A Flicker of Communion

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By Naomi Williams | Twitter: @NaomiWilliams87

Nov_NaomiLast night we gathered around the table. It was an unexpected surprise at the end of another frazzled week, and it allowed us to look into one another’s eyes across the uneven-polka-dotted tablecloth and open up communication lines until we danced and cried and laughed and prayed.

I’ve been thinking lately about Communion, of the healing and grace that is experienced around the table. Come, Jesus says, all who are thirsty. Come you poor and broken-hearted, come you angry and disillusioned, come you dirty and ashamed—I welcome you. I want to be close enough to take your hand. I want to heal and cleanse and nourish and make you whole.

I read Shauna Niequist’s gorgeous Bread and Wine—like liquid soul-honey. A reminder that food and the table lie at the heart of what it is to be human—that we have needs which are holy to satisfy. In some strange, mysterious way, the nourishment we put in our mouths becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. It becomes to us the body and the blood; the stuff of grace, community, forgiveness, truth-telling.

In my work with prisoners, my days are filled with the harsh jarring of life on the outside, and that on the inside. After spending a day in prison, confronted with the heart-breaking realities within, I somehow walk out free.

On this particular day in a bustling London prison, I got to thinking: do prisoners ever eat together? It struck me how often I had heard prisoners describing meals eaten alone on trays in their cells, sometimes untouched. Multiple stories, multiple faces. Connected by a tangible thread of loneliness.

Food exists to aid survival—no more.

But this is a cruel and grotesque distortion. Our society—reflected most acutely in the prison system (for in the words of Nelson Mandela, “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”)—fails to recognise that in denying the essence of what it means to be fully human, sucks out Truth, a chance for a better Way, and ultimately, Life.

Eighty years old and in a wheelchair, Stephen* eats every meal alone in his cell, and his eyes speak of malnourishment, so much so that it’s hard for me to look him in the eye. “If there was a switch to turn off this life,” he whispered. “I would press it. Life is finished. There is no space left for me in this world any more.”

And his story is echoed in the dark spaces behind bars across the country. The blood which flows from wound after wound in these places are rivers attesting to the truth that our prisons draw blood away from the heart, not towards it.

There’s a fist-clench mentality, a belief that grace is not sufficient to deal with an open table full of people and life and mess and risk. And slowly but surely, a survival mentality takes away the will to survive.

Prisoners are at an advantage, in that the choices they have made are staring at them in the face, in the ID card with their unique number, faceless numbers. What if prisoners were encouraged to sit together in communion, acknowledging that yes, this is hard. Yes, we’ve screwed up. And yes, I see you. I see you. I see you, sister.

I heard that another prisoner was upset that the sachets of butter he’d been saving every mealtime had been taken away by a suspicious officer during a cell search. (Have you ever heard of a butter bomb? Me neither.) He had just wanted to make a cake for his cell-mate’s birthday. Although this broke my heart, it’s a sign, a flicker of Communion already breathing cracks into walls.

I had nothing to say, in the end, to Stephen. I remembered that Jesus wept. That I did. But where was the raising to life that followed?

I guess that is part of what communion is all about. To come to the table with all of our unanswered questions. Allowing the tears of the Comforter to cleanse our bruised hearts, Life-blood invited back towards the Source. And slowly, across the uneven polka dots, tears of why? and how long? unearth the resurrection-joy which somehow never fails to shine through the cracks.

*not his real name

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About Naomi:

Naomi WilliamsMy name is Naomi. This gives a clue as to the English and Japanese in me but my favourite thing about it is the Hebrew meaning: “pleasant”—a reminder that somehow I am pleasing to my heavenly Father. I am continually turned upside down by this. Until recently I’ve been a prison lawyer and I’ve loved seeing what God is up to in these darkest of places. I’m ridiculously grateful to be living in community with three of my favourite women in East London who ask the ‘tough-love’ questions, choose grace, have the best conversations on the staircase and crack out the Macklemore dancing in PJs at 2am. I believe in a full life but learning that this doesn’t mean bursting at the seams. I have a soft spot for homemade rosemary bread, Donald Miller, surprise letters from far away and writing about faith and flailing here. My heart is a little bit in the bustle of London where I live, a little bit in the cherry-tree’d loveliness of Japan with my family, and a bit in the steamy banana fields of East Africa which keep calling me back.

You can connect with Naomi on her blog and on twitter.

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Image credit: Aapo Haapanen

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