In thanksgiving for the life and witness of Paul Wessinger, SSJE (1915-2009)
The father founder of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Richard Meux Benson, spoke of God’s glory being manifest in our own lives through brokenness, which is a real paradox.i Our own brokenness – be it our lack of self-sufficiency, our sense of inadequacy or incompleteness, our own character flaws, even our despair – whatever our brokenness becomes the portal in our own soul where God breaks through to us. Father Benson writes that “if we enter into ourselves we shall find the ground of our heart as it were broken up, and a deep well springing up from beneath it…. This well springs up within us in no bubbling spasmodic manner; it is continual, imperceptible, the mighty power of God rising up through our littleness – expanding our nature – gradually overflowing it – until our nature is lost to sight.”ii Or, at least, lost to our own sight.
If you read the lives of the saints, or if you simply know someone who, in your eyes, is a saint, a holy person, they most likely do not see themselves the same way. Maybe even quite to the contrary. They are more likely aware of their brokenness; we have the vision to see God’s breakthrough in their lives. This means several things about how we are to live within our own skins, and how we are to live with one another.
For one, we have to be patient with life. A phrase that appears so often in the writings of Father Benson is that “life is progressive.” We were created in a state of imperfection, full of potential. Therefore, as Father Benson says, “we ought to find joy in looking forward to that perfection (or wholeness or completeness) which God will give us eventually.” The temptation that Satan gave our ancestors in the garden of Eden was the delusion that, by our own initiative and strength, we could have the gifts of God, all the gifts of God, now: that we do not have to wait, do not have to grow up. Satan’s temptation is for us to seize life as our immediate “right” instead of to receive it progressively as God’s gift. And so, the Fall of humankind is about the forfeiture of life on God’s terms, the forfeiture of the progressive coming of the Holy Spirit into our lives in God’s good time, as much as we can bear it.
To hear this reminder that we have to be patient in life and patient with God is a tough pill for some of us to swallow. The etymology of the English word patience is from the Latin patientia, to suffer. Patience does not preclude our suffering but rather presumes it. Of course, God must also be patient, must suffer a great deal for our readiness or unreadiness to grow and grow up. But perhaps that’s a word of comfort here. Growth is sometimes quite painful – growing pains. If we are having to wait, wait on life, wait on God, painful as that may be, we have some sense of how God waits on us, with infinite patience.
That God will break through to us in our brokenness also invites the gift of humility. Humility comes as a byproduct of a well-lived life. Humility is not something to work on – which would probably only produce its opposite, pride – but rather something that simply evolves within our soul. If you know someone who has the gift of humility, and you were to speak of this quality you see in them, they might protest. They likely see themselves quite differently, hardly as humble. But we know it is true. Humility is in the eye of the beholder, not in the eye of the receiver. The gift of humility will simply come to us in time, in ways in which we are powerless… if we don’t resist it. The English word “humility” derives from the Latin humilis, “lowly,” or “near the ground,” humus being the earth. It’s the opposite of feeling oneself to be high and lofty, above and beyond those who otherwise surround us.
For us Christians, the grace of humility is grounded in the incarnation, that is, in Jesus Christ’s being born among us and like us. The prophecies that anticipated the coming Messiah consistently speak of the Messiah’s humility: “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey….”iii Jesus himself speaks of how we should enter his coming kingdom. He says to enter “as a little child.iv Those who exalt themselves, he says, shall be humbled, and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.v Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls….”vi And in the end, Jesus commands us to love one another as he has loved us: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”vii This is the grace of humility.
The fruit of a life well lived is patience, humility, and then love. Father Benson, had a litmus test for ascertaining the brothers’ integrity and faithfulness to the vows we take: poverty, celibacy and obedience. Love. Brotherly love is the evidence that we are grounded in the vows, that the vows have taken root, and that they are bearing fruit. When it’s all done and said, the question we will be asked on the Day of Judgment is: Did you love? Were you a lover after Christ? Did you have room in your heart for those for whom Christ has room?
