In which I discover universalism in an unlikely place

I moved to the city where I currently live in May 1986. My first task, after making the beds and finding the grocery store was to find a church. I was twenty-six and a relatively new Christian, having been baptized two years earlier. I had never worshipped anywhere besides the church in which I was baptized, a shabby but beautiful place with an informal Prayer Book liturgy as the container for liberal-progressive theology and a strong emphasis on the arts. The cross-country move was an opportunity to continue sorting out what kind of Christian I might turn out to be.

photo 1 (38)On a beautiful June morning I walked to the church closest to our house, and soon found myself in the back of the church’s long, narrow interior of brick in different shades of brown. When my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness I saw elaborate renaissance-style paintings covering the wall behind the altar and in a small side chapel. Candles, paintings of saints, and gorgeous Tiffany-inspired stained glass windows were everywhere. I was a sucker for Christian art although I didn’t know much about it. I loved the stillness and the darkness.

The congregation was small, a couple dozen people, evenly divided between young men and old ladies, several of whom covered their heads with bits of lace, the elderly Anglican version of a Catholic mantilla. With a tank top and Indian wrap skirt, I felt a little bare and out of place. The pew was pleasantly cool when I sat down. A moment later the organ prelude broke the silence, and a few minutes after that, we stood for the opening hymn. The basic structure of worship in the Episcopal Church is the same the world over, a fact that is a source of comfort to some and a source of tedium to others: Opening hymn, opening prayer, song of praise, two bible readings with a psalm in between, another hymn, a reading from the gospel, a sermon, more prayers, and communion. I found this predictable order reassuring.

After the reading of the gospel, I heard—and felt—the collective creak of the pews as we all sat for the sermon. I looked forward to hearing what the priest had to say, as a way of learning more about that particular church. So far, I liked it because of its beauty and its size; I thought a small congregation would be easier to get to know.

Then the priest began to speak.

“I’m going to tell you all about an important thing that happened just a few weeks ago.”

He stood in a pulpit about five feet up from the rest of us, reading from a sheaf of papers.

“I received a phone call from my brother, whom I hadn’t seen for a while. He lives in Seattle; we’ve lost touch the way family members do when they don’t have much more in common than blood ties.”

This made me think of my brother, who was a year younger than me and had moved to Taiwan when he graduated from college, to make his way as an English teacher and English-language radio announcer. We had little in common and didn’t talk much, but were very close nonetheless. We always would be.

“My brother called me to say that his eldest son, my nephew, had died suddenly in a house fire. He was twenty-seven.”

I was twenty-six. In my youth I had not been able to imagine living past twenty-five, and now I had survived many of the dangers, toils, snares of a turbulent adolescence, was a newly-married lady, and felt like the best of my life lay before me. The priest’s words made me shudder.

“My brother was calling me because he wanted me to help him plan his son’s funeral, and he wanted me to officiate at the funeral.”

I felt a pang of sympathy for the priest. I had begun—crazy cart-before-the-horse person that I am—to think about perhaps becoming a priest someday, so I had been thinking about things like weddings and funerals from that new perspective. I couldn’t imagine how I would plan a funeral for someone in my own family, let alone offer words of comfort and explanation in the face of such a tragedy. I imagined that priests learned such things from seminary and from experience. My mind wandered off to contemplate what fun it would be to study theology and scripture at the graduate level.

“I told him, of course”— he lengthened the space between each word, for emphasis—“I told him that because his son was not a baptized Christian, I would not be able to help him.”

I think I sat up two inches straighter in my pew, as if that stretch of the spine could make me better understand what I had just heard. I must have heard wrong, I thought. How could this be? As I puzzled over these words, he continued about the benefits of a Christian burial and the promise of heaven. His message horrified me. I looked around. No one else seemed particularly shocked. A few people nodded at the priest’s words, in agreement. I waited until everyone stood for the creed before slipping out.

photo 2 (41)On that day I learned something important about what kind of a Christian I was turning out to be. I was the kind of Christian who—if anyone asked me—did not distinguish between baptized and un-baptized, Christian and non-Christian. If I were a priest in this or any church, I would want to care for people, in death as in life, whether or not they were baptized, whether or not they were Christian or any other kind of religion. I couldn’t imagine someone being excluded from the church because they didn’t believe as I believed, or were in a different place along the journey. Later I learned the churchy word for this: it turned out I was a universalist, someone who believed that if there was in fact a heaven—a big if, in my book, at that time in my life—there was not just one way to get there, but many ways to get there.

*                        *                        *

Last week I visited that church again, for the first time since that early June Sunday twenty-seven years ago. It was an amazing experience. The music was to die for, especially the cantor. The liturgical style was reminiscent of my favorite parish in New York City, St. Ignatius of Antioch, where I did a year as a seminarian intern. (St. Ignatius used far more incense!) The stained glass is even more beautiful than I remember it. The head-coverings, which I felt sure would have faded out of fashion by now, were out in full force, on women and girls of all ages. I looked around a bit when I arrived to be sure I was not the only woman without one.

The order of service had changed a bit over the decades, and I missed the predictability of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Sparing my patient readers the details let me just say that there were things about it that made me, shall we say, cranky. I almost left several times but had gone with the feeling that I needed to finish the service that I had left unfinished 27 years earlier.

