“Sir,” they said, “give us that bread always.” Jesus answered:
“I am the bread of life.
He who comes to me shall not be hungry;
He who believes in me shall never thirst.”
Thinking back, I imagine my mother just wanted to reduce the odds for my father. She was teaching the CCD First Communion class on Sunday mornings, and taking me along meant my dad only had to chase after three little ones – not four. At 6, I, at least, could be counted on to sit quietly in the back of the classroom and read.
When spring came, bringing with it first confessions and Communions, I asked my mother why I wasn’t making my first Communion, too. “You’ll learn about it all next year and make yours next spring,” she comforted me.
“But I learned all about it this year,” I wailed. Which is when my mother discovered that instead of amusing myself with Dr. Seuss in the back, I’d been listening to her. I had learned along with her students, and like them, I was hungry to meet Christ in the Eucharist. Now. At 6, waiting another year seemed impossible.
An interview with the pastor convinced him I’d been paying attention, too. Forty-three years ago this week, on the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary, wearing the same veil my mother had, I received my first Communion with little fanfare and great joy at the regular Sunday Mass.
A few months ago, I stood as a sponsor for a young woman convert. Standing before the community who had shared daily Mass and morning prayer with her for the last year, she received her Lord for the first time. Afterward, as I knelt beside her, I struggled to remember my own longing for that moment, for the only bread that would satisfy.
Later this summer, two consecutive Sundays found me too far from civilization to be able to get to church. Mea culpa, I missed Mass. And miss it, I did; my hunger took me quite by surprise. So when a fellow scientist (an astronomer at the Vatican observatory, no less) leaned conspiratorially across the dinner table at a conference the following weekend, and said, “I found a parish with a 7 a.m. Mass – want to go?” I was ready. Even if it meant a two-mile walk each way – since neither of us had a car!
Here on my home ground, with five parishes within a few minutes drive, I can go to Mass and receive the Eucharist every Sunday and any day I wish. In the midst of such riches, I had forgotten how to hunger. It took an unintentional fast to help me rediscover it.
Alfred Delp was a Jesuit priest executed by the Nazis in 1945. He was beaten, sleep deprived and starved, of food and of the Eucharist. Two months after he was arrested, friends bribed a guard to bring him bread and wine to celebrate Mass with. In a letter smuggled out with the laundry he wrote, “[t]he experience that a piece of bread can be a great grace is a new one for me.” Physical hunger opened him to “discover ever new sides to God.”
This summer, God took advantage of my absence from the celebration of the Eucharist to remind me that there are graces to be discovered in hunger, as well as in plenty. Now, when I begin each morning with the Augustinian community, I can remember again what it is to long for life and its very source, as we pray together:
O Sacrament of love, sign of our unity, bond of our community, whoever longs for life, has here its very source.
Let Him come here and believe, united with You and live.
Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood, will live in Me and I in him.
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.