Thanksgiving Service for the Renovation and Renewal of the Monastery
We have been looking forward to this day for such a long time! The day when we Brothers have the opportunity to publically give thanks to God for the gift of our new Monastery – and to give thanks to all of you – our dear friends who have supported, encouraged and cheered us on over these past years of visioning, fundraising, and building. This past year of the exile in particular has been quite a challenge for us. St. Augustine once said that a monk out of his monastery is like a fish out of water – and over this past year we have been gasping to be back home. We’ve come home and it is wonderful to be here with all of you on this glorious day, and wonderful to be able to celebrate this service of praise and thanksgiving.
We believe passionately that God has given us so much: this beautiful new Monastery, our friends, benefactors and advisors – all for a purpose. We believe we have a mission. And that is to draw others to know and experience in their own lives, the love of God in Christ.
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” writes the prophet Isaiah. We long for this monastic Chapel to be such a place, where anyone may enter and feel welcomed by the all-embracing love of God. The very structure of the buildings express that. Our Monastery and Guesthouse are set back from the road, but our Chapel extends right out into the world, onto busy Memorial Drive, and our doors are kept open.
Some years ago, as we reflected on the state of our buildings, we wondered whether maybe God was prompting us to leave Memorial Drive and move out into the country. As we reflected and prayed we felt a deep call to stay in the city. And so here we are. This is in keeping with the vision of our founder Richard Meux Benson. The very first mission house of the Society was not built amidst the cloistered calm of the “dreaming spires” of Oxford, but rather in the midst of the busy industrial Oxford suburb of Cowley. He was very worried by the arrival of the train in Oxford. He worried about the effect of such speed on people’s lives! I can only imagine what he would make of the crazy speed of contemporary life – our internet world.
But our mission, like Fr. Benson’s, is to offer this Monastery as a still point in the midst of the city: we are committed to stand in the full flow of the modern world, whilst at the same time, inviting people to stop, to be still, to reflect, and to receive the love of God.
“My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.”
Our experience of having to raise money and rebuild this Monastery has actually helped us understand more deeply this mission to which we have been called. But secondly, it has also helped us understand something else. And that is just how much we Brothers need help: how much you are part of our mission. What a blessing it is to know our need for one another, as members of the body of Christ. There are some beautiful words which I love in the American Prayer Book in the service for Holy Baptism. The moment comes when the priest marks the person to be baptized on the forehead with the sign of the cross and says, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
Marked as Christ’s own forever. When I first read that, I thought of the place where I first served as priest – the isle of Portland in Southern England. Portland is famous for its Portland Stone. It was used to build such famous buildings as the UN Building in New York City, the government buildings in Delhi, India, and perhaps most famously of all, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London Sir Christopher Wren, its architect, would come down to Portland, to the quarries, and he would walk around choosing the stones which he wanted for his cathedral. Each stone was a different shape and form, but the master builder knew in his mind exactly where it would be placed in the structure. As he chose the stones he would mark them.
I think of that when I sit in my stall in this Chapel and look at the different stones: all uniquely shaped: how Cram designed and fitted these together so beautifully. In the First Letter of Peter he writes, “Like living stones let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.” So, like the stones in this Chapel, we too have been marked – marked with love – marked as Christ’s own forever. We too each have a unique shape – and each have a part to play in building God’s house. Over this past year in particular, even when we were worshipping in the tent, I have been so aware of how together we have been the Body of Christ, ministering so graciously to one another. For all of you – living stones in God’s spiritual house I give thanks.
In a moment Bishop Tom will give thanks for the cornerstone of this building, representing Christ, the cornerstone laid in this church 75 years ago and upon which all the others were laid.
So, I believe, firstly our mission is to be a house of prayer for all peoples. Then secondly, that all of us are called to share in this mission, as members of the Body of Christ in this place, living stones in God’s house of prayer. Thirdly, I believe that at the heart of this Monastery, is this Chapel. And at the very heart of this Chapel is the cross. Jesus, in our Gospel today from John says, “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” It is at the cross that we most experience God’s all-embracing love. It is to that place of love that we long to draw others.
It is the profound mystery at the heart of the Christian faith. That we can come to the foot of the cross and bring our hurts and failures, even our greatest pain, and know what it is to be held in God’s love. And then most mysteriously of all, to experience that pain mysteriously transformed, transfigured, by the love of God, and to be taken up into the resurrection of Christ. There is a cross in virtually every room in the Monastery – even in the pantry and the kitchen. It is our life and our hope. In a moment we shall be blessing our new processional cross, which is a beautiful Coptic cross from Egypt. It links us to the very soil from which monasticism sprang.
I find it so moving to witness men and women who come for a few days retreat here – often with many burdens weighing them down – and who time and again have a real experience of transformation and resurrection. They leave this place with new hope. We too are filled with great hope today. Hope that with our newly renovated Monastery and with your continued help and support, together we will be able to carry out God’s mission to draw all people to himself, that they may know God’s all embracing love.
So today, at this celebratory Eucharist, we come together to give thanks, and to sing God’s praise. Singing God’s praise is what we do every day in this Monastery Chapel. It is our life. And I believe that that is what we are all here for in this life: to live a life of praise. As those wonderful words of our final hymn put it: “My soul, bear thou thy part, triumph in God above, and with a well-tuned heart sing thou the songs of love. Let all thy days, till life shall end, what e’er he send, be filled with praise.”
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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.