Thursday, April 17, 2008


In the excitement over the visit from the Pope, something rather minor caught my attention: he is to be presented with a series of platters holding various versions of “the staff of life,” one for each continent. White breads for the US, brown breads for Europe, cornbreads for South America, and versions of rice for Asia. I forget what was stipulated for Australia or Africa. In the Arctic, everyone forgets, there IS no staff of life but meat. No carbs, no plant food, no vegetarians.

This is a quick summary of why the traditional Middle Eastern Communion (unleavened flatbread and weak wine) doesn’t work every place and must be translated. Also, I was interested in the strange collision (so usual to religion) between what is expensive, exclusive and high status (each platter was commissioned from a fancy specialty baker) and what is daily, ordinary, the people’s food. The Pope on the one hand is a figure of splendor and costliness, but on the other hand is expected to be humble, kissing and earth and embracing children.

My anchor point for the book on ritual I’m working on is the same as that for Judy Chicago, the ferocious feminist: a dinner party. People sitting down together in trust (unless you’ve had to bring along a “court taster”), sustenance, and a shared understanding -- if only about which fork to use for which food. And there is a little frisson of eroticism, mostly from the human intimacy of eating.

After I became a Unitarian Universalist in 1985, I was asked to attend the Pacific Northwest District Leadership School. This was a brilliant idea about a kind of “camp” where structured experience (think organizational design) could both illuminate and deepen the understanding of the denominational position, while also creating the kind of bonds among the attenders that can provide crucial networks among congregations. In short, a sort of mini-seminary.

A small group of Seattle women were asked to design an “in-gathering” ceremony to begin the experience. When we arrived, we were fed an evening meal, but not everyone was there on time and it was a rather ragged affair. The “in-gathering” used the pattern of a formal dinner party.

The space was the gymnasium at Fort Worden in Port Townsend. The lights were off, so that thirty people who didn’t know each other were guided in by ushers with flashlights. We sang as we crossed the dark lawn to the gym building. In the middle of the dark space was an island of paper taped to the floor.

As we'd arrived, we’d been handed 3 X 5 cards with the request that we write on them a short account of a transcendent moment in our lives. (UU’s are used to this sort of thing and most of them could have filled a sheet of typing paper.) These card accounts had been transcribed onto the paper, large enough for a person to sit on each account. Lit pillar candles were set around on the paper.

There was music, then we were simply asked to read the entry we sat on -- not our own -- handing around the candles if necessary. There was a short message, a blessing, and we left while music played. That was all. But it was surprisingly powerful. A simple act of sharing, but a lot to think about: food for thought. We didn’t talk much until we actually got to our rooms and pajamas.

The central Christian act is the sharing of Communion which was born out of the Jewish Passover, that symbolic and history-preserving meal. A crucial step of Blackfeet Bundle Opening Ceremonies is the eating of sarvisberry soup -- each person saves out one big fat berry to hand up to the altar, Greek-style, as an offering to insure a good berry crop. The central crucial act of New Guinean ritual is the boiling of taro starch from the inside of a certain kind of palm. And one could easily defend the idea that the indicator ceremony of Capitalism is an expensive meal in a very fine restaurant.

A key version is the woman attending Union Theological Seminary who was expected to take her turn serving Communion at the Friday vespers. She was Episcopalian at a time when women were not allowed to serve Communion. So she used the conventional service, but substituted water for the wine -- making the point that she was being punished: bread and water, not bread and wine. Accepting that communion meant standing with her in her struggle.

It’s also possible to do a “sarcastic” communion. (A friend was accused of being sarcastic. I tried to defend her, but she was genuinely hurt and asked me to look it up. “Sarcasm” comes from an old Greek word meaning “the rending of flesh.” She was right to be hurt.) I once participated in a communion of Twinkies and Cola. Sarcastic! But Communion DOES involve the “rending” of Christ’s flesh, doesn’t it? So was it indeed a “twinkie” act?

Beginning with the WWII Flower Communion -- everyone brings a flower to put up in the front, then takes away another flower in a procession at the end -- and strengthened by the Water Communion invented by feminists at an international conference who emptied their containers of cosmetics and perfumes in order to carry home water they mingled -- ceremonies that bring together seeds to be mixed and sent home for planting, ceremonies that bring earth from various places to be mixed and taken home to yards -- these rituals of putting-in and taking-out are often re-invented with new symbolism.

The Reverend Alan Deale and intern minister Harlan Limpert at a flower communion in First Unitarian Church in Portland, OR, in the mid-70's.

This sort of reflection makes a person think hard about what rituals actually mean and whether their routine performance might not be diluting or twisting them. They are acts meant to raise consciousness, not smother it into banality. The person who leaves a service to avoid Communion because of real objections might be more faithful than the person who trots up for bread and wine because everyone else is doing it. Of course, it is always possible to go up to the Communion Rail and to cross one’s wrists across one’s breast, signaling the priest that one wishes merely a blessing and not to partake. This makes the point that the best rituals allow for exemptions. Still, one doesn’t go to a supper party not planning to eat.

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