October 7, 2007
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Yes, we are one! And what we share together, our common bond, is our covenant of love mutual support and encouragement in the ways of truth and spirit. We are one and would be reminded of our interconnectedness and interdependence with all that is. Oh, indeed we are one. Last month when we invited the evolutionary evangelists Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd to come into our space and talk with us about the Great Story, the Epic of Evolution as Sacred Text, we heard them telling us a message that resonated deeply in the beliefs and understanding of many among us. It was a story of interconnectedness and interdependence. They spoke of how life is structured in a series of nested creativities. They spoke of the scientific process as a public revelation of truth and how science supports this understanding of the interconnectedness of life. We are made of dust and dreams as scripture and poets tell us; star stuff pondering the stars – and science agrees. We are all made of the same stuff. We are one. Each level of creation is itself creative and therefore, to use the language of religion, is saturated with God. But what does that have to do with Communion?
Well, for me it starts with a John Travolta movie I saw ten years ago. The movie is called Phenomenon and it is about this small-town average guy, George Malley. The story begins with George standing outside of the bar one night and seeing a bright light coming at him from the sky. It gets brighter and closer until, with a final flare, he falls over onto his back. When George Malley comes to he discovers he has an increasing capacity to understand things. Reminiscent of the book, Flowers for Algernon, this phenomenon that Travolta’s character experiences causes him to continually grow smarter. It was not the most amazing movie ever, but it does break away from the formulaic patterns we usually see on the screen – and for that it is worth watching.
The primary way the movie shows that he is smarter is not that the character can recite the names of the US presidents in order backwards and forwards. It was not trivia or a mass of information that demonstrated his new level of intelligence – although he did have that. Instead it was his ability to see connections, to have clarity about how things can fit together or flow better or connect. Following his bizarre experience he starts winning at chess, learning new languages, and showing the postal worker how to travel her route more efficiently. In one scene he starts talking about a piece of trivia, “what is the largest organism in the world,” but he does it not to prove that he knows this piece of trivia. The point he tries to make with it about our connectedness.
What is the largest organism? Most people would not bat an eye if given the answer “Blue Whale.” However, the Blue Whale is really the largest animal, not the largest organism. Usually people next go to the single stem great trees such as a Giant Sequoia like “General Sherman” or a Coastal Redwood for the answer. However, there are three contenders for Largest Organism, depending on how you end up defining it, that are usually not considered. I’m not talking about something like the Great Barrier Reef because that is more properly termed a “superorganism,” a colony of unique creatures. If we let that definition stand then the whole biosphere of Earth would count (if not the entire Universe.)
The largest organism is a grove of Aspen trees, at least that was the agreement ten years ago when this movie came out. Aspen trees grow from a single tree, or parent tree, spreading its root system out and sending up a new genetically identical tree. The trunk of an Aspen tree is technically a stem! A grove of Aspen trees is connected by a single root system and is all one single organism. The largest known grove of fully connected Aspen is in Utah. When an event happens at one end of the grove, say a fire, the trees at the other end of the grove also respond. It is a single interconnected entity. In the movie, Travolta’s character mentions the Aspen grove to make a larger point.
Now, that was ten years ago, and to finish the point of information about the largest organism, I must let you know that new discoveries show that the Aspen grove is dwarfed by volume and mass when compared with either the Posidonia oceanica or the Armillaria ostoyae. The former is an 8 km marine plant in the Mediterranean Sea while the latter is commonly known as the Honey Mushroom. Of those two, the Honey Mushroom gets most of the attention. This particular fungus found in Oregon covers nearly 9 square km, which is almost 20 times larger than the Aspen grove in Utah. These thousands of little genetically identical mushrooms are really one mushroom which is completely connected underground and has expanded over hundreds of years from a single spore.
The fascinating aspect of the debate is that this involves organisms that look like many different individuals but are really a single interconnected one. That was the character’s point in the movie Phenomenon. The trees or mushrooms seem to be independent but underneath, and in a very real way, they were all connected, they are one. George Malley tried to tell people in the movie that we’re like that too. Humanity is not a single organism connected by our toes or something. Instead, we are an interdependent, interconnected system of organisms. So much of the connection is hidden, metaphorically underground. Or, as Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow expressed as part of the Great Story, we are made of the same basic stuff, and are scientifically interconnected in ways we had not imagined before except through mythic understandings. We are one.
You are perhaps still wondering when this will begin to connect with Communion. Or perhaps you can see where this is heading. There is another scene from the movie I want to tell you about. Near the end of the movie it is discovered that the main character is going to die and he runs away from the hospital to be with the woman he loves and her two kids. George Malley is sitting at back fence with the two kids who are angry because they’ve just realized that he going to be leaving them. He looks at the apple in his hand and says, “We could put this apple down on the ground and in a few days it would spoil and go back into the earth. Or we could each take a bite of it and it would be a part of us forever.” Then he takes a bite and the kids each take a bite too. And Travolta’s character says, “Every thing is on its way to somewhere.” As I was watching that scene ten years ago my jaw dropped open and I said to my wife sitting next to me on the sofa, “They just took communion!”
I grew up Unitarian Universalist. My first memorable experiences of taking Communion were in Seminary, which as it happens is right around the time I saw this movie. My first two years of theological education were at a Methodist Seminary in Ohio where they were very welcoming and encouraging of my participation. So I never had personal negative attachments to this ritual of Communion, or the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper as it is variously known. I understand that some Unitarian Universalists have rejected the Communion ritual along with other Christian beliefs when they left a Christian background. Communion felt like an empty ritual, a nonsensical enactment that smacked of human sacrifice and cannibalism. The open Christian community I found at the Methodist seminary evoked nothing of that in me.
