“In April, 1536, at the end of the twenty-seventh year of the reign of King Henry VIII, there were, scattered throughout England and Wales, more than eight hundredreligious houses, monasteries, nunneries and friaries, and in them there lived close on ten thousand monks, canons, nuns, and friars. Four years later, in April 1540, there were none. Their buildings and properties had been taken over by the crown and leased or sold to new lay occupiers. Their former inhabitants had been dispersed and were in the process of adjusting themselves to a very different way of life.”[i]
So begins G.W.O. Woodward’s essay on the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Woodward goes on to write about the reasons for the Dissolution, the way in which it came about, and its far-reaching consequences, not only for the Church, but for the whole of British society. For the next 300 years there would be no monasteries, convents, monks or nuns in the Church of England.
The ban on religious life was finally brought to an end in the mid-19th century as a result of a renewal in the Church known as the “Oxford Movement.” Spear-headed by such notable Anglicans as Edward Pusey, John Henry Newman, John Keble, and our own founder, Richard Meux Benson, the Oxford Movement attempted to reclaim many of the treasures of the Church’s belief and practice that had been lost or diminished as a result of the Protestant Reformation. It emphasized the catholic heritage of the Church, the primacy of the life of prayer and spiritual discipline, and the call to minister to the poor.
One of the concerns of the Oxford Movement was the revival of religious life in the Anglican Church. And so it came to be that, in the year 1841, in the presence of Edward Pusey, Marian Rebecca Hughes took the traditional vows of religion (poverty, celibacy and obedience), becoming the first person in over 300 years to take religious vows in the Anglican Church. Sister Marian went on to found the Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in Oxford, one of the early communities for women in the Church. Our own order, The Society of Saint John the Evangelist, was founded a few years later, in 1866. We came to Boston in 1870.
Tonight we celebrate the Restoration of the Religious Life in the Anglican Communion, remembering Sister Marian Rebecca Hughes and others who bravely chose to devote their lives to God in the monastic way despite great opposition. Their courage and dedication speaks to us today, and invites us to take a fresh look at the life to which they felt called by God, and which we Brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist share today.
In an article entitled “What is Religious Life’s Purpose?” Marist priests Justin Taylor and Albert DiIanni comment on the principle goal of religious life:
“The main goal of the religious life is to place God at the center of our lives,” they say. “That is the meaning of religious consecration, and it is best symbolized in the vow of chastity, in which we make a gift of our very hearts to God. Religious consecration is all about the service and worship of God, about affective and effective love of God for God’s sake. Religious life is a way of being with God that takes the form of a gift and an act of worship. It evokes the image of St. Francis lying prostrate on the ground throughout the night calling out repeatedly, ‘My God and my all.’ In other words, religious life needs to be religious, and this means that it must be theocentric. Religion can be about many things, but first and foremost, as Hegel said, ‘religion is about God.”[ii]
It may seem obvious to state that religious life is first and foremost about “love of God for God’s sake,” but this needs to be said and stressed in every age because of our inclination to substitute something else for the love of God. “Nothing else will do,” claim Taylor and DiIanni, “not even love of neighbor.” The purpose of religious life is to love God for God’s own sake, and to love God above all else. Whatever else we achieve – and religious orders have contributed tremendously to the Church and the world throughout the ages – it is always secondary in importance to the love of God.
In a letter to Father Benson, our Community’s Founder, Father Congreve, one of our early members, recalls the following exchange:
One Sunday soon after I came, you invited me to walk with you to old Cowley, where you had promised to take the Evening Service, and to preach to the College boys. Here was my opportunity of gaining from you a clearer idea of the essential meaning of the religious life; so, as we walked, my enquiries began: ‘I suppose, Father,’ I said, ‘that your object in founding the Society of St John the Evangelist was to train the clergymen who join you for the work of missions at home and to the heathen abroad?…’No,’ you replied, ‘I do not think the object of our association in a Religious Community is to equip us to go out as missionaries. We do not come into our Community primarily in order to convert others, but rather with the desire, first of all, to be converted ourselves. Then, if by God’s grace we are converted to Him, He may use us in missionary work, or in any other way that He pleases.”[iii]
The purpose of religious life, in Father Benson’s view, was to be drawn into deeper union with God in Christ. As we were united to God in love, our lives would be transformed, and God would then, if God chose, be able to use us to further God’s purposes on earth.
Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, a modern-day Benedictine nun, makes a similar point in her book, The Fire in These Ashes. She states clearly that the sole purpose of religious life is “only to seek God.”[iv] She writes:
“We have too often been seduced…by other explanations for religious life, all of them valuable and all of them true to a certain degree. We have sought to be ‘relevant.’ We have set out to be ‘incarnational.’… We have given ourselves untiringly to the ‘option for the poor.’ We have devoted ourselves to ‘the transformation of social structures.’ We have evangelized and renewed and revised and reformed until we dropped from exhaustion. And all of those commitments are good and necessary and worthy of attention. But through it all, one thing and one thing only can sustain religious life, can nourish religious life, can justify religious life: The religious must be the person who first and foremost, always and forever, in whatever circumstance, seeks God and God alone…” [v]
“Otherwise,” she concludes, “religious life is just one more social institution to be succeeded by social institutions after it, rather than centers of contemplation where, we can hope, the mind of God can touch the mind of humanity.” [vi](p.47)
This is what communities such as ours are meant to be: “center(s) of contemplation where the mind of God can touch the mind of humanity.” And this can only be realized when the members of the community are united in this primary purpose: seeking God and God alone. We are not suggesting a selfish, isolated sort of contemplation cut off from society or the world. Rather, we are describing a contemplation of God that has an effect upon the mind of humanity; that changes it and urges it to become engaged in the task of approximating the kingdom of God on earth in works of peace and justice, especially in favor of the poor and the marginalized.
We have tried to underscore this emphasis in our Rule of Life.
“Our community was called into being by God,” we say, “so that we may be entirely consecrated to him and through our common experience of the glory of the Father and the Son begin to attain even now the unity that God desires for all humankind.” (p.2) “Our mission is inseparable from our call to live in union with God in prayer, worship and mutual love.” (p.3) “Our mission is to bring men, women, and children into closer union with God in Christ… Our mission is being fulfilled as our prayer, worship and daily life in community draw people into life in Christ…” (p.62)
A community that seeks to love God above all else; that seeks to find unity through its entire consecration to God in a shared life of prayer, worship and service; a community whose common life draws others into life in Christ – this is what we desire to be. And for this vision we owe thanks to countless men and women who have lived this way in ages past, and who have inspired us by their words and example.
There will always be detractors and critics of the monastic way. There will always be individuals and groups who pressure religious orders to “justify” their existence. “How many members do you have? How many people do you reach?” they will ask. “What do you do to effect change in the world? How does your community help those in need? How do you make a difference in the world?” These questions are not wrong in themselves, but they are secondary in importance to the primary goal of religious life, which is to seek to know and love God above all else. If our focus is on numbers, on programs, on measurable results, we will almost certainly lose our way. Instead we must always remember that our calling is to love and worship God above all else. When we are true to this purpose, we will see transformation in our own lives, and in the lives of those with whom we come into contact.
We Brothers have been privileged to give our lives to God in the monastic way here in the Society of St. John the Evangelist. Our vocation would not be possible without your support, and the support of so many benefactors, volunteers, interns, employees and members of the Fellowship of St. John. Your prayers and your gifts sustain us, and make our life possible. We are deeply grateful. In a time when religious life is waning in North America and in Europe, we are blessed with new vocations. There are still people who believe that it is worthwhile to live a life which has as its chief purpose the pure love of God. Thank you for your support. Continue to pray for us, and join us in our life’s mission: to love God above all else.
[i] Woodward, G.W.O.; The Dissolution of the Monasteries; (London: Garrod & Lofthouse International Ltd.; 1975), p.2.
[ii] Taylor, Justin and Albert DiIanni, “What is Religious Life’s Purpose?” (full citation unavailable)
[iii] Congreve, George; Christian Progress; (London: Longmans, 1911); p.vi. – (quoted in Benson of Cowley, p.100).
[iv] Chittister, Joan, OSB; The Fire in These Ashes;´(Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1995), p. 45.
[vi] Ibid, p.47.
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