Discerning the Body – a short story

Just last weekend I was in Goshen, Indiana. While there I spent some time in the Blaurock College historical archives. I was about to leave when the woman who ran the place handed me a manila file folder. She was probably 75 years old, thin as a hay fork and smart as a whip. I had told her earlier in the day that I was interested in Canadian issues. As she handed me the folder, she said, “Here, take this. I have never known what to do with it. Someone submitted it to the journal twenty years ago. We obviously can’t print it.”

I asked if she wanted it back.

“No,” she said, “it makes me uncomfortable having it around.”

I walked out of the basement-level archives, crossed the college’s central lawn and sat down on a bench near a fountain. The seat was hard. I leaned back against the concrete wall and flipped open the folder. The first page was a cover letter, explaining that what followed was a submission for the college’s Mennonite history journal. The word ‘history’ was underlined by hand. The cover letter said that in the following pages the author would share a little-known, eye-witness account of events that happened in the 1980s. The author described himself as the “only ever officially-sanctioned Mennonite detective.” It was signed: Reginald Hackman.

He was a little too sure of himself, it seemed to me. There could have been other Mennonite detectives. They could have been disguised as hymnal salesmen or missionaries, even visiting university students. I flipped to the next page and began to read. I’ll summarize this part of Hackman’s report. It’s a little tedious.

Fact: in the early 1980s the Mennonite Church in Canada had its own investigations unit. The purpose of this unit was to investigate strange things: mysteries and miracles.

Fact: in official correspondence the investigations unit was known as Mennonite Church Special Investigations Unit for Mysteries and Miracles, or MCSIUFMM. You may know that the 1980s were the highpoint of strange Mennonite acronyms. Nobody could keep them straight. The Mennonite Church Special Investigations Unit for Mysteries and Miracles tried to make theirs memorable by making it long.

Fact: the unit itself was quite small. It was made up of a male intern, who was getting credit for his work through a Bible College, and the lead investigator, the author of the report, Reginald Hackman. Apparently some people knew him as ‘Reg’. His detective buddies called him ‘The Hackman’. He was especially good at making distinctions: separating plausible explanations from ones that didn’t make sense and getting rid of a fuzzy explanation when a clearer one already existed.

Fact: before Reg started working for the Mennonites he was most famous for figuring out that Manitoba crop-circles were not the work of aliens. They were, in fact, the work of a couple in their eighties who had dared each other to prank the entire province.

Now let me share a little bit of Reginald Hackman’s report. It’ll give you a sense of the man. Here is part of what he writes:

I was called on a Saturday afternoon. I was in my garage drinking beer and sharpening my lawnmower blades. There was a phone in my garage. That’s the one that rang. A fellow introduced himself as a local Mennonite conference minister. I was surprised to hear his voice. I had not heard from a minister in years. In fact, I hadn’t heard from a Mennonite at all since my wife died. She had the family connections.

The fellow on the other end of the line said they wanted someone to lead a newly formed special investigations unit. It seemed he and his colleagues had begun to notice that many of their members were leaving their churches and becoming atheists or Pentecostals. The problem, they believed, was that God seemed to have left Mennonite churches. They weren’t sure when, but everyone had gotten so used to it that they never expected anything to happen. At one church a man had even driven a motorcycle down the aisle—nothing happened. The ministers wanted someone to do some digging. I asked if they had any leads. He answered in the affirmative.

The rest of what he told me remains confidential, but I can tell you that the stories he shared were enough to arouse my old detective curiosity. The problem was that it was all second hand. They had no reliable accounts. All they had were stories shared over borscht or traded by deacons in between sips of decaf coffee. Every detective knows that anyone who drinks decaf coffee is inherently unreliable. Decaf coffee drinkers are motivated by fear.

The conference minister asked if I would check it out. I said I would, but I needed money. The conference minister said there was $800.00 left over from the sale of some music tapes they had made, quartet stuff, I think. Four hours later I was on a flight to Calgary.

Here Reginald Hackman goes into quite a bit of detail about the weather and about what he packed for his trip. We’ll skip that and I’ll take you to the next interesting part:

The next morning I was sitting near the back of a prairie church. It was a white building, near the lip of a coulee. The Mennonites had purchased it from some Dutch folks. From the church you could see a little valley on the one side and, they said that if you stood in the tower by the old bell, you could see the mountains on the other. The graveyard was on the south side, situated so the dead faced east.

That morning the music was dreary. The congregation sat in long benches, cushions on the seats but not on the back. A faint prairie breeze found its way in through the raised windows. It smelled of soil and a maturing wheat crop, like warm butter. I fell asleep during the sermon. I woke up just as the elders were concluding their reading from I Corinthians: “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment upon themselves.” Then they passed the bread.

They elders worked slowly. Everyone was very serious, remembering their sins I expect. Each person held their little bit of bread. Then the pastor nodded. Didn’t say a thing. And everyone ate their little bit of bread. I can tell you that I did pay attention at this moment, as close attention as I ever had, as close attention as I did during that one week in health class when everyone pays attention. I watched the hands of the people in the church.

The squares of bread were raised, not quite in unison but nearly so. Some people’s mouths opened wide and slow, like they were surprised by a woman ridding a bull at the Stampede. Others barely opened their mouths at all. They seemed embarrassed to have any part in the ritual.

Everyone ate, except for some kids in the back and a few adults in city clothes. And as they did, lines of something tacky, a little like toffee, snapped into place. They shot out from each person to the others. The strands of the stuff were fine like a spider’s web, but darker. The whole congregation became a mass of thin ropes and lines.

