Richard Meux Benson was born in 1824 in London and studied at Christ Church, Oxford University. In 1866, together with two other Anglican priests, he founded the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “a small body to realize and intensify the gifts and energies belonging to the whole Church.” SSJE became the first stable religious community for men in the Anglican Church since the Reformation, patterned on the missionary vision of St. Vincent de Paul, the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and the corporate prayer of Benedictine monasticism. Father Benson was a contemplative and a mystic; he was also a tireless evangelist and retreat leader. His prolific preaching, teaching, and writing often focused on God’s glory and our life-long conversion to Christ. “We cannot bound into the depths of God at one spring; if we could we should be shattered, not filled. God draws us on.” He understood God’s revelation as continuous and ongoing. “Faithfulness to tradition does not mean mere perpetuation or copying of ways from the past, but a creative recovery of the past as a source of inspiration and guidance in our faithfulness to God’s future, the coming reign of God.”
For this article, we asked four of the men in our novitiate to select a favorite quote from Father Benson and comment briefly on it.
“If we are to have Jesus our friend, we must know Him to be continually near. The companionship of Jesus! It is strange how many there are who look forward to being with Him in another world, but never think of living in fellowship with him here.”
Like our founder, Richard Meux Benson, I grew up in an evangelical tradition that emphasized a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus. The very word ‘relationship’ implies an immediate and ongoing engagement grounded in the present. As I grew older, I became aware that what I believed and professed about Jesus presently would affect my relationship with him in the future. If I worked hard now, I would be granted true relationship in heaven. Eventually, like Fr. Benson, I was heavily influenced by the mystery of the Incarnation which figures prominently in Catholic theology. I came to realize that God was not a God of reaction, waiting on me to take the initiative. Rather, God had already acted through Jesus, the Word made flesh, and my life was teeming with his presence. NOW!!!
It’s easy to get caught up in trying to transcend our human limitations in order to have a relationship with God. The good news is that we don’t have to. Jesus has already entered into our human condition and redeemed it in order that we might have life and have it abundantly. Even the bonds of death cannot sever our relationship with Jesus who walked among us in resurrection before ascending to the Father. We have been invited to join him in this abundant life, not just in the afterlife, but NOW!!! All we have to do is say ‘yes.’ – Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE
“We are created to be social beings, as God is a social Being. And as the Three Divine Persons have no life whatsoever except in this relativity of action, so have we no life whatsoever except in relative actions towards others.”
The popular image of a monk is someone who has withdrawn from the world to practice asceticism and seek God alone. This image derives from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Egyptian hermits and ascetics who retreated to the desert in the third and fourth centuries to seek a deeper and more authentic encounter with God. “Go and sit in your cell, and the cell will teach you everything” runs a popular piece of Desert wisdom. But though spirituality can be discovered in solitude, the Desert Fathers and Mothers recognized that spirituality is realized and nurtured in community. “It is possible to spend a hundred years in your cell without ever learning anything,” the great desert abba Poemen advises. There has thus always been a tension in monasticism between the eremitic (solitary) and cenobitic (communal) styles of life; a tension Richard Meux Benson recognized when he founded a society of mission priests.
From the beginning, it was Father Benson’s vision that the Society be both contemplative and active, both radically theocentric and strenuously committed to evangelism and the conversion of souls. That Father Benson believed this ideal could be realized in community reflects his Trinitarian theology. Just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit proceed from one another in acts of mutual self-giving and love, so too must our mission and ministry proceed out of a genuine encounter with God. Silence, solitude, contemplation, and fidelity to the cell are all essential to effect a genuine encounter with God; but our encounter, reflecting the triune nature of God, will have us necessarily turn outward, towards others, in acts of mutual self-giving and love. As monks we are called to both withdraw and engage, to live a life devoted to encountering God alone in a cell, but not to spend to spend our life there. We proclaim the God we discover on mission, in ministry, and through life in community for the conversion of souls, not least of which are our own. – Br. John Braught, n/SSJE
“We must have love at least proportionate to our knowledge. It is by the power of love that we can come to know anything worthy of God or of Christ.”
In our world, knowledge is valued currency. It can cross boundaries. Ideas from Columbia can transverse geographical, cultural, and language boundaries to reach France or the Philippines. Knowledge can be bartered; people are employed for what they know. Intelligence agencies gather and share information. Artists make and share music, paintings, and sculptures. Doctors employ their knowledge daily, approaching patients differently based on the symptoms they present. Gaining and sharing knowledge is one of the primary ways we relate to the world.
Love, like knowledge, can cross boundaries and it can be exchanged, but it also does something more. Love helps us transcend our current environment and ourselves, and connects us to God. What value is there in being able to recite the entire contents of an encyclopedia with our eyes closed if we cannot see Christ in each person we meet? What good is there in obtaining the highest degrees in theology if we are blind to the new and different ways God is active in the world? We do not need a theological degree to see the new ways God is active in the world. We do not need to be geniuses to be able to love. We can do and see amazing things with the knowledge we have accumulated so far. What more could we do and see if we trusted in the power of love as much as we trust the power of knowledge? – Br. Ruben Alexis, n/SSJE
“The dearest of earthly ties must finally yield to death, and it is impossible that we should come to any true consciousness of the eternal Presence, without in some degree dying to the phenomena of time.”
Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). On our journey of faith in Christ, we must continuously die to parts of ourselves, parts of us that may act as stumbling blocks on the path towards a more fruitful relationship with God. For example, we often find ourselves either trapped in painful memories of the past or filled with anxiety over the future, kinds of suffering that prevent us from being fully present to the reality of Christ within us and among us right now, here in the eternal present moment. Of course, some remembering and anticipating is natural and necessary, however with God’s help, we can practice letting go of the sort of dwelling on past and future that causes suffering and separation between ourselves, God, and our brothers and sisters in Christ. By allowing ourselves to sever the ties to ways of thinking that distract us from the reality of the present, we enter a new kind of consciousness, a prayerful awareness of the eternal now where God’s presence is known. Eternal Life in God’s Kingdom is our inheritance through Christ, and we can claim this precious fruit right now if we surrender to the death of those parts of ourselves that pull us away from the present moment.– Br. Nicholas Bartoli, n/SSJE