Beloved Fools

I grew up without symbols in an era whose symbols were the peace sign, the Chevy Camaro, Elvis Presley, and Joe Camel. There was no luminous or transcendent emblem casting a shadow over or set against the horizon of my childhood. My parents were lapsed agnostics, symbol-free atheists who said, “Jesus is for Catholics.” We disapproved of Catholics, those papists, those families-of-too-many-children, those elitists with their parochial schools, those superstitious ninnies.

My parents never took us to church, but my grandparents did. My granddad, an engineer, was a brilliant and kind man who often thought out loud about life and death, Christ, the angels, and God. He talked regularly about Christ’s cry from the cross, awestruck that God abandoned His only son so that Christ, like every human, would know the pain of separation, division, schism, abandonment, forsakenness. I was just a girl, but I paid attention.

A few Sundays, overcome with maternal guilt about her failure to educate us in all things religious, my mother dropped us off at a nearby Methodist church, where we had crackers and grape juice for remembering Jesus. The cups were tiny and plastic, our pews full of children crowded hand to snot-smeared hand, and nothing cried glory; all was linoleum and cheap carpet and I recall wanting to never go back. At my grandmother’s church, though, the windows were tall and wide stained glass with images of this strange Jesus giving bread and fish to people, holding children in his arms, walking on blue-green waves curling as high as his shoulders. The ceiling was very high and white, the windows situated east and west, so that the morning sun radiated through gloriously, casting gems of light everywhere, on hats and hands, old gentlemen’s lapels, the cheeks of babes dreaming on their mothers’ shoulders.

Sunday school was in the basement and it was crowded there, too; but we were given beautiful, new crayons and pictures of Bible scenes to color, and snacks. The minister would pass through, wearing his black robe and crisp white collar, putting a kindly hand on a boy’s shoulder, bending over to catch what a little girl said. His black sleeves billowed and heaved, especially when he preached gospel; that was where the life was.

The Host Heist

Yesterday morning, I read a brief, interesting, and respectful article by my friend Renaissance Guy about an incident in which a small wafer of unleavened, wheaten bread called the “host” or the “Body of Christ,” or the “Blessed Sacrament” was pocketed and taken out of a Catholic student worship center’s celebration of the mass. The kid who took the wafer, Webster Brown, said he wanted to show the host to his non-Catholic friend, but he later posted on a My Space page that he stole the host as an act of political protest. He has said that a church member attacked him (she asked him for the host, and when he refused to give it to her, she grabbed his wrist), and he also claims to have received death threats (but has produced no evidence of them).

All this has caused great furor, argument, and pounding of keyboards among bloggers and other pontificators who seem, for the most part, to think that Webster Cook is a hero and the Catholic church is full of people who are “insane, retarded, and ignorant,”-an example of many similarly contemptuous comments made about Catholics and others who believe that Jesus Christ is bodily present in the Eucharist.

The Sacrament of the Altar

In a culture whose iconic symbols now include rednecks, Wal Mart, and Paris Hilton, it should come as no surprise that ignorance and religious intolerance abound. In the I-Thou equation, we seem to have lost the “Thou.” The most common brilliant arguments I’ve read against Catholics upset that someone took the consecrated bread home with him amount to, “I think your belief is stupid, and I think you’re stupid; therefore you are stupid.”

On one blog, I read the erudite argument that people should question Church authority more often by stealing and defiling more Eucharist. Evidently the commentator had never heard of great upstarts such as Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, whose questioning led to schisms that have lasted until now. And none of them had to resort to stunts like Webster Cook’s. And let’s not forget Jesus, for the teaching that Christ is mystically but actually present in the communion bread and wine arises from the words of Christ Himself, as recorded in all three synoptic gospels in Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22.

I say, let us question Christ Himself, executed by the Romans for claiming to be God, among other sacrileges. “This is my body,” He said, “this is my blood.” It is on these words that the doctrine of the sanctity of the consecrated bread and wine is based. Early Christians seemed to accept Christ’s words literally, too; in 1 Corinthians 17, Saint Paul wrote at length about the Lord’s Supper, stating, “Whoever therefore eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” Paul did not write, “profaning the symbols or emblems of the body and blood of the Lord,” but, “the body and blood of the Lord.” This is basis of the teaching of the ancient Christian church. Many comments I’ve read are from people who don’t seem to know that it was Jesus Christ, not the Roman Catholic Church, who originated the wonky idea that God could bodily inhabit wheaten bread and wine, and that, historically, the Church has for the most part adhered to this teaching.

