Communion, Experimentally

Today, I think I’m ready to tell the hard part of my story from last Sunday’s visit to a local Presbyterian church.

When Henry and I arrived at the church, we were directed to the smaller side chapel in the steeplehouse, since his choir was singing at the early 8:30 service. He went up and practiced their song and then came back to sit in the pew with me and his friend’s family. I noticed that a table in the front was set up for Communion, and only then remembered that since it was the first Sunday, this congregation would be having Communion today. I thought I should prepare Henry for what was coming.

I asked him if he remembered the time in First Day School when they acted out the whole Holy Week story – from palms to footwashing to resurrection appearances. (That was not my week to teach, but it was an amazing example of engaging religious ed. I should write more about that another time.) Anyway, Henry was dismissive of my explanations, yeah, Mom, whatever; and in fact, immediately after his choir sang, his friend asked him if he wanted to come to the nursery and they both left. But I was stuck there for the rest of the service.

The text for Sunday’s grown-up sermon was from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. (I Cor. 11:17-34 This isn't exactly the same translation, but it's close.) In this passage, Paul is admonishing them for their lack of faithfulness in observing the Lord’s supper. He scolds the Corinthians for not truly sharing – he says he’s heard that when they meet, each of them brings his own supper and some of them end up going away hungry and others of them get drunk. Pastor K. pointed out the phrase “discerning the body.” He explained that he thinks this means not only treating the wine and bread reverently, as befits Christ’s blood and body, but also paying attention to who else is among the body of the church. It is important to notice who at the Lord’s table (at our table) is hungry, who does not have enough. This was an important lesson for the people of Corinth and it is important for us today.

The pastor of this small, middle class Presbyterian church is not a radical theologian, as far as I can tell. But his simple words were very meaningful to me. It was a nicely put together worship service. The reading from the old testament was the 23rd Psalm: “thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies...” The hymns and prayers all hung together well. To me it was largely about eating mindfully, a topic which has been on my mind lately. The sense that eating together is always a form of communion. The reciting together, “Give us this day our daily bread…” Pastor K. made direct connections between the Corinthian’s version of the Lord’s supper and the potluck they were planning for lunch that day.

It really helped me to consider how I am part of this 2000 year old tradition of people who have been touched by Jesus. Who gather again to eat together and to remember what he taught us about loving one another, about caring for our neighbors – paying attention to who isn’t getting enough, and sharing what we have.

So I can’t really explain what happened except to say that it was laid upon my heart fairly early that I was to partake of the Lord’s supper today, as it is practiced by the Presbyterians in their worship service. I was deeply challenged by the very idea. I said to myself, “But I’m a Quaker. We don’t take bread and wine in worship.” I haven’t taken Communion in maybe 25 years. I have been in plenty of worship services where I have chosen not to participate in this ritual, even when it was offered to me. But today felt different. When the pastor explained that you don’t have to be a member of the Presbyterian church, or any church to participate, he said, “You are welcome if you love Jesus Christ.” I asked myself, “Do I?” And the answer, at least for that moment, was, “I have to try.” So I stood up and got in line.

The pastor had explained that you could either break off a piece from the communal loaf or pick one that had already been cut, and you could either dip it in the communal cup or choose one of the tiny pre-poured individual cups. (Presbyterians are big on hygiene.) However, I knew I was meant to break a piece of the shared loaf and dip it in the shared cup. I had forgotten that the people holding the bread and cup would say, “The blood/body of Christ, given for you.” I was briefly surprised by the rough texture and sweet taste. I think I had forgotten for a moment that it was just bread and grape juice. And then I sat down and prayed. A wordless, heartbroken prayer. I cried a little. And then I wished I was at Quaker meeting so that the silence, the infinite communion with God could have gone on and on. I think there were announcements about adult religious education and about other ministries of the church. And then we sang another hymn and the pastor said another prayer and it was over. I had to collect myself, and my belongings, and my child, and make chitchat for a few minutes before we left. I couldn’t tell you anything that was said in this part of the service. But I will not forget that it was a powerful, religious experience for me.

My husband asked me that afternoon when I told him about this, “You’re not going to become a Presbyterian on me, are you?” The answer is no. I treasure my Quaker faith, my Quaker practice, my Quaker community, my Quaker values and testimonies too much. But I am humbled by this experience. I am reminded not to be dismissive of other Christians’ practices. I know that bread and juice are not necessary for communion, but they are not necessarily barriers either.


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Blogger Liz Opp said...

First, a quick note to Joe: My understanding is that George Fox cautioned worshipers about empty rituals. But we modern Friends have overgeneralized that caution to mean all rituals.

Now, a longer anecdote, related to what you write, Robin.

A friend of mine was married last summer, and he and his partner--a friend of Friends--decided to offer communion as part of their ceremony, to rejoice with them and to partake of the symbolic sharing of the Life that was being offered.

More than half of the guests were Quaker, and I remember sitting there, wondering what I might do and waiting to see what other Friends might do.

Bit by bit, one by one and two by two, Friends went up to the front to receive communion. I did what I could to tune out the music that was being played so I could understand what I was supposed to do.

What did God ask me to do? What did I feel led to do? Would my friend and his partner notice if I stayed in my seat? If I stayed in my seat, would that be dishonoring their union?

My Jewish background, I think, added to my anguish.

In the end, I stayed put. God loves me and so does my friend. But I needed the exercise to show me that there was no right or wrong answer, only the answer that was in my heart at the time.

It seems to me, Robin, that you were clearly moved--not by the taking of communion itself, but by the Life and Power of the Holy Spirit that was woven into the entire worship service, including the taking of communion.

It seems to me, Robin, that you were faithful in the moment; that there was Truth in the experience and that something in you was changed, somehow.

It sounds like it was a very tender, very sweet time.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

5/14/2006 12:04 AM  
Blogger Johan Maurer said...

Thank you for taking the time and care to write about this experience so beautifully that your readers, or at least this reader, could be there with you.

5/14/2006 2:25 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

Hi Robin,

Thanks for this. It sounds so strikingly similar to an experience I had a few months ago when I attended a more mainstream church. I kept thinking to myself, "But I don't do this anymore," and yet I knew, in that moment, it was right. It proved to be a very powerful experience for me.

In the same church today, the preacher read from John 21:1-14, where Jesus invites Peter and several other disciples to "Come and have breakfast." The sight of the risen Jesus cooking fish on the beach for his disciples--for me--was so moving. What a wonderful and simple invitation.

"Come, eat with me. I made it for you. Let us share."

5/14/2006 5:02 PM  
Blogger Linda said...

This is a lovely post.
Last week at Meeting, we were graced with the presence of several students from Carondolet High School in Concord, who were on an assignment from their World Religions class to visit a service other than a Catholic Mass. The father of one of the students spoke somewhat at length during the introductions time in appreciation of being with a roomful of people concerned with peace. He closed by reciting St. Francis's Prayer (Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace...). There were two more students sitting next to me, and they quietly chimed in. It made me consider how on the one hand, I am very glad we don't recite prayers in Meeting. Yet, I am glad to know the fragments of the Bible that I do know by heart. It saddens me a little that the children of our Meeting will not have this in common, that there isn't anything we all know by heart.

5/14/2006 11:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My strongest experience of communion was actually in unprogrammed worship where I was filled with this incredible sense of blessing. My inner eye saw wine glasses of all shapes and sizes, each filled to its right level. This sense of individuality and unity in the presence of God still occassionally comes back to me in this form. I am glad, even as I was surprised that morning, that I was able to share what I was experiencing.

I appreciate what was said about distinguishing between all rituals and empty rituals. As many have pointed out, silent worship can become an empty ritual just as the physical bread and wine can be. While I don't take communion normally, I do find myself more at home in visiting Catholic services than Protestant ones because I find it easier to sink into a sense of Presence there. At Protestant ones -- including Friends Churches -- I am too easily lured into commentary on the sermon and other such head games, probably a result of my heritage of silent worship and heavily intellectual schooling!

5/15/2006 10:34 AM  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

I really value inter-faith and Christian ecumenical dialogue, and I am glad that Robin, who sometimes expresses ambivalence about "Christianity" was open to participation with non-Quaker Christians in a worship event.

However... When it comes to an "outward" communion service I think I have to play the role of stern-faced hide-bound Quaker here, and raise some questions.

I am sure that this ritual was not "empty" and had real meaning for the Presbyterian worshippers. To be specific, this is how Presbyterians act out their understanding of what Jesus was doing and inviting us to do at the last supper he shared with his disciples: namely that he was initiating a ritual practice (called "holy communion" by most protestants or "the mass" by Catholics), in which worshippers either symbolically, or literally consume the "body and blood" of Jesus. The pastor's interpretations about paying attention to others in "the body" of the church add context and meaning, but those meaings are available to us without the ceremony.

Is this, however, what Jesus was doing? Initiating ritual practices was not his usual thing. What did he mean when he said "this is my body, which is broken for you." Did he mean that something had happened to the bread in his hands? I think, rather, that he meant something was about to happen to his actual flesh: that it was about to be come "bread" for us because he was about to be killed, and his death and his victory over it were going to nourish us.

Sacrifices, ceremonies, holidays and rituals are part of all human religions. Whether "pagan" [i.e. polytheistic] or Jewish or Islamic in origin, they are helpful in giving people a foretaste of spiritual realities not yet quite grasped. But I believe (and it seems to me that early Friends believed) that Christ means to bring us past the stage of needing these foretastes. He is ready to give us the undiluted reality itself.

Through the crucifixion he offered to nourish us with the death of his own body, with the pouring out of his own blood. We accept this "communion" when we enter into a life in union with him. It's a hard way and a narrow way from the point of view of human reason. I'm afraid that Christendom has largerly turned down that offer and accepted a ceremony (or, actually, lots of ceremonies) as a substitute. To me, it has become very important to uphold Friends historic testimony on this point. Not that I can claim to have entered fully into union with Christ in the way I live, but that at least I keep this as my goal and do not accept ritual practices as a substitute.

I am also uneasy with this for a different reason. When liberal Friends, who do not really see this practice as a "sacrament" or "ordinance" adopt it in the ecumenical spirit as a nice ceremony, I'm afraid that a precedent has been established for importing ceremonies from all kinds of other places, even into Meeting for Worship itself, and hopelessly diluting our worship practice. Probably I'm a tad over-paranoid about that possibility, but I do think it should be considered. ( I confess that I remind myself of how, in our simple household at New Swarthmoor community in the 1970's, one Friend reacted to the proposal that we get running water in the house: "It may seem like a little thing, but corruption obtaineth by degrees.")

One last point. I imagine that the Presbyterians are pretty open-minded about non-Presbyterians participating. So were the Methodists I grew up with. But if the "mass" Joe G went to was a Roman Catholic mass, he should be aware that his participation, as a non-Catholic, was explicitly against the rules of the Church he was visiting. In fact, not even a Catholic is supposed to receive mass unless she or he has received the sacrament of reconciliation (aka "confession and penance") since his or her last sin. The experience of sharing this with his Dad may well have been more important than any such "rule", but in general I would hope that when we visit other churches or temples or mosques or synagogues that we take care to respect the traditions that offer us hospitality.

- - Rich

5/15/2006 3:17 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Most important for me is the idea that I can share my experiments in faith here, with clearly a lovely group of Friends.

I appreciate the sense of not being alone, as in reading the experiences of other Friends who have occasionally participated in other forms of worship. And I truly appreciate Rich reminding me clearly and without mincing words of the reasons why I am a Quaker.

Just in case it wasn't clear, I'm not planning to make bread and wine a regular part of my religious diet. My most precious experiences of unity with the Divine have not been in Protestant or Roman Catholic worship rituals. I am really opposed to importing other rituals into meeting for worship - I think the unprogrammed meeting for worship is complete and whole and perfect as it is.

But I think that religious education can be more varied. I'd love to attend a study group that included eating fish on the beach. I think that learning a few stock bible verses or prayers that have been significant to other people can be helpful for Friends, especially children or anyone who is new to religious education. These can all be valuable openings to the presence of the Divine - other ways of helping us to turn to the Spirit and enrich our religious vocabulary.

But I continue to hold that there is a difference between religious education and worship. We need both, but they are not the same.

And by the way Marge, welcome to my blog!

5/15/2006 4:38 PM  
Blogger Gregg Koskela said...

Beautiful. Way to take a risk, be honest, and let us see how God is working in you.

5/21/2006 1:56 AM  
Blogger kathy said...

Robin, I'm glad you followed the nudge to 'worship in the manner of Presbyterians' this day. We all *know* God speaks in the gatherings of denominations but sometimes it's important to experience it for ourselves to put it all in context. Experiences like this make our sibling status real.

5/28/2006 1:42 AM  

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