Living in a Manner Worthy of Our Call

At Mass earlier today at Our Lady of Lourdes, I was privileged to proclaim today’s beautiful first reading from the Letter to the Ephesians. In that reading, Paul urges the Ephesians to “live in a manner worthy of the call” they have received. He goes on to spell out what that means: living

with all humility and gentleness, with patience,
bearing with one another through love,
striving to preserve the unity of the spirit
through the bond of peace;
one Body and one Spirit,
as you were also called to the one hope of your call;
one Lord, one faith, one baptism;
one God and Father of all,
who is over all and through all and in all.

In his homily, Fr. Dan Griffith stressed Paul’s call to unity; we have “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”

Unity does not mean lock-step agreement with each other on everything. The Church is a church of diverse people and our diversity is to be celebrated. Unity in diversity is an important part of a catholic identity. And that means that no small part of living in a manner worthy of our call is promoting unity.

We might each ask: Am I a force for unity or division? And in what ways might I better promote unity in diversity?


Unity vs. Uniformity

I just finished reading Christian de Cherge: A Theology of Hope, by Christian Salenson (aspects of which I’ve already written about here and here). When my friend Richard gave me the book, he described it as transformative, and that is no understatement.

Salenson’s book is “intended as an introduction to Christian de Cherge’s theology of ‘religious encounter,'” particularly the encounter between Christianity and Islam. Salenson uses the term “theology of religious encounter” rather than “theology of religions” to underscore de Cherge’s understanding that “it is a matter not solely of considering Islam from the point of view of Christian faith but also of how this encounter allows Christian faith to be deepened.”

De Cherge was not an academic theologian. His thoughts were born of his lived monastic experience in Algeria during a time of tremendous conflict and are shared not in books or academic journals, but in his homilies, chapter talks, supplemented by a few retreat and lectures.

There is much in de Cherge’s thought as reflected in Salenson’s book that will impact my prayer and reflection. Let me share here two related observations of de Cherge, which I think are so necessary for us to keep in mind in the pluralist world in which we live: “seeing things differently does not mean that one is not seeing the same things,” and “speaking otherwise of God is not speaking of another God.”

De Cherge understood that we are all united in having our source on the oneness of God. We may pray differently, we may call God by different names, we may have different conceptions or ways of talking about God.

But those differences do not change the reality that there is not a Christian God, a Muslim God, a Jewish God – but only God, the one God from whom we flow and the one God who constantly calls each of us to union with God and each other.

De Cherge takes this further, saying something else we might also profitably reflect on. “Could we not imagine that the difference which identifies someone as belonging to Christianity or Islam is rooted in the One God from which it proceeds?” That is, not only our unity has its origin in God, but so too do our differences.

If we can see that, then we can more easily understand the difference between unity and uniformity. Our quest is not for (in Salenson’s words) “a uniformity that is merely a caricature of unity,” but rather an understanding that difference itself “is a sacrament of unity to God.”

Separating The Wicked from the Righteous

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples what it will be like “at the end of the age.” The wicked will be separated from the righteous and the former thrown into the furnace. In several other passages in the Gospels, Jesus conveys the same message about separating the wheat form the chaff.

One question you might ask yourself is: how do you react to that news?

I get the sense that some people hear passages like this one with something approaching glee, happy that those they deem unworthy (on whatever grounds they make that calculus) will get their comeuppance. They are confident they will be chosen with the righteous and are happy to dismiss those who will be thrown in the furnace. And so they hear this passage with a kind of “gotcha” reaction.

I don’t think that is God’s reaction. I believe that God wants to reconcile all people to God’s self. And I am confident that if God had God’s druthers, at the end of the day there would be no one tossed into the furnace. Everyone would be sitting around the table enjoying fellowship with God.

God’s reaction should guide our own. These warnings of Jesus are not meant to cause us to judge each other. Rather, they should cause us to examine what we might do to help advance God’s desire. How might we help and encourage others so that they will be gathered with the righteous?

Peter and Paul

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. Although each of St. Peter and St. Paul have other days associated with them (e.g., Chair of St. Peter, Conversion of St. Paul), today we celebrate the two together.

Why? One was a disciple during the life of Jesus, the other was converted after his resurrection. One went from fisherman to disciple, the other went from persecutor of Christians to discipleship. And we know from Acts that they sometimes disagreed quite strenuously with each other.

But it may be that it is that last that makes it so appropriate that we celebrate the two together. They disagreed, but their disagreements did not tear them apart. And in that, they are a wonderful model for us.

Calling ourselves Christians does not mean we will always see eye to eye on everything. There will be disagreements, and some of those disagreements will be quite serious. But the invitation is to remain united in spite of our diversity, in spite of our disagreements.

That is not always easy. In fact, sometimes it is downright difficult. Yet Peter and Paul remind us that it is possible. That our commitment to Christ is stronger than our disagreements. Let us draw strength from their example.

Fast and Feasting

Last night I attended the Sixth Annual Dialogue Iftar Dinner, hosted by the Niagara Foundation and the Bosphorus Dialogue Association, the latter of which is a student run group of the University of Minnesota. The evening included prayer – both an invocation by the University of Minnesota Lutheran pastor and an Adhan – an Islamic call to prayer, a slideshow of activities of the Niagara Foundation, three keynote speeches on the theme of Spiritual Reflections on Fasting – one each by a Jewish, a Christian and an Islamic speaker, and a delightful meal of Turkish food.

