A recent article in the Boston Globe described the town of Ridgewood, New Jersey, an affluent suburb of New York. The people of Ridgewood take a competitive attitude to their work and play, and speak proudly of living in an “alpha town.” Mothers and fathers charge hard on Wall Street, then come home and encourage their children to show the same “go-go” spirit in their activities. French lessons can begin as early as the age of three, resumé building at six, and some children play on as many as five sports teams at once. “Parenting,” the article goes on to say, “has become the most competitive sport in America, and winning gold means getting into Harvard, Princeton or Yale.”
You may not have grown up in Ridgewood, but we have all been affected and formed, or maybe ‘deformed,’ by the rampant, competitive individualism of our society. So how strange it is, how counter-cultural, to come across a place like this monastery, a community where men have come together, having given up a degree of personal autonomy, to live together as brothers.
Our founder, Richard Meux Benson, believed passionately that the way to grow into our full stature as children of God was not through competitive individualism but through sharing in a community – or to use the New Testament word, a ‘koinonia’ – of love. Fr. Benson had an intensely Trinitarian theology, and believed that each one of us bears the image of the triune God, and that we are not meant to be separate and isolated. We are called rather to belong to communities of personal cooperation and interdependence, where every person’s gifts are nurtured and valued.
It is very hard to live like this, however. Our fallen nature, with its pride and fear, coupled with our prevailing culture, make us constantly prone to self-seeking, egoism and competitiveness, and on our own we can be powerless to break out of its insidious grip. The Gospel, however, gives us a word of life. In that great passage from St. John chapter 13, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, only to be reproved by Peter, who cannot bear his feet being washed by his Lord. Jesus says to him, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” In order to share in the life that Jesus offers us, we need to be washed by our Lord. Our individuality, our distinctive gifts, our uniqueness – to stop them turning in against us – have to be washed: washed by our intimate participation in the divine nature. Otherwise we have no share in that life. To grow as children of God we need to be washed by the divine life.
Our belief in God as Trinity understands God to be in essence a dynamic community, or koinonia, of love; God living a kind of eternal dance of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That love among the persons of the Trinity graciously spills over, washes over us, and draws us in, so that we too may share in the dance. And this can change us dramatically. Instead of being stunted by pride, selfishness and egoism, we can delight in each other’s gifts, individual talents and achievements, and not feel threatened or diminished by them. We can all join in the dance, and as our Rule puts it, “We can begin to grasp that there is a transcendent unity that allows mutual affirmation of our distinctiveness as persons.”
Once each year, we celebrate a feast for the “Saints of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.” Who exactly are the ‘saints’ of our Society? We don’t know, and that is probably just as well; God knows. But maybe the real saints are not the ‘stars,’ but rather those we don’t hear too much about; those who quietly and faithfully lived the life of community, of koinonia, and who returned again and again to the source of life to be washed and renewed by intimate participation in the very life of God. This is God’s invitation to each one of us. So come, join the dance!