If we're going to do this, I'm going to have to ask you to pay attention. So, first, it would be best if you turned off any unnecessary devices. By unnecessary I mean anything that is not actively monitoring your health. I'll give you a moment.
Now imagine the smell of incense. Hold on to that smell.
Do you smell the incense? Smell the incense.
Because Alex is young, maybe eight years old, and he has never smelled incense before. Do you smell the incense? It has his full attention.
The church is small. The pews are simple, rectangular, unpainted. They are not comfortable. The walls are white stucco with little round windows of unstained glass. There is a large wooden cross hanging on the wall behind the altar. It has nails but no body. We are in Southern California, not near the border and not near the ocean. The priest has just walked down the aisle with incense burning in a censer — this small, engraved, brass globe hangs on the end of a thin, brass chain. He has set it down now on a table near the altar, where smoke still flows from the holes in its sides. A circle of light falls on Alex's knees. It is noticeably warm but not sweat-causing.
Feel the warmth of the light on your knees, the incense in the air, the mumbling quality of the unamplified priest at the front of the small room. Alex has never been here before; he is staying with his aunt and uncle. His mother is ill.
There are maybe twenty strangers in the room, all of them at least the age of Alex's aunt and uncle. There is nothing on the walls to hold Alex's, to hold our attention, so we fixate on the cross for a moment, on the three nails. We mime the motions of the strangers, of our aunt and uncle. We know some of the words and mouth silently at the rest. Then they all stand up, and our aunt and uncle nudge us gently into the line forming down the center aisle.
Alex has never tasted wine before. He has never had communion. It has been months since his mother has even taken him to church. But his uncle guides him down the line, heavy hands on little shoulders. His aunt takes the wafer, then steps aside and nods encouragement. We reach out, one small hand upturned in the other. We've seen this gesture and yet it is new to us. The priest should stop us, but he seems trapped in the rhythm of his repetitive motion, of raising the host, of The body of Christ, of placing little wafers in cupped hands. We are not supposed to do this, but we are doing this. Our little hearts are beating.
The wafer barely has taste. It is crunch and dissolve in our mouths. But Alex knows we shouldn't be doing this — we have not been okayed for the bread and wine. And so we pause a moment, waiting for something bad to happen. When it doesn't happen, we know that it will, that something bad is now set in place for some time in the future. On the way out of this building we will fall through a hole in the ground straight down to hell.
Alex's aunt pulls us along behind her to the wine. The blood of Christ. Why is no one stopping us? The chalice is warm from being handled. We hesitate. If we stop now, maybe we can still prevent the bad thing from happening. What if it isn't a hole, what if something happens to Mom? What if she never gets better? We can save her, but Uncle's hand lifts the cup to our lips and tips it, and we can't let it spill.
Remember, Alex has never tasted wine. Also, Alex has never tasted God. The little wafer was a familiar thing, in ways, but this is different. This is cool and it burns and makes us cough. This must be It.
Uncle takes the chalice from us. He sips it and gives it back to the reckless man who gave it to us. We walk back to the pew. There is no pad on the kneeler and it is uncomfortable like the seat. Aunt and uncle bow their heads and so do we. Our tongues work at the crumbs still in our teeth. Our throats still burn from God.
Now put away everything you think or feel about God, because what Alex has collected of God is that He is good and He is love, but also that He will punish you if you do not follow His rules. And one of His rules is that we are not yet ready for Him. Alex feels the burning in our throats and he knows that it is going to spread down our bodies and that we will die, right here on our knees between our aunt and our uncle.
The blood is too thick in our brains for us to think. The white walls are getting further and further away. We wait for the burning to spread. When it starts to fade we know we must be wrong, that it only seems like it's fading. And then a hand gently pulls us back into sitting in the pew. Another hand runs through our hair. Soon we are standing, we are walking toward the aisle again, now toward the doors. We try to walk slowly, but the aunt, the uncle, and the strangers all push us along. Soon we are at the doorway and, after the ground is solid under our little feet, it will take more than a decade before we can accept that we weren't responsible for anything.