If you walk into the suburban Episcopal Church on a Sunday morning, you’ll be struck first by the massive stone walls that rise up around you and the candles in the large Advent Wreath burning brightly. Behind the altar stand two priests and behind them a piano encircled by choir members. One of the priests, Joyce, holds up a circle of the bread for Communion. It looks like the rising moon. She grasps its edges and splits it down the middle. Then she breaks each half into pieces, laying them on a plate to be fed to the members of the congregation who will kneel around the altar.
In a service in which people look to the heavens or into the pockets of their folded hands, there are some things which keep them grounded. There are wooden pews, the colors of the seasons, the bread that is broken. There are the members of the choir and the priests. When humans choose to believe in something intangible, people like Joyce stand seeable, touchable, and hearable, there to guide and support them through a world that is largely abstract.
The mix of the abstract and the tangible weaves its way through Joyce’s life. As a young woman, Joyce wanted to be a nature writer. Later she considered pursuing patristic scholarship within Latin texts. I imagined her life as a writer, spending half the day outside, peeling bark and hiking trails, and half the day writing about what she had seen, felt, and heard. Then I imagined her life as a scholar, holed up in an attic room, poring over texts and documenting a subject that she had not experienced but filtered through herself and onto the page. The two seemed to be at such extremes on the spectrum of abstract to tangible. It caused me to wonder if the two ideas had more in common than I thought.
Joyce isn’t paid for either one of her early aspirations. Instead, she’s the leader of a group of Episcopalians. She stands before dozens of people nearly every Sunday, sings and speaks with her parishioners. She helps them to follow and explore something that they’ve decided they need but which is not something they can touch.
Joyce also works at a renowned college as the religious advisor to the Protestant community there and as the head of her congregation’s youth group. In these positions she hears from young people who are at the intersection of childhood and the “real world”, who will soon leave the land of exploration (for exploration’s sake) for one of more somber concerns. She says, “I have never been asked such hard questions in parish ministry as I have by my students. To them, the gospel…is alive and vital to their lives.” As youth advisor she encourages youth of different faiths to share ideas with one another. Last year she helped gather young members of her congregation with those from local Muslim and Jewish congregations to learn about each other’s understanding of the abstract in the world of the real.
Somehow, Joyce has found, young people can feel the abstract in their lives more strongly, without as much effort, as their elders. And they not only feel it but pursue it, challenging, questioning, and embracing it as if it were something tangible. Accepting and utilizing their ability to mix the real and the abstract can have benefits for older generations of believers. Joyce says, “The young people of the church and campus can give the gift of difficult questions and vibrant faith to a church that is sometimes complacent and tired.”
But the blending of the real and the abstract goes beyond age and beyond belief. The inherent mixture of these two ideas is available to everyone. Joyce has made it the purpose and the truth of her life and stands to prove, I think, that one is necessary for the other. It’s not as simple, however, as the old adage, “Seeing is believing.” The balance is complex; to believe in the abstract, to accept that world into the real, one must see it reflected in the real, must reflect it oneself. To live fully in the real world, one must understand the inherent presence of the abstract in it. After all, what’s the beauty of a flower without the happiness that comes from it? And what is happiness without a smile to express it?