Richard Meux Benson (1824-1915)

Principal Founder of SSJE

by Curtis Almquist SSJE

Beloved, it is a loyal thing when you render any service to the brethren,
especially strangers, who have testified to your love before the church.

3 John 5-8Father Benson

The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson, had a litmus test for ascertaining the brothers’ integrity and faithfulness to the vows we take: poverty, celibacy and obedience. Brotherly love is the evidence that we are grounded in the vows, that the vows have taken root, and that they are bearing fruit. Brotherly love. Father Benson doesn’t measure our faithfulness to the vows based on some external standard – not whether we’ve prayed the Divine Office or celebrated the Holy Eucharist so many times in a week, nor 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 community, the number of retreatants in the house, the number of books we publish. He doesn’t see the signs of integrity on any external standard but rather he measures it from the heart. Is love present? When it’s all done and said, the question we will be asked on the Day of Judgment is: Did you love? Were you a lover after Christ? Did you have room in your heart for those for whom Christ has room?

And so for us who actually live under the vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience, Father Benson is constantly challenging us to open the generosity of our hearts. He writes that “it is a miserable poverty which holds back any of its affections from any companion.”1 It’s because we are not entering into marriage or partnership that we are more freely able to love more people more. In our vows, it’s not that we’ve said no to love. To the contrary, we’ve said yes to more love for more. “True poverty,” Father Benson writes, “opens all its doors; welcomes all, serves all.” We meet Jesus in our baptism where, we believe, Jesus comes to live in our heart, to make his home with us, to abide with us. But this is also true for others. They, too, are a dwelling place for Jesus. We, individually and corporately, embody Jesus. Yes, Jesus lives in me, but Jesus also lives in you. “How can we,” he writes,” possibly love Jesus Christ if we do not love the members of his body?”

Father Benson draws the same conclusion from the vow of obedience. He summarizes the vow of obedience as a call to love. He readily acknowledges that we will be called to take on many things, not all necessarily our first choices. True, we will be asked to rise up to the demands of the moment with each passing day. But ultimately what is behind these various requests and our various responses is not our being legalistically being bound to a decree but rather an invitation to love. That we do it all for love. What we’ve been asked to do, we do it all out of love. Whatever it is that we are being called to be and do, it is ultimately not the satisfaction of some juridical rule or code, but rather a response 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?’”2

Father Benson can be a bit difficult to read. Part of that is cultural; part of that is generational; part of it is theological. Father Benson practiced the presence of God moment by moment, seeing God’s glory being manifest in everything. He lived his life presuming that every moment was filled with the presence of God, and that we are invited to live our lives conscious of that love which “streams down upon us.” 3 That is a very high calling, a very challenging and humbling invitation. We have been loved into life, by the love of God, for the love of God, to share that love of God with others: those who are far off and those who are near (sometimes even harder with those who are near). Love is the reason for our being. Love is the reason for their being.