Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Invitation and Exclusion
Also on episcopalcafe
NB: Read information on my new book, "Waving Back", and pre-order information, here
Several weekends ago, I spent a refreshing and prayerful time on retreat at Holy Cross Abbey, a Cistercian monastery near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. As one might expect in an atmosphere infused with the monastic tradition, I felt thoroughly welcomed and quieted, and was nourished by the opportunity offered to enter what T.S. Eliot called “time not our time. In the one conversation I had with a monk, I was reminded of the Cistercian devotion both to prayer and to the intellectual life, two parts of myself that I’ve been a long time in bringing together. (A favorite book title of mine, about the monastic tradition, is called The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. I think that does describe something important about my vocation).
Sure of the divine welcome in the place (and of creation’s welcome, among the meadow flowers, birds and mountain scenery), I became vividly aware on Sunday of the obstacles to welcome that still exist in a church that is still far from the unity for which Jesus prayed. As a Roman Catholic order, the Cistercians abide by a discipline that limits participation in Eucharist to Catholics. I knew this. I knew I could present myself for Eucharist and no one would speak or object, but I was interested in the way that the non-invitation to Eucharist was worded. “The Catholic bishops do not allow us to invite non-Catholic Christians to receive Eucharist. We ask that you respect the discipline of the Roman Catholic Church and join us in prayer for the unity of all Christians, for whom our Lord Jesus prayed on the night before he died.”
My own operative theology is scandalized at the idea of excluding anyone from Eucharist, believing that we go at Christ’s invitation, rather than at the invitation of a human community, however organized or faithful. And the careful wording of the placard I’ve just quoted suggested to me that whoever wrote it might even share the same operative theology. I’m certainly glad that the Episcopal Church has pushed back against any statement that would begin “The Anglican Communion does not allow us to invite. . . . " But there was also in this sad non-invitation a solid piece of truth-telling that I appreciated. I was grateful to the community for honestly naming the brokenness. It caused me to experience, as I have not before, what it is to be excluded from a rite that is our central expression of belonging. It was wrong. But it was true to how things are in the Church for whom Jesus prayed, and died.
So, I accepted, and learned from, the invitation to “join us in prayer for the unity of all Christians, for whom our Lord Jesus prayed on the night before he died.” As people lined up to receive the Body and Blood, I remained kneeling, praying fervently and deeply for the unity of a broken church, the whole church catholic, Anglican, orthodox, whatever our sad divisions may be. I heard in my heart snatches of hymns: “Bid thou our sad divisions cease/ And be thyself our king of peace. . . . . “ “By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” It was a rich, full and genuine participation, in its way – a sharing in the broken heart of Christ, in the midst of the assembly. I wouldn’t want to make a habit of this way of prayer. But at least on this day, it was an unexpected gift.