By Tyler Chadwick
Tyler Chadwick lives in Ogden, Utah with his wife, Jess, and their four daughters. He is the editor of Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets, co-editor of Dove Song: Heavenly Mother in Mormon Poetry, and author of Field Notes on Language and Kinship.
Hope-in the (Communal) Body
I had noticed him before, the graying man with thick, black-rimmed glasses, a loose white dress shirt, black tie, gray slacks snug at the navel, cinched to bunching by a thin black belt. Darrel (I later learned his name was) regularly participated in our new ward’s worship services, passing the sacrament as one of the older men invited to serve because the ward didn’t have many Aaronic Priesthood holders. He wasn’t the oldest among them, but he stood apart even from the more mature men, rarely lifting his head from the slight nod that defined his posture. I observed him casually at first yet paid him greater attention during subsequent worship services as he walked the aisles, stopping at each pew, extending trays of bread or water to whoever occupied the aisle seat, then waiting as the tray passed from person to person down the row and returned. Before and after the ritual he held his scriptures at heart-level between clasped hands.
But one day, Darrel played a different role. Standing behind the sacrament table, he adjusted his glasses, tugged up his slacks by the belt, and knelt down. Cued by his movements, congregants slipped into the posture of prayer and waited for him to speak familiar words.
The sacrament is among the few LDS rites with set prayers, offered almost every Sunday in congregations worldwide. The prayers are often printed on a placard near a small microphone beneath the sacrament table. The placards display the prayers in a different shape than they take in Mormon scripture.1 Instead of appearing as paragraphs, each prayer is printed with line breaks. Take, for instance, the reformatted blessing on the water:
O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee
in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ,
to bless and sanctify this water
to the souls of all those who drink of it,
that they may do it in remembrance of the blood of thy Son,
which was shed for them; that they may witness unto thee,
O God, the Eternal Father, that they do always remember him,
that they may have his Spirit to be with them. Amen.
Reframed around poetic structures, the placard-texts use caesurae, enjambment, and varied line lengths to emphasize things that might receive less prominence in unbroken prose. This reframing presents the language in short segments that offer readers frequent reference points to reorient them should they lose their place while reciting the prayers. It also encourages readers to slow down and elevate their verbal performance beyond everyday speech, inviting listeners to attend closely to the words and thereby derive greater meaning and purpose from ritual participation.
The caesurae and line breaks in the reformatted prayers seem intended to cue short pauses that present listeners with opportunities to digest key words, phrases, and ideas. For instance, when the petitioner pauses after saying “we ask thee” (as most readers do after line-ending words), it’s clear that he isn’t praying just for himself: he’s constructing and giving voice to the community’s mutual desire to connect with God. The elevated diction also confirms the extra-ordinary rhetorical space initiated by the communal petition. Its formality calls communicants to move beyond mundane concerns and to focus their attention on the object of the community’s shared worship—Christ’s body—and on the function of the shared substance they’re offering at the altar: language, bread, and water.
These three elements embody the materiality of human need. Language is produced by bodies trying to connect with other bodies—an attempt to satisfy the species’ longing to belong. Bread represents “the fruits of the earth and [. . .] human labor,”2 things that sustain the flesh and without which we would languish. And water represents the lifeblood flowing through the communal body: the Spirit of Christ, which fosters the hope-in each other that keeps communities vital.3 Presenting these emblems at the communal table, communicants can be seen as offering their deepest selves to God and their meal companions, committing themselves to feed the communal body with their abiding presence and desires. Once the emblems are blessed and sanctified, they assume another layer of significance, becoming consecrated reminders of Christ’s sacrificial devotion to and abiding presence in the community.
Yet, Mormons hear these prayers recited nearly every week, and many become desensitized to or fail to recognize the function of the language and the communal meal it invokes, distancing them from the ritual’s potential influence. I don’t exclude myself from the “some” in that sentence. My conscious participation in the ritual has ebbed and flowed during my lifetime. I’ve read, heard, or recited the prayers hundreds of times, but not every encounter has been transformative or inspiring. Rather, my ritual experience has often felt mundane—as has the ritual itself.
