Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Healing Pain of Our Divisions IV

Officialdom, of course, officially forbids our sharing Eucharist together, claiming that we must all believe the same, that we must conform to certain statements of belief or polity, failing to acknowledge in its presumption that the heart of the human encounter with God, particularly in Communion, is inarticulate. Inarticulate, too, is the pain at the heart of our shared Eucharists; we have no illusions of institutional unity, but we do know the joy of brokenness made whole through God willingly ruined for us, made one in that broken Body.

While the leaders of the church wrangle over power and privilege, we gaze at one another across the Crucified who at once lies between us and unites us. The genius of Christianity is that it takes pain seriously, so that even as we Break Bread together, the pain of our divisions frees us form delusions of control over God and becomes an agent of transfiguration and joy.

People in persecuted churches, whether persecuted by the political arm or by their own ecclesiastical leaders, have always understood this role of pain and the importance of the self-emptying God. People understand it as well today as they did in the early Syriac churches, which have long been labeled "dualistic", "heretic", and "schismatic". Only today are scholars free enough, thanks to the ecumenical movement—thanks to the revelation of the last thirty years of how much theology at the official level has political power as its motivating force and subtext, pushing it toward ineluctable conclusions—only today are scholars able to take a new look at early texts from Semitic Christianity, a Christianity that shows little Hellenizing influence, texts that reveal a Christianity much closer to the Gospel of Jesus than what has evolved inside institutions, East or West.

These documents are only now being translated into English and coming into general circulation, thanks largely to the efforts of Dr. S.P. Brock. St Ephrem (4th c.) and St Isaac of Nineveh (7th c.), the grassroots ecumenist experiences the joy of recognition. Here is the kenotic God who goes to the heart of pain and finds new life, hope, joy; here is a theology that embraces the paradox and ambiguity of life, that reverences the creation, that reveals the play of Presence, Absence, and indwelling, putting on and taking off metaphors.

God has made small His majesty
by means of these borrowed names.
For we should not imagine
that he has completely disclosed His majesty....
but it represents only what we are capable of:
what we perceive as His majesty is but a tiny part.

Loving is the Lord who Himself put on our names--
right down to the mustard seed was He abased in the parable.
He gave us His names, He received from us our names;
His names did not make Him any the greater,
whereas our names made Him small.
Blessed is the person who has spread Your fair name, Lord,
over his own name, and adorned with Your names his own names.

Why, the inevitable question arises, have these texts remained so long hidden from us, especially when they open scripture and pierce the heart, leading us to the silence of the divine exchange? The Orthodox monk may nod wisely, having had a Greek, somewhat altered, version of Isaac as his sole guide in the early years of his monastic life. But monasticism is legendary for its role in ecclesiastical power politics, and the churches of Eastern Christianity play the same power games as the churches in the West on a different board.

Yet people still seek the ideal, the divine folly of singleness of heart, often hidden entirely under the camouflage of family and job, not realizing that his also was the ideal of many ancient Christian communities. They try to live the Gospel ideal as the earliest solitaries did, uncompromised (they hope), by the intrusions of the political-theological push-me-pull-you of institutional hierarchies. "Flee bishops," the early desert dwellers said. Some said, "flee women," too, but then, no one is infallible, and there is little comment in the early texts on the irony that the role models of the male solitary were often the harlots of the desert.

Vatican II and the ecumenical movement were and continue to be fostered through liturgy and solitary prayer in the environment of silence, especially that offered by the houses of more formal communities. Such communities are microcosms of the world and the churches outside, fraught, sometimes, with divisions, fears, doubts as the winds of change sweep through, swirling in their wake mistakes, absurdities, and cosmetic veneer. Only today are these formal communities beginning to recover the ancient wisdom that community can be built only on the same conversion of heart that each human being must pursue in interior solitude for the sake of the world community at large.


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