Discovery, 7: Grace Episcopal

Tim and I shuffled quietly into the building. It was filled with that blending of artificial and natural light one always finds in church lobbies in the still, midday hours. Suddenly, organ music began spilling from the open door to the sanctuary; we hurried in to find our place.

There were less than ten people in all, seated on both sides of the choir pews, silently praying or else staring off into space. Tim motioned for the nearest bench and we sat as I tried to take in my surroundings. The priest, doubling as organist for the intimate weekday celebration, finished his piece and then sidled into a pew facing us across the aisle.

The contents of that particular day’s service – the Scriptures, prayers, and discussion – have long since been lost to me, but that day has nonetheless become a watershed moment, for while details may have fallen through, still I remember the spirit of the moment.

I remember the reverent silence, filling the space between each part of our worship. My tradition – as with most modern evangelical worship – is allergic to silence. We fill every possible moment with noise, competing with world in sonic violence rather than meekly conquering it through contemplation.

ref-2
Penalty declined. Repeat third kneel.

I remember the liturgy. The seamless beauty of the service as it gently moved from one portion to another. The deep sense of antiquity bathing each phrase. . . . The unnecessary fear all non-liturgicals have of being outed by their failure to speak or kneel at the proper times.1

I remember the sermon – mostly because it wasn’t a sermon. Father Tom (the priest) read a short devotional based on the lessons from that day, then opened up the time for conversation or silence. There was plenty of both in the ten-or-so minutes, and when we moved on I felt, well . . . edified. Then we moved to the creeds and the passing of the peace: the on-ramp for the Eucharistic liturgy.2

Most of all I remember the Eucharist.

I haven’t spoken much of this preeminent act of Christian worship and fellowship mostly because I fear to say too much, digressing these posts into inadequate Communion meditations. But the love of this moment has been a subtext in all my faith journey and was a primary reason for my slow yet probably inevitable movement into Anglicanism.

As a child and young adult, I was always drawn to this moment, but always left feeling confused and unfulfilled. Though I couldn’t explain it, this seemed to me the most important piece of our worship, but in experience it was often introduced by men stumbling through half-baked devotions on substitutionary atonement, followed by ushers almost apologetically passing plates of quarter-ounce grape juice shots and Baptist chiclets. Then in Bible college, I began to develop a knowledge of the practice’s history and somewhat of its significance to the Church throughout the ages, but it remained cerebral: a firm belief that this experience was vitally important, but without any experiential validation.

But as I kneeled at the altar rail, holding out my hands in supplication, trusting for once to receive the gifts of Divine Grace rather than taking them as I always had, something changed. The body of Christ, the bread of Heaven, was pressed into my palm and I ate it, somehow tasting Divinity in that unspectacular, dry cracker. Then the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation, was brought to my lips and as the wine travelled down my throat and into an empty stomach, it was as if every fiber of my being was lit with a holy flame. I felt Spirit within me, suffusing my self with a unity and connection I had never before experienced. Everything: the wood of the rail, the pillow under my knees, the flickering flame of the candles, suddenly burst into life, as though I had been living in two dimensions and was unexpectedly assailed by the sheer enormity of volume and mass and the depth and richness of the world.

I stumbled back to my pew and finished the last moments of the service. Tim and I stepped outside and, as we walked toward our favorite pub, I was lost for words.  Contact with the ineffable always breaks the bonds of language.

Grace Episcopal saved my life and faith. It became the unassuming midwife for my transition from the Campus House; holding my failing faith in trust, allowing me to borrow theirs during the peaceful services I attended up until the very week we moved to Missouri. Though the time was short and certainly no one there will remember my name, I owe an incalculable debt of gratitude to Fr. Tom and the beautiful people he continues to minister to in that small building in downtown Muncie.

 

1. This was something I constantly impressed upon my students when we utilized liturgical traditions in our services: everyone gets it wrong . . . and that’s okay, because “getting it right” isn’t the point. I’ve seen Benedictine nuns speak in the wrong moment, priests forget their lines, and life-long church goers forget to kneel.

2. Even as a child I detested our church’s “meet and greet” moment, yet somehow as an adult, this piece (though in a decidedly different context) has become a favorite of my worship experience. Although it’s incredibly awkward to stretch your hand out and realize they were attempting to shake your neighbor’s hand, everyone usually gets to everyone. And the brief opportunity to look in someone’s eye, share even this most formal of touches, and say, “Peace be with you”–and really mean it!–is somehow able to actually bring peace even to my frenzied mind.

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