For as long as I can remember Communion has fascinated me. I think it all goes back to when I was about three and a half years old.
When I was very young, we were members of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church way out River Road in Richmond, Virginia. Though it has become a large church in the many intervening years, at the time it was still recognizable as an old mission church—a small 1870s white church-house with deep stained wooden pews. My memories of St. Mary’s are hazy—we left to join St. James’s when I was six—though several impressions are carved deep within me. Those memories include my grandfather’s booming and endearingly off-key hymn-singing voice and bright Spring-time morning light, framed by the windows, illuminating sparks of dust.
One Sunday I walked up to the front with my parents for communion. As a small child, I should have stood when I reached the railing, but I kneeled and found myself looking through the balustrade at the gray pants legs of the gray-haired minister, Holt Sauder. I was embarrassed and confused to hear the congregation laughing—they found this entertaining. I did not. Reverend Souder did not laugh, but instead he kneeled and gave me the bread and the wine under the rail. His face was somehow both serious and kind—he met me where I was. I think this is a perfect example of Grace and of the meaning of communion.
Communion always includes the idea of a coming together. Most formally and seemingly most relevant to a chapel service like this one, it can refer to the Rite of Communion where bread and wine are consecrated and shared. A communion is also, however, a coming together in what might appear to be a more secular sense—a reunion between friends, a shared meal welcoming someone new to town. It is my contention, and certainly my belief as relevant to the work a faculty does in a school within the Episcopal Tradition, that no such communion is purely secular. A few examples might illustrate my point:
During my 25th college reunion a couple of years ago, I found myself renewing my admiration for many of my classmates. I noted how many of them were living lives of engagement and contribution, how many were selfless leaders in their communities. I noted how many were the friends you want to have in the moments of triumph and of defeat that inevitably mark the calendars of our lives. I also noted how the connection we have maintained over the years has a sustaining purpose. Staying in touch, staying connected can seem somewhat trite, but it is indeed anything but trite. Our connection to others, our communion with them makes our lives meaningful, makes our struggles a bit more manageable, and these connections reveal the purposefulness that should underpin our striving for academic or professional achievement. Becoming educated inherently includes the demand that we learn not to see ourselves as living in a vacuum, but rather that we see ourselves as inextricably linked to one another. Our coming back together after so many years was an expression of our indestructible linkage. It was its own kind of powerful communion.
This last Saturday night, my wife Katie and I were invited to the home of a St. George’s family. There were several other couples there as well, and they seemed to know each other well. They were already neighbors. They shared a familiar and easy sense of humor. Now an event like this could have made the new couple—the new head of school and his wife—feel like a curiosity, a topic to be investigated. However, instead it was a moment for us to feel welcomed, remade from stranger to neighbor. They were generous in their sharing, and as a result we didn’t just chat and eat together—we broke bread together. They too reached through the balustrade to us.
There is a story I tell too often about advice I received from a colleague on the eve of my first day teaching. I was just barely 23, I looked like a strangely tall 12 year old, and I was appropriately nervous about the challenge ahead. I was going to be teaching primarily seventh grade English, and I had a full slate of other coaching and extracurricular responsibilities as well. To me this colleague was the omniscient veteran though he was probably only really 25 or 26. This is what he told me—at least it is close: “Listen man, you are going to be great at this because this is all you really need to know…no one likes seventh graders. Their parents don’t like them. Their friends don’t like them. They do not like themselves. If you are the guy, if you are that person who likes them, who let’s them know everyday that you like them and that you happily choose to be with them, they will rise to all the challenges you set for them.” That moment is interesting to me because he was reaching through the balustrade to me—I needed all the help I could get, AND he was sharing the essence of what is necessary for a teacher to reach through the balustrade to students. It sounded like a secret, like a strategy for effective teaching but it was really about much more—it was about communion, and it was about grace. He was telling me to welcome my students, to accept them as they were. I believe he was asking me to love them. And by the way, though I am imperfect in remembering it when I should, his advice is relevant to all people, not just seventh graders.
In the summer of 2014, my wife, Katie, daughter, Eleanor, and I travelled to Northern Italy for several weeks in order for Katie to complete research on a remarkable place called, the Sacro Monte Di Orta—or the Sacred Mountain of Orta, a Renaissance era pilgrimage site where twenty chapels are dedicated to St. Francis. My wife, Katie, along with a couple of colleagues, is writing a book about this beautiful place set atop a small peninsula on Lake Orta, which sits at the mouth of the Ossola Valley not far from Switzerland. My job was to provide photographs for the book, so I spent many days shooting inside these captivating, dimly lit sacred spaces. Over our time there I realized that I was being given a rare glimpse into another time and place.
Created over the course of almost two centuries, each chapel features a different scene from St. Francis’s life. While the walls are rich with remarkable frescoes, the scenes in the foreground draw the most attention as each is made up of life-size and often unbelievably realistic terracotta figures acting out the most dramatic moments of Francis’s biography. In order to get the photographs required for the project, I spent a great deal of time crawling, edging and tip-toeing under, beside and between these figures, many of which are well-over 400 years old, and I began to wonder about the people who must have been the models for this array of figures. For the most part, they were not idealized figures. They were the real community of man—some on crutches, others had goiters, some wealthy and beautiful, some clearly destitute, others apparently corrupt and even conniving. They are an intentionally imperfect mix, and so are we, and so is any congregation headed to any communion. St. Francis, as depicted in the chapels, was trying to live a life imitatio cristi, in imitation of Christ, and through his example he called for others to do the same. The Francis of the Sacro Monte di Orta Chapels is one who is reaching through the balustrade as well.
The gifts of communion referenced as “The gifts of God for the people of God” are not just the bread and the wine, the body and the blood, but they are also the invitation to come to the table and the grace to welcome us to it.
So my wish this year is that we think of our interactions with children, our students, as acts of communion, and that we keep in mind that our most important work involves reaching through the balustrade to love and to accept all those remarkable, not yet fully made young people who have come up the aisle or down the hall to our classrooms.