The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
EASTER II: Companionship, not networking
© 2013 Frank B Crumbaugh III
Historian Theodore Zeldin has written: “Companionship has been replaced by networking.” The precision of the remark captivates me. Thank you, Dr. Zeldin.
Companion is a lovely word. The OED has companion entering English usage circa 800CE, and like so many other words, its connotation has morphed as its denotation has. In its earliest usage, it meant one with whom one ate- com/with panis/bread... almost immediately companion took on its first and sturdiest connotation, describing a person with whom one feels safe and close enough to share a meal. An Old High German cognate is galeipo- “mess-mate.” Latterly companion has come to carry a broader, weaker connotation. We now choose the word to describe, perhaps more tepidly than we mean, an amiable associate or a buddy; in that usage we lose the noun’s primary robust strength.
Now before I wander deep into the etymological woods never to be seen again, please know that there is a point bearing upon the Gospel:
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"
Thomas has taken a two-millennia-long beating for insisting that until he is in the presence of Jesus and is able to touch Him, he (Thomas) will not believe. Thomas’ demand is met, and he is forever changed. This Gospel moment has provided countless opportunities for unimaginative Low Sunday preaching, and because we know the story so well, we often breeze past it, failing to contemplate deeply its possibilities. Lying behind our facile interpretations of this Gospel is an extraordinarily simple yet profound prior condition that had to be met. That’s where Zeldin’s “Companionship has been replaced by networking” comes to bear upon the Gospel.
That prior condition is presence- literal presence- as companions, as “mess-mates.” “You had to be there” is not flippant, it’s precise. Thomas could not network his Faith, no matter how compelling his friends reports were or how blessed he might have been for believing without seeing. He had to be there; he had to be close enough in a way that might permit a meal with Jesus. He had to have manifested to himself once more the goods of the relationship that had made Jesus Thomas’ companion in the first place. Thomas’ frustrated insistence demanded it; he needed his companion. The radical change was not wrought in Thomas until he and Jesus were together in the same place at the same time. In the moment described in today’s Gospel, networking is superseded by the companionship thought by Thomas to be forever lost. It got personal. It was not the elegance of the lecture hall but rather the intimacy of table conversation that had won Thomas in the first place. Why would he, or we watching him, assume that companionship’s intimacy would become any less vital after the Crucifixion?
Current strategies from some evangelical quarters would have us “tweet” or “text” from the pew in Church: “Great music today at Holy Innocents’/Beach Haven. Flowers gorgeous.” Such networking, while mildly interesting for a micro-second, carries the same weight as “Gasoline 2¢ cheaper today at Wawa” or “Eating lunch at Buckalew’s; chicken pot pie too hot.” Our childish wonder at the novelty of wireless communication displaces the privileged fascination of being present to know someone. A weak impulse to “share” supplants the better desire to genuinely communicate, and as so many social commentators have noted, quantity of data subsumes quality of communication. Even if a “Church-tweet” says “Utterly transformed receiving The Blessed Sacrament today,” it remains data...informative perhaps, and ultimately inconsequential in its import. The best that can be said for such networking is that it may serve as an oblique invitation to Church; if we really are losing our capacity to personally and directly invite someone to Church, then I hope networking technology will be used frequently with that intent.
That said, an iPhone cannot be a companion nor can it convey The Blessed Sacrament anywhere. You can’t have Communion via a network. No matter how persuasive the research is about how human beings are establishing ”communities” in new ways using social media and networking, the low-tech choice remains: we can be companions, or we can fill cyberspace talking about it...companionship or networking- we cannot substitute the latter for the former.
The Presence is called the Presence because it is a manifested physical reality in a place at a time. The Presence is not a mere theological construct suggesting that God’s everywhere all the time. Showing up- being Present- counts, and God knows this better than any of us. So we see the mystery of Jesus showing up to be born, crucified, buried resurrected, ascended as both Bread and companion.
We know of the phenomenon in which human beings will speak deep things to a complete stranger on a subway platform, but not to a friend. A corollary has emerged, and we observe it as a phenomenon too: we will say things in cyber-space that we wouldn’t dream of saying in person. What’s up with that? Do we really believe that “more readers, faster please” are better, or are we scared to be together, or do we just not care to be bothered about gathering? At best, we can justify ourselves by saying we reach more people faster using social media. While that may be true, we know that we always have learned best in person- the burner’s danger is only a concept until you touch it...a hug is just an idea until someone has held you. It was a person not a network that first modeled the Faith that captivated you. It was in a shared Presence that a companion loved you, and walked with you toward Jesus that first time. It was a person, not a network, that died on The Cross. Companions are a community gathered, and when apart “mess-mates” yearn to be restored to one another. They’re that important to one another. Each Sunday the choir and servers hear me say this vestibular prayer:
“Be present, be present Lord Jesus our great High Priest, so that we cannot mistake your Presence. Be present to us as you were present to your first friends, and be known to us in the breaking of this bread.”
That prayer expresses a yearning for companionship. In it neither God nor we are networking. We are asking to have manifested once again the companionship that is life-giving to us, and we say how important it is to us first by showing up. We are praying for the companionship that the liturgy can provide- among ourselves and with Jesus. More than intellect and right-mindedness and good intention, being together can make a difference. We have to be present to one another and God. Networking may invite us there, but that’s as far as it goes. The rest relies upon companions making a commitment.
The Autumn 2011 meeting of the House of Bishops was held in Quito, Ecuador. Bishop Porter Taylor of Western North Carolina could be present only the last day, and he did indeed attend the final day of that meeting of the House. His fellow Bishops wondered at the seeming extravagance of such a journey only to be present for about 24 hours; Bishop Taylor replied, “I had to see you.” There was no substitute for the companionship of his fellow Bishops, and traveling across the Gulf of Mexico for even a short few hours together made perfect sense. In fact, nothing else would do. It was worth it to him. “I had to see you.” Bishop Taylor understands companionship.
There is no substitute for being there. None. Thomas reminds us that there is no substitute for presence in two contexts. First as we search for companions. And second as we are sought out to be companions. We naturally think of who is important to us; we are perhaps less aware many times of how important we are to others. You may know who your companions are, but do you know whose companion you are?
Networking will never get us where we want to be. Companionship will. The busy-ness of networking is safe in a way that companionship is not- that’s why networking is so attractive. We risk almost nothing to network, and we risk so much to become and remain companions. To whom are you a companion?
Genuinely, humbly understanding one’s self as important to another person is a huge leap in spiritual maturity. Authentically seeking those who are important to us, our own companions, is another leap in spiritual maturity. Our experience teaches this. We certainly have used and use still networking to convey data, yet it is as companions that we have eaten together the bread of bitterness and the bread of joy through the years.
Thomas needed the assurance of his companion Jesus before the Resurrection message about his companion could connect. Jesus knew this and obliged. We too need such assurance. I am so glad He did oblige Thomas, not just for Thomas’ sake, but for my own sake and yours as well. I am more grateful than my words can say that we are companions and not simply a network.
Love you. See you in Church
FBC3+, 23 April 2017, being The Second Sunday of Easter