In Brief

In Mulligan's anthropological spirit of noting that the locals "speak frequently of the collector of prepuces," Bloom looks about him in St. Andrew's and reflects on the profoundly strange Christian ritual of communion. This rite imitates the Last Supper in which Jesus, himself freely adapting the Seder tradition, taught his followers about what they were eating, telling them that the bread was his body and the wine was his blood. In Catholic churches a priest blesses unleavened wafers and wine, "transubstantiating" them miraculously into Christ's body and blood. He then places a wafer in the mouth of each worshiper who kneels at the altar. He alone drinks the wine, but Catholic theology assures believers that that's OK: Christ is fully present in both substances. Bloom observes these doings with a mixture of careful observation, blank incomprehension, dim recollection, sympathetic imagination, and pragmatic appreciation.

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His observations start off in a spirit of general ignorance: "A batch knelt at the altarrails. The priest went along by them, murmuring, holding the thing in his hands. He stopped at each, took out a communion, shook a drop or two (are they in water?) off it and put it neatly into her mouth." The "thing" holding the consecrated wafers is a metal chalice called a ciborium. At the end of part 3 of A Portrait of the Artist, as Stephen waits to take communion after his long binge of sexual sin, he kneels "before the altar with his classmates, holding the altar cloth with them over a living rail of hands. His hands were trembling and his soul trembled as he heard the priest pass with the ciborium from communicant to communicant." The section ends with the words, "The ciborium had come to him."

No one but Bloom, to my knowledge, has ever called the wafer "a communion," but in his blundering way he may be recollecting similar ambiguities of Catholic terminology. The communion service is known as the Eucharist (a Greek word meaning gratitude or thanksgiving), but the bread placed in communicants' mouths is also called the Eucharist. It is also called the Host, because Christ was a hostia or sacrificial victim; since he is present in the consecrated bread, it takes his title. By some path such as these, perhaps, Bloom thinks of the wafer through which one achieves communion with God and other worshipers as "a communion."

Are the wafers "in water?" No, they are not. Some Christian churches practice "intinction," whereby the host is dipped in the holy wine before going in a worshiper's mouth, but the modern Catholic church is not one of them. The wafers in the ciborium are dry—as one would think Bloom would recall from his short, apparently profitless experience of being a Catholic

"They don't seem to chew it: only swallow it down." This is correct, though again one might expect Bloom to remember it from his own experience. Gifford comments: "Tradition dictates that the 'sacred species' should not be touched with the teeth but that it should be broken against the roof of the mouth." Sacred ingestion, it seems, must be kept distinct from the normal business of gnawing, masticating, and gulping down food. It should feel instead like a dissolution, an airy progression from outward physicality to inward spirituality. Five sentences later, Bloom looks at some women who have received the host sitting with heads bowed, "waiting for it to melt in their stomachs." In the passage from A Portrait quoted above, Stephen thinks that "he would hold upon his tongue the host and God would enter his purified body."

"Rum idea: eating bits of a corpse why the cannibals cotton to it." Well, yes, the Christian communion rite obviously smacks of cannibalism, which to unbelievers will always seem either appalling or ludicrous. In the Presbyterian church of my early adolescence, which though Protestant was adopting the popularizing innovations of the Second Vatican Council, worshipers (accompanied by guitars) were occasionally asked to sing the words, "Eat his body, drink his blood, then we'll sing a song of love, Al-le-lu, Al-le-lu, Al-le-lu-u-u-u-u-ia." After this, distinctions between Christian spirituality and animist superstition were forever lost on me.

"Something like those mazzoth: it's that sort of bread: unleavened shewbread." Bloom is right: the Catholic wafers do resemble the mazzoth (matzo, matzoh, matzoth, matzah, matza) of Passover meals, unleavened breads intended to remind Jews of their hurried departure from Egypt when there was no time to let bread rise. The Catholic church no doubt decided a long time ago to emphasize the continuity with Jewish seder rituals in this way. But Bloom's familiarity with Judaism (poor, but much richer than his knowledge of Catholic lore) leads him astray on one point. Gifford observes that he "confuses the Passover matzoth with shewbread, the unleavened twelve cakes of 'fine flour' (Leviticus 24:5-9; Exodus 25:30) that ancient Jewish priests placed on the altar each Sabbath (to be eaten by them alone at the end of the week)." Communion bread is not only for show. The wine, however....

"Yes, bread of angels it's called. There's a big idea behind it, kind of kingdom of God is within you feel." Bloom does remember a few details of his Catholic instruction: the Eucharist is indeed called panis angelorum, bread of angels, whose consumption should lift one to heavenly communion with the saints and angels. And the passage of scripture that Bloom recalls is relevant. In Luke 17:20-21 Jesus answers the Pharisees' question about when the kingdom of God will come: "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for behold, the kingdom of God is within you." This spiritual awareness of the presence of God within oneself is the "big idea" behind the communion service.

"Thing is if you really believe in it. Lourdes cure, waters of oblivion, and the Knock apparition, statues bleeding." Trying to imagine what communicants feel, Bloom supposes that the hocus-pocus silliness of turning bread into flesh, doing as the cannibals do, and waiting for Christ to manifest himself within may have some reality for people of strong faith. The manifestation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to a young woman in southern France, the miraculous cures supposedly effected by the waters of a nearby spring, other miraculous apparitions and cures witnessed in western Ireland, and reports of blood issuing from crucifix statues—all of these absurdities seem real to pious believers, so why not the quotidian miracle of priestly transubstantiation?

"The priest was rinsing out the chalice: then he tossed off the dregs smartly." The consecrated wine left in the chalice after the priest drinks some cannot be simply discarded. Near the end of the ceremony, in a rite called the "ablution," he washes away the last traces of Christ's blood by pouring in some unconsecrated wine, rolling it around, and drinking that.

"Doesn't give them any of it: shew wine: only the other. Cold comfort." In America today, Catholic communicants can choose to receive a sip of wine with their bread, but this option was not available in Joyce's Ireland: ordinary people got only "the other," a wafer. "Shew wine" shows Bloom riffing off of the Jewish concept of "shewbread" to coin a phrase for the wine that the priest merely holds up to the view of the congregation, safely out of their profaning reach. The English expression "cold comfort" denotes a weak consolation; Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable calls it "Comfort that is found chilling by the receiver, discouraging, little or no consolation." Alcohol affords more warmth, as the makers of the liquor called Southern Comfort are well aware.

In a lovely turnaround from this reflection on the holy fathers' unmaternal severity, Bloom hilariously supposes that they may have considered the alternative: "Pious fraud but quite right: otherwise they'd have one old booser worse than another coming along, cadging for a drink. Queer the whole atmosphere of the. Quite right. Perfectly right that is." Withholding comfort is bad, but the church's reverential atmosphere, and with it the business model, would be ruined if Dublin's numberless barhounds added churches to their rounds of pubs. In actuality, the architects of the Catholic liturgy probably had a different reason for being so miserly: holy wafers can be safely placed in a communicant's mouth but holy wine might dribble down a cheek or spill onto the floor, profaning Christ's blood. Bloom's explanation is a lot more fun, however.

JH 2022
Priest dipping communion wafer into wine. Source: