My best friend Nancy followed me from the Communion rail back to our front pew with a contrail of little girls in foaming white tulle trailing along behind her. Deputized by Sister Mary Agnes as First Communion-Commandant, I slipped back into the pew first, bent over and started to put the kneeler down for our row. Nancy immediately tripped over it and it clanged down hard on the marble floor with a loud, ringing BONG. She stumbled sideways, thudding down with a hollow ka-thunk of elbows in the pew, making the other girls snicker. I rolled my eyes at her klutziness, then noticed with horror her rhythmically moving jaw.
“You can’t chew Jesus!” I hissed. She knew this, of course—her eyes were wide and staring, like a terrified mare.
“He’th thtuck on the roof of my mouth,” she lisped in a panic, frantically tonguing the now-gummy disc.
“Let Him melt!” I whispered, outraged.
Our First Holy Communion, the moment of truth, and it was going off the rails. Clad in white dresses, white gloves, and white veils (we were Little Brides of Christ, after all), we all clutched new rosaries and prayer books, too. The most important day of our lives and we were messing it up with serial sins: banging down kneelers, thumping around on pews, talking in church and chewing on the Lord. We were surely going straight to Hell. What a waste when we’d studied so hard, learned so much, and become so holy.
Leading up to our big day we’d learned that the holiest part of Holy Communion was transubstantiation. It was kind of a holy magic trick, like pulling a rabbit out of the archbishop’s tall hat. When the altar boy rang the bells three times midway through the Mass, the yeasty little hosts mysteriously turned into the living, breathing body of Jesus. For us to eat. Intrigued—and a little grossed out—I asked my dad how little chunks of bread could turn into flesh.
“It’s a miracle,” he replied succinctly. Inculcated by our devout-but-otherwise-sane parents, we accepted the miracle of transubstantiation in the placid manner of children who have to take the adult world as it comes. Why balk at magical Jesus-flesh when we’d already embraced Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny?
On the long-awaited day, Jesus was placed directly upon our tongues by Father Leo, God’s representative on earth. We weren’t worthy to touch the Lord, except for our tongues. Above the shiny gold paten held under each communicant’s chin to catch the Lord in case of a fumble, Father plonked each host down on pink tongues, intoning, “The Body of Christ.” This was to emphasize that we were receiving the living flesh of Jesus. We’d been allowed nothing to eat or drink after supper Saturday night, and were required to fast until after Mass, keeping our belly-space pristine. Presumably this was so Jesus wouldn’t have to slosh around with Cap’n Crunch or oatmeal. For me, prone to low blood sugar, there would follow many Sunday mornings when hazy black flowers bloomed in front of my eyes if I stood up too fast in the pew. Still, Mom and Dad made sure I always turned up for Mass as a starving, empty vessel, worthy of the Body of Christ.
Not long after our First Communion, Sister Mary Agnes announced we would be collecting money for pagan babies around the world, and the missionaries who brought Jesus to said babies. She told us about the Cacataibos tribe of Peru which practiced cannibalism during their religious rituals. I knew what that was, thanks to Saturday morning cartoons which occasionally featured jungle-dwelling natives with bones through their noses boiling up big cauldrons of water for their hapless dinner victims. But Sister whispered cannibal as though it were profane, and concluded by telling us to bring our nickels and pennies for collection at the end of the week.
That night I asked my dad why the pagans couldn’t eat people in their religion, since we ate slivers of Jesus in ours. After prolonged dissembling, my exasperated dad grew tired and snapped that the communion wafers we consumed were really only symbols of the Body of Christ.
I was stunned.
What about transubstantiation?
The magical miracle?
Our stomachs, clean and emptied for Jesus?
All a sham! Then who had made it all up? The Church? Father Leo? My dad? Then, I had another terrible thought.
“Does Sister Mary Agnes know?” I whispered. I couldn’t believe that Sister lied to us during all those months she labored, training us to be holy. She must have been fooled right along with us. Observing how stricken I was, my dad patted me on the shoulder.
“Never mind, sweetie…you’ll understand when you’re older.” he said. Then he wandered off then, looking spent, muttering about watching the Twins game.
I think I cried.
Tara Flaherty Guy is a contributing writer at the St. Paul Publishing Company, in Minnesota. Her work has been published in Talking Stick Journal (1st Prizes in Humor, Fiction and CNF), Miracle Monocle, and The MacGuffin. Her latest work is forthcoming in Emerge Literary Journal. Guy has a BA in Creative Writing from Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota.