The James Memorial Chapel is a truly sacred space within the sacred space that is Union Theological Seminary. During the week, we gather in the Chapel to pray, exult, meditate, and commune together in expressions of worship which are resonant for Christians and for peoples of all spiritual traditions.
Chapel has been a remarkable experience for me so far, as I come to be reunited with the sacrament of communion. Communion was something that, as a Catholic child, I never thought about too deeply, and which I took for granted along with the whole experience of worship. I was usually more eager to get home and watch Barry Sanders juke-and-jive his way for a touchdown for my beloved Detroit Lions. Returning to communion for me is a chance to reclaim a part of my spiritual identity, to fully form and own an understanding of my development as a seeker and servant of God.
This reunion has opened up emotions and contemplations both deeply moving and challenging. My experience in Chapel, in communion, has first of all made me realize how disconnected I am with the mood and meaning of worship in general. Even though I would worship everyday during my time as a monk in the bhakti-yoga tradition, often I would not be there mentally or emotionally even though I was present physically.
It was sometimes a “familiarity breeds contempt” kind of experience. Experiencing the power of worship through the lens of other traditions has often acted as a reminder for me of the unique gift of worship I carry with me everyday as a practitioner of bhakti-yoga Through the grace of my time in Chapel, I am already experiencing a sense of reunion in my own practice as a Hindu, as I feel distinctly at home again worshiping in the temple of Radha-Krishna at The Bhakti Center, and in my own daily mantra meditation practice, chanting the names of God.
This sense of reunion is truly an upwelling from the heart. During one of my first experiences taking communion together in Chapel, I was moved practically to tears by the combination of the intimate and vulnerable ceremony of taking the sacrament, of the stirring music that surrounded us, and of seeing very clearly a moment of unity in the intense diversity that we have here at Union. The emotions emanating from my heart were the kind of rare but exquisitely special feelings we get as gifts of grace from the Divine in our life, in which we intuitively know we are with something much deeper than ourselves. For me, it was a sign that I had come to the right place in my life, part of the larger gift God has given me in being here, at this time, in my own way, at Union.
I come to these experiences no longer identifying as a Christian, and while being in a Christian service does not make me uncomfortable, there are aspects of the worship that I don’t literally believe anymore. My relationship with Jesus as a person, and as an ideal, is framed through my Hindu lens, where we see him as a great teacher whose example is to be emulated. We don’t see him in any particular or exclusive theological position.
I continue to wrestle with, even more directly through my studies at Union, of the meaning of the sacrifice of Jesus which underlies the communion experience. I do not look at the Christian experience with the literal eyes I had, more or less, as a child. Yet my upbringing identifying as a Catholic stays with me, if it is not something I particularly belong to anymore. I can intellectually and theologically identify with critical and historical approaches towards Christianity, but there is also a strange reluctance in my heart to let go of some of the literal beliefs I have had in my life in relation to Jesus and the Christian doctrine.
Yet, I am beginning to understand that to let go of my sense of belonging as a Christian is a natural evolution of my spiritual journey here at Union, and it doesn’t preclude me from fully understanding and living and being in the natural and correct resonance I can and should have with the Christian tradition as someone who deeply identifies now with a Hindu tradition. How funny that I come to a a Christian seminary and realize that I no longer belong to Christianity!
How then am I resonating so much again with the sacrament of communion? Is my experience with communion something has become too emotional or sentimental or nostalgic? I brought some of these issues to the kind presence of Barbara Lundblad, who is the Joe R. Engle Professor of Preaching here at Union, and who is also a pastor at Advent Lutheran Church in the Upper West Side here in New York City. I wanted to hear from her what exactly communion meant to our community, what it meant on a deeper metaphysical and spiritual level, and what it meant to her personally.
For Prof. Lundblad, the experience of communion at Union has also re-formed her experience of the sacrament in a maturing way from her childhood experiences. In the Lutheran churches of her youth, she recalled communion as being a somewhat solemn, austere, and even alienating experience. “The very word communion was belied by what was actually happening,” she recalled. “We tried to forget we were there with other people.”
Being part of the worship team here at Union, along with her experiences as a Lutheran pastor has helped her to become aware of communion as something that truly bonds a spiritual community together. “This is the thing that is different for me here,” she says of being at Union. “I experience people coming together from so many different traditions, from Catholics who believe something different about this than what I believe, and Unitarians who are welcome to come for a simple blessing if they so desire.”
In this diversity, the meaning of communion can no longer be such a fixed or static thing. Prof. Lundblad adds that “if you ask every person there what does this meal mean to you, you would get as many different answers as the people who were there.” In our Chapel at Union, communion becomes part of the fabric of our diversity, which shines new and dynamic colors on the essential prism of our spiritual identities as individuals and as a community.
The sacrament and experience of communion is something meant “for you”, no matter where you are coming from, or how literally or symbolically you want to take it. “Here in this community, these words “for you” are very personal, but we say it surrounded by everyone else,” Prof. Lundblad shares. “This has been the huge change for me from my childhood. The word communion for me is being recovered in my life.”
I am still learning what the sacrament of communion means for me. I can speak of essentials, of having faith that God is present when I chant the holy names of God in my own practice as a bhakti-yogi, or when we are drawn together in our worship in Chapel. That faith for me is the bond of communion with the Divine, a faith that draws me closer and closer to knowing and acting in the reality of my loving relationship with God. It is also a faith that draws me closer to knowing what it means to have an active communion with God in this world, fighting for justice through courage and compassion.
I am deeply grateful for Chapel here at Union. I yearn for it actually, even though adjusting to the rush of academic life here in my first semester makes it difficult to always be present there. There is no doubt that I need it to ground and shape my daily life here at Union, and to draw me forward through my misconceptions and aloofness towards the sacred space within my own heart, the space we all share together here.