A Precious Gift So Unappreciated

The first Iesson I received about the Sacrament of Holy Communion were from the nuns in the Roman Catholic Convent in which I experienced my early education.  That religious education consisted of rote-drilling the Catholic Catechism into our young and impressionable minds.  Every day, for lengthy periods of time, we recited the Catechism over and over again, asking ourselves the questions contained in that little book as well as reciting the answers.  So, I knew there was something called Holy Communion and that it was a “sacrament” long before I ever understood what it entailed.

Each day we mindlessly repeated the answer to the question of how many sacraments there were.  “Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders and Matrimony”.  As I recite this list in my head these days, unable to divest myself of this information which is forever etched into my mind thanks in no small way to the brutality of nuns who were expert at wielding canes and other instruments designed to beat this information into us, I am somewhat struck by the order of importance in which Communion (the Eucharist) was placed in the list!

Our “First Confession” (Penance) was the first “sacrament” for which the nuns prepared us.  That, in itself, was a mystifying and somewhat frightening ritual and one which I never mastered, not being able to ever keep correct count of the times I had sinned throughout the week.  How encouraged I was to read in the Augsburg Confession in recent years that “……….listing all sins is not necessary for Confession.  For according to the Psalm, it is impossible ‘Who can discern his errors?’ (Psalm 19:12)”  It was such an encouragement to learn that I was clearly not the only one in the Universe who had a problem counting my sins.

To conquer the ordeal of Confession was vital however, as according to the Church dogma one could not partake of Holy Communion (the sacrament identified in the Catechism as “The Eucharist”) unless one’s soul was totally clean!  That little soul that the nuns seemed to be sure resided somewhere in our torso and recorded every transgression, some making small marks and some causing that “big black mark” called Mortal Sin, to blacken our soul in such a way that it ensured us of a guaranteed ticket to Hell.  It was yet another Mortal Sin to partake of Communion if one knowingly did so with an unforgiven Mortal Sin on one’s soul.  And so we were encouraged to attend Confession at the local church on Saturday evenings in order that our souls could be all nice and pure and ready for Communion on Sunday mornings. 

During the sacramental ritual on those Sunday mornings we were about to witness the amazing and inexplicable mystery of “Transubstantiation”.  The Priest would perform some sort of “magic” that only he could do in which he would cause the bread and wine to change into the ACTUAL body and blood of Christ.   It was, of course, claimed that only the Roman Catholics priests could perform this amazing feat and so only we Roman Catholics were able to partake of Christ’s actual body…. we could not partake of the blood as that was something so holy that only priests were permitted to drink the blood.  All other churches were just mere pretenders as their leaders could not carry out this incredible feat.

The announcement that we were to begin training to take our First Holy Communion was received with great excitement by our class of 7-8 year olds.  This was a day that my girlfriends and I had eagerly anticipated.  We were going to be able to dress up like little brides!  We talked of nothing else for weeks except our beautiful white dresses and veils.  We never spoke of the precious sacrament itself that we were about to receive as it held little importance when it was weighed up against all the visible trappings of the day.  For many weeks prior to the occasion we spent several hours each day being drilled in preparation; hours of mindless reciting of the repetitious words and prayers in which we had to be word perfect in before the final examination by a visiting priest.  Since the occasion of our First Holy Communion was to be one which was far too auspicious for our school chapel to host we were marched, crocodile-file, in our hats and gloves and stiffly formal uniforms to the local Catholic church every day for rehearsal.  The rest of our education was put on hold during these times as we marched like well-trained little soldiers a distance of about mile or so in order to “practice” taking Communion.

The small wafer-like host was first demonstrated to us in the classroom.  Then came the rules concerning this mysterious little white circle which, by the time the priest had performed his ritual and we received Holy Communion, would BE the body of Christ.  And how many rules there were!!!

The wafer which was used for demonstration purposes was of course not the real body of Christ as it had not yet been blessed by the priest and so had not turned into the genuine body of Christ at this point.  Nevertheless, when the day came for our First Communion what we would take into our little bodies was indeed purported to be ACTUAL body of Christ (a somewhat morbid thought for an 8 year old girl with a vivid imagination).   We were instructed however, to treat this little practice host as if it were the real thing!  We were not permitted to touch it under any circumstances.  Only the priest would be permitted to do that (and during practice sessions, only the nuns).   Firstly, we held a beautiful silver tray piously under our chins in order, it was said, to catch any crumbs.  I could never figure out how any “crumbs” would fall from this stiffly starched piece of wafer which had the consistency of stiff cardboard.  Then we had to poke out our tongues as far as they would reach but keep them flat in order to make a suitable receptacle for the host.  The precious little wafer was not under any circumstances, to touch our teeth or any other part of our mouths.  If it did so by an intentional act on our part then this would be a sin and we would have another mark on our little souls…… more time in Purgatory!

However accidents, it seemed, could happen and the host may in certain circumstances for some reason get stuck to the roof of our mouths.  If such a contingency occurred, we were under no circumstances permitted to use our fingers to release it but must just maneuver the object with our tongues being careful NOT to allow the host to come into contact with our teeth.  I recall one of our classmates asking if it was okay if the host touched one’s teeth if she had just cleaned them but it seemed that even clean teeth did not release one from keeping this rule. 

