Eventually all the pictures were taken, and Grace had finally asked if she could change into play clothes and romp around the backyard with her sisters and a few of the other kids who had come over to the house for dinner with their parents. At one point, I was trying to watch all the nieces at once, as they competitively insisted that I witness their latest gymnastic achievements: Grace's hand-somersault into an arched position; Haley's rotation on a swinging bar; even Sophie twisting around in one way or another. My sister's friend Kara asked Grace about the experience, starting with what is perhaps the most basic question you could ask a girl going on eight: "What did it [the communion wafer] taste like?" "Nothing" Grace responded.
As Grace's First Communion approached, it gave me cause once again to think about how you could or would teach Christianity to a child, and in particular the sacramental spirituality and mysticism of the Eucharist. I'm at a bit of a loss with that. My educational talents are with teens on up: people who are beginning to utilize abstract modes as well as concrete modes of thinking, and Christianity has always seemed to me to be frightfully adult. So I've watched with keen interest as my sister (who has more of an academic background in childhood development than I have) instinctively work her way through some of these difficulties of education with the girls, teaching them basic prayers, the beginnings of key concepts, and the slow work of trying to transmit an ethical education. I knew, for example, that the gift I was giving Grace that I mentioned in my previous entry was too "adult" a gift, but that at the same time, I know that such things that were (or are) beyond me are the very things that helped and help me grow.
To a certain extent, I had come to think that building up First Communion would be self-defeating, and that maybe in a way the very best thing would be to reassure her that nothing "big" in the way of Hollywood special effects (of the sort of thing that movies take to be "mysticism") is what should be expected here. It struck me that celebrating First Communion might be rather like celebrating a child's first walking: it's not a big deal in itself. That is to say, while parents will cry out in delight, and for good reason, the individual him- or herself does not look back at the day they first walked as one of the chief events of their lives. The value in it is in the capacity to walk that this event gives you for the rest of your life, and the ability to expand that walking into running, skipping, dancing, athletics, and so forth. First Communion is an initiation into a lifetime's possibility of sacramental experience of God. The sacrament is efficacious: that is, it has its effects whether or not we notice them or even want them, just like our families and acquaintances have effects upon us whether or not we desire them to.
It struck me later that Kara's question, "What did it taste like?" might be also a great place to start a child's thinking about Eucharistic experience. Like all things sacramental, the mysticism is intrinsically tied to the mundane and the material. In this case, it really is about eating and drinking. A child (and most adults) can't really explain digestion to you; likewise, it's hardly a big deal that this mysticism is not easily explained, and that one might glaze over during the detailed and more knowledgeable explanations of the theologians just as we can glaze over in listening to the exhaustive (and not really useful, for most of us) explanations that enthusiastic medical doctors can give us of what goes on in the process of digestion. For most great chefs and lovers of great cooking, that's not the most important knowledge to have. (I'm not dismissing such knowledge: Western European/American culture has taken a huge hit from becoming anti-philosophical and anti-theological, and thus forsaking the depth of their own spiritual heritage; and the dogmatic ignorance of the "you can't know anything about God or spiritual things" crowd has made dismissing such knowledge a cultural touchstone.) You do have great chefs who profit from detailed understandings of the sciences involved with food, but it isn't necessary in order to be a great chef or an enthusiastic and discerning eater. Likewise, one doesn't need to be a theologian in order to be highly-developed spiritually. So we can tell kids that eating the bread and wine can do things to us spiritually, just as they do things to us physically, even if we are unaware of the processes or if we don't understand them. That's safe ground: sensible, realistic, and easy for a child to understand that they don't understand everything about how food works. It's a bit amazing how it is that we have come to so easily get suckered in by the sort of atheistic rhetorical tricks of "If you don't understand it, it must be all nonsense designed to take advantage of the ignorant." It seems to be another case of where "religion" is held to standards of "proof" in every detail that no one comes close to expecting in any other aspect of human behaviour or inquiry. It was a huge thing for me to realize in college that it was possible to know something truly, while still not knowing that thing exhaustively. Remembering that distinction has served me well over the years.