The longer I live the more I have come to accept that unity is not a natural state for humanity. We love and nurture the things that serve to divide us: tribe, nation, faith, politics, and smartphone operating system. When all is good and everyone is getting along, we seem to struggle to find the one thing that can set us on the course of drawing lines and choosing sides. It is just the nature of the human animal.
It is this realization and the acceptance of it that makes me marvel at something that happens at the Eucharist. In spite of our fractious nature, we seek unity. We call it by many names: community, communion, camaraderie. Those names share something, “com” from the Latin word, “communis”, meaning general or universal. It seems as though some part of us seeks to become something more than the unique individual we are. That is what I want to ponder for a bit, the act and experience of common prayer.
I remember the first time I attended an Episcopal Church. Rebecca Sadler invited me. I was 16 years old and even though I had been reared with church as a normal part of life the act of attending church services was nothing special for me. The small Methodist Church in my little Northeast Louisiana town was loving and welcoming but it never rocked my world. I am sure this had more to do with me than the community of loving people in that place. In reflection I realize that the Methodists, nor the Church of God congregation I attended for a short while in junior high, ever did much as worship other than sing hymns and preach sermons at least that is how it seemed to me. All my friends will quickly tell you that I am not much of a singer. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket and I mimic whatever vocal tone is near me so singing never kindled the flame it might have. Preaching, on the other hand, stuck; and I can unctuously and self-righteously pontificate with the best of them. But back to my first visit to Christ Episcopal Church.
The things I remember the most from that first visit were that people were quiet before the service began. The space where they sat felt differently. Usually people chattered like mockingbirds with a cat in the yard but not here. People were quiet but warm. Things looked differently. There were distinct places in the building and people seemed to treat them differently. People were not wandering around. They took their paused and made some odd curtsy before taking their seats. Then they knelt for a bit. There was a sense of purpose. Things smelled differently. Usually in any gathering of southern people there was a hint of gardenia and magnolia that arose from the perfumed ladies and Old Spice from the men’s after shave. Here the smell was ancient and smokey but nothing let me know the source of that smell. When the service began the minsters approached the front of the church following a cross and the hymns we sang seemed more addressed to God than I had experienced in other places. My experience was that hymns were more about “me” and my experience of God. I was totally confused and lost when the priest turned to the people and addressed them with “The Lord be with you,” and everyone responded together with, “And with thy spirit.”
It became clear to me that this church experience was one that involved everyone. There was a dialog but it was not a dialog of individuals rather it was a dialog of the community as if they were one person. Stand, sit, sing, kneel, cross oneself, bow, genuflect. Everything felt like a living, breathing organism that was more than the individuals that comprised it. I melted away in that service my confusion not withstanding. I felt transformed. I felt like I was part of something huge. I felt like I was home.
It’s been 46 years since that first experience of Common Prayer. I have been both faithful and unfaithful in my participation. I have allowed big gaps of time to pass in my attendance much less my participation in that amazing experience. I keep coming back, however. There have been times I have been extremely active and faithful and times that I have worshiped more profoundly at Saint Mattress and Holy Comforter’s than at the altar in any church. I never felt that God was absent in my life but I felt an absence when there were not others vibrating at the same frequency with me.
There is that community thing. Two or more people doing the same thing…a common activity. It is a very comforting thing. Whenever I’ve allowed one of my gaps to occur I marvel at my return to the community at church. The ability to merge with the rhythm of the liturgy comes naturally. The words flow from my lips again and my body moves with the congregation. The feeling that I disappear and become something greater returns. The older woman, the African-American man, the woman with the walking cane, the spike-haired young person, the oddly pierced young woman, the noisy child all become one with me for a while once I can let go of me wanting to remake them in my image. I know that I am becoming one with them at the same time and my inability to carry a tune is causing them to want to remake me. The melding occurs and all those “I’s” that make up the people of faith becomes “We.” We worship, we praise, we give thanks, we confess, we do not presume, we, we, we.
