This reflection is the fourth in our Lenten series, “First-Person Faith.” Read more about the Collegeville Institute’s first-person approach to theological discourse in our introduction to the series.
The summer between graduating from college and leaving for seminary I worked at a program for gifted youth held at a college in upstate New York. On Sunday mornings I volunteered to accompany campers attending Sunday Mass.
One warm, humid Sunday, I walked to church with a dozen pious teenagers.
As I settled into my pew and the familiar pattern of the liturgy, I was not expecting any extraordinary revelations. The missal from Oregon Catholic Press lay open in my hands.
That day, at the ripe age of 21, I began to learn that grace’s winds were untamable, the Holy Spirit’s movement uncontrollable, and God’s lessons unpredictable. During Mass that morning, I watched as a woman—perhaps in her late thirties, with long dark hair, her dress cascading around her ankles—approached the communion server. She took the wafer, the body of Christ, and ate it. Then, instead of moving past the server, as was typical, she remained before the server and said something. He gave her another wafer that she carried away.
I wondered why the woman asked for the extra host. In Catholic elementary school, the nuns who taught my classmates and me to reverence the liturgy had admonished us to eat the host quickly, lest we drop Christ’s body on the floor.
The woman walked slowly up the aisle of the old church. The sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows, illuminating a large altar painting. She approached a young man strapped into a wheelchair, blond hair covering his head, unable to walk due to cerebral palsy. His arms and fingers were curled beyond use, so she placed the wafer on his tongue, rubbing his throat to help him swallow it. Then she sat down beside him.
I do not know if he understood the gesture. Perhaps he understood it perfectly; perhaps he had no idea. Perhaps he had asked her to do it. Perhaps they had been doing this for years, and the act had woven itself into the life of this church. I was just a visitor. Whoever’s faith I had observed—his, hers, or both—their communion created an iconic image that remains with me to this day.
I had been taught much about the sacraments; I had taken classes and had read theological treatises on the liturgy. Despite all that, it was the faith expressed in the interchange between this woman and young man whose names I never knew, that revealed a theological depth that words and dogmas could never capture. The difficulties, frustrations, and obstacles this young man and woman faced were beyond my view. But faith was clearly evident. And because of this faith made visible in a communion within communion, I could see that Christ’s body was given for me, and that Christ’s presence gave me strength and made me whole.