Clearing out our spiritual debris

As we approach, Church Unity Week, Bishop Richard Clarke's article in today's Irish Times (15/01/2008) makes for thoughtful reflection.

Clearing out our spiritual debris

Rite and Reason: The annual week of prayer for Christian unity, which starts on Friday, is 100 years old. Bishop Richard Clarke assesses the state of ecumenism between the major churches

Early Christian ascetics in their desert caves would have reminded us that the path to holiness and to any true unity with God will take us through three stages. First there is purgatio, ridding the soul of its distractions and facing down those temptations that beset every human soul.

(Without wishing to advertise computer products in such a context, I learnt recently of a piece of software of the same name designed to rid a hard drive of unwanted debris, thus enabling the user to reclaim necessary space - surely a valuable parallel.)

Purgatio was, not surprisingly, a lengthy and often painful process for the young monk; ridding the soul of its rubbish can never be undemanding. Following from purgatio is illuminatio when - normally in company with others - the essential message of the Gospel is relearnt and reassimilated in a way which gives a new radiance to the soul, a newborn purpose and hope.

Then follows unitio (sometimes termed perfectio) when the individual reaches the longed-for unity of the human soul with the Spirit of God.

If the different traditions of the Irish Church are ever to awaken from the prevailing ecumenical torpor, they must surely consider such a sanctifying process for the whole Church in its quest for Christian unity.

Expressing a credal belief within our liturgies in the "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church" - a formulation which is, after all, shared by all the mainstream traditions of Christianity in Ireland - is less than wholesome when little enough is being done to make such a central bulwark of Christian belief a greater reality.

This year marks the centenary of the first week of prayer for Christian unity and the dawn of a second century in the modern ecumenical enterprise is surely a good time to seek out new directions for future progress. Ecumenical purgatio would involve clearing out, painfully but openly, the useless clutter that so slows and warps our common witness.

Such spiritual debris includes the arrogance which assumes that any different Christian tradition is ipso facto inferior to our own, the refusal to take seriously the damage that we do to the witness of the church by our petty partitions, the unwillingness to share resources (human, spiritual or material) with one another other than through necessity, the aversion to considering which facets of our religious belief are of absolute significance and which are in fact less consequential.

For all of us to address openly these sins and failures in which we have wallowed for so long would inevitably be painful and demeaning for us, but it is difficult to believe that such collective purgatio is not the crucial next step for all our traditions.

Illuminatio might then become a happier process as, together, Christians of different traditions set themselves to do separately only those things which in conscience they truthfully could not do together.

This leaves open a very wide sphere of illuminating activity - a sharing together in the study of the scriptures as a matter of course, prayer together as a customary rather than an annual event, new explorations into the outworking of the sacrament of Baptism that we hold in common, mutual rethinking on what the light of Christ's incarnation should mean for the future of this country and of Europe, educational schemes (including those for Christian ministry) done together rather than separately, projects for the common good in a rudderless Ireland undertaken by different Christian traditions together rather than independently.

Inevitably, the divergences between the different Christian communities would assume, in the light of illuminatio , their rightful insignificance and the shibboleths of eucharist, ministry and ecclesiastical polity would no longer be the monsters we have allowed them to become.

For any Christian disciple, unity with other disciples in Christ is the only path to any true unity with Christ himself. Unitio , true and ultimate unity with God, is not an option for divided Christianity. Jesus warned his disciples not to come forward with any gift for him if there were divisions between them.

A level of peace between Irish Christians there may now be, but this is but the beginning. How much true happiness do we find or expect in the ecumenical venture?

In his lovely poem on the delights of the shared meal, the poet Micheal O'Siadhail concludes:

I feast on faces.

Endless laughter.

A radiance of friends.

The image of a holy banquet to be enjoyed together by Christians from a multitude of different but equally fertile religious traditions might make the future road to ecumenical holiness and wholeness one to relish rather than to shirk.

• Bishop Richard Clarke is Church of Ireland Bishop of Meath and Kildare and chairs that church's Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue

© 2008 The Irish Times


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