Sometimes you find exactly what you need at exactly the right moment, and you don’t know why. Serendipity? Coincidence? The Holy Spirit at work? In 12-step recovery meetings, sometimes you’ll hear the old-timers say a coincidence is what you call it when God prefers to remain anonymous.
Whatever it is, I’ll take it.
Here’s what happened. I’d been talking with my spiritual director for the first time since February, several weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit town. (We had our session by telephone, by the way, instead of meeting at the Dominican motherhouse, and we agreed it worked pretty well. A good thing, too, since the pandemic doesn’t show any signs of going away soon.) Quite a bit of our conversation had centered on what I can do about Holy Communion when I can’t be present in a church for a priest or pastor to celebrate the sacrament. It’s been a bone of contention among Lutherans, who hold that the liturgy requires a ‘gathering of people” and therefore cannot be celebrated online. This presents an obvious problem these days when all of our worship is online.
So we talked about sacraments, and different ways they give direction and meaning to life. I grew up with a broad Anglican definition, that a sacrament is “an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” and I don’t remember limiting the idea of outward signs of inward to the seven official sacraments I learned to recite in confirmation class. But Lutherans tend to speak of the sacraments as “means of grace,” along with the Word of God, and limit them to baptism and Communion. But I’ve been encountering what seems to be a yet broader sense in my reading lately, especially when I’m reading Catholic writers … and by the time I hung up the phone, I asked for homework — and was assigned to Google “sacramental people” before our next session.
And almost as soon as I hung up the phone, well before I fired up the search engine, I checked Facebook. Serendipity!
A friend had shared a prayer by the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, an author and Lutheran pastor I’ve blogged about before, that answered some of my questions. (I’ve linked to it in the screenshot at the top of this post, and the complete text is on her blog, The Corners, for May 17.) I hadn’t looked up the term yet, but I’ve read a lot of Pastor Nadia and I was inclined to count her already as a sacramental person. Certainly she has an conservative, confessional Lutheran view of the sacraments.
Sure enough, her prayer was written for people who can’t celebrate the sacraments in this time of COVID-19. She begins:
I do not know when we can gather together again in worship, Lord.
So, for now I just ask that:
And she prays for some of the things we all miss the most about corporate worship, asking God’s grace to do other things, common things, sacramentally — in a spirit of grace. She asks:
When I sing along in my kitchen to each song on Stevie Wonder’s Songs in The Key of Life Album, that it be counted as praise. (Happy 70th Birthday, SW!)
And that when I read the news and my heart tightens in my chest, may it be counted as a Kyrie.
And that when my eyes brighten in a smile behind my mask as I thank the cashier may it be counted as passing the peace.
And so she goes, remembering her baptism as “I water my plants and wash my dishes and take a shower,” and finally:
… that as I sit at that table in my apartment, and eat one more homemade meal, slowly, joyfully, with nothing else demanding my time or attention, may it be counted as communion.
That’s it, I thought. That’s what I’ve been looking for. Luther was very precise about the sacraments, and his formula that the body of Christ is present “in, with and under” the consecrated bread and wine is a fundamental doctrine I’m not about to tinker around with. (Nor is the ELCA churchwide hierarchy.) But when Pastor Nadia suggests we can experience the grace of God as we eat at home in a time of pandemic, slowly, joyfully, even prayerfully, I think I can get a glimpse what it means to be a sacramental people.
Not that I wouldn’t have to make some changes in the way I eat supper!
Wolfing my food while I’m giving tidbits to a cat and watching Anderson Cooper excoriate the President on CNN doesn’t seem quite sacramental. Next time, I’m going to try turning off the TV.
Later on I did a couple of quick Google searches and found a book excerpt titled “A Sacramental People” by Brennan R. Hill, a longtime theology professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati. While it appeared in a study guide for Catholic high school students published by St. Mary’s Press, his focus was broadly ecumenical. More to the immediate point, Hill explains what it means to be a sacramental people:
Catholics, as well as people from other religions like Hinduism and many American Indian traditions, subscribe to the sacramental principle, that is, that the power of God can be experienced in the visible: in nature, people, material things, and rituals. I have often taken my students to worship at a nearby Hindu temple, and we are always amazed at the many wonderful and exotic statues of ornate and well-dressed gods and goddesses.
