1 Kings 19:9-12; Psalm 27:5-11;1 John 4:7-12; John 15:9-17
Today we celebrate the life and work of Richard Meux Benson, the founder of our Society. He died on January 14, 1915. As it happens, Br. Paul Wessinger was born on January 7, 1915. So these two remarkable lives overlapped by one week.
Benson’s legacy: a religious community with far flung missions. The continuing resonance of a tireless worker known for his asceticism and personal austerities; a visionary and mystic. And voluminous writings: some dense, some luminous—luminous in their witness to the glory of the ascended Christ, luminous in their witness to the human capacity to live life in union with the glorified Christ.
If we were to put Fr. Benson in a nutshell, we might call him a practical mystic, somewhat in the vein of Teresa of Avila–someone deeply spiritual, even mystical, whose sense of union with Christ had an outward embodiment in the work he did. His prayer and his work were in a reciprocal relationship and integral to each other. Even today the charism of the SSJE reflects this quality: work and witness grounded in prayer; prayer given outward expression in work and witness.
In our wanderings through the fantastical landscape of the Bible we sometimes come across texts that seem to be keys to understanding all the rest, keys to unlock the meaning of all the rest. For Fr. Benson, and for the SSJE subsequently, the Gospel and the letters of John have been key. Hence our name: The Society of Saint John the Evangelist.
And of the Johannine writings, this evening’s passages from the Gospel of John and the First Letter of John are central. Abide in my love. I call you friends. Love one another. Zeroing in even further (and speaking for myself), absolute zero may very well be that simple equation, those three little words, found in 1 John, which we heard a few minutes ago. “God is love.” Three small words—nine letters total.
“God is love.” Many people, of course, find this to be a key. The Bible can be a bewildering landscape, full of strange and wonderful stories. Strange and wonderful rules and regulations. Strange and wonderful princes, prophets and poets. Strange, wonderful, and not so wonderful.
But the extraordinary resonance of those three little words puts all the rest in perspective. To say “God is love”, to know that “God is love”, can help us sift through all that is strange and wonderful and confusing in the Bible. It can help us decide what’s important and what’s not. To grasp one central, one key concept can help enormously in making sense of the whole.
Making sense of the scriptures is a good thing—the more understanding we have, the better. But it is not enough. The words, “God is love” are not just a key to understanding, they are a key to living. These three little words point beyond themselves to a living reality. The reality of God, the reality of love, the full reality of existence itself, “in whom we live and move and have our being”.
“In whom we live and move and have our being”—our habitation. God is love; love is our habitation. We inhabit love. It’s something like music. Gifted musicians don’t so much play music as inhabit music. You can see this even in gifted children: a kind of absorption that is total. It is something that goes beyond the mere mechanics of playing an instrument, to something involving the whole body, the whole person. Even a musician who appears to be sitting still can be using their body in a complete way, totally inhabiting the music.
Even we as listeners, of course, can be caught up in this way, inhabiting the music we hear, especially if we are dancing. What God invites us to is that kind of absorption. God invites us to inhabit love, as we might inhabit music. Love is a kind of silent music—a still, small voice, a sound of sheer silence—that surrounds us on every side. The music of a still small voice that can so easily be overwhelmed by the cacophony of our lives.
It’s the noisiness of life that draws us to spiritual practice: silence, solitude, meditation, retreat. In silence we can once again hear more clearly the still, small voice of love that surrounds us—the silent music of love we inhabit. The sound of sheer silence that is as wide and deep as the cosmos itself.
The silent music—the music of the spheres! But this love, this music which can be so still and small and silent is yet more. This music, this love, is not only a living reality, it is a shimmering personal reality; it is Christ himself—in whom we live and move and have our being. Christ is himself our dwelling place, our personal habitation. The music we inhabit, the love in which we dwell, is personal: Christ himself, in whose being we find ourselves so wondrously shining.
“Blessed are you, eternal God, for your servant Richard Meux Benson, who heeded your call to holiness and nurtured in others…the vocation of constant union with Christ…” Being called to “constant union with Christ”, as the collect for today puts it, calls us both to know love intimately and to embody love in the world. To be “practical mystics”. There is probably no other kind of authentic mystic. If one does know Christ, if one does inhabit love, this love will be embodied in our lives. Embodied in kindness, generosity, justice. Compassion. Beauty. Even joy.
I’ll close with a very short poem, not by Fr. Benson, but by a later member of the Society. So, from the school of Richard Meux Benson, echoes of the Gospel of John and the Song of Songs…
When you spoke dawn today
you kissed me with the kisses of your mouth.
Yet, even before daybreak—when I saw
three stars shot out of somewhere
(over the rainbow, I suppose, but how do they get here from there?
How shall I?)
As I was saying: Yet, even before daybreak you offered the first kiss (kisses, actually)
You, the unspoken speaker—how shall I return your kisses (those three and more)
moment by moment by moment?
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The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.