How Can We Know the Divine? – Jane Shaw

A Sermon preached for SSJE Fellowship Day, 3 May 2014.
Jane Shaw, Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.

Texts: Isaiah 44:1-8; Psalm 92:1-2, 11-14; 1 John 5:1-13 John 20: 1 – 9.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thank you Brother Geoffrey, and all Brothers of this Society, for the kind invitation to preach here on this special occasion. I am honored to do so.

In 1950, the English novelist Dame Rose Macaulay, then living in London, received an airmail letter from one John Hamilton Cowper Johnson of
980 Memorial Drive, Cambridge, Massachusetts, better known as Father Johnson of SSJE. Father Johnson had known Rose Macaulay slightly when he had been at St Edward’s House in Westminster some 30 years earlier. He was writing now because he had enjoyed her most recent novel. (It’s nice to think that monks, too, write fan letters!) Macaulay replied, and so began a correspondence that lasted for eight years, until her death. (1)Rose Macaulay is best known for her witty novel, The Towers of Trebizond, which features the memorably smug Anglo-Catholic priest Father Chantry- Pigg, with his pocketful of relics. And the novel has this much-quoted opening sentence: “ ‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.”

When Rose Macaulay and Father Johnson began their correspondence, she had been out of the church of her youth, the Church of England, for nearly thirty years. She had been in a relationship with a married man, and had not known how to reconcile that with her faith. She had consequently fallen away from church life. In 1950, that man had just died; Father Johnson’s epistolary entry into Macaulay’s life was timely. Rose Macaulay’s letters are full of learning, wit, charm and most of all deep questions about faith. She soon found herself (to her surprise) wanting to make her confession, wanting to return to church. Father Johnson offered equal wit and learning in reply but – most of all – he gave her spiritual wisdom from the distance of 6000 miles, also guiding her to the right priest and church in London.

Three months into the correspondence, she wrote that she was so grateful for “Absolution from Memorial Drive, which I feel I have (however undeservedly).” How many of us here can relate to that? Probably all of us. “Absolution from Memorial Drive.”

And just a month later, she wrote to Father Johnson:

How many people do you ‘change’ a year, I wonder? I expect, a lot. Beginning with talk about things in general, sacred and profane, and largely in a profane language; sacred things coming in more as time goes on; fresh light on all kinds of topics, ‘a rising and a growing light’ as Donne says, and a stirring of the conscience – till, before one knows where one is, one is surrendering to a new (or old) way of life and wanting to lead it. And all in about 4 months!

Again, how many of us find ourselves nodding our heads in deep agreement, knowing in our hearts and heads and bodies what deep changes have been wrought in this place, in us and in so many, through the extraordinary ministry of these brothers.

I have been associated with SSJE for nearly thirty years, since my time here in Cambridge as a graduate student. I’ve had three brothers as spiritual directors in that time: one left, one died and I’m happy to say the third is still with us. I’ve taken innumerable retreats; I’ve been in despair; I’ve been rejoicing; I’ve had questions about my vocation; I’ve simply needed quiet time, or a rest from an overly busy schedule. Whatever the circumstances, you brothers have been here for me, and I have been able to drink from the deep wells of your wisdom, rest in the beauty of the liturgy, and receive your hospitality. Thank you. I am sure that everyone here today has a similar story, and so I say thank you on behalf of the fellowship gathered here, the fellowship dispersed in the world – with us in spirit, if physically absent – and the twelve new fellows being admitted this morning.

For what you are always offering to us and the world, Brothers, is not just a Word (though you do give us that, for which thanks) but pathways to new life, just as Father Johnson offered Rose Macaulay such a return to the new (or old) life, as she put it, even when she did not fully know that was what she wanted.

The Beloved disciple, whose name and ministry is at the heart of this monastic community, was the disciple at the empty tomb who first had a glimmer of this new life, this possibility, this Easter living.

In the familiar empty tomb scene in the Gospel of John, our gospel reading this morning, the three disciples react quite differently to what they find. Mary Magdalene is the first to arrive and she sees that the stone has been removed. She makes the assumption that Jesus’ body has been removed by someone, and she runs in panic to Peter and John. They hear her news, and they run to the tomb to see what has happened. John arrives before Peter, but stays hesitantly at the entrance, seeing the linen wrappings but no body. We can almost feel his combination of shock, puzzlement and wondering as he looks at the scene, trying to make sense of it. By contrast, Peter, in typical fashion, stomps right in. He too sees the linen wrappings, especially the one that had been around Jesus’ head. Only then does John enter, and, the scripture tells us, “he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

The beloved disciple saw and believed, even though he did not understand. He was the first of all the disciples to begin to grasp the Easter story and the new life it promised.

