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.

Yet obviously it wasn’t blood: it was Angelica fortified wine, alcohol 18%, from a green screwtop bottle, as I saw once when I peeked in the church kitchen. It was no different in its basic chemical makeup from the Zinfandel I’d drink with my brother in between bites of a nice hanger steak. So then was it a symbol? Did the actual wine symbolically represent the imagined blood? No, because when I opened my mouth and swallowed, everything changed. It was real.

I went around and around like this, humiliated by my inability to articulate, even to myself, the nature of what was happening. It seemed as crazy as saying I had eaten a magic potion that could make me fly. Much later, a friend would tell me that I’d looked like a deer in the headlights during that time. “You didn’t know what direction to go in, you simply stopped. You were mystified, confused….what you were experiencing in your body didn’t jibe with what you knew in your head.” He laughed gently. “You thought you had lost your mind.”

I thought I probably had. I went through my days excited beyond words, frequently on the verge of tears, then confused and scared. My throat was tight as if facing danger or intense sexual excitement; I’d be ravenously hungry then unable to eat, as you are when you’re heartbroken, or newly in love.

As I struggled with bread and wine and belief over the following year, it stayed hard. I began to understand why so many people chose to be “born again” and follow strict rules that would tell them what to do, for once and for all. It was tempting to rely on a formula ––“accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior,” for example––that became itself a form of idolatry, and that actually kept you from experiencing God in your flesh, in the flesh of others. It was tempting to proclaim yourself an official Christian and go back to sleep.

The faith I was finding was jagged and more difficult. It wasn’t about abstract theological debates: does God exist? Are sin and salvation predestined? Or even about political/ideological ones: Is capital punishment a sin? Is there a Scriptural foundation for accepting homosexuality?

It was about action. Taste and see, the Bible said, and I did. I was tasting a connection between Communion and food—between my burgeoning religion and my real life. My first year at church ended with a question whose urgency would propel me into work I’d never imagined: Now that you’ve taken the bread, what are you going to do?

Filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized I was meant to feed people.

And so I did. I took Communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going, compelled to find new ways to share what I'd experienced. I started a food pantry and literally gave away tons of fruit and vegetables and cereal around the same altar where I’d first received the body of Christ. I organized new pantries all over my city to provide  hundreds of hungry families with free groceries each week. Without committees or meetings or even an official telephone number, I recruited scores of volunteers and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.

My new vocation didn't turn out to be as simple as going to church on Sundays, folding my hands in the pews and declaring myself “saved.” Nor did my volunteer church work mean talking kindly to poor folks and handing them the occasional sandwich from a sanctified distance. I had to trudge in the rain through housing projects, sit on the curb wiping the runny nose of a psychotic man, take the firing pin out of a battered woman's .357 Magnum, then stick the gun in a cookie tin in the trunk of my car. I had to struggle with my atheist family, my doubting friends, and the prejudices and traditions of my new-found church. I learned about the great American scandal of the politics of food, the economy of hunger, and the rules of money. I met thieves, child abusers, millionaires, day laborers, politicians, schizophrenics, gangsters and bishops, all blown into my life through the restless power of a call to feed people, widening what I thought of as my “community” in ways that were exhilarating, confusing, often scary.

This was the work Communion had brought me to. This was the bread of life.

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