Dear friends,

It has been such a comfort, in these unsettled and tense days, for us Brothers to maintain our practice of praying the Daily Office. The Psalms poetically reflect the fullness of the human experience: from praise, exultation, and celebration (126:1-2) to anger, disdain, and vengeance (59:12-14) to utter desperation, resignation, and helplessness (22:1-2), and everything in between. Because of this range of expression, the Psalms have an incredible ability to allow us to express whatever we are feeling in the moment, while also lifting us out of our current circumstances to listen for the eternally-speaking voice of God.

When I first arrived at the Monastery, chanting the Psalms – dressed in the full array of Sarum tones – delighted me. However, I noticed that I had a better comprehension of what I was praying (at first anyway) at Morning Prayer, when the practice is to recite the Psalms.  I am not a morning person by nature, so often I pray these Psalms in the midst of a drowsy fog. But often, I’ll notice that a particular phrase or verse will jump out at me, gently nudge me out of my fog and beckon me to follow. Usually what is going on in my life at the time will determine how God will engage with me in the Psalms.  I remember one week feeling particularly down and suffering from poor self-esteem when Psalm 26:8 presented itself for the subject of my prayer that day: Lord, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides. I felt as if God was telling me, “Jim, think better of yourself. I dwell in you and therefore the fullness of my glory is present within your heart and soul.”

This year has been more difficult than any I ever remember. We live in a world where people are polarized and moving further away from each other in isolation. The pandemic, the spotlighting of systematic-racism, an election year in a deeply divided country have all exposed a wave of fear fueling our anxiety. We Brothers recognize that we are lucky to live in community together. Yet while we have not been cut off from the sacramental life of the church due to the pandemic, we have been cut off from family, friends, our congregation, and the many guests who seek us out for spiritual direction, silence, prayer, worship, and who yearn for a deeper relationship with Jesus. This has left us with a sense of disorientation and loss.

Out of this loss, we have felt convicted to do old things in new ways: live-stream our services, offer teaching online, broadcast our election night vigil before the Sacrament, and host online gatherings with the Fellowship of Saint John on Zoom. We even hosted a virtual “Come and See” retreat with six men who are actively discerning a vocation with SSJE! Our lives have been greatly enriched by seeing you online and hearing from you through letters and e-mails. Indeed, God is at work in the midst of creation, beckoning us all to follow in new ways and encouraging us in these difficult times.

As we Brothers were praying Morning Prayer the other day, Psalm 34 was the vehicle in which God chose to speak to me: I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me out of all my terror. Look upon him and be radiant, and let not your faces be ashamed. I called in my affliction and the Lord heard me and saved me from all my troubles. The angel of the Lord encompasses those who fear him, and he will deliver them. Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him! (vv. 4-8).

These verses have buoyed me up for days now and have made me realize that we who claim the faith of Jesus are not alone in our solitude. We cannot be cut off from the sacramental life of the Church because God has made us tabernacles and we are where his glory abides. Fr. Congreve SSJE once wrote:
At times, when we have to wait and have nothing to do to occupy ourselves with – Oh! Then it is not wasted time if we have thought of God in it, if we have looked into the face of Jesus. Then anything that we do at the end of such waiting times we do with a glory and a power to witness to Jesus which is, indeed, a precious result. Everything should become by degrees an act of communion with God

God is indeed with us, in our hearts and souls, softly speaking to us and saying: “I am here with you.  Look upon me and be radiant. Taste and see!”
We Brothers continue to look forward to the day when we can all be together again. In the meantime, join us for online worship, and know that we continue to lift all of you, this nation, and this world up in our prayers.

God bless you,
Br. Jim Woodrum SSJE

5 Comments

  1. Carney Ivy on November 9, 2020 at 06:38

    Br. Jim,
    Thank you for this. I am a Fellow of SSJE, and I am interested in the Zoom meetings. I miss church, but I do not attend with Covid. My husband and I are both medical. It is just too risky. I miss my trips to Boston where I would quietly stop in the Chapel at SSJE when I would visit my children. The Brothers have been a guiding force for me, and I am hungry for more. I would like any information on the Zoom meetings that SSJE could offer me.
    Many thanks and keep up the good work!
    Peace and love to you and all the Brothers,
    Carney

  2. Jeff K. on November 8, 2020 at 10:07

    This was so timely for this week. I’ve read it and shared it with my family. Thank you.

  3. Pamela James on November 7, 2020 at 07:26

    You are such a source of comfort, Br. Jim, my fellow musician. I, too, found meaning in reciting the psalms, so proud of my knowledge of their vocabulary, context, and metaphors. I took great pleasure in analyzing the Psalms with my head. Oh, how smart I was. Later, while singing in a church choir, I had to learn to chant the Psalms. The process was challenging, especially reading the notation. I didn’t feel smart anymore; this new form of singing truly vexed me. My “smarts” weren’t serving me, so I gave up trying and just chanted along. Soon, chanting became easier not because of practice, but because without my head, I had no choice but to use my heart. God lead me to a deeper, more personal, even more joyful experience and understanding of the Psalms when God nudged me to stop being so dang smart about them. And as Robert Frost said, that has made all the difference.

  4. Andrew Osmun on November 6, 2020 at 18:33

    Thank you Brother Jim. The psalms do penetrate my sleepy fog as well, and invite me to be more aware of God present in my life and in me (hard to believe at times).

    This is indeed a hard time. Being accompanied by the brothers of SSJE is such encouragement!

  5. Ron Spann on November 6, 2020 at 18:27

    As soon as I saw your phrase and he answered me I knew that it was from Psalm 34. I love that we would share the grace of its hope with you.

    I would even go to first too, my soul makes its boast in the Lord. Let the anawim ( The Humble poor ) and be glad. It consoles me because it speaks to my justification, and it shows love and Justice at work for the poor, who have no boast but to put their hope in the Lord.

    Returning to the vvs that you cited, to me they speak powerfully of fundamental spiritual conditions: fear and shame. The fear of death has held us in tyranny before the redemption of Christ, and now there is the hope of freedom from that very tyranny. We no longer have to make a virtue of fear and legislate things like stand your ground, the legitimating of fear as a reason for taking another person’s life. All in the name of self-defense.

    “Look to the Lord and be radiant, so that your faces will not be ashamed.” Since George Floyd, America has suffered a great shame and doesn’t know what to do with it. As a consequence it lapses back into amnesia and bewilderment of what to do with that experience of shame, reverting again to justification, denial and defensiveness. It is at the roots both of white fragility and supremacy as tyrannizing attitudes for majority whites. But God’s merciful love redeems us from the humiliation of shame by guaranteeing the possibility of a new kind of joy in existence and relationship.. the Christ and toward the shame of the cross for the joy that was set before him. That’s what we’ve been baptized into.

    And The Shame of the poor is lifted by the same wonderful promise. One way or another, the spiritual crisis of fear and shame paralyzes us all apart from the loving mercy of Christ. Psalm 34 is old so rich, I know very well that you find it consoling.

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