Friday, May 4, 2012

Taking Communion

A major difference between Eastern and Western spirituality is in the way the various traditions regard the immanence or transcendence of the Divine.   The East tends toward immanence and the West toward transcendence.  The Hindu, Buddhist or Taoist can find the Divine within; the Jew, Christian or Moslem is not so comfortable with that idea.

Communion is only possible if the divine is immanent.  So how can a religion that insists on the transcendence of the Divine, as Christianity does, enter into communion?  Holy Communion, at least as it is celebrated in the Catholic Church, provides an interesting solution to this.  It brings the Divine into space/time through the “miracle” of transubstantiation; and then we actually bring the Divine into our being through the partaking of the transformed bread and wine.  We get a momentary immanence, and thus communion is possible.

But what of this momentariness?  How long does the Divine stay within after communion?   Until the bread and wine dissolve?* There are many fascinating things to think about in this.  Christianity overcomes the distance from God that it inherited from its parent religion, Judaism.   But by being a temporary immanance, it maintains the fundamental idea of a transcendent God.  Perhaps more sinister, the priest are given control of access to the Divine (you get your five minutes of the Divine and if you want more, come back tomorrow, and don’t forget to pay on your way out!). 

To the best of my knowledge, no one answers the question above about how long the Divine stays.  It would seem that if we can bring the Divine into our life for a minute, we could bring it there for an hour, a day, a lifetime.  Why should the materiality of the bread and wine matter?  Yet the carefully crafted theology of communion makes it matter.  There is definitely the assumption that the divine immanence presented by communion is ephemeral. 

The Catholic communion is tied to another sacrifice, confession.  One must make oneself worthy of the Divine.  I believe that “communion” in some sense or another is a goal or the goal of all spirituality and that it is always tied to some preparation, some making of ourselves worthy or prepared.

Many today find communion with the natural world; a long trek through the wilderness prepares us.  Many find it in erotic love; the preparation is the attention each partner pays to the other.  Some take peyote, which has its own ritual preparation.   For some of us communion is also known as Satori, Samadhi, Nirvana, Immersion in the Tao; the preparation is long years of study and meditation. 

To its credit, the Catholic sacrament of communion is wonderfully easy, available, and right for many people.  I suspect most people only want a few minutes of the Divine per day, or even per week – a few minutes of being pure and humble, before going back to the ordinary preoccupations. 

Some of us are a little greedier.

·         * (I started asking questions like this early in life, and I got slapped around by the nuns a lot because of it.)

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