A recent post by UU blogger Nagoonberry about water communion led my thoughts down the sacrament path. I spent over twenty-five years as a practicing Catholic, a member of a faith ritual and sacrament for every occasion. While I have no desire to return to that faith, I still miss the rites and rituals of the church of most of my youth and young adulthood.
I chose Catholicism at age 12 after years of attending both a Methodist and a Catholic church for years and soon after starting Catholic school. I can’t recall all the workings of my preadolescent mind that led me to choose that path, but Communion was a large part of the picture.
Communion differs in significance in the various Christian traditions. For Protestants, it is a remembrance of the Last Supper, of Jesus sharing a meal with his apostles. For Catholics, it is the partaking in the body and blood of Jesus, through a mysterious process called transubstantiation. It wasn’t that rather grisly theological difference that drew me toward Catholicism. Instead, it was the ritual and the idea of partaking of the divine.
Catholics rock at ritual. From baptism to the eucharist to the anointing of the sick, Catholic sacraments take the ordinary events of life and touch them with the sacred. I’ve partaken in five of the seven, four compressed into two years during junior high. I celebrated baptism, reconciliation, and first communion at 12, with confirmation following the next year. Marriage by the Jesuit who had administered the first three followed in my mid-twenties, leaving only holy orders and anointing of the sick, which I’ve only observed.
Beyond the seven sacraments, Catholic life is awash with ritual, from dozens of prayers and responses of the Mass to the extraordinary events that fill Holy Days. While Holy Week, the days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, was a long haul in the pew, it was a week where life was infused with the sacred. Every sense participated: from the taste of bread and wine, to the feel of the rough cross on Good Friday; from the scent of incense wafting up the aisle, to the sound of the choir and the sight of candles aglow, reverence and ritual reigned.
I miss it. I left it for more reasons than fit here, but I miss the ritual. I’ve heard many an ex-Catholic bemoan the repetition and response of the Catholic Mass, but that’s the part I cherished, the part that nourished my soul.
So here I am, still with my soul but without sacrament. A brief stint in a small Episcopal church provided that while allowing me time to consider where my heart rested, religiously speaking. It provided a source of ritual during this time of sorting my heart. Enter the Unitarian Universalist church I now call home. I vetted three over a series of Easter and Christmas seasons (perhaps the points I most missed ritual), eventually settling on UUCF for an assortment of reasons. Like most UU communities, it is short on sacrament. I’ve caught a few quite moving child dedications, but otherwise there is no formal sacramental life of which to speak. (Coffee hour is NOT a sacrament.) Rituals are minimal, although services hold to a more Protestant format, with opening words, a chalice lighting, a responsorial opening, readings, and a sermon, interspersed with some hymns and medication time. Format, however, is not ritual. And water communion (and Nagoonberry’s description fits my experience of the event at my church) isn’t sacrament.
It’s understandable. It’s a collection of spiritual seekers and thinkers coming together for as many reasons as there are participants. With a large percentage of secular humanists, a pack of agnostics, and a minority of theists of sorts, we’d be hard-pressed to find a sacrament we could all agree upon. And that’s okay. Unitarian Universalism is religious tradition that welcomes all comers and focuses on how one lives in the world. Sacrament and ritual work for some and not for others, and most services seem to avoid any that look, well, spiritual. And that’s not where many UUs are.
But sometimes, my congregation surprises me. At a service a few years back, our minister, freshly back from a month in India, introduced us to Ganesha, the Hindu deity represented by an elephant riding a mouse, and put his picture on a small table. He explained that upon entering a temple, worshipers would stop at a statue of Ganesha and break a coconut on him, symbolizing the letting go of the mind to better reach the heart or spirit. The mind is an obstacle to the soul, and Ganesha is seen as the remover of obstacles. Our minister invited people to come up to whisper an obstacle in their own lives into Ganesha’s ear. To my surprise, dozens of people, adults and children, approached. It was reverent, quiet, and meaningful. It was sacrament, spontaneous sacrament. I’m not at all certain it would be repeatable, at least in that form, but as sacrament, it spoke to me. Over the years, other spontaneous sacraments have graced Sunday morning, small blocks of time where together where we at least agree to revere the mystery the universe presents. I’ve no doubt these moments are more sacramental for some than others and even tedious for some, but they feed me.
I guess what I’m seeking is communal quiet, reverential time with a bit of ritual to pause and consider something beyond our little lives. Not to talk about the issues, debate the situation, or even think. Just to sit in that great magnitude some call the universe, God, humanity, the sacred, the divine, or even nothing at all. In my Catholic years, those opportunities clearly presented themselves. In a crowd of Unitarian Universalists, they’re a bit harder to find. I’m willing to look and wait, finding spontaneous sacrament where I can.