LUTHERAN, CATHOLIC, AND MONASTIC PATHWAYS TO CHRIST
MY SEARCH FOR AN EXPANSIVE VISION OF THE CHURCH
When people hear that I was raised Lutheran, they sometimes become curious and ask three questions: 1) From which Lutheran synod? 2) When did you convert? and 3) Why?
I’ll attempt to formulate my thoughts here in response to these recurring questions in hopes that this exercise might help me to reflect on my personal religious wanderings while also creating a means for sharing these thoughts.
From which Lutheran synod?
My home parish, Vinje Lutheran Church in Willmar, Minnesota, was originally part of the Synoden for den Norsk Evangelisk Lutherske Kirke i America (the Norwegian ethnic synod which was affiliated with the state church in Norway). Today, Vinje is part of the larger ELCA. My grandfather (mother’s father) was a pastor of the Synoden and preached in both Norwegian and English. I also have an uncle who is an ELCA pastor, and my mother’s cousin is a retired ELCA bishop. On my father’s side, my grandmother was Augustana Synod (the Swedish ethnic church which is now ELCA), and my grandfather was baptized and confirmed Missouri Synod (German ethnic). However, my dad was raised in the Norwegian church because my Swedish grandmother and German grandfather joined a Norwegian congregation.
When did you “convert?”
In responding to that question, I let people know that I was already converted to Christ long before I ever set foot in a Catholic church. My monastic confreres simply say, “He’s a Lutheran monk – he never converted.” However, I prefer to refer to the Benedictine vow of “conversatio morum,” which is a life-long pursuit of turning (or converting) to Christ in repentance and acceptance of grace. Of course, the pursuit of this vow is not exclusively monastic – it is in essence a way living out one’s baptismal vows. But even more, it is a turning to the God who eagerly welcomes us, clothes us with inexhaustible love, kills the fatted calf, and bids us come to the table. So to my answer to “When did you convert?” – it’s a lifetime of singing poet Robert Bridges’ Jesu, joy of man’s desiring (sung to a variant of the tune WERDE MUNTER, MEIN GEMÜTE; cf., the chorale in Bach’s cantata, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147).
Yet if the question is rephrased, “When were you received into formal communion with the Christians of the historic church of Rome?”, my reply is that occurred in June 1971, when I renewed my baptismal vows and confessed the Nicene Creed in the presence of Sister Katherine Kraft OSB and Fr. William Vos at Christ Church, the Newman Centre on the banks of the Mississippi, by St. Cloud State University.
Why did I enter into formal communion with the Christians of the historic church of Rome? For the entire duration of my student days at SCSU, I worshipped at Christ Church of the Newman Centre, sang in the choir, and served as an organist there. With its reverberant space, I found the acoustics favourable for choral singing and playing the tracker organ there.
The life of faith and the manifestation of faith in the great music of the church became inseparable for me. As a Lutheran, I was already formed in the chorales and in plainsong (we sang an 11th century plainsong setting of the liturgy every Sunday at my hometown Lutheran parish). However, I also had a deep hunger for Latin 16th century polyphonic motets which I experienced by singing in the Christ Church Choir. My faith was also nourished by our singing of African American spirituals, Mozart masses, Anglican anthems, and the Lutheran chorales (which continue to be a bedrock of faith for me). I am fanatical enough about sacred music in its diverse manifestations that I’d like to alter the hymn by Bishop Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig, “Built on a rock the church doth stand” to “Built on the psalms the church doth stand.”
Because the singing of the liturgy and the faith of the church go hand-in-hand, as with the inter-dynamic of the lex orandi est lex credendi (the way of praying is the way of believing), it was also necessary for me to seek how the church understands the Christian faith in its teaching and preaching. Thus it came as a blessing to me that the faith as it was taught at Christ Church sounded Lutheran to my ears, especially as the priests preached justification by faith. Likewise, it helped that the pastoral staff expressed deep respect for the Lutheran Church and were committed to ecumenism. Fr. Wilfred Illies had even attended the 1968 Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Uppsala, Sweden (the seat of the archbishop & primate of The Church of Sweden).
Yet in my own love of ecumenism, I do not wish to underestimate the deepening of the commitment that is needed in order to see and understand what our Lord desires for us when he prayed, “that they may be one” (John 17:11). In my own attempt to understand our calling to oneness, I would like to make an attempt to identify the keys that may further open the way to knowing the authenticity of the faith we confess: 1) the Word, 2) the Holy Spirit, and 3) the Apostolicity in the life of the church.
In the glorious and gleaming prism of faith, there is the manifestation of the Word – the Word made flesh (John 1:14), the indwelling of the Word (Col. 3:16), the Word that proclaims the promise, the Word revealed in Scripture, the Word that validates the Sacraments, and the Word that endures forever (just to name some of the familiar ways the Word is expressed as the leaven that gives form to our common Christian life and nourishes it). As one nurtured in the Lutheran Church, “the Word” continues to be my anchor of faith and continues to call me to renewal. The Word is key to understanding and articulating the faith of the church. This process of understanding and articulating the faith is a gift that churches can offer to the ongoing work of ecumenism, and by doing this be renewed in the inexhaustible treasures which the Word bears for us and be drawn into a deeper and richer unity.
The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is the key to opening the Word.
First comes the movement of air, be it the stirring of a gentle breeze as in 1 Kings 19:12, or the powerful wind in Acts 2:2, then spoken words follow.