This Jesus of the mystical bread is the same Jesus who told sinners, “you must be born again,” said of married couples, “the two shall become one,” and told the Pharisees who criticized his disciples for crying out in praise as He entered Jerusalem, “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!” Blasphemer, lunatic, friend of whores and tax agents; who is foolhardy enough to claim the name of Christ today? Only the ignorant and stupid, evidently. Clearly, the intelligent have gone to atheism and value-free living, having cut themselves loose from their ancestral moorings and fixed their jaundiced eyes on shores fairer by their reckoning. And God knows, I don’t disagree: we are all fools, who believe in more than what can be sensibly perceived. Lucky us, having them to take care of us in our follies, for people of faith are the village idiots of this generation.

But if Roman Catholics are ignorant and stupid for their belief that the real and actual presence of Christ is in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, then they are in good company, for Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans, too, believe the same. The great Protester himself, Martin Luther, had this to say about the sacrament:

In the same way I also say and confess that in the sacrament of the altar the true body and blood of Christ are orally eaten and drunk in the bread and wine, even if the priests who distribute them or those who receive them do not believe or otherwise misuse the sacrament. It does not rest on man’s belief or unbelief but on the Word and ordinance of God-unless they first change God’s Word and ordinance and misinterpret them, as the enemies of the sacrament do at the present time. They, indeed, have only bread and wine, for they do not also have the words and instituted ordinance of God but have perverted and changed it according to their own imagination. (2005. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Editor, T. F. L., & Second Edition Editor, W. R. R. Fortress Press).

Methodists believe that Christ is actually present during holy communion, but not merely in the bread and wine; in Calvinist (Reformed) theology, the church itself is transformed into the literal body of Christ, and therefore communion at the Lord’s table is a sacrament. Many Protestants whose traditions arise from Zwingli’s teachings, such as Baptists and other evangelicals, believe that the bread and the wine are symbolic and the Lord’s supper is a mere commemoration of Christ’s offering. They part ways where Luther and Zwingli parted ways, on the very question of Christ’s bodily presence in the Eucharist. Finally, Quakers and a few other small denominations do not believe in communion as a sacrament or as an everlasting ordinance. They do not take communion at all.

god’s own fool

While those on both sides of this debate alternately defame and defend, where is the dialogue that brings understanding or peace? Who can claim to be a pupil of Christ’s when Christ Himself taught, “by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The world watches as so-called believers cannot muster so much as a plastic thimbleful of love for one another, or tolerance for each other’s beliefs that are so deeply held. I do not blame the non-spiritual for their lack of faith or respect for religion when the religious lack so much love.

I am no theologian or apologist, but I know something about my own experience. I’ve felt such deep sadness since reading many of the reactions to Webster Cook’s fateful decision to take the Eucharist away with him, especially the reactions denigrating people who believe, as I do, that there are still sacred objects in this secular world.  This mockery brings me to the very place of my ignorance and my bliss, for if the Church militant and the Church triumphant are ignorant for believing that the divine can be contained in the material world, then so am I.

For all this, I for one must thank young Webster Cook, whose youthful tomfoolery has reminded many of us of what it is we go to church for, and what the Lord’s Supper is about, and what we make of the claims of Jesus Christ. Webster Cook’s folly reminds us to be grateful for living in a country where we may still debate these issues openly and heatedly, but where we may not violently or maliciously defame or deface what is to our fellows precious and sacred. Finally, Webster Cook reminds me of why I willingly accept the label of “insane, retarded, ignorant,” God’s own fool, for

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For [. . .] God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. [. . .] For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Corinthians 1:20-25, NIV)


13 responses

  1. I want to clarify something that Helen said about Protestants.

    There are different views of communion among Protestants, as well as different policies regarding who may take it.

    There are groups that allow only member of their congregation to partake. Then there are groups that allow other members of the same denomination or sub-denomination to partake. Others are open but urge only those people who are Christians to partake, which is what my church does. And then I think there are groups who are completely open to allowing anyone to partake.

    I am happy that in my church visiting Christians of any denomination may join with the members in taking communion. I can also see why some denominations feel it is important to allow only their own members to participate.

  2. Hmmm. I’m still not sure about all this exclusion/inclusion stuff. I certainly haven’t read the Catholic canon or catechism. And I’m not sure I can relate to your positive experience with the eucharistic crumbs! I can appreciate and respect someone’s intense devotion to their religion’s practices, and their desire not to water it down, so to speak, by being overly inclusive. Just as I can appreciate those religions that choose to be inclusive.

