When the pandemic first struck, we Brothers had been in the middle of a year of facilitated community discussions, an exploration of all aspects of our life that we had dubbed “Renewing Our Foundations.” Over the last year, as we’d explored our history, we had marveled at the missionary zeal of our founder, Richard Meux Benson, and our forebears in The Society, as they began to travel to the United States, India, and South Africa. Fr. Benson had a vision for ministry that blended catholic tradition to the evangelical impulse within the Anglican church renewal initiated in Oxford. 150 years later, we stood in the present, looking at our past, praying about our future: What is the mission field for us? And, what exactly is the mission? It was then that, as for the rest of the world, we felt the rug pulled out from under us by Covid-19, leaving us disoriented, confused, and seemingly lost.
If we had felt uncertain about our future “mission field” before, it was only more complicated now, under the new (and ever-shifting) pandemic rules. How long would this shutdown last? How would this change our worship? How would we be able to give retreats when we were unable to travel to parishes or host groups in our Guesthouse? How would our staff be able to continue the daily business that enables our ministry, while keeping them and their families safe? And finally, since we meet Christ in everyone who comes through our doors: how will we meet Christ when those doors must remain closed?
As we attempted to navigate this new terrain thoughtfully and prayerfully, we turned, as we so often do, to the wisdom of our founder, Fr. Benson. We have always known our life to be rooted in the Gospel of John, with the understanding that our worship, ministry, and work are incarnational. While our ministry has evolved – from a Society of mission priests serving parishes in underserved areas and doing missionary work in foreign countries, to that of monastics providing a space of worship, prayer, hospitality, and sanctuary – this core tenant has remained central throughout our history. Because of this, in recent times, we had often resisted the idea of broadcasting aspects of our life – especially worship – because we did not perceive such mediated contact as being congruent with our theology of Incarnation.
Of all our worship, the Eucharist seemed the thorniest to share in any way beyond inviting others to be physically present in the Chapel along with us. The Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is perceived not only by sight, but we would say through all the senses. We encounter this in many of the post-resurrection narratives in scripture. In John’s gospel, Jesus appears to the disciples after his resurrection (except for Thomas, who was mysteriously absent) and shows them his wounds. When he appears to them again, this time in Thomas’ presence, he invites him to touch his wounds, which results in Thomas’ proclamation, “My Lord and my God!” Both in this scripture as in our celebrations of Eucharist, we have come to experience Kairos (the eternity of God) in the temporality of Chronos (physical time) – in the sacrifice of Jesus made present to us now, in the flesh. How could this be realized for people unable to be physically present?
Our answer came, once again, from Fr. Benson. In 1874, Fr. Benson gave a retreat to the members of our Society, the content of which was distilled into the third series of addresses entitled Instructions on the Religious Life. From the chapter entitled “Readiness” we have often gleaned inspiration, especially from this passage: “This makes the religious to be specially a man – not simply of the day, but a man of the moment – a man precisely up to the mark of the times. This makes the religious – so far from being the traditional imitator of bygone days – most especially a man of the present moment and its life. His duties entirely throw him into the interests of that present moment.”
In this instruction, Fr. Benson proclaims boldly that one of the great characteristics of the religious life is that of readiness. In the voice of a loving parent, he calls out those opposing states of being that hinder readiness, making us despondent to God’s call: disappointment, disorientation, disillusionment, and the complexity of circumstances that confront us. The vocational call of God is often an exciting prospect which many of us are glad to respond to in the affirmative, until we find ourselves in the midst of work that differs from our romantic notion of that call. How many of us, in any stage of our vocation, and especially in this time of pandemic, have thought or outright said, “This is not what I signed up for”?
None of us were “ready” for the realities of pandemic life – a situation none of us could have envisioned before it suddenly struck. And yet the need to adjust away from our hoped-for reality, toward the one actually in front of us, is familiar across all walks of life, including the religious life. Fr. Benson’s addresses to his community, while eloquent, testify to the sober reality in which the brethren of the SSJE would find themselves in once out on the mission field. Even as we read them today, his words divert the eye away from any notion of romance in the religious vocation and help to refocus our view on what is directly in front of us, which can be as complex as it is mundane.
Fr. Benson’s guidance is to find yourself at home in all situations where God has called you. Peering through the Victorian language, we hear him tell us, “Life happens; things are as they are. Find the possibilities in each moment and situation.” He knew that not only were the brethren needed by those whom they served, but the brethren needed them as well: it was in those faces they would encounter the risen Christ who would bring about their ongoing conversion and their salvation. Readiness – experienced through the lens of contemplation – was precisely to be in the moment God was presenting. Benson wanted the brethren to be assured that “all the energies which are given to eternity are given through that moment.”
In our community’s prayerful discernment after the pandemic began, we were observant first to what others were doing in response to the pandemic (recognizing that, after all, we are not the only ones called by God to mission). We listened to many discussions on what the role of the Church should be in a time when doors were closed: What does community look like? How does our responsibility to God’s creation relate to the health and well-being of our neighbor, since humanity is a part of that creation? How can we help people experience the sacramental life when separated physically from the Sacraments? And, how can we help people to know the constant presence of Jesus – prayerfully inviting them into closer union with him – from afar?
