“Her stomach roiled and heaved, yet she kept on, her face smeared with the heartsblood that sometimes seemed to explode against her lips.” -Game of Thrones
In his book, Unclean, psychologist and “experimental” theologian Richard Beck explores aspects of purity, hospitality, and mortality as they relate to the field of psychology and the Church.
Beck begins by illustrating disgust psychology and the idea that an individual may view that which is not a connected part of him or herself as disgusting. For example, if someone spits in a cup and someone asks him or her to drink the contents of the cup, it is unlikely that the one who spit in the cup will drink it. The saliva, a part of one's own body only moments before, is now something disgusting, it is spit.
Beck then emphasizes the Eucharist as a means of overcoming the often harmful effects of disgust psychology. These dangerous effects arise in the Church when our fear of contamination from that which is “disgusting” or “unclean” leads us to reject hospitality, community, and love, while instead practicing exclusion, scapegoating, and shaming of that which we label “other”… “them.”
Beck then unpacks the aspects of the Eucharist that fundamentally challenges intuitive disgust reactions and dichotomies such as clean vs. unclean or physical vs. spiritual:
The Eucharist serves as a regulating ritual in order to avoid the tendency to associate the Christian life with holiness and purity alone. Without this regulation these tendencies may lead to acts of exclusion and the avoidance of the physical world with all of its less than perfect realities.
The Eucharist is reminiscent of sacred Jewish feasts and a glimpse at acts of inclusive hospitality. This table fellowship emphasizes a communal engagement of the people.
Sharing food and drink is an intimate act considered to be disgusting by large parts of society. Many psychological associations of disgust center on food and oral incorporation (e.g. spit). The Eucharist, however, does not avoid this potential for disgust. In fact, Early Christians were mistaken as cannibals for their consumption of “flesh” and “blood.”
“For it is in [the Eucharist] that holiness mixes with hospitality and an honest confrontation with our biological needs and vulnerability.” -Unclean
What does it look like to consume Flesh and Blood?
The scene featured above is taken from the HBO series based on the first novel of George R. R. Martin's series A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones. In short, in this scene Daenerys “Dany” Targaryen, wife of Dothraki leader Khal Drogo and heir to the Iron Throne, takes part in a sacred Dothraki ritual in which she must eat an entire raw horse heart before council to receive acceptance as a leader and mother amongst the Dothraki people. What I find most interesting about this scene/passage is the requirement that Dany ritualistically eat true flesh and blood as a part of the community of Dothraki leadership. Who could blame one who might vomit this disgusting meal, or even fail to finish it in the first place?
The Game of Thrones example breaks down eventually. Martin did not write this scene as a creative illustration of the Eucharist in which Dany partakes of the Body and Blood of Christ. What remains, however, is concrete imagery of the similar communal and “disgusting” work of consuming the sacramental elements of Christ's flesh and blood via the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
For me personally, it helps put weekly communion and my part in the mission of God in perspective to envision Daenerys Targaryen taking giant bites out of a heart while attempting not to gag. I picture each bite as a step beyond “us” vs. “them” and “clean” vs. “unclean” perspectives. To be honest, I do not always want to share this Meal with those who disagree with me, those who shame and abuse others, or those who look down on my own calling and passions. Sometimes I would rather vomit Christ's flesh and blood than taste its reality. The Eucharist asks a lot of me, more than I can handle without getting sick or giving up most days, but taking and eating and drinking reminds me of my commitment to hospitality, mercy, love, and embrace. When I eat and drink the Flesh and Blood of Christ, I remember that I am human, a member of a divinely created flesh-and-blood people. Because of this, I desire for all people to receive dignity, sustenance, and acceptance (some days more than others). The Eucharist requires real and personal work, commitment, vulnerability, perseverance, and humility from me, but I choose to accept it, one bite at a time.
“Eternal God, heavenly Father, you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and you have fed us with spiritual food in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord. Amen.” -Book of Common Prayer
Leslie Way is a second year student at McAfee School of Theology from Science Hill, Kentucky. She studies pastoral care and counseling as well as clinical mental health counseling in Mercer's dual degree program. She works as a barista at ChocoLaté Coffee and enjoys reading, painting, and writing. You can visit her personal blog HERE.