    One Catholic service I attended was at a “modern” church, with the embracing of your neighbor, the stations of the cross up on the pastel stucco walls, etc. Somehow I didn’t like it. Maybe I’m attracted to the “old school” churches with votive candles and lots of statues, etc. Even though I know all that isn’t really the important stuff. Which is funny, because in theory the modern one should have felt more welcoming!

    But I can say that even in churches where it is acceptable for “outsiders” to receive communion, as in the Christian Community church services I have attended, it still never felt right for me to participate. I just thought it would be somehow hypocritical or disingenuous of me. But maybe it would have felt right to have something offered after all, as you had in the Orthodox church.

  3. Alida, wow! Your comment surprised me! I’m glad, in a way, that our children haven’t been raised Catholic until now; their first year in school this coming year will also be their first year in Catholic school. They would never dream of eating the communion wafers like crackers; but then I can see how children who are cradle Catholics would be ornery that way.

    What you said in your last paragraph was so well put. I agree that people have made it too serious an incident; the reactions on both sides have surprised me in several ways, which is why I decided to think and feel it through, and write about it (I’m not done yet! hah).

    Yeah, we’re an intolerant people, aren’t we? As if other people’s closely held or passionate beliefs are any threat to us. They’re only threats when people come at us with violence or demand that we believe as they do, and use force of some kind to compel it. That’s a threat. I can only guess that some deeper emotional or psychological reason exists when people take such angry offense against those who disagree.

    My son and I watched the Stephen King movie “The Mist” last night, which depicts a scary fundamentalist Christian lady who believes she is God’s mouthpiece and that the problems the townfolk are having are God’s righteous, wrathful judgment. It’s a creepy movie and I liked it, but especially annoying was this horrible woman. She was a caricature of what any of us can become when fear or something else compels us to hate others who are in fact no threat to us. We threaten ourselves; but when blind to our own dark selves, we have to throw it out “there” on the other and hate in them what we can’t see in ourselves.

    Because of this, I try not to get too worked up even when people tell me I’m a fool for what I believe. I am a fool, but I’m sincere and trying to be intelligent about it. 😉

    Thank you for your comments; it’s good to be reminded that people can be as scary about their child-rearing beliefs as they are about religion and politics. Just. Plain. Scary.

  4. I attended Catholic school from 1st through high school. Funny thing is that I feel so ignorant about our doctrine. I get the gist, but Catholic doctrine or even the bible wasn’t something that was delved into to really discussed. We had our readings at church and that was about it. The doctrine was covered before a sacrament was to be received, so it was very elementary stuff.

    I love all the things that you wrote in this post and am still digesting it:) The pictures of lovely and reminded of so many of the masses that I attended as a child. Such comfort comes from even just looking at stained glass. In the church I grew up in, the stained glass windows were gorgeous and in the afternoon the sun would come through and cast the most intriguing shadows. I could sit in that church forever!

    Now, on to the young man in question. “Tomfoolery” just about sums it all up. Growing up as I did, I knew many a young man and a few young ladies who felt that they needed to prove that they were daring or “bad.”
    Drinking the wine behind the altar. Eating the Eucharistic wafers like they were crackers, before they were served to the congregation, etc.

    When discovered (and they always were, nuns have eyes on the back of their heads…worse than mothers those nuns!) these incidents were dealt with. At the time it always seemed so harsh. A lot of brow-furrowing and whispering to control the anger. (Nothing scarier than an angry nun.) The parents were usually called etc.

    The kids were sometimes considered heroes in our very small school community. (They had angered the priests and nuns and survived!) However with the internet, theses incidents take on new meanings and illicit responses from those who have never matured into respectful and tolerant adults.

    Please understand that I’m not making light of the incident. I think however, that too much credence is given to a young fool and his misguided actions. I find the amount of intolerence in so many areas…religion, politics, even child-rearing, scary and worthy of prayer.

  5. I understand, Helen. I see your point.

    One thought that comforts me is the knowledge that Christ said we all are one. Regardless of how we all look to ourselves or others, we’re one. One body. Was it Paul who said, “Christ is not divided, is he?” The answer is no, he is not. From our human, earthly perspective, yes; but in reality, no. We’re part of one another and so with that divine viewpoint, there is room for all.

    Canon Law is where a lot of the meat of the Catholic church is; the catechism is instructive, too, but it cites Canon Law; that’s where the foundation is, and Canon Law is centuries old interpretation of Scripture itself. It always goes back to Scripture.

