This is an ever-so-slightly revised and edited version of a church talk I gave in 2009; I recently stumbled across it in my cluttered email inbox and felt the urge to share. Hat tip to a post at BCC (I think by Kevin Barney) that started me on this train of thought.
Let’s start with something about me: I have been a church-attending Mormon all my life. let’s calculate, for a minute, what that means, besides a closet full of skirts and a knowledge of all the verses to “I Believe in Christ”: I have taken the sacrament to renew my baptismal covenants approximately 782 times–17 years since my baptism, at 46 Sundays a year. (52, minus two Sundays for General Conference and two for stake conferences and two more for vacation Sundays or simply arriving at church late. I didn’t say I’ve been a perfectly church-attending Mormon all my life!) That, my friends, is a lot of times to do something and still not quite understand or enjoy it.
I mean, I know all the Sunday School answers about the sacrament–I have, after all, attended Primary, seminary, and Sunday School far more than just 782 times–and I’m sure I don’t have to rehearse them for you all here: the sacrament is about remembering Jesus, taking His name, and renewing our baptismal covenants. I know the symbolism of the bread, the symbolism of the water, the symbolism of the white cloth; I know the prayers–heck, I know them in several languages–and most of all, I know what I’m supposed to do: sit quietly and think of Christ. Yet this whole experience, more often than not, is a mystery for me, as great as the mystery of the Atonement itself.
Frankly, brothers and sisters, if this sounds like an empty recitation of facts about the sacrament rather than a heartfelt account of the most holy experience of each of those 782 weeks, it is. I don’t want to trivialize this: I know the sacrament is the most holy part of our meetings, and I believe that, really, but in my practical experience, it’s more often mundane, lacking those moments of real remembrance and communion that I crave; I am more likely, I think, to find those moments off by myself in some unexpected holy place–by a creek on a mountainside, in a Byzantine church, or even just kneeling on the hard wood floors of my apartment, to name some memorable moments of communion with the divine in my life–than in the ever-so-familiar holy places of our chapels, carpeted walls and all.
This is my fault, I know, and I could list any number of reasons for that, but let me, for a minute, focus on the main one: solitude. Being somewhat of an introvert, my most important, or at least most memorable, spiritual experiences have been when I’m alone, fully solitary and therefore fully able to commune with God, to the extent that solitude is almost a necessary condition to satisfactory spirituality. I’m certainly not alone in this: the historical Christian tradition contains plenty of hermits, Harold Bloom analyzes American religions as being partly characterized by “total inward solitude” and the belief in salvation as an individual one-on-one confrontation, and Joseph Smith, of course, also “retired to the woods” and “found himself alone” for that all-important First Vision.
So I hope it’s clear that I don’t wish to downplay the virtues of solitude in the pursuit of the religion, and I certainly don’t wish to suggest that the taking of the sacrament is not an individual act as necessary for salvation, as Brigham Young said, as any other ordinances or commandments instituted for us. Yet, virtues of solitude and all, the fact is that, prototypically, we aren’t alone when we take the sacrament. Part of this may be pragmatic–we simply can’t administer the sacrament, on a large scale, in total solitude for each individual–but note, please, that none of our other important ordinances are accomplished alone: baptism requires witnesses. The temple endowments are done in groups. And temple sealings, of course, require a family unit. I would like to suggest, here, that this goes deeper than just pragmatics, and in fact is part of the symbolism of the sacrament: we take a piece of Jesus’ body and blood, and then what do we do, after this holy moment? We pass it on.
This symbolic aspect of the sacrament has only struck me recently: we don’t all come up to a priest to partake individually, but instead pass it among ourselves, in a true fellowship of saints. It’s a simple heartfelt act of service as everyone passes it to everyone– children to parents, wives to husbands, friends to friends–and in this shared partaking of the sacrament we mark ourselves as members of a community, as brothers and sisters in fellowship, as joint members of the body of Christ.
And this community and the relationships within it, I think, is as key to our practice of true religion as our individual relationships with God; “pure religion,” as the scriptures say, is not just praying and talking alone with God and nurturing a relationship with Him (though that’s great), but visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and pure sacrament-taking is not just eating the bread and thinking about Jesus (though that’s great), but taking action to share the bread with the person next to you so they can do the same. This simple action, after all, is as much a part of our baptismal covenants as Jesus’ sacrifice, and they focus around our interactions with other people as much as they focus around our interactions with God: we bear one another’s burdens, are willing to mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort.
This principle, I think, is one of the strengths of Mormonism as an organized religion, though also one of its hardest aspects: it’s easy to say that we’re willing to mourn with those that mourn, but it’s hard, sometimes, to get out there for seemingly endless home or visiting teaching visits, to respond to every single call for moving help, to be constantly ready to drop everything and serve, to forget ourselves and go to work, but this is an essential way we show the love we have for God. Furthermore, this tension in our religious lives between our solitary pursuit of holy moments and our social existence as members of a community is, I think, absolutely necessary to our own growth and development towards perfection. It’s no coincidence that Jesus organized a church: he himself, though he spent time alone in the pursuit of a relationship with his father, spent at least as much time putting his perfection in practice with others, sermonizing, serving, and socializing. To borrow an analogy from Eugene England, one of my favorite Mormon thinkers, we need a community because that is the laboratory in which we practice the science of our beliefs. To quote from his wonderful essay, “Why the church is as true as the gospel,”:
“I know God has been found by unusual people in unusual places–in a sudden vision in a grove or orchard or grotto, or on a mountain or in a closet, or through saintly service to African lepers or Calcutta untouchables. But I am convinced that for most of us, and most of the time, he can be found most surely in the “natural sequence to the performance” of the duties He has given us that all of us (not just the unusual) can perform in our own homes and neighborhoods–and that the Church, in its unique community, imposed as well as chosen, can best teach and empower us to perform.”
And so lately, as I take the sacrament and try to remember my baptismal covenants, I try to think of the people around me, how I can best love them and serve them and build meaningful relationships with them. And indeed, when I remember my own baptism, I remember the other people there as much as I remember the bright-and-shiny clean feeling: my mom’s smile upon seeing me rise from the water, the family picnic afterwards. And it’s this sociality in the community of believers that makes new convert baptisms one of my favorite church activities. In a way, the passing of the sacrament is a small symbolic microcosm of the principle of a Zion community, one heart and mind, serving each other, and so as I watched the sacrament being passed in this huge crowd today, I brought myself to one of my favorite tenets of Mormonism, that of human relationships beyond the grave and into the eternities, the promises made in D&C 130:2, that “that same sociality, which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.” I look forward to that eternal glory, and I pray, as we take the sacrament now and in the future, that we may feel ourselves to be no more strangers to God or to each other.