He wore a grey t-shirt sporting the American flag, shorts, and velcro sandals. When we entered the apartment, he was sitting on one of those big exercise balls and staring through the blinds into the yards beyond the fence. His supervisor greeted us at the door and called out to him to welcome us visitors. The young man at the door — bleached-blond, tattoed, pierced — looked more like a roadie for Alice Cooper than a 24-hour supervisor for a man with Fragile X syndrome.*
My friend had asked me to accompany her to visit her brother and bring him communion. He is not able to get to church much, she had explained, because of his condition, but the Eucharist means a lot to him. She had also explained that Fragile X is a genetic mental impairment that, in her brother’s case, manifested in cognitive disabilities and, on occasion, uncontrolled violent behavior. He will repeat the same phrases over and over again, she had said, and he’ll probably ignore you this visit — he usually ignores strangers.
She and I sat on the futon in the small living room, and she attempted to engage her brother in conversation. I kept my communion kit (which looks like a camera bag) slung across my back, and I leaned forward to catch what they were saying. Instead of talking with his sister, he continued to stare out the window and converse with his supervisor about the comings and goings of various neighbors. After a few minutes, he stood up and I realized how big he is — he could have played power forward at Duke, I’m sure. He went over to the dining table and sat down again, musing about his dinner options. He wanted french fries with ketchup. My friend was patient, and every time she tried to engage him, he responded a bit more. After a while, I could tell that the two siblings had started playing an old game — she knew he was listening and now he was just pretending to ignore her. His responses to her queries, randomly nonsensical moments ago, were now humorously nonsensical. We all laughed about french fries and ketchup and about the lady in the apartment upstairs.
After a few minutes at the dining table, he wandered back to the exercise ball, produced a pack of bent playing cards, and began to shuffle them. My friend asked him if wanted communion. He started staring out the window again. She turned to me and suggested I start unpacking my kit. I unzipped the bag and took out the corporal — sort of a liturgical placemat. On the corporal, I placed the paten (plate) and chalice (cup). As I set out the vessels and tipped some wine into the chalice, he stopped shuffling and started watching. He picked up the Bible and leafed through it while I turned the pages in my prayer book. As I prayed the prayer of consecration, I found myself unconciously emphasizing the simple words in the prayer — words such as food and drink and life. I finished the prayer, my friend and I prayed the Lord’s Prayer with her brother, still holding my Bible, looking on, and then I broke the Bread. I brushed his hand as I gave him the Body of Christ, and, in that touch, I could feel the presence of Christ in our midst. He was there, as he had been our whole visit, and he made himself known in the sharing of his Body and Blood.
After sipping from the cup, I cleaned up the kit and repacked it. I found myself wondering how much my friend’s brother had understood of what we had just done. Then I stopped short. How much had I understood? I said the prayers. I laid my hands on the bread and wine. I asked the Holy Spirit to sanctify the gifts. But even with all my schooling and all my study, I still don’t know exactly what happens in those holy moments of sharing in Christ’s Body and Blood. I don’t know how Jesus indwells those elements with his Spirit. I don’t know how ordinary bread and wine are changed to something that connects us bodily with the grace of our Lord Jesus. But I know that connection exists, that relationship is real. I felt it when my friend, her brother, and I shared that Holy Eucharist.
We do not have to understand fully to participate in the life of Christ. In fact, living a life in Christ is not about understanding at all. It’s about following, about having faith that Christ is one step ahead of you, guiding you. As Paul says, right now I know only in part, but I will know fully, even as I am fully known. God is the one who understands. God is the one who, indeed, stands under and holds up everything that we hold true and good. Living a life in Christ cultivates that deep relationship with God that both brings some understanding, but also (and happily) removes the need to understand.
There’s a phrase in one of the postcommunion prayers in the Episcopal prayerbook: “Almighty and everliving God, we thank you…for assuring us in these holy mysteries…” I’ve asked myself many times how a mystery can be assuring. Mysteries usually thrive by keeping you wondering. But I think that’s the very point. If we understood everything about God there is to understand, God wouldn’t be God, and we’d be deluding ourselves. That was the problem with carved gods and graven images that were both worshiped and controlled. God reveals God’s very majesty and glory in the fact that the mystery abides. And the assurance comes when we cross that fine line between wondering and being lost in wonder.
I still wonder how much my friend’s brother understood about what we were doing. But I know now that understanding is a distant second to sharing — the sharing of the presence of Christ in our midst. My friend’s brother hugged her when we got up to leave. We said goodbye to the roadie-supervisor. As I left the room, I glanced back, and for a split-second, I saw Jesus balancing on that exercise ball.
*For more information about Fragile X syndrome, click here.