You, too, are the Body of Christ (part two)

So, in my previous post, I wrote about the dynamics at play when a sheltered Catholic (me) decides to attend a non-Catholic worship service.  In this post, I’ll share my reflections on the actual service I attended–a weekday low mass at an Episcopal church.  In general, I would say that the service itself was incredibly similar to a Catholic mass, the language was noticeably formal, and the people I met tried incredibly hard to be welcoming.

I had been thinking about going to a service at this particular church for a long time, and one night while walking back from the farmer’s market, I decided to make the time and just headed in, vegetables and all.  I was struck by how similar the church looked to the chapel at my undergrad–a little spare but beautifully decorated with stained glass windows and a little marble.  There were about 6 or 8 people there and a few more trickled in after the mass started.

One thing that I immediately noticed was the language of the mass.  The structure of liturgy of the Word then liturgy of the Eucharist and the call and response were very familiar–almost identical to a Catholic service.  But the language was so formal.  So many “thees” and “thous” and “speakest” and “hast”–I suddenly understood how very English the Episcopal Church is (or rather, how very Latinized the Roman Catholic Church is).  These language differences also made me think of the recent retranslations of the Roman Missal that caused so much uproar in the Catholic Church.  I, like a lot of Catholics, wasn’t a big fan of them when they first came around, for a number of reasons (some theological, some sentimental).  Though the retranslations intended to solve a number of errors and mistranslations, they have been widely criticized because of their clunky, formal style (“chalice” for “cup” and “enter under my roof” for “receive”, etc).  What is frustrating about these translations is that I work really hard to teach high school students that prayer (and liturgy) is simply a form of communication between God and humans, just like a conversation one would have with a friend.  When they finally believe me (it takes a lot of convincing) and see prayer that way, they inevitably are far less intimidated by prayer and are encouraged to treat their relationship with God like one of close friendship.  So here’s my problem: we don’t use words like “chalice” and “thee” and “hast” in conversation, least of all, conversation with our friends.  So can this kind of formal language create distance between the worshipper and God?  Does this kind of language adequately express how the average Catholic or Episcopalian would choose to converse with God?  I couldn’t help but feel alienated at this mass, like I felt alienated during the first few weeks of the Catholic retranslations.

Things really got interesting after the service.  I gathered my things to go and was greeted near the door by the pastor who celebrated the mass.  I chatted a little bit with him about what brought me there, my job, etc and he invited me downstairs where they were having fellowship, and the other parishioners there echoed the invitation.  I was a little hesitant but genuinely felt welcomed, so I went.

The fellowship downstairs was a lovely expression of Christian hospitality.  There was a simple meal of wine, cheese, crackers, fruit, etc.  Everyone brought something to share and everyone pitched in to set up the table.  We sat down to eat and discuss some Bible passages the pastor printed out to share.  I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was quite sure this had never happened at any Catholic parish I had ever visited.  (Talking with people you don’t know after Mass?  MADNESS.)

The Bible passage was a Psalm and it was wonderful to simply listen to what others thought of the passage.  Most of those present were older, so I was captivated by their listening to where they are on their faith journeys and how the Psalm could speak to them.  The conversation meandered, and eventually, we came onto the topic of the Catholic Church.  A few of those present appeared to be ex-Catholics and bore some pretty serious wounds from their histories with the Catholic Church.  Finally, the question came up as to why non-Catholics are not permitted to take the Eucharist in a Catholic Mass, i.e.: why belief is a prerequisite for partaking.  One woman spoke up and explained, “well, that just goes to show how differently we think about the Eucharist.  Catholics don’t believe in the power of the Eucharist; they think it’s just a symbol.  We think it’s effective and it makes us into the Body of Christ.”

