A Curious Incident of Ecumenism in the Night

by Patrick Angiolillo

The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end. Amen.

So beings “An Order for Compline” from the Book of Common Prayer according to the use of the Episcopal Church.

As a recently matriculated student to Yale Divinity School, I have found myself in a new place, with new friends, and among new religious traditions. At Boston College, I was never for lack of Mass, prayer, or all things Catholic. As a member of several Catholic student groups on campus, I had ample opportunity to discuss everything from the Bible to Church teaching to recent issues facing the church and her leadership. “My cup overflows,” as the Psalmist writes.

But, as with many things, life kept moving, even though I probably did not want it to. I graduated. And now I have begun my studies in Bible here at YDS.

I have already connected with the school’s Roman Catholic Fellowship group, and I have fast become a regular at the college’s Catholic Chapel, the aptly named St. Thomas More chapel. I have, in my several short weeks here, already dug my roots into the soils of New Haven.

But there has been, for me, a conspicuous lack of Catholicity. Or, perhaps more precisely, there is an abundance of catholicity, such that my Catholicism is unique.

This melting pot of Christianity at YDS has its advantages and disadvantages. I have found myself extremely at home with many new friends whose lives have been shaped by a very different forms of the Christian faith. But, equally so, I have found my comfortability stretched and tested at times, particularly with regard to liturgy.

None of this is to pass a value judgment on YDS or any of my Christian brothers and sisters. Indeed, the mission of the school and its demographic composition are not considerations of this article. What I mean to note is the beauty of this community of Christians who have come together to learn, prayer and grow as individuals and groups.

And such has been my project. I have exposed—and will continue to expose—myself to many Christian traditions, to their worship, and to their faith.

Sometimes this desire has been driven by an intellectual curiosity, and sometimes by a movement of the heart. I desired communal liturgy and I desired closer relationships with my housemates, so I joined those who daily perform a morning and a night liturgy of hours according to the Episcopalian tradition.

And so my ecumenical journey has begun.

The introductory line to Compline from the BCP (see above) is an ever-close rendering of the concluding line of Compline from the Liturgy of the Hours (the Divine Office of the Catholic Church), which reads “May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.” So close are the two—and so close are many other phrases in the order—that in our recitation, I have not a few times found myself stumbling over the words of the BCP, as I would automatically recite the parallel passages according to the form of the Catholic Office.

This has been a frustrating and transformative experience. And I have, I believe, already become a better Catholic for it—not in an arrogant way, in which I feel that now I have confirmation of the validity of my faith and tradition over against all other Christian traditions. No, but in a way in which I have an already deepening appreciation for the Catholic liturgy, but also in a way in which I recognize the familiarity—the family-arity—between my Church and at least this one of our many sister Churches.

I am reminded of Pope Benedict XVI’s writings on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. When discussing the state of Jewish and Christian relations just around the turn of the millennium, Benedict wrote the following about interreligious dialogue:

What is required… is reverence for the other’s belief, along with the willingness to seek truth in what I find alien… the willingness to look behind what may appear strange in order to find the deeper reality it conceals. I must also be willing to let my narrow understanding of truth be broken open, to learn my own beliefs better by understanding the other…1

While the Pope’s program for understanding is more directly concerned with Jews and Christians coming to embrace one another, it is also applicable in the case of ecumenical, inter-Christian relations.

The project of ecumenism, like interreligious dialogue, is one of both understanding and entering the other’s lived tradition. I think the real task—the dirty and difficult part—of both ecumenism and interreligious dialogue is for the investigator to enter, if briefly, the tradition and ritual of the other and to return to his or her own tradition with questions about how his or her understanding or experience of the other might impact his or her own self-understanding. As Atticus Finch says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”2

I am still working through what exactly I am learning about my fellow Christians when I experience their traditions, and, perhaps more so, I am also working through what exactly I am learning about myself and my own tradition.

I can honestly say that I am “at home” when I participate in a Catholic Mass, and I do not mean in a simplistic, familiar, run-of-the-mill kind of way. But deep within me, in the marrow of my bones, I feel a sense of belonging, and of peace. I am sure the same is the case for many of my brother and sister Christians, just as it is likely the case for our brother and sister Jews and Muslims and Hindus and all others the world over. Indeed, a new friend of mine at YDS, a Quaker, has already voiced to me the joy of finally finding and attending a Quaker service after relocating to New Haven from the West Coast and only until now being exposed to other Christian services.

Ecumenism is, we might say, a prime example of the proverbial “can of worms.” The process of communication between Churches is a slow, sometimes painful, but always meticulous process. It often begins with a recognition of familiarity, and indeed of value. The task is to understand and to embrace, but this often comes after long discussions, sometimes debates, and many, many, many questions and answers. And indeed after a genuine, willful experience of one another’s rituals and traditions (even if this means finding yourself stumbling through Compline prayer!).

Sometimes we must seek out ecumenism. Other times—many times—it is thrust upon us. We are forced to be with the other, and to know him or her, and by extension, his or her faith, tradition, or religious journey. Perhaps we will never be fully at home in another’s tradition, and it is unlikely that profound movements toward unification will come any time soon,3 but we must, at least for now, strain to understand and to enter the traditions of our brothers and sisters—in Christ and in humanity. The task is not easy, but no surer path to appreciation, understanding, love—and eventually unity and communion—can be sought.4

__________

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “Interreligious Dialogue and Jewish-Christian Relations,” Communio 25 (1998), 38. See also, Benedict’s Many Religions, One Covenant: Israel, the Church, and the World (trans. G. Harrison; San Francisco: Ignatius, 1999); as well as the Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate, and Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical letter, Redemptor Hominis.

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1960), 39 (emphasis added).

As Benedict puts it, “Such unification is hardly possible within our historical time and perhaps it is not even desirable” (“Interreligious Dialogue,” 38).

Most recently, see Pope Francis’ remarks on Protestants and Catholics “working together”—walking, praying, and doing charity together. Again, as Benedict XVI has said, little formal, structural, or theological change will likely soon come in ecumenical efforts, but a shift in attitude, in understanding, and in affect must occur. We must learn to love, to appreciate, and to live with (and for!) one another. For more, see Austen Ivereigh’s Oct. 28, 2014 article on Crux, and the accompanying video: http://www.cruxnow.com/church/2014/10/28/pope-francis-urges-catholics-protestants-work-together-video/

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