O riginally published in Offerings, a literary anthology published through Fuller Theological Seminary’s the Semi in October 2011. To read in an online version of Offerings, click here.

Anna: A Pilgrim Story

Legend has it that in the year 1263, a Bohemian priest traveled to Rome to resolve his doubts over the doctrine of transubstantiation—whether or not the bread and wine of communion actually become the flesh and blood of Christ—and stopped to celebrate mass in the lakeside town of Bolsena, Italy. When he lifted the host, it turned to literal flesh at the consecration and drops of human blood spilled onto the altar cloth. The majestic cathedral in Orvieto was built to house the sacred stained cloth, and today pilgrims still flock to see it in the Chapel of the Corporal.

 

This is the story of one such pilgrim.

Anna shifted uncomfortably in her pew in the Orvieto Cathedral. Anna had been shifting uncomfortably since she was ten years old, when she first realized that she was fat. She was always spilling over the boundaries placed on her—waistbands, bra straps, movie theater seats, a standard desk chair—similar to yeasty dough gone out of control and creeping out of its bowl like the Blob.

Now she adjusted herself so that her thighs didn’t completely overtake the thin Asian man sitting next to her, who, she noticed, had skinny thighs like two denim-clad noodles. Anna clutched the fleshy sides of her legs with the anger of a road-raging driver clenching the wheel, and tried to focus on the Italian tour guide’s lecture as he whispered under the vaulted ceiling about the miracle of Bolsena. His voice was pleasing—Marco had just enough of an accent to give his speech that rich quality so conspicuously absent in the nasal squawking of Americans.

Marco spoke of the traveling priest who doubted the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That is, he doubted until the host started bleeding all over the place like a scene in a horror film. To Anna the miracle sounded creepy and gross rather than holy, and she wasn’t sure why it mattered anyway. Didn’t Christ do his time on Earth, then get fed up and leave so he could hang out in heaven with God until everyone joined up for a big party, Oingo Boingo style, leaving bodies at the door?

Sometimes that was all that kept her believing—the fantasy of finally climbing out of this hateful, blubbery suit of flesh and becoming light as a vapor, and free. She’d come to view her body—all bodies—as evil, thinking of them with contempt and punishing her own with vicious words and fits of deprivation.

“Many spiritual paths ignore our physical nature, or fear it, or treat it with disdain,” whispered Marco, flipping his tongue around every r. “But Christianity is materialistic at its very core…notice the central saying from the Gospel of John, ‘The Word was made flesh.’ Every tiny particle of matter, every body, is destined to be an instrument of spirit.”

His words echoed later in Anna’s mind when she plopped down on a pew in the Chapel of the Corporal to stare at the linen cloth stained by a few faded drops of blood. “Matter and spirit are not opposites,” he’d said. “The body and soul are not mismatched, but actually express each other—the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory…” Stretching out one of her hands, Anna studied it—the smooth creamy white skin, the dimples punctuating her knuckles—and wonder poured over her like honey.

Later, at dinner, Anna watched her fellow travelers dance to the music of a live band in the corner of the restaurant. For once, she didn’t compare their figures to her own; she didn’t judge the large and clumsy or envy the slender and lovely. Instead, she rejoiced in their movement, in the way their swaying steps infused the dimly lit room with earthy exultation. A few drops of red wine had dribbled on the white tablecloth, and she remembered the cloth of Bolsena, divinity spilling out of flesh. Anna rose from her chair and drifted toward the dancers until she was in their midst, shifting her weight gracefully from one foot to the other, moved by a spirit like water within her.