At this point I should mention that I hadn’t been “outed” as Catholic yet.  Rather than serve as a mouthpiece for all things Catholic or violate what might be seen as a safe space to discuss painful experiences with Catholicism, I chose not to jump in and declare my Catholic identity.  However, Catholic educator alarm bells were ringing in my head at the characterization of the Eucharist as a symbol.  And ironically, this argument from effect is exactly what Catholic theology uses to explain precisely why non-Catholics cannot take communion–Catholic eucharistic theology also holds that because the unity among the churches of the Body of Christ does not exist yet, we cannot share the same Eucharist as if we did.  So the woman who spoke up really called Catholic theology to task in an important way, one that I hadn’t considered before: if we really believe the sacrament is not just a symbol, if we take serious its efficacy, can’t it make us into the Body of Christ?  Aren’t we saying that the Eucharist is just a symbol when it is shared only by those who are already united in faith?  Perhaps that is an overly simplified way to think about the effect of sacraments, but I couldn’t help but notice that from this Episcopalian perspective, Catholic theology looks like it doubts the efficacy of the Eucharist.

So I left that evening wondering–what will make us into the Body of Christ?  I don’t have a magic solution to that problem, but more than anything, I am glad that I went to this mass and glad I can continue to discuss theology with my non-Catholic brethren.  Such a rewarding experience is a great reminder for me to step outside the Catholic bubble more often.  It seems to me that sharing in the Eucharist, even with some restrictions, and trading ideas in theology is the best way to effect the Body of Christ here and now.



4 thoughts on “You, too, are the Body of Christ (part two)

  1. Wow, Carmen–I have to say, I think your response (to the Catholic-bashing) was considerably more gracious than I could have mustered. This is something we’ve talked about, and that consistently bothers me in Episcopal communities: so many Episcopalians are coming from the Catholic church, so often (as you say) with deep wounds; but what ends up happening is that Episcopal churches become safe spaces to be snarky and bitter about Catholicism without any requirement to be kind or even accurate. The grief over leaving one’s church is huge, and can take a lifetime to process; but I don’t think that gives us a license to inflict new wounds on those who choose to stay.

    Your comment about language is really interesting. Within TEC, this is the perennial debate, of course, all the more important and contentious because Episcopalians so pride ourselves on the beauty of our liturgies (but different people and congregations tend to assess beauty differently). Personally, I like liturgical language to be a little bit of a stretch, a challenge. I like the idea that I don’t have to come up with exactly the right thing to say, and that my understanding of the words I am given will stretch and expand in meaning over time. And I tend to think of the language of prayer and the language of liturgy very differently–sort of like the difference between a Gchat conversation and a formal essay. I guess what it comes down to is, I LIKE liturgy to be formal. I find it exalting. I don’t think liturgical language SHOULD be the same as the language of individual prayer

    But then, on the other hand, I (and I think a lot of other Episcopalians) have very little practice praying using my own, ordinary, casual words; and I end up feeling as though my individual concerns are less important to God, because I can’t find the right words to pray with. I’m pretty sure that’s not a good way to be.

    • Yes, that is exactly the back and forth of liturgical style, I’d say. I think the central question is “does it lead people to intimacy with God?” The answers can lead to a diversity of liturgical styles (the great thing about a wide Church!). Personally, what leads me to God is the ordinary, the everyday, and the average, because it reminds me that God is in all things and most importantly, that God is in MY everyday life. (A very Jesuit idea, to be sure). But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room in the Church for the opposite liturgical style–the exalted, formal language that elevates the mind and senses to contemplate a higher sense of God.

      But, as you said, my concern would be–is there room TEC for both styles? I think the “everyday” liturgical style is really important for young people because, as I said, they usually can’t conceive that God would *be* in their everyday lives, and often can’t reach the appreciation level of formal liturgy–they get stuck on the alienation level.

      • I think there has to be room, don’t you? We need to know that our regular, mediocre words are good enough for God; but I think the “alienation” of the kind of formal liturgy you’re talking about can be a beneficial thing. I don’t have a good handle on what I am trying to say yet–I’m thinking about Brecht, and alienation as a tool to spur people toward a deeper contemplation of the things they already think they know; I’m thinking also about being a little girl (6-7 maybe) and playing hide-and-seek/explorers in the sanctuary at my church (this is where being a PK comes in handy). There’s something about becoming comfortable with objects of reverence, whether the physical space or the words of the liturgy, that I think is really good, but takes some time. At any rate, I think a variety of forms–both “high” and “low” -pitched–is a really good thing.

  2. I don’t have much to add on your hilarious/awesome experience with “what the Eucharist means to Catholics” and your reflections on them, but I want to say that you’ve given me a whole lot to chew on.

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