I fell asleep last night listening to a book about Jesus. Fell so deeply asleep I woke to find I’d reached the end. During my REM state Christ stopped the wind at Galilee and as my waking commenced he vanished. I slept through all the footnotes like any church going Episcopalian. When I woke I was outside the church rubbing my eyes.
Reading blind involves assistive technologies. I use Voice Over on the iPad. All night a machine read to me about the King of Kings who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. I remember thinking “I’d like a donkey,” as I drifted off to sleep.
In the time of Christ the donkey was the poor man’s horse. When I was a freshman in college lots of students drove the Ford “Pinto”—which became notorious because it had a problem with exploding gas tanks. I told a Pinto driving friend that his car was the donkey of Detroit. “Jesus,” I said, “would drive a Pinto.”
Why did I go to bed reading a book about Jesus? As a teenager I fell quite ill. Back in the early 1970’s hardly anyone understood that boys could become anorexic. I stopped eating and ground my way down to 98 pounds. My mother was a violent drunk. My father was deeply out of touch with all things “family” and so things were quite awful at home. By day I’d go to high school where I was roundly bullied for being disabled.
When I hit 98 pounds my parents, on the advice of our family doctor (who was concerned but helpless) sent me to a psychiatric facility in the upstate New York City of Rochester where again, no one could unravel my problem. I remember a psychiatrist who actually had a little grey beard asking me if the rawhide lanyard I was wearing around my neck was a fetish. I decided he was in idiot. It was how I wore my house key—a matter any child of alcoholics would understand. My week in the institute did nothing for me save that it showed me how badly we can treat people who are in advanced states of suffering. My room mate was an old Ukrainian man who was covered head to toe with scars. He wept openly in bed. Occasionally he would ask me to look at him. I would shuffle over and he’d raise his hospital gown and point to his map of scars—most, if not all of them self-inflicted. He spoke no English. He would point and weep.
On my side of the room things were more scientific. A tall medical student put a piece of meat on a string down my throat. They were testing my digestive enzymes. Was I mad or was I a gastro-intestinal freak? As with most emotional dilemmas the good doctors could never find an answer.
Home again and shivering all the time, sleeping with the electric blanket on its highest setting, I decided one Sunday morning to go to church.
No one in our family went to church.
I got up early and walked approximately three hundred yards to the small Episcopal chapel at the tiny liberal arts college where my father worked.
I went in. I’d never been there before.
There were perhaps twenty professors sitting in the pews. I knew them vaguely from faculty events at our home. They were twisted adults, weird as Rococo picture frames, slightly troubling, since they knew who I was. By appearing alone in the chapel would I be remarked upon?
I sat. I closed my eyes. I was dizzy. Hunger does that of course, but being in public, in a church, sitting in a sunbeam, that will also make you spin. I was killing myself. I knew it, somehow, in that clotted way teenagers know things from the inner life. I both did and did not want to live.
My blindness was a problem wherever I went. School, home, public events, the sidewalk, you name it. Problem. Problem. I was the problem.
I knew I was the reason my mother drank and took pills. Surely my ruined eyes were the source of her despair. Surely if I was a better child, less defective, or more successful at covering up my deficiencies, why then all would be better.
Think about my frail shoulders carrying all that weight. I looked like a skeleton. My hips stuck out along with all my ribs.
I was sleep walking through the pain and suffering of others and simultaneously depriving myself of nutrition—both physical and spiritual. I was 17 years old and already an old man.
I don’t remember much about the service except that an Episcopal bishop from Rochester spoke. He was kindly and seemed to have the same warmth as the sunlight I’d found in my seat and which my troubled body was absorbing rather desperately.
What came next was a bell. We’d entered the celebration known as the eucharist about which I knew nothing. Picture me shivering in a church pew. Understand that I was close to internal organ failure. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said he was committing suicide by cigarette. I was doing it by pure denial. You must imagine not eating for months. Imagine the strictness of the enterprise. The countless glasses of water. The refusals in every setting.
The short version is this: I went up to the altar rail, got down on my knees, reached up and took the bread. “Take and eat, for this is my body.” It was the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. My very fingers were anemic as I took the bread, and my hands shook. “Come, risen Lord and deign to be our guest…” “My God, thy table now is spread…” “I am the bread of life…”
Do this in remembrance of me…How can I explain…hope and memory fill the whole man, the entire woman. Bread and wine, surely they are metaphorical, certainly, until you are a starving blind adolescent, chilled in April light, one inner foot from death; who’d been living in frozen time; who felt a heat inside, who felt his own blood and flesh kissed from somewhere deep down and still. Do this in remembrance of me. Eat, consecrate your mortal flesh.
Far down this moment lies still. From that day forward.
Which is how I came to fall asleep to a book about the taking, blessing, breaking, sharing.
For this I have no dismissal.
To understand your weakness is no easy matter. Take. My body.