Mystical and Apostolic – Br. Mark Brown

Mark-Brown-SSJE-2010-300x299I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a phrase from our Rule of Life that refers to the “mystical and apostolic aspects of our vocation”.   The “mystical and apostolic”: it’s a way of encapsulating one of the polarities or we might say complementarities of the Christian life. The mystical and apostolic—or we could say the contemplative and the active—or prayer and service.  The SSJE has both in its DNA—as do many other religious orders.

I’ve been thinking about this especially having come from a conference a couple weeks ago in Chicago, a meeting of directors of Episcopal Service Corps programs. As you may know, we have a new program here: our Monastic Internship Program.  This is our second year; young men and women have come to live alongside us for a nine month period to be immersed in the rhythm of our life of prayer and service (the “mystical and the apostolic”).  Our program is a member of a consortium of internship programs for young adults: the Episcopal Service Corps.  The ESC is only about six years old but has already grown from six member programs at the beginning to over thirty now, all over the country.

Our program is the odd duck of the Episcopal Service Corps.  They all have some kind of church sponsorship, but interns typically live in intentional community in a house—not a monastery.  And interns usually spend most of the day out of the house, coming back in the evening for meals together and, maybe, some kind of devotional activity.  The emphasis in most of these programs is clearly on the side of the active or apostolic—these interns do all kinds of wonderful work with the poor, with organizations committed to social and economic justice, and in projects related to ecology and stewardship of the earth.

Some of the programs, I learned, struggle to find even one time a week when interns can gather for some kind of prayer or worship or devotion.  We’re clearly the outlier: interns join us for worship five times a day.  It has gotten me thinking again about that polarity, that complementarity in our Christian life: the mystical, the contemplative, the prayerful on the one hand; the apostolic, the active service on the other. The gospel today gives us a starting point for some reflection.

With these words of the Gospel we’ve just heard, supper is over.  The wine has been drunk and the bread eaten. Feet have been washed.  After a long, rambling discourse (three whole chapters’ worth), Jesus finally ends with a prayer: sometimes called the High Priestly Prayer—we’ve just heard the end of it. Then they’re out of the house and across the Kidron Valley to the Garden of Gethsemane.

These are Jesus’s last words before his arrest and the Passion: “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”   So that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. The last words at the Last Supper.

There’s a kind of symmetry to the Last Supper in John’s Gospel.  It’s five chapters long.  The three chapters in the middle are Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse”, as it’s called; and then, balancing on either side are the first and the fifth chapters. The first of these five chapters is the account of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, giving an example of loving service to others.  The last of these five chapters is Jesus’ prayer to the Father, the so-called “High Priestly Prayer”.  The last words again: “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

There is a complementarity here. On the one hand we have action, service, foot washing. On the other hand, we have the mystical, the mystery of God, our being in Christ and Christ being in us.  Action, on the one hand, contemplation on the other.   The apostolic, the mystical.

These are opposites, in a way.  But one can draw us to the other.  They are in reciprocal relationship.  If we are by temperament inclined toward the contemplative or the mystical, we come to know the love of Christ in a certain intimate way. When we come to know the love of Christ who dwells within us, we are put in touch with Christ’s desire for that love to become incarnate, that is, real, concrete, manifest in this world.  The love of Christ desires to be expressed in loving service to others—perhaps in washing feet, perhaps in one of countless other ways.  This could be a test of the authenticity of our intimacy with God: does our contemplative or mystical experience of the God who is love draw us into loving service of others—do we become foot washers?

And it works the other way as well.  If we are inclined by temperament toward active, loving service of others, I think at some point we begin to know the love dwelling within us that inspires us to do these things. We begin to be aware of the very source of the impulse toward loving service.  The source of every impulse to loving service is Christ himself who dwells in us, the Christ who came not to be served, but to serve.  He is living and active in us.  He prayed to the Father that it would be so—and it is so.

The mystical or contemplative on the one hand; the active or apostolic on the other hand. As we mature in Christ we find ourselves drawn toward the other: the contemplative to service; the servant to contemplation.  The apostolic toward the mystical, the mystic toward the apostolic.  This dynamic attraction for the opposite can become a source of great energy and strength, a kind of alternating current that energizes us from within, where Christ himself dwells.

It was inspiring to learn at that conference about all the wonderful work being done by these hundreds of young people in the Episcopal Service Corps and some of the heroic work being done by the leaders of these programs.  And I think I’m beginning to understand the SSJE’s role in this young organization. In a sense what we are and who we are and how we do it, bear witness above all else to the importance of coming to know the source of all love who dwells within us, coming to know him by name.  We are in him, he is in us.  We dwell in his love, his love dwells within us.

He prayed that it be so, and so it is. “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

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  1. Marta on May 11, 2018 at 12:18

    This sermon is so helpful to me in my later years. Having raised (and supported) two children now with children of their own, I long to be a part of those families but distance is a problem. I continue to weave back and forth as to how to find the apostolic aspect of the contemplative lfe. I believe this sermon will help me focus more on that aspect of my Christian life. Thank you.

  2. Ruth West on May 9, 2018 at 23:52

    This is a thought-provoking sermon which I needed. Thank you. A sentence in the Holy Eucharist speaks so clearly to me “…and also that we and all thy whole Church may be made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him…” As you stated, “We dwell in his love. His love dwells within us.” Through his love within us we are inspired and prompted to serve him in prayer and in service.
    May he grant to me his grace and strength to respond to his call to serve him without hesitancy, in spirit and in truth.

  3. Faith Turner on May 9, 2018 at 18:44

    Active serving of those in need reinforces our quiet devotional time. Quiet devotions away from the Hustle and Noise of the noisy world reinforces the active service. In my own life this has been an invaluable duality. Others may put one over the other in their whole life are pleasing God also.

  4. Karen Hall Wright on May 9, 2018 at 17:42

    So well stated Mark. This is a vision I needed To hear.

  5. James Rowland on May 9, 2018 at 16:50

    “This dynamic attraction for the opposite can become a source of great energy and strength, a kind of alternating current that energizes us from within, where Christ himself dwells.” This action cuts through all labels and allows us the freedom to live, not in fear, but in the light. Thank you Br. Mark for putting this so clearly.

  6. James Kovacs on May 9, 2018 at 13:05

    Thank you for these words today, Brother Mark. As a person with a discursive mind, the struggle to move toward contemplation has been a challenging but worthwhile one, and now I have a clearer sense of the shape and result of that transformation.

  7. Polly Chatfield on May 9, 2018 at 09:19

    A blessing of a sermon, Mark, inviting us to examine our lives from a new angle. The lives of the SSJE community – lives lived by the Rule which calls for such dual living – are sources of immense strength for anyone whose life is touched by them. I cannot be grateful enough.

  8. Vel Gray on May 9, 2018 at 07:02

    I am so thankful for your daily messages. Today’s message on the paradox of The contemplative and the apostolic in each of us was illuminating to me as I think of myself as more contemplative than apostolic, but perhaps now I will learn to balance these two tendencies a bit better in my own life. Thank you.

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