There were ritual prayers which had to be recited before and after the taking of the Communion host and when the big day came for the final rehearsal we were all very familiar with the entire performance.  That final rehearsal in the “big” church even had the priest himself joining in with us in order that we would not be overawed when a priest was giving us the host rather than one of our familiar nuns.  Still on that occasion the host had not been blessed so it was still not yet the “real” thing.

When the day itself finally arrived, the church was packed to over-flowing with friends and family, and sponsors by our side. It was so exciting to be able to put on the white dress and veil and dress up like a bride and partner a little boy who wore what was, no doubt, his first suit.  We even received Holy Communion presents, my favorite being a beautiful mother-of-pearl covered Missal which, when opened had an actual crucifix embedded into the inside cover of the book.  And of course, I received enough Rosary beads to keep me in stock for many years to come. 

We had to fast from midnight before taking Communion in order that this Body of Christ, it seemed, did not come in contact with any other food in our stomachs, so the sacrament of Communion was usually accompanied by a symphony of growling tummies.  We were permitted to drink water up to one hour before the sacrament.  The rules were overwhelming.

But my entire First Communion day was marred by one particular, disastrously disappointing aspect.   Notwithstanding the beautiful white dress and veil my parents on which my loving parents had spent so much money, they did not understand, it seems, that the whole effect was entirely ruined by the fact that they insisted I wear my sensible brown Oxford school shoes for the occasion and refused to buy me the dainty court shoes many of the other girls’ parents chose for their daughters.  My day was totally ruined by those wretched shoes.  Did the little boy who was my partner notice my stupid clunky shoes?  There was nothing I thought about all day except those shoes – and that includes the sacrament I was about to receive! Forever after, those shoes were my lingering memory of that day.

In those days, it was a mortal sin for Roman Catholics to miss Sunday Mass. With so many “rules” attached to Catholicism, most Catholics I ever knew seemed to be consumed with thinking of ways to get around those rules.  To fulfill the undertaking of attending Sunday Mass one had to ensure that one was present for certain elements of the Mass or it didn’t “count” as one having attended at all (in that case yet another Mortal Sin recorded on the soul).  So, one could arrive late and even leave early so long as one was present for the three essential elements of the Mass.  Thus, my local church used to be packed to the rafters in the foyer of people ensuring that they were there for the important bits but had a convenient means of escape at the first opportunity.  One of those essential elements was Holy Communion, and so when Communion was completed each week there was a stampede to get out the back door and race off to whatever Sunday activity beckoned.  Communion came to be to me, the signal for escape!

Many years later when I found myself attending Presbyterian church services I was relieved to discover that Communion was included as part of the church service only once a month.  All the young people dreaded those services ….. when Communion was included it made the service so long!  However, there were no rules it seemed about those little cubes of bread touching one’s teeth so it was not accompanied by the anxiety it had been with the Roman Catholics.………… and there was the additional touch of grapefruit juice which added a bit of extra interest to the ceremony.  Over the years I attended different services in a variety of churches and experienced Communion in a variety of ways….. most were quite solemn moments (even if a perceived inconvenience) and I always treated them as such due to my early training.

Then after many years, life’s twists and turns led me to meet Pastor Chris Rosebrough.  And even now as I write, I have begun to weep.  As Pastor Rosebrough led me back through the maze that had been my religious experience and took me to the very seat of my faith, my Baptism, that moment when God had given me the precious gift of Faith, which He was to protect and defend through all the dark tunnels and thorny bushes that had been my life, Pastor Rosebrough taught me about the sacraments in a new way that I had never before heard.  Gradually the mist which had surrounded these sacraments in a polluted smog of man-made rules and rituals began to fall away and I could see so clearly for the first time what a precious gift from God these sacraments were.  Each one was SO simple in its execution and yet so intricately woven with threads of protection and inexplicable love and unbreakable promises that I felt so humbled and privileged that God would send us such a special way of reminding us of His Presence and His love.  How unworthy we are……  and how often, so unappreciative.

The precious gift of Communion is so treasured by me now that I eagerly await the times I can partake of this with my fellow Christians.  On the occasions when Communion is not served during the service my heart is aching for the missing “piece”.  Whereas I once wished it would not be there to prolong to the service, now I feel a service is incomplete without it.  With churches all over the world no longer including this important gift left to us by Jesus during His last moments on earth and some even putting it on a calendar to be only taken at specific times of the year, I am bewildered and saddened that Communion has been relegated to such a place of unimportance in our Christian lives.  This precious gift, left to us by our Savior, this simple sacrament which is able to be carried out on battlefields or at Royal weddings, by rich or by poor, by learned men or illiterate youth….. is ours …. to hold dear and treasure always, and He promises to remember us, and we Him, each time we partake. 

And I have discovered that it doesn’t even matter what shoes I am wearing at the time!

-- Kerrie Ferguson