late 14c., from Old French comunion “community, communion” (12c.), from Latin communionem (nominative communio) “fellowship, mutual participation, a sharing,” used in Late Latin ecclesiastical language for “participation in the sacrament,” from communis (see common (adj.)). Used by Augustine, in belief that the word was derived from com- “with, together” + unus “oneness, union.” —from the Online Etymology Dictionary
Every Sunday morning, I sit in a wooden pew in our little Anglican church in the Woodland Heights of Houston. Sometimes I sit on the righthand side near a stained-glass window of St. Catherine of Alexandria, a window I befriended (no joke). Sometimes I sit on the lefthand side to catch glimpses of my husband playing percussion in the chancel. I love the entirety of the liturgy — a beautiful script of singing, praying, listening, sitting, kneeling, and standing — “the work of the people” to worship Jesus. But I confess that I do have some favorite moments during the service: the antiphonal reading of the Psalm, the sermon wherein I take notes in my journal, the hymns we sing during Holy Communion, and Abby.
Abby is my friends’ 3-year-old daughter and this girl loves to partake of Communion. She runs to and from the altar with unfiltered joy. Abby’s whimsical fashion sense is part of her charm: One Sunday she wore a Snow White costume and pink Converse sneakers. Another Sunday she wore a blue and white striped dress with a white ruffle around the hem, sweetly feminine, and chunky black boots. However, when she ran up to the Table, her boots were missing to reveal white stockinged feet. Perhaps she took off her shoes, for she knew that we were on holy ground, partaking of a holy meal.
Her exuberance reminds me of kids running around any meal table, especially on festive occasions or holidays. They’re excited about the people they know and new people to meet. They are excited about the food and drink. They’re excited about their friends and having their hunger satisfied. Other kids walk-race to and from the Table at my church, too. I think we older folks need to regain that childlike enthusiasm. Then we will be able to enter the kingdom of heaven, and in church, there we are.
During the offertory, a priest prepares the Table for our holy meal. Another priest and an acolyte lend their hands, too. Music is played by the musicians in the chancel — a favorite selection of mine is “Naked as We Came” by Iron & Wine, strummed on the guitar by Abby’s dad.
I watch my friends, ushered pew by pew, walk forward to the Table. I sing, tap my toe to the music, and often get choked up for the immense beauty and generosity of it all, tears and mascara slipping down my cheeks.
When it’s my turn to walk forward, I kneel at the altar. I gaze at the golden cross on the Table. I look at the other objects on and near the Table: two glass cruets containing water and wine; a golden censer, often still emanating soft wisps of frankincense burned at the beginning of the service; fresh flowers behind the Table; 3 candles on each side of the covered bread and wine; a large wooden cross hanging above the altar, handmade by a former parishioner.
I feel humbled, but I try to make eye contact with the priests or deacons serving the meal to me. I try not to gulp the wine. I bow my head and pray. I peek at others receiving the meal, kneeling on either side of me. Sometimes I slightly sway to the music, or unfold my thumbs from my clasped hands to tap them together in time with my husband’s percussion. If I’m able, I touch my husband’s shoulder as I walk back to my pew, or smile in his direction. This noticing of what I see and hear is part of discerning the body — the body of Christ. In this meal, He feeds the body of the Church with His body and His blood.
* * *
I first tasted this holy meal as a 7-year-old Baptist, but my recollection of that feast is foggy. What I do recall is that my maternal grandmother sat beside me and my family in what I called “movie theater seats” — the bottom half of the maroon cushions flipped back and forth just like at the movies — and we were all very excited. I remember singing hymns along with my family and the congregation and Nina said, “You sing like an angel.”
We Baptists called it The Lord’s Supper, a term which was easier for me to understand as a child. I loved the Lord Jesus, and I loved supper — especially good old Southern meals during visits to my paternal grandparents in the far west flatlands of San Angelo, TX, where the tap water (and even the ice) tasted and smelled awful. We drank Cokes and iced tea instead. But the food was always amazing. I was born with a fierce sweet tooth, thus desserts are my most vivid culinary memories, along with Papaw’s biscuits made from scratch topped with butter and brown sugar, or his homemade plum preserves — pretty much dessert for breakfast.
