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Short Story

The Celebrity I Worshipped from Afar

Published on:
November 23, 2020
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13 min.
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When I met Leonardo DiCaprio, my first thought was Who names their kid Leonardo? 

It was 1991; I was thirteen. Outside the talent trailer, the sky was bright blue, perfect for filming. I’d just finished my time on-camera for a speaking part in a Kellogg’s Rice Krispies commercial. I had flubbed my one and only line. I could tell that I wouldn’t be in the final cut of the commercial. 

I knew name-brand commercials were where producers of sitcoms and movies looked for the next star. I’d screwed up my big break. 

Grabbing a snack from the food table, I headed to the trailer where I’d stashed my backpack. Homework was not going to do itself, even if my stomach was in knots.

At first, I didn’t see the boy inside. When he glanced up from his work, I froze.

Mayday cute boy mayday cute boy. “I’m Heather,” I said. 

He nodded. “Leonardo.”

Who names their kid Leonardo? I thought, though he wore the name easily. I sat down and opened my bag, my stomach tighter than before. Talk to him, I thought, pulling out my science homework. Pretend that he should like you, even though that didn’t work at school.

The door to the trailer opened. “Leonardo? They need you,” someone called.

He shoved his stuff in his backpack and left, not saying goodbye. 

Two years later, my stomach dropped when I recognized DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

The world operated using a mysterious calculus I did not understand. Some people were noticed and successful; others were not.

My agent had let me go not long before. As an adult, I’d realize I wasn’t cut out for acting, but at thirteen, my agent’s disinterest hurt. The older I got, the more I realized showing up with a winsome smile on your face was not enough to get noticed. 

The world operated using a mysterious calculus I did not understand. Some people were noticed and successful; others were not. I didn’t know what separated the sheep from the goats, except to know which one I was.

The winners had not only a shining spotlight, but also a communion I hungered for. In seventh grade, I often ate lunch by myself in a teeming cafeteria, while the popular kids smiled and laughed at a crowded table. Chosen ones—chosen by their peers or, in the case of DiCaprio, chosen by Hollywood.

Was this what fame, whether at school or on screen, was? To be wanted by desirable people?

Watching Johnny Depp become DiCaprio’s brother onscreen, my throat ached.

As a pre-teen, I longed to become a star. But the very first celebrity’s ascent was a nearly calamitous mistake. 

Ty Burr tells the story in his book, Gods Like Us[1]. In 1910, a producer named Carl Laemmle hired a popular movie actress, Florence Lawrence, away from a rival studio. At the time, studios had only recently begun crediting actors; Lawrence was one of the first with a recognizable name. 

Soon after, a paper mistakenly reported Lawrence had been run over in a traffic accident.

Laemmle capitalized on the error. He got the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to run a front-page interview with Lawrence and announce that she’d make a public appearance in the city later that month. Ads promoting the event ran the day she arrived. 

It was a nearly fatal success. Fans mobbed Lawrence at the train station, “tearing the buttons from her dress, the trimming from her hat, and the hat from her head.” Laemmle’s marketing hit his newly minted star like a runaway train. He’d hoped to connect to Lawrence’s fans; he had no idea how powerful that connection was. 

“Everyone wanted a piece,” Burr notes. “Everyone wanted their piece.” 

Is it too fanciful to see the encounter as a kind of communion? It’s a savage one, a loaf of bread pecked apart by seagulls, but still—someone’s body was given over to the people in remembrance of them.

Is it too fanciful to see the encounter as a kind of communion? It’s a savage one, a loaf of bread pecked apart by seagulls, but still—someone’s body was given over to the people in remembrance of them. Burr makes the same parallel to movie fans “in the fifth row of the Bijou, worshipping as MGM chief Louis B. Mayer handed out the communion wafers.”[2]

Celebrity worship is a strange ritual, but nowadays, it’s arguably the primary religion of our culture. Human beings have always seen stars from afar and wondered how they were made, but now our stars are human beings, and their lives approximate our own. We’re sold their images graven on our screens and see ourselves mirrored in their faces.

I was, perhaps, one step closer to celebrity than the average star-struck fan, but the questions I asked weren’t any different than the ones we all pose when confronted with larger-than-life people. How do we become someone who matters? How can we be known? How do we plug into a power that illuminates our fragile lives, and makes them shine?