One of my friends, who is part Hopi, tells me that his people experience the power of the Great
Spirit in the sun, the source of all life. For the Hopi, animals are part of the creative process: a chipmunk planted the seeds that became trees, and a coyote painted the colors in nature. The famous mystic Black Elk, of the Oglala Sioux, prayed to the Great Spirit: “Day in, day out, forevermore, you are the life of things.” The Algonquins prayed: “The Great Spirit is in all things, is in the air we breathe. The Great Spirit is our Father, but the Earth is our Mother. She nourishes us; that which we put into the ground, She returns to us.
Well, as Hill says, the power of God can be experienced in the visible, in the physical. Not only bread and wine, but nature, people, rituals, statues in a Hindu temple. That doesn’t tell me everything I need to know. But it gets me started.
When Hill mentions visiting a Hindu temple in Cincinatti, I think of Barbara Brown Taylor’s wonderful account, in Holy Envy, of visiting synagogues, mosques and, yes, a Hindu temple in Atlanta with her Religion 101 students from North Georgia.
“I would walk in and immediately find something to fall in love with,” she said, as quoted by NPR’s Terry Gross. “The beauty of the space, the tenor of the discourse, the teacher for the evening, the hospitality we were offered. I ended up being just bowled over by the beauty and kindness that I encountered every place I went.” Were these sacraments? Certainly they were outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. I’d like to think they were. I do think they were.
And, yes, Pastor Nadia gets me started on a deeper understanding of the sacraments, too.
Watering plants, washing dishes (I think of Brother Lawrence), a quick smile for a cashier in the grocery store — or, in my case, the kids who come by the house delivering our groceries. Yes, a smile can be an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace. So can clicking the box on the online ordering forms for a big tip
And it brings me back to something I knew more than 60 years ago when I was a kid growing up in an Episcopal parish in East Tennessee smack in the middle of the 1950s, pestering my Sunday School teachers with questions about the wives of King Henry VIII and learning — in spite of myself — that a sacrament is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
In turn, I’m reminded of something else. As a grad student in English at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, I read this in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (“Little Gidding,” to be exact), and it comes back to me more and more as I explore these issues with my spiritual director:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
So, as I sit at our kitchen table with with Debi (and the cats), as Pastor Nadia suggests, we can eat our homemade meal, slowly, joyfully — thankfully, I would add — with nothing else demanding our time or attention. I suspect this will be more difficult in practice than it sounds in theory, but I think it can lead me to exploring a state of mind that may be counted as communion.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Sunday Prayers (kind of). May 17th, 2020,” The Corner, May 17, 2020 https://nadiabolzweber.substack.com/p/sunday-prayers-may-17th-2020?fbclid=IwAR2an-Ty2bth7lTzFJCIUI68DDEA_AfeJEBpHqVEdFmOBLbeclWxlh4V2y8.
“Did Martin Luther use the phrase ‘in, with, and under’ to describe the Eucharist?” Discussion in Theologia Crucis – Lutherans, Christian Forums, May 14, 2011, https://www.christianforums.com/threads/did-martin-luther-use-the-phrase-in-with-and-under-to-describe-the-eucharist.7559872/.
T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets, 1942. Reprinted in resources for course in European History, 1914-1945, W3206, Jay Winter, professor, Columbia University, 2000 http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/winter/w3206/edit/tseliotlittlegidding.html.
Terry Gross, “For Priest Turned Professor, ‘Holy Envy’ is Key to Appreciating World Religions” [interview with Barbara Brown Taylor], NPR, March 11, 2019 https://www.npr.org/2019/03/11/702175258/for-priest-turned-professor-holy-envy-is-key-to-appreciating-world-religions.
Brennan R. Hill, “A Sacramental People,” excerpt from The Ongoing Renewal of Catholicism, Document #: TX002080, Living in Christ Series, St. Mary’s Press, 2012 https://www.smp.org/dynamicmedia/files/a43fac9b90224aa365fb707b723480e0/TX002080-1-Article-A_Sacramental_People.pdf.
Dirk G. Lange “Digital Worship and Sacramental Life in a Time of Pandemic,” Lutheran World Federation, March 24, 2020 https://www.lutheranworld.org/blog/digital-worship-and-sacramental-life-time-pandemic
“What is a sacrament for Lutherans?” Worship Formation & Liturgical Resources: Frequently Asked Questions, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2013 https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/What_is_a_sacrament_for_Lutherans.pdf.