By Chels Knorr
Blue carpet paves the way to the pew where we always sit, four rows back on the left. My younger brother and I are 5 and 9, too old to bring toys to church, so we draw on the bulletins or tear them to fold into rumpled origami creations, and try to sit still. It is communion Sabbath, a practice Adventists observe four times a year. This means mid-service, silver trays of fluted single-ounce cups filled with grape juice and unleavened crackers are passed up and down each row. The congregation is quiet as the organist fumbles through a familiar hymn.
Before I can participate in communion, Mom says I must understand it, I must wait until I’m ready. I know the grape juice symbolizes the blood and the bread symbolizes the body and I am definitely ready to stop sitting quietly and snackless in the pew next to my brother. I ask and she says I can take part alongside her and dad.
My parents take a cup and a cracker and hold the tin for me to take one of each as well. I try to be stealthy about grabbing more than one cracker because they smell delicious and church makes me hungry, but Mom gives me the “you know better” glare. If the bread is supposed to symbolize Christ, shouldn’t I want as much as possible? I take the tin from my parents and pass it back to the deacon over my brother’s head. He is too young to participate.
We wait for the pastor to read the scriptures that correspond to the blood and the body, and then we kneel to pray. When the pastor says amen, everyone stays kneeling. We know to stay this way until the organ stops playing. Mom says some people are still praying and that we need to be respectful even though amen means we’re done. This is when I realize the difference between what I have been taught and what I’ve always known. I know to be respectful. I’ve been taught to stay kneeling.
It takes me longer to understand the logistics and significance of foot washing, the second part of the communion service. I am taught that at the last supper Jesus washed the apostles’ feet to show them he was not above them. It has become a symbol of humility. I watch the old people who look like they know what to do, and I listen to the conversations going on around me as Mom brings over a basin of water and some towels. I fake that I know what to do, but I am full of questions. Am I supposed to take off my stockings? That seems unladylike and I’ve only recently adopted the habit of keeping my legs crossed while sitting in a dress. If I am supposed to keep them on, will I have to walk around with wet feet afterward? Does Jesus care if I have dirty feet? Surely the deacon does because he has to deal with the water afterward. I learn after this first foot washing experience that removing my stockings is both inappropriate and unnecessary, as they dry in a matter of minutes. I still can’t speak for how the deacon feels about the dirty feet water.
A year later, when I was 10, I chose to be baptized. The church, as a whole, practices baptism by immersion, a literal submersion into water, which takes place when we are old enough to decide for ourselves, but “ready” is subjective. The act is not only a ritual—a white gown, a litany, an immersion—but also an independent decision, something that felt grown up, like I had “figured out” religion. It was something I could be certain about. I thought I’d feel different when the minister pulled me up from the water, maybe cleansed or reborn. I just felt wet and cold, but it was easier to be certain and unquestioning. It was simple enough I didn’t need to question.
Life is easier with certainty. It seems as though we should grow more confident as we collect experience, the way we do with our bodies and our minds and our choices. But as I age, I become less sure about religion, driven by an unmoored state of doubt. I wasn’t to participate in communion or baptism until I understood. And I did, because I thought I did. But now, two decades later, I don’t. Now I lose myself in religion’s complexity, in its rituals, and I simmer in unrelenting skepticism.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual.” I know these church rituals do not seem like contrivance for some. They are communal and cleansing and humbling. But I am somewhere between being respectful and remaining on my knees; stuck between what I know and what I have been taught; between religion and ritual; between obedience and resistance. I am learning these lines are blurred, as I stand on the path of recognizing community as a human need.
Although I have stopped referring to communion as a snack, which I think is progress, I still have questions, no fewer in number than when I was a kid. But they are no longer about grape juice or dirty feet. I question dying and prayer and existence. My questions are about why horrible things happen to good people and about intercession and about church and the responsibility believing in something bigger entails. They are about my own inconsistent practice and cynicism and hypocrisy. They are about heaven and hell and whether I should say prayers with my kids before they go to bed, like my parents did with my brother and me. They are about grace.
I know I am not alone. None of us has the answers because the questions are not definite. They are not easy or hard or right or wrong. Thousands of years of history suggest people have always longed for rites and rituals, either religious or far beyond religion, to sate a communal need.
Each August several students in my graduate program get together for what we call the Polar Bear Plunge. On an island in the Pacific Northwest where summer water temperatures remain well below 60 degrees, we wander out onto the dock wearing swimsuits, or if we forgot, then our jeans and a T-shirt. Our bodies are stiff. We know the cold will be piercing and unbearable. Our hearts race. We squirm with adrenaline. Some of us take a running start and others, more cautiously, curl 10 toes around the end of the dock, as if courage might meet us there. I try to talk myself out of this jump right up until the very minute my feet leave the grainy planks. Shivering and goosebumped by the breeze bouncing off the water, we brace ourselves against ourselves, and at the count of three we leap off the dock into the freezing water of Puget Sound.
The Plunge does not involve silver trays or a litany or even religion, but it is no less a ritual. Like baptism, it is starting over. It stands as a marker, a way to acknowledge something bigger. We jump into an ocean to concede our small place in the general order of things; to surrender to our humanness.
As we hold our breath submerged in the icy cove, for a moment it is silent. The water shocks our muscles cold and our brains empty and our bodies still. For a second, our hearts stop. We forget ourselves in the rite. Bubbles reach the surface before our heads emerge and then our paralyzed lungs gulp in air.
There is cursing and screaming and yelping and splashing. We feel our muscles regain life, and our brains fill again. It is a reset, an act of cleansing, a rebirth of sorts. In those seconds of suspended silence, we erase every bit of our uncertainty. We dove into an extreme together, for which we are both forever changed and wholly unchanged. And although it is an independent choice to participate, it is a communal experience, one that feels more collective, more shared, than washing someone’s stocking feet.
Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, says, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Ritual is disguised in many ways, but its intentions are the same: to see greatness in small things and to frame the human experience. There are hundreds of ways to kneel—some we are taught and others we discover in places we never thought to look.
No matter who we were when we plunged into this extreme, whether in a swimsuit or jeans, or wearing cologne or lotion or sweat or dirt or doubt, when we climb out of the water, back onto the dock and we are dripping and shivering, all of us, every one of us, smells like ocean air and salt water.
Copyright 2014 Knorr