The first time I took communion, I was six years old. I was not a Catholic, or any other type of communion-taking Christian, it's important to note. This was my first time in a church.
I was just a plus-one visiting the Lord's house for breakfast.
I didn't grow up going to church. My parents and grandparents were Theosophists, and Theosophy isn’t exactly a religion. Some Wednesday evenings my mom and dad would go to Lodge, which was a Theosophical discussion group that batted around different topics week after week, but there was nothing on the books for kids. My spiritual education was whatever I picked up around the dining room table.
My best friend, Allison Pykett, had invited me over for a sleepover at her house the night before, and we’d planned that I’d tag along to church in the morning to keep the party going. The Pyketts were Catholic, and their church was gorgeous and cavernous, with dark wood pews and elaborate stonework. The mass itself was confusing, and I was amazed by how smoothly Allison and her family knelt and rose and sang and sat and thumbed to this and that page in the hymnal. Trying to keep up with them felt like following along with some elaborate aerobic dance video while doing silent karaoke to a song I’d never heard before.
And then it was time for communion. Allison had warned me that this was big shit, and we’d agreed that when the time came, I’d stay in my seat. I wasn’t a Catholic so I wasn’t supposed to have any. But when everybody got up and scooted over to get in line, Allison switched plans on me and told me to get up and follow her.
I was seized by dread. What about the thing we’d talked about before? I was busting a taboo! I wasn’t supposed to be up there! What would happen when you did something wrong like that in a church?? I hadn’t been apprised of the consequences so I was picturing every kind of bad thing. But Allison pulled me into line and no adult stopped me, so I was swept trembling into the waiting-for-communion river.
We inched closer. I prepared for the priest to yell or smack me in the face or toss me out a window. And then we were up. Allison went first. The priest smiled down at her, she opened her mouth and he put a wafer on her tongue.
Then it was my turn. The priest smiled down at me with the same smile he smiled at Allison, the same smile he smiled at everybody in front of us. He didn’t ask me to show my papers or identify myself. I scanned his eyes, trying to read his mind. I determined that he must know that I was a visitor. How could he not know? He knew, and he knew some loopholes in the rules that Allison didn’t know about that made it so this wasn’t a big deal. That had to be the situation. He was ready with the wafer. Nobody was calling the cops.
So I opened my mouth, and tried to speak to him with my eyes—
I hope you know what you’re doing
—and then his big clean fingers were in my mouth (it was weird to have a man’s fingers in my mouth and have that man not be my dentist) and the disc was on my tongue. It had happened. I hoped this didn’t mean I’d converted to Catholicism. I knew that was a discussion my parents would have wanted to get in on.
Then we shuffled over to the right, and someone gave me a little pleated paper cup. Since I was already possibly up shit creek having swallowed the wafer as a pagan, I figured that a blood-of-Christ chaser couldn’t do that much additional damage, so I drank the dark, sweet liquid and put the implicit lie behind me. And if I didn’t tell anybody I was probably Catholic now, then I wouldn’t have to go to confession to tell anybody about it, so that was also a good deal.
After popping my strange-holy-temple cherry with Allison, the post-sleepover church visit always gave me a voyeuristic thrill, no matter whose house I’d slept at and whose religion I would be invading in the morning. I crashed all kinds of churches: Catholic, Mormon, Lutheran, Christian Scientist. Most of my friends were churchgoers, and their parents either didn’t mind dragging me along with them or they were flat-out worried for the state of my churchless soul. Either way, I was jazzed to be along for the ride. I felt like Jacques Cousteau, gliding into brand-new spiritual-tropical waters, observing all the brightly dressed fish going about their religious customs.
I don’t know what I was imagining would happen in church, what exactly I was so excited about. I guess I wanted some God. If God was such a huge deal that everybody interrupted their Sundays at home to dress up and get in the car and drive to some special building not on a weekday, then there must have been some supersweet action going on in there, and I wanted to feel it. The friend I’d be accompanying was invariably blasé, being subjected to this ritual weekly, but my heart would beat a little faster as the parents drove up and parked and we filed into the church. A little fear in the foyer—will they stare?—and then I’d be safely in the pew with my temporary adopted family and a man would start to talk.
I was always rooting for the priest or pastor or reverend or minister to say something exciting—
Bring it, sir! Make the lights flash around my head! There are lights, right? Holy lights? Let’s get ‘em going!—
and I waited for the moment where the man would spill the good stuff.
Welcome child. Prepare to have your mind blown. This is why I have this job. I’m Doug Henning, I’m David Copperfield Times One Million. I have God up my sleeve right here and I’m going to let him out…..NOW!
(((BOOM FLASH CHOIR WINGS MUSIC OF THE SPHERES)))
My expectations were possibly jacked up a touch past the point of fairness. But if God wasn’t going to crash through the ceiling and embrace us all, I was at least hoping for something like a spreading warmth, some kind of deep, Christmas-y good cheer to bloom in my heart as God’s representative held forth. I held out hope every time, and was disappointed every time. If PowerPoint presentations had existed back then and I’d known about them, I’d have said that church services pretty much felt like that.
But hold on! Sunday school was next! We could still squeeze something rewarding out of the venture!
I loved Sunday school. Like I said, there was no place and time in Theosophy for children to talk about the divine, but I was still interested. Too bad for me, though; Theosophy was for grownups, unless you were my older brother, who could participate in Theosophical discussion as fully informed and articulate as any adult, and often more so. But the discussions I listened in on at home were all a little over my head and nobody was bringing anything down to where my head was, so I was benched by default.
Sunday school, on the other hand, was 100% kid-sized, and I was champing at the bit for some discourse. The teacher would slip us a brightly-colored book or comic and we’d read the day’s selection and talk about what we read. The regulars mostly slumped in their seats and didn’t bother raising their hands, as I’m sure I would have done if I had to participate week after week. But this happened for me maybe four or five times a year, so I felt like I’d been handed some kind of hot classified CIA document, and attacked the material with insane verve. My hand shot up constantly.
Maybe Jesus was like this! And maybe he meant this! And given the dilemma you’re laying out, I think I might have done this! And I think this means this!
That I kept any friends was a little miracle in itself.
I was a little bit envious of these kids, my friends whose churches had super-popular Jesus for a mascot. He was everywhere. He was the People’s Choice, the ratings juggernaut. Theosophists didn’t have anybody like that. We had people like Helen Petrovna Blavatsky and C.W. Leadbeater and Colonel Henry Olcott and Annie Besant. Have you heard of them? Probably not! And we had some obscure, off-brand Jesus-like spiritual masters: Master Kuthumi, Master Morya. I bet you haven’t heard of those guys either! All the kids are drinking Coke and we’re not even drinking Pepsi or R.C. We’re drinking, like, hemp soda. It gave me agitas.
One Sunday morning when I was ten or so, I was home and flipping through the religious programming on all the different channels. They were talking about Jesus on every one. I thought,
well, this isn’t fair. If Jesus is who everybody says he is, he’d be up for being friends with anybody. Surely you don’t need to go to one of his churches to get in on this.
And I decided to test it out and befriend him on the spot. I mentally placed Jesus in the room with me, and aimed my friendship pledge into the air where I put him. Nothing happened, I didn’t feel any kind of glowing hand on my head, but I did feel good and satisfied in the way anybody does when they’ve bypassed the middleman.