Thirteen sat around a wooden table. Wine and bread were blessed and passed. The cup was clay; the clothing rough. The bread unleavened. Simple words were spoken by the speaker. “This is my body. This is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”
After the words, the speaker did not push back the sleeve of his robe to flourish a signet ring upon his finger and ask for parchment to press an official seal onto molten wax dripped upon the page. These legalistic actions came much, much later in the often bloody march of Christianity through the classical and medieval worlds and on into the Protestant Reformation and the colonization of the New World. This is part of the legacy of Christianity, and, thus, of the Roman Catholic Church. It is part of our legacy up to and including the 21st century.
I am neither a theologian nor biblical scholar. The historical Jesus I reference above and the words of that speaker to which I am drawn were presented in the language of parables. The speaker was a notable confronter of religious hypocrisy and hairsplitting legalisms. For years, I believed those legalisms and the dire consequence of sinful disobedience. I believed those laws, often, at my peril.
The first vivid instance I remember being blindsided by sin occurred in the very confessional where I had gone to be shrived. I must have been eight or nine, and it was one of those late-afternoon Fridays where the nuns led us into the church and we lined up to enter the ornate wooden enclosure at the rear of the sanctuary. I remember the old priest was hard of hearing and you had to raise your voice so he could hear. After the little door shifted in its slot and the screen revealed the priest’s shadowy profile and he recited the invocation, I raced through my version of the list every one of us kids had of our childish infractions: three times talking back to my mother, hitting my brothers five times, not saying my nightly prayers . . . Maybe the priest had reached his own breaking point by then, and he just blurted out, “You’re not really sorry for those sins, are you?” Stunned, I answered truthfully, “No.”
Then he was silent; I was silent. Confused, I left the confessional abruptly, without absolution. Out of necessity, I had to pretend that I had been given the requisite penance of reciting three Our Fathers, two Hail Marys, and one Glory Be. I proceeded to march down to the altar rail and say my prayers, convinced I had sinned again, and this time while in the confessional. Compounding that, I went to Holy Communion that Sunday with the old unforgiven sins plus the newly minted one on my soul. It’s laughable now in a rueful way, but I knew then that hell was licking at my heels and that sin could stalk you anywhere, even in the safest of places. This lasted a long, long time.
It wasn’t until Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council that I felt some breathing space. But, even so, during my college years, I “lost my faith”—not due to the words of Jesus Christ, but because of the absence of follow-through in the American Catholic Church. Too much was going on in our country that the church was not addressing in the American South and in a tiny country in Southeast Asia.
Some members of my generation joined the Peace Corps in response to a young Catholic president asking us to do something for our country and not just for ourselves. Others allied with the civil rights movement, went to war, or went to jail to protest that war. In my case, I joined the Catholic Worker movement in New York City’s then impoverished Lower East Side. I see now that New York City was the beginning of a long search to define exactly what faith meant to me while living in a world that gives us so many reasons to deny its existence.
However, during all that wandering away from the Catholic Church, I was never able to stop believing in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. I receive that sacrament fully and gratefully when I can, but like any guest invited to a bountiful table who wishes to be there, I wanted all to be welcome and not denied because of a different religious affiliation.
This past year, I joined a community that has officially and amicably split from its Protestant denomination. This community embraces believers and nonbelievers alike and has been one of the important hubs on our island for physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being. There is more than one ex-Catholic in the group. Surprisingly, one effect of my participation has been a desire to explore again my own Catholic upbringing. To that end, I recently asked two female friends if we could meet to discuss our shared Catholic roots.
I’m going to part the curtain a bit on that conversation. Specifically, I convened the group because I wanted to know what each of us thought about the Holy Eucharist. That was the initial spur. The Holy Eucharist is the essential activity of the Catholic Mass. It is not considered a symbolic act but the actual changing, or transubstantiation, of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Yet, according to a fairly recent report from the Pew Research Center, nearly 7 in 10 Catholics say they personally believe that the bread and wine used in communion “are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” Just one third of US Catholics say they believe that “during the Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually becomes the body and blood of Christ.”
The official teaching of the church also directs communion to be offered only to those who are baptized and appropriately shrived Catholics. Others who wish to approach the table but who are not “of the fold” may indicate their desire by crossing their arms upon their chests and receiving a blessing from the priest. In this scenario, who is being served and who is being denied?
