My first year at St. Gregory’s would begin, and end, with questions. Now I understand that questions are at the heart of faith, and that certainties about God can flicker on and off, no matter what you think you know. But back then I thought “believers” were people who knew exactly what they believed, and had nailed all the answers.
My first set of questions was very basic. I covertly studied the faces of people at St. Gregory’s when they took the bread, trying to guess what they were feeling, but I was too proud and too timid to ask either priests or congregants the beginner’s queries: Why do you cross yourselves? What are the candles for? How do you pray? And, more seriously: do you really believe this stuff?
My next question was not about God or church: it was nakedly about me, and my fears. What would my friends think?
In America I knew exactly one person who was a Christian. It turned out that my friend Mark Pritchard, an introverted writer with a tongue piercing, attended a Lutheran church with wooden pews where he sang old-fashioned hymns every Sunday. So I took some walks with Mark, trying to draw him out, but despite his orange Mohawk and wild sexual politics, he was a fairly Lutheran guy, not much given to discussing his emotions or spiritual life. “Sure, well, I believe in first principles,” Mark said to me, cautiously, when I probed him about his beliefs. He might as well have been speaking Greek. “Oh,” I said. I didn’t know anyone else who went to church.
Poor people certainly believed in God. San Francisco might be the least church-going city in the nation, but there were still plenty of churches within the run-down blocks around my house –the left-wing Chicano Catholic parish with its gorgeous altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe; the “Temple of the Lyre of the Valley,” an evangelical Salvadoran storefront; the black Pentecostal dive, the santeria chapel, the cruddy white-trash Assembly of God building with its dirty curtains. Poor people said “God bless you” and crossed themselves and stood on street corners singing loud, bad hymns; they bought their little girls frothy First Communion dresses; they buried their dead gangbanger brothers with incense and Scripture.
Nationally, middle-class Christians –even though many seemed to enjoy portraying themselves as a picked-on, oppressed minority, ceaselessly battling secular humanist regimes –weren’t exactly an endangered species, either. People who called themselves Christians comprised 85% of the population. Christian rock music alone was a billion-dollar a year enterprise; there were more than a hundred and fifty million Christian Web sites, and there had never been a non-Christian United States president.
But my own friends weren’t poor urban believers or smug God-talking suburbanites. My own friends, at the most, read about Buddhism or practiced yoga. They tended to be cynical, hilarious, and over-educated, with years of therapy and contemporary literature behind them, and I was afraid to mention that I was slipping off to church and singing about Jesus on Sundays instead of sleeping late, cooking brunch, and reading the New York Times Book Review as I’d been raised to do. I couldn’t tell them about communion, or that I had started to read the Bible I’d bought, furtively, at a used-book store. It would be years before I’d meet Paul Fromberg——a funny, profane priest who would become my closest friend. He believed that “the craziest thing about Jesus is that church life never gets in the way of feeling close to him,” and would teach me about the ironies of religion. At the time, though, I had no idea that I could be pals with anyone who described himself, unabashedly, as both “a big fag” and “Jesus’ man.”
My social circle was shocked when I first shyly broached the subject of church. An activist lawyer I knew sputtered. “Are you kidding?” he said. He launched a litany of complaints about the Church that I’d come to hear over and over: it was the most reactionary force in the world, anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobic….the Vatican…the Crusades…Jerry Falwell…child-molesting priests…Ralph Reed… I’d hated, during the 1980s, being expected to defend left movements or revolutionary parties, even when they were screwed up. I had no interest in defending another more fabulously corrupt institution. “It’s not about the Church,” I said. “It’s about...”
“Good deeds?” the lawyer asked, incredulously. My desire for religion just didn’t make sense to him. He worked harder than anyone I’d ever met, spending fourteen hours a day defending Haitian refugees and Muslim political detainees and the victims of war and empire. He’d listened to prisoners on Guantánamo sob as they described Christian jailers destroying the Koran; he had represented a Nicaraguan woman raped by evangelical soldiers who sang hymns as they took turns with her on a dirt floor. Whatever faith drove him forward in his vocation, it had nothing to do with the Almighty God so readily invoked at prayer breakfasts in Washington.