My first experiences were of wonder and community and acceptance. At first I refused to take communion with them. I would come to the Wednesday afternoon services but would remain seated during that part of the service. Finally after several friends invited me, one of the professors sat down next to me after the service and asked me why I didn’t take communion. I said, “I don’t want to be disrespectful. This can never mean for me what I see it meaning for the rest of the people here.” My professor smiled and said, “You’d be surprised by the number of interpretations gathered at the communion table. Please don’t stay away on that account.” Little did I know my professor was articulating an early Universalist understanding of the Communion meal almost word for word; although I’m not surprised. Universalist ideas ware rampant on that campus.
The Universalists and the Unitarians have, over decades, had many differing understandings of Communion. As I’m sure is no surprise, the Universalists adamantly insisted that the sacrament was to be open to everyone – no one would be turned away from the table. This, at the time, was shocking. They also insisted that there did not need to be one single understanding of what is going on or one form by which Communion was to be administered. Communion had long been fertile ground for theological disagreements, and the Universalists outlined agreements that allowed for their disagreements among themselves.
The Protestant reformation circled around issues or power and authority, but one important battle field was regularly the sacrament of Communion. Luther and Zwingli and Calvin all debated about just what was happening in the event, how it should or shouldn’t be administered, and what frame of mind was necessary for the event. They hung significant theological arguments on Communion. Meanwhile the Unitarians and the Universalists were poking at bigger theological fish such as the doctrines of salvation, the Godhead, and the person and function of Jesus.
As I mentioned earlier, the Universalists never did develop a big problem over Communion. The Unitarians, on the other hand, did. Obviously they had taken some significant theological stances in terms of Jesus and God that had implications on the sacrament of Communion. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s perspective was particularly pertinent. Indeed, the issue over which Emerson left the Unitarian ministry was Communion. He could not find a compelling reason in scripture to assume Jesus intended his simple farewell meal to be commemorated in perpetuity. I have said before that Emerson’s argument was not that the idea of Communion assumed too much, but that is assumed too little. More to the point he said we should not limit communion to bread and wine when all of life is communion in every moment if we will but be aware of it.
Over time many Unitarian congregations have come to agree with Emerson. And by the mid-1900’s Universalist congregations were letting the practice of Communion faded as well. At merger only a handful of Unitarian Universalist congregations maintained the ritual on anything other than a very occasional basis if at all. Von Ogden Vogt is quoted in Carl Seaberg’s collection The Communion Book saying:
In the free churches the Communion Service, so far as it is retained, is interpreted as an act of commemoration and of consecration, exemplifying the power of sacrificial love and the triumph of good over evil, and as a symbol of the spiritual unity of the household of faith and of the continuity of the life of the spirit in all ages.
The Binghamton Universalists dedicated this building in the fall of 1958, and at that time they felt it necessary to include pews with those little holes in them to fit the small communion cups. Communion must have been a common enough event in the life of this congregation fifty years ago that our pews are designed to accommodate it. These days, we hold such a service once a year. I’ve been doing a Maundy Thursday Communion service since I came, and Rev. Marcel Duhamel did the same all the years he served this congregation.
I make a point of connecting the service to its historic roots; but I also work to stretch the service to be an authentic rendering of our modern understanding. During the Affirmation section I briefly tell of the meaning of the Passover Seder. Some believe the meal Jesus shared with his disciples was a Passover meal. There are compelling arguments against this perception, but I tell it this way because it points to the continuity of the shared meal from Jewish roots through Christian development and into Unitarian Universalist understanding. I go on to say how Unitarian Universalists see the world as an interdependent web, how the bread and juice are more than symbolically a way to remember our connection to that which sustains us, they are the same stuff as us.
As you take food and drink into yourself, the food and the drink become a part of you, and you become part of the food and drink. As we share the meal, we also share of each other. You become the bread, you become the juice. You become your neighbor, and shall love your neighbor as yourself. We become one with the poor and the disempowered; we become one with the suffering and the promise. We become one with tall who share food together, and we become one with all who have none. We become one with the trees and the hills and the vines and the fields. And we become one with our God. We are one.
Our communion service is a reminder that all of life is communion, that we share our basic connection with all of life. We use the particular elements of bread and juice, though ultimately it could be anything. It is the sharing and the intention that matters most. That is why our annual ingathering service with the water is a Water Communion and in the spring we traditionally do a Flower Communion. Both services have all the necessary elements for communion, but do not use bread and wine. Food, however, is significantly suited for this. Why? Think for a moment. At what point does the food you eat cease to be ‘food’ and suddenly become you? Is it when the food enters your mouth? Or perhaps somewhere along the way when parts of the bread and juice are being broken down and absorbed into the blood steam? Is it you then, and no longer something else? What about your breath? At what point does the air cease to be the wind coming into you and become your breath and the molecules circulating around your body?
We sometimes use the phrase ‘communing with nature’ to describe an intentional way of walking in the woods. When are we not communing in some way with the universe? Where does the universe stop and you begin? Communion is a powerful ritual reminding us that some boundaries defining the self are traversed on a regular basis; and perhaps we can be mindful and intentional about what we bring in to ourselves and send back out.
Is Communion necessary or sufficient? Of course not, what ritual is? Rituals serve to point beyond themselves to some essential quality of reality. They are not, in themselves that reality. So why bother? We need the intentional particulars of time and place to point us toward the qualities that transcend time and space. What better ritual than the communal sharing of a simple meal that invokes the historical roots or our faith and the scientific truths of our time while intentionally recognizing our interconnectedness and interdependence with the universe that gives us birth. If not Communion for you, then what do you do? Something with intention and with others – that would meet the general effect. We need the variety of particularity to help us see our essential unity. We are one.
In a world without end,
May it be so.