So it is with the church – “The Spirit and the bride [the church] say ‘come’” to those who want to receive the free gift of living water (Rev. 22:17), bringing to fulfillment what the Anointed One promised to the Samaritan woman – “living water” and that we will “worship in Spirit and truth” (John 4).
By this promise of “living water” and being in the Spirit, we, as members of Christ’s body, are anointed for the purpose of worshipng in Spirit and truth and for proclaiming the Word (as the Samaritan woman did when she went to her city and testified). Being anointed by the Spirit, and equipped for proclaiming the Word, is also succinctly shown by Jesus as he reads from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news…” (Luke 4:16ff.).
But why is this important for ecumenism and the oneness of Christ’s body? In my view, this quest of focusing on the Holy Spirit as the key for opening the Word will lead us to look east, to the Eastern Orthodox churches. Students of liturgy know that it is in the rites of the eastern churches where the invocation of the Holy Spirit has historically been the most prominent. Though modern rites of western churches have somewhat recovered that which had been long eclipsed in the west, I would wish to be part of a fuller mindfulness which lets the Holy Spirit fill our theological paradoxes and invites the Holy Spirit to fill our worship with mystery. That is instinctual for eastern Christians but hard for western Christians to grasp, much less comprehend, especially where counting the minutes in worship takes precedence.
Apostolicity in the Life of the Church
Though there might be many keys on the key-ring which may be of assistance in opening ways to Christian unity, I’d like to try out the “apostolicity-key.” With my first turn of that key, the thought emerges that since Christ came as the Word made flesh, it follows that the inheritance which is ours by way of the incarnation, as well as the mysteries which were revealed in Christ, continue to be handed down to us, generation by generation, by way of an enfleshed ministry within an enfleshed community of faith.
Here my thoughts are now directed to St. Paul (or as formulated by his secretary writing on his behalf) who wrote that we “have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers” in the mystery and promise in Christ, as “revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit,” (cf., Ephesians 3:4-6). It would thus seem that what is spoken of here is not merely an abstract body of knowledge that would exist independently from the body of Christ. Rather, in my reading of this, we are as believers organically connected to the Vine, which is Christ, and we are in turn instructed by St. Paul to “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me [Paul]” (Philippians 4:9).
In drawing from our common Apostolic inheritance, I continue to ponder how we as ecumenical partners might grow together into the body of Christ (of which Christ is the head), and be “joined and knitted together by every ligament” as each part “properly promotes the body’s growth” (cf., Ephesians 4:15-16)? In approaching this question, I will not wander into speculations about historical or proposed ecclesial models which might allow for the development of full communion between churches; yet, I continue to ponder: Are there ways in which the Christians presently in formal communion with Rome may more widely discern the gifts of all the members of the royal priesthood of believers, that is the priesthood of all the living stones of the temple “who offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (cf., 1 Peter 2)? Perhaps, in the present state of affairs, we can simply borrow from Isaiah the prophet’s question, who simply asked, “How Long, O Lord?” (Is 6:11).
The Word, the Holy Spirit, and Apostolicity have been richly present in my experiences across communions. That the Lutherans do not have a monopoly on the Word, that the Orthodox do not have a monopoly on the Holy Spirit, and that the Catholics do not have a monopoly on Apostolicity may seem to find resonance in the Revelation to John, where we read of seven churches, seven golden lampstands, but only one Christ who holds seven stars in his right hand.
Shipwrecked on an Island
In reading the narratives about the calling of the disciples in the synoptic gospels, one may get the impression that the first “proto-church” came about on a boat on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. That impression becomes reinforced in the story of the Jesus calming of the storm at sea.
The Apostle Paul too was not to be spared being caught in a storm at sea, which resulted in his being shipwrecked on the island of Malta (cf., Acts 27-28). As harrowing that misadventure was, it was followed by hospitality and the healing of the sick. Perhaps what St. Paul endured could be viewed as a foreshadowing of the tumult and rough seas that the church would encounter through the centuries to come, and an example of how the Holy Spirit turns adversities into opportunities for advancing the spread of the gospel.
In projecting these images further, I’m tempted to characterize monasteries as “islands” for “shipwrecked” Christians. Ancient monasteries were often founded in remote places, such as on mountain tops, out in deserts, or on islands. People drawn to the monastic way, as was St. Benedict, were typically fleeing the clamour of the world (referred to as “fuga mundi”) in order to surrounded themselves by the silence necessary for living a life of prayer. Because prayer starts in silence (…the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him! Habakkuk 2:20), monastic prayer takes on a reflective stance of listening. That the first word in the Rule of St. Benedict is “listen,” that seems to reinforce the need for listening aided by silence (it’s an interesting coincidence that the words SILENT and LISTEN use the same letters in the English language).
A word of caution however: Places of refuge, be it an island or a monastery, may present their own hazards. St. Paul survived being bit by a poisonous serpent after reaching the safety of Malta, and St. Benedict escaped an attempt of wicked monks to poison him – upon blessing a pitcher of poisoned wine, the pitcher fractured into pieces (Dialogues of Gregory the Great, Book 2, Chapter 3).
In our own times, as in ancient times, Christians need places of refuge, to be renewed in the silence that makes room for listening to God in prayer. The Rule of St. Benedict, drawing on the experience of this need, states, “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.”
Our guests are Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Reformed, Evangelical, and Pentecostal, among others. Thus they come from across church traditions and from many geographies and cultures. They all bring the Word, the Spirit, and the Apostolicity of faith, and we are nurtured and built up into the body of Christ by their witness, and by their prayers and worship with us.
Bro. Paul August Jasmer, OSB
Monk of Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville