Living In Love: Father Benson's Vision for SSJE – Br. David Vryhof
Today we are celebrating the feast day of our Founder, Father Richard Meux Benson, a priest of the Church of England who, with two companions (one of them an American), established the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in a section of Oxford called “Cowley” on December 27, the feast of St. John the Evangelist, in the year 1866.
Father Benson was a man of God, a theologian and a mystic, a man of deep prayer and an ascetic. His writings can be dense and difficult to comprehend, but they can also be very inspirational. Many things can be said about him, but no one can dispute the fact that he was a man who was in love with God, and that he lived in a state of union with God that so transformed him that countless others were transformed by him – by his words, by his writings, by his example, and by the order he founded and which has tried to carry on his vision.
When Father Benson was considering the possibility of establishing a religious order for men in the Church of England, he chose not to imitate one of the existing orders in the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, we are not Benedictines, though we share many aspects of Benedictine spirituality. And we are not Jesuits, though St. Ignatius and the Society of Jesus have profoundly influenced our community’s spirituality and mission. Nor are we Franciscans, though Fr. Benson found in St. Francis a worthy example of whole-hearted devotion and service. We are instead a uniquely Anglican community, growing out of the renewal in the Church of England known as the Oxford Movement, whose spirituality can be best described as Johannine. Father Benson drew inspiration from other religious orders, to be sure, but the principal inspiration behind the Society of St. John the Evangelist comes from the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John.
The chief message of the Gospel of John is love, as attested by the reading for today’s feast. In the gospel and letters of John, GOD IS LOVE (I Jn 4:16), and it is because “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” (Jn 1:14) John tells us, precisely so that he could make known to us this God of love (Jn 1:18), and so that we could experience the new life and the new identity that are given to those who believe and who accept to be “born of God” and to become “children of God” (Jn 1:12).
In the Fourth Gospel, these beloved “children” are called to form a community of love, responding to Christ’s command to “love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12) by laying down their lives for one another and for the world (Jn 15:13).
It is this vision, the vision of the Fourth Gospel, that has inspired and motivated and defined the community that Father Benson founded almost 150 years ago. Our Society, though small in numbers, is meant to be an expression of this wider community of love that God has called into being. Our mission is to be channels of God’s love to others, “to bring men, women and children into closer union with God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit that he breathes into us” (SSJE Rule, ch.31). “All our ministries are expressions of our community life,” our Rule of Life tells us; they arise out of our common life of prayer and worship and service. They are the fruit of our prayer, the overflow of what God has given us.
Father Benson had a litmus test for ascertaining the brothers’ integrity and faithfulness to the vows we take, the traditional vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience: brotherly 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. Father Benson doesn’t measure our faithfulness to the vows by some external standard – not whether we’ve prayed the Divine Office or celebrated the Holy Eucharist so many times a week, now whether we’ve gone on mission to a certain number of places, nor whether we’ve shared pastoral conversations with a certain number of people. Father Benson doesn’t base the evidence of our faithfulness and fecundity on the number of brothers in the community, the number or retreatants in the guesthouse, the number of books we have published, or the number of workshops we’ve led. He doesn’t measure integrity by any external standard; instead, he measures it from the heart. Is love present? When it’s all said and done, the question we will be asked on the Day of Judgment will be: Did you love? Were you a lover after Christ? Did you have room in your heart for those whom Christ values? This is what matters most.
And so for us who live under the vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience, Father Benson is constantly challenging us to open our hearts to generosity and love. The vows are meant to help us do this. “It is a miserable poverty which holds back any of its affections from any companion[i],” Father Benson told the brothers in the Summer Retreat of 1873. The vows are not meant to constrict our lives or to shield us from love, but rather to enable us to love. We choose to have few possessions so that we might be more free to love. “True poverty,” said Father Benson, “opens all its doors; welcomes all, serves all.” We choose to remain single and celibate not to say “no” to love, but rather to love more broadly and deeply. We choose to live under obedience to God and to our Rule of Life and to one another as an expression of this same love, the love that seeks “not to be served, but to serve,” as Jesus did. For Father Benson, the vows are a call to love. He readily acknowledges that we will be called to take on many things, not all necessarily of our own choosing. We will be asked to rise up to the challenges each new day brings. It is all an invitation to love. We are to do it all for love. What we’ve been asked to do we do out 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’?”
