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The Sacred Meal
By Nora Gallagher
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2009 Nora Gallagher
All rights reserved.
SCOTCH TAPE AND BALING WIRE
The ultimate source of the Susquehanna River was a kind of meadow in which nothing happened: no cattle, no mysteriously gushing water, merely the slow accumulation of moisture from many unseen and unimportant sources, the gathering of dew, so to speak, the beginning, the unspectacular congregation of nothingness, the origin of purpose. And where the moisture stood, sharp rays of bright sunlight were reflected back until the whole area seemed golden, and hallowed, as if here life itself were beginning. This is how everything begins—the mountains, the oceans, life itself. A slow accumulation—the gathering together of meaning.
—James A. Michener, Chesapeake
When my husband and I walked into the bakery, I knew something was wrong. My friend Jodie was pushing back tears with the heel of her hand. Frank, her husband, was sitting across the table from her, somber, watchful. Are they getting a divorce? I thought. Has something happened to one of the children? I put my hand on Jodie's shoulder and sat down.
"It's Frankie," Jodie said. "Val's daughter. You remember Val and Kirk?"
"Yes, I do." Val, an architect, a woman whose face was all kindness. Kirk, her husband, handsome, gentle, a builder. Francesca, Frankie, their younger daughter. How old was she now? Twelve? I remembered Frankie and her sister, sweet little girls in dresses, at a party years ago, too shy to talk to strangers, and Val leaning down to talk to the littler one like a mother hen covering her daughter with a wing.
"She's missing in Panama. A small plane."
The call had come the night before, Sunday.
Frankie was on vacation with a school friend, Thalia Klein, and Thalia's father, Michael Klein. Michael, age thirty-seven, had taken the two girls in a chartered Cessna that day from Islas Secas off Panama's Pacific coast, heading for the Chiriqui volcano, about 285 miles west of the capital. In rain and fog, the pilot of the plane had radioed the airport at a town named David that he could not see the runway to land and had then disappeared. Witnesses said later that they saw or heard a small plane flying too low in the jungle toward the mountains.
As soon as they got the call, Val and Kirk had asked a neighbor to drive them to the airport in Los Angeles. Kim Klein, Thalia's mother, and Robert Klein, Michael's father, had left Santa Barbara minutes before and were now also on their way south to the larger airport.
Once in Panama, the families traveled to the resort city of Boquete, as close to the airport at David as they could get. On Monday morning, Christmas Eve, an early attempt at a search had been called off because of the weather. Later that morning, another airplane tried to take off but came back because of driving rain, fog, and high winds. Several friends who were bush pilots flew down to try to assist the families.
The terrain in the interior of Panama is dense jungle, with mountains rising to thirty-five hundred feet.
Anxiety gripped me. It was a different kind of worry from anything I had felt before. It was as if I were almost feeling what Val was feeling. Almost. It was the not knowing. The feeling was intolerable. And then I felt my own feeling: helplessness. Nothing I could do from so far away. Should my husband and I get on a plane and go down to join a search party? (The heroic response, but the rational reply would be, You don't really speak Spanish, Nora, and you can't fly a plane or even read a compass. A lot of help you would be.) And then I realized that Val, too, must feel helpless. This woman who had protected her daughters at a party must be insane with helplessness.
The four of us ate our breakfasts and then stood up to leave. Jodie promised to keep in touch, and my husband and I went home. My husband's family was in town for the holiday. There were presents still to be wrapped. Chicken chili stew to be prepared for a light dinner after the early service at church. Ornaments to be put out for trimming the tree later. The weather was bad, the ceiling low, so the search planes could not take off.
No news as the day wore on.
And so at three thirty, I drove over to the hotel to pick up my mother-in-law, Peggy, and take her to church. She and I have this little routine over the holidays. We go to the early service, the "children's Christmas Eve service," because we've grown fond of watching the kids act out the Christmas story. Then we can go back to our house and settle in, trim the tree, and go to bed early. Peggy was dressed and ready; she asked me if there had been any more news and told me the story was on TV. We drove to church.
My church, Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara's downtown, is a Gothic pile of yellow sandstone, designed by the same architect who built the National Cathedral.
It was quiet as we walked up the steps and greeted the ushers. I found us a pew toward the front of the church so we'd have a good view of the pageant to come. As I settled Peggy into her seat, I looked up and saw a girl Frankie's age talking to her mother, her face that particular twelve-year-old girl combination of child and teenager, still with the childlike vulnerability and openness not yet covered over with a teenage mask, and I burst into tears. I stood there, and what had been lying under everything all day came up to the fore. I can't pray, I thought. I have so much anxiety that I can't find my way through to pray. I don't even know how to pray. What should I pray for? Who should I pray for?
Frankie, stay with the plane, I had thought earlier in the day. Was that a prayer? I stood there, crying, and then I saw Eva, our associate priest, walking across the altar area. I found myself leaving the pew and walking toward her.
"Eva," I said.
"Oh, hi," she said, in that tone that says, I've got about two minutes.
"Eva, a friend's daughter is missing in a plane, a crash probably. Will you pray for her? I don't know how." And I cried again.
"Oh, no," she said. "Oh, of course I will. And I suppose, well, I guess it's not too good a time, but I was going to ask you to help with Communion because we're missing a LEM." (A Lay Eucharist Minister helps with Communion by serving the wine.)
Something stirred in me. "I can do that," I said, and immediately regretted it. I was hardly in a state to serve the wine. I almost said, "Oh, sorry, no I can't," but she was turning away; she had a lot of work to do. I didn't see anyone in the near vicinity who could take my place. I walked back to the pew.
The choir began to sing "O Come, All Ye Faithful," and everyone stood up. The kids brought in a wood cradle and put it near the altar. Two kids, around fourteen—Mary in a pair of jeans and a blue scarf over her head and Joseph, a skinny boy with dark hair—came in and stood near it. They both looked as if, should they accidentally touch each other, they would both scream. A flock of angels, ages three to four, with gauzy wings walked up the aisle and floated around Mary and Joseph, weakly flapping their arms. They'd flap and then forget and sort of stand there; one held her thumb firmly in her mouth. Their mothers prompted them in stage whispers. "Fly, fly," one mother said, flapping her own arms. Her little girl smiled and said, "Mama!"
Then we got to the point in the service when Eva lifted up the bread and wine and said, "The gifts of God for the people of God." That was my cue, and I walked up to the altar to receive the wine and bread. Then I took a goblet of wine from one of the acolytes and started to serve.
It is always its own thing, serving the wine. Once when I served the wine, I saw the mark of lips on the cup just before I wiped it off, and I thought how the trace of our lips on the cup are the traces of human on the infinite, a fragile moment recorded, and then time moves on.
"The blood of Christ," I said to Elaine, who is ninety-five, a former dancer. "The cup of salvation." She looked at me as she received, and she placed her hand on my arm.
"The blood of Christ," I said to my mother-in-law, who held my sleeve. The tears were running down my cheeks, and there was nothing I could do about them.
And then, all of a sudden, I got it. I got what I needed to know that day.
Holy Communion was a web, a web of people who were being stitched together. And tomorrow, we would need to be stitched together again. Over and over. One person to the next. And I, today, was doing the stitching. In my weakened, anxious, weepy state, along with another chalice minister, who was working next to me, I was making basting stitches, the kind I learned in home economics from Mrs. Davis in seventh grade. Nothing fancy, nothing permanent.
A little boy dropped his bread on the floor, and his mother picked it up and without a moment's hesitation popped it into her mouth. I missed the right placement on a gray-haired woman and touched her lips with my finger, and she frowned. A guy tried to dip his own bread and got his finger in the wine, and I wanted to smack him. Here we were: the rough material.
And then it was over. I went back to the pew and sat down next to my mother-in-law. She patted my hand. I wept and wept and wept. Then we stood to sing "Silent Night" and we walked out into the chilly December air.
Just as we got back to our house, Jodie called. The rain was still falling in Panama, and visibility remained low. Val and Kirk and the Klein family had organized a search party to comb the area where the plane was last seen. A map had been drawn up, and the area had been divided into sectors. Kim Klein had offered twenty-five thousand dollars to anyone who could find the plane.
As many as fifty people set out on Tuesday morning at 4:00 a.m.
Christmas Day. We opened our stockings and gifts. The family sat around for a while, then decided to go over and visit another distant family member in town for the holidays. I declined. Suddenly, more than anything, what I needed was sleep. I lay down on the window seat in our dining room, with the kitty lying on my legs, and the two of us went out like lights. Frankie, I thought, stay with the plane.
My cell phone was ringing. Where was it?
"They found the plane," Jodie said, and she started to cry. "There is one survivor. They think it's Frankie."
I fell to my knees on my dining room floor.
A practice is something we do that is always the same and always different. In the world we live in, we do things over and over so we can get better at them—better at soccer, playing the piano, selling software, things that have measurable scorecards. But that is not what a spiritual practice is.
That Christmas afternoon, I was in great need. And I understood that Holy Communion was about stitching people together. I needed to be stitched together myself. It was not the kind of stitching that would last forever. It was more like what my father said when he did a job that was only temporary: "That's Scotch tape and baling wire, but it will do for now."CHAPTER 2
COMMUNION IS A PRACTICE
Two months after liberation, people had stopped cheering and embracing. They had stopped giving away food and had started selling it on the black market. Those who had compromised their integrity during the Occupation, now began to calculate and plan, to watch and spy on each other, to cover their tracks.... It was becoming evident to many that while evil grows all by itself, good can be achieved only through hard struggle and maintained only through tireless effort ...
