by Sister Benedicta Marie, O.C.D.
Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles
The principle of unity throughout scripture is the Holy Spirit. The Pentecost Sequence, Veni Sancte Spiritus, describes this sanctifying – and therefore unifying – role of the Spirit of Father and Son:
Bend the stubborn heart and will;
Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
Guide the steps that go astray!
Beautiful words, but poignant as well for anyone who has ever struggled to bring unity where it was not. To many, the ‘Unity’ chapter of the Bible would probably be John 17, the High Priestly Prayer: “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17: 20, 21).
The entire chapter is the intercession of Jesus for His disciples on the night before He died. Jesus asks the grace needed for unity – and it is an extraordinary act of trust both in the magnitude of the Gift being petitioned, and also in the situation of the Intercessor. Only hours – perhaps minutes – before the Passion, one might think it was time for Jesus to do a little more thinking about Himself – but no – “I pray for them” (John 17: 9).
Perhaps more amazing, more wonderful, not only is His prayer concerned with the disciples rather than Himself, this petition dearest to His heart is entrusted to the God Who is, at that very moment, willing that Jesus die by slow torture. Oh yes, we can sit in classrooms and armchairs and quibble about the ‘active’ and the ‘passive’ will of God – but torture is torture. For all the theological discussions in history, crucifixion is crucifixion, and all of our distinctions did not save this Victim one stroke of the lash nor a single drop of blood. We are not generally inclined to trust, much less entrust our fate and our deepest hopes to those who do not put our comfort fairly high on their list of priorities.
There is another ‘unity’ chapter in scripture, though, and it is Ephesians, Chapter 4. In one sense it might be more germane for us to spend more of our time with this passage in any pursuit of unity. No doubt the Father has not disappointed Jesus nor short-changed His disciples in granting us the grace needed for unity. Surely, no one would claim to have been perfectly generous in responding to that grace – but even when we have been generous, have we been wise? We have been given the grace for unity through the prayer of our Intercessor which we must put to use. We have also been given instruction for unity through the inspired Word of God which must be put to use before unity can ever happen.
Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is not a plea to God for the unity of believers like the High Priestly Prayer. It is the hands on, ‘nuts and bolts’ instruction manual for responding to the grace for unity with real world wisdom. Paul, facing an unknown and likely a very short future, writes from Roman imprisonment to the churches of Asia Minor, knowing that most of his life’s work is now accomplished. His great concern, like that of Jesus, is that the disciples be united, and Ephesians 4 is all about the hard work of making unity happen. There had been no shortage of conflicts during the years of Paul’s ministry. He had learned thoroughly – often ‘the hard way’ – the very real sacrifices and disciplines that unity demands.
“…with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace…” (Eph 4:2, 3).
The value of unity is precisely in the fact that it is the work and expression of love. Love is not expressed, is not being lived, where patience is not in great evidence. Its resulting fruit, peace, is the only atmosphere in which unity can grow. How often is unity wounded or even abandoned in favor of simple impatience or what we would like to excuse as ‘candor’? The patience which bears with others in order to maintain peace is a great exercise of emotional discipline.
“But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore, it says: ‘He ascended on high and took prisoners captive; he gave gifts to men…. and he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God” (v. 7, 8, 11 – 13).
The natural and charismatic gifts bestowed by Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit, the diversity of roles and the hierarchical structure of the Church from its very birth are gifts for unity. All of what might be called the ‘teaching and exhorting’ activities within the Church exist to equip the disciples for their ministry by making them perfectly united in their faith and their knowledge of God’s Son: “…may they all be one…so that the world may believe…” (John 17:21). The gift of the Church’s teaching authority is given for the perfecting of our faith and knowledge, and it requires us to exercise the intellectual discipline of teachability.
“…so that we may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery, … Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into Him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love” (v.14-16).
Paul could have been writing about the twenty-first century America when he wrote about so many “swept along by every wind of doctrine.” Has there ever been a society more inclined to the ‘faddish’ in belief? Paul was right on the mark in attributing this to sheer immaturity. It is unity in belief so real and stable that the truth can actually be lived out which gives the Body growth and maturity. Paul’s previous exhortation to “humility and gentleness, with patience” (v. 2) has nothing to do with accepting ‘trendiness’ in doctrine as a legitimate form of ‘diversity’; it has everything to do with his advice to one young bishop who lived in a society so much like our own: “A slave of the Lord should not quarrel, but should be gentle with everyone, able to teach, tolerant, correcting opponents with kindness. It may be that God will grant them repentance that leads to knowledge of the truth…” (2 Timothy 2: 24, 25).
As Blessed John XXIII reminded the Church in his first encyclical, Ad Petri Cathedram, “the common saying, expressed in various ways and attributed to various authors, must be recalled with approval: in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” Whatever may be the natural bent of our disposition, our temperament must be so disciplined that others find us neither contentious nor vacillating.
“…be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth. Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (v.22-25).
For all the quarrels, scandals and failures that Paul had witnessed within the churches, he never lost sight of that invisible reality which he exhorted his fellow believers to live so as to make it visible: their unity in Christ – first for the edification of the Church, and then for the conversion of the pagans: “…we are members one of another”. Not, ‘will be’, ‘should be’ or ‘could be’. We are. May the Spirit of God, the Spirit of unity grant us both the sweetness to speak the truth (v.25), and the strength to so live the truth (v.1), that all be one, and all may believe.
Come, Holy Spirit
Come, Holy Spirit, come!
And from your celestial home
Shed a ray of light divine!
Come, Father of the poor!
Come, source of all our store!
Come, within our bosoms shine.
You, of comforters the best;
You, the soul’s most welcome guest;
Sweet refreshment here below;
In our labor, rest most sweet;
Grateful coolness in the heat;
Solace in the midst of woe.
O most blessed Light divine,
Shine within these hearts of yours,
And our inmost being fill!
Where you are not, we have naught,
Nothing good in deed or thought,
Nothing free from taint of ill.
Heal our wounds, our strength renew;
On our dryness pour your dew;
Wash the stains of guilt away:
Bend the stubborn heart and will;
Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
Guide the steps that go astray.
On the faithful, who adore
And confess you, evermore
In your sevenfold gift descend:
Give them virtue’s sure reward;
Give them your salvation, Lord;
Give them joys that never end.
Sister Benedicta Marie, O.C.D. is the Retreat Directress at Mount Carmel Retreat Center in Palmdale, California.
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