Several weeks ago, I went up and took communion for the first time in years, grinning like a loon. I’ve been going to church more regularly in the past few months and I’ve been enjoying it. But the beating heart of the service, I have avoided: the sacred, mysterious bit when everyone eats the flesh and blood of god incarnate and mystically become one body.
On an intellectual and theoretical level I find the idea creepy, and on a felt, visceral level, I wasn’t sure my adrenal system would be able to cope. Just observing the ritual and saying the accompanying prayers was enough to evoke feelings of shame and anger and indignation. I felt my body tremble week after week and for months I listened to my wounded heart pour out all of its fear and suffering as everyone else went up to eat and drink. I honestly didn’t know if that bit of the service could hold any meaning for me other than as a living shrine to my historic pain. For me, the meaning of communion has been the profane act of submissively shedding selfhood for ‘the greater good’ and sacrificing individual identity at the alter of corporate identity.
In the past, tasting the bread and the wine has been my own madeleine moment, evoking memories of times I’d obeyed biblical law instead of my relational instincts: the boyfriends I stayed ‘pure’ with instead of loving them as passionately as I’d have liked to, the friends I would like to have loved wholeheartedly instead of judging for their ‘worldly’ ways, the teenage self I would like to have loved better instead of criticising for her worldly, impure, secular longings. I felt grief for those violences that I had enacted on others in the name of god, and for the relational violences done to me in the name of love.
I have a very different ethical constellation now that guides me through my dark nights. The values I grew up with -in a deeply fundamentalist religious household- do not guide me now. And I keep expecting to be called out on this- communion is a particularly vulnerable moment. I don’t have much peace in me but I also don’t have much fight, and communion is the point where I become visible. In the tradition I grew up in, it’s the moment I am supposed to affirm my steadfast faith in god and kiss and make up with anyone I’d sinned against in the week. It is a moment of inner-scrutiny and outer-scrutiny: I’m fair game, a sitting duck. Anyone could nudge me on the way to the table and say, just what do you think you’re doing here? I keep expecting the mechanised eye of the panopticon to rest on me and elicit my beliefs about abortion and virginity and gay marriage and feminism. As if everyone in the church were one all-seeing, all- knowing omni-body enforcer.
So I’ve been processing with my friends outside the church. Someone, a friend who identifies as significantly more evangelical in his beliefs, kindly twisted the release valve by saying, ‘Sitting on either side of you will be someone who believes something totally different.’ I clung his words. I used this picture to meditate while I sat in the pew: perhaps, maybe, I might be flanked by individuals who hold different convictions, who aren’t Jesus-automatons, mindlessly executing god’s will on earth. Perhaps the people on either side of me believed stuff that would surprise me.
I understand now that I needed the capacity to be surprised. I needed to surrender enough to say, ‘I’m finite, I have my own particular history which colours my perception, but I’m not god and I don’t have an objective gods-eye-view into everyone’s souls.’ I needed someone to lift me out of my fears and projections, my own haunted house, and put me into the gap of the unknown. His wise words helped me bracket off my feelings of dread. And of course, as is always the case, the enemy wasn’t on the outside, sitting next to me. SPOILER ALERT: It turns out, I am my own enemy, the all-seeing, all knowing-panopticon. (I should know this by now. The feared thing is always on the inside.)’The breakdown you fear has already happened,’ in Winnicott’s neat shorthand. I was frightened of what had happened to me as a kid in church, not of who I was actually sitting next to now.
And so I’ve started taking communion. Not because I believe in one body or peace or assimilation into the Borg mind, but because I believe in surrender.
Surender is a move in faith towards surprise, a move in faith towards curiosity and the other. Surrender is an empowered choice from the ‘I’ that operatically shatters my own defences so I can connect. Surender is never submission. Surrender is stepping down from my (imagined) gods-eye-view and instead of indulging the delusion that I know, that I can predict and anticipate what the other feels or thinks, that I am omniscient and in control, I am stepping into my own skin and owning my limits. This place is sacred to me, this is the rock I often meet god on: when I have found the edge of my ‘I’ when I own my story, when I can say to god, ‘this is MY body and blood.’ My story is the only thing I own, really. It is meaningful because it is mine, and also, paradoxically, in search of connection with the other, I choose to hold my story in one palm and hold out the other in a gesture of connection with different bodies and stories and minds. I am only one mode in the Spinozan substance. And only then when I can hold both ends of this knotty paradox can I attempt the labour of opening myself to what actually is, and who else is next to me at the table.
Copyright Diana Smith 2018
I’ve been trying to read Spinoza for years. I love how much metaphysics he can elegantly pack into a syllogism and I enjoy feeling my intellectual muscles burn as I grapple with his ideas. For some serious brain-cardio, picking up a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics is outrageous fun. Also I really admire Jewish existentialist atheist theologians: in my next life I would totally inhabit that tradition.