Unity as an Experience of God
A Glimpse of Chaira Lubich's Spirituality of Unity.
This is the text of a paper by the Revd Dr Callan Slipper, National Ecumenical Officer for the Church of England, given at the World Council of Churches in April 2018.
I think that perhaps to understand something more about unity in God’s gift, his charism, to Chiara Lubich we need to look again at John 17. Let’s hear these words afresh. In verse 21 Jesus is shown praying to the Father in these words:
that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
This is often summarized as “may they be one so that the world may believe.” This summary could lead us to think that unity is necessary only to serve or only to give credibility to mission. No doubt it is true that unity does lead to effective outreach and does give credibility to Christian apologetics.
But listening attentively to the words of Scripture, unity is clearly more than a mere tool.
When John 17 speaks about unity more time is spent on outlining what happens in unity than on anything else. It is described as modelled on the inner life of God: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you” and is said to be a sharing in that very inner life “may they also be in us.” Indeed, the next verse expands this by saying that unity is sharing in God’s glory: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one” and then in the verse following that (verse 23), unity is presented as Christologically focused. It is mediated by Jesus to his disciples through their participation in him: “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.”
None of this, of course, denies unity’s transformative effect upon the world. Unity persuades and makes God, revealed in Christ, known – known in a real way because God is truly and effectively present among those who are united. It is God giving witness to God. Thus, like God, unity is never closed in itself; it is other-focused.
But the emphasis is not so much upon that transformative effect. It is upon the divine experience of those who, through that experience, bring about the transformation of the world.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this life of unity is that through the ages Christians have tended not to focus upon it, but upon their personal relationship with God, and they have often withdrawn from other people. John 17, by contrast, shows other people as essential for a real sharing in the divine life.
It is here that, crucially, Chiara’s charism is so vital.
Her spiritual discipline does not only exhort to us to dwell in unity; it tells us how to live it. It shows us how to enter into the mystical depth of John’s gospel – which could justifiably be called the mysticism of the New Testament since it is evident elsewhere, particularly in the Pauline epistles or in Acts where the whole community in Jerusalem is said to be one heart and one mind, sharing all things in common (Act 2 and 4).
Chiara’s spirituality of unity begins with a radical choice of God who is love. It is a deeply personal act; no one else can do it for you. This choice is then expressed in the firm decision to do what God wants, which, of course, means to live the word made manifest in Scripture. The spirituality that develops from this basis, in line with the mysticism of the New Testament, focuses upon the communal dimension of love among people dwelling in God.
We could put it like this: rooted in God, living as God wishes, we dwell in a love that, like Jesus in his forsakenness on the cross, makes itself nothing out of genuine love for the other. Of course, this dying to self, is simultaneously a dwelling in the fullness of life, since when we are full of love we taste God’s abundant life and our whole self flourishes.
Still more, this cruciform love, this nothingness which is a fullness of love, lived together with others, means we share in the totally self-giving love of God the Trinity. It is a participation in God’s own eternal giving and receiving.
To use a picture, we could express it in something like a mathematical formula: a nothingness of love plus a nothingness of love equals a nothingness of love. Nothing plus nothing equals nothing. Or love plus love equals love.
Thus, as each one of us is caught up in the love that is God, we are one in God. And yet because we are different persons who are one, we are also distinct – indeed always more distinct as our self-giving in love means our particular gifts and talents are affirmed. Paradoxically, the more we are one, the more we are distinct.
And this then has its effects in transforming the world. Just as in the first community in Jerusalem mentioned earlier, for instance, where there was an economic revolution: they held their goods in common. Thus any relationships lived in unity profoundly reshape our social interactions.
Clearly this tells us something important: namely that the unity Jesus prayed for is far bigger than reuniting divided Christians. It is a mysticism that reaches into the inner being of God and then touches every aspect of human life.
This is a bigger task than that of modern-day ecumenism. And yet the healing of the body of Christ, which is ecumenism’s task, is critical for this greater unity to be achieved. Thus, while Scripture and its unpacking by the charism of Chiara do indeed show us the divine, indeed the cosmic dimension, of unity, at very same time that cosmic dimension itself shows us the urgency of reconciliation among Christians. For Christians are called to be the avant-garde of the lived experience of our unity in Christ.
But just think what a difference it would make to our actual work for ecumenism if this cosmic dimension were the heart and the inspiration of all we do for the reconciliation of Christians! The final end, namely relationships in God, would become the present means.
This paper was one of several personal reflections in a session video recorded: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woh9smKJ4nM