Here’s a story. I am not sure how to tell it properly so I will just write it as it was told to me by a priest in Australia. We were sitting on a bench on Hunters Hill west of Sydney. I was entranced by parrots. We had talked of many things – his childhood in the deep bush, and his years on Bougainville Island, and how a possum in Australia is a wholly different animal than a possum in America, and then we got to talking about the Eucharist for some reason. He and I were both fascinated not by the religious aspect of it but by the spiritually nutritious aspect – how it could really and truly be the food of hope, as he said. I have seen many times how the Eucharist arriving at the right moment changed something in a person, delivered some sort of jolt, some message deeper than words, deeper than any theologian could explain, he said. I have seen that many times in many places, and never the same way twice.
I told him about a priest friend of mine in America who had actually become a priest in large part because he gave a fellow Catholic soldier a scrap of biscuit as the boy was dying and the boy accepted it as Eucharist, which it was, before he died a few minutes later, in the mud. I told him about another friend of mine who had lit cigarettes for shellshocked men who had just been rescued from a hopeless situation, and how my friend had said quietly that Eucharist often had nothing to do with bread and churches and everything to do with what he could only characterize as reverence beyond the reach of explanation.
The Australian priest allowed that this was certainly so, as he could attest, having been delivering Eucharist for more than fifty years – mostly as wafers, I suppose, he said, but here and there scraps of bread, and once a cookie – a raisin cookie, as I remember. There’s a story for another day; that would take me an hour to tell it properly. But here’s a Eucharist story. One time a man did me a great and insidious evil. The details don’t matter much. He knew and I knew that he had sinned grievously. He had gone down a very dark path, and done so with a malicious relish, sprinting into the arms of Lucifer. But then he began to regret what he had done. He tried to apologize to me but I would not, could not, forgive what he had done. It was unforgivable, and me a priest in the very business of forgiveness! He called, he wrote, he spoke to mutual acquaintances, but I shut him off. I just could not get there. I hated the man, hated what he had done, hated that I could not exact revenge.
Then he showed up at Mass. This was in a little church on Bougainville in a grove of pandanus trees. I looked up and saw him standing in the shadows in the back of the church. I was furious. Everything you can imagine that I wanted to do is what I wanted to do. But then came Communion. I tried to focus on the men and women and children in front of me. Each one the Christ, each one carrying the Christ, each one holy beyond all understanding, each one accepting the Christ once again, a miracle. The quotidian miracle we so take for granted.
The man stayed in the back, in the shadows. He didn’t come up for Communion. I finished the line and turned back to the altar. But when I looked down at the paten I saw that there was one wafer left. Did I hesitate? Sure I hesitated. I am just a man. But then I turned around again and walked to the back of the church and delivered the Eucharist to him. Sure I did. How could I have done anything else? Did I forgive him? I don’t know. I don’t know that I ever have forgiven him. But I delivered the Eucharist. The Eucharist is bigger than we are. Do you see what I mean? It’s bigger than understanding. That’s why it’s miraculous. We use the word miracle for that which we know we will never understand but also know is quite real and true. Do you see what I mean? And I said yes, Father, I do see what you mean, and he smiled, and we sat silently for a few minutes under the eucalyptus trees, watching for parrots.
The writer is editor of Portland Magazine and an author.