In honor of yesterday’s feast of Corpus Christi, in some Latin liturgical calendars, here is a narration of my experience leading up to my first communion. I remember how I described those events at the time, without Christian jargon which was then unfamiliar to me, because of the impression they made on me, both because of their force and because of how unexpected they were.
When I decided to become a Christian, I started visiting churches on Sunday mornings, and in the course of four weeks I visited three churches, one a Calvary Chapel and the other two both Presbyterian churches. I think none of these churches offered communion more than once per month, but in four consecutive weeks I was offered communion three times.
The first week was the Calvary Chapel; I attended with a Christian friend and her mom (her dad was out of town). This church passed the plates with little bits of bread and little cups down the rows of the elementary school auditorium seats. As my friend turned to me with the plate of pieces of bread, I felt as if someone socked me in the gut, hard. It winded me, and I must have made a funny face, because my friend just reached to hand the plate to the person on the other side of me. After we got out, my gut was still sore and I was still short of breath, and I told her about it.
The second week was a Presbyterian church where people would file forward to take communion. I sat in the back pew all the way on one side, despite the fact that only the inner halves of the pews had cushions, and they were only occupied in the front half of the church. It was Pentecost, as I learned in the service, so the preacher decided to have the kids hand out candles to everyone in the congregation, and the people were supposed to file forward, light their candles from a central candle up front, then move to the outer sides of the front to take communion, and then go back to their places. In light of the previous week’s experience, I briefly prayed, “Lord, do you want me to take communion – I didn’t think so.” So when everyone else filed forward, I kept my eyes closed and my head down in the back corner. This meant, of course, that at the end of communion I was the only person in the sanctuary with an unlit candle. One of the people who helped serve communion, walking toward the back of the church afterward, leaned over me and croaked in my ear, “Hey buddy, need a light?” And he lit my candle. I never thanked him for that; I was still too scared, and was glad to get out of that service without being punched in the gut.
The third week was the week off; I went to a different Presbyterian church, and no communion was offered. I sat all the way back on one side, which became my practice when visiting churches where I didn’t know anyone. It was easier to escape that way; if I hurried, I could even get out before the preacher stood at the door to shake everyone’s hand. But it was during that following week that I prayed to ask whether Jesus wanted my life, and was told, “Yep.”
The fourth week I went back to the same Presbyterian church as in week three, where people were to file forward to take communion up front during a song. So they filed forward by pews, and as the pews filing forward moved further back, I prayed again, “Lord, do you want me to take communion?” I did not get a response in words, but a definite positive sense that I should. I thought that was crazy, so I asked again. “Lord, do you want me to go forward to take communion?” Again the silent affirmative. So I argued, “Um, God, do you remember what happened three weeks ago? That hurt! Do you really want me to go forward?” Again the sense that I should, despite my very much wishing not to, out of fear of a repeat of the punch to the gut. So I prayed, “God, help!” And when my pew rose to file forward, I rose with them and took up the rear, with the exception of the usher who followed me. On the way forward I kept watching the people holding the plate and the cup, trying to figure out if I was supposed to say something or do something when I got there, while I was half-heartedly attempting to sing along to some unfamiliar song.
Up front, I took the bread and grape juice (or wine, I don’t remember which), and I didn’t say anything (whether I was supposed to or not), and they said something which I never really heard. I decided right away that it felt wrong to chew it, so I let it dissolve in my mouth. And as I turned move back along the outside of the church toward my pew, my eyes focused on a very large stained glass window of the Good Shepherd in the back of the church above the choir loft. And as I stared at it and moved back, I started to feel very strange. It felt as if there were bubbles moving up inside of me. I felt carbonated, and it hurt. I wanted, at the time, to figure out if that was a good thing or a bad thing, but I could not do so. It simply felt unexpected, strange, and somewhat painful. That odd sensation lasted until the middle of the afternoon, when it slowly abated. That was my first communion, and since then I have regularly taken communion when offered, though never again with the same sense of carbonation.
That’s what happened. What did I learn from these experiences? At the time, not much, other than I suppose that the spiritual dimension of the Eucharist is very real, painfully real to me, and God is not safe. Later, as I learned more theological jargon and more about different Christian divisions and different views, this experience has meant that I see some options as less viable for me. For example, while some Christians would regard my baptism as sub-standard, almost all Christians regard baptism as a precursor to communion (which I didn’t know at the time), and so if God told me to take communion, my baptism must be good enough. My experience of being punched in the gut even from being close to the communion elements helps me understand Paul’s warning against partaking of communion in an unworthy manner and the dangerous consequences which may result (1 Cor 11:27-30). More contentiously, perhaps, I have never found appealing those Zwinglian views that the Eucharist is a “mere” symbol; I know how unexpectedly I felt the pain. On the other hand, these churches where I attended do not have bishops per se, so some denominations who value apostolic succession of bishops would regard their clergy as invalid and their sacraments as therefore invalid. Yet my experience suggests that there was real spiritual force in the Eucharist, at least at the Calvary Chapel and the second Presbyterian church.
The fascinating thing about religious experience, of course, is that it is non-transferable. Other people can’t know if this happened or not (except my friend who saw my face at the first place), or if I’m telling the truth (except, I suppose, based on their analysis of my character), or if I’m interpreting it correctly. There is always room for debate, and I know my experience and my interpretation of it do not sit easily within many of the more popular Christian views of the sacraments (whether of the Eucharist or of the clergy). Yet, having had this experience, I must be faithful to the Lord who claimed my life and gave me these experiences, as I pray to interpret them more correctly.