The mystery is what attracted me to the Catholic Church first, and this is what has always drawn me towards goodness and, I dare to say, towards holiness and love of the other, however difficult, and though I often fail. This mystery seemed to make things difficult for those I loved and those who loved me – my family – until they understood the attraction, and they too succumbed.
I was a little eleven-year old and I disobeyed the catechism teacher, so that I could be in the Catholic Catechism class. Here in South Africa in the 1940s, Catholics and those of other Christian Churches were taught separately and up to then I was in the “non-Catholic” class. I felt deprived, however, because the Catholics were taught the most wonderful things, and I too wanted to possess this knowledge. What most attracted me was the whole idea of Corpus Christi – the Wonder of it!
On 24th March, a number of my classmates went for Baptism – conditional or otherwise. I, too, went not realizing that I had been baptised in the Anglican Church. What was more important was what was to happen the following day. So, I was conditionally baptised, and I went home. All I was thinking of was receiving my First Holy Communion. When I arrived home and told my unsuspecting Mother that I had been baptised, she fetched the strap from behind the door and dealt me a few whacks, which didn’t really bother me. I was a martyr for Corpus Christi. – All I was bothered about was the white dress, the lack of which stood between me and the mystery of Corpus Christi.
My Mother felt that I had disgraced her and the family because people would think that she had not had her children baptised. My Father was then a Hindu, so he was only upset because he felt that my Mother was punishing one who was pursuing goodness. However, my Mother, filled with the milk of human kindness – or with God’s grace – gave me some money and sent me to buy the material, since the Mother of one of my friends, a Catholic, had promised to make me a white dress. Up to the main road in Wynberg I went. It did not matter what texture the material was. It could be shirt material or sheeting – anything at all as long as it was white. Now at last, I had some white material.
At 6 O’clock next morning I had a little white dress, a tiny veil and a pair of white ‘takkies’ that I’d cleaned with chalk. What I looked like didn’t matter as long as I had a white dress for Corpus Christi. It was one of the happiest days of my life – receiving the Body of Christ for the first time.
At my First Communion, I made three wishes: a) that my parents and family too, one day, would receive Christ’s body and blood, b) that my Hindu Father would become a Catholic and c) that I would be called to Religious Life.
My wishes have been and still are being realized. In all other sacraments, the power of Christ is present. In the Eucharist, Christ Himself is present and herein lies the mystery. How this is possible is mystery, and it is this that engages me ever. Now, I don’t need the white dress. I need faith.
When I was eleven I was full of wonder, as although I was taught that Jesus was offering me his body and blood – a most alien idea – it was the beautiful wonder of it all that so strongly attracted and magnetized me towards the Table of His Body and Blood. With St Thomas Aquinas I could sing:
“Godhead here in hiding
Whom I do adore;
Masked by these bare shadows,
Shape and nothing more.
See, Lord, at Thy service
Low lies here a heart
Lost, al lost in wonder
At the God Thou art!”
As I grew into adulthood and although I had not lost all the wonder of childhood, and no longer needed a white dress as my ticket to the banquet of the Eucharist – what I needed all along the way, and still do need, is the gift of faith in Jesus’s words: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will live in me and I in them.
When Jesus offered His body and blood to the Jews in His day, his offer was met with revulsion and unbelief, for they had been taught –
“Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.
I have given you all things, even as the green herbs;
But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is its blood” (Gen. 9:3-4).
And again, in the Book of Leviticus, they read –
“It shall be a perpetual Statute throughout your generations, in all of your dwellings, you shall eat neither fat nor blood” (Lev. 3:17). Likewise –“Only be sure that you do not eat the blood for the blood is the life; you may not eat the life with the meat” (Deut. 12:23).
What was Jesus’s reaction to that revulsion and objection to His words – His offer of His own body and blood? One would have expected Him to offer a symbolic interpretation, so as to soften the impact. But, no, He just underlined His words and intensified His offer. In Mark’s account of the Last Supper, we hear Him say,
“ ‘Take it, this is my body.’ Then he took the cup and when He had returned thanks, He gave it to them, and al drank from it, and he said to them, ‘This is my blood, the blood of the covenant…’ ” These were the words of the Lord, facing death. By my faith in the Lord’s words, I believe them to be what they promise, and with St Thomas Aquinas, can sing:
“Seeing, touching, tasting are in Thee deceived.
How says trusty hearing? That shall be believed.
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly, else there’s nothing true!”
Let us pray for faith in the Word of God, for He promises – and here from the King James Version – “For as the rain comes down and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud…
So shall my Word be that goes forth from my mouth: It shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper the thing for which I send it” (Is. 55:11).
Sr. Martine Pillay OP