A Living Lineage – Br. Keith Nelson
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Feast of the Saints of the Society of St. John the Evangelist
In a monastery, the past is inescapable. Formal, stately portraits of departed SSJE brethren hang on the walls of our refectory, placidly gazing upon daily breakfasts and Easter dinners alike. The names of others are inscribed on the bottoms of communion chalices or on memorial plaques, hanging in both obvious and out of the way places. Names and dates in elegant cursive script grace the inside covers of some of the older books on our library shelves. Occasionally, I stumble across prayers copied out on title pages or notes penciled in the yellowing margins, and I’m unexpectedly moved; I feel as if I am entering a conversation that began long before me. Finally, and most significantly, there is our practice of reading the obituary of a departed brother on the anniversary of his death. This moment at Compline is not simply a gentle reminder of our mortality. It is also a loving gaze at a portrait in the family photo album. And that probably points to the heart of the matter. When I say that the past is inescapable here, I do not mean that in an antiquarian or anachronistic way, as if living in a monastery were like living in a museum or an antique gallery. Nor do I mean that we are haunted by ghosts. In the phrasing of Donald Allchin, former Canon of Canterbury Cathedral and a friend of this community long before I came along, it is the “living presence of the past” that makes itself so mysteriously and palpably felt in a monastery.[i] Before I came to monastic life, my personal relationship with the past felt both very passionate and very piecemeal. Confined to favorite authors and artists and a handful of saints, I found it difficult to describe why these figures exerted such a persistent, gravitational tug upon my heart – and what meanings that tug signified for my life in the present. But as I come more and more to take my place in a lineage, and to discover my individual story knit into a fabric whose folds extend beyond my imagining, I begin to grasp in my daily experience the words from our Rule of Life: “As we explore the spiritual legacy of our forebears we remember that they are not dead figures from the past. Risen in Christ, they belong to the great cloud of witnesses who spur us on by their prayers to change and mature in response to the Holy Spirit who makes all things new.”[ii]
Today in our liturgical calendar, poised between the feast of Christ the King and the First Sunday of Advent, we pause to remember the saints of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. Leafing through our obituaries while preparing this sermon, I was astonished and humbled anew by the vast array of gifts, both “personal talents and gifts of the Holy Spirit” that have graced our Society. I was amused afresh at the spectrum of eccentricities we have accommodated — and once again relieved that I am not alone! And I was stirred to tears by the manifold forms that courage and compassion has taken in the lives of a relatively small group of men, struggling day in and day out to give their lives to God, and to one another. And that is where, I suspect, we find the bond that has held this all together these past 150 years.
“After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, Jesus said to them, ‘Do you understand what I have done to you?… For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
Understand? Understand? How could they possibly have understood, in that moment when all that had come before hung in the balance? In that moment when their Master was breaking all the rules of hospitality and received tradition and plain common sense, the Teacher kneeling before the students and cradling feet encrusted with dirt and donkey excrement before his impending torture and execution. They couldn’t have understood, certainly not fully, the endlessly unfolding treasure he was there and then bequeathing to them. They would only – slowly, painfully, poignantly, achingly, begin to understand by remembering that it was what he had done for them, not what they had done for him, that truly counted. They would only begin to understand by doing to and for one another what he had done to and for them in that moment.
In a monastic community as small as ours, the opportunities to have our feet washed are endless, whether literally, or in humbly receiving some equally unglamorous act of daily service offered to us by a brother. That’s a good thing, because I, for one, do not yet fully understand what Jesus did for me that night in the Upper Room, with that towel in his hands, as I cringed at the sight of my dirt-encrusted toe-nails and the odor of my own sandals. I am convinced it will take me a lifetime of footbaths to understand that with my whole heart.
In a monastic community as small as ours, the opportunities to wash the feet of a brother are endless – whether literally, or in humbly offering some equally unglamorous act of daily service. That’s a good thing, because I, for one, do not yet fully understand what Jesus taught me to do in the Upper Room, placing the towel in my hands, as I cringed at the sight of my brothers’ dirt-encrusted toe-nails and the odor of his sandals. I am convinced it will take me a lifetime of washing feet to understand that with my whole heart.
