Engle’s tesseracts or “Star Trek” wormholes.
A tesseract or wormhole warps space-time to bridge the distance between two locations that are far apart within four-dimensional space. The Eucharist does something similar, except that instead of two spatial locations, it bridges the infinite distance between Earth and Heaven; what it makes present is not the other side of the galaxy, but Christ in Heaven. (In this respect it is like the stable door in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, a direct interface between Narnia and Aslan’s country.)
Of course the host is different from a portal or tunnel in being a solid object occupying space in the priest’s hands or on our tongues rather than an opening “going” somewhere. The analogy only goes so far. Rather than a doorway, the host makes Christ in heaven physically present in a zone of earthly space-time. We might perhaps express this by saying that instead of being present in a place, the Eucharist makes Jesus present to a place.
On this analogy, the priest elevating the host is similar (mutatis mutandis) to the near end of a wormhole shifting in space while the other end remains stationary. What happens at this end has no effect upon the other end, or upon the distant realities that the wormhole brings close to us.
Another useful concept, highlighted by last year’s quantum teleportation experiment, is quantum nonlocality. Quantum nonlocality is not the same as nonlocality in Eucharistic theology, but there are some fascinating resonances.
The concept of quantum nonlocality brings us to precincts of extremely weird science, where ordinary language breaks down (not unlike theology).
I said above that the Chinese scientists succeeded in creating a state of quantum entanglement between a photon in a laboratory on the surface and a photon in space. Quantum entanglement, famously derided by a skeptical Albert Einstein as “spooky action at a distance,” causes two quantum particles to have correlated quantum properties, so that measuring the state of one simultaneously changes the state of the other.
“Quantum teleportation” relies on quantum entanglement to replicate the quantum state of a quantum particle in one or more additional particles. Scientists have been working with quantum entanglement and quantum mechanics for years, so there’s nothing new about what the Chinese scientists did, except for the record-breaking distance over which they were able to sustain quantum entanglement.
Quantum teleportation is such a profoundly weird thing that our language breaks down in this way: Because of the spatial separation, we can’t help talking about discrete “particles” in the plural — but the entangled particles have no individual properties or states, and from a quantum perspective can just as accurately be described as one particle existing in two places at once, or existing outside of normal space-time — and this is what is meant by “quantum nonlocality.” (On the other hand, at some point quantum entanglement breaks down, and you’re left with two photons that can each be measured simultaneously with their own well-defined states.)
How does this concept resonate with Eucharistic nonlocality?
- Like quantum-entangled particles, the Eucharist transcends space-time; having local access to the host in a particular place does not allow you to pin down the reality to a single point in space-time.
- Every host on Earth, in its underlying reality (in Aristotelian or Thomistic terms, its “substance”), is indistinguishable from every other; they are all the one Christ.
- Here, too, language breaks down; we can speak either of many hosts or of only one. (The word “host,” from the Latin hostia, here has the sense of “sacrificial victim,” and refers to Christ.) There is one host, Christ, nonlocally present in (or present to) many places.
- Like quantum entanglement, the host’s “entanglement” with Christ’s heavenly presence breaks down at a certain point, i.e., when the properties of bread and wine break down.
The Eucharist unites us to Christ in heaven, but it also does something else: It makes present and re-presents the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ crucified. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his great encyclical on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia:
This sacrifice [of the cross] is so decisive for the salvation of the human race that Jesus Christ offered it and returned to the Father only after he had left us a means of sharing in it as if we had been present there. Each member of the faithful can thus take part in it and inexhaustibly gain its fruits…
“The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice”. Saint John Chrysostom put it well: “We always offer the same Lamb, not one today and another tomorrow, but always the same one. For this reason the sacrifice is always only one... Even now we offer that victim who was once offered and who will never be consumed”. (EE 11–12; emphasis in original)
In this way, too, the Eucharistic offering transcends time and space: There are countless Masses offered all over the earth all the time, yet in all those Masses, in the words of Cardinal Cajetan, there is but “one sacrifice, that of the cross.” In uniting us with Christ in heaven, the Eucharistic liturgy also unites us to Christ crucified, “as if we had been present there” on Calvary.
