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Monday, June 2, 2014

Pentecost and Ecumenism

The Feast of Pentecost is an important one for me for me, for it was on Pentecost seven years ago that I was received into the Roman Catholic church.  I requested that I be received on Pentecost - rather than at the Easter Vigil when it is often done - for good reason.  The Easter Vigil has traditionally been the time to baptize into the church those who had not received baptism before.  It's to be a time when the candidate for baptism definitively breaks with the past and lives into her/his new life in the Spirit.  It's a time when those who were not Christian become Christians.

But I was not becoming a Christian; I already was one.  I was entering a new tradition, but the Roman Catholic church recognized my baptism and therefore recognized that, although I did not previously eat at the same Eucharist table as my Catholic sisters and brothers we were united in our shared experience of the indwelling Spirit given in baptism.  It is this union through the Spirit that we celebrate on Pentecost, and it is for this reason that I asked to be received on this feast.

The union we have through the Holy Spirit, expressed so beautifully in Lumen Gentium, lies at the heart of the ecumenical enterprise.  And this is an enterprise that is important to me theologically (for the reasons given above) and personally.  I live in an ecumenical family, my wife and kids are Episcopalian.  It is not only a theological imperative that Roman Catholicism recognize the union all Christians share in the Holy Spirit, it is for me a familial imperative that is deeply important.

It bothers me, therefore, when I run into Catholic Christians who seem bent on denying the theological and ecclesial validity of other Christian traditions.  It bothers me doubly when they turn out to be converts like myself; for reasons I don't understand, converts often tend to be the least ecumenical Catholics I meet.

I took a group of students from various Christian traditions down to the Abbey of Gethsemani last Saturday, and there we discussed some passages from Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander we'd read for the day.  One passage struck me anew in my re-reading, particularly as we approach our celebration of Pentecost.  Merton understood that we as humans are compulsive dividers, that we do whatever we can to set ourselves apart from one another.  We make masks that lead us to view ourselves and others in a distorted way, and we often do so out of a vain attempt to declare our superiority over others.

In the passage I'm about to quote, Merton addresses the 'heresy of individualism' and his words are apt as we approach Pentecost.  Twice Merton refers to breath, the first I think hearkening to the breath of life God breathed into the first human (Genesis 2:7), and the second a reference to the Holy Spirit.  For Merton our unity is centered on both, and in fact, our continued existence requires this unity.

On the feast of Pentecost, I pray that we may, in our various traditions, grow in our unity with one another, a unity we already share in the Holy Spirit.  Here's Merton:
If I do not have unity in myself, how can i even think, let alone speak, of unity among Christians? Yet, of course, in seeking unity for all Christians, I also attain unity within myself.
The heresy of individualism: thinking oneself a completely self-sufficient unity and asserting this imaginary 'unity' against all others. The affirmation of the self as simply 'not the other.' But when you seek to affirm your unity by denying that you have anything to do with anyone else, by negating everyone else in the universe until you come down to you: what is there left to affirm?  Even if there were something to affirm, you would have no breath left with which to affirm it.
The true way is just the opposite: the more I am able to affirm others, to say 'yes' to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am.  I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone.
I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further.
So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc.  This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing.  There is much that once cannot 'affirm' and 'accept,' but first one must say 'yes' where one really can.
If I can affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 140-141).

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