The ritual elements consist of everyday materials: slices of commercially-produced white bread and tap water—the same bread I use to make toast or sandwiches and the same water I drink at home. They’re prepared by young men I might encounter riding their bikes down the street or fighting with a sibling, or men cursing at a disobedient dog, taking out the trash in their pajamas, or picking up bread and milk from the supermarket, disheveled from a long day of living.
And then there’s the ritual context. The chapel is a large room in a meetinghouse we use during the week for activities other than worship: youth meetings, Boy Scout merit badge classes, basketball, funerals, quilt tying, etc. Most LDS meetinghouses were built in an architectural mode invoking pragmatic functionalism rather than sublime experience.4
The sacrament’s potential power is further sapped by the fact that it directly follows congregational business (activity announcements, new member welcoming, releasing people from and sustaining people to callings). Even this gathering’s official name, “sacrament meeting,”5 implies a pragmatic, functional occasion. Especially in modern Mormonism, heavily influenced by the practices of corporate America,6 “meeting” evokes an image of gathering with colleagues to discuss an itemized agenda. While a focus on efficiency, measurable progress, quantifiable goals, and alignment with company values has its place in certain institutional cultures, such “over-rationalized ways of being,” as theologian John Drane calls them, often strip our religious institutions of their necessary messiness and spontaneity: manifestations of humanness that can foster new ways of thinking, being, and being-with others.7
I don’t blame my own deficient participation in the sacrament entirely on the ritual context’s potential over-rationality, familiarity, or ordinariness, though. I’ve just as often been agreeably distracted from the ritual experience, using the moment’s relative quiet to sift through personal concerns, tinker with a poem- or essay-in-progress, or wander through other preoccupations.
Whatever the case, when Darrel knelt before the congregation, I wasn’t expecting anything extra-ordinary. Then he inhaled and released a two-breath incantation, his vocalization a steady baritone drone, its rhythm just faster than everyday speech:
o god the eternal father we ask thee in the name of thy son jesus christ to bless and sanctify this water to the souls of all those who drink of it that they may do it in remembrance of the blood of thy son
which was shed for them that they may witness unto thee o god the eternal father that they do always remember him that they may have his spirit to be with them amen.
Save a brief pause to inhale between each breath-length utterance, he neither took nor gave respite in caesurae or emphasized one word over another. He just found a note and played it until the words had run out.
I’ve since learned that Darrel is on the Autism spectrum, which may have shaped his performance through a cognitive processing deficit that impedes reading comprehension and social interaction.8 This may be one reason he recited the prayer in breath units rather than syntactic units,9 his brain privileging somatic over syntactic awareness of the sacrament’s liturgical language. This gave his lungs, rather than his eyes, command over where he paused. Rooted in his body’s rhythms and desires, in the need to breathe over the need to mean, his performance transgressed conventional patterns for reciting the prayers.
Some may have found his delivery off-putting or bizarre and his presence at the sacrament table disruptive, something suggested by the fact that he hasn’t been invited to bless the sacrament since. But his body-privileging utterance stirred me from thoughtless participation in the ritual that day. It called attention to the ritual elements working in my body: to my breathing and my language capacity; to the bread’s lingering sweetness teasing my salivary glands; to the slight pinch of my bladder and my tongue’s sudden dryness. More, it awakened me to ritual’s always-unfolding presence in the Church’s communal body: in the shared sacred narratives we elaborate in our rites and relationships; in the flawed and “feeble”10 bodies we offer each other again and again at our common tables; in the wellspring of memories and experiences that feeds our habits of being in the world and being-with others: “rivers of living waters” that carry the summons to share our substance in ways that can nourish and sustain us.11
“It’s Good to Eat”:
A Poetic Theology
Plain and simple solitary loaf of bread on the table and we come in after a whole day outdoors and grandma [sic] cuts it just right and it’s still warm and the olive oil seeps into the soft part which has a name in the Sicilian language that is proper to this inner portion the crust protects and holds dear and which we construe as something wonderful because it’s good to eat just as it is.12
So ruminates Alex Caldiero: Sicilian-born, Catholic-raised, Utah Valley-based poet. Speaking in the present tense, he accumulates clauses, adding the communal “we” to olive oil to Grandma to bread. Doing so, he can be seen celebrating “the festive joy” of table fellowship,13 of having been given “something wonderful,” “warm,” “soft,” and “good” to eat and in having someone to eat it with.
