My dear friends:

Sitting at Emery House, gazing across the meadow, past the hermitages, and on down to the Artichoke and Merrimack rivers, I am struck by nature’s resiliency. Just a few short weeks ago, this was a very different landscape: the sky was grey, the meadows and fields were brown and dead, the trees were seemingly lifeless, and just looking at the water made me feel cold. Then, everything looked barren. Today, things are different: the meadow is lush and green with new growth, the lilacs are in bloom, the trees resplendent in full leaf, the sky is a pale blue, and the rivers are shimmering. Already I have seen a variety of birdlife that I have not seen here in months.

Over the last two months we have seen other examples of nature’s resilience. As all but essential workers have been sheltering in place, and our ability to travel any distance has been limited to long walks and running necessary errands, air quality in some of the major cities of the world has improved dramatically, because fewer cars are on the road. This has meant that we have seen varieties of birdlife that we don’t normally see around the monastery in Cambridge.

It is my belief that human beings are equally resilient. While Covid-19 has struck deeply and widely across this country, and around the world, upending the lives of every single person, we have an opportunity like never before in our lifetimes. The pain, grief, distress, and trauma of this pandemic are real. But so too is the promise of nature and the hope of Easter.

One of the passages of Scripture that I have returned to in this season comes from Revelation. There we read: And the one who is seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”[1]

For the last months, all of us have been going through a painful time of unmaking, as lives, and jobs, and livelihoods have been lost. The disorientation of this season has been profound. The reality is that life as we knew it will never return, and there is much in that for which we will need to grieve. But the promise of nature and the hope of Easter is that in the midst of all this loss, God is making all things new.

As painful as the unmaking has been, the remaking will be equally challenging. But as I gaze across the meadow as it is today, it is the remaking that gives me hope.

As we slowly come to the other side of this pandemic, all of us have an opportunity to begin to remake our lives, and the life of the world in new ways. It is true we have lost much, but so too have we learned a great deal: the importance of friends, the value of community, the wisdom of stillness, silence, and time. As we co-operate with God in the remaking of our lives and our world, these are the things we will not want to lose again. There will be others as well that are especially crucial for you.

As you ponder how you want to remake your life and the world, as we emerge from this time of unmaking and remaking, you may want to reflect on some of the resources available on our website. The chapters in our Rule of Life on community, poverty, silence, rhythm, hospitality and friendship may be especially helpful. Some of the pieces found in the Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Living section, such as the ones on kindness, gratitude, enclosureor simplicity might also be worth considering. You may also want to spend some time with us each day as we pray Evening Prayer. A live-stream video of Evening Prayer is now available Tuesday through Sunday on our Facebook page: facebook.com/FriendsOfSSJE/

In closing, I want to express our gratitude for the gift of your friendship and prayers for us during this time. Your appreciation of our ministry during this time of unmaking has been enormously encouraging. We count on your prayers, as we Brothers co-operate with God during this time of remaking.

Just as we know that you pray for us, please know that we pray for each of you.

Yours faithfully in the One who is, even now, making all things new.

James Koester SSJE
Superior


[1] Revelation 21: 5

It is remarkable how much a saint for our times is the Lady Julian. Living in the latter half of the fourteenth, and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries, on first glance one would think there was nothing about her life that would resonate with ours. However, like us, she lived at a time of much worry, anxiety, and turmoil. Twenty years before her birth in 1353, the Great Famine swept Northern Europe leaving up to 25 percent of the population dead. Shortly after her birth, the Black Death struck, leaving up to half the population of the city of Norwich itself dead, and killing an estimated 200 million people in total. It would take centuries for the population of Europe return to previous pre-Black Death numbers. Both these events lead to the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, when the city of Norwich was overwhelmed by rebel forces. At this same time early agitation for the reform of the Church, known as Lollardy, initially begun by John Wycliffe, was beginning to take root

It was in that world, not so unlike our own, that the Lady Julian lived and received her showings or revelations during a time when she herself was gravely ill, and expected to die. After receiving the Last Rites on 8 May 1373, she lost her sight, and began to feel physically numb. It was in this state that as she gazed upon a crucifix above her bed, she saw the figure of Jesus beginning to bleed, and received her revelations. Over the next several hours she received sixteen revelations. Following her recovery five days later, she recorded them, first in a short version, now lost, except for a copy, and then many years later in a longer version. Read More

To describe the gospel of John as the gospel of love would not be inappropriate. From the very opening chapters of the gospel, where we read that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him[1] we hear that God’s motive, from the very beginning, was a motive of love.

That motive of love runs throughout the gospel, and reaches its climax in what we hear and see in tonight’s lesson, which comes to us from that very tender scene in the Upper Room, on that first Maundy Thursday. I give you a new commandment [Jesus says to his disciples], that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’[2]

This love, which the gospel portrays and Jesus commands, is not a sweet, sentimental, romantic love. It is a love which we know propels and compels Jesus to the cross. It is a love which is self-giving, self-offering, and self-denying.

