Tuesday, February 21, 2012

It's Shrove Tuesday

and i did not eat any pancakes, nor did i wear any beads, nor did i shed my top in some drunken Mardi Gras moment. For starters, i'm not in New Orleans, and although this winter has been milder than usual, it's still below freezing, so i'll remain fully clothed, thanks. As for pancakes? Well, with the supply of beef claiming most of the freezer space, i've been busily reheating and eating up the bean soup and once frozen, now thawing bags of veggies.

My family was not particularly religious. Ours was a mixed Protestant household; my mother a Presbyterian, my father an Episcopalian. My hometown did not have a Presbyterian church, so we attended the Episcopal church, although i think even if we had both, we'd still have gone to my father's church. It's just a feeling on my part, although unsubstantiated. When we visited my grandparents, i often went to the Presbyterian church with my grandfather. He thought his elder granddaughter unduly bright, and dropped me off in Grade 3 Sunday School when i was only in Grade 1. The Grade 3's were reading from the Bible, and i was trying to figure out where they were. "What page are you on?" i asked the girl seated next to me. She thought i had three heads, so i stared down at her book, saw the page number and quickly flipped to the same page in mine. Perhaps she couldn't count that high. We were towards the back of the Book, after all.

A Catholic friend once said to me that the Episcopal church was Catholic Light, and while i laughed and nodded, it's not really. The service is very similar to a Catholic service, and i've seen more than one Catholic surprised at the similarities, down to the versicle and responses being nearly verbatim. Except for the lack of Mary's name, praying for the Bishop rather than the Pope, and perhaps a woman wearing the collar and leading the service, the services follow a similar format, with the "church aerobics" as my grandmother called it, which she detested. The standing, sitting, kneeling. Up, down. Up, down. That grandmother was more of a Fundamentalist.

But unlike Catholic or so far as i can tell all mainstream Protestant denominations, the Episcopalians have no dogma. They have a Prayer Book. Like a Catholic missal, although the last missal i saw was for a season only, and the PB has the entire liturgical year contained within its covers, with many rubrics.

When we were children, my parents dutifully took us to church and attended with us. Along about Grade 3, i determined that Sunday School was stupid. All we did was colour pictures, and i could do that at home well enough, thanks, without having to get all dressed up in those itchy, lacy socks and cotton gloves that refused to keep clean no matter how i tried not to touch anything dusty or dirty. I announced this to my parents, as we were encouraged to speak up in our household. I don't think i needed much prodding, mind, and when my mother asked me why i thought it was stupid, i explained to her about the colouring. I said i thought we went to church to learn about God, to pray with other people, and to sing hymns. I wasn't learning anything, we didn't pray in Sunday school, and we didn't sing. At least in Poppy's church (grandfather of Presbyterian fame with the unduly bright granddaughter), we read from the Bible and talked about what we read. How the Bible was God's Word, so we learned something about God from reading The Book.

Now, here i'd like to say that my mother had the slyest of smiles creep across her face for just a moment, but that might be poetic licence in my memory. It may also be an unconscious thing i picked up on, which may explain why i felt that had we had both churches in my hometown, there might have been more of a discussion about which we'd have attended.

At any rate, soon after that conversation, i didn't attend church for some time. My dad went to the early service sometimes, and a few years later, i wanted to go along, too. I loved it, even though it was early in the morning for my night owl circadian clock. There was no singing and no sermon. No excusing the kids in the middle of the service for Sunday school. There were prayers, Old Testament, New Testament, and Gospel readings, a Psalm, and Communion. I watched in awe as the priest started the Communion part of the service. I listened to the words, and as he intonated about the Last Supper, i remembered reading about that when i finally found out what page we were on in that Sunday school class in Poppy's church. About how He later died and rose from the dead. "Take, eat, this is my body which was given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. Likewise after supper, he took the cup and gave it to them saying, 'Drink you all of this. For this is my blood of the new covenenant, which was shed for you. As oft as ye shall drink this, do it in remembrance of me.'"

So THIS is what went on after the children left the sanctuary to go to Sunday school. Why didn't they let us know about this? In those days, everyone knelt throughout the Communion part, and we were all still kneeling when we had to say the public confession and humble access. I still know it by heart today: "We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen."

In newer editions of the Prayer Book they don't have that prayer just beforehand in the Rite II (more modern) liturgy, and i miss it. Especially in penitential seasons.

That early service with my dad was well before the later editions of the Prayer Book, so it was said every time there was Communion. I said it, too, of course, and watched as people went up to the altar, kneel at the rail, and hold their hands out for the wafer, then all drink from the same cup. Everyone looked contrite. And humbled.

This was not something to be done lightly. Shouldn't we have been told about this in Sunday school?

My dad had his own copy of the 1928 Prayer Book, and it resided on the shelf with other books, like a beautifully bound two-volume set on the Civil War, Great American Authors, which was one of my mother's college text books, A.A. Milne's The World of Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh, a yellow-bound, much-loved book, Please Tell Me a Story, and others. We were encouraged to read in our house, so i read through Dad's Prayer Book. All sorts of prayers called collects for all sorts of occasions. The rubrics were unnecessary for those familiar with the service, but i found them an interesting read. Among other things, they suggested that communicants fast before Communion and forego smoking until after the service. Dad had been a heavy smoker for years, and when i thought on it, he didn't smoke as much before church. By the time i read this rubric, he had quit smoking, and i hadn't started yet, so that rubric was moot, though interesting. My father ultimately returned to smoking; i stopped smoking and to date am still not smoking. When i did smoke, i would sometimes recall that rubric ruefully as i stubbed out my cigarette in the church parking lot before making my way inside for the service.

