Ham and Beans

img_0024I think I was well into adulthood before I realized that people don’t go to ham and bean suppers for the food.

When I’d see such signs, usually in rural areas, I would assume that they were targeted at the poor, who would welcome a free or low cost meal in the basement of a church. I’d think “how sad,” especially since I am not a fan of either ham or beans. But then, I was the kid who, upon seeing similar signs for “Vacation Bible School,” would think “that’s not a vacation!

I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools for part of my school career. We never did much with the church other than attending Mass and the obligatory, at least for a while, CCD. An untimely and long childhood illness meant that I made my first communion alone, in a denim dress during a regular evening Mass one Saturday night, after having attended tutoring sessions at the dining room table of some deacon who volunteered to help me catch up. For me there was no lacy faux-bridal wear and no peer cohort. No rite of passage.

When we moved to Connecticut after my father died, my mother didn’t put us back in CCD and although we did attend Mass every Saturday night, (just where a high schooler wants to be on Saturdays), I was never part of the local Catholic Youth Organization, and I was never confirmed.

I grew up with a sense of Church as authority rather than community. though I had briefly attended a Pilgrim Fellowship group at the local Congregational Church at the invitation of friends, I didn’t really experience the social side of congregation until I started attending a local Episcopal church as an adult in my adopted hometown.

It was a small church in a small town and I started attending at the invitation of some other formerly Catholic friends who emphasized how welcoming the congregation was. Not wanting my own children to experience the constant judgement and disapproval that was my own experience of church, we joined.

We did indeed find a welcoming community. People had patience and compassion for my quirky kids, and for us as their parents. It was understood that children would have a hard time being absolutely still and quiet during the service. There were often parts for them to play on the bigger holidays. We even attended a few of the potluck suppers, and it was at one of these events that I looked around at the table and the full of faces that I knew and was relatively comfortable with, that I got it.

There’s a reason that Communion is a sacrament. Several cultures have expectations and messages around sharing a meal, breaking bread together. Rituals and feast days are intended to bring us together as a community, to share with one another, whether it be food, prayer, news, or a hug. There was a time when the Catholic Church encouraged parishioners to hold hands during prayer (I cried when my father-in-law took my hand in church for the first time; so surprising was this tiny gesture from another adult). Unfortunately, they seemed to have changed to discouraging the practice as too focused on humans rather than on God. The last time I was there, I was introduced to a new practice of bowing to the priest before receiving Communion; once again reverencing authority over community. I was horrified and I don’t think I’ve been back since.

There’s a recognized tendency of people to get more religious as they get older. Whether it’s about the time that they have as their child-raising years pass, or their sense of the time they have left on Earth, it’s hard to say. I have gone in the opposite direction.

For me, the underpinnings of religion have revealed themselves to be more about man-made rules and rituals, some well-intentioned, others as instruments of power and control, than any search for, or attempt to model oneself after, the Divine. I realize that’s not true for everyone. There are many who are able to sit within, find comfort in, and practice the example of their God. I believe I understand the compulsion to do so. I may even be envious.

As humans, we use rules and rituals as instruments for connection, for communion. Even without religion, I suspect that we need them. A recent article in The Atlantic posited that attraction to Trump and his rallies, complete with uber-patriotic symbolism, stunningly offensive chants, and us vs. them rhetoric, has taken the place that church and religion once held in peoples’ lives. Like any prosperity gospel charlatan, Trump knows this need and takes full advantage of it.

As a country and a culture, we are not good at rituals outside of religion. Sure, we have Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July cookout and fireworks. We seem to be coming to take Memorial Day as a more solemn occasion than the start of summer, but those common touch points are few and far between. Some sub-cultures have rites of passage like the Quinceanera or a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  If there is anything that I miss about having been raised Catholic, it is the ritual; the knowing of the words and the gestures that make up a spiritual practice. If there’s anything I appreciate about church at all, it’s the sense of shared community. I think that may be one of the reasons I’ve been such a fierce advocate for public schools. They are the heart of the community, and whether as student or parent, athlete or scholar (or both), it is a shared experience that shapes who we are.

In this era of extreme polarization and deliberate fragmentation and tribalism, it’s clear that we need to get better at creating community outside of religious institutions. Both politics and marketing have sliced us further into strata suitable for the targeting of  (often toxic) messages. The American emphasis on the individual has inspired, but also isolated, while at the same time conflicting with the impulse to set rules for others.  This has implications for both physical and mental health, parenting and family dynamics, and creates a greater need for interactions with others that are more communion than transaction.

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