But the Christianity that called to me, through the stories I read in the Bible, scattered the proud and rebuked the powerful. It was a religion in which divinity was revealed by scars on flesh. It was an upside-down world in which treasure, as the prophet said, was found in darkness; the hungry were filled with good things and the rich sent out empty; in which new life was revealed through a humiliated, hungry woman and an empty, tortured man.
It was a picture that my friend Jose Suarez, who’d left his Cuban Baptist family in Texas to become a psychiatrist, had also glimpsed——but only briefly. Devout as a child, saved as a teenager at a Billy Graham rally, Jose made it through a year at a conservative Christian college before he began to feel “betrayed” by the inauthenticity of religion. “I’d go to services,” he said, “and it was all very social, unexamined, class-bound. I mean, didn’t they read the words of Jesus?”
But the hypocrisy and insincerity of church, what had driven my own parents away, was only part of it. “I was actively listening,” Jose said. “I really wanted to hear God. Ping –nothing. Ping–nothing. I couldn’t find it. I’d drive out this highway into the country at night, lie back on the hood of my car and look at the stars, and have these arguments with God. It was like: say something, show me, give me a sign, some sort of experience. I’d watch the stars move across the sky, but I couldn’t find it inside. The container didn’t contain anymore.”
And so Jose had been wary, though curious, when I told him I was going to church: I was the first friend he’d had since high school who was anything close to a believer. It was talking with him that I was able to articulate, for the first time, something about what prayer meant to me: what I was searching for, beyond the psychological, with all my questions about faith.
Jose and I met for lunch at a small café with outdoor tables one afternoon, when he was in the middle of an excruciating breakup. We sat on the patio and talked, picking at some complicated California sourdough-and-vegetable sandwiches while the fog came in.
Jose was in analysis then, and seeing a dozen patients, and serving as the medical director at a community mental health clinic, and writing scholarly papers on Freud, and doing energetic yoga for hours every morning, and generally overachieving, but he couldn’t fill every minute, and whenever he paused, the heartbreak would pour in. “Maybe I should go sit at the Zen center again,” Jose said. He was a small, handsome man with wiry hair and little glasses and perfect posture. His eyes were wet. “I’m not sleeping so well anyway, I might as well get up at five, what the hell.”
We finished lunch and I took his hand. “Jose,” I said, “you should pray.”
As soon as I said it I felt like an idiot –worse, like a proselytizing busybody who knows, without ambiguity, what’s right for everyone else. Jose looked genuinely surprised. Then he put on his analyst face. “Hmm,” he said. “What do you mean?”
What did I mean by prayer? I didn’t mean asking an omnipotent being to do favors; the idea of “answered prayers” was untenable for me, since millions of people prayed fervently for things they never received. I didn’t mean reciting a formula: I loved the language of some of the old prayers that were chanted at St. Gregory’s, but I didn’t think the words had magical power to change things. I didn’t mean kneeling and looking pious, or trying to make a deal with God, or even praying “for” something. What was I telling him?
“Um, well,” I said. I was embarrassed. Then I looked at Jose again, and the word “tender” filled my mind –tender as in sore to the touch and compassionate, at the same time. After my father had died, Jose had listened to me cry with the deepest empathy and patience, not trying to “comfort” me, but just being present. As tenderly as I could, I said to him, “I really don’t know. I don’t know what I believe, or who I’m talking to. Sometimes I just try to stay open, sort of. Especially when it hurts. And I try to, I know this is corny, but I try to summon up thankfulness.”