And so for us who actually live under the vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience, Father Benson is constantly challenging us to open the generosity of our hearts. He writes that “it is a miserable poverty which holds back any of its affections from any companion.”viii It’s because we are not entering into marriage or partnership that we are more freely able to love more people more. In our vows, it’s not that we’ve said no to love. To the contrary, we’ve said yes to more love for more. “True poverty,” Father Benson writes, “opens all its doors; welcomes all, serves all.” We meet Jesus in our baptism where, we believe, Jesus comes to live in our heart, to make his home with us, to abide with us. But this is also true for others. They, too, are a dwelling place for Jesus. We, individually and corporately, embody Jesus. Yes, Jesus lives in me, but Jesus also lives in you. Father Benson says, “How can we possibly love Jesus Christ if we do not love the members of his body?”
Father Benson draws the same conclusion from the vow of obedience. He summarizes the vow of obedience as a call to love. He readily acknowledges that we will be called to take on many things, not all necessarily our first choices. True, we will be asked to rise up to the demands of the moment in each passing day. But ultimately what is behind these various requests is not our being legalistically being bound to a request but rather invited to love. That we do it all for love. What we’ve been asked to do, we do it all out of love. Whatever it is that we are being called to be and do, it is ultimately not the satisfaction of some juridical rule or code, but rather a response of love. Father Benson writes, “Is he obedient who has forgotten to fulfill the very first commandment of all: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another?’”ix Love is the reason for our being, “to live our lives conscious of that love which streams down upon us, and through us to all others.”x
And this was our brother Paul. But if you were to listen to our brother Paul – and probably most every one of us here, over the years, have listened to Paul in his preaching and teaching, or in meeting with him individually – he would not speak of these qualities we saw in him: patience and humility. By his own admission he was not a patient person. He had made more than a few precipitous decisions in life, some quite wrong, so he admitted. In his younger years, he had been very certain about himself. At the age 16 he traveled from Portland, Oregon, to Cambridge completely alone, to begin his studies at Harvard. Upon graduation, he immediately set off for the General Theological Seminary in New York, then ordination. On the one hand you could read into Paul’s tenacity and certainty simply his strength of character, his very keen mind, and his privileged upbringing, all true. But it’s more complicated than that. An amount of his early strength of character was, by Paul’s admission, in actuality a rigidity, a compensation for how inadequate he felt. As a young child he was too small; as an adolescent he was too tall. He was physically clumsy. He was hopeless at small talk. He didn’t fit it, not easily.
Shortly after Paul’s tenure as our Superior, he became one of the founding brothers of St. John’s House, our ministry in Durham, North Carolina. One weekend we hosted a retreat just for men, an opportunity to listen and speak deeply to one another. The brothers participated in the retreat with the other men who were our guests. The group was asked to speak about the most embarrassing thing they could remember. Paul shared that as a 6 year old he had arrived at the first day of school still wearing his bib from breakfast. It was a searing embarrassment he still clearly recalled, and now well into his 70s. So many other things he found the courage to talk about, coming from his own broken life: his struggles to make peace with his own sexuality, his fickleness back in the 1950s where he belonged in the church (was he Anglican or Roman Catholic?), and whether he belonged here in the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (or was he called to the Order of the Holy Cross or to become a Benedictine)?
He was elected Superior of our community because – as Paul said – there simply wasn’t anyone else. He showed real brilliance as a leader. He became a leader worldwide in ecumenical conversations. In the 1950s Paul was invited to speak in France at La Tour St. Joseph, the Motherhouse of Jeanne Jugan, the Little Sisters of the Poor, the very community who cared for him during these last several years of his life. So beautiful. He traveled widely in the States, in the far east, in Great Britain, in Europe. We have this endearing photo of our brother speaking with Pope Paul VI, and the Pope is listening!
