Although significant positive ecumenical changes have occurred over the past one hundred and fifteen years, and most especially since the Second Vatican Council (1960’s) and Pope John Paul II’s landmark Encyclical Ut Unum Sint (1990’s), considerable progress has yet to be made. The body of Jesus Christ continues to be divided, and our shared evangelistic task continues to be compromised. More working, worshiping, and weeping are desperately needed.
We may indeed lament over our separated state, and properly so, but what can be done in the meantime? What can we do to mend fences and build bridges? How can we more faithfully come to the Table of Christ’s “once for all” sacrifice when, at times in practice and for a variety of reasons, we are not functionally faithful to our Lord’s and Saint Paul’s admonition to reconciliation BEFORE participation?
One of the advantages of increased ecumenical cross-fertilization, as Roman Catholics and Protestants begin to more fully share a common language and a measured common life, is the pronounced interest in monasticism both as a vocational occupation and as shared means of discipleship among those who may not be called to live within the “enclosure.” That is, in other words, there is increased interest in (and provision for!) those who are called to become “friends” or “oblates” of the monastery who may not be Roman Catholic– and may, in fact, entirely reject certain Roman Catholic perspectives.
When people visit the monastery where I am an Oblate they are greeted by the monks and brothers, a number of whom are friends, with utmost charity. The monks and the brothers seek to demonstrate their commitment to the Bible, the Rule, and the spirit of Saint Benedict by being as warm and welcoming as possible. We are welcomed, frequently, as Christ himself. This is in keeping with both the spirit and the letter of Benedict’s Rule of life.
Often, after arriving, I pillage the monastic bookstore, receive spiritual direction, take a walk, and pray. As an Oblate who takes “the work of God” (Liturgical Prayer at set times) and monastic discipleship seriously, participation in the Service of Worship is central to a visit to my monastery. Attending the corporate Worship is, for most visitors, attending to our most urgent needs as homo-liturgical beings. Public worship and personal-worth are in some ways connected.
However, as an Benedictine Oblate who is ordained in a separated Ecclesial Community, I (and a great many other people) am not allowed to participate in the Communion Sacrament. I am, according to Roman Catholic teaching, canonically restricted from partaking of the Real Presence of Christ who is our common Lord. I grieve. I struggle. My wife weeps. I think there are many Evangelical Christians who find themselves in the same predicament. Having a pronounced interest in monasticism and its disciplines, we attend some monastic Roman Catholic services but find ourselves blocked at the very center of our shared faith: Holy Communion. As such, for many, celebration becomes lamentation.
For some years now I have been thinking about this most poignant and painful problem. I want to share in this Bread and Wine, this Body and Blood, but cannot do so. It is, indeed, a problem. How might we all, not just me and my wife, more fully participate in this Sacrament while remaining respectful of these monks whom we have come to love and count as members of our very own spiritual family? In short, how do we partake of this most precious Body and Blood without ever taking the consecrated Bread and Wine upon our tongues?
Apart for the self-sacrificing love that we have for our brothers, they key is in our RADICAL AND INTENTIONAL IDENTIFICATION WITH JESUS CHRIST. Holy Scripture tells us that our Lord was crucified outside the walls (Heb 13:12). As one who hung upon the tree, our Lord was considered accursed (Deut 21:22-23 and Gal 3:13). As the Lamb “slain from the foundation of the world,” taking our sin entirely upon himself, he was driven into the wilderness where, after many trials and temptations, only angels were his ministers (Rev 13:8; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Mark 1:12; Matthew 4:11). And it was precisely this separation which God consecrated, accepted, sanctified, and glorified (Isa 53:10, KJV).
When non-Catholic Oblates and Friends attend “Mass,” but cannot physically partake of the Sacrament as those who with Christ are “outside of the walls,” we must do so intentionally– fully recognizing that our radical identification with Christ by non-participation is taken, consecrated, and blessed by God. In other words, humble yet hopeful non-participation empowers us to fully participate in the Sacrament precisely because we choose to identify with Christ himself in his own suffering of separation.
When after the Consecration of the Bread and Wine we move forward, crossing our arms upon our broken hearts to indicate our non-participation in the physical sacrament, we in fact open our arms to receive the blessing of God upon our sacrificial action. We, by the grace of God, are cruci-formed. Our humble and hopeful “no” to our most earnest desire for physical participation is seen and accepted by God as personal participation that embodies the spirit of Eucharistic devotion. To reference the words of Thomas á Kempis in his first book, he who would perfectly understand the words of Christ must entirely conform himself to the life of Christ. Doing, identification with Christ, provides revelation and release.
Many ecumenical advances have occurred for over a century. More work remains. In the meantime, most especially for those of us who are Oblates or Friends of Catholic monastic Orders, let us share in our Lord’s work by loving others enough to be separated from them. Let us, by our small sacrifice (and theirs), share in our Lord’s redemption of his Church.
I CUT MY TEETH
I cut my teeth on Your Flesh
“Chew,” You said, “Chew.”
It was tough, and no tenderly melting intinction,
to taste of the velum of Your living life.
To take within and upon myself
this very bread and this very wine,
this Jordan of our shared humanity,
this excruciating genuflection,
this Table so shabbily set
as unsavory courses.
It was and is our wilderness.
And so I took
(or not, as so painfully necessary)
this Bread and this Blood,
crossing my arms upon the scattered scraps
of my own fragmented life,
Offering all to You
for all of Your gestures,