Mass that Sunday was devoted to First Communion for children from the local Catholic school. When he’d heard this the previous Sunday he made a mental note to go somewhere else for Mass but, like so many mental notes he made, he forgot it when the time came. Arriving at church and finding preparations under way he decided to stay.While he waited for Mass to begin the young communicands, accompanied by their parents, processed down the aisles of the church. The parents seemed awkward in their Sunday finery but the children were bursting with confidence. Today was their day and they knew it. Dressed in white flowing robes they strode with great purpose to their allotted places and showed their parents where to sit.It soon became apparent the children also had a role to play in the Mass. When it was time for the Bible readings, five of them lined up next to the lectern. One by one they stepped up to the microphone and delivered their portion of the readings loudly and clearly. They had been well prepared and their confidence enabled them to be heard throughout the church, even though none was tall enough to reach the microphone.The Bible readings were the sort you’d choose for a First Communion Mass. In the first, taken from the book of Deuteronomy, Moses addressed the children of Israel assembled on the border of the Promised Land. He reminded them of what they had undergone during the terrible forty years they had spent wandering the desert. Their only companions had been serpents with fiery breath, scorpions and vipers (the little girl reading the passage said this with relish). When there was nothing more to eat in that desolate place God had provided manna, a substance their fathers had never known, which they gathered every morning and ate.In the second reading, St Paul explained to the Corinthians the true nature of the Eucharist. He likened it to the manna the Israelites had eaten in the desert, except that it was now a participation in the body of Christ. By sharing it among themselves they drew together into Christ and became part of him.Finally, the Gospel was Mark’s brief account of the Last Supper, at which Jesus took bread and wine and gave it to his disciples telling them that what they ate and drank were his body and blood. He would not feast with them again until they drank the new wine together in the kingdom of God. Each reading was a simple, matter-of-fact account of things said and done, without further explanation. It was up to the parish priest to make sense of it all.Fortunately, he was equal to the task. In his sermon he addressed the children who were about to take Communion. To begin, he stressed the divide between body and soul. As their bodies would continue to need nourishment in order to grow and develop, so too would their souls. There were many ways by which we could nourish our bodies but only one way in which the soul could be nourished, and that was by taking the Eucharist as frequently as possible. He was at pains to point out that the Host they would consume that day was utterly different to anything else they would ever eat, because it was their soul’s unique form of sustenance. He concluded by expressing his heartfelt wish that they would continue to take Communion for the rest of their life.The sermon was quickly followed by the Credo and it was time for the Prayers of the Faithful. Once again, a line of young children in white robes formed up next to the lectern. Again they climbed to the microphone one by one and, in clear, ringing tones, expressed wishes on behalf of themselves and the congregation. They prayed for the clergy and for their parents, that they would continue the onerous work of providing guidance to those in their care. They asked that the Communion they would soon take would set them on the right path and strengthen them in their lives. They prayed for the sick and ailing of the parish who were at the extremes of this life and in dire need of physical and spiritual help. To each prayer the congregation, emboldened by its confident utterance, responded “Lord, hear our prayer.” The final prayer was for those who had died recently and for those whose anniversary of death was at that time. When it came to that prayer he usually prayed silently for his mother, father and brother, and for his wife.On this particular day he found himself concentrating solely on his wife. It was as if the event taking place that morning commanded that he focus his attention. In such moments his thoughts would turn to her as if her death, the most terrible loss he had ever suffered, called him to account. As so often before, he prayed fervently that God would take her completely into his embrace. He often had ambiguous feelings towards the God who had taken his wife from him. Despite this, he was strongly of the view that, if there were any justice in the universe, his lovely wife deserved to be with God. Indeed, he hoped she was already with Him and would lend her prayers for his own salvation.He continued to dwell on these matters while he and the rest of the congregation knelt and the priest consecrated the Host for that morning’s ceremony. When it was time for Communion he knelt again and watched the children come forward with their parents to take the Host.He suddenly found himself thinking of the time when he had taken his own First Communion. His wife had been with him while he worked in the south of France. She was originally from Southern Italy. Both were fluent in French but he used his holidays to visit her homeland and practise Italian. He wanted to become fluent so he would have another language to share with her. He enjoyed speaking with her in different languages, switching from one to the other and joking together. It was a form of intimacy that constantly renewed itself.His wife hadn’t been with him when he first took Communion. She had returned to Australia several months before, pregnant with their first child, and he would soon join her. She had long known of his wish to become a Catholic and had told him before she left that he shouldn’t delay, even if it meant doing it without her.He had found a parish priest in a nearby village who agreed to give him instruction. He had persisted and after many interruptions (caused by the seasons of Lent and Eastertide) was happy when the priest told him he was ready to take the sacrament.The date set by the priest was Pentecost, which fell in late May that year. He took Communion within the confines of the Mass without