Michele Roberts on Communion as a gourmet feast
I remember Communion as a gourmet feast, delivered by holy men
The voluptuous plenty of autumn got me thinking, contrarily, about fasting and abstinence. When I was young, we would abstain from food and drink from midnight on the day before going to Mass and Holy Communion. You couldn't let God into a body that gurgled and digested and shat. Your stomach would rage with hunger but you felt pure, purged, and then fed with the very best food of all: Himself. Bodies were bad; spirit was good. God was a spirit who magically visited you in the shape of His Son, who had had a body, but never made love, and who gave the disciples bread and wine saying that these were Himself - not a symbol but the truth.
When you're inside belief you can't always think about it. Going to Holy Communion induced not theological speculation about the possible reintegration of body and spirit, but simple, swoony rapture. I filled the experience with all my unsayable longings. Political, emotional and sexual starvation was appeased by that white papery disc the priest popped on to your tongue. Never never chew it. Just let it dissolve. For your First Holy Communion you dressed up like a miniature bride in lace veils, lily wreaths and frills, which let you be the centre of attention for a day. Heady stuff for small girls in pursuit of love, sensual pleasure, meaning. High Mass raged on for hours: grand opera. Often, too much incense on empty stomachs made us keel over at the altar rails. We weren't just daft fake mystics. We were critics, too, giggling at the woman we dubbed the Walking Corpse, draped in black mantillas, who was even more absurdly swoony than we were, waltzing back down the aisle with up-rolled eyes, raised clasped hands, rosary ajangle. Now I can spot the iconography: she was being Our Lady of Lourdes.
Holy Communion was a gourmet feast precisely because it was not disgustingly material but wonderfully invisible, made and delivered by holy men the hem of whose garments we were not worthy to touch. Indeed, female hands would have defiled the priests. We menstruated! We had to keep out of the sanctuary and could never be ordained. Theirs were the Mysteries. They did their holy cookery up at the high altar with gold vessels and dishes, washed up in silver bowls, dried their fingers on the finest white linen cloths. But I liked hanging about in the kitchen after church, watching the women cook with humbler utensils, listening to them carp. Perhaps feminism sprouted there, in that crack, that contradiction. Surely the body and blood that nourished were female? Surely the breast that fed was female? Why did Holy Communion function as a denial of getting pregnant, carrying a baby for nine months, delivering in pain and joy, breastfeeding? I tore myself away from the Church's myths. I had to, to survive as a woman.
The male and female medieval mystics whose poems and treatises I studied at university helped me see things more subtly. To try to describe union with God, they could use what was called the Negative Way (God is not this, not this, not that), or they could boldly invent metaphors. They could transcend the gender divisions of their times by naming Jesus as Mother. No denial here of women's power and creativity but an acknowledgement of what a fine image the mother-child relationship might provide for the search for rapture and bliss, for desires for unity, for longings to be reunited with the Beloved. Freud saw religious experience as a return to the oceanic feelings of infancy, when we are held in strong arms and can let go and utterly merge in the containing other. The medieval mystics named names: wombs, birth, mouths, feeding.
At the same time, contradictorily, they were virgins who fasted. Obviously, fasting to an extreme brings on weird feelings and experiences. You might think you are having visions of the truth when in reality your brain is sending distress signals. The female mystics, in particular, seem to have used fasting not just to induce religious ecstasy but to provide themselves with a pattern of imagery celebrating heroism, mastery, the wish for power and transcendence.
Contemporary anorexia, perhaps, contains some similar ambivalences.