I still make Papaw’s Buttermilk Pie and Aunt Pat’s Carrot Cake to this day. And I still turn my piece of carrot cake on its side to savor the icing first, then I eat the cake laced with brown sugar, carrots, cinnamon, and pecans last. I make the golden-rich pie annually on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the cake on my husband’s birthday in July. Now that Papaw and Aunt Pat reside in heaven, and in my memories and dreams, setting our holiday and birthday tables with their recipes brings them into communion with us once again, much like the communion of saints, whom I imagine hover over the Table at my church along with incense smoke, just as the Holy Ghost hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation.
A year before my first Baptist Lord’s Supper, my paternal grandmother died after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. I was completely distraught. I fretted, Where is Memaw now? One night, I had a vivid dream of her standing at the foot of my white wooden bed. Her posture was straight and upright, no longer hunched over, and her face was young, radiant, joyful. She threw back her head and laughed. Then she looked at me, smiling, and said, “I’m okay.”
The following night I discussed the dream and my worries with my dad on the floor of my bedroom, as we both sat on top of my pink Barbie sleeping bag. He reminded me of all the Bible stories he and my mom had read to me, including Jesus’s death on the cross and His resurrection. “He is alive today, remember? And if you believe in Him, you will live forever with Him in heaven,” he said. “Memaw is in heaven with Him right now.” Like the ocean tide in Galveston, a rushing wave of relief and happiness flooded over me. Memaw really was okay, and one day I would see her again, face to face.
My understanding of the Communion Table became much more significant and clarified when I became Episcopalian in my mid 20s, and now that I’m Anglican at age 40. The liturgy tells a story each Sunday, the heart of the narrative being this holy meal. And I really do sense the communion of saints there — including Papaw, Memaw, Aunt Pat, and Nina — as I partake of this holy meal. I dine with my lost loved ones now, and I will dine with them again in an eternal heavenly feast with our King.
My imagination cannot conjure what that table will look like, but it will be epic.
* * *
What a strange, holy meal. We pray and sing before and after the meal. We kneel at the Table rather than sitting in chairs. Men serve us the meal in 2 parts — first the bread, then the wine. We eat Jesus’ body and drink His blood. We are given this meal as a gift, but also a command. “This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me,” He said. And we, too, bring our brokenness to the various tables at which we dine in the circles of our lives, don’t we? We truly come just as we are. Like fussy children in church, I’m not always on my best behavior, either.
Though this sacred meal nourishes everything about our existence — our spirituality and our physicality — I’ve often been weakened by partaking of it. When I was very sick several years ago, my husband sat in a pew with me instead of playing with the musicians. Seated in the second pew from the front, I felt too weak to walk to the Table alone. My husband would walk alongside me, both reminding me that I could do it, and that I was not alone. I ate a pretty Spartan diet at the time, trying to protect my body from a systemic overgrowth of yeast, and other enticing dangers that might lurk within food.
Now, I’m in another season of my life where I’ve had to simplify my diet due to digestive mysteries. And it’s during Lent when I’ve already given up my beloved evening glasses of wine. Some Sundays I feel exhausted, weak, my body too acidic. On other Sabbath mornings I feel at peace, strong, healthy, and content with scrambled eggs over fresh spinach for breakfast; canned wild Alaskan salmon sprinkled with lemon pepper and a side of plaintain chips for lunch; grilled chicken & roasted sweet potatoes for dinner — so on and so forth. I stubbornly drink Americanos which are not very acidic, and besides, can a person really give up coffee and wine, the proper bookends to any God-fearing day?
I’ve felt weak on other Eucharistic occasions as well — for instance, when I broke my elbow with a dramatic, excruciating compression fracture. My friend, a deacon, brought the holy meal in a little black box and set it on my coffee table.
