College application essay
by Monica Byrne
September 20, 1998
“The Body of Christ.”
I receive the round wheat wafer into my cupped hands. Taking one step aside, I repeat the
motions my body knows well by now. My right hand dips into my left, and draws out the Host. I
place it on my tongue, keeping my eyes fixed on the candle flames around the altar. The thick
smell of incense fills the air as I walk across an expanse of dark red carpet, to reach another
“This is the Blood of Christ.”
My head bows and I take a little sip, wetting my mouth with watery wine. I walk back to
my pew, eyes closed. Catholics believe that although the taste is wine, the reality is that of
Christ’s blood. Pondering this, I kneel and rest my head on folded hands.
Aristotle and Aquinas were among the first to wrestle with the problem of how things
could change, yet remain the same. Aristotle knew that a leaf must remain a leaf despite constant
changes in temperature and position: substance is what causes a thing to remain itself. Centuries
later, Aquinas applied this to the Eucharist and called it transsubstantiation, which is the
conversion of the substance of bread to the substance of flesh, while still retaining its accidents –
that is, its outward appearance.
No family flanks me where I sit; Mom and Dad pray at home now. After the recessional
hymn, I file out and walk home in the suddenly bright light of day. Across Main Street lies my
beautiful, century-old brick house with its winding stone driveway. Inside, I hang up my dark
plaid peacoat and take a drink of Brita water. Walking through the dining room and the piano
room, I come to Mom’s room. It is large and square, with walls of pale blue and gold. A cut glass
chandelier hangs over an elaborate black-and-cream carpet.
She lies on a white hospital bed with cold silver bars on either side. Her pear-shaped
head, covered with little wisps of hair, turns, making visible a long, curving scar. Sunken brown
eyes stare in my direction, but she can know my presence only by my sound. Her vision failed her
eight years ago, but her eyes widen anyway.
“Hello Monica!,” she says brightly, smiling.
“How are you this evening?”
“It’s morning, Mom.”
“Oh. Maybe it is.”
“You doing okay?”
“I’m doin’ just fine. Were you there with me this morning on the Other Side?”
A sigh escapes me; I am dispirited at being confronted with another delusion. “No Mom,
I never am.”
“Oh well, I thought you were there, in beds, like me and Dad. There were birds there – it
seemed to me that you and the birds were singing a song to each other.”
I tear up. “That was just me whistling in the other room.”
“I’m going up to my room now.”
“Okay, honey. Love you lots.”
“Love you, Mom.”
On my way out I pass a massive bookshelf. There is a row of photo albums on it,
containing pictures I have pored over many times.
Mom sits on a rug with her long, tanned legs folded beneath her. She wears a sleeveless
black shirt and khaki shorts, and her long, thick chestnut hair is pulled back at the nape of her
neck. Her manner is gracious; her face, radiant – she has the kind of smile that is so generous as
to make you think she is in constant happiness. Her brown eyes sparkle down her noble, defined
nose, at me – just a toddler, bounding towards the cameria with a ferocious babylike grin.
When I get up to my room, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and stop to study
my reflection. My eyes glitter brown; my auburn hair is pulled back. I have the same full lips and
strong nose. The woman I see in my reflection is the woman I knew.
I only knew her up until my eighth birthday, when the brain tumor changed our lives.
With radiation treatment she lost her hair and worse, her sight. There were strong grounds for a
malpractice suit, but but Mom decided to spare her family a lawsuit and court battles. The harsh
gods of radiotherapy continue to exact their price on us for killing the cancer; during my
sophomore year, Mom became incapacitated and mentally disabled as scar tissue developed
where the tumor had been. Steroids, necessary to control the swelling in her brain, made her face
and body swell instead. All of this was a result of excessive radiation.
Yet she keeps on smiling, and never complains. She cannot walk, but she always reaches
up from her bed to grasp my hand if I need to cry, and makes room for me to climb in too. She
cannot tell day from night, but she still knows the capital of every country in Africa as well as the
entire history of the British monarchy. She cannot remember what she had for breakfast, but she
still tells me stories from her girlhood in St. Louis. She hast saw me as an eight-year-old, but
nevertheless she always tells me I look beautiful. It is I who puts her to bed now, but she is still
being a mother to me to the fullest extent she can. In Aquinas’ theory of transsubstantiation,
appearances remain the same, but the substance changes; for my mother, appearances have
changed, but the substance has remained.
I make my way back downstairs, through the living room, the parlor, and the entry room.
She seems to be sleeping again. I come beside her bed, take her hand and lean down to kiss her
soft cheek. With her eyes still closed, she smiles and squeezes my hand.
The Trinity, like the Eucharist, is one of the central truths of Catholicism. Besides being a
way of understanding God, it is alsoa metaphor for human relationships. As I see God – Father,
Son and Holy Spirit, I see my own divine trichotomy parallel to it. I am the Daughter of my
radiant Goddess, who watches me with her sparkling eyes, well pleased. After the cancer, a new
Spirit expresses the loving relationship between us. We bear the Trinity’s divine paradox: we all
proceed from one another, yet we all share the common substance.
At night I dream of coming upon a shore where Mom is the strong, vibrant, lovely
woman I knew as a child; she takes me into her arms as she alone in the universe can. The days
fall by, and I always struggle to see the substance over outward appearances. As I look down on
my sleeping mother, I realize, it is enough. I see her real beauty shining through all that the
cancer has done – it shines through me too.