Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Care of body and soul -- Part 2

I've never choked on a fish bone or required a Heimlich maneuver. For this I suppose I should credit Saint Blaise, an early Christian martyr whose intercession is counted helpful in matters of the throat. I don't know if it still happens, but when I was a kid, every February 3rd, Saint Blaise's feast day, the kids at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Elementary School were trooped to the church to have our throats blessed. We knelt along the altar rail and Father Shea came along with crossed beeswax candles -- tied together with a pretty silk ribbon, as I recall -- and holding the vee of the candles to our throats, pronounced the magic words that conferred immunity from choking. The candles were not lighted.

As you will guess, I managed to finagle a place at the altar rail next to Carmen Costello, and behind prayerfully folded hands I watched discreetly as Carmen held up her slim white neck to receive the blessing.

One a month or so, I was lucky enough to be the Mass server -- in chaste white surplice -- when Carmen came to the rail to receive Communion. Now I could look directly at her as I held the paten under her chin. Eyes closed, she tipped back her head, opened her adorable mouth, and stuck out her tongue to take the Host.

Once, as Father Shea placed the wafer on her tongue, she suddenly opened her eyes, looking directly into mine. I was so startled, I dropped the paten. Clang! Those tiny crumbs of the body of Jesus dumped into the dust! The nuns and my schoolmates gasped. But Father Shea, bless him, leaned over, picked up the paten, placed it in my hand, and continued along the rail as if nothing had happened.

I suspect that episode was still in my mind when I wrote the following passage from In the Falcon's Claw: A Novel of the Year 1000. Aileran, a priest, is giving the Eucharist to his secret love Melisande, in the chapel of the house of Odo, her brutish husband:
I turned from the altar to bring the communion to the master and mistress of the house. Whom should I approach first? Would Odo see and know? Would he rise up from his knees like the God of wrath and strike the chalice from my hands? I placed the host into his hands, into that dark basket of hairy, gnarled fingers. I turned to Melisande.

Corpus Christi, I whispered.

She lifted her head and I placed the wafer on her tongue. Her tongue furled back and carried the host into her mouth. She opened her eyes, and for a moment, perhaps only a second, I saw into her soul. I knew then that I was not alone, and that whatever followed was necessary and inevitable.

Quod ore sampsimus, Domine, pura mente capiamus, I murmured: What we have taken with our mouth, O Lord, may we receive with a pure heart.