Suddenly, just as I was starting to get a little bit comfortable in my role as Brother Morgan in the New Order of Saint Francis at Saint Anthony’s Cathedral, an Ecumenical Catholic Church in Detroit, the children came. No one knows why the children came, and no one asked the children to come. They just came.
The Bishop told me that I had to prepare them for taking First Communion. Communion is a practice that comes extraordinarily close to cannibalism. The earliest followers of Christ seemed to have grasped this fact rather well. The Gospel of John tells of a quick swelling of the ranks as Jesus went about doing nice things for people, healing the lame, giving sight to the blind, that sort of thing. Then, inexplicably, Jesus tells all these new followers that they ought to eat his body and drink his blood. Unsurprisingly, the number of followers thins out drastically. “This is a hard teaching,” many people say. ‘Hard’ is putting it mildly. Another word to use would be crazy. It also does not seem to be a very sustainable proposition down the line, given the finite nature of body and the finite nature of blood in the person of Jesus the Christ. The teaching is, in short, a problem. But Jesus, if you read the stories, does not seem to have a problem with problems. He seems to like problems and he gets into them all the time, right up until the final problem, the well-nigh unsolvable problem of getting nailed to a tree unto death, a problem which he both solved and didn’t solve, depending on how you look at it (that is to say, the solution is but another ongoing conundrum).
But I was speaking of the children. The problem for me, with the children, was how to prepare them for something that I myself constantly struggle with. What is this thing we are doing, eating the body and blood of Jesus?
Some Mass days I barely notice that I am taking communion. My mind has drifted off to other things. I’m going through the motions. I’m already thinking ahead to what I have to do for the rest of the Mass or later in the day. Other times (and these days it happens generally when I am administering the cup of blood to others), I feel a sense of the sacred creeping inexorably into the affair. We actually do intinction at Saint Anthony’s, which is where you dip your own host in the chalice. This is a big no-no amongst Roman Cathlolics but we’re Ecumencial Catholics so we can do whatever we want.
What I love, when holding the chalice of grape juice/blood, is that congregants come up to me with the host in their hands. I know many of these people quite well, and generally they look right into my eyes. There’s that moment of charged awkwardness. Are we supposed to be having a moment? We are doing something significant here, together, are we not? We think we are, at least, and so we are both manifesting the pose and attitude that goes along with taking something seriously. We are taking this ritual seriously. That’s usually the moment when a tiny charge of electricity runs down my body. This moment when eyes meet and a person is holding out the host in their hand, and I am standing with the cup held out in my hands.
Then, the person takes the host and dips it in the chalice. This process is fraught. Do you shake the host out a bit so as not to drop any blood on the floor? Do you do a quick half dip or a full dip? Whatever feeling of sacredness had attended ‘the look’ tends to dissipate in the clumsy, all-too-human negotiations around ‘the dip’. Sometimes I almost want to laugh. So, as the congregants come through, I am constantly toggling back and forth between the frisson of the sacred and a base hilarity that comes with watching an inherently ridiculous exchange.
At one point, sitting with the children, I asked them if there was anything they wanted to ask me. One of the children asked where the bathroom was. Then, another child raised his hand and blurted out, “Why did my grandma die?”
Given a few moments to collect myself, I said something like, “I don’t know. But we’re all going to die. Death is part of life and life is part of death. And that is why we are here in this church. We want to take some time every week to think about and to feel how strange and mysterious it is to be alive.”
That’s probably not a particularly good or helpful thing to say to children. I have no idea whether any of them had any clue what I was talking about. But I found myself constitutionally incapable of filling them with lies, or telling them to believe things that I myself don’t know how to believe, or dispensing empty dogma that is meaningless to my life. And yet, there is something fundamentally meaningful to my life being at church, in the act of worship, and part of the Mass every week.
So I tried to say that to the children. I told them that I didn’t know how to explain all these things and I didn’t know what to tell them about communion. But I told them that I like to think of communion as a taking in of God, physically, literally. Communion is God in the world and in us. Not out there. In here. Out there too, somehow. Everything that is beyond but also everything that is right here, and even more so, and intensely more obviously so, for a moment, for us, because of the physical act of what we are about to do, because we can experience God as a fleshy thing when in the form of a wafer that you can eat.
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Written by: Morgan Meis
Morgan Meis is a contributor to "Page Turner" at The New Yorker. He has a PhD in Philosophy and has written for The Smart Set, n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and VQR. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. He is the author of Dead People, with Stefany Anne Golberg. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.