In elementary school, my family heaved and fractured in pretty spectacular ways—my older siblings more or less kicked out of our house for reasons I to this day struggle to understand. My parents did not divorce, but not coincidentally, my father began to take jobs out of town for the rest of my childhood, working for long stretches in other cities. I, the blonde, blue-eyed performer, was left home alone with my mother, my family reduced to less than half its size in the span of three years.

By high school, loneliness was so familiar to me that it felt safer than community. But I still yearned for connection. With my freshman year just a few months away, I wanted to be at the center of something. So when in the spring before I entered high school in San Diego, my mother said I could redecorate my room, I decided to make a poster.

I paged through back copies of Teen Magazine and found a feature about the cast of Saved by the Bell. I’d only seen the show once or twice, but in my eyes, these kids had what I wanted—a group of friends, smiling, arms around each other as if as an honest-to-God family. And even better, they had companionship on-screen, stars for everyone to model.

I carefully cut out their pictures and pasted them on a plain poster board by my closet. The mirrored door reflected the cast’s cheerful faces back to me every time I looked at myself.

It was a kind of icon: I used those stars’ images to make me brave enough to navigate the unknown social networks in my new school. Like previous generations, I prayed for the stars to help me. 

These days, the celebrities we aspire to be like are available to us because of technology. Technology created stardom, created Florence and Jennifer Lawrence. It’s a kind of reverse incarnation—human bodies made into strips of acetate or computer language and sent into billions of homes without any of the limitations of actual flesh.

Is it any wonder that now, when it’s possible to continuously record my children’s lives, we are experiencing the highest rates of disconnection and loneliness ever known in human history?[3] We engrave our images on screens as a proxy for being held. We long to be known to the masses without comprehending that for A-list stars, that kind of knowing is a brutal exile from real community.

We long to make our mark, to be noticed, and so we work harder and harder to get attention. But the thirst to be seen, not just noticed, will not be slaked with salt-water success. 

In the middle of my deepest longing to be seen, known, and included, my family began going to church for the first time in five years. On those initial Sunday mornings in the new congregation, I stole communion bread. I thought of it as stealing, anyway, since at the time I was so anxiously scrupulous that even minor infractions felt like sins. 

My parents sang in the choir, so we arrived before the first service and stayed till the end of the third. By the end of the morning, the loaves called my name.

Those mornings, I avoided Sunday school and sat in the service by myself, basking in the warm smiles from the elderly ladies in the pews. On communion Sunday, the ushers passed around loaves of bread wrapped in a hygienic white paper napkin, then wooden trays fitted with dozens of small holes for each tiny cup of grape juice. 

When the body and blood of Jesus came close to me, I assumed I was welcome to participate. I’d take a morsel, and chew, and swallow, closing my eyes and trying to deserve it, trying to appreciate Jesus’s sacrifice.

Afterwards, I retreated to the church library to read by myself. The deacons prepared communion there, startling me when they came in. After fifteen minutes of their cheerful preparations, they’d leave, and I’d be left alone with the bread, hunger my only companion.

At first, I told myself I couldn’t possibly take communion bread for a snack. But as I got more comfortable with church, I started helping myself after the women left.

One morning, a deacon came back unexpectedly and literally caught me with my hand in the bag. She must have seen the panic on my face and laughed. “Go ahead. It’ll just get tossed, anyway.”

Looking back, what strikes me was how alone I was right within the body of Christ. I knew I was hungry, and tried to feed myself. But anyone else discovering my ravenousness made me afraid.

My face red, heart thudding, I thanked her. But under her indulgent eye, I took only a morsel, not the chunk I’d been angling for. For some reason, I hated her seeing my need. 

After that morning, I stopped helping myself.

Looking back, what strikes me was how alone I was right within the body of Christ. I knew I was hungry, and tried to feed myself. But anyone else discovering my ravenousness made me afraid.

I thought goodness, faith, and holiness were skills I could learn from the books in that library, like one learned cursive. With enough solo practice, I’d be presentable to other people, not to mention God. But I had to get it right—without any mistakes—before I could be truly at home.

Where does alienation end and awe begin? Stardom is intimate and aspirational, a desire for our name to be known by every human being on the planet and yet also to be larger than life, more than ordinary. Stars are famous without belonging; they belong everywhere and nowhere, sought by everyone, and yet not actually known. We fantasize about befriending them, but if we actually did, we’d no longer be star-struck.