The transcendent, heavenly nature of the Eucharist is reflected in the symbolism of the liturgy, which is our earthly participation in the eternal liturgy of heavenly worship. In the words of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy:
In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God … the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. (SC 8)
We cannot literally experience eternity on earth, but symbolically and liturgically the Mass is meant to exist outside normal time, even though the clock keeps ticking throughout the hour or so that the Mass lasts. (In our diaconal formation we were advised to avoid wearing wristwatches while serving, watches being tokens of ordinary clock-time or chronos, quantitative time, rather than liturgical kairos, qualitative or meaningful time.)
To return to wormholes and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”:
There is a plot device in the pilot episode of “Deep Space Nine” (which debuted not long after Suz and I became Catholic) which I’ve always found very meaningful in connection with the Eucharist and liturgy. I think about this, not every week or even every month, but not infrequently, during the Mass.
The episode introduces us to Avery Brooks’ Commander Benjamin Sisko, a Starfleet officer taking up a post near a planet called Bajor in the vicinity of a stable wormhole.
In the wormhole, Sisko learns, dwell powerful extraterrestrial beings whom the Bajorans worship as divinities (“the Prophets”). Because they are native to the wormhole, the “Prophets” exist outside of normal space-time, not in the same way that God is outside of time, but in a way that apparently contrasts with our experience of temporal, linear existence.
Sisko is drawn into dialogue with the wormhole aliens, who speak to him in visionary experiences using imagery drawn from his own memories, wearing faces of people he knows.
Among these faces is that of his late wife, who was killed three years earlier. In particular, Sisko finds himself repeatedly confronted with visions of the day she was killed. Distraught, he objects that he doesn’t want to relive this experience, to which the aliens enigmatically reply, “This is your existence. You exist here.”
The aliens cross-examine Sisko regarding what they perceive as his limited mode of existence, and he tries to explain the importance of temporal linearity to our kind. Yet visions of his wife’s death persist. “You choose to exist here,” he is told. “It is not linear.”
Finally Sisko understands that his unresolved, unprocessed grief over his wife’s death has moored him to the past; he has not “moved on” in a healthy way. “I exist here,” he agrees reluctantly. “It’s not linear.”
For Sisko, this self-imposed “nonlinearity” was limiting and detrimental — but not all nonlinearity is like that for humans.
Christians look forward to the coming of the kingdom of God in its fullness at the end of time. What exactly “the end of time” signifies, and what the eternity of the new heavens and the new earth will be like, eye has not seen and ear has not heard.
Yet even in this life we have experiences suggestive to us of timelessness: not limiting experiences like Sisko’s, but liberating, transcendent experiences. These can occur while we are listening to great music or watching a great film, pursuing some form of recreation or creative work, enjoying an evening with friends, or spending an hour before the Blessed Sacrament.
It can also happen, of course, during Mass, and in fact the Mass by its nature is meant to connect us to eternity, whether or not we typically experience it as such.
John Paul II speaks in of what he calls the “cosmic character” of the Eucharistic celebration:
Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation. The Son of God became man in order to restore all creation, in one supreme act of praise, to the One who made it from nothing. He, the Eternal High Priest who by the blood of his Cross entered the eternal sanctuary, thus gives back to the Creator and Father all creation redeemed. He does so through the priestly ministry of the Church, to the glory of the Most Holy Trinity. Truly this is the mysterium fidei which is accomplished in the Eucharist: the world which came forth from the hands of God the Creator now returns to him redeemed by Christ.
So Sunday Mass is not just one hour a week out of our lives. It is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11, as quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1324).
Our whole life both flows from the Eucharistic liturgy and strains toward it as our greatest earthly participation in the eternal worship of heaven. In the liturgy we “lift up our hearts” above earthly concerns and distractions, praising God “with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven.”
This is not just symbolism. In a real way our earthly worship reflects and participates in the eternal worship of heaven. Likewise, eternal life is not just something that we possess only as a future promise, or only symbolically; in the Eucharist we receive eternal life right here on earth:
Those who feed on Christ in the Eucharist need not wait until the hereafter to receive eternal life: they already possess it on earth, as the first-fruits of a future fullness which will embrace man in his totality … With the Eucharist we digest, as it were, the “secret” of the resurrection. For this reason Saint Ignatius of Antioch rightly defined the Eucharistic Bread as “a medicine of immortality, an antidote to death”. (EE 18; emphasis in original)
So the eternal life and joy of heaven begins on earth. We are not entirely limited by time and space even in this life — and nowhere is this more perfectly realized than in the Mass.
I think about this sometimes during the Mass, and I think, “I exist here. It is not linear.”