A news report from the Reuters, via the Guardian:
Palestinian police are called to the Church of Nativity after rival groups of clergymen clash in a dispute over jurisdiction inside the basilica. Up to 100 Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic priests and monks, armed with brooms, came to blows while cleaning the West Bank church in preparation for Orthodox Christmas celebrations.
While we may be inclined to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude, watching our Armenian and Orthodox brethren brawling. But Catholics have been equally guilty in the past. I have been told that the Franciscans (the Franciscans!) who control the Catholic portion of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem are adept at using their organ to drown out rival services being held at the same time as the Catholic mass. The problem is so severe that the keys to the main doors of the Church are controlled by a Muslim family.
Since yesterday was the feast of St. John the Evangelist, in reading this news item I recalled the injunction of Jesus recorded in the first letter of St. John:
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning: we should love one another, unlike Cain who belonged to the evil one and slaughtered his brother. Why did he slaughter him? Because his own works were evil, and those of his brother righteous. Do not be amazed, [then,] brothers, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers. Whoever does not love remains in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him. The way we came to know love was that he laid down his life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him? Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth (1 John 3:11-18)
Now the Churches in the Holy Land are very far away, and I certainly have no control over them, nor really any deep understanding of the tangled cultural/political/religious history that has brought us to this state. So it is perhaps cheap advice for me to say that one solution is for the Catholics, at least, to walk away: to drop all claims to ownership and control of these Churches, and to reduce ourselves to beggars in the midst of our brethren.
“If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.” Mark 9:47
If we seek access to these Churches, not as owners but as beggars, asking it not as a right but as an unearned gift, we may be spurned by our brethren. Our pilgrims may be turned away, forced to go elsewhere to receive the sacraments. Or we may be welcomed with love. Or both may occur simultaneously. But if we could face this with equanimity (which would be very hard: I don’t like going with hat in hand, and I am sure most of us don’t either) then, as St. Francis said to Brother Leo: “there would be true joy in this and true virtue and the salvation of the soul.” (St. Francis of Assisi, True and Perfect Joy)
Perhaps the more pressing question I should be asking myself, rather than solving someone else’s problems, is this: to what do I cling to in my own heart, what do I seek to own and control that is not really mine? What am I ready to fight over with my brothers and sisters, rather than yielding in order to be a witness to the love of God? This needs to be understood not in terms of lofty principles, but in terms of very mundane and ordinary things (like a church building). We cling to and defend very paltry things. As an academic I am comfortably ensconced in the upper middle class, and it is very easy to confuse the perks of my position (good salary and benefits, a high degree of professional autonomy—including the personal use of my work computer to type this post) with my rights. The temptation is to say that I “deserve” these things, that they are a natural reward for my hard work and advanced education. Maybe. But I am probably just lying to myself when I say this. As Ursula Le Guin trenchantly observed:
For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? (The Dispossessed, p. 358)
Or to put it in another way: the rule of the Secular Franciscan Order calls on me to “purify my heart from every yearning for possession and power.” I admit it: I like the benefits of my position, and I wouldn’t mind more. But they are a temptation, and may lead me to turn my back on love.
I pray that each of us, this day, will use the grace God has given us to love one another, not in words, but also in deed and truth.