Saints of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist – Br. Curtis Almquist
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O God, by whose grace the saints of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, kindled with the flame of your love, became burning and shining lights in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
In the Monastery Refectory (where we share our meals) three large oil portraits hang:
Father Charles Neale Field, who died in 1929. He was born in England and became a priest before entering our community. Shortly after his life profession in 1881, he came to serve with us in Boston. He focused most of his life’s ministry on the largely-neglected African-American people of Boston. (This was not long after the Civil War.) Father Field founded two African-American Episcopal parishes in Boston and then acquired property 40 miles south in Foxborough. This was to become Saint Augustine’s Farm, initially a sanatorium providing care for African-American women who were sick with tuberculosis and other diseases. Father Field was delighted by life – by the great diversity among people, by the beauty of nature – and he was known to be very tenderhearted.
Father Frederic Cecil Powell, who died in 1938. He came to our community through the influence of Father Field. Father Powell was born in England, and after his life profession in 1898 he first served at our house in Cape Town, South Africa, before coming here to Boston. He had a very powerful spiritual influence on many people, and was a founder of an Episcopal women’s community, the Order of Saint Anne.
Father John Hamilton Cowper Johnson, who died in 1961. Father Johnson was also born in England. Shortly after his graduation from New College, Oxford, in 1902 and ordination in 1904, he came to our community. Father Johnson first served at our house at Westminster, London, then in 1916 came to us here in Boston. He was known for his scholarship and writing abilities. He is remembered as being stern, as stern as Father Field was tender.
If you were to ask us brothers why we chose these particular three large oil portraits to hang in such a prominent place, we’d have to admit we didn’t so much choose them. We simply inherited them. Some of us brothers do have a keen identification with these and other of our deceased brothers, including our most recently-departed brother, Paul Wessinger. Most of our brothers, our predecessors in the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, were not revered for their holiness in their own lifetimes. In their own lifetimes, they were mixed bags. There were some beautiful sides to their personalities, their ministries, their devotion to Christ, their service to many. And then, as known to their contemporaries, they had their personality quirks and character flaws and inconsistencies. What made them distinctive, effective, and unique, on the one hand, also made them very challenging to live with some days – crazy making, saddening, confusing – along with times that were hilarious and endearing. Very mixed bags, they all were. We all are.
In the SSJE brothers’ calendar, we remember today the Saints of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. We take the long view on this, remembering with thanksgiving our predecessors whose life and ministry we look back on with the gift of hindsight and perspective. Things that are too close to our eyes often block our vision. It’s only with some distance that we gain a more right perspective. It’s certainly true about people. The most important point about this day in our calendar is to remember the truth about the long view on those with whom we are sharing life right now – whether we live here in this Monastery or whether you live in some other setting. Every single person has been created in the image of God. There is no such thing as a “mere mortal.” And yet all of us are mixed bags, works in progress. It’s a good thing to remember that.
In the “collect,” the prayer appointed for today, we remember those who were “kindled with the flame of [God’s] love, burning and shining lights to the Church.” Before a fire burns strong and bright, a fire first sputters and is often quite smoky. Life on earth is a real crucible. In everyone we witness the fire of God’s love catching on, then burning away the dross as they become whole and holy. This will not be complete until eternity. In the mean time we have many people to help and to help us, and the long view on those we remember to encourage our patience, humility, and hope.
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Also, thinking of the Order of Ste. Anne, one wants to remember its other co-founder, Etheldred Breeze Barry, both for her artistic vision and her missionizing one. I realize the impetus for this meditation was the portraits in the refectory, and those might logically be former SSJE members, but if the visible saints all appear as white males, that inaccuracy might want amendment as well. As one who has benefited from the Sisters’ hospitality and that of the Order of St. Margaret, when they were more locally present, I’m glad to hear/see them named, of course. Bishop Barbara Harris is another of my personal favorites, the embodiment of “salty love,” I would say.
Thank you, dear Curtis, for reminding me of the long view. The passage of time dims the remembrance of hurts and intensifies the remembrance of blessings. It’s making the long view fit with the short and immediate sight of the present that the difficult thing. It is a grace to pray for.
Taking that long view in mind, I should like to remember departed members still living among us today as well. Their ministries were important for the time they were in the community, and I pray for their continued good health and safety as they continue apart.
Thanks for this beautiful reflection. It prompted me to remember the first Cowley father I met in the late ’40’s when I was living in Japan. He had recently been consecrated as the suffragan bishop of Tokyo (I was blessed to witness his consecration). I had gone to his home for a personal conference and he invited me to serve him at the mass he was celebrating in the tiny chapel in his home. I was a quite new convert and had recently been confirmed in the Sei Ko
Kwai by Bishop Reifsnyder, retired missionary bishop of South Kwanto. I had never served mass and was such a new Episcopalian that I hadn’t a clue as to what constituted serving, but he assured me that he would guide me. I shall never forget his gentle kindness in that holy moment we shared the Eucharist together. Bishop Kenneth Abbott Viall, SSJE, is etched in my memory and his portrait hangs in my memory gallery.
Thank you too for your reflection. It is so often the unexpected acts that we receive that lead us to the road well travelled- at least that is how I have found it. Blessings. Christina