When I weigh the issue of meat-eating, one inescapable image comes to mind: A priest at my First Holy Communion holding the host over his head like a moon saying, “Behold the body of Christ,” and me trying desperately to wrap my seven-year-old head around the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. While I never actually achieved that theological feat, the fact is the climax of not only the Catholic Mass, but all Christian celebration, is symbolic form of cannibalism.
To be frank, the closest I’ve been to anything religious lately is a guy on the subway platform playing the Ave Maria on a zither. But I think there’s a reason this horrific-when-you-think-about-it moment is enshrined in Christianity. Barbarity and sacrifice are probably central to all life. Not only do we consume animals, we consume each other. Children feed off the life energy of their parents, who often say they “live” for their offspring. Sometimes even marriage itself does not survive the raising of children. We give our lives to causes, and our life’s energy to friends, neighbors, students, and the loves of our heart.
There are a lot less worthy ways in which we eat each other alive. Of course there’s the obvious brutality and torture in the news. But how about the daily anger we harbor towards family, friends, and workmates, the kind of anger we refuse to give up, holding on to it like Gollum’s ring? I sometimes think you ought to have a license to use email—the amount of hate, snark and vitriol flying through one’s inbox on any given corporate day is astounding. Since you don’t have to look your recipient in the eye, email is the new road rage.
The truth is no person is all one thing. Good and bad, dark and light. We’ve all got it in us. There was a time I lived rural climes where “gun opener”—the first day of deer season—felt bigger than Christmas. A horse owner, I had to drape my mount in an orange sheet for fear he might end up in some enthusiast’s crosshairs. “Look at that big bay deer! Must weigh 900 pounds!” None of the hunters I knew were evil, they were just people. Perhaps a little more primal than most.
The Catholic Church of my childhood is clearly on the skids, like a home team that hasn’t won a pennant in decades. Comparatively few observe the 40 days of lent any more— with no-meat Fridays, a symbolic reaching for our better selves. Vegetarians, I suppose in a way, live lent all the time. And the consumption of animals needn’t be gratuitously cruel. Michael Pollan’s advice some years ago in a New York Times Magazine article—if you’re not abstaining from meat altogether, best to avoid industrially farmed poultry and pork because of the horrific practices associated with these two species—makes sense to me.
However, better than debating about meat-vs.-no-meat, we all might consider the bigger, more metaphorical picture and frankly face, rather than deny, the dark side of our own condition. The urge to tear into a steak and tear into each other. Perhaps by owning our more brutal natures, we can transcend ourselves in places more important than the grocery aisle.