“When you told me to pray,” Jose would remember later, “it was incredibly earnest. You said prayer was like having this intense, profound longing that you just had to be with. That you put the longing in the hands of God, in a certain way. That it was important to be receptive to the unfulfilled, and not fill it, or deny it.”
I had to be receptive, or go crazy: because even as I kept going to church, the questions raised by the experience only multiplied. Conversion was turning out to be quite far from the greeting-card moment promised by televangelists, when Jesus steps into your life, personally saves you and becomes your lucky charm forever. Instead, it was socially and politically awkward, as well as profoundly confusing. I wasn’t struck with any sudden conviction that I now understood the “truth.” If anything, I was just crabbier, lonelier, and more destabilized.
All that grounded me were those pieces of bread. I was feeling my way toward a theology, beginning with what I had taken in my mouth, and working out from there. I couldn’t start by conceptualizing God as an abstract “Trinity,” or trying to “prove” a divine existence philosophically. It was the materiality of Christianity that fascinated me, the compelling story of incarnation in its grungiest details, the promise that words and flesh were deeply, deeply connected. I reflected, for example, about Katie, and about what it was like to be both a mother and a mother’s child. The entire process of human reproduction was, if I considered it for a minute, about as “intolerable” as the apostles said communion was. It sounded just as weird as the claim that God was in a piece of bread you could eat. And yet it was true.
I grew inside my mother, the way Katie grew inside me. I came out of her and ate her, just as Katie ate my body, literally, to live. I became my mother in ways that still felt, sometimes, as elemental and violent as the moment when I’d been pushed out from between her legs in a great rush of blood. And it was the same with my father: he had helped make me, in ways that were wildly mysterious and absolutely powerful. Like Jesus, he had gone inside somebody else’s body and then become a part of me. The shape of my hands, the way I cleared my throat, the color of my eyes: my parents lived in me – body and soul, DNA and spirit. That was like the bread becoming God becoming me, in ways seen and unseen.
I tried to remember my own passionate spiritual feelings as a child, when I had no religion and no language to understand them. There had been one early spring afternoon, raw and chilly, when I lay by myself in the muddy backyard in my snowsuit examining a fallen log, looking and looking and looking. There were patches of snow on the wet wood, and around it spears of onion grass just beginning to poke up, and I sat up after half an hour contemplating the log. The cloudy sky above me was so huge, and I was so small. The phrase “the whole universe” occurred to me. I must have been in third grade, and no amount of papier-maché solar system models had prepared me for the vast, heart-beating calm I felt, or for the inarticulate desire to just stay there, suspended, looking and breathing my tiny puffs of the whole universe’s air, until I had to pee and went inside, shedding my wet mittens.
I remembered how I used to pray –there really was no other word for it –when I was six or seven. I’d been reaching for something solemn, obligatory, ritual: wanting God and not even knowing what that was. In an upstairs bedroom in my parents’ home I’d once been taught, by a girl who went to Catholic school, the vaguely sexual language of the Hail Mary. It remained a mysterious, private poem to recite the way I recited, as I walked home from school, lines from other poems: “The breaking waves dashed high/on the stern and rockbound coast.” But I had no framework to understand it as prayer, linked to the same longing I’d feel alone, at night, when I looked at the ceiling and made up words.
What would religious instruction have done for me then? What would have sustained me more as a child than my own atheist parents’ love, my father’s soft voice at bedtime as he invented stories for me, my mother’s hand on my back? What would have fed me more than cooking and eating with them, or given me more courage?
Food was a lot of what had grounded me before, shaping my family, my work, my relationships. It had meant a five-gallon plastic bucket full of broken eggs. It had meant a generously offered bowl of rice porridge in the jungle. It had meant the thin blue milk leaking from my own breasts. Now food, in the form of communion, was collecting all of those experiences in one place, and adding a new layer of meaning–not on my time, but on God’s.
