The Sacrament of Friendship

It seems to me that one of the major challenges of the 21st century involves figuring out how to be present to other people. Technology has given us so many ways of connecting with others, but with these opportunities come some obstacles as well. Part of the value of social media is the way that it can help us keep connected regularly with distant friends, but these connections can often be fairly shallow. For that person who sat across the room from you in middle school math class, this might be okay, but with closer friendships it can feel like a hollowed-out version of something once solid. And in rare cases, social media can foster real friendships with people we’ve never met in real life. Conversely, social media and other forms of technological connection can distance us from the people with whom we are (or ought to be) present all the time, especially our families. Given Joseph Smith’s teachings about friendship as “the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism” and about the eternal potential of family relationships, I believe that figuring out how to be present to other people is a pretty powerful theological imperative. In a recent post I thought about these questions in terms of heaven; for this post, I turn to the here and now.

The notion of a theology of presence almost immediately invokes the question of the eucharist. How the sacrament makes God present to participants was the hot theological question of the 16th century in Europe. Here are the main positions that emerged, roughly sketched out along the spectrum from Catholic “real presence” to Zwinglian symbolism (people may choose to elaborate in the comments):

  • Catholic transubstantiation: although the “accidents” of the elements remains, they become in substance the real presence of the flesh and blood of Jesus.
  • Lutheran consubstantiation: although the elements are not transformed, the flesh and blood of Jesus are nevertheless really present. (This one’s the hardest to explain correctly; straighten me out if I’ve got it wrong.)
  • Calvinist “middle way”: the elements are symbolic, but God can become spiritually present to participants.
  • Zwinglian symbolism: the elements are merely symbolic reminders of Jesus’ sacrifice.

For my money, LDS belief is closest to the Calvinist position, given that we’re un-literal enough about the elements themselves that substituting water for wine is no big deal, and, more importantly, given that the sacrament prayers promise the presence of the Spirit.

We regularly talk about the sacrament as the spiritual heart of our Sunday worship, perhaps the holiest ordinance that we perform outside the Temple. Learning to participate in this ordinance in a profound and powerful way that provides weekly reconnection to the Atonement is a frequently discussed focal point of our spiritual practice.

I suggest that thinking about this spiritual practice of taking the sacrament might form a virtuous circle with our spiritual practice of being present to our family members and friends. Receiving the sacrament in a way that invites the Spirit means making ourselves present before God. We learn how to be present before God in part from how we are (or how we fail to be) present to others. Sometimes our failure to be present to others drives us to make ourselves present to God in prayer, and sometimes we long to be present to others in the same way that we are present to God. If, as I wrote before, heaven is the apotheosis of our human longing for sociality (and this is why I love Joseph Smith’s perspective on heaven), there will be little point to such a heaven if we do not actualize it here as nearly as we can. Heaven is not about there and then, but about here and now.

I began this post by observing that technology both enables and makes difficult our being present to others. We are the digital pioneers, called to work out heaven in these new circumstances. Our basically Calvinist theology of the eucharist offers a model for this, by allowing us to see the possibility of being actually present through purely symbolic means. In the spirit of the Zion community that we strive to be, let’s use the comments to reason together about how to accomplish this deeply significant task.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4XCnYIcRgc]

Comments

  1. Well now you’re getting into the thick of it. I think you see that the task at hand will require us to be wise in the use of technology, and to be very clear about how our present forms of communication limit our sociality. One of the biggest mistakes we can make, in my view, is to presume that real-world interpersonal friendship is entirely replicable via digital means.

  2. Most of my interactions with other people are not physical, but attempts at communication. Whether it is an in-person conversation or a comment on a blog, I’m using a system of symbols to try to get an idea across. How effective that communication is depends on mastery of the system, and the strength of the system itself. If I can read non-verbal cues well, then an in-person conversation may be better than an email. If it’s difficult for me to arrange my thoughts in the moment, writing and editing (and re-editing) a letter might be a better way to express myself.

