Catholics believe in transubstantiation and transmogrification. When Catholics take communion, they believe they are receiving the body and blood of Christ. Literally. There are complex theological arguments as to how this is so. For me, the least convincing arguments borrow the language of science. The arguments that elicit a “fair enough” response from me reference the various gospel accounts of the last supper. My favorite explanation of how this could be so, I came across in Wikipedia: The physical properties of a hat do not make the hat a hat. A brown felt hat is not known as a hat because it is brown, nor because it is felt, nor even because it takes the shape of a hat—an object could do all those things and still not be a hat. I am reminded of Meret Oppenheim’s Object, a fur lined teacup; it isn’t a teacup. Just like Rene Magritte’s pipe isn’t a pipe. No, a hat is a hat because at a metaphysical level, it is a hat. Its essence is hat. Fair enough.
As confirmation and first communion approached, I began paying attention to the consecration of the host. The communion wafer, by all accounts, is just a wafer until it is consecrated. Something happens up on the altar.
Prior to Vatican II, the priest consecrated the host with his back to the congregation. (For us liberal types, Vatican II is a great thing—no more doom and gloom, greater transparency of what exactly is happening in the mass. It must have been difficult for those who didn’t pay attention in CCD to know what was what with it all going on in Latin. No wonder someone needed to ring a bell.) Now the priest consecrates the host facing the congregation.
In my heathen mind, I understand this ritual as a spell, as ritual magic, and I commented to my husband, that Vatican II got the consecration of the host wrong, as ritual magic. The combined prayers of the congregation combine to call down the Holy Spirit. The priest is the locus of the binding together of prayerful petition and under the original rules the congregation and the priest formed a spiritual flock of geese, their energy focused on the wafers and wine before the priest and beneath the image of God on the crucifix hanging on the back wall of the altar.
But then I started to think about why the magisterium might have decided on this shift. In the old magic, God is called from outside the congregation and the priest. God does not reside inside even the priest, nor among the parish, but is called down from on high, alien to our daily lives. In the Vatican II ritual, God resides among the congregants and magisterium—priests and pastoral assistants, deacons—everyone on the altar and in the building working to bind together the prayers toward the purpose of consecration and communion. (My heathen mind can’t help but draw a parallel with the pagan circle of worship.)
Confirmation happens during holy week. Holy week includes the Chrism Mass, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter Mass. Sometime prior to the Easter Vigil, candidates for confirmation must attend their first Rite of Reconciliation.
The Rite of Reconciliation, or confession, is one of the seven sacraments of the church. As far as I know, it is the one sacrament in which any Joe off the street can partake. Anyone may walk into a confessional during confessional hours and unburden herself. No one will check your Catholic credentials. My godfather (second baptism at my confirmation into the United Methodist Church) came home from the Second World War haunted by the face of the Jap he shot, and who shot him. He often went to confession at Sacred Heart. He came from a Jewish family, but had enlisted as Christian for a complex of reasons best known to him.
I scheduled my first confession with the intent of making a thorough inventory of my shortcomings, in the spirit of twelve step programs. I intended to arrive with a long list of every bad thing I’d ever done through commission or omission. That didn’t happen. I ran out of time and not only failed to make my list, but arrived late to the mass after which I had scheduled my confession. My intent was to discuss, among other things, my friend Christine with whom I had been close as an undergraduate.
Christine and I had attended the same Women’s Spirituality course with several of our closest friends. We each had our own reading list. I read Mary Daly, Christine Downing, a then-recent translation of poems to the Goddess Inanna, The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myth and Secrets. Christine was raised Catholic and read texts some of us (i.e. me) dismissed as patriarchal and arcane. We shared the books, all purchased at the Bodhi Tree bookstore in Los Angeles. (We all piled into the ancient Civic hatchback I had at that time—which I had to park carefully with a preference for hills because its reverse only worked occasionally and the car would only start with the throttle pulled all the way out—a hill is helpful if the throttle fails to get a stick shift going. The hatchback was light enough that I could push it uphill if needed and with five strong women pushing it, city parking was no problem at all.)
Sometime around graduation, Christine and my best friend at the time, Mary, had a huge falling out. Mary was upset because while Mary sat out a semester at home, Christine didn’t contact her, or something along those lines. Mary wanted allegiance. Disloyal and stupid, I shunned Christine under the flag Mary had raised: you can’t call yourself my friend and still be friends with her.
We all graduated, went to grad school, got married, got divorced, and along the way, Christine gave birth to her first child. Her child died.
