Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Day 1: 	Called by God: “You did not choose me but I chose you” (Jn 15:16a)

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

While writing this meditation during the second week of January, our entire community is in quarantine because of a Covid outbreak in the community. We are staying as much as possible in our cells, praying, eating and working separately from each other.

It is the first time in our community’s history that we are unable to gather in the chapel for our common prayers, four times a day.  

Many people have been in similar situations the last year. It is a very difficult time and sometimes suffering seems unbearable.

In the midst of this ever-continuing challenge of the global pandemic, the liturgical calendar calls us now to live and celebrate the week of prayer for Christian unity. The liturgical calendar is a grace. It helps us not to turn around ourselves and the fears that might live in us, or to flee into the future. It is an anchor that helps us to stay in the present. To focus on what we have to live – day after day, step by step, prayer by prayer. 

At the community of Grandchamp in the French speaking part of Switzerland, we sisters are living a simple life of prayer, communion and hospitality. It is based on this reality that I will share with you some thoughts that draw from our experience of monastic life.

Evagrius of Pontus was also a simple monk, he lived in the 4th century in the desert of Egypt.  Evagrius gives us an inspiring definition of what it means to be a monk.

“The one who is separated from all and united with all is a monk.”

At the moment, we are separated from each other in a physical way. I would have preferred to meet you in Geneva and not on Zoom!

But following the thought of Evagrius, I believe that despite being separated from each other, we all have access to a reality that makes it possible to be united with each other.

This reality is prayer.

It is through prayer that we can experience communion.

Maybe we can see divine providence at work in the request that was made in 2018 by Rev. Dr Odair Pedroso, on behalf of the Faith and Order Commission. He asked, for a very first time, a monastic community to prepare the materials for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 2021.

We as sisters, nuns, by having chosen to consecrate our life to God in a monastic context, have gone through the experience of “physical distancing” long before this expression existed – or as Evagrius named it “to be separated from all” - by leaving family, professional and academic ambitions, that what one calls a “social life”.

We are living a hidden life, a life that at a first glance may seem useless.

Of course, the difference is that we sisters choose freely to live this way. It was not imposed on us by a pandemic.

Now that the virus has found its way into the community we are unable to pray together in the chapel or to share a meal. But somehow, in the solitude of my cell, having installed my little “home office” next to my prayer corner, I make the experience that I am not alone, but in communion with God, my sisters and the world.

Jesus himself sometimes withdrew from people in order to seek intimacy with his father in solitude and silence. Strengthened by his father’s love, he could then meet and welcome others.

Following Jesus’ example, solitude and communion are at the heart of our monastic vocation. I think, our daily life of prayer has trained us – like one who slowly gains muscles by exercising regularly – that we can bear witness that “being separated from all” does not need to equal isolation, unhappiness or loneliness. Despite an apparent separation “being separated from all” it is possible to experience “being united with all” as Evagrius calls it.

We have listened to the gospel of John, chapter 15.

It is this year’s central text for the Week of prayer.

Jesus uses the image of the vine, the vinegrower, the fruits and the branches to illustrate the love and life of God that circulates in our lives.

He shares with us the intimate communion that he lives with his father. 

He says “The Father has loved me”

Can we make ours these words that Jesus says? “The father has loved me”

Jesus tells us that he is in communion with each one of us “Abide in me as I abide in you” (Jn 15,4a) Abide:  stay, remain. A modern translation says “live in me, while I live in you”.

God’s own life lives in us. In the letter to the Romans (Rom 8,38) Saint Paul insists that “nothing is able to separate us from the love of God revealed to us in Christ Jesus our Lord”

What does it mean that Christ abides in me, lives in me?

I am stumbling to find words for this, and each one of you will have her/his own personal way to express this reality.

Very often my heart, my body and my mind are scattered, far from being one. But in the very depths of my being, I desire to be one in myself and to be united with Christ.

There is a place in each one of us, where in silence a presence is discretely dwelling. A presence that is both in in the depths of our being as well as in the greatness of the universe and nature. We can call it “the monastery of our heart”, our “own secret garden” or our “sacred space” –

In this sacred space, my wounded and fragmented life is touched by God’s healing. The Holy Spirit, discreet but ever constant presence, is at work in me, helping me to take a next step on the path of self-acceptance and reconciliation with my personal and inherited history.

