Communion as the Therapeutic Center of Uncontrolling Love
By Heather G. Hunnicutt
Through the lens of uncontrolling love, the communion
table is the exemplar for, and undergirding of,
the therapeutic alliance.
What does it mean to become-in-relationship as part of post-traumatic spirituality? This is the question I wrestle with in my work. I am a trauma therapist by trade, as well as ordained clergy and trained theologian, and what I hear most frequently from survivors is not the question of where God was in their trauma, but why God did not stop it. Yet one of the premises of open theism is the way in which it affirms individual freedom to witness and participate in the world and, by so doing, become-in-relationship. Nowhere in Christian practice is the witnessing-participative nature of the faith so evident as at the communion table.
The story of the table is one critical to faith. The Christian community’s identity is founded upon a trauma, but it should be noted that the communion ritual predates that trauma, for Jesus’ supper with his friends comes before the Garden of Gethsemane, arrest, trial, assault, and killing the next day. The communion table remains a symbol of a love that holds fast and perseveres. It is an open offering of remembrance and grace. Augustine describes the communal act thusly:
For what you see is simply bread and a cup—this is the information your eyes report. But your faith demands far subtler insight: the bread is Christ’s body; the cup is Christ’s blood. So now, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: “You are the body of Christ, member for member.” [1 Cor. 12.27] If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table!
It is the communion table that serves to remind us of Christ’s presence as grace itself, which we may choose to participate in bodily. As we participate, we touch, taste, and feel the reality of God—and the freedom God offers—into greater being, and are thereby transformed.
The communion table is the foundation of worship for my own tradition, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), at which we gather weekly. Usually placed at the end of the service, the act of communing is the apex of our fellowship, reminding the body of and proclaiming our mutual interdependence before we take our leave one from another. It is a centering experience, this communing, and here the center holds. It is where we choose to join in the suffering and joy of the other. The presence of God, in Christ, through the Spirit, comes to the table, and we are healed as we participate in the communal act.
When we “show up” to experience and participate in the act of remembering, it is, as Augustine writes, “our own mystery placed on the Lord’s table.” We place on the table our hope for becoming, trusting in the Holy Mystery to show up, recognizing the wounds each of us carries in the approach. God asks us, in the ritual remembrance, to enter into the grief of those around us, too. If we are honestly to do so, we must remember the pain of this death every time we come to the altar. We must feel in our body (and in our bodies) what it means to grieve along with God the sins of empire and patriarchy, systems that harm and oppress. We must stand against repressing our grief in favor of comfort, for the raw dread of death has no redemptive gloss in this place. There is, in a love that does not force its own way, an inherent danger as real as the cross. There is, in a love that does not force its own way, a hope as real as the resurrection.
In many traditions, mine included, we often close our communion with the line, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26) Communion, Paul says, is mute testimony, a proclamation that life is not always what it seems. There are ways to remember life persists beyond the grave; one move toward resurrection life is enacted each week at the table. In this space, we recognize our being resurrected though remembering. Having been met by God and the Other, we have begun to live more fully. We may carry the gift of that meeting, too, outside the church’s walls and into the world-at-large. We may notice our opportunities for meeting more fully having been nourished in our own becoming. This healing is available not only within the walls of our churches, but also in therapeutic communion.
Just as Jesus in the garden evaluated the ways of life and death before him, so, too, must traumatized clients choose what they are willing to countenance. As I am wont to say to clients, “It’s a real risk, and a real choice.” In the therapeutic relationship the survivor is not left to do this alone. Survivor and therapist look at the life the client is living over against the life “before” and the hoped-for “after.” In the meeting of holy communion, which is to say, truly encountering both God and another human being such that their life touches yours, all are changed. This is the liminal space in which healing is enacted. In that space, living and meeting become our communion. In that space, our communion can mark the beginnings of salvation.
In a very real sense, therapist and client take turns offering the bread of their bodies and the wine of their blood to one another. The client says, “This is my body” each time she is present to her trauma, present to that which has cost her what she knew of life. The therapist offers, “This is my blood, my passion for you and life and becoming offered in response to your trauma.” On the altar of pain, a holy consubstantiation occurs, an offering of self to community and God enacted in this microcosm.
If we are to honestly enter into the grief of others as clinicians, we must remember the pain of this loss every week when we come to the altar (in this case, the therapy room). We must remember the work of Jesus in choosing the cup that did not pass from him. We must also remember that we cannot (and should not) force change or growth, but rather love with the hope of it.
The therapeutic communion is situated within a relationship that acknowledges the realities of life and death, the death could have won the day and the life that somehow prevailed. The therapy hour can be transformed into the real presence of God between therapist and client every time they come together. There is no visible change in the pair, no mystical transfiguration of either person. Yet the hour is consubstantiated in the sense that both persons are becoming more substantial with one another, through one another, and in one another and God.
This is the mystery of healing: That two broken persons choose to enter a mutually vulnerable relationship, taking turns being brave and witnessing the other’s courage. For though the therapist rarely shares their own life’s experiences with trauma clients, they must choose to hear the unspeakable, to join the client in pain so sharp, agony so deep, it threatens their own well-being. We offer our bodies and blood trusting that the God who is in all things chooses to be present in that place, too. We offer our bodies and blood expecting they will be not only who we are, but also more than we are, a hope for becoming realized in this present presence. We offer our bodies and blood uncertain of how precisely the mystery of healing works, trusting the God who suffers with us, too, to become more substantive, more embodied, in the process.
Like communion, therapy is a ritual that can help survivors move through their trauma in the context of a safe-enough relationship. Like any other ritual, it can take time to establish comfort and safety. For example, most of us did not memorize the words to the Apostles’ Creed upon our first recitation thereof. We had to practice within our community, to feel the words in our mouths, to make connections between its lines, phrases, and postures. In like manner, we must practice therapy, the vulnerabilities, expressions, and unique language inherent thereto. When we have practiced these things with a safe-enough other, and when we have been challenged to allow others to meet our needs, we may begin to remember the community and our place within it. This is exactly what can happen in good therapy-as-ritual. The communion of therapy can infuse much-needed hope on the way to courageous living.
Heather G. Hunnicutt holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s in professional counseling, a master’s in theological studies, and a doctorate in theology. She is a licensed professional counselor where she specializes in trauma recovery. Heather is also pastor of Salem United Church of Christ. She spends her days with her five children, seeking after joy and transformation.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love