The child I was, protected from religion by her parents, at some point had became the woman crying at the communion table. Those tears weren’t a conclusion, or a happy ending, just part of a motion towards something. It was still continuing. God didn’t work in people according to a convenient schedule, by explaining everything or tying up the loose plot lines of every story. Sometimes nothing was settled.
So I sat by myself a lot and mused about God, and my mother, and flesh and blood. I read the Bible. I prayed; I tried to stay open to the questions that flooded me. I didn’t tell anyone I was becoming a religious nut.
|Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion||Back >|
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The story of an unexpected and terribly inconvenient Christian conversion, told by a very unlikely convert, TAKE THIS BREAD is not only a spiritual memoir but a call to action.
Raised as an atheist, Sara Miles lived an enthusiastically secular life as a restaurant cook and writer. Then early one morning, for no earthly reason, she wandered into a church. "I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian," she writes. "Or, as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut."
But she ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine, and found herself radically transformed....
From the Prologue:
One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans — except that up until that moment I'd led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.
Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I'd scorned and work I'd never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all, but actual food — indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized what I'd been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people.
And so I did. I took communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going, compelled to find new ways to share what I'd experienced. I started a food pantry and gave away literally tons of fruit and vegetables and cereal around the same altar where I'd first received the body of Christ. I organized new pantries all over my city to provide hundreds and hundreds of hungry families with free groceries each week. Without committees or meetings or even an official telephone number, I recruited scores of volunteers and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.
My new vocation didn't turn out to be as simple as going to church on Sundays, folding my hands in the pews and declaring myself 'saved.' Nor did my volunteer church work mean talking kindly to poor folks and handing them the occasional sandwich from a sanctified distance. I had to trudge in the rain through housing projects, sit on the curb wiping the runny nose of a psychotic man, take the firing pin out of a battered woman's .357 Magnum, then stick the gun in a cookie tin in the trunk of my car. I had to struggle with my atheist family, my doubting friends, and the prejudices and traditions of my new-found church. I learned about the great American scandal of the politics of food, the economy of hunger, and the rules of money. I met thieves, child abusers, millionaires, day laborers, politicians, schizophrenics, gangsters and bishops, all blown into my life through the restless power of a call to feed people, widening what I thought of as my 'community' in ways that were exhilarating, confusing, often scary.
Mine is a personal story of an unexpected and terribly inconvenient Christian conversion, told by a very unlikely convert: a blue-state, secular intellectual; a lesbian, a left-wing journalist with a habit of skepticism. I'm not the person my reporter colleagues ever expected to see exchanging blessings with street-corner evangelists. I'm hardly the person George Bush had in mind to be running a 'faith-based charity.' My own family never imagined that I'd wind up preaching the Word of God and serving communion to a hymn-singing flock.
But as well as an intimate memoir of personal conversion, mine is a political story. At a moment when right-wing American Christianity is ascendant, when religion worldwide is rife with fundamentalism and exclusionary ideological crusades, I stumbled into a radically inclusive faith centered on sacraments and action. What I found wasn't about angels, or going to church, or trying to be 'good' in a pious, idealized way. It wasn't about arguing a doctrine — the Virgin birth, predestination, the sinfulness of homosexuality and divorce — or pledging blind allegiance to a denomination. I was, as the prophet said, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. I found it at the eternal and material core of Christianity: body, blood, bread, wine poured out freely, shared by all. I discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the poor, the despised and the outcasts are honored.
And so I became a Christian, claiming a faith that many of my fellow believers want to exclude me from; following a God my unbelieving friends see as archaic superstition. At a time when Christianity in America is popularly represented by ecstatic teen crusaders in suburban megachurches, slick preachers proclaiming the 'gospel' of prosperity, and shrewd political organizers who rail against evolution, gay marriage and stem-cell research, it's crucial to understand what faith actually means in the lives of people very different from one another. Why would any thinking person become a Christian? How can anyone reconcile the hateful politics of much contemporary Christianity with Jesus' imperative to love? What are the deepest ideas of this contested religion, and what do they mean in real life?