To examine all of this, I gathered with my friends Connie and Joanne in Connie’s living room one recent afternoon. As with any lively conversation, a backstory was necessary to set things in motion, so I asked three questions: When were you born? How did Catholicism affect you as a child, through adolescence, young womanhood, now? And, finally, how do you conceive of the Eucharist?
Connie was born in 1936. I was born in 1942 and Joanne in 1949. Our early Catholic educational experiences were shaded by different historical contexts: Connie was pre–World War II, I was post–World War II, and Joanne was mid-50s. Connie was born into a large Irish American Catholic family, and both Joanne and I have French Canadian Catholic backgrounds. All three of us were very devout as young girls, and all three of us studied some iteration the legendary Baltimore Catechism. I happened to bring my 1949 No. 3 version for us to pass around and ponder. Out of the corner of my eye I caught Joanne turning the initial pages, grimacing, then rolling her eyes. With an exasperated exhalation, she said, “Listen to this! Lesson one—to kids, mind you! On the Purpose of Man’s Existence. I can’t believe this was taught to kids. And here’s one of the first questions following that first lesson: Atlee, a Communist, wants his heaven here upon earth. He claims there is no future life. Is it possible for Atlee to be perfectly happy here on earth? Explain your answer in a paragraph of less than 100 words.”
Well, I thought, might as well sauce the lesson up with some Cold War politics. For those of us instructed during that period, it’s worth taking a look at what we were taught and memorized by rote before we even knew what the words meant, let alone what the intentions behind them revealed. It’s pretty heavy-handed stuff.
Connie seemed to have a less jaundiced experience than Joanne and I did in this regard. She has a very can-do, buoyant personality, and said what she most remembered about her early instruction was a little book she liked in fourth grade on the lives of the saints. She was particularly affected by the expression “my cross to bear,” and actually prayed to God to send her very own cross to bear so that she could offer it up and thus share in the suffering of others.
She also remembered, as I did, a particular graphic in the Baltimore Catechism depicting our souls shaped as milk bottles. The all-white bottle illustrated a pure soul, a bottle speckled with black dots illustrated venial sins, and the dreaded blackened bottle indicated a soul in mortal danger. Joanne laughed at this since she was a CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) kid who went to public school and thus took her religious instruction only once a week at the church. It seemed she read a more Baltimore Light version.
Other revelations were made, both comic and serious, as is the case with lives that have reached the ages the three of us have attained. All of us went to Catholic colleges, both Joanne and I leaving the institutional church in our junior years and Connie remaining a communicant up to the present day. It was a good exercise to have our own little ecumenical council. Joanne and I are both involved in the new church community mentioned above, while Connie goes regularly to our island’s Catholic Church. But we were all eager to discuss our long and varied relationships to the institutional church.
So, how did we resolve the question of what we believe about the Eucharist? Connie: “After receiving communion, when I return to my pew, I feel fortified and strengthened by my reception of the Eucharist. I especially feel a bond with the people around me. When I was a young woman with my own growing family, husband and children, it was a time when we could all be together and quiet in that community. I feel that grace and community today when I walk back from communion.” Joanne: “After communion, it is important for me to kneel in prayer. It is a body posture that leaves me especially receptive to the energy I think of as grace.” Nicole: “When I receive communion, I see before me the battered face of a Bowery man bent over a steaming cup of coffee and a wooden bowl alongside him filled with black pumpernickel bread donated from a Jewish baker named Saul. In this, I do feel the existence of the real presence of Christ.”
It occurs to me that to answer this question of belief in the Eucharist is akin to trying to define the sound of one hand clapping. How do you make real the answer to the imponderable? The three of us spoke in the language of “feeling,” not “thinking,” as the portal through which we experience the Eucharist.
When I was in college, I was enamored with Archibald MacLeish’s poem “Ars Poetica,” in which the poet states:
A poem should be equal to:
He illustrates that singular and seemingly paradoxical equation with two examples:
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea
About the Eucharist, each person seems to have a singular and private metaphor for belief, one that is “equal to but not true” to a larger and more profound belief than can be imagined. For what is belief but a private and deep connection to mystery? This, to me, might be the real act of transubstantiation: the act of making our own belief visible to ourselves.
Nicole d’Entremont’s short story, “Fives,” is published in the current Littoral Books North by Northeast 2: New Short Fiction by Maine Writers 2021. She lives on Peaks Island, Maine.