Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Stuff of Communion

Timmy Murdock was a dead man. At 12:01 A.M. he would be killed. The cause of death on his death certificate would read “homicide”. He would be killed in front of an audience of people who came for pleasure, or for the twin gods of justice and resolution.

I drove three hours to get to the prison. I received the call at dinner. The appeal was denied. He was asking for me. Timmy would be separated from the rest of the guys on death row now, and get the kind of food and room he hadn’t seen for some time. As I drove over the flat featureless road, I thought of Timmy. I hated this part of my calling.

At the prison I was frisked despite the fact that I was a Catholic priest and had been here literally hundreds of times before. As Timmy’s spiritual advisor, I had been helping Timmy prepare for this day for some time now. New appeals were made, then denied. Except for the roller coaster of emotions every day was the same for Timmy. This is not to say there was an ounce of innocence in Timmy. He was on death row for a murder he in fact committed. Over the years though, I noticed something most others wouldn’t behind his eyes. I noticed acceptance. Still, the certainty of knowing one’s own death in the abstract is hard enough for some, but knowing the day, the hour and the minute of your death – well, I can’t imagine how Timmy ever came to God under those circumstances.

After being frisked a large bald mountain of a guard stood in my path with a stern look on his face. “Where’s the thing?” he said.
“The thing?”
“Yeah, you know. The thingy thing.” He was searching his brain for the words but he had lost them.
“Thingy thing?”
“Yeah, fuck. You know what I mean. The communion stuff.”
“Communion stuff?”
“Shit, you know what I mean. The communion stuff. You cain’t go in there unless you got the communion stuff. Prison rules, padre.”

I couldn’t believe the words that were struggling to escape this guard’s mouth. Was he really going to deny me access, hours before Timmy was to be put to death, on a technicality? Because I forgot the bread and wine for Timmy’s last communion?
It was too late, I couldn’t drive back to my parish to get the “stuff”. I was furious, but I figured I would improvise. I left and found an all night gas station and grabbed some hot dog buns and Goofy Grape KoolAid. I assumed they would never let me bring wine into the prison – even if I could find a place to get wine this late at night. The KoolAid was in powder form and could be mixed with water. The kid checking me out watch me – in my collar and all – gather the stuff and snapped his gum as I placed the items on the desk.

“Mind if I ask you what you’re planning with this stuff Father?” He was truly curious. I could see it in his eyes that just appeared below a thick mop of hair and out from a pimply face. I debated for a moment as to what I should say.

“Well, over there” and I nodded in the direction of the prison, “at 12:01 tomorrow morning they are going to execute a man for murder. I am the man’s priest, and I forgot my stuff.”


“Yeah, my stuff for giving him his last communion.” I didn’t know if the kid was even Catholic or would even understand. I thanked the kid and walked out and in the reflection of the darkened windows, I could see he stopped snapping his gum, and just let his jaw hang open.

When I went back to the prison, they frisked me again, and this time I held out the plastic bag with the communion stuff to the big guard who wouldn’t let me in earlier. He checked the bag, removed the items, and then asked me to remove my wallet, keys, belt, shoes. Only after all this, did he let me in.

Timmy was lying on his bunk reading the New Testament. When I came in he greeted me as he always did.

“Well, M-C Ready.” He pronounced my last name as in the word “ready” because it was spelled like that. It was McReady – rhymes with “reedy” but he liked to accentuate the M-C. He told me it sounded so ghetto and made me sound tough. He shook my hand and I watched as my tiny paw was swallowed up by his large black mitt. He was six foot six and was large enough to play football at any college in the country. He smiled at me as he put the other hand on my shoulder and then gave me a big hug.

The smile faded as neither of us knew what to say or do. “I have the stuff …” I began. He nodded. “Yeah, sure. Let’s do it.”

I tore open the package of Goofy grape and poured it into a plastic pitcher of water he had. I mixed it for about a minute, watching the water spin and the color of the water turn purple. We sat face to face in the harsh, bright fluorescent prison light and closed our eyes and began to pray.

We went through the penitential rites as we both asked for forgiveness. Unspoken though in my heart was my plea for forgiveness of all this, this whole damn thing; murder – both his and mine. Timmy begged for whatever forgiveness God or the universe had left. I opened the bible he had been reading and I read about the last supper. I read to Timmy how Jesus had been on death row. Jesus knew what it was like to be deserted by friends. I told Timmy how Jesus knew what it was that last night before he was executed, just like Timmy now. He knew what it was like to be ignored by lawyers who worked for minimum wage and governors wanting to send the right message to criminals. And when they hoisted his cross high into the air, Jesus knew of the humiliation of all the onlookers – some who were glad to see this trouble-maker get what was coming to him. Jesus felt the hatred then, just as Timmy would probably feel it tonight, I told Timmy.

“What would they be wanting tonight?” I thought. Revenge? Justice? Remorse? Resurrection? What was it they all wanted from Timmy?

As this thought stuck in my head, I began to bless the bread and faux wine.

“And on the night he was betrayed and handed over to die, Jesus took the bread and blessed it and gave thanks. He said ‘Take this all of you and eat, for this is my body”. I raised the bread but I looked at Timmy deep in prayer. In my head I was holding a whole different conversation. What I wanted to tell Timmy was this: “No Timmy, really. Here, take this! Really! Take it now before they come and take you away! For it really is the body of all that is good and pure and holy in this world, all the things that you never knew. Take it quick and eat it. Before they turn you into the monster they need.”

Then I lowered the bread and I spoke slowly, making every word carry meaning. “When you do this, do it in memory of me.” Timmy took the bread and stuffed it into his large cheeks and chewed the doughy hot dog bun – now consecrated into Jesus Christ.

“After the dinner he took the wine, blessed it, and gave thanks.” I paused at the word Thanks. Thanks? Thanks for what? I was off in my head again. Timmy looked up when I stopped and only said in the faintest of voices, “Thanks”. He directed it toward me. This unnerved me and I started to cry, but I continued anyway.

“He gave the wine to his friends and said ‘Drink, for this is my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.”

Covenant? A new covenant? Cold this be a covenant that says that all things are possible with life – even healing? That the man we are executing today may not be the same man who committed that murder all those years ago? When will that new trust between God and man be fulfilled? When? When? When? New and everlasting covenant. Everlasting? Everlasting? It was like I had lost the capacity to connect words and their meanings.

“When you do this, do it in memory of me,” I said. Timmy repeated the line almost for my sake. I raised the paper cup of grape KoolAid and drank it slow and deep. The hum of the electric clock was the only sound. I shuddered from the sweet taste of the drink and Timmy laughed.

We sat and then talked for the remainder of the time. Timmy went back and forth between being nervous and being strong.

A friend of mine once asked me if I believe that when I consecrated the bread and wine did I really believe that these things “became” the actually body and blood of Jesus Christ. At the time I didn’t know what to say. I told her yeah, sure, why not? But tonight I would respond differently. I knew that it did. I was certain that in my last minutes with Timmy Murdock that bread and wine became the body and blood of a crucified man was too black and too poor to live long enough to discover this miracle of transubstantiation in his own life. We walked out together when it was time a little before midnight. We were both very afraid but each of us for different reasons. Miracles have a way of doing that to you.

M C Biegner


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