Preached at Order of the Holy Cross, West Park NY
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
John 14:8-17 (25-27)
I know that not many of you know me, but those of you who do, will perhaps remember that my undergraduate degree is in history. All my life I have been interested in history. There was even a time long ago when asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, my response was more likely to be a pioneer, than anything else. I remain fascinated by history and especially, for obvious reasons, by the history of the revival of monasticism within the Anglican tradition.
Reading the history of the monastic movement within Anglicanism is lots of fun, because you come across all kinds of people, some of them inspirational, like Father Huntington or Father Benson, and some of them just plain nuts, like Father Ignatius of Llanthony.
The task of the historian, as I see it, is to study the past, in order to make sense of the present. That is an historian. An antiquarian on the other hand, is interested in the past for its own sake.
And that’s where Father Ignatius comes in, and why he is an important person to remember. Ignatius was largely an antiquarian, attempting to revive a way of life, as it had been lived, in some golden age long, long ago, and far, far away. Benson and Huntington, I would argue, were historians, looking to an historic movement in the Church of Christ and recreating it to address the age in which they lived, and the needs of that particular time.
As monastics living in monasteries, singing plainsong, wearing habits, it’s easy to close our eyes, and to pretend that nothing has changed in 1000 years. That was the trap Father Ignatius fell into. He was an antiquarian. It is no wonder then, that his community lasted only a few years after his death, and few people today have heard of him.
Huntington and Benson on the other hand were keenly aware of the world and its needs as they then existed, and reaching into the Tradition adapted a traditional form of Christian living to address those needs. Over 100 years later, Father Ignatius is long forgotten, and you and we are still doing the work begun by our Founders.
The lens through which we look at things then, is really important. Are we historians, looking at the past in order to discover lessons for the present, or are we antiquarians attempting to recreate the past for its own sake? Today as we celebrate the Day of Pentecost, that’s a real question. And for Father Benson, the answer was clear. Pentecost is important, not because of what it did once, for a group of people long ago, in a land far way, but what it means for us, here, today. We are not here as antiquarians, to freeze frame the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but to discover how those gifts are continuing to be manifested in us today.
Father Benson, and my hunch Father Huntington, was not so interested in the past. The revelation of God, as an event lost in the distance of time, was of no interest to him. What he was interested in, was how God was revealing the Divine life today. He wrote: [revelation] is the coming-forth of the eternal God to the living soul. What is revealed to others may be written down on parchment, but the revelation of God cannot be conveyed. It must be the voice of God speaking in the soul [now], the hand of God lifting the veil of eternity [now], the light of God shining in the inmost depth of the soul [now]. And so the revelation of God is really a thing ever present. It is not revealed once and for all, but what He has revealed He has perpetually revealed and He will go on revealing. We are to live in the consciousness of that perpetual revelation which the living God is making to us [today].
The gifts of the Spirit are being poured out upon us then, today, even now, and we must realize those gifts, not simply in the sense of comprehending them, but of making them actual, making them real. Again, as Father Benson said, if we would but realize that we are the children of the kingdom now, that God’s gifts are made over to us now, that we have them in possession [now], then we should find all comfort.
Brothers, I am convinced that the Church needs us. I am convinced that the Church needs communities such as OHC, and SSJE. What the Church doesn’t need are more antiquarians. There are too many out there as it is. What the Church needs are communities deeply rooted in the Tradition, and where the revelation of God is not a dead event, frozen in time, but a living, breathing, consuming fire. The Church desperately needs the witness of vibrant, centred, focused, prayerful, healthy, strong, mission oriented, monastic communities. That’s what Father Huntington and Father Benson began over 150 years ago in New York and Oxford, and that’s why we must embrace the lived reality of Pentecost today.
Again, as Father Benson says, in a somewhat different context, [the] life, the love, the joy of Jesus, and today I would add, the gifts of the Spirit,must be a reality taking possession of our souls [today]. This union with Jesus is no abstract union of fancy. It is the union by which our nature is to be perfected, and for which it is formed. The taking of our flesh by the Son of God was not an accidental or remedial measure only, but part, we believe, of His original plan to unite us to Himself. He gives us our nature for the purpose of eventually gathering us into Himself.
The gift of Pentecost has been given, and God pours out the gift of the Spirit upon us once again today, not as the historic re-enactment of the antiquarian, but as the lived reality of the revelation of God, who is ever present and ever new. It is our joy and privilege, not simply to share in those gifts, but to realize them, making them real in our lives, and for our time. But these gifts come with a warning label, for our God is a consuming fire.
It is those gifts, and that fire, which are ours to have in this life, when we become, like Abba Joseph, fire ourselves.And once aflame with the fire of God, we will see tongues of flame dancing upon our heads, and burning within our hearts, and the day of Pentecost will blaze forth upon us, once again.
Benson, Richard Meux, Cowley Calendar, With Some Words Chiefly from the Unpublished Retreat Addresses of Richard Meux Benson, 1932, page 61 – 62
John 8: 16
John 8: 26
Benson, Cowley Calendar, page 71
Benson, Richard Meux, Instructions on the Religious Life, First Series, 1927, page 28
Hebrews 12: 29
A young monk visited Abba Joseph and said to him, “Father, as best as I can, I say my prayers, I fast, I meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” The old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “You must become fire itself.”
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