Thoughts on sacraments

I attended an Episcopal service yesterday. It was the first for me since attending Saint James the Fishernam in Kodiak, AK. Grace Episcopal here in Huron, South Dakota is a lovely building. Brick walls, dark wood, low lighting, a bit of stained glass, and high vaulted ceilings all combine to make the sanctuary feel like a sacred space for worship.

Episcopal services are generally centered around the Eucharist, or communion, the partaking of the bread and wine as the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Like the congregation in Kodiak, Grace Episcopal does not have a Priest, and a Priest is required for communion. Yesterday morning, then, we observed the Morning Prayer rather than the Eucharist service.

Recently, I’ve been wondering about the place of the Eucharist, about its meaning, both for a Christian believer and then also its greater significance to nonbelievers. The Quakers, for example, rejected all sacraments, because they viewed all of life as sacred. One event could not be more sacred than the next, and if this is true then why bother with the formality? This is Protestant theology taken to the extreme! It is also an extreme Modern and libertarian approach, and as such I’m inclined to like it. I agree with the Quakers, but then again,I also enjoy participating in the Episcopal Eucharist and partaking of the bread and wine.

The solution that has presented itself to me is to participate in the Euccharist event as a sacred sacrament, but to use the event as a reminder that all of life is sacred and that if we truly “had eyes to see and ears to hear,” then we would find that each moment of our lives is imbued with holy truth. As the Buddhist saying goes…..well, I can’t remember exactly the wording of the Buddhist saying, but it goes something like this: A teacher is like a finger pointing to the moon. If you only look at the finger, you’ll never see the moon. The Eucharist, then, while significant as an event in itself, should point to something else, a deeper appreciation of the sacrament of life itself and the depth that each moment presents.

This also seems consistent with my experience of spiritual practice and spiritual disciplines. Take prayer as an example. A Christian might set aside time for “prayer,” which is a sacred time where one is consciously attentive on the act of praying. Yet the Apostle Paul said to “pray without ceasing,” which presumably means that we can be so “at prayer” within the course of daily life that we are not even consciously aware of the fact that we are at prayer.

This same concept seems to apply to my times of meditation. During meditation, I specifically take time to consciously and deliberately be silent, still, and centered. The idea is that this stillness and silence will spill over into the rest of life itself, so that eventually I begin to live life in a centered manner, even if I am not aware that it is happening.

With Eucharist and spiritual practices, the idea is to seek to intentionally and deliberately create a special sacred space. The goal, though, for me, is not to privilege these times, to place them on a pedestal, or to make them “more holy” than any other time; rather, setting aside these times simply reminds me that all of life is sacred and should be lived out as though each moment were sacred and holy.

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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

10 thoughts on “Thoughts on sacraments”

  1. Enjoyed the post. I think the sad thing for me is that as Protestants we have been so sectarian in our theologising of the sacrament that it has become this individualized ritual which Christians perform as a needed churchy practice. It’s profoundly bigger and wider than that. I agree with you – it has everything to do with all of life and its inter-connectedness. Christians find it immensely difficult to transcend boundaries, even with their sacraments.


    1. That’s a really good point, Don. I know that I quite often view the Eucharist as an individual activity for myself rather than seeing it as something that connects me with others. That is, even though my philosophy of the Eucharist, as outlined in this post, is more inclusive and communal, my mindset often falls back on individualistic thinking. I need some reprogramming…


  2. I grew up Catholic, so for me Communion was strictly ritual. And you weren’t even supposed to go to Communion if you had any unconfessed mortal sins on your soul. I still remember the Baltimore Catechism bit I had to memorize when I was a kid: “What is a sacrament? A sacrament is an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.” I remember how cool I though it was when I first went to a Protestant service and they didn’t even have Communion.


    1. What was it that felt good about not doing communion? Were you glad to be done with a purely formal ritual that wasn’t significant for you? Or was it kind of a stick it to the man feeling?

      Have you participated in communion since childhood?


  3. More the former than the latter. I understand the lifelong Protestant’s attraction to the candles and the vestments and so on — similar to my looking for something different from same-old same-old. After my born-again experience the Protestant services seemed fresher — this was before I realized that the Protestant services had their own traditions and rituals, just as routinized as the Catholics. During my evangelical Protestant churchgoing days I participated in the usual once-a-month Eucharist, with the tiny little plastic cups of grape juice and the matzoh crackers passed up the aisles. Eh. Probably the best Eucharists I’ve participated in have been the least formal: pass the bread and wine around, have people say something if they like, otherwise maintain respectful silence. I did one of these even after I’d walked away from the faith, with a group of PoMo evangelical church planters in the Netherlands — very effective, and no sense of my being excluded just because of my unbelief. It was a sense of communion in the secular sense of the word, of being-with. The substitutionary aspect wasn’t foregrounded at all, which suited me fine.


