Progress to God – Br. James Koester

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Ordination of Luke Ditewig SSJE to the priesthood
John 10:11-18

I want first to begin by acknowledging those of you who have joined us today online. We Brothers are delighted to share this important day in the life of our community with you. We are of course, sorry that you cannot be with us here in person. It should go without saying, but I will say it anyway because it is important, we long for the day when it will be possible for you to be here in this chapel with us. Please know that we pray for you often. Your physical absence from our life of worship is a tremendous loss for us. We pray that the day when we can once again open our chapel doors to you, will come soon.

There are two people whom I particularly want to say how sorry we are that you cannot be with us today, and on Tuesday when Luke presides at the Eucharist for the first time, and that’s Luke’s Mum and Dad, Sandy, and Bill. After having watched Luke come to this point in his life, not to be here with him, is I am sure a great sadness. I hope that being here, if only virtually, is some consolation.

I also want to extend our gratitude to you Bishop Alan, for the care you have taken to enable this ordination to take place. Those watching online will note that we are all taking care to keep our distance from one another. That is not an indication of our regard for you. Rather the opposite! Please know how grateful we are, for the steps you have taken this past week to assure our mutual safety.

I also want to express my gratitude, Bishop Alan, for your presence here, for a slightly different reason. As you know from previous conversations you and I have had, this year marks the 150th anniversary of the presence of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in North America, and specifically in the Diocese of Massachusetts. Next month, on 11 January, we also mark the 100th anniversary of our becoming a fully independent congregation within the Society, and our ability to elect our own Superior, whom we did in the person of Father Cecil Powell[1]. I had hoped to make a bigger deal of these anniversaries, but Mr. COVID, as a friend of mine refers to this pandemic, obviously had other plans. Your presence is also significant, not simply because anniversaries like this are worth celebrating, but because 150 years ago, things got off to a very frosty start. One of your predecessors, Bishop Manton Eastburn[2], refused to meet with one of my predecessors, Father Benson. Indeed, Bishop Eastburn even refused to grant Father Benson a license to function as a priest in this diocese.[3] The fact that you and I are in the same space, even if physically distanced, and the fact that you, a successor of Bishop Eastburn, are about to ordain a son of Father Benson’s to the very ministry that Bishop Eastburn refused to license Father Benson, is nothing less than shear grace, for which all of us in the Society are thankful.

But the purpose of our gathering today is not to celebrate anniversaries, but to celebrate an ordination to the priesthood. As worthy as these other things are for attention, that is our real purpose today.

Luke, when you began the ordination process, it was made very clear that the discernment process was to discern a call to the priesthood, not for the monastery, but for the Church. In fact, both the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinalmake that very clear. The fact is, that you are not being ordained a priest of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, nor even an Episcopal priest. Today you are being ordained a priest of Christ’s Church.[4] Except for one passing reference, the Episcopal Church is not mentioned, and the Society, never. It is as a priest of the Church of God that you are being ordained today.

While that is true, and the Diocese was correct in pointing it out, it is also true that the context in which you will be exercising your priestly ministry, is in this particular, I almost said peculiar (!), monastic community. Unlike others ordained to the priesthood, you may very well spend the rest of your ministry in this one place, ministering mostly to your Brothers in the Society, and our guests, when it is possible for them to return.

Curiously, our Rule of Life uses the word priest only once, and that about Christ the great High Priest[5]. While it assumes there will be members of the community who are priests, it reminds us that only a few of the ministries in which members of the community are engaged are the specific responsibility of the ordained.[6] The Rule goes further, by boldly asserting that our ministries spring from our baptismal vocation.[7] To discover a model of what monastic priesthood looks like, we must go elsewhere. But I will warn you, it’s not a pretty picture!

Benedict, in his Rule[8] says very bluntly, if any ordained priest asks to be received into the monastery, do not agree too quickly.[9] He says much the same about a Brother desiring to be ordained. Do not agree too quickly. Benedict goes on to say, however, if he is fully persistent in his request, he must recognize that he will have to observe the full discipline of the rule without any mitigation, know that it is written: Friend, what have you come for.[10] I should point out, that this quotation friend, what have you come for[11] is not a warm and affectionate question. It is a reference to the encounter between Jesus and Judas in Gethsemane, moments before Judas’ betrayal of his Lord. Benedict is clear, a priest who fails to live up to the demands of the rule, is no better than Judas, a traitor. He goes on to say that a priest takes the place that corresponds to the date of his entry into the community, and not that granted him out of respect for his priesthood.[12]Benedict then says that any monk who is a priest must be on guard against conceit or pride, must not presume to do anything except what the abbot commands him, and must recognize that now he will have to subject himself all the more to the discipline of the rule … [and] make more and more progress to God.[13]

Benedict clearly had little time for priests, especially those who fail to live up to the demands of the rule. When that is the case they are to be regarded as a rebel, and not as a priest[14] and should therefore be dismissed from the monastery.[15]

As I mentioned, it’s not a pretty picture. But it’s even bleaker if we look to the source from which Benedict drew much of his material. The Rule of the Master[16] simply states that priests are to be considered outsiders in the monastery and if they fail to live up to the rule they are to be held and stripped of clothing that belongs to the monastery, provided there is no serious injury, then let them be ousted and the door closed.[17] Luke, should we ever need to oust you, we’ll attempt not to do any serious injury to you!

Lest we get carried away by this rather bleak picture of priestly ministry within the context of a monastery, both Benedict and the Master say something significant. They remind us, in a slightly different way than does our Rule, that while ordination confers certain authority, it doesn’t create in our monastic context, a position of privilege. As our Rule states, all our ministries spring from our baptismal vocation.[18] The vision of the Rule is a vision where ministry, including ordained ministry, is rooted in our baptism. It is for that reason that we take our place in the community, based on our date of entry, and not on our ordination.