I mentioned earlier that Father Benson’s writings can be difficult to read. Part of that is cultural; part of that is generational; part of it is theological. But one of the most important things we will learn from him is this: to abide in the presence of God, knowing ourselves to be surrounded and upheld by God’s love, seeing God’s glory being manifest in everything and everyone around us. Father Benson lived his life presuming that every moment was filled with the presence of God. He believed that we were invited by God to live every moment conscious of the Love that “streams down upon us.”[ii] That is a very high calling, a very challenging and humbling invitation for us all. We have been loved into life – by the love of God, for the love of God – in order to share that love with others: those who are far off and those who are near (sometimes it’s hardest with those who are near). Love is the reason for our being. Love is the reason for their being. Live in love, Father Benson teaches us, echoing the message of John. Nothing else matters.
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Thank you, Br. David, for this inspiring sermon. It is a gift that keeps on giving, as much or more in the midst of the Covid crisis of 2020 as originally in 2013. Love is the source, the means, the point of it all. May God bless all you SSJE brothers, now and into the future. You are indeed inspiring channels of God’s love to me and to so many.
I needed this sermon today. Most especially your last paragraph and this line from earlier in the sermon:
“Is love present? When it’s all said and done, the question we will be asked on the Day of Judgment will be: Did you love? Were you a lover after Christ? Did you have room in your heart for those whom Christ values? This is what matters most.”
Thank you and God bless you!
Thank you, Bro. David, you saved my day.
Scary, yet comforting. How to love…especially those close. I pray for the grace to love.
” Did you have room in your heart for those whom Christ values?” Doesn’t God value everyone he has brought into being? The unaware, the crass, the ignorant . the defiant, the ugly, the female….. “Brotherly love” always seems so exclusive and excluding!
I came across this website while trawling for something else. I read the biography of Fr Benson in the mid 70’s. It has disappeared from my shelf so I hope it is inspiring someone else. The thing that has stuck all these years is something in (I think) a letter: ‘we must be as the unconscious hem of his garment through which his grace streams forth.’
I have been a Reader since 1978 and now also do some spiritual direction and that has been my constant inspiration. I’ve also been a tertiary member of SSF for nearly as long. Fr Manson SSJE conducted my first retreat in January 1965 and heard my first confession.
I am grateful to be reminded of it all. Thank you.
I just want to thank you, most deeply. I am a parish priest, serving Christ Episcopal Church in Hudson, NY. I try to feed my modest little flock with a variety of spiritual resources. Today (Thursday, January 16, 2014) our church is having its usual Thursday Healing Service at 10 a.m. About 6 – 8 people attend. I tend to follow the propers in “Holy Women, Holy Men.” Today this book celebrates the life of Richard Meux Benson and Charles Gore. So early this morning I have gone in search of appropriate material for teaching, based on these people whose lives we celebrate. I seek things that will feed my parishioners on their spiritual journeys, and perhaps bring them a message of healing. My search this morning started with your SSJE website — what a resource! — and here I ended up finding (prompted by further inquiries of the web) this sermon by Brother Vryhof on Richard Meux Benson. I frankly cannot think of anything better to share with my people today. I was quite moved by it, quite moved by its essential message about living in love. This is a message for us all. Knowing these folks who will be coming today, I know they will also be quite moved and inspired by it, as well as informed. I will encourage them to visit, if they can, your website. I will strive to connect Brother Vryhof’s message with the ways they already live in love, manifest Christ’s love, in this, their community. So. Bless you. Thank you. Thank you.