Then I noticed that the cords shot out beyond them, to the graveyard where the threads zipped through the soil like darts. And as I looked out the windows I saw the ends of other threads speeding toward the horizon until they looked like a fine spreading mist emanating from the little prairie church. Only inside the church could you see that the threads came from each person. The lines snapped into place quicker than you can blink and then dropped away almost as quickly. It was all silent, but it was hard not to imagine a small popping sound with each thread, like miniature popcorn. And then it was gone.

I’m convinced that very few people in the church noticed what happened. Maybe none of them. Their eyes were closed or they were staring at the ceiling or the floor. I did see one person who noticed. A girl, probably nine or ten. She watched it all happen. And she watched me jot notes. I always carried a little notebook in my shirt pocket during investigations.

The same thing happened when they drank the juice. I saw the tacky lines zip out. It was almost the way you think of an atom working: electrons and neutrons zipping around, impossible to really locate, and yet the whole busy mess somehow being one thing. Or maybe it was more like the milky way galaxy (again just for a split second) with the light from all the stars overlapping and hitting all the other stars so that there were beams of light, but from afar it looks just like one thing and, if you think about it, all having come from one thing and being made of the same stuff. Those are the best analogies I can give.

Now, in the interest of asserting my objectivity, I must say that I, Reginald Hackman, did not find this particularly heart-warming. My heart has never been warmed in an investigation, and it wasn’t in this one either. I found that momentary web of lines and threads somewhat repulsive. The best word for it, and this is not a very professional word, is ‘icky’. It took me the better part of the afternoon to shake the feeling.

At this point Reginald Hackman goes on to describe how he tried to interview as many members of the congregation afterward as he could. The conference minister has told him to maintain his cover, so he did this with great care. His cover, in case you were wondering, was that he was a salesman for bovine reproductive services. The conference minister was confident that he wouldn’t have to answer many questions about that in a church setting. He was right. But neither of them had thought about kids. Kids don’t ask newcomers about their work. It was the girl that understood what Reginald Hackman was really about. It’s worth listening to Reg again to hear about this part. Here he is:

The main challenge I had to going unnoticed was the girl at the first church I visited. She was the only other person I was sure knew about the threads. And she knew I had seen it too. She found me just as I was walking over to my rental car. She told me later that her mom had to stay for a meeting. Apparently the mom was on a committee that formed the committee that formed the other committees at the church. The girl walked up to me and said right off: “Mister, what’s in your notebook?” Of course I tried not to tell her. Then she said, and this really surprised me, that I was actually there because of her. She had noticed the communion lines months ago and wrote about it in a letter to her grandmother who, I can only assume, shared the story.

“I knew they would send someone eventually,” the girl told me. “Now what are you going to do?”

I had to tell her I didn’t know. I told her I wasn’t sure it wasn’t just my imagination. Her response was something I haven’t been able to forget, though I’m still not sure why.

She said, “Why do you say just in your imagination? Isn’t your imagination the best place? Isn’t it where all the important things happen, like love and stories and pictures of things and understanding how stuff works? Why would it be anywhere other than in your imagination?”

That evening I went to a huge church just off the Deerfoot Highway south of Calgary. I saw it there too. They ate the bread and drank from the little tiny cups and the strings shot out. I remember seeing, quite specifically, the connection between a woman with tired eyes and a man who could barely walk. I don’t think they even knew each other.

In the rest of his report Reginald Hackman describes how he tried to understand what he saw, or thought he saw. He went to other churches the following week and observed, in some of them anyway, the same thing. He tried to touch the tacky threads. He looked for them on the floor afterword. He posed as a spiritual seeker and talked to priests and pastors in the area. The Catholic priest told him that when he, the priest, prayed the inner essence of the bread and wine became the body of Jesus. He called it the ‘Eucharist’, which he said had to do with thanksgiving. A Baptist pastor said that what was important was remembering the meal Jesus shared with his disciples before his death. Reginald Hackman also sat down with a Lutheran minister. She told him about Jesus’ spiritual presence. He learned that the word ‘Communion’ came from the practice of eating a meal in which the rich and the poor shared in the same common food.

What The Hackman was never able to find was an explanation for the strings or, what seemed of greatest interest to him, he was never able to find a way to tell if they were real or imagined. He was worried, he writes this clearly, that his imagination had been primed by the story the girl shared with her grandmother and which he had heard from the man who hired him. What frustrated Reg was that there was no way to get this out of his head. When he watched a church celebrate Communion it was always there. He always saw these sinews and fibers pulling together, just for a moment, and then disappearing.

On the college campus I finished the last page of The Hackman’s report. I sat still beside the fountain for a few minutes. It started to rain a little, just a sprinkling. The wind shifted a bit and I heard the Elkhart River a few blocks away. It was still warm and I noticed steam rising off the library roof. Then I saw, just for a second, the Communion strings snap into place. The world was connected, whole, tightly webbed and every bit held by something bigger and more real. It was, of course, my imagination.

I put The Hackman’s report back in the folder. I thought about the pump and pipes that brought the water up from the river, through the filtration system and then over to the fountain. I glanced at my watch and got up. I walked toward the edge of campus. I kept the folder in my hand until I passed a garbage bin. Then I dropped it in. I know, just as well as you and every other discerning mind knows, there is no such thing as the Mennonite Church Special Investigations Unit for Mysteries and Miracles.

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