ecumenism from below

Throughout Sarah Bessey’s luminous Miracles and Other Reasonable things: a Story of Unlearning and Relearning God, she uses the phrase “shalom.” Shalom is language that is fairly uncommon in liturgical Christian denominations, certainly in Catholicism, and I kept getting caught up on what Bessey meant by it. Popularized in American Christian discourse by my adored Walter Brueggemann, shalom is one of those words that raises instant questions as I read it. It seems to be a sort of stand-in for ecclesiology and a capacious understanding of Christ that comes with a robust ecclesiology as the alpha and omega, the first and the last, the logos of the Cosmos. And, shalom seems to be one of these American Christian attempts to infuse an ahistorical faith with the past, by reaching back into Hebrew phrases and Scriptures for language to use in the present.

These are my initial reactions to “shalom” as used in the revivalist context within which Bessey writes. But I also found that it is a concept that can be a point of dialogue with many other theological points—it is an eschatological idea, a Christological truth, and a call to an ecclesial faith. Her book is, subtly, all about such ecumenical dialogue.

The central arc of the story is her encounter with suffering, and a reframing of her theodicy to both include a God who suffers and is with us in our suffering, and a God of miracles. A God who heals beyond rational comprehension, and the God who created the world, its laws, and the mechanisms through which we live and move and have our being. As I feel my body’s grace in the physical suffering and healing of the past two years, I am moved by her words. Her journey takes on a deeper resonance and more concrete place in my imagination.

Yet the real heart of the book is a call to a healing of a mystical body. Just as her body has shown both the real possibility of healing and the slow work of daily managing with pain, her experiences in Rome at the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of the Charismatic Renewal demonstrate a very real need for and a very real possibility of healing the fractured Body of Christ.

Sometimes when I read about Charismatic communities I feel a bit jealous. It seems that there is such a specific cultural unity, a specific commitment to this one kind of prayer and way of praying and openness to grace that is bold. Perhaps this is a call that will continue to grow. I used to feel towards charismatic Christianity a skepticism similar to that which Bessey feels towards St. Peter’s. I don’t know that I feel it anymore, even though the stories of the Spirit palpably moving and spiritual healings really boggle the mind’s eye. I think my skepticism is more directed at my acquisitive appetite that wants to be a charismatic and a monastic and a social justice warrior and a biblical scholar. The part of me that wants to be everything, and yearns to have encompassed each and every part of the world into the circumfrence of my experience.

Perhaps one of the truths of Catholicism is that there is room for everyone under the tent because you can’t possibly be everyone under the tent. There are different gifts of the spirit, not because they are contradictory or impossible to reconcile, but because God is so much, and you are just one small slice, and it takes an entire galaxy to express the Creator who desires to communicate with us.

And yet, of course, there is a person in whom God is fully expressed, because that person is God. That person, of course, is Christ, and it is in Christ that the unity of such different Christians, such different denominations, such wildly disparate humans can find unity.

Reading Bessey’s book feels like a glimpse into another part of the Body, into a small section of Canadian Christianity that is both foreign, and, of course intimately familiar. Her depiction of motherhood, her writing about her spiritual experience of being a mother (and being bothered), and the difficult miracle of giving birth—particularly an irregular birth—reduced me to tears. Tears that I was not at all anticipating, but life is constantly defying our anticipations. As is, perhaps, God.

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