New Funeral Music and Random Musings on the Nature of Transubstantiation

Chosen by the family for Tuesday’s funeral

CD In: “All About You” by McFly
CD Out: “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane

Both good songs. A little unsure about them in the context of a funeral per se; but this speaks volumes about the spirituality of everyday things. By taking these two secular pieces of music and placing them with the context of a funeral, they take the normal existance of these people and place them before God. These are slices of everyday, and we have the opportunity to consecrate them. God can work with all this, and I am sure that God will work in the context of this funeral and with what (little) we give him. God is like that. I got thinking about this following my visit to a gallery yesterday…

Yesterday Lou and I went to London for our 15th Wedding Anniversary. Did random things: ate Sushi in Soho at Itsu on Wardour Street – fantastic food on conveyor belts and then went to the Tate Modern. Some classics there, some that failed to move me completely (such as Matisse’s snail) but I was wholly set off by “An Oak Tree” (1973) by Michael Craig Martin. Info from the website:

An Oak Tree consists of an ordinary glass of water placed on a small glass shelf of the type normally found in a bathroom, which is attached to the wall above head height. Craig-Martin composed a series of questions and answers to accompany the objects. In these, the artist claims that the glass of water has been transformed into an oak tree. When An Oak Tree was first exhibited, in 1974 at Rowan Gallery, London, the text was presented printed on a leaflet. It was subsequently attached to the wall below and to the left of the shelf and glass. Craig-Martin’s text deliberately asserts the impossible. The questions probe the obvious impossibility of the artist’s assertion with such apparently valid complaints as: ‘haven’t you simply called this glass of water an oak tree?’ and ‘but the oak tree only exists in the mind’. The answers maintain conviction while conceding that ‘the actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water … Just as it is imperceptible, it is also inconceivable’. An Oak Tree is based on the concept of transubstantiation, the notion central to the Catholic faith in which it is believed that bread and wine are converted into the body and blood of Christ while retaining their appearances of bread and wine. The ability to believe that an object is something other than its physical appearance indicates requires a transformative vision. This type of seeing (and knowing) is at the heart of conceptual thinking processes, by which intellectual and emotional values are conferred on images and objects. An Oak Tree uses religious faith as a metaphor for this belief system which, for Craig-Martin, is central to art. He has explained:

I considered that in An Oak Tree I had deconstructed the work of art in such a way as to reveal its single basic and essential element, belief that is the confident faith of the artist in his capacity to speak and the willing faith of the viewer in accepting what he has to say. In other words belief underlies our whole experience of art: it accounts for why some people are artists and others are not, why some people dismiss works of art others highly praise, and why something we know to be great does not always move us.

(Quoted in Michael Craig-Martin: Landscapes, [p.20.)


The artist speaks of transubstantiation: by his will he has created an oak tree from a glass of water, whilst keeping the accidents of the glass and the water the same. This is based upon Aquinas. It made me start thinking (as it should) about the eucharist:

* The act of consecration – the creation of the body and blood of Christ from the accidents of bread and wine – are not my will, but the action of the holy spirit working through me by the grace of my holy orders. Th artist here seeks to create an oak tree purely by his will

* Is it dependent upon my (firmly held) belief that what results is the real body and blood of Christ?

* Is it dependent upon those who participate [in the mass/observe [the artwork believing the change of substance in the presence of the same accidents. Is the act of transubstantiation lessened by the presence of even 1 person who cannot/does not hold the view that this is the body and blood of Christ/An Oak Tree?

* If I said the right words over something other than bread and wine, would that have the same effect? If we limit the host to bread and wine then are we not limiting the power of God?

* Further, If God wanted to transform my cup of espresso and my biscotti into the real presence, then who am I to stop him?

* This leads me into a number of interesting thoughts about Inculturation, from translations of scripture in the far east which have Jesus saying “I am the Rice of Life…” as it is the staple to questions about whether one could celebrate the eucharist with a group of young people using their common currency: the big mac and fries [I am the Big Mac of Life..

* I know of a Bishop who in the presence of another dying bishop and in extremis celebrated the eucharist with Mother’s Pride and Whisky. If I was on a desert Island, could I not make do with a banana and coconut milk rather than not have Christ present with me.

* My conclusion is that God is bigger than the rubrics, and when there is something important to be said about God, we need to use the symbols we have to hand: big mac and fries, banana and coconut milk, bread and wine and as long as we are drawn into the mystery of an encounter with God. This is not to denigrate the sacrament, which is at the centre of my spirituality, but whatever was used, whatever symbolism we draw from takes on the substance of God whilst maintaining the accidents of its earthly form.

* You can burn me later, if you want to; but this piece of art has given me some quite challenging thinking about the sacrament of salvation. It has challenged me and (I feel) drawn me closer towards that mystery. As I ‘touched God’ this morning in the mass, I felt a charge pass through me again: the sacrament in my hands – God ‘hiding under an ordinary p;iece of bread’ as St Francis of Assisi once said – filling me with God’s Holy Spirit. he is fantastic, really. Honest he is.