In this time of self-isolation we are increasingly starved for face-to-face meetings with others. No internet connection can replace the rich encounter of the club, the church, the tavern, or the assemblies of school, town, or church. No clipped talking head can convey the subtle movements of the body, the positioning of arms, and legs, the handshake, the touch at the elbow, the light clap on the shoulder, the hug of greeting and farewell.
Churches are debating whether to have “on-line communion,” while their sanctuaries stand empty. Communion (or Eucharist, or the Last Supper) is a coming to the table. It stands at the heart of the fellowship of eating, drinking, singing, praying, speaking, and listening that constitutes the “ecclesia,” the assembly we call church. If we engage in some actions typical of communion while watching a screen that displays the presider of our assembly and maybe some head shots of others in our congregation, are we having “real” communion?
This isn’t just a question for Christians. It’s a question about the true nature of our life together in our towns, cities, counties, states, nations, and planet. What is really essential about our life as human beings who have always lived together in social groups? As I’ve thought about this (it’s a great time for introverts and thinkers, not so good for the gregarious), I have also been preparing my significant essays of the past fifty years for publication in a single volume. Running through them has been a constant reflection on the idea of “publicity” and “covenant.”
Drawing from Hannah Arendt, I developed a concept of our drive for being public beings who find their confirmation in actions, speech, and works lifted up among others. Without this publicity (the only word I’ve been able to settle on), we sink into the isolation where we no longer have a “self” at all. This is why solitary confinement is one of the cruelest tortures we perpetrate on one another. The life of publicity lies at the heart of what it is to live in a republic. Constitutions exist to protect this public world in which we can find a better life and sustain the common world that enables us to appear before each other. Constitutions are the covenants we form to preserve and expand this common life.
The peril that confronts every public is that our longing for publicity can degenerate into a cult of “celebrity.” Our relation to a celebrity is not face-to-face. It involves no conversation, no reciprocity, no service to a common good outside the need of the celebrity for adoration and the needs of individuals to live vicariously through the celebrity’s fictionalized life. The celebrity is driven not by commitment to a common cause but to the confirmation of his or her own ego. Rather than political leaders arising out of the debates, discussions, and myriad relationships of political assemblies, they emerge full-blown from the TV screen with acute demagogic power. This is what has happened in our politics over the past forty years, and in its deformation of our public life it is allowing the death of tens of thousands.
In the wake (and now we can’t even have wakes!) of this pandemic, however, we see a sudden and fundamental regrouping in small communities to enable their members to take care of each other as best they can. People are confirming each others’ existence with “How are you?” and “thank you.” “Let me know if I can help.” Even as we have to wear our cloth masks we see each other face-to-face in a new way. In its absence, we prize the small assemblies and publics of our lives even more than we could when we were awash in shopping, entertainment, and mass spectatorship.
Which brings me back to communion. On-line communion is a symbol of a symbol. It is a longing for the true assembly when we actually gather at table, confirm each other’s presence, and lament the absence of the sick, the dying, and the dead. And that assembly itself is the way we anticipate a future of more perfect love in which the whole body of humanity and of the earth experiences a resurrection we cannot imagine. And so it might be with all our publics. In our acute sense of longing for face-to-face engagement we renew our commitment to our common life on a globe we hold in common. In the struggle for our health we may experience a privation that drives us to the struggle for the healing of our planet.
Communion, indeed. Set before your computer screen is just a taste of bread and drink. In your future assemblies, a bigger taste of a more abundant common life to come, a hoped-for time of re-embrace of all you love. At the end of their communion the ancient Christians exclaimed “Maranatha”—”O Lord, come.” Maybe now we can feel a little closer to the way a little taste of table fellowship can open up a world of difference yet to come.