any other ceremony. He had prayed for his wife and their unborn child and stepped into the queue of peasant women that led to the altar. The priest had held up the Host and he had reached out as he had been taught. He took the Host, placed it on his tongue and returned to his seat in the church.It was a beautiful spring morning and after Mass he had driven through the countryside, past open fields interspersed with olive groves and vineyards. At one point he had stopped by an oak forest and walked through it. The trees were in their first spring leaf and the dew still clung to the tips of the branches.On this particular day, after the children’s First Communion he had taken the Host as he usually did but came away from Mass feeling more restless than usual. In such circumstances his way of coping was to throw himself into whatever work needed to be done. He had been the same when his wife was alive, even during the terrible months of her last illness and death. Work was something that had to be done, in addition to the tasks associated with keeping her alive: visits to specialists, to chemotherapy, to and from the hospital until the last hospital visit from which she didn’t return.He believed his wife had given him as much support while she was alive as he had given her. She had never commented on what he did but her total trust did as much. Without her, his energies had diminished and his vigorous work habits deserted him, never to return. He had walked away from his job and lived from day to day on a pension that met his needs. The only work he undertook was the usual household chores. He quickly learnt he couldn’t afford to be idle because the chores would mount up to a point where they were overwhelming. Each particular day he would choose what had to be done, after which there was little to do until nightfall.The restlessness he felt that day after Mass troubled him sorely, like an itch he couldn’t scratch. He couldn’t identify why he should feel that way and didn’t know how to shake it off. He opted to do chores he would normally avoid until the last minute. He climbed on the roof and cleaned the gutters. It was dirty work, and he didn’t like heights, but he hoped the perspective from the rooftop might change things. It didn’t. He was glad when night fell and he could cook dinner, eat it and go to bed. He stayed awake longer than usual, trying to read. He opened book after book but couldn’t get started.Eventually he turned off the light and snuggled under the covers. Sleep avoided him for several more hours, although he barely noticed. He found himself raking over the day’s events, hoping to find a sense that might give him the peace he desired.When he fell asleep in the early hours of the morning he had a dream. In the beginning he was in Southern Italy. He had been invited to attend an archaeological convention to celebrate recent excavations that had been very successful. On his way to the meeting hall he passed many of the diggings the convention wished to celebrate. He marvelled at the treasures that had been brought to light. They seemed to go on forever and promised to reveal even more wonders in the near future.Moving through the crowded convention hall, he looked for familiar faces. He was delighted to see his wife, sitting in an enclosed area of the hall. His happiness was partly because of his wife’s beauty, which always caused him joy, but also because her presence energised him and gave him purpose. On this occasion, she was sitting with her back to him, engrossed in what was being discussed. She sat upright as she usually did, her lovely face directed to the others in her group, her dark curls crowding the back of her head.His first impulse was to go up to her, to embrace and greet her, but she seemed so intent on what was being discussed that he suppressed his own needs. Instead, he walked through the main area of the convention where he was surprised to meet people he hadn’t seen in years, colleagues from his former work. They too had been involved in excavation work and were keen to tell him of it. However, he hadn’t come there to speak English. He had nothing to say to his former colleagues, apart from wishing them well, and he turned back to look for his wife who must be nearby.In the next part of the dream he was reunited with his wife. They were strolling through open meadows full of fresh grass and new spring flowers. It reminded him of fields he had seen in the south of France, forty years before. The open land seemed to stretch forever but he was aware that, somewhere in the distance, they would be contained by a great forest, crowded with trees in green leaf.While they strolled together through the open land, and he was delighted to be with her in such a moment of abandonment and beauty, his wife was intent on a special purpose. She had come to pay the rent for the privilege of being there.In front of them was a high brick wall set with many openings, as if it had once held windows. She went towards a large red door in the wall. In her hands she held a brown, compact bundle that would be used for making payment. She opened the door and slipped inside, half closing it behind her.Unwilling to be left behind, he pushed the door open and followed her through. On the other side were more spring meadows like the ones in which they had been walking.His wife was just in front of him. So was a powerfully-built young man in a long white robe, who held her fondly in an embrace. The young man smiled to himself as he held her head against his chest.Watching their embrace, which was over in an instant, he felt perplexed. It was an intrusion into the intimacy he shared with his wife. He wasn’t sure what to do but felt a sudden, powerful impulse. He wanted to strike the fellow who had held his wife.He restrained himself for an instant, pausing to say to her: “You know, I think I should hit him for what he just did.” He had learnt over the years to consult his wife before committing any extreme act.Instead of replying, she opened the bundle in her hands. From it she took a handful of round shapes, finer than any wafer, redder than any rose petal. They were so fine that those that spilled from her hands didn’t fall to the ground. She thrust several at him and he barely had time to grasp them. They were so light he could scarcely feel them. He placed them on his tongue and let them become a part of him while others floated in the air around them.

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