“THIS DO IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME,” the altar reads. Today, to make a point about historical continuity or something, your pastor is conducting communion by the common-cup method—you know, like the Catholics do. In place of the usual silver, cross-bedecked trays carrying concentric rows of plastic thimbles full of grape juice, there is now a ceramic chalice. You’re pretty sure it’s even got wine in it. The formality of it mildly irritates you; it seems indulgent.
You were a latecomer this morning, though, slipping into a back row during prayers of confession before the offering. You missed the first songs and the pastor’s prefatory remarks, which “contextualized the chalice in church history” or whatever—a fact that you know only because it was whispered across the pew at you during the sermon by another back-pew dweller.
Here you are, then, at the back of the line, like a dummy. You frown; you trudge; you mimic the open-palmed gesture of those in front of you who are receiving their bread. As the line ahead of you grows shorter, you offer a perfunctory word to God asking for forgiveness. You receive and eat the bread. You face the cup.
“The blood of Christ, shed for you,” your pastor intones, his roving eyes fixed on you. With a raised eyebrow, you notice some floaters in the, er, symbol. You look up at your pastor with fear. You are cornered.
He lifts the cup toward you, and you take it from him. You tilt it. With a wild glance downward, you see soggy bits of that other symbol floating toward your mouth. You attempt to use your teeth as a sieve, sucking in a bit of wine. You level the cup back in the pastor’s hands a little too abruptly, causing a wave to clip the rim.
Walking away, you feel a crumb under your upper lip; despite your precautions, you only succeeded in vacuuming someone’s symbolic backwash right into your mouth.
“Therefore let us keep the feast,” he’d said during the bit of liturgical riffing that preceded communion. What a bait-and-switch: instead of a great meal, you get a tooth-sized chunk of stale bread and a sip of already-been-sipped wine. The crumb remains lodged in your gum line. You feel too disgusted to root it out with your tongue, and start looking in your bag for a tissue to retrieve it.
Your scalp tingles with annoyance, and annoyance brings on its unique hyperreality. Sundry aromas waft out of your bag. Your back is damp with perspiration, and it itches at points where your weight rests into the hard back of the pew. The hard cloth seat covering feels tough like burlap. You look up, and there are 150 individuals in front of you—each, you notice for what feels like the first time, with a uniquely shaped head. You frown. Why couldn’t God make every head the same? Do I really need to chart the contours of every head afresh when I encounter a new one?
“Blessed are they who live together in community,” the pastor reads. “It is like the oil running down Aaron’s beard. . . .” Meanwhile, a drop of sweat rolls down your back along your spine, tickling as it rolls. You almost laugh, a tragicomic mood belatedly settling on you.
As it descends, dovelike, you brace against the lesson you are about to learn. Here you are, in your stupid pew, and there, spread across every other stupid pew, are a whole lot of people who are not you. You look up at them as though commanded to: every skull covered in skin and hair in this room has its own unknown contours, shadings and ridges that would only reveal themselves to the gaze of a doctor or a lover. They are more various than you’d anticipated—an outsize resplendence, a ceaseless overflowing of leg hair and pimples and knob-knees and brains.