Recently my brother-in-law went to Savannah, Georgia and very much played the role of a tourist. He went around to see all the famous and historical places. He even went on a ghost tour. After going on the ghost tour, he called to tell us all about it. One of the stories that stuck with him the most was about Spanish Moss, Tillandsia usneoides.
This moss can be seen growing on trees all over the city of Savannah, but he said there is one square it won’t grow in. The ghost story goes that a woman was accused of murder but claimed to be innocent. She was put to death by hanging, and her ghost still haunts that square where she was killed. According to legend, Spanish Moss won’t grow where innocent blood was spilled which is why it doesn’t grow there.
As soon as we got off the phone with him, Nick turned to me and said, “Hey Dani, will you see if there’s a science reason for this?” He gets me. He knows I would LOVE to look into the science of what people mystify as a ghost story.
As it turns out, there IS a scientific reason why there are a handful of areas in Savannah that the Spanish Moss does not grow in. Spanish Moss is able to grow and spread to other trees by “anemochory”. This means that it propagates by the wind blowing its seeds and pieces of the moss itself to neighboring trees where it will then make a new home. Think like how a dandelion blows in the wind.
It turns out that in Savannah, on the north side of town, the city has built tall buildings on the south side of Bay Street, shown here next to some trees to the north with Spanish Moss.
These tall buildings block the wind from carrying the moss for a couple blocks to the south. The seeds can’t get past the buildings. Thanks to this man-made barrier, there are a couple of blocks south of Bay Street with no moss even though the rest of the city seems to be covered. (Pictured below, Johnson Square, a historic monument located one block south of Bay Street with its own made up ghost story about why the moss doesn’t grow there.)
It seems funny to me how there can grow such fantastical stories around things people don’t fully understand. In the case of the Spanish Moss there was a simple answer, no need for imagined stories. It just took a small amount of digging to better understand why things happen the way they do.
I find that a lot of misconceptions about the Catholic Church come about in a similar way. There are a few people who don’t fully understand what is happening and so they make up some fantastical story that seems silly when in reality there is a beautiful truth if they would have only looked. One part of Catholic tradition that I hear a lot of misconceptions about is the Eucharist.
To be fair, how this physical entity that looks like bread and wine can fully be our Lord is in itself a mystery, but the liturgy surrounding it becoming so is not so mysterious. I’ve often heard people say that the priest during the Liturgy of the Eucharist is like a magician saying the magic words and waving his hands around to make it transform but that is a horrible misrepresentation of what is happening.
The Eucharist is a gift given by God to us. Even if a priest accidentally said a word or two wrong, God isn’t going to revoke that gift and say “Sorry, you’ve got just regular bread today because the hand-waving wasn’t good enough.” Yes, we say certain words every time, but that is because we are joining ourselves to the one sacrifice of Christ’s body in the Paschal Mystery. Since God is outside of time we are re-presenting what happened, but the sacrifice only happened that one time. Because we are living this same sacrifice, we use the same words that Christ used at the Last Supper, taken from Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22.
Here are the Words of Institution based on a combination of these 3 passages:
- "Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my Body, which will be given up for you."
- "Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins."
- "Do this in remembrance of me."
The words we say come from scripture and they have a meaning to them. There are two thousand years’ worth of theological writings about the beauty of saying the same words as Christ. There was a reason that Jesus said them and so as we try to emulate Him there are reasons why we say them too.
If you’ve never been taught the truth, it can seem more mysterious than it is, but just like the simple explanation for the moss growing in certain areas and not others, there is a simple yet important reason why we do the things that we do. This is not only true when it comes to the Eucharist but so many other aspects of the faith. If we stop for a second to look into it, we can demystify it and find the truth. In prayer this week, thank the Lord for a religion with depth, where answers are there if we only look to find them.