Many modern commentators, from W. R. Inge at the end of the 19th century to Episcopal priest Bill Countryman in our time, have written of the mystical quality of John’s Gospel. So it should not surprise us that these last two chapters of the gospel are so concerned with that profoundly mystical question: how do we know the divine? And the gospel writer was concerned too with the more pragmatic question: how will successive generations, who will not encounter him at breakfast or by touching his wounds, know of the Risen Christ?

Mary Magdalene sees the risen Lord in the garden. The disciples encounter Jesus in the Upper Room, and they eat breakfast with him on the beach. Thomas, absent from the Upper Room, wants proof, and so the Risen Christ later appears to him, allowing him to touch his scarred body. And we are told there was much more, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his Name.”

And through all of this, it is the beloved disciple, John, who sees and believes first, without yet understanding.

This last part of John’s gospel, in the aftermath of the empty tomb, is concerned with “the question about knowing.” How do we know the divine? Rose Macaulay wrote about that early on to Father Johnson before she had taken the leap back into faith. “The question about knowing,” she wrote. “I have often asked it of believing friends and relations. They say it depends on what you mean by “know.” They feel certain. Or, in some cases, are putting their shirts on a hope, because if it is not true, they feel they might as well lose the shirt along with everything else of value to them – they are quite right of course. I wish I had as much guts.”

Well, she did very soon have “as much guts” – through the ministry of the gentle, loving and accepting spiritual guidance of an SSJE brother.

Rose Macaulay came to know God through the unconditional love shown to her by Father Johnson. And that is a ministry shared by all of us here. How do we guide others to know God, not through some rational set of proofs, but through our own witness, our stories of new life, our quiet presence in the midst of their pain or questioning, and most of all our love?

Rose Macaulay also came to know God because she was steeped in the history of Anglicanism, felt that she could be nothing but Anglican, and loved the liturgy, art and learning that was at the heart of the Church of England. In fact, she had a very profound understanding of the ways in which we know God not directly but through “frames” as she put it, and for her those frames were the liturgy and music she found in church.

All of that reminds us that new life, Easter life, and the knowledge of God which that new life gives us, does not necessarily come through the new, which can be frenetic or shiny or brittle (I minister on the edge of Silicon Valley these days, so I have a sense of what the new does and does not give to us). Nor does that knowledge of God come necessarily by direct apprehension. Like the beloved disciple, we see and believe without fully understanding the mystery at the heart of it all. We can participate and pray into that mystery. We can sing and walk into life in God. And all of that is a kind of knowing.

So, new life, paradoxically often comes to us through the old, or at least the time-honored, with spiritually deep roots – like this place. I first read Rose Macaulay’s letters to Father Johnson when I was at Emery House two or three years ago. Re-reading the letters more recently, I had a profound sense of the ministry of this place to so many that have gone before us, and the ministry that will continue long after we have all gone. It’s all about entering the new (or old) life, as Rose Macaulay said.

This monastery, along with Emery House, is the new old place – always speaking afresh into the world (rewriting its Rule, reaching out online, setting up an intern scheme, making new connections in the world) and yet always rooted in the power of scripture, prayer, liturgy, the music of the monastic hours, the beauty of this place and Emery House, and the gracious hospitality of those who live here. And in all these ways and many more, this Society is always leading people to know God, for which we give great thanks.

Let me give Rose Macaulay the last word. Her expression of gratitude to Father Johnson for the ease with which she could write to him, will be words we can all relate to, as we thank God for this Society, the brothers and this fellowship. She wrote:

You have always met me halfway, or more than half way, and one has the feeling that you really care. Then you understand all that I say or ask, with all its implications and overtones, and your answers always cover what I meant and add more to it; and I always understand what you mean. Incidentally, you also have a knack, which pleases me, of making me laugh a little even on a serious subject.”


  1. Only Rose Macaulay’s letters to Father Johnson survive. His to her were destroyed after her death, as she requested. The correspondence is published as Rose Macaulay, Letters to a Friend 1950 – 1952 ed. Constance Babington-Smith (London: Collins, 1961) and Rose Macaulay, Last Letters to a Friend 1952 – 1958 ed. Constance Babington-Smith (London: Collins, 1962).

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  1. The Rev. Jack H Haney, Fellow SJE on May 11, 2014 at 13:38

    One again, Jane Shaw hits the right spot in her preaching. Thank you, Jane!

  2. Rev. Dr. Richard Gilbert+ on May 9, 2014 at 06:12

    Dr. Shaw has been a family friend for years. Once again she preaches with power. Thank you for
    this opportunity. Richard

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