Of course we also very much missed our own local congregation, and as we looked for ways to remain connected with them, we made the surprising – for us – decision to try a small experiment of livestreaming Tenebrae during the Holy Week after the initial shutdown. The numbers of people who attended that service live, and then watched in-demand afterwards, were astounding to us. It helped us to understand the tremendous need felt by those suddenly isolated from their habitual connection to God through the Church. Since the Divine Office is so important in the Anglican expression of Christianity, we took another step to livestream Evensong with a brief homily on Saturday evenings. Quickly thereafter, we expanded our Evensong livestreams to five evenings a week. Next, we added Compline.
To respect Brothers’ initial desire to remain off camera, we had until this point kept the camera trained on a prayer object – an icon, a candle – rather than on the community. Yet as the pandemic wore on, our perspective on this began to shift. We listened to people expressing their need to see us as they prayed with us, which felt very incarnational indeed. It wasn’t long before we were filming the community at prayer, which led to a further shift: we invested in professional cameras and mics that were discreet and yet would facilitate the experience of being truly “with us” as we prayed. And we, on our end, actually experienced the truth of this as we felt joined in worship by those who were sharing with us online. Brothers who had been unsure about having cameras in the church were now waving to the cameras to pass the peace to our online congregation. We wanted to let people know that we were aware and happy they were joining us in prayer and worship.
Another significant turning point came with a community education day with Dr. Lisa Kimball and the Reverend James Farwell of Virginia Theological Seminary, in which we focused specifically on sacramental theology. We came to realize, as Br. James wrote in the last issue of Cowley: “While Anglican eucharistic theology and practice is focused on the eating and drinking of the bread and wine, our day helped us explore other aspects of the Eucharist. We pondered not simply the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament, but also the real presences of Christ in gathered community, word proclaimed and broken, prayers shared. With a renewed and indeed expanded understanding of eucharistic theology and practice, we then felt able to livestream the Eucharist on a regular basis.”
Outside of the church, we began holding weekly discussions online with members of the Fellowship of Saint John, as well as Bible studies with students from Harvard. In our Lenten series “Come, Pray” this year, we Brothers taught classic forms of prayer that people could practice in their homes – as well as new ways to pray. One of my own favorite ‘new ways’ to pray is through photography, a practice inspired by the teaching of another one of our forebears in the Society, Fr. George Congreve, SSJE. He writes: “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” (emphasis mine). Along with Father Benson, Congreve promises that God is to be met not elsewhere, nor in another time, nor in another circumstance, but exactly in this present moment. So we Brothers have been met by God as we have embraced new ways of being monastics in these unforeseen circumstances. Since we have not been able to travel or offer hospitality in our Guesthouse, we have offered livestreamed teachings on Julian of Norwich, Embodied Prayer, and the Gospel of John – all of which have elicited an enthusiastic response.
We each have our own ideas of how best to serve God and the Church. However, the reality is that we are joining God on God’s mission – not the other way around – and this mission includes us as recipients of God’s grace, while being conduits of that grace to others. Fr. Benson warns against the finitude of our own vision, especially when we seek to serve God only in the ways which we find attractive. The complexity of God’s call is in the consideration that we are included in God’s mission – not as the architects of salvation but as cooperators in that mission.
Our default in mission should always be born out of the prayer stemming from our relationship with Jesus Christ. This dynamic of prayer is a “call and response”; we first listen for how God is calling us, and then we respond by asking for the wisdom to carry out that vocation. Often, that wisdom is bound up in how God is working in our own lives. Adaptability is crucial to the spirit of readiness, as we know that God will give us the means to engage, even in ways we may find unattractive or repugnant.
And so we Brothers find ourselves, eighteen months into the pandemic, in a situation we could never have imagined: with a closed Guesthouse and mostly-closed church, but an open door online, inviting anyone from around the world to join us in worship at any time. And we’ve been amazed to see how Christ has come through that open door, and met us in online ministry. While it is our hope that we will eventually be able to offer in-person prayer, worship, retreats, and hospitality here at home again, we feel energized that God has sent us into a new mission field to – using a line from our Rule of Life – “bring men, women, and children into closer union with God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit that he breathes into us.” We feel grateful to be learning anew, as Fr. Benson instructed our forebears in the Society, the spirit of readiness: “The Religious life is not to be a dreamy dissatisfaction with the present state of things, it is not to be a mere not knowing what to do next, because things about us are as they are, but it is the consciousness of being able to make ourselves at home under all circumstances and able to turn everything that happens into account.” Even through all the struggles and surprises of the pandemic, Father Benson’s wisdom has proved true for us: “all the energies which are given to eternity are given through this moment.”
This article was originally written for the online publication, “The School of Theology,” of St. Mary Magdalen Church, Oxford.