    Canon Law actually allows Protestants and those of other faiths to receive communion inside the Catholic Church if certain conditions are met: first, they cannot receive it at their own church from their own pastor; second, they must believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation; otherwise, if they take it in this church as it is intended, based on our doctrine–meaning, without faith,– they will “eat and drink judgment upon themselves.”

    (There are other possible situations in which non-Catholics may take communion in a Catholic church, too, but I’ll leave those out for now.)

    Most people wouldn’t want to be part of someone else’s judgment. If a person doesn’t share faith in a certain doctrine, they really ought to receive communion in a way that kindles their own beliefs, rather than going against their own conscience. I don’t find this divisive or exclusive; it is in my thought respectful of other traditions and belief systems. “Go to your own pastor and to your own church and receive communion there; and come here and worship with us as much as you are able, without hurting your own conscience.” This is a paraphrase of my read of Canon Law on this issue. What I do not read is, “you’re not good enough,” or “get out, you pagan,” or “we know the only true way, and you’re not on it, dummy.” I can see how the appearances might cause a person to misinterpret the situation, though.

  6. Eve, I didn’t mean to come across as closed. I have read the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church from the Vatican website within the past year. I do not think poorly of the Catholic Church (nor the Orthodox). My personal faith is enriched by each of these. I understand that they think they are right in their Eucharistic practices. But so do Protestants who sometimes criticize Catholics by portraying them in untrue ways. If the church is ever to be one, someone has to give. I would rather err by inclusion than exclusion.

  7. Helen, you disagree totally with what? I’m not sure what you’re disagreeing about.

    I’ve been studying these issues for about 10 years now. It’s complicated and, as I wrote, I’m no apologist. If we were face-to-face and had the time, I could explain why the Catholic church does what it does, and based on Scripture; it’s sensible and Biblical, and I think you would be surprised at their reasons, even if you continued to disagree.

    It pains me to see you characterize these churches as “those who continue to insist on keeping wounds bare.” You do not know what these churches are doing. I know something about it, but this is not the place or time for it; but it is not wound baring that they are doing; it is wound healing and refusal to take lightly the teachings of Christ and the apostles. There is a train of thought, doctrine, and practice around this that reach all the way back to Christ and Moses here, and it’s not something that I am able to lay out in a few paragraphs.

    If you really wanted to understand, Helen, you could read about it. It would take some time, lots of time; probably you don’t have that kind of time and your mind is made up, and that’s the way it is going to be; this is what I get from your tone. Though I hate to send you off judging others as you have above, I’m going to do it because (once again) I’m no apologist. But I would not belong to a church whose doctrine was contrary to what I can read and understand for myself in the Bible. That’s my Protestant streak, and so that’s all I have to say about that.

    I didn’t post this to argue with people or as an apology for my own faith or for the Catholic church. I posted it because it’s on my mind and because some people don’t seem to know their history (no surprise there, thank you, American education system).

    1 Cor 12:4-7
    Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. And there are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

    Helen, regardless of where human beings are, where they worship, or what they believe, if they love others, it is enough. God is love, so wherever love is, God is. When the Orthodox or Catholic churches refuse communion to others, they are doing it in the most loving way–that’s their doctrinal intention; you don’t know that, because you don’t read their doctrines. I do and have, and I’ve spent considerable time among Catholics and Orthodox and count priests among my friends. There are reasons for their faith and actions, explainable ones. You can discover them as I did, if you want to. But you’ll have no desire to discover them if your mind is already made up.

    As Paul wrote, there are varieties of gifts among all of us; not every place of worship suits every person. Atheists exist in their place in the universe, showing the other side of what is by showing what is not; I think there is boundless love in the universe and what you or others believe with their whole hearts is not a problem for me. I strongly agree with your right to believe as you will; and I’m sorry that you think so poorly of my own particular variety of Christian practice. I’m really sorry to read it; but I continue to manifest the Spirit of God in my own peculiar and, evidently, shabby and ignorant way, because that’s the best I can do.

    As I said in my post, I am a fool.

  8. I totally disagree, Eve. I have friends who are both Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox and have attended services at both churches. I. too, as a Protestant was unable to receive the Eucharist. And never would I go to church where I am unknown and just take it, which could, of course, easily be done. But it is wrong.

    At Protestant churches, we have “open communion,” which means any Christian may receive it. Catholics and Orthodox Christians choose not to, because it is considered symbolic in some churches and because it is not properly blessed by a priest in others; thus, transubstantiation does not occur; it remains grape juice and crackers.

