I remember first communion lessons as vaguely creepy. Yet, as Father Elgin described Christ at the table, imagination bested me—bread the weight of body, viscous wine, and the strange smell of airborne electricity blossoming at the moment of Jesus’ transformation. My thoughts settled into deeper and deeper possibilities and, as precipitous as my thinking became, something shadowy still lay below.
Father Elgin taught me the world’s invisible order. Everything solid was mysterious (and vice versa) because, if a man might be made bread and eaten, then strangeness always accompanied me. Sitting in a pew beside a stained glass window, I’d shift to see the church yard through different colors—red, blue, yellow, Mars, Venus, Jupiter—each fresh world as there as anything I knew. At every moment, entirely other universes existed. My mind could travel anywhere.
Some secret I had yet to learn might bring discovery.
But thinking isn’t the same thrill ride now. The questions that sent me spiraling—“What was before God?” and “Where is Christ right now?”—erode with use. They become silly, more fetish than sensation. We can only prod ourselves so many times before poking our imaginations is habitual, familiar, forgotten.
I miss mystery and wish deep questions still stirred me. Father Elgin wanted to awaken amazement in us and did. Now I’m jaded and swing between thinking only simple minds can sustain wonder and envying simpler minds. Along the way, I’ve tried to convince myself I might reach enlightenment through the alchemy of study, soupy mysticism, or chemical spurs. Nothing worked long.
Other people seem to find astonishment in science—photos crowded with galaxies or lenses focused so tight they threaten to penetrate the skin of atoms—but in science every “Wow” is knowledge. It promises to make order visible, not to suggest something unseen or unknowable. It tells us we will eventually learn it all, not that the bottom has no bottom or that time can’t reconcile with itself. Science defines as it explains.
I’m not at all religious and resist the plot of every God story. Though I enjoy them as tales, they defy belief. I might will my six-year-old’s wonder back if I could but, as Anne Sexton said, “Need is not quite belief.” I wish it were. The absence of Father Elgin’s absolute and endlessly unaccountable mysteries impoverishes modern life. The miraculous was once the spark of being in the world and kept us awake. But what now?