“I Richard Meux Benson, promise and vow to Almighty God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, before the whole company of heaven, and before you my fathers, that I will live in celibacy, poverty and obedience, as one of the Mission Priests of Saint John the Evangelist unto my life’s end. So help me God.” With this vow, made on the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist, December 27, 1866, our Society was founded.
It is hard to imagine today what an extraordinary event this was. Henry VIII had presided over the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century – and there had been no monastic life in the Church of England for 300 years. Something new and powerful was happening in the church – a new work of the Holy Spirit. What was it that inspired Richard Benson with the courage and vision to renew the religious life for men in our church, after so many centuries?
Living in Oxford, he had been profoundly influenced by one of the most powerful movement of the Holy Spirit in the history of the church – the Oxford Movement. Victorian England was in the midst of an explosion of prosperity and material progress, of industrial growth and imperial triumph. Yet the Church of England had become weak and ineffectual: unable to speak convincingly to the growing skepticism of the age, and unable to minister effectively to the vast numbers of men and women moving from the countryside into the great cities of the Industrial Revolution.
But a profound work of the Spirit was moving and changing hearts. People such as John Henry Newman, John Keble, Edward Pusey, and our own Richard Benson were yearning to know God in a new and intimate way. They longed to offer their lives totally to God, to bear witness to the transcendent reality of God. They were, in Donald Allchin’s words, “Men wounded with divine love, knowing themselves called to be saints.”
Richard Benson spent long hours with God in prayer. He had a passion for holiness, and for the real experience of the love of God. And he found a sure guide in the Gospel of John “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15:12-13)
That is what God’s love is like: it is essentially sacrificial. Love which gives and gives, and does not count the cost. Love which puts the other first. The love which Jesus embodied, and showed forth in his own life of self-emptying, self surrender, and which was manifested supremely, by the laying down of his life for us – his friends.
It was that truth which Richard Benson, and so many, discovered at the time of the Oxford Movement. That God could be known, touched, seen, tasted,(1 Jn 1:1-3; Ps 34:8) that God’s Spirit could totally transform a person, and make them holy – set their hearts on fire with love for God and for God’s world. But the only way into that life transforming love was the way of self-offering – the surrender of our lives, body and soul, to God. For Richard Benson, this took the form of the vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. Others gave themselves to ministry in the slum parishes of the great industrial cities, and others became missionaries and set off to the ends of the earth.
One week after Richard Benson died in January 1915, his SSJE brother Fr. Congreve preached about him. He wrote, “As we listened year after year to his addresses to his community in our annual retreat of four weeks, we knew intuitively that that high calling which never wearied, and that upward gaze were tokens of a life-surrender that was absolute and irrevocable.”
I believe that the deepest desire planted within each one of us is the desire for God. That the reason why each one of us is here this morning in this monastery, at this Eucharist, is that we, like our founder, are men and women “wounded with divine love” – knowing ourselves called to be saints. As you come to receive the body and blood of Christ at the Eucharist, offer your life anew to God, surrender your lives to be used to God’s praise and glory.
“Take my life, and let it be, consecrated, Lord to thee.
Take myself and I will be ever only, all for thee.” (The Hymnal 1982 #707)
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