—Heda Kovaly, Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague, 1941–1968
Trinity Episcopal, my church, has two services on Sunday at which Communion is celebrated and served, one on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and one on Friday at noon. Many of the Roman Catholic churches in my town serve Communion every morning. (The Roman Catholic Church has rules against someone like me taking Communion because I am not a member; but in France, in a small village I won't name, I asked the small, round priest in my incredibly broken French if I, being not a Catholic and an American, could take Communion. I gestured to myself, and to the wider space with its old, gray walls and its ancient pews. I said, brokenly, that I was only there for a month, intimating that by the time the religious police arrived, I'd be gone. He practically winked and replied, more or less, "The farther from Rome, the less the rules count.")
Communion goes on all over the world in many churches in different languages but in much the same form. In France, I could follow it even though I was in a Roman Catholic church and the words were in, yes, French. When they served Communion, two altar boys stood on either side of the priest and held a piece of linen so white it hurt my eyes, to catch Jesus if they dropped him. In Prague, I attended a service of the Church of England where, at the exchange of the peace, the men and women held their hands out in front of them as if to barricade themselves from a possible American hug, but the Communion service was more or less the same. In Nicaragua, women and their babies practically danced to the altar to receive Communion, while a salsa band played and a German TV crew stuck a camera in my face, but we were all eating the bread and drinking the wine. In Ireland, where no slight or crime is forgotten, I asked a hotel clerk where the Church of England was, and she pointed in the general direction of north. Then she said, "But if you want to go to a real church ..."
The monks at an Episcopal monastery in the hills above Santa Barbara gathered every day at noon to celebrate Communion. (Holy Cross Monastery burned down in 2008.) I have been there with them. I know how the quiet of their chapel came over you as you walked in the door, like the relief you felt after having finished something hard. They stood in a half circle around the small altar of stone in white robes (which they'd thrown over jeans and gardening clothes and cook's aprons, with their running shoes poking out from underneath) and sang, sometimes off-key. Even when I didn't attend, I was consoled that they were there. When I thought about why, the image I had was from an old child's story—somewhere someone's grandmother may be spinning or knitting the fate of the whole world, without anyone knowing it, even the one who does it. It's the same feeling I have when someone says about some small endangered animal that it doesn't count, it has no worth. "Why should we care?" they say. And my reply is, "How do we know?" Without that animal, the natural world may start to unravel; without these monks, what we think of as the world of the spirit might begin to fray.
On those days when I have thought of giving up on church entirely, I have tried to figure out what I would do about Communion. I could not just pass my hand over some bread and wine and then drink it by myself.
And neither can a priest or minister. One Thursday evening, when our head priest, Mark Asman, was presiding at the service, he said to the four or five of us gathered there, "Would you come a little closer? I can't do this by myself, you know."
He really cannot do it alone. Communion is not Communion without two or three "gathered in my name" (Matthew 18:20). It does not rest on an individual; it is not a priest's magic act.
Communion is therefore, of necessity, a communal activity. It's unlike every other Christian practice in that sense. Communion is meant to be done together; it has to be done in community. You can pray alone and fast alone. You can even go on pilgrimage alone. But you can't take Communion alone. More than any other practice, taking Communion forces us to be with others, to stand with them in a circle or kneel at the altar rail or pass a tray of grape juice and cubes of bread. We are forced to be with strangers and people we don't like, persons of different colors and those with bad breath or breathing cheap alcohol. (I once served the cup to the last guy in line, who was dressed in rags, and he drained it dry.) It forces "them" to be with "us" and us to be with them. Communion is, more than any other practice, a humbling experience. We are stuck with each other, at that altar, for at least a few minutes.
I remember quite keenly the Sunday morning I stood up from my pew and marched toward the altar without really paying attention to who was with me in the line. I think I was imagining a new haircut or the perfect apartment in New York, my two favorite fantasies. When I got to the altar and took my place in the circle, my knuckles knocked against those of a person standing right next to me. When I glanced over, I saw a woman I was not speaking to. We both gave a little start, and I felt immediate shame. I could remember exactly why we were not talking and everything she had done to cause it; but I realized, as I stood there with about an inch of ice-cold space between us, that I had done exactly nothing to make things even the smallest bit better. Ha! the Spirit must have been saying over us. Let's see what happens now.
In a world of gated communities and single cars and large houses, it's not easy to find yourself next to someone you dislike. We used to run into everyone in the whole village just about every day—at the well, in the fields, or even asleep right next to you in a big, warm pile of bodies. I am grateful for the amount of privacy our greater wealth gives us, but it comes at a price. Every effort to make amends has to be so self-conscious, so planned, that it's almost impossible for any animal as proud as we are. It's almost easier, I saw that day, to have your nemesis foisted on you. At least, at a minimum, you'll get used to her smell.
Excerpted from The Sacred Meal by Nora Gallagher. Copyright © 2009 Nora Gallagher. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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