Unity as Spiritual Practice (Day 12: 1 Corinthians 13–14)

In a nutshell: Paul describes various spiritual gifts, all of which are meant to for the well-being of the community.

So what should you do, my friends? When you gather together and you each have a hymn, a bit of instruction, a God-given insight, an ecstatic utterance, an interpretation, everything should be done for the benefit of the community.
—1 Corinthians 14:26

This entry is for Day 12, posted early for the weekend.

Unity as Practice

We’ve been terribly serious and philosophical over the past several readings. Perhaps now is a good moment to lighten up with some help from the contemplative side of the Christian tradition, beginning with Thomas Merton. His poem Hagia Sophia (“divine wisdom”) aspires to unity through vulnerability, a wonderful complement to today’s reading about gifts and community. “At five-thirty in the morning I am dreaming in a very quiet room when a soft voice awakens me from my dream,” he writes of a man in a hospital sickbed.

Who is more little, who is more poor than the helpless
man who lies asleep in his bed without awareness and
without defense? Who is more trusting than
he who must entrust himself each night to sleep?
What is the reward of his trust? Gentleness comes to
him when he is most helpless and awakens him,
refreshed, beginning to be made whole. Love takes him
by the hand, and opens to him the doors of another
life, another day.

(But he who has defended himself, fought for himself
in sickness, planned for himself, guarded himself, loved
himself alone and watched over his own life all night, is
killed at last by exhaustion. For him there is no newness.
Everything is stale and old.)

When a nurse awakens him, he says of her, “It is like being awakened by Eve. It is like being / awakened by the Blessed Virgin. It is like coming / forth from primordial nothingness and standing in / clarity, in Paradise.” I am reminded of that wonderful passage in “On the Origin of the World,” when Sophia Zoe sends Eve to “raise Adam, in whom there was no soul, so that the children he would engender might be vessels of light.” Merton’s sick man could be that Adam, raised by wisdom and brought to life by human contact after ignorant deities fail him.

What would it mean to consider unity as spiritual practice, a practice of human contact, instead of a distraction from the prize? Paul’s communities are not already unified. They all struggle. Paul wants them to practice unity, to strive for unity. “You should run to win,” Paul says in 1 Cor 9:24, but after all, we are still running and haven’t seen a finish line yet. Maybe the Acts of the Apostles fails Paul on precisely these grounds: the writer depicted an already unified community when in fact Paul always pursued community as practice.

A classmate at Yale Divinity School drew this image of the brothers in his order each positioned to represent a different gift. He offered it to us as a reminder of how our many individual talents contribute to the unity of the whole.

I recently read a wonderful piece by Robert A. Jones on the Empty Bell. He was trying to articulate differences between the Buddhist and Christian contemplative traditions and also to foster new conversations among existing Christian contemplative communities. He describes two types of contemplative practice, via negativa and via affirmativa.

Sometimes, these mystical theologians understood the letting go of one’s thoughts and emotions as the “emptying” (Greek: kenosis), that is mentioned by St. Paul in Philippians 2:5ff, where Christ “emptied himself.”  In silence, these mystical theologians sensed a unity with God that cannot be experienced if one is caught up in one’s own thinking about God.  Their spiritual practice is sometimes called the via negativa or the way of unknowing—versus the via affirmativa, which proceeds by way of what we can know about God through our senses.

The via affirmativa is sometimes lacking in Christian contemplative communities today, perhaps because many such communities formed in reaction to the overemphasis on heavily verbal and intellectual forms of Christianity following the Protestant Reformation. Inspired by Martin Buber’s I and Thou, Jones and other members of his community express a concern that is very much in keeping with Paul’s concern here in 1 Corinthians 12–14. “If contemplative prayer emphasizes simply “being with” God in wordless unity” through an overemphasis on via negativa practices, Jones writes,

then the I-Thou and I-It dimensions draw our attention to the importance of connecting, subject to subject, with others, and even with ourselves.  Sometimes, it is more important to reach out to ourselves and others in love, to work creatively with them, to help them or to be helped by them, than it is to sit in meditative silence with God.

Buber in I and Thou strove to awaken the individual from mere observation and experience to participation in the other. Jones appeals to various legends of Jesus from the gospels to express this point in more detail. Members of the Westar community might rightfully prefer to explore his observations in conversation with historical Jesus research, since he uncritically accepts the gospel stories as true. However, since the principle of his observation rings true with my reading of Paul so far, I think that could be a productive and meaningful conversation.

Questions for the Road

  • Do you engage in contemplative practices (Christian, Buddhist, other)? How might we engage in such practices while still striving to be honest with ourselves about the history of the religious tradition?
  • What do you think of Jones’ desire to see Christian contemplatives strike a balance between emptying practices and relational practices? What insight does this offer into Paul’s own guidance on employing one’s gifts in a community?

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

2 thoughts on “Unity as Spiritual Practice (Day 12: 1 Corinthians 13–14)

  1. 1 Cor 13, a paraphrase: Spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues, powers of prophecy, faith to move mountains, giving away all possessions, sacrificing one’s body, all take second place in importance to love. Love has a permanence and completeness that prophecy and knowledge lack. Love is always there in the form of patience, kindness, and truth, without envy, boasting, arrogance, selfishness, or wrongdoing. Love is all encompassing, using belief, hope, and endurance to master all circumstances. Love is adulthood, the end of childish ways. But we still see in a mirror dimly; even so, faith and hope endure, and love perfected within us will bring all things into clarity.

    1 Cor 14, a paraphrase: So pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts. I recommend prophecy over speaking in tongues, for our goal is to build up the church community and not the individual. Though its usually unintelligible, tongues may have something to offer through an interpreter. Since I speak tongues in my personal devotions, I am not unaware of drawbacks and benefits. Tongues are a sign for unbelievers, prophecy is a sign for believers. Prophecy calls all to account, believer and unbeliever alike, a proof of God’s presence. Do not use tongues in worship without an interpreter. You can all prophecy one by one, everyone being encouraged, promoting God’s wish for peace and not disorder. (As in all the churches, men should take the lead.) Prophecy is a gift from the Lord, so friends, be eager in its practice.

    Comment: I agree that a commitment to community, unity, and reconciliation is a strong theme in Paul’s message.


    1. I believe I have stumbled upon the clue to Jesus’ key to his gospel which opens the meaning in his parables. To explain the parable that begins “A sower went out to sow his seed” (Luke 8:5) Jesus told his disciples, “Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God.”
      But what did Jesus mean by “the word of God”? I think it means the word God uses to speak to his children – what I have stumbled upon. With the use of that clue it becomes clear that what Jesus’ gospel means. It also becomes clear that it is a Judaic heresy, which is why Jesus preached it to the multitudes only in parables. (those who had the clue had “ears to hear”) I have used the clue to unravel the meaning of Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom of God in my essay, “The Secrets in Jesus’ Parables”.
      I would be pleased to email my essay to you and hope to have your comments.


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