Tuesday, November 10, 2009


The last few weeks at church, I've taken way too much communion wine.

I've done it as a courtesy—if the congregation doesn't finish the wine (a.k.a. The Blood of Christ, The Precious Blood, The Second Species, The Sunday Morning Treat), then the Eucharistic minister has to down it all. I try to do my part. No bit of communion can be left unconsumed.

This regulation became apparent at my wedding, in August. The priest prepared the normal amount--mingling eight parts water with two parts wine, doling it all out, saying “This is Jesus. . .”--but, because of the demographics of weddings (eight parts secular), very few imbibed of Christ.

One of the Eucharistic ministers, our diminutive friend Kate McGrail (aptly named for the task), had a particularly fun evening after being made to chug a quarter-liter of The Holy Spirit.

I thought I heard the priest say “bottoms-up” to her. He was certainly laughing.

I've had this incident (this accident?) in mind during mass, and so I've drunk deeply to spare the middle-aged ladies at St. Paul's from midday burping. I've felt the buzz of Our Lord. It's hard to look reverent with a mouthful of Burgundy-Blood soaking a wafer of Man-God, but I fold my hands and sneak toward the back, where I always sit. I swallow in secret and feel, for no and every reason, good.


Communion blends many of my favorite things. First, there's the eating. I'm never one to turn down a free sample and, after a half-an-hour of sitting and thinking, I'm always a bit peckish. Second, there's the light pomp of approaching the altar with a group of people. To the uninitiated, the whole experience might seem creepy, involving as it does a slow, collective trudge toward an old man in robes offering a magical piece of person. To me, it's like a weekly graduation; but, instead of a degree, I get fellow-feeling. We're all in this together, you and you and pretty you and elderly you and infant you. We're asserting that we have something in common and, hopefully, that thing is a sense of charity and love. Plus, there's a deep satisfaction, having had the opposite experience so many times, of being in a line that moves efficiently: there's no quicker, more consistent queue than communion.

What I look for in religious services: a meal, some ceremony, a nip of empathy, and a speedy line. That's all.

But maybe it's that consistency that's most important to me. Communion is something I've done for twenty years, at the same time every week, often at the same place. There's not much else, beyond bodily function, that I can say that about.

Generations of grandparents took communion, too, their lives measured out, week by steady week. I like the idea that a religious service projects me back in time, connects me with those long-gone folks. It's validating in a way that most of my perpetually capricious activities are not.


I remember taking my first communion, in my suit, up on the altar with the priest and the be-flowered girls in white. (I'd kissed one of them on her barrette in school that year, in the coatroom. She was super-cute.)

We'd been taught all year how to receive: left hand over right, say “amen,” eat without chewing (old-fashioned Catholics don't want to bite down on God—-I nibble). But we hadn't really gotten to the mystery of transsubstantiation—-the incredible(?) process through which a sliver of mass-produced bread turns into the flesh of a 2000-year old, 5'1” Arabic man.

We may have had a coloring book, but that didn't clear up the figurative/literal debate—-was this bland cookie actually Christ? Was it merely a symbol of his love, a token of remembrance, a chewy little metaphor? We were left on our own to think about that, to believe outside the lines.

I, eternally distracted and distracted from the eternal, kept an eye on that cute barrette.

I knew we were almost there, though, almost to the big day, ready to take, eat.

It was odd to make this deeply-personal step a kind of performance, but the church always parades their eight-year-olds through the motions. I think kids should decide when exactly to suspend their disbelief and leap into the zany world of spiritual snacking. As it is, though, they have to go through the ritual, get watched, get clapped for. I, for one, was so nervous up there that I had no prayerful focus. I think my main concern was making sure there were no Christ-crumbs on my kiddie-tie.


“Do you feel different?” my Aunt Joanne asked me afterwards. I knew I was supposed to say yes and so I did. I guess I was being honest; I was part of the adult group now and that was different. We weren't saved or elect. We just got to decide if communion was something that mattered to us. I felt different because I actually had to do something in church. I felt different, yes.

In the coming weeks, I'd get in the efficient line and wander up. To me, it wasn't unlike standing in line to go to gym class. This was something I was supposed to do, something my dad and brother did. I did it.

It took me a long time, years, to get the idea that I was supposed to be communing with God and with the people around me. Now, I love the sensation of common purpose, especially since it's so hard to have that in regular life, to look around and understand the experience of that guy on the street over there, that young woman popping her gum, that orange-headed kid who just let go of his balloon, that person--inscrutable--agitated by, who can know, then across the street.

