Eucharist – a weekly spiritual practice
Here follows my summary of the first chapter in Michelle Heyne’s book In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today’s Christian Life, our recommended text for the Adult forums in Lent.
One is unlikely to hear from the mouths of clergy in the Episcopal Church a direct statement that weekly attendance at the Eucharist, regardless of soccer, coffee, or brunch at Star Bucks, or staying in bed and reading the paper, is an expectation.
Hectoring people is rarely effective. But, the assumption that we all participate or not, as the case may be from a position of common knowledge and experience of the Christian faith, is not useful either.
We live in a diverse culture where the natural assumption is that individual preferences and desires trump communal ones.
Anglicanism has a broad tolerance for nominal Christmas and Easter attendance.
‘Yet it has always insisted that the life of the church and her sacraments must be thought of as a necessary means of grace. Church life is not an elective, which a Christian may take on out of a sense of duty and responsibility but may omit without serious damage to his or her faith. The fact is he or she cannot really be a Christian apart from involvement in the community of believers’. John M Krumm Why choose the Episcopal Church
When we arrive at the awareness that being present at the Eucharist is more than a matter of transitory feelings on any particular day, we have cross a significant threshold of awareness. Showing up – is neither an obligation nor a recipe for emotional self-medication, i.e. making ourselves feel happy. Showing up is a joyful response to the love of God, and an expression of gratitude for love received and desire to give love in return.
For most of us, Eucharist falls into the category of a weekly spiritual practice. Eucharist is the fully Christian life in action. It is an experience of being conformed by Jesus example of self-giving love. In Eucharist, we are transformed by the inpouring of divine life. We express this through more generous living. As the Nike add says: ‘Just do it!’
Matters for consideration
The issue of competence
Liturgy is complex. Why? Because human beings thrive on complexity as a means of going deeper. We need a certain amount of anxiety in order to learn. (quote story Pg 27) It takes time to become familiar with the pattern of the Eucharist. What helps?
- Being present is the most important step
- Imagine yourself into being part of the action rather than a passive observer. Remind yourself that it could not happen without you being there.
- Arrive early and take time to read through the service book, paying attention to the explanations or instructions that occur in italics.
- Experiment with not holding the book but simply watching and listening – a kind of kinetic learning exercise through being carried by the motion and energy of the liturgy.
- Note areas where you have questions
- Come in good time to prepare yourself, collect yourself, anticipate the coming experience.
- Liturgy uses the physicality for worship
Bread, wine, water essential elements for life.Worship involves the body and movement, it’s not just about the head or the heart. We stand, we kneel, we speak and sing, we listen and we are silent, we eat, drink, touch smell. Bringing the body into worship reconnects us with the essential truth of our faith – The Incarnation.
- Other practices that are common in Episcopal worship:
- Bowing and or genuflecting (going down briefly on one knee) while facing the altar or entering or leaving a pew. We bow to the cross on the altar or as it passes in procession. We genuflect to the presence of the consecrated elements of bread and wine.
- Making the sign of the cross, this is most generally speaking a reminder of our baptism and happens at parts of the service that connect us to our baptism, e.g.
- the end of the Gloria,
- the end of the Creed
- during the absolution
- during the Eucharistic Prayer after the gifts are sanctified by the Holy Spirit we ask that we too may be sanctified
- before receiving Holy Communion during the final blessing we are able to be part of all of these things because of our baptism.
Not everyone has to do the same things at the same time. Actions articulate feelings. We all feel differently, and not always feel the same way at the same time.
At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily posture makes no difference to their prayers: for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.S. Lewis, The Screwtape letters.
- Silence, stillness, being unhurried
How can we release ourselves totally to God’s Spirit? How can we relinquish our desires to God’s better purposes? We need the channel of silence to transport us from the busy harbors of our tensions out into the ocean of God’s infinite being. Marva Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down.
Liturgy is a kind of unplugging, a kind of mind, body, spirit rebooting. In liturgy we individually merge with the community of worshipers for the purpose of spiritual and emotional renewal so that on leaving church we can rededicate ourselves to being instruments of God’s greater purpose for us in the coming week.
Ironically, as Norvene West points out we are noise-addicted people. We may think silence is easy to do, accessible for anyone to claim until we try it. Being silent is an art to be learned, an experience we learn to tolerate.
Feeling hurried and distracted is often our defense against the demands we experience when we try to practice silence. Silence is uncomfortable because in silence the only thing we can do is wait. How much more preferable is the talking, singing, movement of real worship to which we hurry to return from the experience of being silent or making silence.
Ways to experiment with being silent or making silence
- Feel the solidity of the pew or chair you are sitting on. Sink back and let the pew or chair support you
- Put down books, bulletins, or papers
- Become aware of the gentle rising and falling of your breathing
- Notice how the mind wants to distract you, notice how the body wants to fidget. Just watch these thoughts or sensations and don’t respond to, nor engage with them
- Notice if being silent in a congregation – in public makes you feel self-conscious. Use body movements like standing or kneeling as expressions of a silent orientation.
Engaging and listening to the Word
We believe as Episcopalians that God addresses us through Scripture as a community. It’s as a community that we interpret the meaning of scripture. As an assembly in worship God invites us into a conversation which is always so much more than the conversation we would prefer to have with ourselves.
We don’t have to comprehend the meaning of the passage. All we need to do is to receive it and let it work in us. We often hear the words in the distance while our attention is distracted. None of this matters – very much. The important thing is we are there, and as a community we receive the invitation from God, and as members of a community, we act upon it.
The Creed is a response of faith to what we receive in Scripture. But it’s not our personal faith, although it may be. I find the words of the creed sometimes make sense and sometimes don’t. As individuals, we ebb and flow in and out. The Creed is the faith of the community. It’s what we as a people of God have always and everywhere believed. It’s a protection against the mystery of God being reduced to only what we in our generation are comfortable with accepting or understanding.
This takes us back to the corporate nature of worship, Eucharist is not an action for individuals, it’s a practice of community.
Ways to experiment with receiving the Word
- Be curious about what the word is that God might have for us as a community.
- Alternate between reading along and raising your head and listening.
- Read the lessons in advance of coming to Church.
- Be open with yourself about the challenges of taking the text seriously or authoritatively. How to do hold a tension between your own sense of personal integrity and the being open to a broader tradition of understanding that is part of the community?
- Let yourself be distracted and maybe at times just admire the sense of the space, being in this space with others who share the experience of being present together.