Give us this day our daily bread. Even thinking those words, I can taste the thin, stale wafer of the Christ’s transubstantiated flesh on my tongue, softening to a kind of pasty mush that quickly glued itself to the roof of my mouth as I walked back to the pew, following my father in his cologne and his scratchy Sunday suit. My hands cupped together in a mimicking prayer gesture, I would return to the kneeling board and focus all of my attention on the now-soggy body of our Lord and Savior, wondering whether it was a bigger sin to chew and swallow, or to leave it there and wait for it to slowly dissolve.
Apparently I wasn’t alone: A quick Google search of, “Is it a sin to chew the Eucharist?” not only calls up 1,210,000 hits (in 0.81 seconds), but also offers a host of opinions about chewing the Host—everything from, “Please note that the Eucharist is not chewed, but is allowed to soften in the mouth and then swallowed. This is to avoid having the smallest particle stuck in one’s teeth where it might be desecrated later by coming into contact with the profane. Having the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ mingle with a gulp of Mountain Dew is hardly the treatment He deserves”; to “The words are, ‘Take and EAT, this is My Body.’ They are not, ‘Take and let dissolve on your tongue, this is My Body.”
(That last one I find particularly comforting.)
I loved to think of the Tabernacle as Jesus’s bread box: It was also where He lived between Masses. Swaddled in some soft, protective cloth, I imagined boxes of wafers hidden away, quiet and cool and waiting to be transformed into the Body. A kind of religious Ritz cracker. The saltines of salvation.
I gave myself fully to the idea that this paper-thin presence on my tongue, the dryness and blandness of it so familiar and comforting, was truly transformed somehow through the mysticism of the sacraments. There was the Light inside me, slowly liquefying and mixing with my temporal saliva, connecting me to the faces carved in marble, to the smell of the prayer candles, to the gold everywhere.
Please forgive me, Lord, if I should chew.
Ultimately, bread’s greatest purpose is to keep one’s hands clean. It is the protective coating between fingers and peanut butter or American cheese—or, in my house growing up, between fingers and liverwurst slathered with spicy whole-grain German mustard. In the Southern United States, it is the tool by which barbecue sauce and the juices of fatty, smoked meats are sopped up and brought to the mouth. In Ethiopia, it is plate and fork.
At my best friend Kim’s house, it was the food equivalent of the other side of the pillow: Doubled-up slices of pillowy white Wonder Bread, spread thick with buttery non-butter spread—Country Crock was a pantry staple in every neighborhood kitchen—and cut into tea-sandwich triangles, served cool to mitigate the steaming-hot bowl of SpaghettiOs Kim and I ate for lunch every day, sitting beside each other at the table comparing the number of meatballs in our bowls.
Kim’s mother picked us both up after half-day kindergarten, driving us back to their house in a long American-made car full of happy teasing, country music, and the clean warm vinyl smell that comes from parking in the sun. Standing over small wooden bowls, her mom would spoon the tiny pasta rounds and carmine-red sauce in equal portions, taking especial care to count each meatball.
But it was the bread that made lunch an event for me.
Photo by Flickr user French Tart