We remind ourselves of this in our Rule of Life when we say that [faith] sees the cross of suffering and self-giving love planted in the very being of the God revealed to us in Jesus. When God made room for the existence of space and time and shaped a world filled with glory, this act of creation was one of pure self-emptying. But God broke all the limits of generosity in the incarnation of the Son for our sake, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”[3] Read More

 

Romans 6: 3 – 11
Psalm 114
Matthew 28: 1 – 10

I’m sure that we all know someone like this. Maybe it’s even yourself. We all know someone who isn’t very good at telling jokes. Sometimes that’s about timing. Maybe their timing is off. Perhaps they don’t have a sense of irony, and take everything too literally. Then again their humour might be too clever, or too dark, or too dry, for you to find funny. Sometimes if the punch line is too obscure, and the joker has to explain things, the joke falls flat, and no one finds it funny, except perhaps the teller. And some jokes, are just really terrible, or even cruel. There is a lot to making a good joke funny, especially if it is one that is retold over and over again. While some jokes never seem to be funny, other are funny no matter how many times they are told.

These last few weeks, I have the feeling that I have been trapped in the middle of a really terrible and cruel joke. This physical distancing, quarantine, self-isolation is wearing really thin. I am so done with it all. I want it to be over. If this pandemic is someone’s idea of a joke, it’s not a very funny one. If COVID-19 is someone’s idea of a joke, it’s a pretty cruel one. Things aren’t funny anymore. They aren’t even fun, and the novelty, or entertainment factor, lost its charm a long time ago. Read More

Christ Descends into Hell

from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday – 2nd century

Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness.  The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep.  The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began.  God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

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We invite you to watch the full Maundy Thursday service here

Exodus 12: 1-4 (5-10) 11-14
Psalm 116 1, 10-17
1 Corinthians 11: 23-26
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

One of the most chilling scenes in all of Scripture, at least for me, comes within the context of tonight’s gospel reading from John. While we did not read it this evening, it forms a piece of the story of that first Maundy Thursday. Jesus and the disciples were gathered in the Upper Room. The foot washing has taken place, and Jesus speaks of the one who would betray him. Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me….So when [Jesus] had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot…. [After] receiving the piece of bread, [Judas] immediately went out. And it was night.[1]

Whenever I read those four words, and it was night, a chill goes up and down my spine.

For our first century forebears, and perhaps for you as a child, night was a time of uncertainty, of loneliness, of isolation, of fear. Who has not, at one time or another, been afraid of the dark, been afraid of the night? Perhaps you still are. I know that as I child, I was. I was afraid of the darkness under my bed, and worse, the dark void of the open closet. I would whimper until one of my older brothers, with whom I shared my bedroom, would get up and close the closet door. Perhaps there is still something about the night that frightens you. Who has not been nervous walking down a dark street in the dead of night? I know that sometimes I am. Perhaps there is still something about the dark that frightens you.

Every time I hear these words, and it was night, a chill goes up and down my spine, because it reminds me that night still has the power to make us afraid.

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Living for God

Br. James Koester

One of the lines in our Rule of Life which I quote most frequently comes in the chapter “The Word of God in Preaching.” There we say that “people are hungry for good news that life is full of meaning in union with God” (Ch. 19). This theme of life lived in union with God runs throughout our Rule. We say in the very first chapter, “The Call of the Society” that “our mission is inseparable from our call to live in union with Christ in prayer, worship, and mutual love.” We say in another place that “our mission is to bring men, women, and children into closer union with God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit that he breathes into us” (Ch. 31). We remind ourselves that “the gospel proclaims that Christ has transformed death by his cross and resurrection and that through our Baptism we have already passed through death with him and have been incorporated into his risen body” (Ch. 48). Almost the very last word of the Rule states that “hope stirs our desire to adore God for all eternity in the host of heaven” (Ch. 49).

Over and again, we remind ourselves that the aim of the life of faith is to help us all to live in union with God, and to invite others to do the same. Father Benson puts it quite simply this way: “we must seek to realize increasingly the purposes for which our Society is called together – to live for God . . .” (Richard Meux Benson, “Of the Objects of the Society” in The Religious Vocation, 37).

Our living for God will, in the end, result in nothing less than our sanctification. Again as Father Benson reminds us: “as He sanctified Himself, so it is for us to sanctify ourselves by the continual surrender of our will to the will of the Father, in whatever way it is manifested, whether it be the will of God in all the circumstances of His external Providence, or the will of God in all the appointments of our Society. We have to realize that the will of God is that to which we must conform ourselves, and in which we have to seek for sanctification. This is our first object, to sanctify ourselves through the truth, to sanctify ourselves in union with the incarnate Saviour, to sanctify ourselves in conformity with the will of God. Whatever else we leave undone, the culture of ourselves must be the constant aim of our life” (40).