I didn’t send a card. I didn’t call. I didn’t acknowledge the heartbreaking reality of it. I didn’t give Christine or her child as much thought or care, as I should have.
Over the years since, I have made a point of telling mutual friends to tell her I’m sorry without explanation: If you run into Christine, tell her I’m sorry.
High on the list of Shitty Things I’ve Done, that sin of commission and omission was on my mind when I scheduled my first reconciliation.
Sometime prior to my arriving late for mass and getting reconciled, Christine responded to a brief message sent via Facebook. I had asked if she thought I’d lost my mind in pursuing Catholicism. Her response was perfect: Faith isn’t about sanity. Faith is about choosing to believe things firmly rooted in the irrational—or at least in a part of the brain that doesn’t work chemistry problems. There was more. Enough that feeling like she’d accepted my apology was secondary to the sign I took her response to be—all of it together, her forgiveness and her encouragement, amount to one of those messages The Universe sends occasionally. I am again blessed with having Christine in my life. I don’t deserve this consideration, but I’m willing to try to deserve it.
The Chrism Mass happens at the local cathedral. At this special mass, the Bishop blesses all the three oils that will be used in the Rites of the church, including Confirmation—for which Chrism is used. The blessed oils are then distributed to all the churches of the deanery and are presented to the individual parishes on Holy Thursday in a processional.
On Good Friday the veneration of the cross was beautiful. Person after person came up and kissed, or knelt and kissed, bowed, or placed a hand against the wood of a six foot cross standing in front of the altar. I pressed my lips to the side of the cross, foot level. When I returned to the pew and kneeled, I wept for the elegiac beauty of the ritual and the idea of living and dying for others. I felt the principle of self-sacrifice venerated—putting others before self—sacrifice for the sake of others. I’m sure my interpretation is not strictly adherent to the Church’s teaching, but the idea of being for others first is tremendously moving to me—more so than the idea of my eternal life being purchased by the death of another—though I’m sure that purchase of eternal life is exactly the point the Church would like me to take away.
I like to think I behave myself well, when I do, not because I’m afraid of Hell or jealous of Heaven, but because it’s the right thing to do. I don’t need metaphysical ransom to behave myself, which isn’t to say that I don’t often resemble the old lady in “A Good Man is Hard to Find:” if there had been someone there to shoot her in the head every day of her life, she would have been a good woman. Though, in my defense, the realization that we’re all equally beloved isn’t quite as hard won for me.
At the Good Friday mass, the priest lifted the bowl of communion wafers and I felt a burst of energy—imagine a tiny chrysanthemum firework going off silently and invisibly—the brown felt hat without the brown, the felt, or the hat shape. The small burst’s locus was the glass bowl of wafers. It came and went as fast as a flash bulb. My chest tightened. I took a deep breath and questioned whether or not the experience was real.
Was it real? If that’s what it feels like for the spirit to descend, what does it feel like to take communion after the spirit has descended into it? Had I experienced what I thought I experienced? Did I need to revisit my Prozac prescription?
Easter Vigil mass is when the Catechumen are baptized, the candidates confirmed. The Vigil is the mass of first communion for all RCIA students. Easter Vigil is a long mass with nine readings tracing communion from Genesis forward. The Vigil mass begins in darkness, lit only by the candles the Priests and congregants process in, lit from a bonfire outside in the Mary grotto. The congregants sit with their candles and the altar attendants light the Pascal and other two candles. The procession includes an incensory, and the air is thick with sacramental smoke. We sit in darkness and listen to the readings and choral responses.
In the liturgical year, Christ rises during the Easter Vigil mass. When the mass readings reach the risen Christ, the carillon chimes, a bell is rung, and all the house lights come up. It is a gloriously theatrical moment. I am fully present for the beauty of the ritual.
The Catechumen are baptized in the baptismal font—most by full emersion, kneeling in the water, their faces pushed into the water three times, in the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit. (Some only knelt while the Priest poured holy water from a pitcher over their heads in three draughts. Baptism by full emersion is optional.) The Catechumen exit to the conference rooms to change into Sunday clothes.
While the Catechumen change their clothes, the Priest blesses the congregants and the choir sings.
