I stood patiently by the door, waiting to be told where to sit. I saw all my Brothers take what I thought was their designated seat. It was my first time at “rounds” (what we Brothers call our daily morning meeting: that time where all the Brothers are in the same room at the same time to talk over the day’s business face-to-face).
I kept waiting to be told where to sit. I felt like a stray dog who had just been adopted days before, trying to figure out the ways of the household, not wanting to cause a stir, just looking to obey. Eventually I realized no one was going to tell me where to sit, and so I just sat down in an empty chair. I kept waiting for one of my elder Brothers to look at me and explain kindly but firmly that I was sitting in a chair that another Brother had been sitting in for longer than I had been alive. Luckily that never happened.
I went through thousands of moments like that in my early days as a Postulant: long moments of waiting for someone with authority to swoop in and tell me exactly what to do. It took me a long time to realize that was not the way authority was exercised at SSJE. Those in power were not going to tell me where to sit. Instead, those in authority were focused on having a productive morning meeting and getting through the day. This was a big difference from the days back when Novices had their mail read.
I am not joking! If you were to go for a walk down the corridor of our Enclosure, you’d see that exactly one cell has a mail slot built into its door. Many decades ago – back when the Novice Guardian was called the Novice Master – all Novices had to put their outgoing mail through that mail slot for the Novice Master to read and approve. Can’t you just imagine a crusty old Novice Master reading a Novice’s letters home by candlelight?
Having our mail read sounds creepy to us nowadays, even kind of illegal, but at some point in time, someone in power at SSJE decided it was a good idea. I am sure they had their reasons, and those reasons made enough sense for them to institute a practice we would consider unacceptable today. Now that quaint, out-of-place mail slot is just a relic of decisions made by those in power decades ago.
Nowadays, when I walk by that mail slot, I think to myself: is there anything we are doing now that will be unacceptable decades in the future? Is there anything we can do now to prevent such unacceptable overreaches of power from happening? Those are difficult questions to answer – and dangerous questions to ignore. Such questions cannot be answered with silence; they require discussion.
As much as monasteries are known for their silence, behind closed doors they host a lot of discussions. This was one of the biggest surprises for me when I moved in here. I was amazed how much and how often things were discussed. Food, liturgy, housekeeping, electric cars, dogs, intimacy, cabinets, apps … Honestly, these are all topics of discussions I have participated in as a monk.
Some of the discussions I have participated in at SSJE have been tense, some have been hilarious, some have been painfully boring, some could have just been an email, but most have had that familiar Anglican via media vibe of slow and steady progress. Most of our discussions end with us figuring out when we will resume that same discussion again. This attitude of eternal discussion mixed with silence is a keystone of our monastic life. In my experience, that attitude is the best way to ensure that power and authority are exercised in a proper way within a community – and missteps like the mail slot are prevented.
As important as discussions are, if they are not followed up with action, then they are meaningless. Anybody can talk a good game in the locker room or think they’ve solved the world’s problems over drinks in a bar, but if they cannot follow through, then they will lose credibility. Accountability is essential to a community’s wellbeing. This is just as true for those in power as it is for us in our personal lives.
One thing I have learned as a Novice is the importance of ruthlessly examining myself. Living with twelve Brothers in lockdown for the past year has forced me carefully to weigh all my actions, words, and thoughts. I have had to own my own power over what I do and say, as well as my own influence over what I think. I have seen the harm a stray remark can do or the hole of negativity I can dig in my mind with resentment. Continually discussing what I am thinking, feeling, and doing with God is my best chance at exercising correctly whatever power I have in my own life.
I encourage you to thoroughly interrogate yourself and examine what power and authority you have within your own life and over others. Share what you find with God and with someone close to you. One of the best and the worst parts of being close to someone is how they can see you in ways you cannot see yourself. Use that to your advantage.
We live in a time desperate for healing and reopening: a time full of chances to do old things in new ways; a time when we have seen the good – and evil – that can be perpetrated by those with power. It is our responsibility as Christians to use this time wisely and to the best of our abilities.
I write these words in the middle of my third Holy Week at SSJE, our second Holy Week during the pandemic. Our Chapel has a maximum capacity of around 150 people. That means there is a lot of empty space when it is just my dozen Brothers and I in the Chapel. Whenever I feel the crushing weight of all that empty space, I look up at the livestream camera mounted on the grille and I think of the hundreds of people worshipping with us. I think of all that we have been through this last year and how good it will feel to be together again. And then I believe that, by some slow and steady progress, we will come through this stronger, more hopeful, and more resilient than we were when it began. God bless.