This notice appeared in the service bulletin for the day and also in the season missal in the pew:

This parish observes a closed communion. Following the historic practice of the Anglican Church, preparation for Communion includes sufficient instruction and the Sacrament of Confirmation If you are not prepared to receive, we invite you to join the communicants at the Altar rail with your arms crossed over your chest to receive a blessing.

eucharistBy the time, after about 90 minutes of praying and chanting, it was time for communion, I was not sure I wanted to receive it. And I was not sure it was intended for me, as a woman priest with no mantilla and affiliated with a much more open and inclusive brand of Anglicanism than theirs. But I was hungry for Eucharist. I read over the notice again and decided that I had indeed received sufficient instruction, and was indeed prepared to receive.

It was at the altar rail, sometime between receiving the bread and the wine, than an amazing thing happened. I felt a little shudder in my chest, a catch in my throat, a familiar little prick in my sinuses, and I began to weep. Weeping at communion is not, of course, an abnormal occurrence for me or perhaps for you. What seemed strange was to do so at that place where I’d begun to get my back up a bit, and where I’d spent much of the service taking inventory of all the ways I surely disagreed with that community about so many things.

What I realized, at that moment and in later reflection, was that I was gobsmacked by the power of the Eucharist, by the mysterious capacity of the sacrament to transcend differences and, more to the point, to outsmart all of our interpretations and expectations. Rather like God. This sacramental experience, in that place whose identity seems to be all about affirming separation and difference, was, in fact universal. That little wafer, thin enough to melt in my mouth so I wouldn’t have to chew Our Lord, binds me to everyone in that place and, more importantly, binds all of them, whether they like it or not, to a whole host of others, many of whom are not necessarily the kinds of people with whom they might choose to share that holiest of meals.

When I visited that church 27 years ago, it was where I learned that I was a universalist. The second time I visited a week ago, I learned that–at least in my opinion, from which many of you may differ–the Eucharist makes universalists of us all.

Heaven, 9/11, and Anthony

In the summer of 2001 I worked at the VA hospital in Manhattan, talking to cancer patients about God. Or, more likely, listening them talk about whatever they wanted to talk about.

For the last three weeks of my tour, there was this guy named Anthony—he was probably my favorite patient all summer. He was in a four-bed room on the oncology floor. I went to see him every day. I’d walk in and he’s day “Hey, howaya? Want a chair? There’s a chair around here somewhere. I’m tired of people standing around. Have a chair.” He was loud and funny with a Brooklyn/Jersey accent and a football player’s body, about the same age as my dad. He had been a cab driver for decades. He talked with his hands and I could picture him as one of those chatty New York City cabbies who would turn around to look at you while he talked, one hand on the wheel and the other waving in the space between you for emphasis.

You couldn’t tell by looking at him that he was full of cancer. He’d had it for years; it kept moving around and showing up in different places. He explained that now it was in his guts, and he couldn’t bothered with radiation or chemo. They’d done surgery, but he was pretty sure it was still there.

Other than serving in the Pacific during World War II, Anthony had never been outside the United States.  But he knew a lot about the world—after a few visits I realized he was a self-taught historian who had drawn some fairly clear conclusions from his research. “We’re all screwed” was his common refrain. “The world’s a crazy place. Always has been, always will be.” Then he’d regale me with stories about Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, the Crusades, the first World War, Hitler, and lots in between. “We’re all screwed. I can’t wait to get outta here.”

He didn’t mean get out of the hospital. He talked all the time about his death.

“Where you gonna go?” I asked.

“Hmph.  Hell if I know….Get it?” He smiled. I got it.

“There’s only one place I’m going.” He looked away.

“Really? I’m not so sure.”

“Nah…I don’t believe in heaven. Why would God ever create heaven for such a miserable species? We’re all crazy, ya know that? Screwed. Burnt toast.”

For all his denial, it was Anthony who got me thinking about heaven. I was pretty sure he was headed there.

I thought Anthony would die before mid-August when I ended my ten-week stint at the hospital, but he didn’t. Goodbyes to patients are not the kind of things hospital staff generally go in for, but I did it anyway. I wanted him to know I’d enjoyed visiting with him and that he wouldn’t see me again. “Yeah, thanks. Thanks for checkin’ up on me every day.” That was it.

Right after Labor Day, I called my supervisor to ask about Anthony and learned that he’d died a week or two earlier. This was no surprise, but I shed a few tears nonetheless. In spite of his gregariousness, he had a deep sadness to him, and he’d been all alone.

One week later, 2600 people in lower Manhattan were killed as the result of two terrorist-piloted airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center towers. It was a surreal time for everyone in New York. The idea of any return to normal life seemed an affront to the reality of what had happened. The smell of death hung in the air from one end of Manhattan to the other. Moments of relief came, bidden and unbidden, to me and to people I knew: making an impulse purchase of flowers, being kind to strangers, finishing an academic paper on an obscure and irrelevant topic, smothering one’s children, lighting candles, escaping to the movies, spending as much time as possible with friends, starting a new craft project.

The first time I smiled was just a few days after the towers fell, when I thought of Anthony. I imagined him in heaven, realizing that he’d been wrong all those years. I tried to picture him in a state of unspeakable and eternal joy, and I couldn’t. Then he wouldn’t be Anthony. But I imagined him relaxing in a recliner with a favorite magazine, suddenly interrupted by a trumpet signaling “incoming!”. “What the….?” I heard him saying. “Oh, Geez….What have they done now?” And then a moment later: “Hey, welcome! I’ve only been here a few days myself. It’s real nice. Better than I thought. Have a chair. What kinda chair you like?”