Friday, July 22, 2016

Time for the Table of Our Common Pleasure

Rebecca F. Spurrier contributed to the issue of Liturgy 31, no. 3, on “The Lord’s Table in a Changing World” by describing Holy Family, a church in which she served as an intern. She was advised to enter into the lives of the congregation – which was made up of people with mental illnesses and other disabilities – by “loitering with intent” to learn the rhythms of the community’s members.

In a many-layered essay, Spurrier makes challenging observations about the importance of a church home for people whose way of entering into that community may not seem at all familiar to many.
The majority of Holy Family congregants are unemployed and, therefore, have time to spend with one another throughout the week. In addition to Sunday and Wednesday services, congregants gather for arts, gardening, yoga, bingo, health clinics, and socializing on Tuesdays and Thursdays as part of Friendship Circle programs. At the center of a weeklong liturgy is the remembrance and anticipation of shared meals. Many of those who come to Holy Family eat together six or seven times a week. 
When I describe writing about this parish for those outside the congregation, a congregant declares to me: “Tell people we’re good people. We love the Lord, and we eat all the time. Three times a day!” Outside of mealtimes, congregants recall the tastes of breakfast foods, discuss the lunch menu, conjure up meals eaten together at group homes, or remember childhood meals. 
When I ask. . . members why they come to the church, they often talk about “something to do.” The irony to newcomers from outside of a group home system is that some of those who come to do something apparently do nothing. They sit side by side with other silent community members. They listen to others sing, watch others play bingo, and wait eagerly for meals to be given. They work with time in a different way than those of us who mark time through a series of accomplishments. . . . 
Spurrier especially invites us to imagine the communion meal as a vehicle through which God, in sensate ways, becomes tangible goodness. It is a call to open our hearts to a new way of seeing the foretaste of the feast to come and the time it takes to savor it.
Even within a congregation like Holy Family––which expressly desires mental difference to be at the heart of its Eucharistic celebrations––there is a danger of . . . [wanting to] transform those who gather rather than inviting the experiences of disability to transform theological symbols and body practices. It is, for example, possible for wealthier members, volunteers, and visitors to serve meals and celebrate communion with those whose lives are different from their own and yet regard these persons as objects of pity, charity, or sentimentality. It is more difficult to envision all congregants as theological subjects whose own imagination and forms of gathering bespeak and enact God’s dream for the world. What might it mean, then, to pay attention to Holy Family not as a symbol of a future feast but as an experience of what it feels like to gather difference at a common table?. . . . 
If I imagine a time when everyone at Holy Family has access to the means to live, it begins with those who gather scattering out into one another’s lives across the divisions of ability, wealth, race, and security, to share the desires and aesthetics of many common tables. . . . As those who gather are sent into the world “to love and to serve” in a city where some congregants’ lives are of very little public worth, the pleasures of being fed well in a home of one’s own must be distributed; everyone who has access to a communion table also deserves access to what they need for the life anticipated by that table.

Rebecca F. Spurrier is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Division of Religion, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

Rebecca F. Spurrier, “Disabling Eschatology: Time for the Table of Our Common Pleasure,” Liturgy 31, no. 3 (2016), 28-36.

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