Rooted in love, drawing life from the same source:
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2021
by Catherine E. Clifford
Each year different Christian communities from around the world are invited to prepare resources for our common celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
at the invitation of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. This year, the task fell to an ecumenical monastic community, the Sisters of Grandchamp
, which brings together women from diverse churches and cultures in French-speaking Switzerland. The theme they have chosen – inspired by chapter 15 of John’s Gospel – is born from a lived experience of unity in faith and prayer, and of the oneness at the heart of the monastic journey: “Abide in my love and you shall bear much fruit.”
One of the originators of the Week of Prayer as we know it today, which invites Christians from all denominations to enter into the intention of Christ’s own prayer as we humbly intercede for unity among his disciples (John 17), was Father Paul Couturier. A frequent correspondent and friend, he lent his prayerful support to the founding sisters of the community, women of the Swiss Reformed tradition who began their adventure of common life in the 1930s. Through his extensive correspondence, Couturier worked hard to create a network of prayer among monastics – Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant – women and men who would pray fervently all year long for the reconciliation and renewal of the churches, forming a kind of virtual community, an “invisible monastery”
of unity. In 1940, during the dark days of the Second World War, he wrote to Sister Marguerite de Beaumont that the fledgling community at Grandchamp was a sign of hope, becoming a centre where those who work for Christian unity might be “formed and reformed”. “I sense,” he wrote, “that the first real Monastery of Christian Unity, such as I imagine it, will be Protestant.”
The roots of the monastic tradition are deep in the life of the early Christian church and predate the separation of the churches in the fifth, the eleventh, or the sixteenth centuries. Thus, monastics from today’s divided churches experience a profound unity that transcends ecclesial difference. They share a bond rooted in the experience of the search for oneness through a life of singular attention to the God of love. (The word “monk” comes from the Greek monos
, meaning "one" or "single".) Through simplicity of life, common prayer, and with the support of others in community, each monastic journeys along a path of continual conversion.
Sister Anne-Emmanuel, Prioress of the Grandchamp community, reflects on the search for oneness with God lived out in the context of community:
Abiding in Christ, remaining united in Christ at all times and circumstances is not easy. How can I let him work through me and bring about the fruit of communion or friendship in spite of differences in personality, culture, generation, or liturgical sensibility? We are a group of very diverse women. Through our daily life in common our love for God and for others is tested. How can I say that I love God if I do not love my sister, my brother (1 John 4:20)? Without forgiveness, starting over day after day, we cannot mature and grow in this very human path to overcome conflict and inner struggles.
The rhythm of personal and communal prayer is essential to the formation of each monastic and of the whole community. Through the regular practice of prayer, coming humbly as we are into the presence of God, we discover our deepest selves and begin to see others as God sees them. Grounded in prayer, we come to discover ourselves as loved and are enabled to love others as God loves them.
The practice of abiding in the love of Christ, the vine, is essential as the churches continue on the path of growth in communion. All Christians – each one individually, each community, and all of us collectively – must remain deeply rooted in Christ, the very source of our life. From his self-giving love will flow the dynamic of our relationship with one another. In moments of silence, of listening to God’s Word, and responding together in praise, we discover the profound bond of communion that unites us with disciples of Christ everywhere and the shared call to pour ourselves out in self-giving love and service to all.
While Paul Couturier promoted the annual observance of the Week of Prayer, he knew it was equally important that Christians pray for one another and for the communion of the churches all year long. This is not a task that belongs to monastics alone. It is the responsibility of every baptized Christian. Each day we pray the Lord’s Prayer, acknowledging God as loving parent and, implicitly, one another as brothers and sisters. When we ask that God’s will be done, this includes God’s desire for the reconciliation and unity of all the followers of Christ. As we observe the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity this year, perhaps we could resolve to pray more regularly and more intentionally for our fellow Christians – for the congregations of other Christians in our neighbourhood and for those who suffer in distant lands.
Praying together in the context of a global pandemic where we may not be able to gather in person, requires a greater effort on our part. It compels us to discover new and creative ways to reach out and connect with one another. Perhaps the experience of social and physical distancing might deepen in us a desire to be gathered anew and to let our unity in Christ once again bear the fruit of communion with one another.
Catherine E. Clifford is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology in the Faculty of Theology and Founding Director of the Research Center on Vatican II and 21st Century Catholicism at Saint Paul University, Ottawa. Her teaching and research are focused in the areas of ecclesiology and ecumenism. She is presently a member of the Methodist-Roman Catholic International Commission. In addition, she has served as a delegate to the Global Christian Forum (2016-2018) and a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue of Canada (1994-2015).