The essence of faith is that I do not meet with something that has been thought up, but that here something meets me that is greater than anything we can think of for ourselves.
You wouldn’t think that the news that Hostess, the company that makes Twinkies and Wonder Bread, is filing for bankruptcy would trigger a fit of theological reflection. But as someone noted in the comments box of one of the Catholic blogs I’ve been following lately, there’s a very real sense in which all reflection is theological reflection. That’s particularly true for me in this season of my life, having come back to a Church that is in so very many ways, for good or for ill, utterly unrecognizable as the Church I wandered away from three decades ago.
As a revert (the combox term for returnees like me), I find myself most days neither fish nor fowl–nowhere near as orthodox or traditional or humorless as the great majority of the Catholics who hang around the blogosphere water cooler, and far less cynical and burnt out and angry than so many of my Vatican II cohort who stuck around seem to be. This is all as surprising to me as my return is to anyone who knows me, and leaves me (with apologies to Neil Diamond’s “I Am, I Said”) lost between two worlds: Latin’s fine, but it ain’t home; folk Mass is home, but it ain’t mine no more.
Hence, the ramping up of reflection. Every day I am rewriting the catechism of my Catholicism, forced to find conscious, faithful, non-kneejerk answers to a million questions that flow out of the one riddle I can’t get anywhere near solving: Why did I come back? And how does “reverting” shape the way I live my life–my politics, my relationships, my work, my witness in the world? (If it doesn’t shape those things, it was a meaningless sentimental gesture. I’m perfectly capable of meaningless sentimental gestures, mind you; I just don’t want this to be one of them.) This whiplashing between the Catholic girl I was and the Catholic old lady I am becoming is dizzy-making at best, provoking a kind of revertigo different in nature but no less severe in effect than that popularized on an episode of How I Met Your Mother.
The latest example of this when-worlds-collide phenomenon has to do with what Blessed John Paul II called “the source and summit of the Christian life,” the Eucharist. Communion is all over the Catholic news of late, with the bishop of Phoenix first ordering, then swiftly rescinding, a ban on administering Communion under both kinds at most Masses. Being invited to receive both Bread and Cup was a mark of the post-Vatican II liturgical changes experienced by U.S. Catholics, and altering that custom has all kinds of political and theological implications. Whether it’s read as clamping down on reported “abuses” of respect for the Real Presence, or an attempt to reduce the number of lay people who serve as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, or the Church going from the 60s to 0 in a Phoenix minute, everybody has an opinion. Underneath the politics, however, is my catechism question of the week: What do I believe about Communion? What difference does being able to receive (in whatever form, under whatever Sacred Species) make in my life?
I “made” (as we called it) my First Holy Communion in May, 1958, as a 7-year-old pre-Vatican-II second grader. It was an occasion to which I looked forward with, if not the ecstatic anticipation of earlier young Catholic girls like Therese and Maria Goretti–who kicked their kidskin boots and peasant clogs*, respectively, against the traces that at the time kept children from receiving before their 12th birthday–at least some sense that it would mark a spiritual turning point. I cleared the two most challenging obstacles by (1) swallowing my disappointment that I would not be wearing the pouffy, beruffled, crinolined meringue-fantasy Communion dresses my classmates’ parents decked them out in, because, as my mother put it, “Sweetie, you’re the Tailored Type,” and (2) obtaining a dispensation from the rule, in effect at the time, that the Sacred Host had to be swallowed whole, having proven, in a dry run conducted by the Assistant Pastor with unconsecrated wafers, that my hypersensitive gag reflex would otherwise have ruined the day for everybody. On the Day, I joined my classmates in singing “Jesus, Jesus, come to me / All my longing is for Thee” and Panis angelicus in our quavering trebles, processed forward to the altar rail, knelt, presented my tongue, received, chewed, and swallowed. It was good. If I did not see the heavens open, it wasn’t for lack of trying. (Several of my classmates, aware of my chewing exception, asked if I tasted blood. It was not as weird a question as it sounds, given our level of catechetical understanding. And no.)
