It has been a long time since I received my First Communion but I remember some things about that event.
I was in the first grade. The sisters took us into church for practice. We were told to walk very slowly, in a straight line, taking baby steps all the way from the back of the church to the pews in the front of the church. Heads bowed, no wandering eyes, no talking or whispering at all.
The priest came out and pretended to give us communion. We knelt at the rail as he went from one kid to another. He mumbled the Latin and wore what I think was called a maniple on his lower arm. As he moved along the rail, it brushed our faces. An older kid held the communion plate.
Then the big day came and the boys wore white suits, the girls white dresses and veils. Proud parents beamed and took a lot of still and movie pictures. And so it was that we were further initiated into the fullness of Catholic life.
Looking back, I know I did not really understand what I was doing. I do not know if anybody did. Everything was strange but somehow wonderful. The Latin, the incense, the glow of love and pride of our families, the party afterward, the bowed heads and the sense of arriving at some significant milepost on the road of life.
That year was 1954. I remember some of the big news items from those days. Give or take a year or two, I remember the sinking of the Andrea Doria. There was a kid whose name was Benny Cooper, who fell into a well and was rescued. There was a plane that crashed in Queens, N.Y., leaving only one survivor, a little boy.
Some little news items have stayed with me as well. The town high school caught fire. My dad lost his job and I saw him crying. Trips to Jones Beach with mom and dad and my grandmother and sisters and brothers and the dog in the car — a big maroon Packard. I do not know how we all fit into that car.
The past holds a lot of things that may seem so strange to us these days. But people did the best they could with what they had, with what they knew. I guess that all the things that seem so wondrous and fresh to us these days will eventually morph into the weird as new things replace them.
The writer Andre Dubus used to go to Mass every morning and he said that when he received the host on his tongue he somehow knew that he was receiving the whole world.
I remember that line and like it.
Something about this world never changes, no matter how fresh and updated it appears.
We go through life sleepily, as if moving through a dream, groggy and half awake. Wondrous mysteries come our way and we take them but do not understand them. It all comes as a gift.
Perhaps the understanding of the gift is not necessary to receive it. It comes again and again to us, in spite of our ignorance and our waywardness.
In 1954, I stuck out my tongue and received the only fullness that is given us. It is a fullness that bears within itself all the joys and pains of this world, a world which is deeply wounded. Yet it is a world that is asked to embrace hope, to believe that life has triumphed over death.
Like the early disciples, we struggle to accept what we do not understand. Jesus asks us to open our mouths and hearts and to take in the world and church: the world in which He is a living and redemptive presence, and the church, a weak, fragile, slow-to-understand body – much like the way I am now, and the way I was in 1954.
Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Highway 212 SW, Conyers. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.