But he isn’t just waxing nostalgic in the poem. Rather, he can be understood as pointing us toward something essential to the human experience. The Eden narrative can be interpreted as doing the same thing when Eve realizes that the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is “good for food,” so she plucks, eats, and shares with Adam. They aren’t simply sharing sustenance, though; they’re invoking an awakening. Eating, they suddenly realize their naïveté, their inadequacy, their nakedness—and they begin clothing themselves in experience, adjusting their lives to the unfolding demands of self-realization and its implications for their relationship with each other, God, and the world.14
Alex’s recognition that his grandma’s bread is good to eat likewise awakens him to further wonders, including those bound up in language. He finds deep joy, for instance, in taking to tongue the Sicilian name for the bread’s inner portion, especially because that name so well suits the thing’s nature. For him, the name becomes part of the loaf’s essence. The name entangles him and his companions in the suppleness, generosity, and goodness of bread as both food and concept. The name is as much a part of the thing as the thing becomes part of the bodies consuming it.
This Sicilian word, which Alex speaks to in the poem but doesn’t actually speak, remains a mystery (at least to readers unfamiliar with Sicilian). This peculiar silence can be heard resonating with the prologue of the Gospel of John, which invokes the mystery of the Word, the Logos, the “Divine Expression” manifest in Jesus.15 According to the Johannine gospel, the Word was present with the world and its inhabitants “in the beginning” and ever after.16 Indeed, as represented in the Bible’s first creation narrative, God asserts creative agency through words.17 They were a vital aspect of God’s agency then and remain vital to God’s ongoing work of creation and relationship-making.
The Johannine narrative can be interpreted as applying this view of words as creative power to Jesus’s own utterances. Take, for instance, the scene leading into the Bread of Life discourse: Surrounded by thousands of hungry people, Jesus speaks and creates a way to feed them all with a few loaves and fishes. Once they’re sated, he tries to turn their attention from material sustenance to the spiritual food he offers; but they’re still focused on feeding their physical appetites. Moses, they say, provided for “our ancestors” day after day, year after year, ensuring they had “manna to eat in the wilderness”—and our ancestors (the story goes) numbered in the millions. “What will you do” for us who number only in the thousands?18
Realizing they seem to have misinterpreted his claims and the typology of Israel’s exodus story, Jesus pushes back: But it was God not Moses who gave your ancestors sustenance. Rather than translating the manna into your lives as bread for the body, read it instead as “the bread of God”: the heaven-sent loaf that “gives life to the world.” They miss the point again, demanding, “Sir, give us this bread all the time”—we don’t ever want to go hungry!
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus rejoins. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. [. . .] The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” At his claims, some members of the group become hostile, suspicious, maybe a little grossed out: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus explains: Those who consume my “flesh and blood,” “will live” because what I’m offering—the substance of my being and language—sustains and elaborates the principles of Life.19
Many in the crowd fail to grasp his “difficult saying[s]” and quit walking with him.20 By their reckoning, the Word is too incomprehensible, too mysterious, too light in their stomachs. They reject his poetic theology—the theology of creation and/as communal sustenance—in which language is more than metaphor, more than words as vessels for meaning; rather, as the Johannine gospel and Alex’s meditation insist, word is to substance is to perpetual goodness, life, and grace. Hence: to share words is to share the substance and experience bound up in those words is to share the abundance of our lives and relationships.
The Family Table
Nearly every Holy Saturday during my childhood and adolescence, Grandpa and Grandma Chadwick gathered their family for an egg hunt and breakfast. I loved exploring their large backyard with my siblings and cousins as we searched for the eggs, but some of my strongest memories involve Grandma’s cinnamon rolls. Though they tasted no different from many others I’ve eaten, they stand out because they were Grandma’s. She had risen early to make the dough—mixing it, kneading it, letting it rise, kneading and letting rise again in the soft green-curtained tint of her basement kitchen—so the rolls would be ready for the breakfast table.
