Following the death of our beloved Brother David Allen last summer, I became the senior member of our brotherhood – both in years of age and in years in the Society. My Brother Superior James Koester dubbed me the “Brother of collective memory.”
Over the thirty-seven years that I have been in the Society, I’ve come to see how entirely our particular monastic vocation – vowed love, community life, and service – is rooted in the baptismal vocation shared by all Christians. Perhaps this is one reason why so many people are able to find transformative wisdom in our monastic Rule of Life. We created this text to shape, inform, and inspire our community quite specifically. Yet by God’s grace, its reach has proved far more expansive. Over and over again, we hear how others have found illumination for their lives in the same forty-nine chapters that shape ours.
In this spirit, I’d like to offer here a collection of some of the teachings from our Rule of Life which have most struck and stayed with me over decades of living and learning with this text. Of all its many topics, the Rule is particularly rich in its teachings navigating the challenges and rewards of life in community. These teachings point the way ahead for all of us who are trying to live together in recognition of the fact that we are bound to one another by Christ’s loving authority.
The nature of power in our culture and world can only be described as paradoxical. Our Rule recognizes that the exercise of so-called “worldly” power – political, economic, and social – readily tends to greed, self-aggrandizement, indifference to the needs of others, and thence to exploitation, oppression, and violence:
A culture which ‘defines human beings primarily as consumers … gives prestige to those who have the power to indulge themselves in luxury and waste’ (Chapter 7, Poverty and Stewardship in Practice).
Human ‘vulnerability to the “cosmic powers of this present darkness” … isolate[s] us from God and one another’ (Chapter 21, The Mystery of Prayer).
By contrast, consider the life of the Christian community:
The shared ministry of ‘varied gifts…bear witness to the living power of Christ and extend his salvation’ (Chapter 1, The Call of the Society).
‘Love [of Christ] will open our eyes to the Spirit’s power in the sacraments, in prayer, in action and service’ (Chapter 2, Our Dedication to the Disciple whom Jesus Loved).
As a ‘movement towards simplicity puts us at odds with our culture … we are committed to advocacy for the poor, and the struggle to restore to them their just share of power and the bounty of God’ (Chapter 7, Poverty and Stewardship in Practice).
While ‘privileged by our education, our access to power and our material security’ (Chapter 6, The Spirit of Poverty), the mystery of God’s transforming power made manifest in human weakness will lead us to acknowledge our human powerlessness and ‘put [our] trust entirely in God’ (Chapter 7, Poverty and Stewardship in Practice).
Vowed Living & Obedience
All authority exercised in Christian community has its sole source in God and faith in Jesus. We acknowledge and commit ourselves to this authority in the vows – the renunciations of evil and the adhesions to Christ – of Holy Baptism:
Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
A: I renounce them.
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
A: I renounce them.
Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
A: I renounce them.
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
A: I do.
Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
A: I do.
Do you put promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
A: I do.
These vows of Baptism are binding on all faithful Christians and as such are the foundation for the religious vows of poverty, chastity/celibacy, and obedience. Thus the vows of Baptism undergird and define the breadth and limits of any exercise of authority in the Body of Christ.
The vow of obedience in particular governs the complementarity of power and authority for followers of Jesus:
‘The vow of obedience is fraught with risks. In the name of obedience human beings have gladly abdicated responsibility and taken refuge in passivity and conformity. Unless our obedience is in the Spirit we could be tempted to use the life of the community as a shelter from claiming and using our own responsibility and power as [children] of God. The vow of obedience requires us to be constantly attentive to the voice of the Spirit within our hearts, endowing us with our own unique authority and gifts. We are called to be obedient to our true selves as they are being formed in Christ. Only where there is a growing respect for our true selves can there be authentic participation in the community’s common endeavor to discern and carry out God’s will’ (Chapter 12, The Spirit of Obedience).
‘On our own we are powerless to act in selfless freedom in response to God’s desire. Obedience is only possible because Christ dwells in us and we dwell in him through Baptism’ (Chapter 12, The Spirit of Obedience).
‘Grace makes it possible for our obedience to one another to transcend mere acquiescence and to express instead the power of [mutual] love and unity’ (Chapter 13, Obedience in Practice).
The Rule reveals how much mutual love and unity are bound up with power and authority in the chapters surrounding the Office of Superior. While those outside a monastic community will not have a “Superior” in their lives, they will certainly know what it is to have others in positions of authority over them, and how that relationship can be one of growth for both parties.
‘The professed brothers elect one of their number who they believe has the necessary gifts of the Spirit to lead the Society. The community, faithful to our tradition and vocation that calls for strong leadership, entrusts authority to him which he exercises … as the servant of all’ … ‘The Superior is empowered to distribute leadership and share administration throughout the community by choosing the officers and allocating specific areas of responsibility to the brothers’ (Chapter 14, The Office of Superior).
‘In [their] cooperation with the Superior [the brothers] should arrive through discussion at a full understanding of [any] response or task that is being proposed and pledge [themselves] to full accountability. If difficulties occur in following through on any project [they] should promptly consult with him so that the goal can be realistically reset. [They] should observe the same standard of cooperation and accountability in [their] response to any brother who has been given authority in any sphere’ (Chapter 13, Obedience in Practice).
‘The benefits of endowing our leader with strong authority are great, but so are the demands. We need to be aware of both the negative and positive psychological forces that are inevitably brought into play wherever authority is strong. The Superior can be overwhelmed by the number of expectations placed upon him. He will not be equally gifted in meeting them all and will fall short through his own weakness. Only prayer and genuine love can sustain him in his office. The brothers shall frequently call upon God to give our leader the graces needed for his ministry day by day, and to show them how to support and cherish him’ (Chapter 14, The Office of Superior).
No examination of the dynamics of power and authority in community could be complete without considering the rich admonitions to Mutual Support and Encouragement in Chapter 43 of the SSJE Rule of Life:
‘Each day brings fresh opportunities to fulfill the commandment of Christ, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” We need one another’s support at times of special stress, disappointment and weakness, but we also need it as the daily bread of our life together…
‘Honest and direct communication help us strengthen one another. We create the setting for mutual disclosure about how we are experiencing our life in regular meetings … In these, and our other sessions for planning and discussion, we are called to engage one another openly…
‘And we seek to sustain a climate of courtesy in which each of us receives assurance day by day that he is appreciated. We need to be generous in expressing delight in one another’s achievements…
‘Like Jesus, we will be especially attentive to those who could easily become isolated or overlooked. Newcomers to our life, the older brothers, those who are in pain from illness, sorrow or spiritual trial, have particular claims on our hearts…
‘Above all, we are to open our hearts to any brother with whom we are in conflict…communities of love are special targets of evil forces. These forces will tempt us to defer reconciliation, or even to pretend that the fabric of our common life has not been torn … the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ spurs us to seek out the one from whom we feel estranged in order to establish communion with him again through a mutual change of heart.’
It is our joy, as Brothers, to respond together – and with others – in loving obedience to God’s authority. I hope that these passages will encourage you in your own response to God’s call, as you live out the vows of your baptismal covenant in your own communities.