So, a monastic priesthood is one rooted preeminently in baptism. As a priest, your ministry will be to call us all to live more authentically our baptismal vocations, whereby we have promised to be faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers; to persevere in resisting evil, and live a life of repentance; to proclaim by word and example, the good news of God in Christ; to seek and serve all people; to strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of all; and to cherish the wondrous beauty of creation.[19] And you are to do that Luke, from your place within the circle of the community.

You heard me say at Sean’s profession in September, that I have come to understand the primary geometric shape of a monastic community as a circle, and not a row, or a line. It’s for that reason we live, work, eat, and worship in a circle. The circle, I believe, shapes our way of life. It is why monastic churches are built the way they are, and why we gather day by day, and especially at the Eucharist, facing one another, and into the centre of a circle. What’s more, in a circle, unlike a row or a line, no one ever stands alone. As a monastic priest Luke, you are being invited to take your place, not at the head of a line, or in front of the rows, or ever alone. You are being invited to take your place, as a member of this circle.  Even when standing at the altar, you will never stand alone, because you will always be a part of the circle of this community.

A monastic priesthood then is one anchored in a community whose primary shape is a circle, and it is from your place in the circle, that you will be invited to preside.

The question is, I suppose, how will you preside? And here I don’t mean simply at the Eucharist. The answer of course is found in John’s gospel. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, [20] that we heard read this morning.

I said earlier Luke that the primary place where you will exercise your ministry is in this monastic community, and among us, your Brothers. Any monastic priesthood centred in this community, must be modeled on the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who willingly lay down his life for his sheep. As a monastic priest Luke, you will be invited day by day, to lay down your life for these sheep, whom you see before you today. But that’s nothing new. You knew that already. In the chapter of our Rule on Life Profession we say [the] grace to surrender our lives to God through our vows has been given to us in Baptism whereby we die with Christ and are raised with him. It is the same grace that gives strength to martyrs to submit gladly to death as witnesses of the resurrection. From the beginning monks and nuns have been encouraged to understand their own commitment in the light of the freedom and trust that enables martyrs to give up their lives to the glory of God. The witness of the martyrs should never be far from our minds as we go forward in the vowed life day by day.[21]

If your priesthood is authentic, it will be a means of your dying for your Brothers. Any who have watched someone die, know that is not always easy. As a monastic priest you will discover new ways to die, and that is as it should be. This life should kill you, and that’s the whole point.

Again, our Rule reminds us that [week] by week we are to accept every experience that requires us to let go as an opportunity for Christ to bring us through death into life. Hardships, renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations and risks are all ways in which death is at work in advance preparing us for the self-surrender of bodily death. Through them we practice the final letting go of dying, so that it will be less strange and terrifying to us.[22] In a peculiar and particular way Luke, today you are being invited to make friends with death. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. For us in this community, this is not fluffy sentiment, but lived reality, as we all learn the hard and painful truth that in order to live for one another, we must die for one another.

Luke, in a few moments you will be ordained a priest, and we your Brothers, your parents, your friends, are thrilled. My prayer for you is that your priesthood will be rooted in our baptismal vocation, and that as a priest you will call us all to live more deeply our baptismal life; that it will be anchored in this community, whose primary geometrical shape is a circle, and that the circle of this community will shape your priesthood; and that it will be modeled after the Jesus the Good Shepherd who willingly lay down his life for his own.

It seems to me Luke, that it is these three things, baptism, community, and death, that are the distinctive marks of a monastic priesthood. May they root you, anchor you, and mold you, and in Benedict’s words, help you in your progress to God. May God bless you today, and always.

[1] Father Cecil Powell SSJE (1864 – 1938) Having served as the first elected provincial Superior of the American Province, from 1914, under the English Superior of the Society, he became  the first elected Superior of the American Congregation of SSJE, from 11 January 1921 until 1924, when he stepped down for health reasons. He is perhaps best remembered, as the co-founder of the Order of Saint Anne (OSA), at whose convent he died in 1938. He is buried there in the Sacrament Chapel.

[2] Bishop Manton Eastburn (1801 – 1872) was the fourth Bishop of Massachusetts (1843 – 1872).

[3] For a fuller account see, Serenhedd James, The Cowley Fathers, Canterbury Press Norwich, 2019, page 59 – 62 or, Robert Cheney Smith SSJE, The Cowley Fathers in America, n.d., page 7 ff and The Shrine on Bowdoin Street, n.d., page ??

[4] Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 533

[5] Society of Saint John Evangelist, Rule of Life, The Mystery of Intercession, chapter 24, page 48

[6] Ibid., Mission and Service, chapter 31, page 62

[7] Ibid, page 62

[8] Rule of Benedict was complied by St. Benedict of Nursia (AD 480 – AD 550) from various sources, including Rule of the Master, in about AD 516.

[9] Rule of Benedict, The Admission of Priests to the Monastery, 60:1

[10] Ibid, RB 60: 2, 3

[11] Matthew 26:50

[12] Op. cit., RB 60:7

[13] Ibid., RB 62: 2 – 4

[14] Ibid., RB, 62: 8

[15] Ibid., RB, 62: 10

[16] Rule of the Master is an early sixth century monastic Rule. It predates the Rule of Benedict by 10 to 20 years.

[17] Rule of the Master, LXXXIII: 1, 20

[18] SSJE, Rule, Mission and Service, chapter 31, page 62

[19] Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 304 – 305

[20] John 10: 11

[21] SSJE, Rule, Life Profession, chapter 39, page 79

[22] Ibid., Holy Death, page 97

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  1. Karen F on December 19, 2020 at 10:19

    Beautiful words to read….

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