The Medieval poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, both coined the word “celebrity” and imagined himself being transformed into a star—“stellified,” he called it. Chaucer’s stardom conjured up the ceiling of a cathedral, whose latticed design was meant to imitate the heavenly firmament.[4]  Stars were part of God’s kingdom; to become a star was a taste of the divine. Like the cathedral’s vault, it was both wholly of earth, and a liminal space that took ordinary human beings past the commonplace into heaven.

The God we worship is both close and far. He’s beyond us, and yet at communion, we hold his body and blood in our mouths. That depth of intimacy inspires both yearning and disgust. It offended people in Jesus’ day[5]; it probably should shock us now.

Its contradictory distance and embrace has certainly frightened me. My adolescent nervousness about that communion bread stuck with me even after taking communion began to feel ordinary.

I began to feel anxious about it in college, after talking about communion with my friend Todd, who grew up in the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. I mentioned how strange it was that Catholics insisted communion elements transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. I shook my head, disdainful.

Todd paused over his Chicken Diane. “But my church believes that too,” he said. “We believe that the real presence of Jesus is there in the elements, that they’re not just symbols.” He went on—the Missouri Synod did not have an open communion table; if I went to his church, I would not be welcome to participate.

I stared at him, dumbfounded as if he told me he believed the earth was flat. At first, I thought him uninformed, but as our conversation went on, I realized that all my easy opinions about Communion were mostly ignorance. I took Communion seriously but had never formally studied what it meant. I’d joined my church a few years before, and been catechized, if you could call it that, over a weekend retreat. Our youth pastor told us about Presbyterian government, the Trinity, and the Reformation for a few hours; I spent more time making daisy chains. Of communion, I remember learning nothing. 

At first, I thought him uninformed, but as our conversation went on, I realized that all my easy opinions about Communion were mostly ignorance.

The absence didn’t bother me then; the church felt like home. Membership seemed a given, as did communion. I took the elements automatically: bread, juice, chew, swallow. I liked feeling at home in awe.

Now, my ease struck me as immature. Todd understood his theology in a way that I did not know mine. His church’s exclusivity seemed solemn and serious. 

Fairly or not, it reminded me of auditions. The better the opportunity, the fewer people were chosen. Landing really good parts involved a gauntlet of auditions, callbacks, and waiting. 

I shifted uncomfortably. Until that moment, I’d thought I was successfully climbing the Christian ladder of belonging and righteousness. Todd’s confidence, his knowledge, the exclusivity of his church, all of it felt like slipping down many rungs. 

I quietly finished my chicken. Shame about communion wedged itself into my heart. 

Technology didn’t just create the entertainment industry; it has transformed communion as well.

Let’s start with the ritualizing of communion, which in the early church started out as an ordinary meal shared by believers. These “love feasts” were banned by the Council of Carthage in 397.[6] In their wake emerged a ritual that is not unlike a technology. Communion as we know it is standardized and reproduced en masse, avoiding individual variation and led by experts (priests) who stand distant and other, above ordinary folk.

The elements themselves have also shape-shifted because of technology. The grape juice that stands in for wine was invented by Methodist pastor, Thomas Bramwell Welch, during the Temperance movement in the United States.[7] When a pastor came up with the idea for individual communion cups in 1894, it was such a novelty that newspapers reported on it. People packed services the next weekend.[8] These days, you can order all-in-one, Remembrance-brand disposable communion cups on Amazon that include both juice and wafer. A 240-count box will set you back $55.21.

In the movies, technology took flesh-and-blood actors on the stage and transformed them into otherworldly figures. In communion, technology transformed a dinner party into what is, in many churches, an individualistic experience, perfectly sanitized and portioned—especially in the age of Covid-19. Technology makes communion with the heavens easier and harder. It brings the stars into our pockets, yet encases them behind glass. It brings the divine to us in a pew without necessarily connecting us to our neighbors. No one needs to touch us; all our fingers encounter are the gorilla glass of our iPhones and plastic thimbles of juice.

It’s useless to lament technology; we are human precisely because we create it. I might like the idea of a family-style communion, but I can’t go back to the first century to a persecuted, still-gestating church to experience it. Also, I watch The Crown religiously. I do not know or understand what it would be like to live without mass culture and tiny plastic cups. To write them off would be the height of arrogance and ingratitude.

Still, our connections to each other and to God are mediated by our tools. When we feel cut off from people and the divine, it’s worth noticing how our ways of approaching technology and ritual alienate us. If we create tools, we can also learn to use them better.