Decades later, my wife and I took our daughters to visit Grandma in the memory care ward of an assisted living center. Gathered around her on the dining room couch, we caught her up on our lives: the older three girls loving school, piano, and dance; the youngest learning to walk; Jess taking time away from work to be Mom full-time; me writing, finishing graduate school, teaching writing.
With a smile and occasional, “Oh, how nice,” she followed our updates and watched the girls twirl across the matted floral-patterned rug. But her eyes confessed confusion. Like our erstwhile infant who would bury her face in my shoulder when confronted by someone new, Grandma was seeking refuge in familiarity. Unable to find it in us—family members blurred at her memory’s fading edges—her body retreated into the comfort of well-worn movements, and she ran her forefingers and thumbs along her shirt’s bottom seam, telling the stitches like I had seen her do on handkerchiefs, napkins, tablecloths, and blouses in her own sitting and dining rooms.
“Are you tired?” Jess asked when Grandma shifted in her seat. “Do you want to go back to your room?”
Grandma looked up, nodded, said, “Yes, I think I would.” I stood, handed our youngest to Jess, and bent to help Grandma stand. As I grasped her upper arm, the flesh—once firm from a lifetime spent working in her gardens—gave way against my hand like dough. The unexpected sensation invoked her bread recipe, which she had given Jess and me for our wedding over a decade earlier.
Now when I pull that well-worn notecard from my cupboard, I remember not only Grandma’s cinnamon rolls but the way her arm felt supple in my hand when I helped her from the couch and down the hall to her room, then again when I touched her one last time at her funeral.
- See Book of Mormon, Moroni 4–5; Doctrine & Covenants 20:77, 79.
- World Council of Churches, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (World Council of Churches, 1982), 9.
- See John 7:38–39.
- “Meetinghouse,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism (1992).
- Doctrine & Covenants 46:4; see also Handbook 2: Administering the Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2010), 138.
- See Armand L. Mauss, “Refuge and Retrenchment: The Mormon Quest for Identity,” Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives, edited by Marie Cornwall, Tim B. Heaton, and Lawrence Alfred Young (University of Illinois Press, 1994), 29–31.
- After McDonaldization: Mission, Ministry, and Christian Discipleship in an Age of Uncertainty (Baker Academic, 2008), 6.
- Judi Randi, Tina Newman, and Elena L. Grigorenko, “Teaching Children with Autism to Read for Meaning: Challenges and Possibilities,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 40, no. 7 (2010): 890–902.
- With limited capacity to grasp syntactic complexity, the autistic brain may privilege other ways of knowing. Syntax orders the concepts we share in speech and writing, organizing them in ways that allow us to know who’s acting in a statement, how they’re acting, what they’re acting upon, and how that action is received. The autistic brain may have access to more limited and/or simplified conceptual networks, so someone with autism may not be able to call upon the same conceptual variety or to make the same relationships among concepts as their developmentally-typical peers. Without access to such variety or the ability to conceive or express elaborate conceptual relationships, someone with an autism spectrum disorder may have trouble processing and comprehending complex sequences of things, such as the concepts arranged in complex sentences. See Inge-Marie Eigsti, Louisa Bennetto, and Mamta B. Dadlani, “Beyond Pragmatics: Morphosyntactic Development in Autism,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 37, no. 6, (2007): 1008, 1015, 1017.
- KJV, 1 Corinthians 11:24–25.
- NET, John 7:38–39.
- Alex Caldiero, sonosuono (Elik Press, 2013), 42.
- Dennis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian Tradition (Kindle edition, Fortress Press, 2003), loc 190.
- NET, Genesis 3:6–7.
- James Strong, A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament; with Their Renderings in the Authorized English Version (Abingdon Press, 1890), 45.
- NET, John 1:1.
- NET, Genesis 1:1.
- NET, John 6:25–31.
- NET, John 6:32–57.
- NET, John 6:60, 66.