In this book I look at the Gospel that moved me, the bread that changed me and the work that saved me, to begin a spiritual and an actual communion across the divides.
From Chapter Four:
One evening in St. Gregory's kitchen, after everyone else had left, I heard a confession from a pantry volunteer, who'd brought me what she said was a 'secret' in a shopping bag. She had a cast on her leg, and kept looking over her shoulder anxiously, and she made me close the kitchen door. Her boyfriend, who beat her up regularly, had been threatening to kill her, she said, swallowing hard.
"I thought, this is a church, it'll be safe here," she said, unwrapping a dirty dishtowel from around a huge .357 Magnum revolver. "I took out the firing pin."
That's what church was for, I realized: a place to bring the ugly, frightening secret you couldn't tell anyone else about. I checked that the gun was disarmed, and stuck it in a cookie tin in a locked closet beneath the pantry shelves. I didn't mention it to anyone from the Sunday congregation. The woman moved away, to stay with a sister in Sacramento. A month later I did tell Steve.
"You must be kidding," he said.
"Isn't this what church is for?" I said.
"Uh, yeah," said Steve. He looked scared, and like he wanted to laugh at the same time. "Whoa, that's a really big gun." We drove down to the local police station, and I walked up to the officer on duty. I was wearing a crucifix and a fairly respectable sweater. "Excuse me, I found this in our churchyard," I lied. "Can you please take it?"
There's nothing like being a middle-aged white lady, I told Steve as we drove back. The cops had gathered around the officer who unwrapped the package. "Holy shit," said of them. "Excuse me, ma'am." They passed it around, gingerly, and let me leave after I insisted I didn't want to make a report or get a receipt. "Can you imagine if we'd been two black teenage guys walking in with that?"
"You just made the high point of my career as a parish administrator," said Steve. "I never imagined I'd show a cop something that could make him say 'holy shit.' "
"Yeah, well," I said. "I guess this is what you call the Christian life."
"The most amazing book."
— Anne Lamott
"Grittier than many religious memoirs, Miles's story is a perceptive account of one woman's wholehearted, activist faith."
"A self-proclaimed blue-state, secular-intellectual, lesbian, left-wing journalist with a strong skeptical streak, Miles was hardly a candidate for Christian conversion.... The journey from skeptical secularist to devout Christian was long, complicated, and often convoluted (her parents were avid atheists), but the story she makes of it is engaging, funny, and highly entertaining, including many surprises as well as the occasional wrong turn. Incidentally, Miles comments, often with great insight, on the ugliness that many people associate with a particular brand of Christianity. Why would any thinking person become a Christian? is one of the questions she addresses, and her answer is also compelling reading."
"This book is a stunner. Beautifully and simply written, it will leave many readers, as it left me, tingling with longing that such signs and wonders might emerge in and through our own stories."
—James Alison, Catholic theologian, priest, and author of Faith Beyond Resentment
"The finest confession of faith I've read in years. A good, tight, absorbing read, TAKE THIS BREAD is also an astute assessment of the Church, of one deliciously outre parish, and of the present intertwining of politics and Christianity in American culture.
This is the kind of book I would wish to write, were I wise enough or skilled enough or candid enough to do so."
—Phyllis Tickle, author of The Divine Hours and former Religion Editor for Publishers Weekly
"Miracles happen, or so it seems to Sara Miles, a "blue-state, secular intellectural; a lesbian; a left-wing journalist with a habit of skepticism" who, upon tasting a Communion wafer, suddenly got religion (to the horror of her atheist parents and friends)— or rather, discovered her own consuming need for it. Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (Ballantine) is Miles' energized account of how her longtime fondness for food became a sacred mission, as she began establishing food pantries and devoting her life to giving the hungry sustenance. "That impossible word, Jesus, lodged in me like a crumb," she writes, one of many tasty morsels in this surprising book."
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