Paul led our community in making our very cloistered life here in the monastery much more accessible to so many people: a Eucharistic table and a dining table that was shared with brothers and guests alike, both men and women. He had the warmest embrace of women being called to ordained leadership in our church. He had such strong advocacy for the life and witness of gay and lesbian people. He spoke as recently as a month ago, urging us brothers to take courage in risking being on the margins theologically. Paul was the confidant of so many, many people: students, clergy, members of religious orders, especially women’s religious orders. Paul embodied sanctuary. He was brilliant in his leadership… except when he wasn’t. Paul told many stories on himself about when he was not his best. He had a way of patting his hands and looking down with a kind of eye-rolling twinkle when talking about his mistakes. And there were many, he said, especially about when he did not rise to the challenges of leadership but would retreat or hide or go away to escape.
Not so long ago I was talking with Paul and I asked him how he saw he had changed over the years, his 65 years of professed life in our community? He said, “I have become much less rigid and much more open.” He said, “when I came to the community I would have been able to give a very clear definition of God. I feel much closer to God now, but I certainly cannot in any way describe who God is. What I am clear about is that God is love.” Paul could speak about love: God’s love for him; his love for God; his love for all God’s people. Paul could not talk about his virtues of patience or humility. But we can. Especially in this last decade of his life, Paul needed an increasing amount of help from other people. He initially resisted this, and then he made peace with being a receiver. He had been such a giver and now he was being invited by God to be a receiver. It’s the very posture Father Benson had talked about in saying, “It is a great token of humility to receive kindnesses at all people’s hands…xi Paul saw no virtue in this; he was simply aware of his own need, his own brokenness, with which he made peace. We, who had the grace of knowing Paul in this life, can rightly extol on him the virtues of love, patience, humility, and so much more.
Just a short while ago Paul said he was not afraid of death. He had been very afraid of death, but here too he had made peace. How sweet it is that Paul could die in his sleep on the night of the Feast of the Ascension. Paul was a avid reader all his life, up to his last day. He read in English, in German, in French: history, fiction, spirituality, especially the writings of Father Benson and of a great many inspired women. He was particularly devoted to the writings of Elizabeth of the Trinity, a French Discalced Carmelite of the 19th century. Blessed Elizabeth wrote that it is “this intimacy with God ‘within’ that has been the beautiful sun illuminating my life, making it already an anticipated Heaven. It is what sustains me in my suffering.” Her last audible words before her death were, “I am going to Light, to Love, to Life.”xii Surely also true for our beloved Paul, blessed Paul.
The Brothers have been very moved by the hundreds of prayers and tributes to Br. Paul, in cards and letters received here at the Monastery and posted on our website. We invite you to read many of those tributes here.
ii Retreat at Convent of S. Mary and S. John, Aberdeen, 1873 in the Cowley Evangelist 1918, p.29.
iii Zechariah 9:9.
iv See Mark 10:15f. See also Mark 12:38f, Luke 1:48, Luke 14:11.
v Luke 18:9-14.
vi Matthew 11:28-30.
vii John 15: 12-14.
viii Richard Meux Benson, from his addresses at the SSJE Summer Retreat, 1873.
ix John 15:12.
x Richard Meux Benson: Retreat for the Guild of the Holy Name, 1901.
xi Richard Meux Benson in Instructions in the Religious Life, p. 59: “It is a great token of humility to receive kindnesses at all people’s hands… Humility preserves from any sense of humiliation. It gives the soul such a divine dignity that it never feels itself capable of suffering an injury.”
xii Elizabeth of the Trinity (1880-1906) was beatified by Pope Paul II on November 25, 1984. In his homily at the beatification, the Pope presented Elizabeth of the Trinity to the Church as one “who led a life ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (Col 3:3),” and as “a brilliant witness to the joy of being ‘rooted and grounded in love’” (Ephesians 3:17).
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