Today is World Communion Sunday. Since the early 1930’s Christian churches of many different denominations have celebrated it as a day to bring churches together in an act of unity. It started at a Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and quickly spread across the US and Canada, and to many other countries.
Even though there may be significant differences amongst the various kinds of churches, there is hope that in the breaking of bread, the pouring of the cup, and the remembering of the message and mission of Jesus, that Christians can celebrate what they share in common.
Common. That’s kind of our word for the day. The English word “common” has its roots in the Latin word “communis”, which is very close to the word communion. Communion means the state of sharing, or exchanging thoughts or ideas, or feeling part of something.
The example offered in one online dictionary was of poets who live in communion with nature. That sounds like connection, feeling like you have something in common with nature.
I have been pondering how we would celebrate World Communion Sunday in this almost post-pandemic, post-election reality, in which there seem to be so many divisive forces at work.
What if in our faith community- another word rooted in communis, or common, we used the occasion of World Communion Sunday to exercise our imaginations, and stretch our hearts and minds a little? In this season of creation we’ve heard some bible stories and some indigenous wisdom, that invites to deeply consider our place in Creation, and our relationship with the land, the air, the water, the sky, and all living creatures.
Can we be like those poets that commune with nature? That phrase has me imagining people outdoors, perhaps occasionally hugging trees, but also, just taking time to be, to look, touch, smell, pay close attention.
I have been drawing upon the book Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, for inspiration and guidance. Kimmerer is an indigenous woman, a member of the Potowatomi First Nation. She is also botanist and a professor of environmental and forest biology.
Early in the book she wrote about her first day of undergraduate program. Her academic adviser asked why she wanted to study botany. She wrote:
“How could I answer, how could I tell him that I was born a botanist, that I had shoeboxes of seeds and piles of pressed leaves under my bed, that I’d stop my bike along the road to identify a new species, that plants coloured my dreams, that the plants had chosen me? So I told him the truth. I was proud of my well-planned answer, its freshman sophistication apparent to anyone, the way it showed that I already knew some plants and their habitats, that I had thought deeply about their nature and was clearly well prepared for college work. I told him that I chose botany because I wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together.” (p. 97, Braiding Sweetgrass)
The adviser looked at her said, “I must tell you that that is not science. That is not at all the sort of thing with which botanists concern themselves.” He went on to tell her that her question, which was about beauty, was not science, and that “if you want to study beauty, you should go to art school.”
The advisor’s response made her doubt where she came from, what she knew, and felt like he was telling her that his way was the only way to think.
She said, “In moving from a childhood in the woods to the university I had unknowingly shifted between worldviews, from a natural history of experience, in which I knew plants as teachers and companion to whom I was linked with mutual responsibility, into the realm of science.”
Did you notice how she wrote about plants as her companions? The word “companion” is rooted in two latin words. The “com” part derives from communis, or common, or sharing, that I mentioned earlier. The “panis” part is from the latin word for bread. A companion is someone with whom you share bread.
I think in her own, beauty-filled way, Kimmerer grew up communing with nature, like those poets. She found communion, with her companions, in the forest.
Later in the book, Kimmerer quoted another author, a scholar named Greg Cajete who wrote, “in indigenous ways of knowing, we understand a thing only when we understand it with all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, and spirit.”
To me that sounds a bit like what Jesus told the scholars of religion, when he was asked about the Greatest Commandment, in other words, what must we be sure to do, to honour God, and walk in God’s way:
Jesus reminded them of what their faith already taught: “This is the foremost: ‘Hear, O Israel, God, our God, is one. You must love the Most High God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31 (The Inclusive Bible)
To live faithfully, in community, in the world, we are called to love with all parts of ourselves. Our hearts, souls, minds, and bodies. We are to love God, to love our neighbours, to love ourselves.
Kimmerer wrote that the struggle she had, in her early years of university, was that her “natural inclination was to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide. But science is rigorous in separating the observer from the observer, and the observed from the observer.”
Kimmerer learned how to speak the language of science, and did very well. She completed her bachelor’s degree, and was accepted to do graduate work in a great botany program. Her adviser wrote a letter in which he said, “She’s done remarkably well for an Indian girl.”
She completed her Master’s degree, and then her PhD, and was hired as a professor. Then she was invited to a gathering of Native elders, to talk about traditional knowledge of plants. She listened to “a Navajo woman without a day of university botany training in her life” who spoke of the plants in her valley, their names, where they lived, when they bloomed, who they liked to live near, what creatures ate the plants and which ones lined their nests with them, and what kind of medicine each plant offered. She talked about stories of those plants, how they got their names, and what they have to tell us. She spoke of beauty.
Kimmerer said the Navajo woman’s words were like smelling salts waking her up again. It was the beginning of her reclaiming that other way of knowing, of living in relationship with the world. She said, “I felt like a malnourished refugee invited to a feast, the dishes scented with the herbs of home.”
I love that in her return to her indigenous way of connecting with the world, I’d say, being in communion with the world, she felt like she’d been invited to a feast.
When we celebrate the sacrament of communion, we invite people to our table, for bread, and for wine, or juice. These represent not just the body, and the blood of Jesus, but the bounty of the earth. Grain harvested and ground, and baked into nourishing bread. Grapes picked and the sweet juice extracted for the cup. These are simple, worldly things, offered to us in love, that we might grow in our own capacity to see all humans, all creatures, the whole world as one. Amen