I suppose one could say that the new information I gained from the evening was fairly minor. I had not before been aware, for example, that it is traditional to break the Ramadan fast with a date, based on the belief that that is how the Prophet Mohammad used to break his fast. Thus, the first plate to be passed around the table at which I was sitting after sunset was a plate of dates. Additionally, despite growing up in New York with many Jewish friends, I had not before heard of the Jewish feast of Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning for various disasters that have befallen the Jewish people. Neither of these pieces of information are likely to shake my world.

Nonetheless, it was a wonderful evening. After reading so much in the last couple of weeks about the uproar about the proposed mosque near ground zero, and after seeing a report earlier in the day yesterday of a Muslim cabdriver who was attacked by a passenger simply because he was a Muslim, there was something good and peaceful about being in a room of Christians, Jews and Muslims celebrating together and sharing stories about their respective traditions.

The woman from the University of St. Thomas history department, who delivered the keynote talking about fasting from a Christian perspective, ended her talk with a poem I have heard in various forms, Fast From – Feast On. The poem, for example, speaks of fasting from words that pollute and feasting on phrases that purify, fasting from anger and feasting on patience, fasting from pessimism and feasting on optimism and fasting from complaining and feasting from appreciation.

What I most appreciated last night was the line that speaks of fasting from emphasis on differences and feasting on the unity of life. There are differences and I don’t minimize them. But there is also unity of life, and it is good to remember and celebrate that.

We Are The Church

On the wall of the parish hall at Our Lady of Fatima, the parish my family belonged to before moving to the Twin Cities, is a banner that reads, “We are the Church.” Those are words I find myself repeating with some frequency in recent times.

The other day, I listened to a reflection given by one of the Benedictine sisters during noon prayer at the chapel at St. Benedict’s Monastery. The sister giving the talk referred to a homily by St. John Chrysostom, in which he talked about the fact that that there is one Church. The Church is many parts, but one body.

As I listened to her words, it struck me that the phrase “We are the Church” can convey two very different messages, depending on how it is spoken. One can say “We are the Church,” in the way that children say “My dad is stronger than your dad,” or “My muscles are bigger than your muscles,” that is, in a way that suggests we – not you or not someone else – are the church. The alternative is to convey by “we are the Church” the sentiment that all of us – the Vatican, priests, nuns, lay persons, all of us, whether we are labeled “traditionalist Catholics,” “progressive Cathlics” or any other names – are together part of one Church.

If we are going to be true to the message of the Gospel, we must mean the latter. We are the Church must mean that, however different we are, however much we may disagree among ourselves from time to time, however much we may not even like each other, we are one. We are one Body in Christ. And if we are going to claim to be part of one Church, then we are all part of that one Church and no one gets excluded. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, “the Church does not exist because those who are gathered in her are divided, but in order that all those who have parted company may be reunited.” And if we are going to claim to be part of one Church then we are all responsible for all because we are all part of the same body.

Building Walls and Tearing Them Down

I attended Mass last evening at the beautiful St. Francis Xavier Church in Manhattan, where my friend Joe Costantino is the pastor. Having spent the last year or so overseeing renovations to the church, Joe began his sermon with an observation about the process. Have you noticed, he said, that when the demolition crew comes in, it takes them no time at all to tear down the old structures. They come in, and tear down what has to be torn down, seemingly in no time. The reconstruction process however, he observed (looking around at the work that remains to be finished) always takes much longer than expected.

We are exactly the opposite, Joe suggested. We manage to put up walls with tremendous ease. Walls between countries. Walls between religions. Walls between family members. Walls between gays and straights….between men and women….between Republicans and Democrats…between rich and poor. The list goes on. The walls go up very quickly, seemingly with no effort. Taking them down, however, is a different matter. That takes much more effort.

Taking down the walls is precisely what Jesus attempts to do in today’s Gospel in his encounter with the Samaritan woman, Joe suggested. Talking to a women about theology…breaking down the walls between men and women. Talking about a future with no separation between where the Jews worshiped and where the Samaritans do…breaking down the wall between religions.

If the Gospel has any meaning, it demands that those walls, so easily put up, be torn down. The Gospel call, Joe suggested, is for unity in the midst of diversity. And Lent, he invited, is the perfect time to work on tearing down those walls. The perfect time to allow God to help us demolish them, for surely this is a task on which we can use the assitance of our God. Like a demolition crew, let’s look around at the walls that need to come down, roll up our sleeves and, with God at our side, get to work.

Unity and Reconciliation

I’m currently reading Mission in the Gospels, by R. Geoffrey Harris. In the book’s introduction, Harris opines that “[p]erhaps the most significant aspect of the Early Church’s mission is its astonishing capacity to hold together in unity very disparate groups of people.” At a time when Samaritans were sworn enemies of the Jews, Samaritans and Jews both feared and reviled the Gentiles and all three groups had very different understandings of God and of the meaning of life, the reconcilation the Church managed to forge “almost defies belief,” to use Harris’ words. “Reconciliation,” as Harris uses the term “is not just about people deciding to tolerate one another and to live together in peace; it is about different groups with different agendas forming part of the same community; learning to merge their identity and give up their individual ambitions for the sake of a common ideal and vision.”

Harris clearly believes that the experience of the early Church leaves us “an example to follow and a pattern to imitate” as we struggle to deal with the divisions of our day. Three weeks before a major election, we are all painfully aware of the conflict and division in our country and in the world. Achieving the kind of reconciliation of which Harris speaks is a tremendous challenge, a quite daunting one. And I confess that a part of me wonders whether we are past the point where achieving such a reconciliation is possible. Yet attempting to do so is a challenge that we as Church are called to undertake. Let us approach it with a spirit of courage and joy and each of us ask ourselves: What is my part in forging reconciliation? How can I help different groups with different agendas become part of the same community.