by Laurie Gudim
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” – Annie Dillard, from Teaching a Stone to Talk
Have you ever had one of those dreams in which you have gotten married to someone that in waking life you detest? You startle awake, panicked, and you are utterly relieved to discover that it didn’t really happen. Why does such a dream cause such an intense reaction in us? We believe that something profound happens in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, something that cannot be taken back with a simple “I didn’t mean it.” In the course of the ritual our lives change. Where before we were single, this little fifteen minute ritual makes us members of a partnership. Vows made before the collective bind us. And the resulting union is difficult to undo.
A core spiritual discipline of mine for many years now has been participation with my faith community in the sacrament of Holy Communion. I have come to understand that something similar to what happens at a wedding happens to us every time we take communion. The ritual draws us, captivates us at the level where symbols are our language.
Crash helmets and life preservers are apropos for such a sacrament. Like the ritual of a wedding cements our bond of unity with a partner, the Eucharist makes concrete the unity between each of us and Christ, and, by extension, between each of us and all the others. Whether or not we are aware and even if we don’t intend it, the Eucharist shackles us. In other words, we are really, really close, you and I, uncomfortably close, when we share communion. We are in each other’s business, vulnerable, and we are united by a bond that is stronger than blood and inescapable, even in death.
It is no wonder that we have a lot of rules for when and how this sacrament happens. The casing created by the rules surrounding Eucharist helps manage the TNT being concocted. Dressing in special clothing, having processions and sacred vessels and putting a great many words and movements into the dance of the Holy Communion help us, if we are awake to it all, appreciate the symbolic gift being given at the levels in us where it will do the most good.
The Eucharist makes us available to the ever-changing and changeable God, the Creator who loves each of us beyond our capacity to understand. Immanuel, God-with-us, who is always alive in our hearts makes himself felt through this liturgy and yanks at us from the inside. It also makes us available at our cores to one another. It crosses all our differences to make us one people, one family, one Body.
I have come to realize recently that since I have been participating in the Eucharist right along, I have already been washed away in this particular river. The people of my faith community mean a great deal to me. Ironically, they mean so much to me that they can disappoint me terribly. I once thought that the answer to this dilemma was simply to care less, to expect less from church. But now I am thinking differently. It seems to me that instead of fighting the river’s strong current, kicking and struggling against the flow of my bond with a particular set of people who make up my Eucharistic community, I ought to let it carry me. I ought to tell the people who worship with me how important they are to me. I ought to commit to hanging in with them through the really hard stuff.
For better or worse, in sickness and in health, we are community to one another. I can take good care of this union or I can let it languish in the tensions and discord that are common to living life together. But whichever course I choose, the bond is there. When we have disagreements or misunderstandings, I can talk directly with all concerned. When I am tempted to bail out, to take my ball and go home, I can think again, I can work it out. Conversely, when I appreciate someone for their ministry or their presence, I can tell them so.
It seems to me that the Eucharist is the most valuable contribution of the liturgical churches such as ourselves to the health and spiritual well being of our culture. The TNT of this ancient rite is in its ability to transform us is without parallel. But the trick is that we have to both consciously value it and understand its significance. Without that it becomes just another archaic practice that has no meaning to modern sensibilities.
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries.