We’re in the last two weeks of the semester, when the tension over papers and projects due comes on us in earnest. The greetings and responses we give as we pass each other in the hall bear the same themes: anxiety, commiseration, encouragement. Sometimes we stop and tick off the list of our projects for each other: “Two long papers, one shorter paper, and a final.” It is a way of relieving anxiety, at least for a moment: if we are all similarly burdened, it must be because what we have been assigned is in the realm of the possible, and we will get through it, right? Somehow?
In the middle of my own anxiety this week, a memory came to me unbidden from my internship last year at a local church. I was assisting my field instructor in serving communion. A line of parishioners gathered at the altar rail. As I stood before each individual, citing the words, “Take and drink from the cup of life,” I was struck by the vulnerability in their raised faces, expressions of solemnity and tenderness, expressions that seemed universal in this moment, common to all.
My readings in Constructive Theology for the next day were on the sacraments – I didn’t know that was the topic; I was writing a paper and waited until the last minute, I admit, to read them -- so my remembrance of the communion service the day before seemed apt. Eucharist theology usually centers on the ways that the bread and wine are transformed during the sacrament (or not). But what happens to us during the sacrament, I wonder? What was the beauty that came into each face as the parishioners waited by the altar rail? And how can we give life to that expression beyond this moment?
My sentiments toward our common humanity are not always so charitable. Earlier in the week I was reading the news, which often turns out to be a day’s tally of our common inhumanity. At the same time, I was musing over thoughts for a theological paper which has, as its purpose, a scope I think of in the words of the Dishwalla song: “Tell me all your thoughts on God, and tell me am I very far.” The litany of destructive human behavior in the news collided with my own thoughts on God and I blurted out the words: “Really? God just loves everybody?” My partner, who is used to sudden bursts of theology on my part, answered, “No.” (This is why he is a good foil for my musings.) “Well, I can’t believe it at the moment,” I said, “Regardless of how much we talk about God as love at seminary.”
Lest I am misunderstood, we don’t, as a rule, spend our class time simply talking about God as love. If we did, these papers I’m struggling to write would be done in a snap. But I think that, as a rule, we do believe it. How does belief become action? How does bread become a body? How can love overcome the merciless marks of our destruction in the world?
What was the beauty that came into each face?
I may try to answer that question in my paper. Or, I may not be able to answer it. Not yet; maybe not ever. I have seen it, is all I can say. Even if we don’t know how to say what it is, we can make spaces for it to happen in the world. In our Worship class, we are learning how to create such spaces, and for a chapel service planned with my small group in the class we chose a theme of centering, rest and silence for this last rush of the semester. What could be more incongruous? But the space worked, at least for a time; I saw expressions of calm in the faces of those around me.
And now, I must write, and fast. I have one long paper due, one shorter paper, a reflection, and a project. We will get through it, right? I thought so.
- Kathryn Price, MDiv student