This is the moment I fill up with emotion and my eyes leak. I realize I get to fade away. I become transparent. I add my distinctiveness to their distinctiveness and resistance is futile. Whoops that was Star Trek and the Borg but the enormity of the moment is the same. In a world of divisions and segregation of thought I become one of many and “we” become one. Not only do we become one, speaking the same words and making the same (or almost the same) movements but we become one with many outside of our community. I become aware that there are others in other places doing exactly the same thing. There are those who now live with God joining in the exercise as well. We are one. We are not alone. We are at once alive and dead and alive again. We are immortal. Mystery of mysteries is all around and yet I am still me. Love outside of myself offers me food and that food is transformative. Love outside of myself offers me love and urges me to allow myself to be taken. When I stumble over words or cannot speak, the person next to me, behind me, in front of me, says the words on my behalf. What else can I do but be a part? No wonder my eyes get moist…my body doesn’t have any other response to what it feels so deeply.
I remember two profound moments when others have questioned my practice of faith. The first was a man I love dearly. To me he is strong, forthright and trustworthy. He is intelligent, insightful, and one of the most Christian men in the way he treats others that I know. He is also a non-theist. He asked me over coffee once, do you really believe all that stuff? He proceeded to rattle off a list of things Christians supposedly “believe.” God created the earth in seven days. Adam and Eve were the first two people. Jonah was swallowed by a whale. Mary was a virgin and gave birth. Jesus rose from the dead. I sat there a moment and had to think. Do I really “believe” all those things…literally? I remember my response, “I want to believe them.” In reflection, I would say I want to believe what they represent. I am an Episcopalian. I don’t take the bible literally but I do take it seriously. All those tenets of faith are demonstrations of God’s faithfulness and undying love for both the “me” and the “we.” As an individual my acceptance of each of them is variable. Some I treat as myth and others I take much more seriously. As a part of the community, the “we,” I can believe much more. I can believe in the redemptive Jesus who died, rose, and will come again. I can believe in the transformative action of baptism and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I can believe because my eyes behold all of that within the community. It is there I find the empowerment (what I really find is the courage) to experience those same things within myself and in others. It is an immense task and it makes sense that it takes the collective “we” to make it happen. I also realized that faith to me is not the acceptance of facts. It is the quest of becoming something rather than intellectually assenting to something. It does not matter what my mind says or what my heart feels at a given moment. It is far more important what my being thirsts for and what I am willing to do about it.
The second question came from a man who is like a brother to me. Our connection is long and extends back to my teenage years. He is skilled, deeply kind, and has a searching nature. We have shared life’s journey with each other deeply. We talk for hours about everything. We have stuffed our bodies into little airplanes and put our lives into one another’s hands. He is much more comfortable with the literal than I am. He has recently rediscovered his own practice of faith and I believe out of a deep concern for my own spiritual well being once asked me, “Where does Jesus come into the Episcopal Church?” His intent was to ascertain Jesus’ role in our communal faith and my own. I remember my response was to laugh because it is impossible to attend an Episcopal service without an avalanche of Jesus covering you. It matters not whether it is the Eucharist or a prayer office, practically every word of the liturgy is a paraphrase of scripture from both the Old and New Covenants. “We” profess exactly what “we” believe in every service. Jesus is everywhere. He lives, dies, and is resurrected for us on the altar at each Eucharist in spite of our belief and disbelief. All this happens for but one reason, so that we can go forth to be Him in the life of one another and the world. That is why I laughed. It is inconceivable to me that others cannot see that. My response was, “he is everywhere and I guess you would just have to come and see.” For me, it is hard to really see the Christ outside the mystery of the community…the common (in all the meanings of the word).
So what is the purpose of all this babble? Just me putting into words what causes my eyes to leak, I guess. It is the act of hearing myself say what I feel. It is the act of sharing it with someone else to move it from the “me” to the “we” experience. I appreciate your indulgence and would ask you to think the next time you are in the midst of that mysterious common act of prayer and being. Think about what you experience. See if your own eyes leak when you behold it.