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.
[i] Richard Meux Benson, SSJE Summer Retreat, 1873.
[ii] Richard Meux Benson, Retreat for the Guild of the Holy Name, 1901.
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