The point is, I was conditioned to believe, unquestioningly and completely, in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, under the appearance (the accidents, in the Greek philosophical sense) of a circle of unleavened wheat paste. And through all my life’s twists and turns, that is my belief today. Sure, I played “priest” with Necco wafers, as did all my Catholic girl friends, but we were damned serious and reverent about it. And when the 60s and Vatican II and the liturgical renewal hit at the same time my adolescent hormones were firing up rebellion, I did find it easier to turn away from those old-fogey devotions like Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and making “visits” to the Tabernacle, and toward guitar Masses in the high school auditorium where we sang the Kyrie from the Missa Luba to the accompaniment of bongoes and hippie priests who burned draft cards with Dan Berrigan prayed the experimental Dutch Eucharistic Prayers with their startling new language for old belief. But none of that reduced or threatened my inbuilt Eucharistic devotion: it widened and deepened it.
That grounding lasted through my three decades of drifting. Even when The Wanderer awarded me its Golden Calf Award (for leading the faithful astray) for a booklet I wrote tracing the history of the Mass–they didn’t like that I said it was regrettable that for so many years worship of the Blessed Sacrament from a respectful distance replaced regular Communion (an opinion I still hold, in some pretty fine company, thank you). Even when I affiliated with other communions–I gravitated naturally to those (Episcopal and, surprisingly enough to some, Gnostic) that celebrated the Lord’s Supper with blessed bread and wine and allowed freedom of conscience among communicants to believe that this was not merely symbolic; no cracker and juice Christianity for me. Even when, in the run-up to my nephew’s First Communion, I ran into this catechizing at a family dinner:
Nephew Sean (at 7): Isn’t it cannibalism to eat Jesus’ Body and drink His Blood?
My Sister: No, honey. It’s just a figure of speech. We don’t really believe we’re eating His Body and Blood.
Me: Yes, we do.
Sister [horrified]: We do? Honestly? Still? You can’t really tell me you believe that! You’re smart! You’ve studied this stuff! You don’t even go to church anymore!
Me: I do believe it. It’s not cannibalism. But it is Jesus’ Body and Blood.
Sister: How can you believe that?
Me: Um, I dunno. Faith?
Nephew Sean: Can I have some more potatoes?
I could have talked transsubstantiation, sure. But in the end, I who love words have no words for the real mysteries. “Something meets me that is greater than anything we can think of for ourselves.”
Wonder Bread. It’s the wonder of the Bread of Life that called me back home. In Rome in 2010, like Elizabeth Seton a couple of centuries before, I felt the tug of hunger for that Bread. I had been sitting out, letting people clamber over me in the pew as I attended Mass with friends at home in the US, trying to decide whether this was truly where I was supposed to be. But in the churches of Rome, and especially at Assisi, I couldn’t resist. Confessing those unworthy communions was part of my formal re-reception a year ago Advent, but I can’t help but think of them as a felix culpa, a happy fault that both fed my hunger and stirred it anew.
It was Wonder Bread that got me back in line every Sunday–and now, sometimes, surprising even myself, in the middle of the week. It is Wonder Bread that moved me to tears when I participated in Benediction for the first time in 40+ years last spring, in the company not of the blue-haired ladies of my youth (of whom I am now one) but of a gaggle of extremely cool and normal teens and young adults, making a vocations pilgrimage around the archdiocese and stopping at a different parish each night to adore and give thanks. It is Wonder Bread that finds me, like John Vianney, throwing myself “at the foot of the Tabernacle, like a dog at the foot of his Master” when I am in need or in joy. And it is Wonder Bread that makes me rap the knuckles of a friend, a young convert, who abstains more than he receives. I want to yell, “You don’t know what you’re missing!” but instead I play the Therese card, knowing his fascination with the saint we affectionately refer to as his dead French girlfriend, and let her speak:
What is the Eucharist for me? The Wonder Bread that can never go bankrupt. Answering that question, responding to that attraction, has been the easiest of all. So far.
*Foot[literally]note: My friend insists that Maria Goretti (his dead Italian girlfriend) would not have worn clogs, which are too French. Research is ongoing, and edits will be made.