Christian Unity and ‘Boundless Trust in Christ’

A setback … What a grace! What a test! There is some inner meaning which escapes us and which we must adore in love! Our march towards Unity has just taken a great step forward! God has permitted a setback!!! He must therefore be preparing great things. It is for us to let ourselves be purified, impoverished of our desires, our views, our self-will. We must enter into a great and divine mystery, that of the great suffering-mystery wherein future reconciliations are forged. Does that mean that we shall not go on? … Of course we shall! With still more prayer, tenacity and submission to his will.

So wrote Abbé Couturier over 60 years ago and his words are surely encouraging to us in our very different situation today. Abbé Couturier knew that the question of Christian unity cannot be thought of as a reversion to the past, but rather as an integration, to be attained in the future, of all Christian values.

As Richard Rutt has said, Abbé Couturier ‘realised that ecumenical prayer was essentially prayer for a miracle of the Holy Spirit’s power, because only visible unity would fulfil Christ’s will … It was a consecration of a fundamental Christian life, in which prayer was the supreme activity, not merely a means to a desired end. He was laying out the theory of Prayer for Unity as a reason for self-offering – a whole spirituality … Total self-offering means complete abandonment and absolute trust in God’s infinite goodness, and in the infinite power of Christ’s resurrection. It follows that we should never bemoan the slow rate and intermittent failures of ecumenical progress … We pray for unity when God wills it; and we shall never know when that will be, until it comes.’

After his second visit to England in 1938 the Abbé wrote: Each time I felt more clearly that in prayer was the heart of the matter, the true way that opens out into the hidden union of the future … Such a great might of prayer, humility and penitence would open the hands of God, held fast by our indifference, our lukewarmness in the face of the scandal of our divisions … From the open hands of God would flow forth the rivers of God, the river of charity – sympathy, its first beginning; cherishing the gifts of God in each other; longing to understand one another; the will to enter into others’ ways of thought; the acceptance of all sacrifices; and especially a self-forgetting movement of longing to accomplish our Lord’s desire …. The souls that pray know in detail neither when nor how these things shall come about. But this troubles them very little, for they have boundless trust in Christ. They only know that all that he does will be both good and perfect.

Perhaps the reason why some feel the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has run out of steam is that we have not remained faithful to Abbé Couturier’s vision and find it difficult in our busy world to find enough time for a fervent, love-filled, penitent prayer for unity the rest of the year. Perhaps we need his advice too on the importance of ‘rising above all differences’. His word was survoler which literally means flying above:

This ‘rising above’ is by no means negative. It does not imply any dilution or forgetting of our respective beliefs, which are dearer to each other than his own being. This positive action of ‘rising above’ is as true and right for the Protestant, the Anglican and the Orthodox as for the Catholic, in whatever way each is permitted by his beliefs to envisage the problem of Christian Unity. . . It is necessary to forget, to ‘rise above’ when memory blocks the way, ensnares the feet, breaks the spirit, and takes away the singleness of aim of the soul, or casts some heaviness upon it, and causes sadness to arise in it, preventing us from resting in God, and refreshing ourselves with his peace and joy.

Perhaps that can help us with women bishops, a free province, etc. After all the essence of all contemplative prayer is being in and with the paradox without being swamped or overcome by the difficulties, of being ‘in Christ’ and not ‘in the conflict’, where the demons and opposing forces seek to pull us apart and divide.

So let us join the Invisible Monastery who pray for unity every Thursday evening, that company of souls to whom, because they have tried truly to expose themselves to his flame and thus to his light, the Holy Spirit has been able to make known intimately the sorrowful meaning of the separations between Christians …. Enclosure there is none save that found through dwelling in Christ. But it is worth doing because Union will be the work of those who pray.

Adapted from a talk given by Jane Gore-Booth to RooT in June 2004.