Monday, September 12, 2011

Communing With Water

Yesterday marked the third time in the six weeks or so that Lauren and I have gone to First Unitarian Church in South Bend on a Sunday. It was, in a manner of speaking, Kickoff Sunday for them as much as it was for the NFL, which I suppose made our first couple visits preseason games. We got to see how the Unitarian offense and defense stacked up against the other teams we've scouted in the past. For the record: they look good this year.

Anyway, they had an interesting ceremony, which I gather is annual, called Water Communion. People brought with them water they had collected at some point in the past year or else used some of the provided water to represent symbolically some of the water that's passed through their lives. Many brought water from vacation cottages they visited, many involving long-standing traditions--and many noting that it would be the last time they went there, for one reason or another. The few words each person or family spoke pointed to more or less significant events in their lives.

We didn't go up for our first Water Communion, but it did get me to thinking about the place water has had in my life. After falling into a pool in a motel in Michigan when I was pretty young, I had a deathly fear of water that persisted more or less into my 20s, though I at least got better at masking it. As a result, although I grew up just 25 minutes off Lake Erie, I can't say that it loomed large in my childish imagination.

Water really entered my life in a significant way when I went to Kenyon College. There, one of the first things we did was learn the school songs, including "Kokosing Farewell," which is a song about the river that flows past Kenyon. I would go on to sing that song through four years of Chamber Singers--its status as the unofficial alma mater meant that we closed all of our concerts with it. The song talks about how, metaphorically, we students both were and were not like the river, then looked ahead to a time when we would be far from that river and yet feel called back, even as our lives came to a close. It's good stuff, very poetic. Anyway, the fact is that the river itself wasn't exactly omnipresent--it was a bit of a hike to get down there, so it wasn't like we spent every day looking at the river. But it was there, and more importantly it was in our imaginations as a symbol of ourselves and or our experience. That was where water became important.

Water didn't figure into graduate school life very much, but I distinctly remember my experience when I interviewed for what would be my first teaching job. Most of the interviews were done and I was sitting in front of the main administrative building, beside a fountain, thinking about whether I wanted to work there (if they even offered). And I was reminded of just how soothing the sounds of flowing water are. I suspected even then there might be something innate in us to which is speaks, and now my parenting experience seems to confirm it: babies fall asleep with relative ease under the influence of white noise machines, presumably because it takes them back to the sounds of the womb, where mother's nurturing blood was flowing all around, rhythmic waves from her heartbeat to her child by way of a substance that's mostly water. And between that fountain there in the middle of campus, the pond and its fountain on the way to the gym, and the rivers that separate the school from the town and run along another edge of the bluff on which it sits, there was a whole lot of water around there, and something about that made me feel welcome. I took the job.

When I left there five years later, I found myself living in The Ocean State. I couldn't see water from either of the apartments I lived in, but it was all around. It was in the air, the ocean scent wafting up to us. It was in the seafood section of the grocer--so much fresh fish wherever you went. It was... everywhere. I loved it.

And then, after a brief stop back at my first school. we made our way to our current school, situated on the 2nd largest natural freshwater lake in Indiana. It's a beautiful, beautiful lake, where people have beautiful, expensive homes and great summers. Unless I forget, I see the lake every day, because it's right there where I live and work. Our first year here, we made our song of the year Carbon Leaf's "Lake of Silver Bells" because it captured a certain spirit of what we wanted our life to be, a "year of living dangerously happy" as we move closer and closer to our hopes, dreams, and ideals. So far, we still think that's the kind of place we live, and that brings us full circle, to water that is both literal and symbolic.


  1. We UUs start the church year every year with the Water Communion, united by oceans, lakes, streams, pools, tears of water, throughout our lives. We're not highly bound to rituals, but this is one, I think, that speaks to all of us. We set it up so that even the smallest children can participate before they go off to their RE classes.

    "Religiosity" is abhorrent to me, but I find myself comfortable with being a Unitarian Universalist, a faith of covenant, not creed. Does your church have a covenant you recite every Sunday? I've often wondered what UU services were like outside of southern California.

  2. If your church ever has a lay-led water communion service, what you have written would make a very good sermon/homily/talk.

  3. Thanks. In a way, I suppose that's the spirit in which I was offering it, from my own little virtual pulpit. :)

    The church does have a covenant that they recite each Sunday--everyone forms a circle around the room, we hold hands, and say (I had to look it up): "Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law. To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another; this is our covenant."

    Lauren and I visited a couple times over the summer, and those services were lay-led. And the church has a new minister, so she was new to everyone else almost as much as she was to us. She's serving in an interim capacity, for two years.

  4. We say,
    Love is the doctrine of this church and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve humanity in fellowship, thus do we covenant.