    That being said, sometimes when my sister calls on the phone and talks for 2 hours, it’s because what she really wanted was a 10 minute conversation and a hug.

  3. Michael Austin says:

    I really enjoyed this one, Jason. Thank you!

  4. Steve: I agree that the presumption you mention is dangerous–not saying that it’s impossible, but that the difficulties need to be acknowledged and examined. I think that real friendship is possible even when the parties see each other in IRL very infrequently. One of the subconscious motivators behind this post was reading the other day about the lifelong correspondence between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop (collected here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0374531897). They almost never saw each other, but a deep and genuine friendship seems to have emerged. I really want to read their letters! There’s also a new play based on their correspondence: Dear Elizabeth, by Sarah Ruhl. The trick is, whether the relationship is “in the flesh” or not, finding a way to be present to the other person–and allowing the other person to be present to you. (This gets to the heart of Mark’s comment.) Not so easily done, that.

  5. Really interesting Jason. Thank you. I wonder about our ongoing Mormon perception of liturgy and ritual in general, in particular, the sacrament. In spite of frequent (and rather new) placement of eucharist as Sunday centric, its place in the spectrum of ultimate value seems rather low. We don’t partake in proxy of the dead, for example. And speaking of technology, the death of the handwritten personal letter is a real tragedy I think.

  6. I think prayer is a huge way in which we can call for presence for others (meaning the presence of our thoughts or selves when we’re physically separate/unable to be present, or prayers that call for angels or other spiritual strength be given to others who might need to be comforted or healed or lifted or aided). I’m thinking not only of prayer rolls in temples, but all our own pleadings in others’ behalf. To think of (or pray for) someone brings that person to me – not literally, but perhaps more spiritually literally than we normally imagine – and brings me to them, in thought and spirit at the very least. I have heard countless testimonies – and had personal witnesses – that one can physically feel the love and comfort of others across the miles when many are praying for me and my family. There’s a tangible ‘presence’, if you will, that comes by means I don’t fully comprehend but are real, nonetheless. Whether by spiritual messengers or angels or the Holy Spirit, or some connection we all have as part of a whole just by possessing the light of Christ – one way or another, I believe there is more opportunity for presence than we normally confine to the word. [And there have been times that though I was living in the same house with an angry teenager, their resistance did not allow for my presence despite close proximity. I found that prayer was the ONLY way I could continue to offer my presence and call for the presence of the Spirit for their benefit.]
    I think connections among and between us are more real and inherent than our physical separateness (in flesh) lead us to believe.

  7. melodynew says:

    Another great post, Jason! This whole idea is very interesting to me. I’ve read several books on near death experiences. Without exception, individuals who have such experiences describe the ability to communicate without words. Their thoughts seem to be communicated telepathically – for lack of a better term—with others encountered during the experience. People who describe it tend to say it is beyond telepathy, but they don’t really have words to describe this mind-to-mind, soul-to-soul communication.

    In some ways our digital age could be seen as a temporal or mortal symbol of that other-worldly sort of communication. It’s an odd idea and I’m not sure I can articulate it here, but since everything here is a metaphor for everything “there” – perhaps electronic communication is the best we can do to approximate what happens in more exalted spheres. Does that make sense? Maybe we are creating heavenly designs with the materials we have available here? I don’t know. But I do love the example of friendships created through correspondences in times past. These friendships were deep and lasting. We can and do share our souls with each other without being physically present.

    If we are creating the celestial kingdom even now, then perhaps this is just a step in our progression. Can friendships via the internet be a kind of sacramental friendship? Can they become more than superficial? Yes, no doubt. I don’t think facebook is a great place to do that – too many other distractions and its purpose, after all, was to generate revenue. But, imagine facebook without the advertisements or the back-door data collection. Imagine facebook as an (actual) virtual neighborhood. .

  8. Lutheran consubstantiation:

    My understanding in Mormon terms is that the bread and wine literally contain Jesus’ body, because He (as a omnipresent Spirit in the Trinity) is in and through all things. (Kinda like our understanding of the Light of Christ).