Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Playing Communion

This past Sunday, my sweetheart and I went to services at a Presbyterian church in the neighborhood. I’ve been a reluctant first mate in this search for a faith community, while he is an open-minded foretopman, eyes open for opportunities he sees, willing to go just about any direction. So without a captain, we do a lot of wandering; I suggest a place, he willingly accompanies, and there’s not a lot of leadership or direction, unless I see it and steer us away from an iceberg or island. Once or twice we’ve definitely plowed into some pelicans.

So, this Presbyterian church; I think I was hoping for something that was a little less denominational than the Catholic church we’ve been visiting. I don’t know much of anything about denominations of Christianity. I know about differences between Catholic and Protestant sort of: I know about the Apocrypha, and I know about confession, and a handful of other strange little quirks that are observed on one side of the religious aisle, and not on another. I grew up in black churches that had “Church of God” tattooed after some street or region or number, and I was baptized in a Baptist church. But as a child I had no idea what was so special about these places, what made them different than Catholic or Methodist or Episcopal churches. It seemed to me that everybody did the same thing, that within the discount bin of Protestantism, really the only difference between denominations was the color of different flip-flops. As an adult, the denomination doesn’t really make such a difference to me until I run into it; while living in central Florida I attended a Baptist church, that despite its monolithic size and homogeneity, I had no problem with, until it started telling me how God wanted me to vote, what God’s opinion of me was as a woman, and how God wants me to educate my children. (The President of Bob Jones University came and gave a speech there, asking for money; at the time I knew nothing about Bob Jones. I’m surprised I lasted there as long as I did.)

But recently, I’ve taken some small pleasure in attending a Catholic church: I’m pretty sure that my individual needs would never be met there, but I like going because when I get the thirsty feeling in my soul that needs church and I can’t think of any place else to go, I can go to a Catholic service and know what I’m getting. I don’t have all the response stuff memorized, but for me, Catholicism is kind of like bikram yoga: any house I step into anywhere in the world, the program is always going to be the same. In the midst of this worship wandering, that’s comforting.

I thought that maybe Presbyterians did it differently. The first major surprise was that the service was just as liturgical as a Catholic one. The Lord’s prayer was recited, there was a good bit of quite orderly call and response, printed in the program, and when we greeted each other we did so, “in the peace of God”, wishing “peace be with you” to one another.

That was the first surprise. The second was that my sweetheart, a non-Christian who did not grow up in the church, took communion.

Instead of going up to take the elements this church passed them around the congregation. I whispered to him as they were being blessed, “I’m not going to take it today, but you can do whatever you want.”

I don’t think I really thought that he would want to take communion.

When I was a girl, I had no idea what communion was. I remember reaching for the plate of tidy white squares of wonder bread that passed under my nose from mother to father, and having my hand snatched back with a harsh reprieve whispered in my ear. But I never got an explanation of what communion was, or why I couldn’t have any. I remember being six, sitting on the barstool in my parents kitchen-- they were somewhere else, locked behind the dark door of My Parents’ Bedroom,--making my own communion. I would break up saltine crackers and pour Strawberry Kool-Aid into a blue plastic cup, and then mutter my own made-up words of blessing and holiness over them, and eat and drink. It was great fun. But this was all I had until about six years ago. There was never any “First Communion” for me, with a frilly white dress and a nice new Bible with my name on the front in imitation gold leaf. My first communion was at the aforementioned sexist, conservative Baptist Church in Sarasota, Florida. It was just me and God, a short walk to the altar, a thought and a swallow. That was it.

I remember attending a wedding where the bride and groom took communion, but did so in a way I’d never seen before: they opened a bottle of wine and poured two glasses, and ripped a loaf of bread in half, and gave each other communion. They did so with their backs to the congregation of celebrants and none of us got the chance to share in it; it was entirely a private affair that we witnessed. Initially I thought it was a little rude, but after the impression of that subsided, what was left was the brilliance of that metaphor for marriage: that two people are in relationship with each other, and responsible to each other to share their faith with each other. The rest of the world has nothing to do with it. I was convicted for thinking that I had any right to use someone else’s wedding as a vehicle for my own communion with the Lord, and I thought their private observance was really cool.

But my sweetheart’s not a Christian, I thought. If we do get married, when we do get married, if we include the Eucharist in our ceremony, it won’t function as anything but a metaphor for him. It won’t mean to him what it means to me; it won’t remind him of anything except maybe a nice bottle he had at Webster’s Wine Bar, and he’ll wonder whether or not I should eat the bread because it might not be gluten-free. No communing with the body, blood, or sacrifice of Christ at all.

Something about this attitude felt all wrong. I was ashamed of myself: how would I know what he might process while observing this ritual? What gave me the right to assume that if he doesn’t know Christ the way I do, that this ritual of closeness and gratitude with Him would be nothing more than a snack before a meal? I felt like I was taking the thing that Christ is, that he came to be for everyone, away from my loved one on a mere technicality. But that feeling was up against a ton of religious pedagogy that’d been planted in me by various sources (I’m still pulling weeds out of that garden). This was a real problem for me; I couldn’t make peace with the question about whether or not I wanted my sweetheart to observe this ritual if there’s a whole layer of it that I thought maybe he just didn’t buy into.

