On the first of November, All Saints’ Day, my boyfriend Kim and I drive nearly an hour away to an ecumenical bonfire on the southern shore of Lake Superior. Two Lutheran girls from the university I attend as a graduate student cram themselves into the miniscule, low-ceilinged backseat of my Toyota, as I try to carefully maneuver the bumpy country roads and the new fallen snow. I apologize in advance for giving them headaches. As we drive, we talk about hometowns and courses and the difficulties of getting students involved in our various organizations, ours the Catholic campus ministry, theirs the Lutheran. The conversation surfaces but never dives; we stay in the safe territory of small talk.
When we finally arrive, the night is cold and the woods are dark. I feel tense from negotiating the last five miles of tree-lined country roads and snow banks. But I grab my flashlight from the trunk, and Kim and I carefully navigate the frozen hill down to the cabin owned by the Lutheran campus minister. The girls run ahead, heedless of the precarious slope.
The leaves of the trees have almost all fallen and the woods hold a desolate white beauty-—a stillness I know only in winter. I force myself to continue walking, wanting to keep my introverted soul in the woods and the frost, to talk quietly with Kim as we wander and crunch through browning autumn leaves. After my frustrating drive through darkness and snow, I am not ready to attempt any more conversation with Baptists or Lutherans or anyone else who might show up and ask me about Purgatory or the saints or Mary. My classes at the university demand that I constantly listen, constantly defend objective truth and hierarchy and the basic right to human life; I feel intellectually exhausted today, wanting to hide in the safety of community, rather than reach out into the world of opposing dialogue. But I continue on anyway, reach the cabin full of warm light and shining Protestant faces and sit on a couch in front of the fireplace. Kim follows, positioning himself inconspicuously near the back of the room.
Jon, the Lutheran campus minister, welcomes us to his cabin and to the dialogue of the evening. He then dims the lights as he leads us all in a hymn written by Saint John de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary to the Huron Indians and one of the first American martyrs. We sing together in the candlelit darkness,
“O, harken to the angels’ word,
Do not decline
To heed the message which you heard:
The Child Divine.”
The song resonates in a beautiful early melody and the voices unify as we sing of the coming of Christ, to whom we all still cling despite our separation. I watch the faces around our cook-stove fire as we sing, noticing expressions and eyes and the shapes of open mouths.
But I do not miss the irony of a Lutheran leading Catholics in a Jesuit hymn, and I find it strange that Protestants appropriate Catholic things they like, and just as easily reject those they don’t. I have discovered many Catholics doing much the same with parts of Protestantism, taking the more modern music, some of it riddled with heretical doctrine, but rejecting their beliefs concerning Holy Communion. Some call this the ecumenical experience, but it seems like a swap meet, where we bargain and trade. I fear that theology may get lost in the trading, dropped beneath the cluttered tables into the sawdust.
My first year in graduate school, I went on retreat with the Catholic campus ministry. On a Friday in the fall we drove towards the Wisconsin border to meet with students from Michigan Tech. The large meeting cabin of the summer camp where we stayed had been converted into a chapel and seminar room. I wandered in after throwing my backpack on my bunk bed and washing my face. I saw Kim standing near the back and stopped to talk to him. “ What happens now?”
“There’s a talk, then praise and worship music.”
“Really?” I asked, not quite believing him. Praise and worship music dominated my Pentecostal days before my reversion to Catholicism in college. How had it found its way here to a Catholic retreat? But then I remembered my parents and the Catholic Charismatic prayer group they had been a part of before we left for Pentecostalism and I understood. “It won’t get crazy, will it…I mean people don’t fall down or anything do they?”
He smiled at me, slightly amused at the paranoia I still carried from too many years in the hyper-Pentecostal world. “No, just some singing. You should be fine.”
I shrugged my shoulders and took a seat close to the back and to Kim, but I felt a little nervous.
After the talk, which I can no longer remember, the students from Michigan Tech tuned their guitars and set up a drum kit and an overhead projector. I moved further towards the back of the room. I was still nervous.
Then they began to sing, strumming the guitars forcefully and projecting the words onto a bed sheet that formed a makeshift screen. I watched the students sing along. I listened to words, rhythms and melodies I knew well from my Pentecostal days. As the song climaxed, I felt betrayed:
“I’m trading my sorrows
I’m trading my shame
I’m laying it down for the joy of the Lord.”
I remembered the false joy I felt I had to live up to in Pentecostalism. I remembered this blatant taming of Christ’s words: “You will be universally hated because of me” (Matt. 10:22) or “Blessed are those who are persecuted” (Matt. 5:10) or “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves” (Matt. 10:16) or “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). I left from the back door feeling slightly sick, wondering if I had been wrong, if we all are really supposed to be happy all the time.
I remembered the healings Christ had performed and is still performing. I understood the hope such curing brought and still brings. I even recognized the joy of virtue and self-giving which he taught to the people scattered around him on the Mount of Olives, but self-denial exists as an inherent part of Christianity as does the pain of secular and sometimes even communal rejection. Neither can be escaped, but must instead be embraced and aligned with Christ’s own suffering, a suffering so profound because it was endured for others. I walked through the dark woods to the clearing in the middle of the grounds, looked up at the strong white stars, and prayed for healing and unity without dilution or compromise.
At the All Saints ecumenical gathering the hymn ends and Ryan, a Catholic freshman, speaks, following the order of the evening: a discussion on the various saints from each tradition. He tells the gathering about Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who took his place in a Nazi starvation cell that had originally been assigned to a Jewish family man. As Ryan finishes silence occupies the room and, after a moment, Mike, a kind Lutheran senior, begins to speak. Then the tension also begins, at least in my Catholic mind, though it is subtle, a slight tremor under a mostly stable earth.
Mike discusses Martin Luther, the founder of his denomination, and I feel myself inwardly cringe. I see Kim and Ryan and the others with us fidget slightly as I raise my eyes from the fire and catch theirs in understanding. Luther had followed his conscience, but he had rejected beliefs and practices so dear to us that we still wince and struggle to repair the damage: the demolition of iconography, the dismissal of fifteen centuries of musical tradition and, most importantly, the alteration of doctrine. And he was accompanied by John Calvin and Henry VIII and Ulrich Zwingli and John Knox, many of who disagreed with him on certain points, but who all turned to the same protest for various reasons. And the protests went on and on and on, until they began protesting one another in infinite succession like the uroboros devouring its own tail, destroying itself only to begin the process again.
I remember walking six years ago with my friend Sean around a lake in our hometown. We were both frustrated with our Pentecostal church and what we perceived to be its falsehood and hypocrisy. We had both stopped attending and discussed starting our own church in my parents’ living room.
“But what’s the point?” Sean said as our feet moved over the concrete of the sidewalk. “Someone will just split and reform us in another fifty years.” He looked exasperated.
“I know, but this can’t be right. You know what this has done to me… and you and the rest of our friends.” Sean had lived with me through the troubled years of Pentecostalism. We had watched our friends, one by one, slowly lose their faith and in many ways, we were very near to losing ours, or maybe we were closer to gaining it than we had ever been. After all, what we all wanted was simply genuine Christianity; we just didn’t know where to find it anymore.
But I instinctively knew that he was right, that the solution would not come from removing myself from all of organized Christianity. And my soul was already moving back towards Catholicism. “Maybe I’ll just become Catholic again.” I said into the night air. “Maybe that is the answer; maybe no one should have ever split in the first place; maybe Luther was wrong.”
This conversation from nearly six years ago roams through my head as Mike finishes his talk around the fire and Deb, the Baptist representative, begins to speak, but I cannot focus my attention enough to listen. I think she is talking about a missionary woman and China, but my mind is still focused on Luther, remembering fragments from my Church History course at the Pentecostal college: sola fide, 95 Theses, Diet of Worms, anti-Semitism and his greatest gift to us-—the reforms of the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation, because he was right about individual abuses within the Church, but he went too far, threw away too much, and began a process that has yet to stop.
Over Thanksgiving break, Kim and I drove to his parents’ house in Ann Arbor. His family had invited Paul, Kim’s best friend since junior high school and a Presbyterian, over for their annual Friday night left-over dinner. After dinner, the three of us piled into Paul’s Saab and drove downtown, listening to U2 and watching the college students walk among the coffee shops and bookstores. I teased Paul about his almost girlfriends, asked how he liked his new job as a rookie Cincinnati lawyer, and listened as he and Kim laughed over a junior high school track meet.
We parked the car near a bar and met Paul’s friend Roger, a Canadian Anabaptist. As we walked in I couldn’t help but think we looked like some sort of bad joke. “So two Catholics, a Presbyterian and an Anabaptist walk into a bar…” As we sat in a booth near the back, Kim and I on one side, Paul and Roger on the other, I was amused. Across from me sat a Presbyterian Calvinist and an Anabaptist. Five centuries ago, these people were at war because John Calvin decided to drown the Anabaptists for their belief in baptism by full immersion. I brought this point up with Paul and Roger and they too laughed at the irony, though a little darkly.
As we chuckled nervously, I remembered that earlier, when Paul had visited Kim and me during his spring break, he had mentioned how my own Church had excommunicated his forbearers and then, as nearly all Protestants do, he brought up the Inquisitions. Our conversation had been tense then, much more so than our laughter in the trendy Ann Arbor bar, only proving that none of us can seem to completely escape the violence of fanatical enthusiasm. But while our religious pasts weigh heavy on us at times, we can push them back, press our feet hard to common ground and joke over nachos and cider. By the time we left the bar we were laughing again, momentarily unaware of any difference between us. Before Paul pulled out of Kim’s parents’ driveway he hugged us both and we all promised to pray for each other. As he drove off, I waved and told Kim how much I liked his friend.
Deb finishes her speech, and I feel guilty for not listening. The very purpose of such an ecumenical gathering is to listen, to try to understand, and I am trapped inside my own head. I bring myself back to the small candlelit room to hear her finish by telling us that we are all the Church, we in that small cabin: Lutherans and Baptists and Catholics, and that no matter what anyone says we will always be the Church. I flinch slightly. In one statement she has undermined both hierarchy and the Catholic doctrine of the one true Church, though I also see her point: the Church is made up of human beings, not buildings.
But her words impose a false unity on a fragmented people. Our doctrines and dogmas are dear to us; they define us; people have died for them, and we call them truth. To overlook these differences is lying. I cannot take another denomination’s communion, because it feels like a shadow, almost a mockery of the Eucharistic miracle. I cannot reject the sacrament of confession and begin to acknowledge my sins only to God and not to the whole of the Christian community. And after so many struggles to believe again in Mary and the saints and Purgatory, I cannot simply let it all go. Nor can the Protestants easily accept these beliefs and practices. I too long for unity, but a unity based on the honesty of one’s beliefs, a unity that I think can only come through Catholicism and the Eucharist.
I have been reading the Gospel of St. John in the early mornings. I sit alone in a small room lit by the rising sun and balance the thick Bible on my lap. In the Prologue I find, “A light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overpower it.” I think about this statement and about our world, so divided that countries and tribes constantly stand on the periphery of war. I think about my own soul, sometimes so riddled with sin that I can barely pray. And I think about Christianity, shattered into so many slivers that I wonder if the reflection of the light has become too difficult to see. But this is our promise and our hope: A light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overpower it.
I read on in St. John, slowly flipping the pages ahead to the Bread of Life discourses. Jesus says, “…my flesh is real food and my blood real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in that person.” After he says this the followers leave, astonished, disgusted. Only the apostles remain.
I keep reading, turning the pages again, until I reach the Last Supper discourses. I find Christ praying, “May they all be one, just as, Father, you are in me and I am in you, so that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me.” He prays this on his last evening with the disciples before his death. He knows Judas will betray him. He knows Peter will deny him. He knows Thomas will doubt him, and he knows many others will abandon him throughout the centuries. But he prays for their unity and the unity of all who will take the name Christian. And he prays this at the Last Supper, the same place where he instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist, telling us again to take and eat his body, to take and drink his blood, and to do it all in remembrance of him. I can’t help but think there is some sort of connection.
When I was a senior in college, I went to a Lutheran service with my friend Luke. We had made a deal. I would go with him to his church, if he would come to my Catholic Mass. I wasn’t completely uncomfortable as the order of service is somewhat similar to a Mass, but as communion approached, I felt strange, knowing Luther’s doctrine of consubstantiation, which states that Christ is present within the bread and wine, but denies the Catholic claim, based on the words of Christ, that the entire substance of the elements changes to become the very body and blood of the Messiah in the form of bread and wine. I had never been able to completely shake this Catholic doctrine, not even in the Pentecostal years; this doctrine comprises the explanation of our greatest sacrament. Communion with the Lutherans felt like the outline of a beautiful painting-—incomplete without color or texture. I felt a little like a traitor that Saturday evening when I walked through the double doors with Luke back into the Florida dusk, and though I didn’t know it then, I know now I should never have eaten their wafer or drank from their cup.
G. K. Chesterton, the famous Catholic apologist, once said, “An open mind, like an open mouth, does have a purpose: and that is, to close it upon something solid.” And that is what I have begun to do. But I wonder if such a closing erodes community, or if we have come far enough in our dialogue to accept the differences, to hope that they become non-existent, but to accept them. I don’t know. I pray nearly everyday that my Protestant friends find their ways to Catholicism, to the deep truth and beauty and goodness that is held here. I try to persuade them to abandon artificial birth control, to be truly open to the gift of life. And I talk to them about the saints and sacraments and tradition, but I respect their beliefs and backgrounds, their consciences. I admire them for their great kindness and love of poverty, their social justice and commitment to prayer, but I can’t help but want us all to be one, even as Christ and the Father are one. And I can’t help but believe, like St. Augustine, that this unity must come through the Eucharist.
