This reflection was offered at a prayer service at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary yesterday by Cody Maynus, M.Div. student who is studying for ministry in The Episcopal Church.
Wherever Pope Francis goes, he brings with him pleasant surprises. One such surprise – a surprise, at least, to me – came during his recent address to congress. Speaking to a body composed of diversity – perhaps not rich diversity, but some diversity nevertheless – the Pope cited four exemplary Americans: a Baptist preacher, a Spiritual-But-Not-Religious President, a radical Catholic laywoman, and a Trappist monk from the great Commonwealth of Kentucky.
The last – Thomas Merton – was of most interest to me. What about Merton – his character, his theology, his spirituality – did the Pope wish to convey? He called Merton “above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”
The Pope commended to the United States Congress – to the American people, and to the whole world – a man known primarily for his prayer. Not for his intelligence, his drive, his ingenuity, his entrepreneurialism, his innovation. Not any of those things. Pope Francis gave to us a man whose very life was a prayer for unity – unity with God and with one another.
The whole Church of God keeps with joy – and naturally with some sorrow – this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We celebrate the many similarities between Christians of various traditions, recognizing that, as Christians, we are, as the writer of First Peter says, “a holy nation, a royal priesthood.” We proclaim together “the Mighty Acts of God” and rejoice in our common heritage as daughters and sons of the Covenant. We also repent for the ways in which we all – Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox – fall short of God’s vision of unity, a vision which sustained Jesus on his way to Calvary. We use this week – and, ideally, our whole lives – to pray for sincere humility and genuine conversion.
But Christian unity does not end there. No, indeed, we must think of unity in Christ as extending beyond denominations and into every aspect of our lives. Likewise, we rejoice in our commonalities, honor our differences, and pray always for humility and conversion.
Where better to celebrate, honor, and pray for unity among Christians than right here in Collegeville, than in this community which we call, for ever or for a short while, home? While we could – and, indeed, should – press for more diversity in our faculty and student body, we can appreciate the variety of religious and cultural expressions represented in this very room. This community of ministers, theological thinkers, and religious seekers has within it some of the best and most painful aspects of human diversity. We are Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, evangelicals. We are straight and gay, queer and questioning. Bound for Holy Orders, bound for lay ecclesial ministry, bound for the academy. High church, low church, charismatic, orthodox, traditional, ambivalent. Certain, confused, frightened, anxious, obnoxious, content. Benedictines, Crosiers, Trappists, Cistercians.
And our task? To live together – somehow, to live together, study together, pray together, – recognizing where we already are one, naming the ways and spaces which cause division, and hoping – longing even – for a day when all divisions will cease and where we will be free to be God’s own people, to live in the light to which God calls us. That’s fine and good to say – even to preach or pray – but how exactly can that be realized?
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut,” says Thomas Merton of one of many conversion moments. “in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…I have the immense joy of being [human], a member of a race in which God…became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are.
How do we bring about Christian unity exactly? What will remove from us, as in the reading, “all malice, all guile, insincerity, envy, and slander?” What will wipe away, as Merton calls it, “the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition”?
We must return to our common heritage – to that which invites – begs, even – us to consider unity important in the first place: namely our baptism.
We are made one – in a very real sense – through baptism.
Pope Francis, just yesterday in Rome, reminded all Christians that our one baptism is the “sacramental bond of unity which links all who have been reborn by it.” He called baptism “an indissoluble bond between…Christians, such that, by virtue of baptism, we can consider ourselves truly brothers [and sisters.]” If we are to live and pray and study together – here in this place and in the Church – then we must cling with dear life to that “indissoluble bond between…Christians,” a bond so powerful, says the Pope, that all Christians must think of themselves as “truly the Holy People of God, even if…we are not yet a people fully united.”
Clinging to our baptism and the rebirth granted in those waters – the very waters which were sprinkled (or rather, doused) [laughter] on us moments ago – we are free to dream together, to pray together, to struggle together, knowing that we are, indeed, proclaiming with our lives the most mighty act of God: sisters and brothers living together in unity.