Aphantasia — A Corpus Christi Homily

Aphantasia (Greek for “without fantasy”) has been written about since 1880 but it has recently gained increased attention. To understand what I am talking about, picture a red triangle, a horse running, or the house where you grew up. With a moment’s attention you can see them in your mind. However, people with  Aphantasia are incapable of voluntarily forming images in their mind’s-eye.

Blake, a successful 30-year-old software engineer only recently learned he experienced the world differently from others. He relates a conversation similar to this with a Facebook friend:

—If I ask you to imagine a beach, how would you describe what happens in your mind?
    —Uhh, I imagine a beach. What?
—Like, the idea of a beach. Right?
    —Well, there are waves, sand. Umbrellas. It’s a relaxing picture. Are you okay?
— But it’s not actually a picture? There’s no visual component, right?
    —Yes, there is, in my mind. What are you talking about?
—Is it in color?
    —Yes…
—How often do your thoughts have a visual element?
    —A thousand times a day?
—Oh, my goodness…

An African BeachIf someone were to ask Blake to “imagine a beach,” he could ruminate on the concept of a beach: it has sand, waves, heat, sun. He could recognize a beach when he saw one, but even if he were standing on a beach he could not recreate or remember the image with his eyes closed.

Philip is a 42-year old photographer from Toronto. He is happily married, but he cannot conjure up his wife’s face (or any other image) in his mind’s eye. He was recently listening to a podcast presenter describing aphantasia. He says it came as a complete surprise, “I was like ‘what do you mean? People do that?’” He thought it was a joke so he checked with his four-year old daughter. “I asked her whether she could picture an apple in her mind, she said ‘yeah, it’s green’. I was shocked.

A 2009 survey of 2,500 people suggests that aphantasia is the experience of about 2% of people. So far, I have found it in two of my friends, including  a fellow priest. He tells me that when our spiritual director in seminary would tells us to prayerfully picture ourselves, say, at the table of the Last Supper he thought it was just a metaphor. He was surprised to learn that when people “counted sheep” to fall asleep that was more than just a figure of speech.

Disbelief is a common response when people on either side of this phenomena hear that other people do no experience the world like themselves. (“That’s impossible. You’re lying. You’re pulling my leg.”) However, unless we happen to carry around an MRI machine, we have to take our friend at his or her word in order to know the truth. And here we come to the connection with this Feast of Corpus Christi.

An extraordinary experience at the center of our Faith is founded upon a trust in our friend Jesus Christ’s testimony. At the Last Supper, Jesus does not say, “This is like my body,” or “This symbolizes or represents my body.” He says, “This is my body.” Around the year 150 AD, St. Justin Martyr described what early Christians everywhere believed about these words:

“The apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “Do this in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood” … “This food is called among us the Eucharist… For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”

Princess Grace (Kelly) Receives The Holy EucharistThe Church has always proclaimed and worshiped Jesus Christ as truly present, body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharist. This belief has been confirmed for us throughout the centuries. The Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised would lead us to all truth and remind us of all that he told us, has reaffirmed this teaching in Councils of the Church. Jesus has also allowed Eucharistic miracles to unveil this mystery we cannot normally perceive. For instance, at the Miracle of Lanciano in eighth century AD, a priest who was doubting Jesus’ Real Presence witnessed the bread become flesh and the wine become blood (which coagulated and broke into five globules in the chalice) as he said the words of consecration. In 1971, scientific analysis indicated that, as at similar miracles, the Host was human cardiac muscle. Who would go through such trouble when a fraudster’s more convenient use of pig’s flesh would have been undetectable? The truth is that Jesus gives us his heart in the Eucharist, along with his whole self. You can go to Lanciano, Italy and behold this Host today.

For many Christians, the Lord’s Supper is merely a symbolic commemoration, a ritual that remembers him. But if Jesus is everywhere, then he is nowhere. It then impossible to physically draw near to him any place on earth. Unless you are blessed with a vision of Jesus, you can never see him with your eyes or touch him in your flesh until after your death and resurrection. But with the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, “Behold, I am with you always…

If you have always enjoyed mental images, or if you have received the Real Presence of Jesus in Holy Communion since you were a child, then you may not appreciate the gift you have. If you experience aphantasia, or if you have never believed in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, then you may not even know what you are missing. So for our non-Catholic family and friends, tell them about this treasure—Jesus wants them to receive him, too. And for ourselves, let us truly appreciate the incredible gift that we are blessed to receive.

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