I was seven the first time I took this sacrament. I remember little details from that day. My entire second grade class wore robes of white trimmed in gold. Underneath mine, I wore a simple white dress, slightly ashamed that I had no lace or frills or pretty white gloves like the other girls-—slightly ashamed of my family’s poverty. But I knelt still and solemn as the priest said the prayers of Consecration, the prayers invoking the Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine to Christ’s body and blood. Then I walked with my classmates slowly to the front of the church, my hands folded in reverence. When I reached the priest, he raised the host and said, “The Body of Christ.” and I responded, quietly with, “Amen,” I believe.
I didn’t understand and I still don’t, but I placed the host in my mouth, careful not to chew, crossed myself and walked back to my pew, where I knelt and talked to the God whose body I had just swallowed and for those few moments my poverty didn’t matter.
As a child I did not understand how ludicrous this practice could seem. Now I do, but the very nature of Christ was to infuse what is spiritual and eternal and all-powerful into what is physical and limited and weak. It is no more ludicrous to think that God could give us himself in what looks like bread and wine, than it is to think that God could become human and die and the rise again. Both are marriages of physical and spiritual, of temporal and eternal; both are acts of the greatest humility, and both are expressions of the greatest love.
In the Lutheran cabin, an awkward silence hangs in the air. Deb has just finished her talk and we wait for instructions. Jon begins assigning jobs. “Okay. We’ll go out to the bonfire in a minute. I think the students have had it going since about five o’clock, so it should be pretty tall now. Then we’ll have hot chocolate, s’mores and hot dogs. Let’s see, the Catholics brought the hot chocolate, so they can be in charge of serving that, the Lutherans will mind the hot dogs, and you Baptists, you take care of the s’mores.”
We nod and smile, accepting his delegation as I suddenly realize that I will be ladling hot water and cocoa powder up to all of these people whom I often disagree with. In a very small way, I will be serving as Christ served at the Last Supper, washing feet and carrying towels and giving himself away for the comfort of others.
One Saturday morning after moving to Michigan from Florida, I sat at daily Mass alone. Father Conway, an Irish priest who visits the cathedral on a regular basis, celebrated Mass. In his brogue, I remember Ireland and the Masses I attended there as I began to rediscover Catholicism while studying abroad. I remember the way my tongue practically ached to touch the Eucharist. I remember not yet being ready. I remember returning.
On that Saturday the text of the Gospel was the feeding of the four thousand, a lesser-known miracle. Father Conway talked about the hunger of the people and the compassion of Christ towards them. He talked about our own hunger and Christ’s compassion towards us and his gift of the food of the Eucharist. This homily was not unusual until he began to say that this great sacrament is not for us alone, that Mass is not a selfish event. “Christ gives us this food to strengthen us, so that we can go and help others. Don’t make the Mass selfish. This is not just about you. Use this spiritual food to strengthen you, just as you use physical food to strengthen you so that you can do your work. If you don’t eat, you die.”
His words struck something in me. Christ doesn’t give us his very flesh just to help us, but so that we can help others. And this helping is part of the unity. This helping is ecumenism and the Eucharist is what gives us the strength to keep talking and listening and trying to understand-—to keep holding strong to what we believe, even when we are exhausted and want to hide in the silence and solidarity of the cathedral.
At the bonfire, Jon closes the formal part of the evening by leading us all outside, to the fire pit where the flames already reach above my head and lick the dark sky. We stand in a circle around it and pray for the people who have helped us on our journey of faith, the people who have been saints. We call their names out loud. I say “Father Eric” remembering the first priest of whom I have any memory and whose picture I keep on my refrigerator. He smiles with me from my First Communion Mass seventeen years ago. I hear Kim, who stands next to me, his arm around my waist, speak the names of other priests, some of whom I know. I hear my own voice again saying, “Dr. Rickey Cotton,” thinking of my Pentecostal undergraduate English professor who led me to read Thomas Merton, who helped me understand a deeper level of spirituality, and who encouraged me to write. Others shout the names of pastors and friends and we close the prayer, our arms draped over one another’s shoulders, still aware of our differences. But at that place where our bodies touch, hand to vertebrae, fingers to waist, our voices echo with the weight of two-thousand-year-old words, with one of the few things we all still agree on. We say the Lord’s Prayer and begin to work towards the slow healing of this severed and brutal society by joining our voices with those of martyrs, saints and reformers in the utterance of one communal, unifying, catholic word. “Our…”
Shannon Berry is a graduate of Southeastern University (B.A. English), Northern Michigan University (M.A. English), and the University of Notre Dame (M.F.A Creative Writing, M.A Theology). She is currently living in Rome and teaching English as a foreign language.