Please welcome today’s guest writer, Jasmine Smart. Jasmine graduated in 2012 with an interdisciplinary major in English, Philosophy and Sociology and a minor in church, society and ministry. She and her husband, Jonathan, live in Princeton, New Jersey where Jasmine is entering her third and final year at Princeton Theological Seminary. She has interned as a chaplain in a woman’s prison, a small liberal arts college, and a psychiatric hospital.
If there is one area of theology I love the most, it would probably be the study of the Eucharist, or communion, the Lord’s Supper, whatever your tradition calls it. I had the privilege of taking a class on it last semester, and I appreciated nothing more than spending four months talking about communion non-stop. By the time the class was over, I was confident I knew precisely the best way to celebrate it, and had high hopes of all the things I would implement once I became a pastor.
Just a few weeks after finals were over, I started my summer job as a Chaplain Intern at a local Psychiatric Hospital. I had chosen this placement because the previous summer, I worked as a Chaplain Intern in a women’s prison, and I wondered what the parallels would be between those convicted of a crime and those involuntarily civilly committed because of mental illness. There certainly were a number of parallels and differences between the two facilities, but little did I know, my notion of communion would be challenged.
The first time I participated in the hospital worship service, I was informed that for sanitary reasons, Protestant communion was celebrated with the same wafers as Catholic communion: thin, Styrofoam-like disks that resembled actual bread very little. I dipped it into the grape juice and tried my best to choke it down.
I was conflicted. I both appreciated the theological reasons for having real bread (i.e., it actually resembled a meal, connected to the importance of eating and food consciousness in general, etc.) but I understood that in a hospital setting, keeping things sanitary and preventing the spread of germs was also very important. So I put aside my know-it-all attitude, and appreciated the communion celebration for what it is.
Over the next few weeks, I became introduced to a patient. For confidentiality reasons, we’ll call her Kay. Kay hardly ever spoke in a audible way, but on occasion we began to hear her asking, “Will there be Body of Christ today?” We put together that Kay was a strong Catholic woman, and that communion was incredibly important to her. The next time we celebrated communion, Kay went up and grabbed as many as she could, and shoved them quickly in her mouth! We had to set the boundary that she could only have one, but part of me really appreciated her literal hunger for communion. One time I overheard her say, “The body of Christ is all that is keeping me alive.” Even though her delusion was such that she was denying eating actual meals, in another sense her statement seemed incredibly profound.
Another patient, we’ll call him Jay, has a delusion that he is Jesus Christ. For the first half of the summer he was doing pretty well, but then a few weeks ago he began to become more delusional, coming into the room, holding his arms out wide and saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” One day, he asked me what day it was and I told him Friday. “Friday? Oh, no, I hate Friday! This is the day I get betrayed!” A few weeks ago, he got a cut on his finger and was bleeding a little. He used a piece of paper to wrap it up and try to stop the blood-flow, but I tried to convince him to come with me and get a band-aid. Instead, he stuck his finger in his mouth and said, “The blood of Christ!” Thankfully, he did not offer me or anyone else to share the cup with him!
Oddly enough, many people with mental illness tend to have religious delusions, and so it could be tempting to just write these stories off as part of the illness. But I know I will never take communion again without thinking of these two members of the body of Christ: Kay, who feels the body of Christ is sustaining her, and Jay, who believes the blood of Christ is flowing in his veins.