Radical Listening and Making the Body Whole
I remember the words so clearly: “I know what it’s like to have my body broken, I know what it’s like to have my blood spilt. I won’t celebrate anyone else’s broken body or spilt blood, and I don’t want anyone doing that on my behalf.” Sitting in the pew next to me, my friend spoke her truth in a soft and tentative, but somehow still firm, voice. She then slumped in her seat and folded up her legs, hugging them against her body. While everyone else got up to take communion, I stayed in place beside her.
There was a period of time in my life when I was not willing to participate in communion. My friend’s words stayed with me, transforming the communion table from one of hospitality to one of violence. “Celebrating” communion didn’t feel celebratory anymore. I chose not to take communion for several years. I let my friend’s words guide and deepen my reflection on the practice of communion—especially in light of the trauma suffered by all too many bodies.
During my years of abstaining from communion, I was also part of a collective effort to start a new church. A group of friends and I had become regulars at our local pub, where we gathered each week for its Friday fish-and-chips special. It was there, during our informal, though regular, weekly gathering, that our imaginations started sparking over French fries and beer.
Collectively, we started dreaming about a church where we could experience the sense of “at-home-ness” that we felt with one another at the pub. We wanted to create a community marked by genuine openness, where nothing was off limits, where there were no pretensions or expectations of appropriately “churchly” behavior, where we could bring our whole selves—which included not only our sexualities, feminisms, and hopes for good news, but also the truths of the pains and hurts that the church had caused some of us.
It was there, with this mixed group of friends, that I started to re-imagine my participation in communion. Doing what every nerd researcher does first, I began to gather data. The members of our little group, which included a handful of seminary students, were well aware of each other’s varying views on communion. We knew of each other’s mixed experiences with it, as well. Therefore, we initially felt at a loss when trying to determine how (or even whether) to incorporate communion into the gathering time as we imagined church anew.
Fortunately, our weekly fish-and-chips gatherings, with their passionate debates and discussions, had encouraged us to develop open and conversational ways of exploring our various ideas about church and Christianity. When the time came to sort out how we might practice communion together, we wanted to respect the tensions that existed in our views. In an effort to deepen our reflection, we decided to gather additional information for individual and collective reflection. Each of us conducted interviews among our respective circles of people. We made audio recordings or took written notes as we talked to our friends and family members about their understandings of, and experiences with, communion. If interviewees indicated that communion held little or no significance for them, we asked why. We then followed up by asking whether there was anything that would make communion meaningful.
After conducting our research, all of us reported our findings back to the group. We then let the stories and experiences we gathered help shape our practice of communion. The specific findings from our data gathering are not important for this particular blog post—the lessons we learned about attitudes toward communion deserve their own piece—but the process by which we collectively tackled a principal, and contentious, element of being a church body is significant. For it encouraged us to take each other’s experiences and perspectives, as well as the experiences and perspectives of people we loved and cared about, seriously. Once we heard everyone’s stories, it became impossible for one single person’s discernment to override anybody else’s. The prospect of making executive decisions that prioritized certain opinions or experiences over others did not make sense.
Perhaps the most important feature of our research and discernment process was the fact that it took communion down off of its pedestal. As a collective, we refused to view the sacrament as an untouchable, sacred object that could not be questioned, examined, and changed. When considering whether/how we would engage communion in our new faith community, we did not allow ourselves to feel strictly bound by the inherited practices of the ritual. Instead, we privileged people’s real-life, actual experiences around the communion table. Because those experiences mattered deeply to us, we used them to help shape the ways in which we celebrated one of the church’s oldest orienting rituals.
For me, our process of collectively reflecting on communion embodied the most significant aspects of the communion ritual. At its best, communion “fixes” us (in all of our diversity and passionate differences) in place around a common table. And when practiced on a regular basis, it sets in us a pattern and habit of coming together as one body—a body in which all are valued and have a say in how to communally live and embody the good news.
Furthermore, the practice of the process was, in and of itself, good news. It made real a way of being in the world that challenges dominant culture, with its emphasis upon hierarchy and top-down decision-making. Through the process, my friends and I demonstrated that we valued one another’s experiences and perspectives. By developing a discernment process that took everyone into account, we did more than simply talk about caring for one another. Instead, we lived out our mutual commitment through our actions . . . which also happened to open us up to the novel things that the Spirit was doing, as She breathed life into our newly-imagined body of faith.
So, what shape did our communion practice end up taking? Many. Exactly how we gathered and shared a meal at the communion table often depended on how the Spirit was blowing on any given day. But one thing was constant: we always did our best to avoid communion practices and language that could potentially cause further pain. Ever since my friend told me about her broken body and spilt blood, I’ve never looked at communion in the same way. Her story matters—indeed, all of ours do, as Mihee Kim-Kort recently pointed out in Bearings—and it should make a difference to the body.