I am also thinking about Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which I have been reading with my American literature students. Most of my students are really, really young, and it’s not an easy book for them. When I asked them to write down their initial questions, a few wrote, “Why did you assign this weird book?” It’s full of terrible people and terrible crimes, racial hatred and incest and dead fathers. “Ridiculous epic incest,” as one student put it. So why did I assign it?
Yesterday we looked at a chapter in which there are two communions. Ruth, the mother of the main character, tells about attending a Catholic wedding and taking communion ignorantly, even though she is not a Catholic. The priest finds her out, but somehow, despite everything (race is also involved, as it always is in Morrison), she receives communion. At her own dinner table she recounts this story and it infuriates her husband. He strikes her, and her son defends her. What I wanted students to notice is that the dinner table has become a second communion. We could say that the dinner table is the desacralized communion. Certainly something is broken here. But merely paying attention to this scene allows us to raise better questions than “Why did you assign this weird book?”
Why does the father get angry when he hears this story? Is religion somehow on trial here? Why would the mother tell this story about herself, and tell it as though she is bragging? Is she proud of having received communion? Of breaking a boundary? Why does the son finally defend his mother in this scene, under these circumstances? When Morrison had every possiblity in the universe to draw from, why did she give the scene a religious twist? So why does religion have that same lig root as ligament and ligature?
Breaking bread together in a novel or short story is always symbolic of communion. And it is in life, too. I don’t know why I assign one book and not another (and most of canonical American literature is weird in one way or another).
I said to my pastor once, when I was nervous about having been asked to lead a church workshop, that I knew how to teach a class, but didn’t know if I was really qualified for that particular venture. “Bethany,” he said, in a somewhat exasperated tone, “it’s all sacred.”
When my students are at their most weird and recalcitrant, just remembering the sacred context of our gathering together is usually enough to remind me to give thanks.