Returning to the Table of the Church

Letter from Abby Ellis

Photo by Annie Spratt

Photo by Annie Spratt

Dear Sisters.

I was loved well, lost, and found again around a table.

Around my family table, I learned to share food and story and time. I learned to linger long with lasagna, black coffee, and laughter over tales of where our army family had been, stories of all we had seen and done. My mama hosted cadets and cousins, priests and friends, from across the ocean. She made a table so inviting I’ve lingered next to her there, if only in my mind, for nearly thirty-five years.

We shared space on Sunday too - the six of us hand in hand, thigh to thigh. Kneeling shoulder to shoulder. Overseas, we celebrated mass as we traveled; we were as creative as our family priest. We partook of the Eucharist in airports, hotel rooms, and on European trains. We shared communion in an Israeli kibbutz, down a catacomb in Rome, and - for my first time - a small side chapel in St. Peter’s. I equated the mass with family, not location; communion with relationship, not just a piece of bread. Wherever we were, we broke bread. Our life was liturgy. We ate together; we worshipped together, and as a family on the move, we kept time together. My table was universal. And deeply intimate.

By the age of ten, my postcards bulged from scrapbooks. My souvenirs impressed at show and tell. But my favorite places remained home and church - dinner and the mass. The truth is, Sisters, you can taste and see all there is; the world is a feast. But many have perished for want of a place at the table for lack of good food.  

I know because I nearly perished myself. Over time, my tables became distorted. Direct questions about Catholicism left me confused and defensive: Why confession, why the saints, why Mary? Is faith alone enough, is scripture your final authority? What about Martin Luther? My experiences couldn’t withstand pointed questions from critics. My innocent love of family and food couldn’t make up for what I lacked in catechesis. Misunderstood in a crowd, I chose comfort over confrontation. I stayed silent about my faith. 

At home, my table changed too. I quietly observed while my parents prayed and siblings struggled. Our togetherness waned and the table became sparse. My father commuted to the west coast. My sister, ten years older, moved in and out of our home. My brothers struggled with the law. One left on a prayer for bootcamp and I grieved alone. The other tried on a fresh start too, all dressed in university khakis instead of LA blue. He ran with a whole new crowd and  I was hopeful, for both of them - but my people were gone. Everyone who colored my growing up had moved on and when family shifts, foundations shift too.   I studied late, I practiced hard. Stood alone between my parents at mass.  I achieved awards and stockpiled praise. I had big plans, and I shouldered my dreams while stifling a weighty ache. As a little, girl I once brought levity to the family meal. I came by it honestly enough. But my place became a burden and a pedestal. It became lonely. My family and community kindly affirmed me, stroked and stoked my ego. Truth is, I was being devoured - consumed by praise and expectation, performance and future plans, the weight of unseen struggle, the burden of soldiering onward. I needed permission to fall apart, permission to acknowledge my gnawing hunger and fatigue. My two best places, the places that once named and nourished me, become places of scarcity.

By eighteen, I rejected the table altogether: I left the Church and its teachings I couldn’t defend. I rejected my community who attempted to throw me a line. I left mealtime because good girls don’t overtly fall apart. I couldn’t have named it then, but by rejecting food and care, I rejected all my fear and sorrow and fatigue. I rejected the painful present; I rejected a future that felt impossible. Over the howl of a slow-growing self-contempt, I did my quiet best to disappear.

Sisters, I had left myself. For the next five years, I forgot how to nourish my body and soul. In self-preservation, I settled for cheap fare in places that required little of me. I fed on crumbs; I gave crumbs away. I blended in and mistook sameness for security. I spent years slouching out of sight, speaking with a whisper, feeding on fodder. And when you’ve got no real place, no real appetite, you can wonder if you exist anymore at all. 

I don’t know if I’ve ever been more lost. But at my lowest, I met the Father in the psalms.

You have made known to me the path of life. You will fill me with joy in your presence…

I wanted to live. I wanted to be full.  

Once married, we dove into a vibrant non-denominational community but I remained quietly and chronically underfed. Then, during a family celebration, after my father’s ordination to the diaconate, I sat next to my childhood priest. I had just inhaled the mass like fresh air. It had felt like home. Leaning into his shoulder I whispered, “We’re never really full without communion, are we?” He just smiled and leaned into me. His silent counter-gesture resonated in deep, still empty, places. He had given a most tender invitation: whenever you’re ready…

I didn’t fully return to the Church for ten more years. I wandered in and out of mass alone, maybe once or twice a year and hiding in the back pew, whenever life felt heavy. I’d feel the full weight of my body there on my knees and breathe relief … Happy are those called to the supper of the Lamb.  And I was. That happy hour felt like home, like the family I needed, like the mealtime I missed. But our life and marriage was wrapped up in a thriving ministry and community. Our very best friends were gifted pastors. We had babies together and we were growing in wisdom and faith. We were committed to each other and to the Word and to discipleship. We sort of had it all.

