As I was sitting in church last Sunday, I was struck by our altar at St. Mary’s. It’s circular and although I’ve looked at it hundreds of times, the circle just captured my attention. At St. Mary’s, when you kneel for communion, you are always facing others like the disciples must have done when they gathered around the table for that last supper. Contrary to the DaVinci painting that shows all the disciples conveniently sitting in a row for our viewing pleasure, they were likely sitting around the table looking at each other. Occasionally, smiles and nods are exchanged as we receive communion together, not as a singular act in a single file line. We are communing. [Note: there is a beautiful stained glass window of Jesus behind that Easter banner.]
The night before, we held a special worship service in observance of National Recovery Month. We especially wanted to reach out to those affected by addiction in all its many forms. This Eucharist integrated the 12-Steps of recovery as defined by Alcoholics Anonymous and other such groups. You may or may not know that the co-founder of AA wrote that nearly all the principles he later formulated into the 12-Steps were passed on to him through Dr. Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopal priest. The Episcopal Church: steeped in tradition but always blazing a trail even back in the 1930’s.
As I looked at the freestanding altar with its circular railing, I envisioned everyone that has gathered around that table for so many years in all their brokenness and joy. All the different sorts of souls that have come to that circle of healing. I was remembering a former clergy who, during a sermon, invited anyone who wished to come inside the altar rail, to lay a hand on the altar, and to see each other as Christ sees us. It was a very moving gesture and there were some tears shed. [I discreetly took this photo nearly a year ago.]
During the Recovery Worship on Saturday, there was a sense of healing in the church that night. The stories were varied – some came because they are the only sober person in their family; others still struggling with their disease; others to support those touched by addiction. One guest came after receiving the news article about the service from her mother. She shared that her mother doesn’t speak to her; we hugged and I could feel all the pain she carried with her.
There was wonderful music, a hopeful message, and anointing for healing. We recited each of the 12-steps throughout the service as a sort of prayer. Our liturgy actually reflects the 12-Steps - no surprise if you know about relationship between the founders of AA and the Episcopal church. Step 12 is about taking the message to others as a result of your own spiritual awakening. Likewise, each week, we are sent out to the world to serve others. Perhaps the most healing part of the service was just the simple fact that we acknowledged this disease and the pain it causes without shaming.
Yesterday, a thoughtful priest shared a concept of how people grow in their faith. It was based on circles. Jesus is at the center, then there were Peter, James, and John in the next circle. Then the 12, then the 72, then the crowds at the outer circle. The idea was that we likely start as one of the bystanders listening in the crowd and as we walk in our faith, we are moving toward the center of the circle towards Jesus. And, we do that at our own pace.
At St. Mary’s, one of our core beliefs is that we value all people and that means all people. We welcome all to join the circle. Years ago, when the church was built, our core values and mission were different than they are now. But as I looked at that altar on Sunday, I thought, “we’ve grown into our altar.”
Years ago, I didn’t know if my addicted son would make it to Christmas. Yesterday, he turned 21 and I am inspired with the way he has turned his will and his life over to the care of God (Step 3). A full circle, indeed.