Friday, January 25, 2008

13,000 +

Hey the blog broke 13,000 hits today! Thanks everybody!

If you could, please encourage people to take a look at the blog, maybe even leave a comment or two. I realize it is purely vanity on my part, but it'd be great to break 15,000 hits by the end of the month.

So what d'ya say? Want to help put me over the top?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

“Spiritual Ecumenicism, Empathy and Christian Unity”

One of the themes I am interested in addressing on this blog is what some call "spiritual ecumenism" or the reconciliation of divided Christendom through the mutual appreciation of the gifts found in different Christian communities. John Allen in his weekly online column makes a number of interesting points on just this topic as part of his coverage of events in Rome for the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Allen begins with a summary and analysis of Walter Cardinal Kasper lecture this past "Thursday afternoon at the Centro Pro Unione, in an event co-sponsored by the Friars of the Atonement along with the Lay Centre in Rome and the Vincent Pallotti Institute." While Allen characterizes the talk as the "by now become more or less his standard stump speech," there was also one (and I would say more than one) "striking note" in Kasper's presentation

According to Allen, Kasper drew an "explicit link . . . between ecumenism as largely intra-Christian effort, and ecumenism as a witness of reconciliation and peace to the broader world." At its best, ecumenical dialog between Christians bears witness to our own respective communities and the larger human family of what Kasper calls "eschatological shalom," or the lasting peace that comes as a free gift from God only. In Kasper's own words:

In a century which was one of the most dark and bloody ones, where two world wars cost the lives of millions, where two totalitarian systems and many dictatorships produced countless innocent victims, Christians stand up to overcome their centuries-old divisions, giving witness to the fact that despite guilt on all sides, reconciliation is possible.

For Kasper, ecumenical discussions over the last 100 years are "a light shining in the darkness, and a powerful peace movement." The evangelical and eschatological witness of ecumenicism, however, is not primarily a matter of modeling what might call good communication skills or an expression of an appropriate approach to conflict resolution. Rather, the power of ecumenical witness is grounded in "Spiritual empathy [the] inside understanding of a different and initially strange Christian and ecclesial form of life as well as an intimate understanding from the inside."

This empathy, this attempt at understanding Christians in other traditions, is not "a form of compromising doctrinal relativism." Far from it in fact. Understanding is impossible if one simply abandons "one's own identity in favour of an ecumenical 'hotch-potch.'" Real spiritual empathy for each other does not aim at finding "the lowest common denominator." Such an approach to ecumenicism results, at best, in the "spiritual impoverishment" of at least one side. And because they have denied their own gifts, the impoverished side also has effectively denied to its dialog partner the possibility of growing in how they understand themselves and their own tradition.

The goal rather of spiritual empathy is the "mutual spiritual enrichment" of those who seek to understand each other from within. In such an encounter, Kasper says, "we discover the truth of the other as our own truth. So through the ecumenical dialogue the Spirit leads us into the whole truth; he heals the wounds of our divisions and bestows us with full catholicity."

The standard by which we come to recognize an authentic spirituality of ecumenism according to Kasper is Pneumatological:

To think that the Spirit would not bring to an end and to fulfilment the work he initiated, would be pusillanimity. Ecumenism needs magnanimity and hope. I am convinced that, as long as we do all we can, God's Spirit will give to us one day this renewed Pentecost.

Later in the same article, Allen quotes Fr Nicholas Lossky, a Russian Orthodox priest serving in Paris. Fr Nicholas addresses in a more practical way what Kasper outlines theoretically.

Fr Nicholas is clear that the goal of ecumenicism is "the restoration, or the installation, of visible unity in a single Eucharist." I share Fr Nicholas's skepticism, however, of ecumenical prayer services that are simply a "mix and match" of elements from different Christian traditions. "For my part," Fr Nicholas writes, "I think it would be much more edifying to come together in a church and to participate there in the office of vespers of that church, whether it's Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Baptist or Pentecostal." Why? because it is only "In that way, [that] we truly learn the way in which the 'other' prays."

As I have said in earlier posts, I do not wish to minimize the importance of formal, theological dialog. At the same time, and especially on the grassroots level, ecumenical encounters must proceed along a path that allows for the mutual spiritual enrichment of Christians of different traditions. To be of value in this way, we must take seriously the ascetical task of empathy for one for another. As we search for such an empathetic encounter, we must guard against any form of relativism. Far from expressing a concern for the other, or a respect for our differences, relativism dismisses our differences and (in so doing) dissolves both our own uniqueness and that of our dialog partners.

In a marriage it is easy to lose sight of the fact that a disagreement is not about who is right and who is wrong in any absolute sense. Disagreements between husband and wife are, or at least should be, reflect their mutual attempt to discern together God's call for their shared life. Thinking about a divided Christendom in terms of marriage is helpful for me. In the Orthodox Church we have a service for the restoration for a marriage of those who have been divorced. It is a brief service, the central part of which is this prayer said by the priest:

Master, lover of mankind, King of the ages and Creator of all things, who destroyed the middle wall of enmity and granted peace to the human race, we pray and implore you, look on your servants, N. and N., pour your blessing upon them. Restore the peace that had been troubled and plant in their hearts love for each other. Bestow richly on them spiritual calm and life unassailed, so that, having lived out their days in calm of soul, they may enjoy your own good things and glorify you, alone God of love and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom belong all glory, honour and worship, now and for ever, and to the ages of ages.

We can leave for another day the difference in Orthodox and Catholic pastoral practice in the face of divorce. But for now, it seems to me that whatever other lesson we ought to draw from the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we ought to first mourn that, because of our own sinfulness, Christians remain divided. For this reason, we are like the divorced, but not as yet, reconciled couple. Following the example of those who reconcile after the tragedy of divorce, we must ask God to restore to divided Christendom "the peace that had been troubled and plant in [our] hearts love for each other."

Most importantly we should cling to the reality that God is All-Merciful and that, as the prayer above suggests, He longs to destroy "the middle way of enmity" between us and through us grant "peace to the human race." If we allow God to do so, we will pour out on us and our communities, "spiritual calm and life unassailed" so that we may live out our "days in calm of soul" enjoying together the many "good things" He has given us each in the other.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory