It has been a long time since I posted anything on this blog which is a sign of activity rather than idleness. But too much activity leaves little time for reflection, or prayer. That is a problem which the Lord has recently brought forward. Today it is rainy outside, and the internet is down. The house is relatively quiet and it seems like a good time to write.
I have been neglectful in writing about Rome, remiss in a debt I owe many friends who prayed, brought meals, helped the children or gave toward the Wittenberg gatherings. I have found it difficult to speak about the gathering last October because in those meetings I experienced a quality of life in the Body of Christ which was new to me. I have nothing to compare it to, few words to describe it. I am even hesitant to share photos because some of our pictures portray a time and space which feels too holy to objectify. Though the analogy is overblown, it seems a bit like trying to describe the Transfiguration, or the walk to Emmaus. And as I say that I smile, thinking of the stark economy of the scripture writers. Really, what could they say?
I will take my cue from the gospel writers and try a simply narrative approach.
We met in Rome to lament the inability of the Catholic hierarchy to bring effective reform to the Western Church. The state of the papacy in the 1517 was deplorable on many levels, and the corruption spread outside of Rome to the many bishoprics which were bought and sold for political reasons.
But of course, corruption is never the whole story. There have always been men and women of goodwill, friends of God faithful to the end. The Catholic Church has always held treasures of grace and truth, even when those gifts have were dragged through the mud of abuse and distortion. And of course, the same is true in Protestant and Orthodox traditions.
This tension of sorrow and repentance, along with hope and beauty propelled the whole meeting. Everyone found reason to repent – for the sin of our fathers which opened doors of division and war, for misunderstanding or misjudging others, for failing to honor our fathers and mothers, for failing to honor Jesus, the King of the Jews. I wept in St. Peter’s cathedral for the gold bought with indulgences – the pride of men exalted above the good news to the poor. And my Protestant brothers wept with me, understanding that this fault exists in their traditions as well, though masked in different cultural norms.
But there was also a different kind of weeping in our meetings – one that sprang from beauty and hope too deep for words. On the Sunday of our meeting, we visited the catacombs. Sundays are always difficult in ecumenical meetings because of the problem of communion. Do Catholics and Protestants hold difference services with different communion tables? Does one group find itself excluded? Both options are painful. As a movement, we are committed to living under authority, so bending the rules is not a possiblity. In this case, the pastors among us led us back to the foundations of our faith – our baptism, the hope of the resurrection, our common confession of faith, and the call to serve one another.
When we emerged from the graves of our fathers and mothers in the faith – both martyrs and common citizens- we gathered in a chapel above ground. We worshiped in song. We renewed our baptismal promises. One of our Lutheran pastors, Henning, sprinkled us with holy water and then returned to the altar where our Catholic brother, Bishop Franziskus sprinkled him. And then eight of the pastors among us – Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and Pentecostal – paired up and washed our feet. I cannot describe the beauty of that place in time and space. Most of these pastors were over 70 years old. Kneeling was a true sacrifice for them, and yet none of us would have denied them that sacrifice out of a false sense of humility. It was a sacred act of love for Jesus which inflamed a strong and sincere love for one another.
Many of us were in tears, but my friend Jill was completely undone. She could not speak for a long while. I doubt she will ever be able to speak of that service without tears. When she was finally able to compose herself for a few moment, she could only say something along the lines of “that was the most solid experience of beauty I have ever had.”
I find myself praying with Paul in a new substance of hope, “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.”