    1. I also really appreciate the idea of communion in the secular sense, the being-with. (It even sounds a bit Heideggerian, don’t you think?) This seems to come back to the idea of seeing the Eucharist as a communal experience, inclusive rather than exclusive, seeing myself as being a part of the community rather than a select member of the elect.

      The tiny plastic cups of grape juice are such a fascinating element of communion in Protestant circles. For one thing, it strikes me as rather kitchy, an imitation of the artistic reproduction of the Last Supper. Everyone gets their own little sip from a disposable container. It makes the experience itself seem disposable…..and then of course, there’s the excessive waste and environmental concerns. I wonder if there are eco-friendly versions of the little cups being made available.


  4. Sorry I’m so late to the discussion, Jon. One thought I have about your pondering has to do with the ontology of the the Holy Eucharist. This is the crux of the Protestant/Catholic divide on the issue in the West. If one believes it to be a symbol, a finger pointing to the moon, one subscribes to a Protestant Eucharistic theology of some variety. If one believes it to be an event in which God enters into space/time in a mysterious, yet real, way, one subscribes to a Catholic Eucharistic theology of some variety.

    I wonder if some clarity might be gained for you to consider “the place of the Eucharist” in these terms.



    1. Chad,

      Does it give you clarity to contemplate the Eucharistic space in ontological terms? I’d love to hear more about your personal connection with the bread and wine.

      For me personally, the ontological questions do not have a good deal of meaning, at least for where I am at in my journey. I’m a bit skeptical of metaphysical certainty, and I find myself thinking in theological ways that do not necessitate commitment to a metaphysical position while at the same time not excluding metaphysical certainty for those who feel sure of their ontological position. To put it another way, my attempt is to think about the Eucharist in theological ways that allow a range of viewpoints to converge: form those who believe that God is entering space/time to change the wine into the physical blood of Christ to those who hold a symbolic view of sacrament all the way down to those who view the Christian story entirely as mythology but who participate in the story because it resonates with them (much as a great novel might resonate with a community of literary enthusiasts).


      1. Let me say, first of all, that I’m not very interested in beliefs about Eucharist. I have beliefs about the bread and wine, yes, but my relationship with them is not primarily a function of mental assent to the truth of propositions about them. I have experienced the Presence of Christ in the sacrament of Holy Eucharist much like I have experienced the love of my mother as an infant–as a Reality in which I was held and by which I was formed but about which I was ill-equipped to form beliefs.

        Because of this, the theological task you’re describing strikes me as impossible. To use my simile or maternal love, there is no way that I can convey to you in propositions the psychic/spiritual/developmental content of the love I was shown as an infant by my mother. Similarly, an attempt to bridge the gap between those who experience Eucharist as a metaphysical reality and those who do not by means of propositional beliefs is impossible.

        That’s not to say that some theological abstraction of the metaphysical experience can’t find resonance with someone who has not had the experience, but that resonance is a far cry from true common ground, which can only be based in experience, not beliefs.


  5. Hey Chad,

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts. What a great discussion this thread has ended up being. Good times for me.

    First, let me say that the impossibility of the task only adds to my desire to pursue it! I’m not sure that I’m interested in theological projects that are merely possible. In fact, if theology is rooted in experience, as you and I probably agree that it should be, and the experience of the life of faith is indescribable, then we are left with a theology that attempts to put words to that which cannot be said. This, however, is exactly what the mystics all tried to do, isn’t it? They seemed to recognize that language couldn’t hold it all, but they used language anyway….well, some of them did, anyway. =)

    Second, I think the very thing you are describing, the language you are using to describe your own experience of the Eucharist, this is what I have in mind. When you describe the experience of being held by motherly love, I think that you are theologically describing a Eucharistic experience that many can relate to, even if they have vastly different ontological understandings of the Eucharist. Believer, nonbeliever. Protestant, Catholic. This is a description of Eucharist that does not require an ontological foundation. I think it would follow that such a theological task need not be propositional; at least, I don’t have any propositional axe to grind!


Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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