And then I read this:

“…I have shared the Eucharist with Father Daniel Berrigan,
and our worship became possible because of the sufferings we Vietnamese and
Americans shared over many years.” Some of the Buddhist present were shocked to
hear I had participated in the Eucharist, and many Christians seemed truly
horrified. To me, religious life is life. I do not see any reason to spend one’s
whole life tasting just one kind of fruit. We human beings can be nourished by
the best values of many

From Living Buddha, Living Christ
Thich Nhat Hanh

I was stunned. And convicted. Communion seemed such an intensely personal thing, and so patently representative of Christianity; it was difficult for me to conceive that any non-Christian would be nourished by observing a ritual that was so clearly not a part of his own religious tradition.
But here was more evidence that I was wrong. I’ve been considering the possibility of communion as more than just something those of us who walk with Christ do to remember Him. Maybe it’s something anybody can do to remember Him. Maybe it’s a door, a way in.

So a few days ago, when the opportunity came up, I abstained for my own reasons, and told my sweetheart to just do what he wanted. I was completely surprised when he chose to take the elements.

I asked him later what made him decide to do it. He said that the orientation, of having elements passed around, made it easier for him to say yes. If he’d had to walk up to the altar and take them, he probably wouldn’t have gone, but since they were being offered to him, reaching his hand out was the least he could do.

Maybe this is the way we all need to receive Christ: offered to us from someone nearby, rather than handed down from authority, so that the tiniest reach that we can muster is all we need to do to receive him.

He is a simple man, and it was a simple first communion. There was no mention of any inner transformation. (There was also no frilly white dress and new Bible with his name on the front in imitation gold leaf.) He hadn’t been thinking about it for weeks, as I had, and had decided this time to observe this ritual as a part of his worship practice; it was just convenient. He probably hasn’t thought about it since.

But my thinking about it has changed completely.


ABG said...

Although we may disagree on some of the particulars, I love this post; the search among denominations for meaning and testing the waters of Eucharist in the different religious spaces resonates with my own journey a bit.

I especially loved your comments about Catholicism. Reminds me of Kathleen Norris and Lauren Winner, both of whom had a similar description of the comfort of Catholic services (though minus the creative simile...)

ABG said...

Ooops. In Lauren Winner's case, that would have been Episcopal, so that should probably say "high church"--sorry!

Jessica Young said...

I'm always so interested by the thoughts you fire into my brain. I'd be really interested in hearing more about your own journey. Should I scour your blog for it?

PrincessMax said...

Jess, I will always make sure that your communion bread is gluten-free.

Ali, if you come to town (new baby, ha ha), I'll facilitate lunch and then quietly excuse myself. If you happen to be here Labor Day weekend, there is room for you at the wedding!

Nyactorgirl said...

I loved this post too! It echoes the questions about religious practice that I think we all occasionally ask ourselves.

I feel your pain on the church search. I too have been looking for a new church that I love and feel at home with. This search has been complicated by my constant mourning of the hasty departure I made from my last church. I loved that church! I wasn't ready to leave it...but I had to move away to college, then grad school, then NYC. In my search I've never found another church since where I felt as thrilled to be amongst fellow worshippers.

Now I have simplified my search down to finding a church where community service is its most core value. In my experience, these are the most humane, loving and open churches. Because I believe that you cannot hate someone and truly serve them.

Ultimately, I realize that churches are not perfect because people are not perfect. But I keep looking with the knowledge that I will someday come across a church that fits me like my fav pair of jeans!

I think its great that your man took communion, because the mystery of opening ourselves to a new spiritual experience is a beautiful thing. I hope he loved the experience and felt connected to god in that moment. I do think however that if you continue to attend Christian services (and if he continues to want to enjoy communion) that he ask someone to fully explain to him what that rite truly is and means - because alot of times that understanding is taken for granted during the service by the clergy. They just assume that everyone is on the same page sometimes. Communion has a truly beautiful tradition and meaning that I think your man might enjoy knowing the intimate details of. My concern comes from him possibly thinking that its only an isolated beautiful moment within a Christian service. He should understand that within the Christian religion, communion is considered a holy rite taken by the faithful, like baptism and marriage. So much so that in most states you legally must be an ordained or licensed minister in order to officiate at a communion service, like you would for a marriage or funeral. Its my hope that he would to come into that knowledge if he decides to continue taking communion. Many houses of worship (of various faiths) would not be in support of someone who is not a believer or member taking part in a religious rite, and I can understand that feeling although I'm not so strict in my own personal belief. They would not want to see the holiness of that rite diminished.

All in all, if he wants to continue, I think his experience can be much deeper and much more rewarding with additional accurate knowledge.