I don't remember exactly how long it was Dad and i attended those services. We didn't talk much before, during, or after them. Religion was a personal matter, and although we all said the prayers of public confession and humble access, our thoughts were our own. After we had been attending a while, i saw someone go up to the altar, kneel down like the others, and fold her arms across her chest, with her open palms resting on the opposite shoulder. The priest stopped with paten still in hand and finished his usual, "The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving" before he set the paten down, placed his hands on her head, and blessed her.

I didn't know you could go up there and choose not to take the wafer and wine. I wondered why one would. Couldn't i just as easily, kneeling and watching from my pew, remain contrite and humbled? I asked forgiveness from my sins and even meant every word of the humble access that i said with the others, even though i didn't go up there. I wondered if i should go up some time. Just to see what it felt like. Just to see if it made a difference.

I didn't know how to ask my dad about it. I felt very shy asking at all, so didn't. I was 11 then, and in Grade 6. We attended the later service en famille one Sunday, and i dutifully went to Grade 6 Sunday school when it was time for the Sunday school kids to leave the sanctuary.

There was no colouring to do. The teacher was explaining to the Sunday school class about Easter, Jesus's death, and the Last Supper. She was asking questions to see what we knew, and i could answer all of her questions. The regular Sunday school pupils looked at me. None had seen me since third grade, and the teacher seemed to echo their thoughts when she said, "Megan. You haven't been to Sunday school for quite some time. How do you know all of this?"

"I often attend the early service with my dad. If you pay attention to the whole service, you understand what's going on. The Prayer Book has rubrics, too, that tell you—"

"Thank you, Megan, I think we should give the other children a chance to answer some questions now."

"The Prayer Book tells you this stuff?" one of the star pupils whispered to me.

"Uh-huh. So does the Bible," i whispered back. Here, i felt the teacher's eyes on me. I turned, my eyes met hers, and she pursed her lips a bit. I didn't speak for the rest of class but decided that i wasn't going to learn anything new in Grade 6 Sunday school, either.

I found out later that she told my parents Grade 6 Sunday school was for preparing the youngsters to learn about Communion and confirmation. I seemed to know all about it, so perhaps i was ready for confirmation.

We then became busy with fife and drum stuff, so many of our weekends were taken up with parades and things. As a result, we hadn't been to church very often. I was now confirmation age, and although i told my parents i wanted to be confirmed, Dad said no. He thought that i should be at least 16 before i was confirmed. When i asked him why he explained, "Because confirmation means you believe in what this church teaches you, and that you want to be a lifelong member. I think 11, 12, or 13 is too young to know that for sure. You may find another church that meets your needs better and may want to join that one instead."

While i bristled at the "too young" part, i saw the wisdom in waiting. Besides, i'd probably have to attend confirmation classes, and to date, i was learning more about church by attending than i was by sitting in the basement classrooms. A bit after this, on a Sunday where we didn't have any fife and drum events, Dad and i attended the early service. I decided i wanted to go up to the altar, to see Communion close up. I figured i'd just watch and get a blessing. Dad said nothing. As i knelt down at the altar, i looked up at the large stained glass windows. I'd attended church any number of times but never was so close to these windows, and gazed at the white lamb portrayed in the middle window. I had clasped my hands as i had walked forward, like the others, and forgot to cross my arms after i knelt down. My hands relaxed a bit as i gazed. It felt so holy, and while staring intently at the lamb, i didn't see Father coming near me until...until he dropped the wafer in my hand!

I stared at it dumbly. My hands had been just open enough, and i hadn't crossed my arms. But, this was a mistake! I--i wasn't confirmed. I was old enough, yes, according to the church--didn't Father know i wasn't though? How could he NOT know? He's the one who confirmed everyone. Did it matter? I mean, yes, on one level it mattered, because i wasn't confirmed, but i knew what this meant. Heck i knew it before all the star Sunday school pupils, simply because Dad and i came to the early service, and i paid attention. I couldn't find the words to say, "Um, excuse me, Father? I'm not confirmed yet, so i need to give this back." I couldn't find the courage, either.

I did tell God i hoped it wasn't a sin or something, if i took the wafer without being confirmed. I knew my Catholic friends would be clucking and able to say right away whether it was a venial or mortal sin. If something like that happened to them, they'd have to say a hundred Hail Marys and a dozen or so Our Fathers.

I thought about what the service liturgy said. "Come to me, all ye who are heavy laden, and I will refresh you," and "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish but have everlasting life."

I put the wafer in my mouth. I heard no thunderclap, saw no lightning bolt, and the church building remained unshaken. Me, not so sure. And as the wafer melted in my mouth, i silently told God i hoped it was all right with Him even though i wasn't confirmed. And then a thought came to me that filled me with peace. It was fine. Mom wasn't either. She was a Presbyterian.

Father was offering me the cup, and i sipped from it, like everyone else. I returned to my pew, got on my knees and thought about what had happened. I said the prayer of thanksgiving with added fervor.

Years later, i asked the rector why he gave me Communion that day. He said he thought we had moved away and were back visiting. That was plausible as my dad had been transferred to a new location for his job two years before the rest of us moved, so my brother could finish high school. He knew i was old enough to be confirmed, and he thought i already had been. "Even if you weren't," he shrugged, "you were ready for Communion."

That was a long time ago. When i set out to start this post (also a long time ago ;-), i was thinking more about Lent, which starts tomorrow, and thought i'd write about that. Funny how writing takes on a life of its own, and we find ourselves poised on the soap box to spill one thing when something quite different from what we expected tumbles out.

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