If there is such a thing as a theology of surprise, the life of Sara Miles is a perfect illustration.
In her book "Take this Bread," Miles writes of her conversion to Christianity. It is not a slow awakening, or a gradual giving in. Her conversion sneaks up on her. She simply wanders into a beautiful building on a reporter's curiosity, takes part in what is happening inside, namely communion, and is transformed. She writes that "Jesus happened to me."
In preparation for her visit to Glenn on November 3, take a moment to read this short excerpt from her book. It details her conversion moment and sets the stage for what she feels compelled to do vocationally after having this experience...much of which she will speak about during her time with us.
The rotunda was flooded with slanted morning light. A table in the center of the open, empty space was ringed high above by a huge neo-Byzantine mural of unlikely saint figures with gold halos, dancing; outside, in the back, water trickled from a huge slab of rock set against the hillside. Past the rotunda, and a forest of standing silver crosses, there was a spare, spacious area with chairs instead of pews, where about twenty people were sitting.
I walked in, took a chair, and tried not to catch anyone’s eye. There were windows looking out on a hillside covered in geraniums, and I could hear birds squabbling outside. Then a man and a woman in long tie-dye robes stood and began chanting in harmony. There was no organ, no choir, no pulpit; just the unadorned voices of the people, and long silences framed by the ringing of deep Tibetan bowls. I sang, too. It crossed my mind that this was ridiculous.
We sat down and stood up, sang and sat down, waited and listened and stood up and sang, and it was all pretty peaceful and sort of interesting. “Jesus invites everyone to his table,” the woman announced, and we started moving up in a stately dance to the table in the rotunda. It had some dishes on it, and a pottery goblet.
And then we gathered around that table. And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying “the body of Christ,” and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying “the blood of Christ,” and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.
I still can’t explain my first communion. It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening – I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening – the piece of bread was the “body” of “Christ,” a patently untrue or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening – God, named “Christ” or “Jesus,” was real, and in my mouth – utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry.
All the way home, shocked, I scrambled for explanations. Maybe I was hypersuggestible, and being surrounded by believers had been enough to push me, momentarily, into accepting their superstitions: What I’d felt was a sort of contact high. Possibly my tears were just pent-up sadness, accumulated over a long, hard decade, and spilling out, unsurprisingly, because I was in a place where I could cry anonymously. Really, the whole thing, in fact, must have been about emotion: the music, the movement, and the light in the room had evoked feelings, much as if I’d been uplifted by a particularly glorious concert or seen a natural wonder.
Yet that impossible word, Jesus, lodged in me like a crumb. I said it over and over to myself, as if repetition would help me understand. I had no idea what it meant; I didn’t know what to do with it. But it was realer than any thought of mine, or even any subjective emotion: It was real as the acute taste of the bread and the wine. And the word was indisputably in my body now, as if I’d swallowed a radioactive pellet that would outlive my own flesh.
I couldn’t reconcile the experience with anything I knew or had been told. But neither could I go away; for some inexplicable reason, I wanted that bread again. I wanted it all the next day after my first communion, and the next week, and the next. It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger, pulling me back to the table at St. Gregory’s through my fear and confusion.