    One difference in these situations is that it is the individual visitor who makes the decision in the Protestant church and the church who makes the decision for him/her in the other. While I would be quite comfortable receiving the Eucharist in Catholic or Orthodox churches, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of joining one, because if I did, I would then be personally guilty of joining a group whose exclusion is offensive to me.

    It is the inclusion (of all Christians) that is more important to me than how the Communion is seen by the members of that church, because I imagine, in reality, that those differences are more important to the leaders than to the man or woman in the pew.

    We know the church should not be fractured. And I am not grateful to those who continue to insist on keeping wounds bare.

  9. Heni, the Catholic church doesn’t do a very good job of explaining this, but one is not supposed to take communion at the Catholic church if one isn’t Catholic, anyway. The Catholic church receives Orthodox completely and will serve communion to them, but it doesn’t work the other way around; Orthodox Christians will not allow Roman Catholics to receive communion in their churches (yet; they’ve been talking this through for years now).

    I went to a service at a nearby Greek Orthodox church some years ago with my friend. It was (of course) entirely in Greek. When they came to serving communion, everyone but my friend and I went forward to receive communion. They use bread–real pieces of bread, not wheaten wafers like the Catholics–chunks of blessed, consecrated bread.

    After communion, the priest gathered up all the bread and put it in a basket; he then turned directly to us and recounted the scene from the New Testament when a Gentile woman asked Jesus to heal her, and he said something to the effect of having come to heal Israel. She replied, “But Lord, even the dogs get the crumbs from the table.”

    The priest turned to us and offered the leftover bread (the crumbs!) to us, repeating this very phrase, “Even the dogs receive crumbs from the table.” My friend and I began to cry, because indeed we are Gentiles, outsiders, a wild shoot grafted into the body; at that moment we could see that, historically anyway, we were descended from barbarians and pagans who worshiped trees and rocks, while Israel had a systematized worship of the One True God; we were, in fact, not native daughters to the Christian faith.

    On another level, we talked later about how, being human, we had that estranged, dark, separated part; and that animalistic, instinctual dog-like part that, in fact, should be given crumbs and leftovers. For some reason, that moment of receiving the crumbs, after the elect had partaken fully at the head table, was one of the most satisfyingly, holy, humbling moments of my life. I felt so grateful. I felt so human and so loved; paradoxical, I know. Why would a person feel loved after being told, “Here, take these leftovers, that is all you’re allowed”? But that’s how we both felt. It took us about 30 minutes to compose ourselves that day; I remember kneeling there and just weeping.

    Later the priest looked at us with some concern after greeting us. Our mascara had run down our blotchy faces. We just thanked him, shaking his hand.

    Maybe another person would have been offended by their refusal to give us the first, best, real communion with everyone else. Was I not a believer? Did I not call Christ “Lord”? Wasn’t I baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? What right did they have to call us dogs, in so many words?

    I considered they had every right; I was in their house of worship, not the other way around. This was their ancient tradition, not mine. I’ve had similarly enlarging, luminous experiences in a Buddhist temple and a Jewish synagogue, where I’ve eaten several Passover meals over the years, and every time I leave feeling so grateful for other traditions, and for people who have welcomed me into their house of worship.

  10. Well, it is a free country, as we like to say, and thank God for that.

    But…freedom does not equate with the right to trample and hurt other people. I don’t recall Jesus ever defiling the Temple by, say, bringing in some bacon in his pocket, even if he thought Jewish dietary laws weren’t important.

    There was a case around here last year of a kosher butcher being found to not really be keeping kosher. I remember being horrified–all those people believing they were following their God’s laws, and all along they were really defiling their homes and bodies. It made me feel sick, and I don’t even keep kosher.

    I just don’t get why people have to bash other people’s beliefs. Like what someone else believes and practices has anything whatsoever to do with me! Like the belief in transubstantiation, or immaculate conception, or transmutation of souls, or kashrut, or any of it in any way diminishes me!

    Stealing or defiling the eucharist does not “question Church authority.” Perhaps taking a wafer to show a curious friend was misguided; I could see someone making an error in judgment like that. But to then turn it into a “political protest,” to get into a physical altercation about it, or to encourage defiling the host is beyond the pale. Then it’s a conscious decision to be disrespectful.

    As Renaissance Guy mentioned in his post, there are two important social conventions called tolerance and respect. Maybe I’m a closet libertarian, but as long as what you do in worship doesn’t involve hurting others, then props to you for your faith. I might not participate (I’ve been to mass before, but have never taken the host as I felt it would be wrong of me, somehow disrespectful, to participate without true belief in the eucharist), but I certainly wouldn’t desecrate or disparage the practices.

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