“Communion is so gross!”
The cruel words, which were whispered but still plenty audible, cut quick and deep. The visitors in the pew behind me had, apparently, been dragged kicking and screaming to an infant baptism and were now having a mini freak-out about our proclivity for drinking from a common cup. Anglicans spend a lot of time wondering what newcomers are thinking, but I have to ask, “Do we really want to know?”
Our traditions make perfect sense to us, but they’re a million miles away from where most people are at. I’m normally an advocate for bridge building between the church and the culture at large, but even I have limits. It was all I could do to keep from turning around and snapping, “Why don’t you just beat it, then!” Moments earlier the couple had vowed to support the wee babe in his life in Christ-of which Holy Communion is a big part-and now they were making fun of the whole thing.
Their first impression of communion stood in stark contrast to my own some three decades earlier: “Communion is so cool.”
I was 10 years old. We rarely went to church, but my aunt was singing a solo-a haunting rendition of Ave Maria-and my mother and sister and I had gone to listen to her. Blessed Sacrament had also been my mother’s church before she married my dad and broke with Catholicism.
When it was time for communion all the pews emptied out, but we three stayed in our seats, notably and conspicuously separated from the crowd. I had questions for my mother, chiefly, “Why aren’t we going, too?” Mom wouldn’t make eye contact with me. Her heavy sigh and faraway expression told me this was yet another closed door for the second-stringers-the kids from the “other family” of a woman who’d hitched her wagon to a divorced man.
With a kaleidoscope of stained glass dancing across the carpeted aisle, I watched, mesmerized, as the crowd moved together in the sombre but dignified march to the Lord’s Table-a destination that was off limits because my family’s paperwork was too messed up.
“You mean I can take communion?”
Such was my incredulity 20 years later at St. Aidan’s Anglican Church in Toronto. My sister had joined the choir and, once again drawn in by the music, I had come for a visit. During coffee hour a friendly parishioner schooled me on some of the complexities of being Anglican and I asked for clarification about the fine print in the bulletin: “All baptized persons may receive Holy Communion.”
“Were you baptized?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, “when I was 12.” It was in the Free Methodist church, but I withheld that information. Frankly, I was afraid the Methodists hadn’t made the denominational cut. Had the C of E really flung the door that wide open?
I calmly nibbled on a cookie, but my heart was pounding: the old paperwork anxieties flared up again. The Anglicans had been nice to me, so far, but surely the moment of reckoning was at hand. Could I even find my baptismal certificate? Wouldn’t the Sacrament Police have to stamp it before I could finally make the long-awaited pilgrimage to the Lord’s Table?
Of course, there was none of that. Open communion was exactly as advertised. The next Sunday I returned to St. Aidan’s and joined the communion march. If my head ever gave germs and backwash a second thought, it was significantly overruled by my heart. For the first few months, the oneness of the experience, the holiness of it, and the emotional release of no longer being barred from this hugely symbolic act, had the unexpected consequence of making me bawl like a baby.
I learned to stuff my purse full of Kleenex on Sunday mornings and began the truly bizarre custom of sitting in the front pew-no better place to hide outbursts of raw emotion-which I still do to this day. This geographic positioning puts me in fairly steady contact with newcomers who tend to arrive late and don’t realize they’re not supposed to sit up front.
On the day of the infant baptism I reminded myself that the utter cluelessness of my pew mates was not for me to judge and spared them the evil eye during the recessional hymn. (I wanted to give it to them, though. I really, really wanted to!)
On the surface, it may seem like a fairly standard procedure, but the truth is we all make our own journey to the Lord’s Table. For some, the road is more winding and twisting than for others-nearer to the grave than to the cradle.
And it is worth remembering God is the one directing the traffic. Cantankerous crossing guards need not apply.
Michelle Hauser is a former fundraiser turned newspaper columnist and freelance writer. She and her husband, Mark, live in Napanee, Ont., with their son Joseph, and worship at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene. Her work includes contributions to CBC Radio, The Globe and Mail, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and The Kingston Whig-Standard. She can be reached through her website at www.michellehauser.ca.