In this sermon, originally preached on Nov. 10, 2009, Br. James Koester discusses the Community’s yearly retreat, as well as the history, founding, and charism of SSJE. We republish it this week, as SSJE heads once again into its annual Community retreat.
2 Timothy 1: 6-14; Psalm 77: 11-15; Matthew 5: 13-19
For the past two summers the community has tried something quite different during our annual community retreat. Rather than inviting an outside retreat leader or even asking a particular brother to lead our retreat, and to give the daily meditation, we have asked a number of brothers to give a single meditation within the context of the daily Eucharist. In this way, over the course of the retreat, we hear from a number of brothers and hear a number of different voices. This past summer we added another element to the retreat, and that was a daily tea and conversation, during which the brother who had led the meditation earlier in the day then facilitated a conversation. It was a formula that worked quite well and we had a number of excellent meditations and conversations.
This summer I was asked to help the community think about our history and the role that our history has played in our past and how our history has helped, or not helped, shape our present and our future. While I was getting ready for this, I did some reading and thinking about the history of Anglican religious communities and ours in particular, and was glad to be reintroduced to some of the more colourful characters in Anglican religious history.
As you may know, while we are the oldest community for men in the Anglican Communion, we were not that first, and Father Benson was by no means the most interesting of the founders; that privilege goes to Father Ignatius of Llanthony and Abbot Aelred of Caldey. However neither the community at Llanthony or at Caldey survived, the first died out shortly after the death of Father Ignatius in 1908 and the second was received in the Roman Catholic Church in 1913.
So what was different, and why was it important? Father Ignatius was once described by Gladstone as one of the best orators of his day. Father Benson’s sermons on the other hand were obtuse and difficult to follow. Abbot Aelred had the magnetism to draw a wide circle of men around him and to convince them to try monastic living on a small island off the coast of Wales. Father Benson’s asceticism on the other hand inspired many, at least from a distance. However, those who wanted to follow were comparatively few.
What set Father Benson apart was that he was neither an antiquarian nor a romantic. He was clear that the Society of Saint John the Evangelist was neither a recreation of a medieval monastic community and nor was it a Roman Catholic community simply translated into an English Anglican context. Father Ignatius was intent on re-establishing a medieval institution and Abbot Aelred on following Roman Catholic Benedictine practices in everything but name. It is no wonder then that the early pre-War days of Edwardian England saw the death of both a medieval experiment and a community that was Anglican in name alone.
The question that each of these three men answered, in different ways, had very different results. It’s the same question that someone could have posed to Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome 1500 years before. It’s the same question someone could ask each one of us here tonight. “If this is what you believe, how then should you live?”
For one, Father Ignatius, the answer led to medievalism and obscurity. For Abbot Aelred, the answer led to that curious sub-culture of Anglo-Catholicism known as Anglo-Papalism, and finally to Roman Catholicism itself. For Father Benson the answer led to a head on engagement with the contemporary Church within the context of a then modern English culture. For Leo the Great, the answer led from the office of the Bishop of Rome to the streets and allies of fourth century Rome where he ministered to the poor, and to the negotiating tables with the invading Huns where he did his best to protect the city, and when that failed used the resources of the church to repair the damage done and redeem those who had been carried away into slavery.
Leo’s exercise of his ministry was marked by the same kind of humility and humble service that he noted about Christ and the mystery of the incarnation when he wrote:
Humility was assumed by majesty, weakness by strength, mortality by eternity; and to pay the debt that we had incurred, an inviolable nature was united to a nature that can suffer. To fulfill the conditions of our inner healing, the man Jesus Christ, one and the same mediator between humankind and God, was able to die in respect of one nature, and unable to die in respect of the other. Thus in the whole and perfect nature of a human being, true God was born, complete in what pertained to his divine nature, and complete in what pertained to ours.
It was this unity in the person of Christ that marked both Leo’s honour of the mystery of the incarnation whereby divinity and humanity met together in the person of Jesus. As God was prepared to accept the humanity of Jesus as a vessel for his divinity, then we as a sign of respect for Christ’s divinity should honour his humanity.
But Leo was not content simply to wrestle with theological niceties. If he truly believed this, then the question of how to live was no less important to answer and so into a crumbling and chaotic society where civil authority had all be disappeared Leo took a stand in the defence of his city and for the protection of the poor. He did so, not as a way to garner power, but as a way to live out his beliefs and to be “a herald and an apostle and a teacher” [2 Timothy 1:11] of Jesus Christ.
As Anglicans we often claim that praying shapes believing: we can show people what we believe, by how we pray. But it is just as true that believing shapes living: we can show people what we believe, by how we live. That was certainly true for Leo who took the doctrine of the incarnation into the streets of Rome. That was certainly true for Father Benson who took his belief, not only in the glory of God but in ours as well in union with the ascended Christ and shaped a life for himself and others which constantly looked to the glory and saw in it the fullness of our humanity seated at the right hand of the Father in the person of Christ. The draw that Father Benson had on people was not one based on an antiquarian lifestyle, whereby he recreated a medieval monastic community. Nor was it a romantic attempt to prove the catholic nature of the English Church by copying all things Roman. Rather the draw he had on people was because of his profound sense that through our baptism into Christ we share in the life of God.
Can the same be said for you? Can it be said that your believing shape your living? If someone looked at the way you lived your life, would they be able to say what you believed? Would they see in you a city built on a hill that cannot be hid, or a lamp placed on a lampstand giving light to all those in the house? Would they see in you life, the light of faith and know that because of it, you are the light of the world?
Day after day, my brothers and I sit in those conference rooms in the guesthouse listening to people speak about their lives. Not many come, at least not many come to me struggling with questions of faith. Instead they come struggling with questions of life: how then should I live?
How we choose to live our lives is no happenstance thing. It’s not about the ways the planets line up, or about the hand we’re dealt, or the luck of the draw. How we choose to live our life is rooted in the good treasure that has been entrusted to us, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us [2 Timothy 1:14] and how we know that treasure to be true.
For Leo, and Father Benson, and even Jesus here in Matthew’s gospel I would suggest that the answer to then question is as salt and light for when we are full of salt and light others can taste and see the life within us and in tasting and seeing they too may come to know, and in knowing give glory to God in heaven.
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