We don't want to be the same as other people in that context, in public. We want to be left alone, original and invulnerable. But communion, it's my hope, lets me be with them a little bit. Because, as much as I want to be an individual, I want even more to be--under a spectrum of stain-glassed light and everywhere else--unalone. So I try, for a few seconds at least, to put on the life of the widow with warbling voice, singing a hymn too loudly. The little kid reading Curious George. The priest, courageously calm. Megan, concerned yet happy. My father.


It's sometimes said that, when historical Jesus went to the desert for forty days, he was trying to take into himself all of the potential emotions of humankind. Through meditation and imagination, through fasting and through just plain being God, he was able to feel, in every instantiation, all that's possible--temptation, evil, goodness, innocence, a bunch of other stuff I obviously can't identify, joy.

That was an important attempt, to say the least. When I take communion, I'm supposed to have some, some access to that. Empathy is the miracle.

At eight, though, all that was important to me was that I got to tease my sister right after I received. She was only five and had to stay back in the pew, fiddling with her up-on-Sunday hair. Even though she didn't care much about church at the time, when I got communion she wanted it too, as if it was a long-neglected toy I'd rediscovered--Lincoln Logs or a Hula Hoop.

My brother and I conspired to make her think that communion was the most fun thing in the world to eat, that she was missing out.

“It tastes like tacos,” I'd tell her.

“Nuh-uh,” she'd say, annoyed.

“That's why it looks like a little tortilla,” my brother would add.

“Mmm, burger and cheeeeese.” I'd smack my lips.

She'd hit me. I was not empathizing with her.

“Didn't you guys hear what we were talking about in church?” my dad would say. We hadn't, really, but we figured whatever it was meant we had to be good.

* * *

It's hard for me to explain why I believe in this thing, the Eucharist. A few weeks ago, I was listening to a man on the radio deride christian extremists and what they believe. He mentioned some old-testament stuff about arks and parting of seas and I didn't blink an eye. When he got to the part about the Eucharist, though, I tensed and looked away. I didn't want to be his target.

This moment convinced me that, despite all the scientific reasons I should not believe in the Eucharist, I do. It remains a wonder I base myself on, extra-logically, up there with the miracle of human consciousness. Both of them are puzzles, really, the brain and this bread.

Why should we be able to imbue anything with meaning, why be able to make metaphors, why have the capacity to think about things we have no capacity to understand? It's all excellently unbelievable.


A few years ago, at an Easter mass, I took communion, got back to my pew, and fell apart. Pardon the testimonial feel of this story, but I seemed to be having a real religious experience. I felt joy and pain together and, unable to synthesize the two, shrunk into myself. I'd been activated.

I think maybe Christ is an odd collective memory; Maybe when I take the Eucharist, I'm remembering him, that's all. Could be there's no body in it.

But memory isn't just a metaphor. Memory is the thing and its representation, co-mingled.

In eating a piece of bread that's meant to help me remember this person I've never met, I come to carry a physical semblance of him within me, if only through the play of memory.

And memory is material, isn't it? Physical?

The writer Barrett Mandel says, “Since my past only truly exists in the present and since my present is always in motion, my past itself changes too—actually changes—while the illusion created is that it stays fixed.”

We're carrying with us the living body of our past, the flesh of memory. It's always changing, amen.


I'm sure all of this has been well-considered by theologians for hundreds of years. I should probably stick to keeping my own stories alive.

But, to challenge myself, I'll try to think about all these things when I go up to receive this week. And all the other people in front of me in the fast-moving line, their personal enigmas. I'll drink the wine, blood, backwash; eat muscle and wheat. I'll have a Memory. And I'll try not to drop Him on my tie.

1 comment:

Joe said...

I salute you, sir, for your beautiful, examined faith. I enjoyed this meditation immensely. Ima get crazy religious as well and drop a scripture:

12 Wherefore I will not be negligent to put you always in remembrance of these things, though ye know them, and be established in the present truth.
13 Yea, I think it meet, as long as I am in this tabernacle, to stir you up by putting you in remembrance;
2 Peter 1: 12-13

I feel this is the divine purpose behind many of our earthly rituals: to stir us up in remembrance. But, that said, there is a strange, certain, ineludible power within the symbols themselves. I think you hit on it when you said:

"In eating a piece of bread that's meant to help me remember this person I've never met, I come to carry a physical semblance of him within me, if only through the play of memory."

Another scripture that came to mind when I read that sentence:

48 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. Amen.
Moroni 7:48

There is a line from the Tao Te Ching that says, "Ritual is the husk of true faith." I like that a lot. Like the husk on a plant (a coconut?) protects and preserves the fruit inside, maybe ritual is a way of shaping abstract ideas and feelings, and protecting them from being diluted, corrupted, or forgotten?