Sunday, March 4, 2012

On Communion

I can't imagine how the practice of Communion must look to anyone not familiar with it.  Even once marginally acquainted with the context and purpose, it could easily be construed as cultish and superstitious - the symbolic (or, for Catholics, literal) elements representative of the Christ's body and blood, to be shared and consumed by believers in remembrance of his perfect life and perfect sacrifice?
Even seeing it in words make me squirm.

But it is consistently the one thing in this world that brings that burning sensation to my sinuses, makes the tear ducts well, makes my chest swell, and brings me to my knees - more often figurative but sometimes truly.  It is something about which I get emotional.  Emotion, the inarguable way of knowing something to be true- the very base expression of our self - this is affected and stirred in me by the act of Communion.

Raised Presbyterian as a little girl, Communion was served on the first Sunday of every month.  On the occasion I was in the service with my parents rather than in Sunday School, this was a dire situation, as it just added more stuff to sit through.  This was, however, mitigated by the promise of a tiny snack; the passing of those delightfully small-person sized cups; a bite of soft white bread; the fleeting inclusion in the Things The Grown Ups Do.  I remember the solemnity with which I accepted the charge of passing along the tray of grape juice to my pew neighbor and bestowing upon him, with a hoarse and formal whisper, "This is Christ's blood, shed for you." I remember stuffing my tongue into the plastic cups to extract every last drop of Welches Grape Blood.  I remember recognizing that it was a serious but warm event.

One Sunday when we couldn't get out the door in time, my parents opted to hold a small family church service in our living room- a short substitution service of the reading of a few passages and prayer time together.  I wanted to contribute, to make our little service an even more pleasing stand-in to the Lord, so I ran to the kitchen and returned with a bag of sandwich bread and a can of grape soda.  Despite my efforts to line a wicker basket with one of the nice cloth napkins, my good intentioned inclusion of the sacrament was halted humiliatingly by my father, and I was indignant in only the hot and stubborn way a child can be embarrassed.
Lesson learned, though: it was in that way that I came to truly appreciate the sacredness and the import of the act of Communion.  It is surely a big part of why it's so special to me today.

The act of a father in relation to the teaching of Communion figures as a main theme in one of my favorite and most-treasured books, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson.  The narrator recalls

I remember once when I was a young child my father helped to pull down a church that had burned.  It rained the day we came to pull it down.  The pulpit was left intact, standing there in the rain, but the pews were mostly kindling.  There was a lot of praising the Lord that it happened at midnight on a Tuesday.  It was a warm day, a warm rain, and there was no real shelter, so everybody ignored it, more or less.  All kinds of people came to help.  It was like a camp meeting and a picnic.  They unhitched the horses and we younger children lay on an old quilt under the wagon out of the way and talked and played marbles, and searching out Bibles and hymnals.  They would sing, we would all sing, "Blessed Jesus" and "The Old Rugged Cross," and the wind would blow the rain in gusts and the spray would reach us where we were.. It never rains, but I remember that day.  And when they had gathered up all the books that were ruined, they made two graves for them and put the Bibles in one and the hymnals in the other, and then the minister whose church it was - a Baptist, as I recall - said a prayer over them.  I was always amazed, watching grownups, at the way they seemed to know what was to be done in any situation, to know what was the decent thing.   
The women put the pies and cakes they had brought and the books that could still be used into our wagon and then covered the bed with planks and tarps and lap robes.  The food was all pretty damp.  No one seems to have thought there might be rain...The ashes turned liquid in the rain and the men who were working in the ruins got entirely black and filthy, till you would hardly know one from another.  My father brought me some biscuit that had soot on it from his hands.  "Never mind," he said, "there's nothing cleaner than ash."  But it affected the taste of that biscuit, which I thought might resemble the bread of affliction, which was often mentioned in those days, though it's rather forgotten now. 
"Strange are the uses of adversity." That's a fact.  When I'm up here in my study with the radio on and some old book in my hands and it's nighttime and the wind blows and the house creaks, I forget where I am, and it's as though I'm back in hard times for a minute or two, and there's a sweetness in the experience which I don't understand.  But that only enhances the value of it.  My point here is that you never do know the actual nature even of your own experience.  Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature.  I remember my father down on his heels in the rain, water dripping from his hat, feeding me biscuit from his scorched hand, with that old blackened wreck of a church behind him and steam rising where the rain fell on embers, the rain falling in gusts and the women singing "The Old Rugged Cross" while they saw to things, moving so gently, as if they were dancing to the hymn, almost.  It was so joyful and sad.  I mention it again because it seems to much of my life was comprehended in that moment.  Grief itself has often returned me to that morning, when I took communion from my father's hand.  I remember it as communion and I believe that's what it was.  

I can't tell you what that day in the rain has meant to me.  I can't tell myself what it had meant to me.  But I know how many things it put altogether beyond question, for me.

 Communion is a blessed sharing between us.  In a lonely broken place the world so often is, it's a moment of pure connectivity and generosity.  It's a time of clearing away the distraction of days and filling ourselves with goodness.  It's a physical reminder of a metaphysical truth.

When I grew up and returned to Portland after finishing college, I started going to a different church than my parents.  There, we took Communion every Sunday, and, being old enough to not regard the elements of bread and juice (now, wine) as breakfast Part II, it came to be my favorite part of attending service.  At this church, Communion was simply laid out at the front and back of the antique high school auditorium in which we worshipped, the sunlight streaming in through tall glass panes and tumbling over the empty high balconies into our laps.  Music would play and, once you felt ready, everyone in attendance was invited to the table.  You'd stand in line and witness the most heartbreaking acts of love at the communion tables as families embraced each other before partaking, holding each other in communal hugs and praying together.  Some people would approach alone, and kneel, and breathe, and think.  Young couples  stood together and fed one another - a piece of bread, the Body, dipped in the wine, the Blood, from her hand, to his mouth, with whispered assertions about the nature of the elements.  "This, Brian, is Christ's body, broken for you.  And this is His blood, shed for you."  The closeness achieved by being able to say those words to one another makes me ache.  Standing in line, waiting for my turn, watching, it felt almost like an invasion of these special relationships, but I know it wasn't.  Their acts of togetherness and sharing and my bearing witness were all part of the experience of corporate Communion: the churches I have attended and been a part of believe Communion is for everyone.  All are invited to the table.

Once, I brought my parents to this church, and instead of taking Communion alone, we were one of the families who took it together, arms wrapped around each other in love, sharing the symbols of the very basis of our familial love together.  I loved it.  I love the memory.  I love that even though I live in New York, I went to church today, and I took Communion. And today is the first Sunday of the month, and if my family goes to church today, in the church in which I was raised, in the place with the people that helped mold me as the woman I am today, they will also take Communion, and though we are not in the same place to wrap our arms around each other and share the pieces of promises we believe in, we are bound and connected by the sacred love from which it stems.

For me, Communion has transformed from a noun into a verb.  It may have even started as an adjective - a way to describe that kind of Sunday.  It excites me that it could continue to evolve for me; that the communing continues to connect me in new ways to God and to loved ones.  That it is a sort of powerful mystery that will go on to reveal itself through unique expressions of intimacy, grace, and love.

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