The spirit of this gospel passage is enshrined in one of the final sentences of our Rule, and one of the simplest: “Our hope lies not in what we have done for God, but in what God has done for us.”[iii] Our identity as a community and anything good or gracious that has come to the world through us lies not in the sum total of our personal talents, our eccentricities, our courage, or our compassion, but in our seeking to understand what God has done for us, and in seeking to do likewise to one another, in humility and in hope.
It is good for me to hear this passage outside the context of Maundy Thursday and its ancient and beautiful liturgical action, to hear it on just an ordinary Tuesday evening, to hear it at the end of a long day, to hear it with a sore back and the beginnings of a sore throat. It is good for me to hear this passage as a monk, as a Christian, and as a simple human being. It is good to remember the saints of the past, to look expectantly to the saints of the future, and to contemplate my place between them, washing and being washed.
In July, our community embarked on a pilgrimage to England and Scotland, so see some of the sites which have shaped the course of Anglican history and to commune with the saints whose hallowed memory still graces those places. Many of our current life-professed Brothers made the same pilgrimage twenty-five years ago, and their memories and stories of the last pilgrimage added richness and color to this year’s journey. One of the most moving experiences came as we ascended the winding staircase of our Society’s old Mission House in Oxford, one behind the other, to arrive at a final landing and duck through a modest door into the Founder’s Chapel. It is an attic room entirely unremarkable in its outward personality, but, in our eyes and to our hands, imbued with a holiness that made us weep and linger in love and gratitude for what God has done for us. With my eyes closed, I could almost see and hear those first courageous men whose hearts were set on fire and whose lives were offered to the glory of God as they listened to a man named Richard Meux Benson proclaim what God had done for him, and what God would do for them, if they only let him.
“As we explore the spiritual legacy of our forebears we remember that they are not dead figures from the past. Risen in Christ, they belong to the great cloud of witnesses who spur us on by their prayers to change and mature in response to the Holy Spirit who makes all things new.”
Give thanks today for that cloud of witnesses that have touched your heart and kindled your faith, without whose gentle guidance or heroic example you might not know the love of Christ. Stretch out your hand before you and behind you, and give thanks for your place in the lineage of God’s children. Consider not what you have done for God, but what God has done for you. And place all your hope in that humble place, that Upper Room, that rooftop chapel in the heart of God.
[i] See especially The Living Presence of the Past: The Dynamic of Christian Tradition, by A.M. Allchin.
[ii] Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Chapter 3: “Our Founders and the Grace of Tradition.”
[iii] Ibid. Chapter 49: “The Hope of Glory.”
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Listening to this homily for the second time since 12/1/17, I thank you again, Brother Keith. This time, it brings to minds words from your sermon of 11/6/16, “‘They without us, and we without them, could not be made perfect.'[viii] This may be Fr. Benson’s most concise insight about our relationship with the communion of saints gone before us.”
Having been blest to know one or two of the most recent saints of the Society, I was swept up in your homily, Br. Keith, by a profound sense of what I have been given -passed from God through the Society to me. The communion of saints was for a moment palpable. I am so grateful.
Thank you, Br. Keith, for your God given words. Christina
As I read your sermon today I am touched again and again. Yes, your experience described mirror exactly what I have felt during my two visits to the Cambridge monastery, the first being my reception into FSJ. To be present with all of you now and before, brothers, friends and Fellowship members connected under Christ there and in the world, now and in the past,takes my breath away. I, too, cannot fully understand the power of the mandatum an experience that has a life of its own and continues long after the act.
I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of this communion that Christ has given us with all the beauty and mystery such a gift brings. James R. FSJ
Sharing this today:
Our hope lies not in what we have done for God, but in what God has done for us.”[iii] Our identity as a community and anything good or gracious that has come to the world through us lies not in the sum total of our personal talents, our eccentricities, our courage, or our compassion, but in our seeking to understand what God has done for us, and in seeking to do likewise to one another, in humility and in hope.
Jeanne thank you. That is what touched me most deeply too. When I count my blessings, as we said in childhood. I am overwhelmed
Snapped me right out of post-Thanksgiving lassitude into the gentle wonder of God’s constant presence and action.
Thank you, brother Keith. I find an interesting similarity between your “Consider not….” and JFK’s “Ask not….” Also, as an Enneagram type 9, whose vice tends to be sloth, it is good to be made aware of the prayerful spurs that seek to help me toward maturity in the Holy Spirit.