And I wanted more.

It had been a solid year since I sneaked alone to mass, not since a group of women stopped me on the sidewalk of a monastery the previous March.  I’d traveled alone to a Benedictine community for a quiet retreat, followed a woman who would lead us in thanksgiving - a writer who felt more like a kindred. I’d have followed her anywhere, the monastery was a side note, a coincidence. On my birthday with a baby in my belly, I flew cross country to find myself awakened each dawn to bells beckoning us pilgrims to prayer. I cried with the psalms, unable to sing my parts in the chanting back-and-forth. The monks paid no mind as I cried onto the chapel’s cork floor. It absorbed my tears and my cry for Home and the surprising sadness was nearly too much. I decided to stop the wavering, the indecision. I would cut all ties and be grateful for my present faith. But then those women prayed over me. We’ve just gathered to pray that you might return to the church someday … you and your entire family. Defensive and pessimistic about such a change, I headed for the airport. I didn’t look back.

But a year later, on Holy Thursday, I practically ran back to mass.  I closed the final chapter of a book that spoke intimately of the Last Supper. On the page, I read the question I couldn’t face in that monastery chapel with the psalms ringing in my ears. How much communion do you really want to have with me? The question spilled over my heart and landed in my gut. I sped to church before I could overthink.

During the Mandantum, I leaned forward with my head in my hands. Tears fell hard, splashing onto concrete between my feet. I wiped my nose like a toddler without a tissue. I watched the masses walk forward for bread and wine, their hands outstretched, and I knew. On the evening of the institution of the Eucharist, I had to decide. Would I finally allow my empty places to be filled? Would I come home to the table or not? 

That evening, I knew I was home. Afraid to leave and forget, I watched prostrated adorers until midnight. I’d spent too many years being hungry. I couldn’t bear to leave. I also couldn’t ask my husband to join me. The cost would be too high. But in the coming months, propped up on his pillow at night, he read book after book. Finally one evening, he said it clear as day: it’s time. He reasoned, steady and certain: “If the Eucharist is real, and I think it is, then how can we stay away?”

The following Easter, we knelt shoulder to shoulder with our hands outstretched. We ate a meal of bread and wine. We were full and happy - me and my family at the table. 

Sisters, can you hear it? The Church can manage your hunger. The Church asks you to come, to ask, to walk bravely forward with your palms turned upward, cupped and ready to receive the good gift.

The Church can be a safe homecoming. A family that meets and dines together, shares stories of where it’s been. A meal where every place is marked, each member seen and known…named and missed when absent. A table where none is better than the other, no time elapsed too long. No hunger that can’t be satiated.

Handwritten quote from the writer

Today I'm a wife and mama to six. We are at home in the Church and our life is full. I sit with my family, at home,  around the table. We laugh, cry, connect, and clash. We watch for signs of struggle. Hunger cues. I remember how my mama fed us well, with intention and with kindness. At the table, we recall and reconcile. We eat and drink. We return, again and again, because there is always more goodness to come.

Sisters, as long as you’re human and hungry you will need a place to be fully known, fully seen. Regardless of resume, history, performance, appearance, status, or neurosis - it’s relationship that fully fills. At the mass, there’s no better family with no smaller demand, no finer fare. Come to the table, sisters. You don't have to live hungry any longer.

Dear sisters, the world says we belong by being better. The world asks you to ignore your hunger pains and press on. There is valor in the wasting away as long as you’re still ascending. But pedestals leave us high and exposed and being visible isn’t the same as being valued. Get too high and the scavengers will pick you to the bone. Sisters, the world says a platform with perfect answers and loud applause is all you need. But at the mass, there is only One lifted high. And, praise God, it isn’t you or me. Sisters, seated shoulder to shoulder alongside family, you can rest and belong.

In your hunger, Jesus beckons, "Come and consume, come dine with the only One who satisfies."  

Friend, you belong at the table. If it’s been awhile, I’d be honored to save you a place. I think I see your name.

Abby Ellis_2.jpg

About the Writer: Abby Ellis

Abby is a wife to one handsome guy and mama to six. Married for eighteen years, they (re)entered the Church in 2012 and are deeply grateful for their years within a flourishing protestant community. There, they were nurtured toward spiritual growth, developed a love for the Word, and steeled a commitment to discipleship. Together, they lead youth groups, mission trips, and small groups for six years. Today, Abby homeschools her brood, ages 3-13, and is thrilled to tend a flock right under her own roof. Currently, she’s training to care for others in wounded places, where the hope of the Gospel collides with stories of trauma and harm. She’s a writer wanna-be and has scribbled words for as long as she’s been able. Abby loves beauty, humanity, and the Church. She believes in a wild, tender Father who pursues and holds out audacious hope for unity around One table.

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The Catholic Woman - Returning to the Table of the Church

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