When I was little, I remember learning the phrase “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” I always imagined a huge, Beauty-and-the-Beast style cake, complete with multiple tiers, fondue flowers, and, of course, candles. I theorized that, in light of the sadness of an empty plate, I was a have-your-cake kind of person: I would be content with enjoying the cake’s artistic beauty, as I couldn’t possibly consume an entire four-tier cake by myself. When encountering actual cake, however, the whole discussion was a nonissue: I always ate it.
Now that I’m older, I realize that my assumptions were wrong on three accounts: I believed that consumption always meant destruction, that I had to do it all on my own, and (as many children might argue), that what I ate didn’t really matter either way. Sr. Ann Astell’s book Eating Beauty explores these three questions of consumption, communion, and transformation in a uniquely theological and eucharistic light: “Beauty may and must be eaten in the Eucharist” (173).
Art, certainly, is made to be viewed and not eaten. Simone Weil, as quoted by Astell, points out that “vice, depravity, and crime are nearly always, or perhaps always, in their essence, attempts to eat beauty, to eat what we should only look at” (232). But in a theological context, when we consume the Eucharist, we are meant to receive Christ. We surrender our lives to God, to use as he will. “God’s eating of us and our eating of Him in the Eucharist are not destructive of beauty, [Weil] insists, but rather a way to participate in Beauty itself” (225).
This does not negate the value of “visual consumption.” On the contrary, Astell explains that that practice of spiritual communion was especially popular in medieval ages. “A devout, intent gazing upon the consecrated Host at its elevation during Mass was often regarded as a substitute for the sacramental consumption of the Eucharist.” (182) Our celebration of spiritual communion and Eucharistic adoration shows the depth of our faith, and our reliance on encounter: “to see the consecrated Host for what it was – Christ – was to see it with the eyes of faith; to hear, to smell, to taste, and ultimately to touch Christ and to be touched by Him.” (195).
Our participation in the Eucharist is a renewal of membership in the Body of Christ, the Church. Bread itself is a complex human food, made from human labor and human cooperation. “The same community that works together to produce bread is strengthened, in turn, through meal-sharing and companionship on life’s journey.” (363). Adam and Eve’s first sin of pride fed us with the fruit of death, but when we consume the bread of life, we become more human, more authentically ourselves as we were created to be, and ever more a part of the worshipping body of the Church.
As we learn to love one another, we also become who we receive. “unlike other kinds of food, which are incorporated into the body of the one who eats, the Body of Christ is eaten in the sacrament in order that we might be incorporated into Him” (998). This mystery is exemplified well in the life of St. Francis, who received the stigmata, as painted by Domenico Veneziano below. “the logical outcome of his eucharistic way of life is that Francis is literally transformed, body and soul, into the Christ he loves.” (3700).
These latter two ideas, community and transformation, are intricately intertwined, as St. Bernard explains in De diligendo Deo. As summarized by Astell, “In the first degree of love, man loves himself for his own sake. In the second, man loves God for man’s own sake. In the third, man loves God for God’s own sake. In the fourth, man loves himself for the sake of God” (2113). While in the first two degrees, we practice charity toward ourselves (and those around us) for the sake of survival and vulnerability, and in the third, we come to love God for who he himself is. Finally, in the fourth degree, we learn to see and love ourselves in a way completely inseparable from the love of God: “The human lover gazes into God and sees himself, as it were, in God’s own eye, as God sees him” (2128). As God’s love is made manifest in a Triune relationship, so too are we called to love all who make up the Body of Christ.
The adage “have your cake and eat it too” is entirely reversed when read in a theological light. In consuming the Eucharist, we receive eternal life, we enter into the fullness of community, and we become who we receive. We, with all the saints, imitate Christ in our own times and circumstances. The saints “make Him vitally present in the world. Because they have been “eaten” by Christ, consumed by the God they receive in communion, and virtuously changed by Him, they glorify Him. They bear his mark in the conversion, the transformation, of their lives.” (7355). So, too, must we.
(Author’s note: all page references below refer to the Kindle pagination of Eating Beauty by Sr. Ann Astell.)