A piece of bread started me thinking.
Really, really good bread. Thick, dense, wheaten bread, like the bread I love from Ireland, only loaded with raisins, pale and dark and scented with an elusive aroma, tantalizing and distant that made the whole thing as exotic as it was familiar. They say that God’s manna held all the flavors in the world in one bite. This bread was like that.
Bread that once I tasted it, I could not put it down. Bread the monk who cut it sent home as a gift, bread which we enjoyed with our New Year’s night cowpeas and hog jowl, and stashed away for breakfast the next morning. Bread, so tied up with Christ, with the Church, with my own journey for it was the seeking of Living Bread that led me home to Rome.
For five years, I’ve wondered, on and off, when I’d really feel like the Catholic everyone else accepts me for, when I would cease to fell like an interloper and feel like a real child of the family. I remember one of my brothers, before he knew I was converting, saying That’s what the Catholics believe. It’s not what we believe. In the Deep South, Catholic is what you were born, not what you became. I have no Catholic history, no family to show me the way through this extraordinary, complicated, beautiful faith journey.
In my saner moments, I know that this is an exceptionally silly notion on my part. I’ve encountered enough Catholics of enough different stripes to know that Peter’s boat is very big indeed, with room enough for me, and passengers of every possible condition. Still, there’s a need to feel—really feel—Catholic, to feel the faith in my very bones rather than having to think about it. To have the rhythms of Catholic life really flowing in my veins. Even after five years, there is so much that is foreign, unfamiliar, so many new things, my shoulder devil whispering in my ear that I’ll never really belong…
In the dining hall of a monastery, on the first day of the new year, one of the brothers cut slices from that wonderful loaf and shared it with my husband and me. We spent two days in the company of the monks, my husband taking images of hands: hands making rosaries, creating bonsai trees, serving customers in the bookshop, arranging flowers, doing all the ordinary tasks of life. Old hands and young, and all of them with stories.
Connections began to emerge as my groom worked and I talked casually in the background. With the monk who lived in Arizona at the time I was in college there, and who once lived in Oregon as did we. With another whose own story is connected to the Cathedral in Massachusetts where I go to daily mass when traveling on business. With another who gave tips on making rosaries gleaned from years of practice to me, a novice. With another who is a friend of the priest who has been advising me on a book. The easy conversation of extended family getting to know each other. The realization that across time and space, we share some of the same experiences, the same places, the same expectations and disappointments and joys. The same faith….
Later, in the church made one wheel-barrow full of concrete at a time, with soaring Gothic arches and trusses as sooth as a baby’s cheek and rounded as a cat’s back, I knelt in the back, in the part reserved for those who are neither monks nor lay faithful on retreat. My groom was busy making images in the church proper as preparations for vespers commenced. I was alone in the dark rear of the church, in front of the crèche, wool-gathering as my mind turned over the events of the last few days and weeks.
No great surprise, I spent a substantial portion of that time meditating on the Incarnation. Aside from the overwhelming mystery, what struck me this year was the wonderful, deliberate, glacial pace of it all. God appears among us an infant, and it took thirty years before He started to proclaim His message to the world at large. In the meantime, in those largely hidden years, He grew and worked and became a part of the very people He came to save. He became part of them simply by being with them, and doing what they did in the ordinary course of daily life. Belonging, it seems, just takes a little time, and it happens all on its own. He becomes a part of me in much the same way, slowly, bit by bit, in the most humdrum of circumstances. And I become part of the Church likewise. Day by day, in the long expanse of ordinary events, and the blessed, comforting routine of masses and seasons and feasts and fasts. Without great fanfare, largely unnoticed, and wholly according to God’s good plan.
Sitting in the back, of the church, behind the railing, I realized I was not separated at all, but a very part of the office that eventually began in the lighted church before me and filled the space with light and prayer. Mary and Joseph and the Infant Jesus drew my attention as I heard the words of the vespers of Epiphany, as I watched the monks in their cowls and the play of light on the walls and found my gaze drawn back again and again to the Nativity. In the middle of the service, the sounds and the silence eventually drew me into the deep, deep quiet of simply being a part of the Body of Christ.
There is a place for all in the Church, and I have found mine—sometimes behind the rail, sometimes in front, but always within the walls and within reach of those I call my brothers and sisters. I now have what I thought I would always lack: a Catholic past. Not a long past, but a past, one that connects me in ways I cannot even begin to predict, to my family. It is, after all, not just kinship, but history that makes family, and eventually we all contribute a few stories to the mix.
Too soon the service finished, and everyone began to leave in the same silence in which they had gathered, a pleasant contrast to the hectic noise of the coming and going in my parish church. I remained in my pew, kneeling, not much thinking of anything, just watching the congregation disperse, one this way, one that, the contrast of the gentle flow of habits with the casual dress of those on retreat.
One monk walked down the length of the center aisle, and I reflected for a moment on the great value in measured steps and the habits that create the quiet we all need and so few of us find. As he approached the rail. I recognized him as the purveyor of the bread, one of the two we’d spent most of the afternoon with. He pointed silently to the balcony, and regarded me with a question. Have you been up there?
I shook my head. He opened the gate to lead me up the stairs. I shed my shoes and followed him barefoot—the soles of my clogs made too much noise for the place and the moment.
The view from the balcony took my breath away. I stood at the edge, looking down on the long nave and up at the soaring buttresses. One last monk walked slowly down the aisle, and one by one, the lights went out along the sides, leaving only the tabernacle in the sanctuary illuminated, a simple, radiant golden box in a pale-blue arch of concrete. I had started the Octave of Christmas in a balcony, because there was no room for me in the main floor with all the others, and my banishment reminded me then of the exile from Lambeth that brought me to Rome. I ended the Octave in another balcony, as far distant in this beautiful Church as I could be and still be present, but present I was, and present I will remain, a part of the family, a part of the Body.
Because of the Bread. All because of the Bread.