One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, and took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans—except that up until that moment I'd led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. On my walks in the neighborhood, I'd passed the wood-shingled building with its sign: ST GREGORY OF NYSSA EPISCOPAL CHURCH. Now with no more than a reporter’s habitual curiosity—or so I thought—I opened the door.

What happened a few minutes later is a mystery. I still can't explain my first Communion; it made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb, or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening—I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening—the piece of bread was the “body” of “Christ,” a patently untrue, or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening—God, named “Christ” or “Jesus,” was real, and in my mouth—utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry.

All the way home, shocked, I scrambled for explanations. Maybe I was hyper-suggestible, and being surrounded by believers had been enough to push me, momentarily, into accepting their superstitions: what I’d felt was a sort of contact high. My tears were probably just pent-up sadness, accumulated over a long hard decade, and spilling out, unsurprisingly, because I was in a place where I could cry anonymously. In fact, the whole thing must have been about emotion: the music, the movement and the light in the room had evoked feelings, much as if I’d been uplifted by a particularly glorious concert or seen a natural wonder.

Yet that impossible word, "Jesus," lodged in me like a crumb. I said it over and over to myself, as if repetition would help me understand. I had no idea what it meant, I didn’t know what to do with it. But it was realer than any thought of mine, or even any subjective emotion: it was as real as the actual taste of the bread and the wine. And the word was indisputably in my body now, as if I'd swallowed a radioactive pellet that would outlive my own flesh.

Much later on, I read what Jesus' disciples said about the idea of eating a body and drinking blood. "This is intolerable," they declared. Many of them, shocked, "could not accept it and went away and followed him no more." Well, it was intolerable.

The gory physicality of the language wasn’t what bothered me, the way it must have bothered the disciples, who lived surrounded by religious rules about blood, animal slaughter and eating. I didn’t share those taboos: I’d understood the world first, and best, by putting it in my mouth. As a cook in restaurants, I’d been fascinated with cutting open the side of a pig or the heart of a cow, revealing the chambers and fat, the muscles and shimmering lines of tendon.

In war, I’d not shied from bloodshed, had touched the dying and the dead. I’d dared myself into sex with strangers and kept opening my mouth to strange foods; I’d turned my own body into food for my child. But eating the body of Christ, and drinking his blood, was too much. My own prejudices rose in me. Raised in a secular family, ignorant of the whole historical sweep of Christianity, I held no particular affection for this figure named "Jesus," no echo of childhood friendly feelings for the guy with the beard and the robes. If I had ever suspected that there was such a force as "God"—mysterious, invisible, "silent as light," in the words of an old hymn—I hadn’t bothered to name it, much less eat it, for crying out loud. I certainly had never considered that this force could be identical with a particular Palestinian Jew from Nazareth. So why did Communion move me? Why did I feel as if I were being entered and taken over, completely stirred up by someone whose name I’d only spoken before as a casual expletive? I couldn’t reconcile the experience with anything I knew or had been told. But neither could I go away: for some inexplicable reason, I wanted that bread again. I wanted it all the next day after my first Communion, and the next week, and the next. It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger, pulling me back to the table through my fear and confusion.

The bread, I learned over following Sundays, was baked by the people I took Communion with. We shared it, passing the bread and wine to one another as we stood in a circle around the Table in the middle of the church's rotunda. A woman named Caroline made the crumbly, slightly sour loaf I'd tasted first; someone called Tom made a dense whole-wheat bread; Jake baked a sublime brioche. Each of the loaves was slashed with a cross, and when the priest broke the bread, if I was standing close enough, I could smell the yeast. The wine was sticky and sweet: pale gold, not at all red, but it warmed my throat as I swallowed and then passed the cup to the person next to me. "The blood of Christ," I'd repeat, in turn.