When we are all seated again, we are called up to the altar to receive anointing with Chrism as full members of the Catholic Church, our confirmation. (Chrism is oil— mostly olive, blessed by the Bishop and scented with sandalwood, patchouli, and floral notes. It is both dark and smoky and light with flowers. It smells wonderful. I intend to ask whether I can have some of last year’s batch. It smells that good. I’m a consumer of high-end perfumes, and this stuff is . . . wait for it . . . heavenly.) My husband introduces me to the Priest; I present my wife, Cave Mouth with the saint name, Dorothy. (There are two martyrs named Dorothy, but my Dorothy Day has not been officially canonized. Shhhh, it’s a secret.) The Father spreads Chrism on my forehead in cruciform, says some things, and we hug. I experience a moment of pure happiness.
I am now a Catholic.
The mass continues with the consecration of the host. (There is a moment in the liturgy when the Holy Spirit is supposed to descend. At that moment a bell used to ring. I’m not sure I felt the spirit descend at those times or not, but I don’t think it matters.) When the Priests outstretch their arms in a pushing gesture to bless the host, a rush of energy blows down the tops of their arms and from their palms toward the altar.
There was nothing to see, only the experience of an animated presence.
This time, I am certain of what I am experiencing. It is more than enough. Actually taking communion now seems beside the point, but I do with some amount of expectation. The wafer is simply a wafer in my mouth. The wine surprisingly good—much better than the crappy grape juice they serve at Methodist communion. I feel I have had my miracle, and I have no room to complain.
On Easter Sunday the candidates and Catechumens are no longer. We are Catholics. We take communion with everyone else. Unlike the Easter Vigil, which seemed to be attended by only the RCIA people and their guests, the Easter Mass is packed, standing room only. One of the three altar candles gutters out under the weight of the brass follower. When the Holy Spirit descends this time, it is perfunctory, a quick poof and gone.
Clearly, I have lost my mind. Maybe I’m not merely depressive; maybe I’m manic-depressive! Maybe I’m just flat out nuts and need to rethink my absence from the couch for the last decade. I don’t feel crazy. But not feeling crazy is a sign of genuine insanity, right? As long as I was fretting about being sound of mind and body, I was ok. Since I no longer obsessively fret…
With a deep breath to gird myself against my embarrassment and fear that I have lost it completely, I share this experience with the RCIA class at our regular Tuesday night meeting. The director offers reassuring information: people report light falling on them and all sorts of phenomena during the process. I am relieved: mystical phenomena are part of the program. Ritual exists to occasion precisely this sort of experience. Sure, there are scientific reasons rituals produce results, but I’m not convinced that an explanation based in the sciences, hard or soft, matters. The experience is the experience. Crazy or not.
My friend Amelia, a yoga instructor and Buddhist, wants a debriefing mid-week. I tell her, I sensed the descent of the Holy Spirit. I think I have lost my mind. She asks if she’s ever told me about her Kundalini rising. When her Kundalini rose, she kept touching the top of her head to make sure it was still there: She felt like her head had been replaced with a swaying lotus bloom. Further, the corollary of confirmation for Buddhist is "taking refuge" in the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings) and the Sangha (the community of Buddhists). When Amelia took refuge, the instructor blessed the graduating class and the air was so thick and electric with blessing that the rice she threw on the yogis danced in the air around them. No, Amelia said, you aren’t crazy; it’s real.
Light from light.
True God from True God.
Easter lasts eight days. It is a liturgical season like Christmas and Lent.
When I return to church for my first regular mass, still during Easter, I have a trembling feeling about taking communion. I’m afraid because suddenly it’s a really big deal. (We’re sitting out in the Narthex because our children are free-range and cannot be relied upon to sit still for any length of time—high energy, spirited girls.) This vague and dull terror is irrational. Still, my chest is fluttery as I make my way down the aisle.
Father R smiles brightly as he holds up the wafer: The body of Christ. I bow my head. (I like that he seems to take pride in our conversion and seems genuinely fond of me—even though, as you have likely guessed, I was the kid at the back of the room who always had another question.) I have made an altar of my hands for the wafer. When I put it in my mouth, the wafer itself seems to have the properties of wafer, but my chest is still fluttery scared and it seems extra important to remember to cross myself after receiving it. (I forgot to cross myself at the Vigil.) As I make my way back to the narthex where the families with kids who can’t sit still sit, the trembling feeling remains in my chest, but also I feel a light—basketball sized and glowing. Kneeling seems like a very good idea at this point. I pray. Hard.
For the life of me, I can’t remember what the prayer was; maybe it was just communion with the spirit.
Light from light.
True God from True God.
One in being.
In the car, I tell my husband about my experience. I tell him, I must be half-crazy. His answer is, Yeah, but it’s the good half.
Aw, I think, that’s one of the reasons I love you.