A Horror of Hell and the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity

The title of this post is deliberately ambiguous. I am in fact referring to two separate but related things: one of the tools of good works cited in today’s passage of the Rule of St Benedict, RB 4.45, and this week of the year when we Christians devoutly pray for unity. Let me explain.

Today’s section of the Rule is concerned with judgement — how we shall be judged on the Last Day, how we are to motivate ourselves to keep guard over the actions of our life, how we are to understand God’s watchful presence in our lives, and so on and so forth. For me it is a powerful reminder that Christian unity is not an optional extra but an obligatory part of being a Christian. The trouble is we all understand different things by unity, and therein lies the challenge.

As a Catholic, I subscribe to the teachings of the Catholic Church without reservation.  I don’t find all of them easy, and there are certainly some that I consider to be more important than others (a hierarchy of truths in operation, if you like). But the essential thing is that I try to understand the Church as the Church understands herself because I believe that to be key to understanding Christ. Therefore, the first kind of unity I seek and aim at is the unity of the Church to which I belong. I am always trying to improve my own knowledge and understanding so become uncomfortable when self-appointed guardians of the Faith hurl accusations at those they consider to be less ‘orthodox’ or less ‘compassionate’ than themselves. I am inclined to follow Benedict’s lead in believing that correction should only be given by those with authority to do so, i.e. those appointed. Sadly, I find many of those wanting to set others right online are themselves ill-informed. This makes for a disunity that is like a slow poison in the system — not helped by the fact that Google is not able to distinguish between truth, half-truth and fiction!

Another kind of unity I aim at is unity with all my fellow Christians, not at the institutional level, but at the practical level of prayer and charity. Many readers of this blog will recognize themselves in my designation of ‘online friends’ and know, I trust, how highly I value them and their insights. iBenedictines is evidence of the way in which we can share ideas, concerns and prayer for one another in a spirit of mutual respect and honest engagement.

It is when we come to the question of institutional unity between the Churches that we face the biggest gulfs in understanding. I naturally look to Orthodoxy first, but I know that for many of my fellow countrymen, Orthodox Christianity is something of an exotic of which they have no first-hand experience. Then there are all the infinite varieties of Anglicanism and Protestantism. Very often we assume that because we say the same (or similar) words, and do the same (or similar) actions, we believe the same things, yet that is patently not so. Again, I think ecclesiology is fundamental to understanding these differences and their importance, but ecclesiology is hard work and most of us, if we are honest, are inclined to avoid hard work if we can. So, we settle for something less arduous although still demanding in its own way. At the back of our minds, however, is that nagging imperative, the prayer of Christ himself for the unity of his Body, the Church, and the need to understand and attain that unity in the way that Christ intends rather than as we ourselves might choose.

As we work to maintain the unity of the Church to which we belong, as we work to deepen the practical unity of all Christians, let us not forget the need also to work towards that third kind of unity. It is not a light matter that we undertake. We may prefer not to think about heaven and hell, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, nor that our conduct will not one day be weighed by our loving and merciful God.

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Bleak Prospects for Christian Unity?

There are times when unity seems almost within our grasp; at others it appears an impossible dream. In my own lifetime I have seen popes and patriarchs embrace, Catholics and Protestants work and worship together — and the opposite. More and more I am convinced that unity is not optional, that it is willed by our Saviour, but the principal obstacle lies in our understanding of the word ‘Church’. A patchy and inadequate grasp of theology, allied to a patchy and inadequate knowledge of history, is a piquant mix, particularly if there is little real charity to connect the two.

Another problem, surely, is that we all think about unity in different ways and have different goals in view. For example, as a Catholic, I look more to reunion with the Orthodox East than with Anglicanism or western Protestantism, because our schism is older and, to me, both more shameful and simultaneously easier yet more difficult to overcome. (I trust my Anglican and Protestant friends won’t misunderstand the point I am making and huffily conclude I don’t love them any more/value them less.) Here in Britain, the establishment of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and developments within the Anglican Church have led to further complications in the ecumenical story.

So, where are we, on this snowy Sunday of the Christian Unity Octave, 2013? I think we are being powerfully reminded that unity is a gift willed and given by God, but always in his way and on his terms. Unity will only be attained if we work and pray for it, and I believe prayer to be the most important part of that. To be truly open to the Holy Spirit, to be truly learned in scripture and theology, to be truly charitable is not something we can do by our own efforts. We have a way of distorting all these good things for our own ends and our own idea of what should be. We have to let go of all that and let God set the agenda. Ultimately, it is a question of trust and believing in Him. Are we willing to take the risk?

Note: the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity runs from 18 January to 25 January, the feast of the Conversion of St Paul.

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Christian Unity and St Francis de Sales

I like the fact that the feast of St Francis de Sales occurs during the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. He has so much to teach us about how to ‘do’ Christian Unity. It matters that Francis was graciously received by Theodore Beza, the great Protestant scholar and theologian. It also matters that, as Bishop of Geneva, Francis was remarkable for his gentleness and courtesy, yet there was never any doubt about what he believed or taught. He was clear about his Catholicism, and because he was clear, he was able to transcend the polemics of his time. He was more interested in winning souls for God than in scoring points off his opponents.

Sometimes I think we all get a little weary with the quest for Unity. We know it isn’t optional, but we don’t quite see what we ought to do or be to attain it. As a Catholic, my primary focus is on reconciliation with the Orthodox, but living as I do in England, practically speaking, I am more concerned with the Anglican and Protestant traditions of my fellow citizens. That is why I find St Francis de Sales such an encouragement. If you look at his life or read his writings, you can see that his way of working for the Unity of the Church was simply to be faithful to his own vocation and allow God to do with him as he chose. That strikes a chord because the holiness of Benedictines consists largely in a lifetime of small fidelities. God can write straight with crooked sticks; he can also use our littleness to do something great.

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