“We come to the Table desperate for the grace of God,” my pastor said in his sermon last Sunday. And in my desperation, “ . . . I placed on my tongue the taste of forgiveness and love that affirmed, perhaps celebrated, my being alive, my being mortal,” said Andre Dubus in his essay, “On Charon’s Wharf.” He wrote this essay from a wheelchair.
* * *
It is a common, holy meal. This commonality begins again and again in my church each Sunday, and follows me out the arched door and around Houston to various coffee shop tables, then follows me home to my own tables. I have to wipe my breakfast nook and dining room tables clean every day, more than once a day. But during the holy meal at church, all I have to do is come. Be present. Partake. And this holy meal cleanses me.
* * *
I drove across Houston one day to meet my friend Leah for coffee and conversation, a friend who goes to my church and shares the holy, common meal at the Table with me. Our coming together for the pseudo sacraments of espresso and bistro food occurred at a small wooden table backed by a brick wall in a favorite coffee shop. We talked, laughed, tried to get her baby boy to smile, and shared prayer needs. When my friend left, I circled the restaurant trying to find another table near an outlet to charge my laptop. I asked a woman at a larger wooden table in a corner if I could share her workspace. Sarah was warm and welcoming and invited me to sit and work.
Through small talk, the sharing of the coffee shop wi-fi password, and the lament that the Internet connection was slow, I said, “Well, that works for me today because I need to write and not be distracted by Facebook.” She asked what I was writing about, and I mentioned this very essay. We shared with each other where we go to church, and I discovered that she would soon be taking Holy Communion at a Catholic church for the first time the following week after a year-long process. She beamed with intense happiness, much like Abby’s infectious joy as she runs to and from the Table at my church.
Then I lined up at the coffee shop counter, much like I wait my turn kneeling at the Table at church, to order a second Americano and a bowl of white bean and kale soup, perfect on a wintry day. My good friend Karen walked in the door — beautiful providence. I invited her to mine and Sarah’s table to eat her margarita pizza, followed by coffee and a snickerdoodle. I thought I wanted to be alone, immersed in introverted bliss, reading and writing and thinking, but it was so good to share that wooden table with fellow writers, new and old friends. My work was interspersed with kindness and laughter, good food and drink, and book recommendations and writing tips. Communion. Togetherness.
* * *
The holy meal at church is the ultimate form of hospitality. It inspires and informs what our various tables should be like: beautifully decorated, good meals provided, hospitality given so that our guests can receive nourishment and rest; our guests are invited to come just as they are and immerse themselves in conversations about what is good, true, and beautiful. Perhaps we should sing after dessert — perhaps my husband’s fine drinking hymn, “Raise a Glass to the King,” with glasses of our favorite spirits in hand.
Being the ultimate form of hospitality, the Table also informs how to be hospitable when I don’t feel all that welcoming. Communion together with those we connect with and understand, and those we don’t understand at all. Communion with those who make us laugh. Communion with those who drain us.
Communion is an acting out of love, and love takes a lot of work.
This meal is the blueprint of all of our feasts — family gatherings, wedding rehearsal dinners, holiday spreads — and they are modeled after the holy meal that we receive at the Table. Our inclination to celebrate is inspired by the Table, too — the holy meal is a celebratory meal. We celebrate what Christ did for us.
The entire Anglican liturgy focuses on the Table. It’s a reminder of the source of hospitality, what it truly is, and how to extend it to others, like ripples in the water, flowing outward to the whole world.
Jenni Simmons (@jennisimmons) is a creative nonfiction writer, and the editor of the Art House America Blog. Her writing has appeared in Comment Magazine and The Curator, among others. In addition to the liturgy of this strange and common meal, Jenni also notices liturgy in her everyday life, including the liturgy of coffee shops in Houston, Texas, where she often writes. She plans to write a book of these liturgies one day.