Spontaneous Sacrament

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.

Ganesha, the remover of obstacles

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.


9 thoughts on “Spontaneous Sacrament

  1. I was born into a Catholic family, and I know what you mean about ritual. It’s the only part of Catholicism I miss, and the part that–until recently–kept me thinking I’d probably return to the Church some day when I’m, like, 80 or something.

    I’ve been thinking about how to engage our young, but not so young any more, child in ‘going to church.’ He gets bored and antsy. But this, “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.” Is very close to what I’m starting to bring to him.

    • How have you brought that to him, Shannon? Mine don’t object to church itself, but aside from grace and chalice lighting at dinner I’ve been unable to find a way to build ritual into their lives. Any ideas are welcome!


      • He’s still pretty young, but old enough to ask and ‘get’ answers about science and news items we hear on NPR, so he’s ready for religion stuff, too. None of these conversations lasts much more than about 3 minutes, which is really plenty of time to get the ideas planted in his head (when he says, “OK, I got it,” it’s time to stop).

        At this point I’m using “there’s more to the world and more ways of understanding the world” to get him into church (I hope that’s better than what my parents used–“You can give one hour a week to God”–which I never found persuasive).

        We do grace at dinner, and I’m going to start using chalice lighting (thanks for that idea!).

  2. Although I was not raised Catholic, I have had Catholic friends and relatives, and some Catholic education as well. I sometimes think that if I had been born into a Catholic family, I may have stayed in the religion (despite significant theological and political differences) because of the obvious benefits of elaborate ritual. In addition to fulfilling some of our aesthetic needs, rituals such as those practiced in the Catholic church deeply connect us to a sense of history. The modern world may be filled with storm and strife, much of it unnecessary, yet for at least one hour a week, one can find relief: this, too, shall pass, yet Mass will continue to be celebrated.

    Because I grew up in a mainstream Protestant church where rituals were minimalist and infrequent, my own needs for formal ritual went unfulfilled until I joined a Masonic organization for adolescent girls. A feminist since childhood, I certainly disagreed with some of its values. However, something more than parental encouragement made me join, and it was positive ritual. The organization met twice monthly on school nights, and although I was often rushed, I loved moving from the everyday world to the Masonic world without even leaving town. All I had to do was change out of my jeans and into a dress (modest dresses were required attire), and enter the Masonic center.

    During eighth and tenth grades, I was frequently the target of bullying girls at school. Most of the girls in the Masonic organization did not attend my school for geographic reasons, and therefore did not know this. Although certainly not Miss Popularity (and occasionally scorned even by a few of my organization “sisters”), I made some fairly close friends. More importantly, even though I was physically unattractive and predominantly introverted, my officeholders’ medallions (and, later, my president and past-president tiaras), when combined wth positive ritual, reminded me that perhaps I could become, in the words of author Julia Alvarez, “queen of my own life.” While I led prayers as chaplain or rapped a gavel to close a meeting, those girls who bullied were probably home watching television, unaware that another world protected me.

    • Ritual (and the comfort thereof) outside of church worked well for you, it seems. I can certainly identify with your feeling about Mass – one hour of stability and rest. I can find some of that at my UU church, but I miss all the “handles” that Mass had. I spent most of my youth also attending a Methodist church each week as well, and that just didn’t grab me — routine but no ritual.
      Thanks for sharing!


  3. Hey Sarah – I just love your writing. You are really able to articulate the thoughts and feelings that many of us share. I too was raised Catholic, but I do not miss the sacraments. At some point along the way they felt empty to me. I prefer to be challenged spiritually and intellectually. My reason for responding, however, was to offer a suggestion of a dinner time ritual that a friend of mine used with her 3 boys – “2 Highs and a Low” – Each of the boys had to share 2 high points and a low point from their day. I tried it, but it didn’t go very long here, but I would think that with siblings it may spark some discussion – especially with yours.


    • Thanks for the compliment, Barb. The sacraments themselves became empty to me as well, and I felt rather hypocritical taking part for the last year or so. But the immersion of the senses into an experience? That lives on.

      I like the dinner suggestion. That just might fly around here. Thanks!


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