Meditation On Christian Unity Efforts
While Walking a Labyrinth

I had an opportunity recently to walk a labyrinth in the prayer garden of a retreat center in California. The experience reminded me of the three classical ways of the spiritual life: purgative, illuminative, and unitive. As I walked the path, I applied these three ways to the life of the churches in the ecumenical movement. First, a few expository words about these three classical descriptions of stages in the spiritual life.

The task of the purgative way is to come to an accurate knowledge of one's self (in the ecumenical movement: of one's own church tradition) and to a true understanding of God's call to ever new life in Christ so that one can leave behind whatever attachments keep the individual (or one's church) from a deeper commitment to the Christian life.

In the illuminative way, the Holy Spirit draws us into ever-deeper experiences of the divine presence, bringing enlightenment to the mind of believers and causing them to experience God's presence in a new way, enabling us to take up with a new zeal the responsibilities incumbent upon us in the activities of daily life. The stripping away of the false images of God and self in the dark night is new freedom for life with God.

In the unitive way, through the purifying work of the Holy Spirit, the person opens to the divine initiative that is symbolized in the metaphor of marriage, which finds its fullest expression in union with God. The experiential awareness in faith of sharing in the very life of the Trinity leads one to enter more fully into the mission of the Church to proclaim the gospel. Zeal for the salvation and sanctification of all people so that they too will know the wonders of divine love constantly motivates the person to undertake whatever is necessary for the growth of the Kingdom of God.

Purgation through the Twists and Turns

I walked the labyrinth as a mirror of Christian unity efforts lived in the dynamic of these three classical ways of the spiritual life. The path of entry into the labyrinth leads straight toward the center, inducing the pilgrim to believe that one is going to arrive in short order at the goal.

The post-Vatican II period in ecumenism was like that for members of the Catholic church, and perhaps for some other churches as well. It was a new and stimulating experience and it felt like we would all arrive "at the center" in full communion in a short span of time. But then, like the labyrinth, the path took abrupt turns and set us wandering and wondering where all this would lead in the end.

The "turns" were the dialogues, extending over decades of time and bringing us face to face with the hard facts of how we have developed different understandings and practices during centuries of living in separation. Could these questions find resolution through painstaking research and dialogue by a commission of experts, and if so, how could their new understandings be effectively injected into the blood-stream of whole church memberships as the new, ecumenical truth of our time?

This part of the journey is characterized by purgation, by letting go of what blocks us-our prejudgments about one another, our stereotypes, our attitudes of superiority. In this purgative phase, we are stripped of our illusion that our church tradition has a monopoly on God's best gifts and graces. Without this purgative stage, there is no arriving at the second stage, the center, no arriving at an experience of illumination or insight or of a gift received in openness.

Mutual Illumination through a Sharing of Gifts

When pilgrims do negotiate the various pathways to finally arrive at the center of the labyrinth, they will oftentimes sit there for a while, contemplating and integrating the insights, the spiritual gift received on their walk. Individual Christians and whole denominations are engaged in this process in the ecumenical movement. It's called "reception"-taking into one's own spiritual life or one's own church an illuminating insight or gift received from another church tradition. Lutherans and Catholics are presently sitting in the center of the labyrinth of unity contemplating and integrating insights mutually received in the agreement on Justification by Faith.

Lutherans and Anglicans in both the United States and Canada, after their church-wide agreements to enter into full communion with one another, are sitting now at the center of the labyrinth, taking stock of how far they have come, of the costliness of the journey in time and energy, and of the lessons learned and graces received.

The Lutheran and Reformed Churches are also at the center, in a new historic situation of mutual recognition of ministries, sacraments, exchangeability of ministers and members. Before they move outward in mission together, they are integrating and implementing the newly established relationships in the life of the four churches concerned (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church USA).

And that's not all. After forty years of building trust and exploring one another's theology, worship, and way of doing things, the delegates to the last national meeting of the nine churches involved in the Consulation on Church Union (COCU) felt that the time is now at hand to stop "consulting" and get on with visible forms of life together. During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January 2002, they are inaugurating a new relationship, to be called Churches Uniting for Christ, in which they will recognize each other as true churches. It's getting crowded at the center of the labyrinth!

Unity is for Mission

The last phase of the labyrinth experience, the unitive path, relates to leaving the center and going back to the familiar place of our daily living, renewed and empowered by the gift or insight received and ready to bring that gift to others. The Holy Spirit is with us to strengthen and support us.

So it is with every individual Christian who returns from an ecumenical encounter enlivened with a new appreciation for the power of the Word of God, for praying with icons, for the biblical imperative of social justice, for a Sunday celebration of the eucharist, or for a new form of church leadership. It is a unitive experience not only in the sense that the Holy Spirit is in it, but also in the sense that it draws the giver and the recipient into closer communion of faith and life.

What is true for individual church members is multiplied exponentially when whole church bodies receive empowering spiritual gifts from one another and draw new energy from their visibly expressed communion, and channel that energy into renewed efforts in mission. Just as churches do not commit themselves to walk the path of unity simply in order to increase their sense of togetherness or reduce overlap in deployment of their personnel and programs, neither do pilgrims walk the labyrinth to arrive at the center and stay there holding hands and celebrating. Our unity is for mission and the glory of God. The Church has a job to do in the world; it is sent forth to announce the Good News of God's reconciling love both by what it is (united) and by what it does to concretize its message through its work for justice and peace.

In the most mature phase of the spiritual life, renewed and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are ready to bring the gifts we have received to others. That, too, is the culmination of the labyrinth experience: taking what has been given back into one's daily living through availability for service in love.

Like the labyrinth, the maze of the ecumenical movement does feel disorienting at times. Just when you think you've arrived, there's an unexpected turn of events and you find yourself back out on the periphery, feeling farther away from your goal than ever. But those who persevere in the journey are rewarded. The gifts received along the way are real and precious. The path does lead to the sought-after place wherein we and our whole church community are re-energized. And then we are sent out again, with new companions and a clearer understanding of the privilege and power of the mission we share to be messengers of hope to a hurting world.

Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in New York City.

Ecumenical Trends, Vol. 30, No. 11, December 2001