Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Quakers and Sacraments

My favourite religious movie is Life of Brian. In one of my favourite scenes in this my favourite movie, Brian loses a sandal as he is walking, and his followers snatch it up reverently, crooning:

“He has given us a sign! Let us follow his example. Let us like him hold up one shoe, and let the other be upon our foot, for this is His sign, and all who follow Him shall do likewise!” They all remove a sandal, tie it to a stick, and carry it for the rest of their lives.

Such is my take on sacraments.

However, the topic of sacraments has come up on two Quaker blogs in this network this week. And I can’t help wanting to jump into the fray.

I know about sacraments. I should. I was born and raised Catholic and went to a Catholic school. I don’t have any resentment about my spiritual upbringing (in fact, I thought it was rather good because it got me where I am now: of course, the nuns might not agree), but I’m just saying that I know what sacraments are and what they’re not.

The French church where I grew up had a priest that rode a motorcycle. He eventually ran off and married the church secretary, but that's another story. He used to take the whole gang of us teenagers out ice-fishing during the winter. Afterward, he did mass around a fire at the shoreline or inside someone’s cottage. If someone caught a fish, it was used for the communion instead of the bread. “Just as good,” he used to say, ”and much fresher.” Sometimes, the fish was used in addition to the bread. “Loaves and fishes,” he would say, “Jesus’ secret recipe to feed thousands.”

(A big however: Not all Catholics “get” sacraments, even though that’s all they do. I knew a guy who used to keep holy water in the freezer – so it would stay holy longer!)

I have also been to protestant versions of the bread-and-wine sacrament. And I can tell you right now: they don’t get it. For Catholics, it’s the whole song-and-dance, smells-and-bells routine leading up to the eucharist – the mystical words, the drone, the silences, the kneeling, the layers of spirituality that descend one after another – it’s all this that makes the “communion” thing happen. But Protestantism is a verbal religion. You know: talking heads, word recitations, follow the book, even yelp and holler, otherwise don’t move (My seven-year-old daughter calls them “the noisy Christians”). The holiness is in the words, not the symbols. So, alas, most of the time when they get to the bread-and-wine event, they talk the thing to death. Then it’s not communion: it’s just snack.

You see, communion is something you have to do and be; it’s not something you take. It’s also not something you can just staple to the side of a service or a religion that has nothing to do with it, as if it just does the thing all by itself. Trust me, it takes the whole knee-numbing hour to get there.

So do Quakers need sacraments?

We already have one. Quaker silence is the sacrament. It’s a ritual as ritualistic as sandals on a stick or wafers dunked in wine, and it takes about as long. We enter the meeting and surrender ourselves entirely to listening to the Spirit, becoming one with It and each other, with all the vulnerabilities, fears, and trembling that go with it. That’s what’s meant by “com + union.” That’s also why we’re called Quakers.

Sacrament is a concept, not a thing. It’s a verb, not a noun. The Quaker sacrament of silence is an all-encompassing verb. It allows us to commune together and with God, and to take that communion out with us into the world, to see ourselves as part of a holy whole. It gives us the discipline to discern leadings and minister to each other. So our silence as a sacrament is not stapled to the side of our religion: it is a vital, life-giving foundation. Without that regular sacramental silence, ours skills of discernment and listening would atrophy away. Soon anything would sound like a leading: a sermon on the radio, a speech by a president, a news documentary. We would become swayed by popular ideologies that run counter to the plain teachings of the Spirit.

The sacramentalness of Quaker process is evident in the ease with which Catholics blend into our traditions. At my last Meeting, we occasionally invited nuns in to help lead special meetings on spiritual topics. My current regional gathering meets at a Catholic centre, and the staff join in. My Catholic friends understand what a Quaker meeting is.

My born-again protestant friends are mystified by it. They don’t know why I bother going, they can’t see the point. “It’s kind of like going to church, except you’re spiritually naked,” I explain. Helpfully. Their eyes cross.

I rest my case.

George Fox’s point in chucking out sacraments was that the spiritual unity and vulnerability and holiness that one feels in a sacrament is not in the bread and wine, nor in the water, nor even the words: it’s in the person’s spirit approaching that sacrament. Sometimes it takes all week to get to meeting, if you know what I mean. (David M says Yes, I know what you mean!) But if we start early enough, we get there often enough.


Having said all this and before I drift into more pointless stories from my childhood, I should bring up two caveats: The first is the difference between “rites of passage” and “sacraments.” Rites of passage occur at key transitions in life (e.g., birth, marriage, death), when we feel the need to touch the Spirit in a sort of holy “high-five” in passing. These we do not as fixed rites, but as outpourings of the Spirit. Our baby welcomings, weddings, and memorial meetings are quite different from fixed religious rituals that purport to have the power to make God-things happen.

Second caveat: While the fluid, in-the-moment, living-Spirit-whispering-in-my-ear qualities of Quaker life render sacraments superfluous, they don’t precisely exclude sacraments – because they don’t precisely exclude anything.

Many years ago, one of the Canadian Quaker gatherings met at a Catholic retreat centre. The centre’s priest was part of the gathering. At the opening of the weekend, he invited anyone to come and talk to him at any time privately as they wished. The weekend ran smoothly, and at the wrap-up, the priest thanked everyone for a deep and spiritual weekend. But he added that every person at the gathering had come to talk to him privately. And every one had asked him for the same thing -- absolution.

This was a confusing story to me when I first heard it offered in Meeting, and it’s still hard to wrap my mind around. Were these Friends actively seeking out a sacrament? And what on earth for?

But I understand now that for Quakers, sacraments exist in time, in specific moments, in feeling that the Spirit was nudging right then, right there. In that weekend, the Friends gathered had felt a hunger to be relieved of the burden of sin, all those sins of omission and commission and of fear and failure. In true openness of Spirit, they searched for and found the humility to say before another person, “Father, forgive me, for I have sinned.”

Life is hard. We don’t know the way. We stumble in the dark. Forgive us.

It wasn’t about not being Quaker. It wasn’t about following rules. It wasn’t about liking or not liking sacraments or believing or not believing in the priest’s power to forgive. It was about that moment, that sense of burden, that hunger for release.

Yes, I understand.

And that understanding came to me during silence.


At 12:26 AM, Anonymous Robin M. said...

Beautiful. Thank you.

At 10:05 AM, Blogger Zach A said...

I'm with Robin.

I think it would be really nice for some enterprising Quaker to really plumb the depths of the Quaker/Catholic issue in a book, if it hasn't been done already.

At 9:39 AM, Anonymous Lynda said...

Wonderfully profound.

At 11:18 AM, Anonymous rex said...

Thank you, Nancy! I went from being born into the Disciples of Christ to atheism to agnostic to Unitarian to Roman Catholic to Friend. I left the Catholics after being criticized by a nun for going to Communion in bare feet. I found my home among Friends!
I like the idea of thinking of communal silence as a sacrament; personal silence surely is!

At 9:36 PM, Anonymous Judy Tretheway said...

I too have always found a great resonance with other contemplative Catholics and have enjoyed co-facilitating retreats and easy spritual friendships. Perhaps it has to do with the turning over of significant portion of worship time to an invitation for God to enter and dwell within us and give our lives sustainance ... its not talk, its action, the action of expectant listening, the action of taking the bread and wine.
I worship as a Quaker and for years have worked as a Hospice Chaplain. Entering into the spiritual lives of families of so many different paths, has taught me a deep respect for the sacraments, and the power of ritual to bring meaning and open up portals for significant spiritual blessings. At times the families would request the sacraments, at times it was "of the Spirit in the moment", and when I entered into the ceremony as the Chaplain I had no qualms about serving the Light within each of us in this way. I enjoyed seeking the fundamental impulse not only to their yearning for a real-time encounter with God, but also seeking the original energy behind the Sacrament in the first place.

Through the Holy moments with these different families and traditions I have gratefully dropped my previous fears of "contamination" or "sin" if I was to enter into anothers way of knowing God. When I enter into the Spirit of the Moment, all these paths lead me into the lap of the Holy Mystery, and still I choose on Sundays to come home to Meeting.

At 6:01 PM, Blogger Richard said...

I agree with you that a sacrament is a verb, but it is a verb from God to us. It is His action towards us (with appropriate physical manifestations or symbols for us to recognize it).

I find your description of protestants as talk based is quite similar to my own perceptions (of course, this is a gross smear and simplification) - as I find them overly sterile and joyless (I am a Roman Catholic - ha! ha! and I know many who would argue that Catholics are joyless and sterile).

rex: I am sorry to hear of your experience. As a Catholic, I have seen and heard too many times your type of experience - a thoughtless word or action stemming from insitutional orthodoxy. I do not think it is at all in keeping with the message of Christ (especially considering He so often broke down barriers, traditions and customs)

At 11:52 PM, Blogger Clair Hochstetler said...

Nancy, I just read your commentary today, regarding your experiences of the sacraments, and think its pretty profound.

I grew up Mennonite (not quite traditional Protestant, but almost) and grew up with communion as "snack" as you put it. At one point I became a Church of the Brethren pastor. Now the congregation my wife and I affiliate with is actually a Mennonite one -- but we tend to "do things differently." We meet on Sunday evenings instead of mornings, at 5 pm. Then at about 6:30 PM we go to the fellowship hall, have a circle time where we celebrate everyone's birthday for that week, then go into our sacrament of communion with symbolic bread and wine lifted up with the words of institution, but sit down together around tables for soup and bread, which is the real common-union and real "breaking bread together." We've been doing this for five years and its such a profound way to get to know others, new people, and spend some time in that extension of our worship.

I am really intrigued by your comparisons of the Catholic - Friends experience. I was challenged to think about the intersections on Eucharist between Catholic and Protestant during an Ekklesia conference about two and a half years ago in Chicago. Are you aware of these dialogs? We need some Friends at these conferences as well!

Clair Hochstetler,
(hospital and hospice chaplain in Goshen, IN)

At 1:58 AM, Anonymous joe said...

Thanks, for that story Nancy. I think your view is close to an idea I like of the sacrament of the present moment.
Rex, I have to say, that nun has some twisted view of God; however, if that's all it took for you to leave Catholicism you must not have been far from the door already. At any rate, I'm glad you've found a home among the Friends.

At 5:54 PM, Anonymous Wee Dragon said...

You wrote this a few years ago, it seems....but I am just reading it today! What a beautiful piece on "sacrament". I needed to read this today.


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