We need space to let this inner life grow in us, to let Jesus’ own life grow in us. To nurture this life, we can meditate in silence, pray with a biblical text or spontaneously. We can also sing and praise the Lord together with others.

Brother Roger of Taizé reminds us to “live the little bit of the gospel you have grasped”. This appeal to put into practice the gospel realities that have touched our hearts, little as they might seem, safeguards us from the dangers of revolving around ourselves or discouragement.

In spiritual life, we always have to be careful not to fall into extremes. You all know the famous monastic “ora et labora – Pray and work” It is not: pray, pray, pray Neither is it: work, work, work. It’s: “pray and work”. Keep the balance. Prayer and our active day to day life are not two separate realities, because God seeks to encounter us in all what we are living.

“I am the true vine, my father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

God is the vinegrower. I am, each one of us is – and I dare to say each human being on this earth – is part of this vineyard where God the vinegrower takes care of the growth.

Going for a walk in our region where vine is cultivated, I can see how much care a vinegrower takes for his vineyard:  He – or she – weeds around the plants, he plants rose bushes close to the vine plants because they function as an early warning system for an infection of fungus that later on would attack the vine plant. You can see the young and fragile branches tied carefully to the vine and later on in the year a net covering the grapes in order to protect them from being eaten by birds.

The different vine plants of a vineyard share the same conditions of the soil and are exposed all together to heat, frost, rain and wind. Faith is not an insurance company that protects us from adverse weather effects or a pandemic.

Jesus says “this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

It is essential to value the quest of our inner unity with Christ, to let Him love us. By being in communion with Christ, it is his own love and life that circulates through us – as the sap through the vine.  It is from here that we draw the strength to live in solidarity with each other and to act together against structures of injustice and oppression, and to face the challenges that we are confronted with, day after day. Using our poor possibilities, God draws us to be co-workers in his unconditional care.

“I am the vine you are the branches” says Jesus.

He is talking not only to one single individual, but to his disciples. As Christians, we are disciples of Jesus. We are all branches that grow out of the vine, no matter in which church tradition we grew up in or which we have chosen.

We are all part of Jesus. We are united. We do not have to reflect, think, pray about how maybe one day we eventually could be united … No!  We are united in Jesus. He is the vine, we are the branches anchored in the vine plant. With faith, let us take seriously the reality that God has “reconciled through Christ all things, in earth and in heaven” as Saint Paul writes (Col 1,20).

Living from this reality does not mean that we are all the same and that differences no longer exist. Living together with 48 sisters, coming from 10 different countries, from different church traditions, aged 33 to 93 …and add to all this the unique personality of each one of us – this is more than evident to us who live a community life.

Our vocation is to live a “parable of communion”, as Brother Roger writes it in his rule. In daily life and its struggles, differences are visible and sometimes they threaten to divide us. Focusing on our union in Christ, we can choose not to give them the power to divide us, but to ask ourselves: Am I afraid of these differences? Do I tend to classify my sister as an enemy – she is wrong, and I am right?

But maybe I also hear a little voice inviting me to see the difference as a gift from God the creator that wants to broaden my horizon and make me grow in love?

This is true for our little and modest daily life here in Grandchamp. But I think it is also true on the level of ecumenical dialogue. We are called to see beyond the differences that apparently separate, to see that in Christ, we are already one.

And are we not, as Christians of different dominations, called to recognize in each other the abundance of grace that God has deposed in each one of us in order that we might enrich each other mutually by our differences?

Jesus says “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last”.

God has chosen each one of us – together with all humanity – to be part of his vineyard.  Therefore, it is impossible to see my own little life isolated or separated from the life of my brothers and sisters in humanity, whatever be their belief or non-belief.

Pope Francis brings it to the point in “Fratelli tutti” when he writes that the pandemic let to the “ineluctable and blessed awareness that we are part of one another, that we are brothers and sisters of one another” (Fratelli tutti, 32). And to this, I would like to add what Saint Silouan of Athos says “My brother is my life”.

Let us remember this as we continue now our liturgy with prayers of praise and intercessions, invoking God’s Holy Spirit for the reconciliation among Christians, within the human family and for the whole of creation.