I once visited an Episcopalian church with my daughters and husband, Dyami. I felt nervous about communion in a church where ritual held such pride of place. I was unfamiliar with how Eucharist would proceed; I was afraid of offending someone with my cluelessness.

As the priest gave his homily, I leaned over to the woman sitting next to us. “Excuse me,” I whispered, “Are there any rules about communion? Can my kids participate?”

She smiled and nodded. “Yes, it’s fine.”

God had always been a celebrity I worshiped from afar. But when the time came, here I was approaching the altar, and kneeling on plush cushions of light blue velvet. Heart pounding, I watched to see what others did. When the priest came my way, I closed my eyes, and opened my mouth in self-conscious mimicry. 

Never in my life had it occurred to me that communion—this strange, otherworldly experience—did not depend on me.

Suddenly, the wafer was on my tongue. I hadn’t had to do anything but open my mouth.

My eyes filled with tears. I hadn’t had to do anything.

Never in my life had it occurred to me that communion—this strange, otherworldly experience—did not depend on me. In this unfamiliar sanctuary, where I had no understanding, no theology, no competence, no clue, Christ’s body had been given generously.

It changed everything.

All those years, I kept wondering if I was doing communion wrong, if I was failing, when I might have asked if it was possible to fail. 

I had assumed I needed to be worthy, but the whole point of communion was that Christ gave everything for me. 

There was beauty and meaning in Todd’s theology—taking the body and blood and commitment to Christ so seriously, sanctifying all with solemn intentions. I respect his convictions while also experiencing God through a different set of values. 

My heart has been healed by God breaking the barriers between heaven and earth.

The priest passed again, pressing the chalice gently to my lips. I drank, he wiped the rim with his napkin, and moved on.

Blotting my tears, I guided my daughter back to our pew, astonished that I’d spent so long estranged from this ritual. This entire time, the bread was so generously given it felt like stealing.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, communion is closer and farther away than ever before.

On the pre-recorded video last communion, our student ministries pastor told the story.

“On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took the bread and broke it,” he said as he did the same. “This is my body, broken for you.” 

Then he picked up the pitcher. “And in the same way, he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me.’”

A little awkwardly, my husband and I picked up our improvised elements: sourdough bread and berry-flavored sparkling water. Dyami tore off a chunk of bread and held it out to me.

“This is the body of Christ, broken for you, Heather,” he said.

Then he handed me the water. “The blood of Christ, given for you.” 

I dipped my bread and twisted my hand to keep it from dripping. Then I put the whole sodden mass into my mouth.

It made me sad. It also seemed miraculous.

My communion might be improvised, lonely, even heartbreaking. And yet even now, Christ’s presence breaks through the screens between us and the divine. 

I once thought I needed to be special to have communion. I thought specialness was something I worked for. 

But here in my living room, I knew that mystery also lies within the miracle of mundane faithfulness. 

I belong to my imperfect church family not because I was chosen, but because I show up no matter what.

I once wanted to be important because I made the cut. But one of the mysteries of communion is that we become holy through ordinary elements—welcomed inexplicably into fellowship with the divine.

Humble and unworthy, we’re fed by a God who sees our ravenousness with loving eyes and gives us bread to eat. Rather than a distant, unapproachable star, we worship a God drawn near, who brings light into the deepest, darkest corners of our lives.

Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer and editor whose work has appeared at Relevant.com, The Other Journal, Harpur Palate, and Brain, Child Magazine. She talks about being an awkward Christian on Instagram and at her website and lives in San Diego with her husband and two daughters.

Cover image by James Coleman.

[1] Burr, Ty. Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame (New York: Random House, 2012), 15-16.

[2] Burr, xviii

[3] Farhad Manjoo, interview by Terry Gross, Fresh Air, WHYY Philadelphia, October 26, 2017.

[4] Garber, Megan, “Why Are They 'Stars'?” The Atlantic, June 22, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/02/why-are-celebrities-known-as-stars/517674/.

[5] John 6:52

[6] Viola, Frank and George Barna, Pagan Chrisitanity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2002) 193.

[7] Harrington, Luke, “How Methodists Invented Your Kid's Grape Juice Sugar High,” Christianity Today, June 22, 2018, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/september-web-only/how-methodists-accidentally-invented-your-kids-grape-juice-.html.

[8] Harrington, Luke, “The Story of Those Little Communion Cups, Whatever Those Are Technically Called,” Christ and Pop Culture, June 22, 2018, https://christandpopculture.com/story-little-communion-cups-whatever-technically-called/.

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