Monday, November 06, 2006

The Healing Pain of Our Divisions VI

[NB: these six posts were originally a talk given to a Benedictine community in the late 1980s.]

My experience, when I crossed the lines, was not without difficulty. It was fraught with and illuminated by conflicting attitudes toward the pain of our divisions within the community that nurtured me. But the discernment I received was nonetheless in the mind of Christ. My brothers-in-God refused to give me the slightest hint as to what the authentic shape of my life might turn out to be; what was important was the desire for purity of heart. They tested and affirmed me; they set me free; they encouraged and gave me confidence that I could take the risks as responsibly as anyone; that it was, in the end, in the fiery, loving mercy of God that I was staking my life; and this would mean the crucifixion that accompanies any refusal to bow to the pressures of political expediency at the expense of truth.

I have tried to pass on what I have received to those who in turn have crossed the lines into the space of my solitude, perplexed, sometimes badly damaged, seeking "to live only in order to receive mercy" uncompromised and undistracted, each in a unique way. Discernment, refreshment, counsel, humility, respect, shared wisdom: these arise from the grounding, the leavening, the transfiguration that spring from honestly acknowledging the pain of our divisions.

Inevitably, these experiences across the lines have changed my perspective and raised uncomfortable questions, questions that resolve into one: ought we to want to heal the pain of our divisions? Is this what Christ meant in the words recorded in John 17?

The journey into God has many way-stations, times and seasons, levels of understanding, perspectives. Or, to use a less linear image from ancient times, the resurrection is the same moment for all of us, for God is like the center of a sphere, and all time, which is the surface of the sphere, is the same moment for God. Sometimes we need highly structured religion and many words; at other times, by grace, though we can never relinquish the necessity of simple thanksgiving, simple petition, simple (and occasionally splendid) Eucharist, structures fall away, words and images dissolve into apophatic Silence and re-emerge, transfigured.

Over the years my initial enthusiasm for structural organic unity has waned. Human language is too inadequate, human thought processes and perspectives too limited, change too rapid, the temptations to expediency in service of power in religious institutions too great. For me, ARCIC, whose struggles have shortened the lives of some of its members, is more important as an icon than for its conclusions. Dialogue is essential; may dialogue across all religious lines never case. But the commitment to listen and to risk is more important than joint statements that are soon out of date, which may be ignored or rejected by those in power whose values and agendas differ.

The organic unity we seek, not only as churches but as human beings, is in the Eucharist alone, the sacrament of lived kenosis. In many churches in early Christianity, all you had to do was hold out your hand, no questions asked, to partake of the holy table. The Eucharist is to be shared among all who desire it as the "means to unity," in the words of the Roman Canon of the Mass; for we are sharing the Christ who is crucified by the wounds of our divisions, and through whose wounds we are healed. It was ever thus, if we read history, and always will be, if we understand human nature. Why not acknowledge the fact that our divisions reflect the reality of the human condition, the pain, paradox, and ambiguity incarnated and sanctified by Christ, whom we share as the medicine of life, not as a reward for good behavior or recitiing correct formulae?

The decline of the ecumenical movement at the institutional level has come not only from outmoded concepts of organic unity but, more tragically, from a major shift away from the repentance and humility that marked the early days of Vatican II, when awareness of the pain of our divisions was acute. I believe in those days officialdom was more open to the Holy Spirit, more open to the fiery anointing of penthos, to compunction for distortions of the Gospel, for competition and abuse of power in the name of a humble God, the burnings and the blood. It was for envy they crucified him; it was expedient that one should die.

Do we really want to heal the pain of our institutional divisions? Because it is through this pain that we receive repentance and compassion, that we find the deepest level of unity in hearts fed, broken and transfigured by the Wine of Mercy, the Bread of life, Christ, in whom all divisions cease.


Notes for all six parts of this article:

" greater than ourselves." The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature, 1984: Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

"...softened by tears from stone to flesh." "...the lifegiving tears that come from a heart suddenly open to live and love." Benedicta Ward in Harlots of the Desert, 1987: Kalamazoo, Cistercian, p. 2.

"...efforts of Dr. S.P. Brock." See, for example, The Luminous Eye, 1991: Kalamazoo, Cistercian; St Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Paradise, 1990: Crestwood, SVS Press; The Syriac Fathers at Prayer, 1987 Kalamazoo, Cistercian; a forthcoming translation of the long-lost book II of Isaac the Syrian, which Dr Brock discovered in 1983, as well as numerous earlier publications. All of Dr Brock publications contain excellent blbliographies. Translations of Syriac authors have for some time been available in Latin, French and German.

"...putting on and taking off metaphors." St Ephrem, Hymns on Faith 44:2 quoted in The Luminous Eye, p. 44.
Ephrem, Faith 5:7, idem.

"...His majesty is but a tiny part." St. Ephrem, Heresies 30:4, ibid., p. 48.
"...with your names His own names." St. Ephrem, Faith 5:7, idem.

"...his monastic life." See for example, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, tr. Dana Miller, 1984: Boston, Holy Transfiguration Monastery. [NB update, Nov. 6, 2006. A western Orthodox monk has objected to this remark. Evidently Orthodox monks are no longer trained this way in the West; perhaps my source (an Orthodox Bishop) meant that it once obtained and perhaps still does in certain monasteries in the East. In any event, Isaac's text would suffice if it were the only one available.]

"...ancient Christian communities." See my Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood,and Spiritual Maturity, 1988: San Francisco, Harper and Row, chapters 4 and 5 for a discussion of Syrian notions of virginity as singleness of heart, and Benedicta Ward's discussion in Harlots, p. 103. "The idea that a monk can 'keep' a virginity of body by his own prudent behaviour is here shown to be facile. 'Virginity', they say in this tradition, 'is restored by tears', and these stories show that in fact it is also created by tears. The only virginity for the monk is Christ. All are sinners, alienated from God, no one having virginity either by nature or by works.... In the baptism of water which is renewed by the tears of repentance, the monk receives Christ as virginity."

"...harlots of the desert." "Their decision to live only in order to receive mercy, was for them the beginning of a life, often a life of struggle to make real and actual the act of that mercy in their is not [sin] which is the pride which cannot bear to have fallen and therefore cannot ask for forgiveness and mercy, that is the failure." Harlots, p. 6.

"...environment of silence." See the Swanwick Declaration, 1987, which affirms that the deepest unity is in the "silence beyond words" in which we become no longer strangers but pilgrims.

"...expediency at the expense of truth." St Ephrem, Faith 10:8, 13, Luminous Eye, p. 82.

" live only in order to receive mercy." Harlots, op. cit.

"...whom we share as the medicine of life?" St Ephrem, Virginity 31:3, Nisibis 46: 8, Luminous Eye, p. 77.

" of mercy" [original is "Grape"] St Ephrem, Virginity 31:3, ibid., p. 77


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