One of the places where this sanctification happens is in worship. We Brothers believe that God “has drawn us into our Society so that our calling to be true worshipers can reach fulfillment in the offering of the continual sacrifice of praise. In this life of worship together we are transformed in body, soul and spirit” (Ch. 16). Such a vision of transformation is open to all who desire to live for God.

One of the marks of our life as a brotherhood is worship. Some will remember Father Gross, who used to tell me when I was a novice that “we’d get a lot more work done around here if we didn’t have to eat so much or go to church so often!” But, with all due respect to Father Gross, the object of our life is not work, but God, and our life is shaped as it is so that “worship sanctifies work, continually interrupting it so that we can offer it to God in thanksgiving.”

It is this constant returning to God in worship that sanctifies not only the day, not only the task at hand, but ourselves as well. It is for this reason that Father Benson challenges us when he says that “our life … must be one continual act of worship. It may vary very much in its features, but whatever the life of religious be externally, it must be a life of worship, all its acts pointing towards God with constant elevation” (Richard Meux Benson, Instruction on the Religious Life, Second Series, “Worship,” 10).
 

This worship of God is not confined to those moments when we are praying the Office or celebrating the Eucharist. Our worship of God takes place every time we turn our hearts to God, for “the Father never ceases from seeking true worshipers to worship him in spirit and truth. God sent the Son into the world to heal and raise us up so that, empowered by the Spirit, we could surrender our whole selves in adoration and be reunited in the love of God. God draws us into our Society so that our calling to be true worshipers can reach fulfillment in the offering of the continual sacrifice of praise” (32). 

It is this calling to be true worshippers in spirit and in truth which invites us to “dwell upon the contemplation of God, to acquaint ourselves more and more with God, to fix upon our minds a clear apprehension of His glory, to stir up our hearts with an eager desire for His vision, to strengthen our hearts in the continual sympathy of His revelation, to rule our acts in continual obedience to His commands. Our whole life must be an act of worship. We come out of the world for that purpose, and for that purpose alone. We do not come out of the world merely under the idea that by association we may be able to accomplish certain plans which commend themselves to our hearts. We come out of the world in order that we may give ourselves to the worship of God” (Op. cit., “Worship,” 10). 

Such a vision of worship which permeates all life is one of the gifts we Brothers have to offer the Church. By our life we invite the Church: “to rise up to its true calling as a communion of the Holy Spirit, the Body of Christ and the company of Christ’s friends. We are not called to be a separate elite, but to exemplify the life of the Body of Christ in which every member has a particular gift of the Spirit for ministry and shares an equal dignity. Fr. Benson taught that ‘there are special gifts of God indeed to the Society, but only as it is a society within the Church. The small body is to realize and intensify the gifts, to realize the energies, belonging to the whole Church.’ Our witness and ministry is not merely to separate individuals; it is for strengthening the common life in the Body of Christ” (Rule, Ch. 4).

But worship at its best is a dangerous activity. It is dangerous because worship has the power, not simply to engage us, or draw us into the life of God, but to change us as well. In worship we encounter the God “who makes all things new” (Rev 21:5), including ourselves, as we are transformed by Christ “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). As Father Benson reminds us, “none can come to Christ at Bethlehem and go away as they came … our coming to Christ at Bethlehem changes everything” (Richard Meux Benson, Spiritual Readings: Christmas (1886), 260).

This transformation from one degree of glory to another is at the heart of all worship, as we are slowly and often imperceptibly changed into the likeness of Christ. We may not see the change as it happens, but over time we become more and more the person God has called us to be.

Again as Father Benson so movingly reminds us: “we must look for the development of the life of Christ within us. Each communion should be, as it were, adding some fresh point to the image of Christ within our souls. As each touch of the artist adds some fresh feature to the painting, so each communion is a touch of Christ, which should develop some fresh feature of his own perfect likeness within us. And it is not that it does this merely in some one direction, but as each moment of the morning adds imperceptibly a fresh glow to the whole illuminated hemisphere, so each communion imperceptibly should add a fresh glow, a fresh brightness, a fresh colouring to the sphere of the soul which it penetrates; the whole nature should assume a fresh glory with each communion. As the form and colour of the landscape come out with the sun’s advance, so with each communion the form and colour of our spiritual life, not merely in this or that particular, but in all its complex bearings of form and colour, is to stand out with greater clearness and beauty, each communion bringing its own fresh illumination, and perfecting us in the Sun of righteousness” (Richard Meux Benson, The Religious Vocation, “Of Communion” (1939), 160-61). 

If it is true that each Communion adds a fresh touch of Christ to us, so too does each act of reconciliation through the exchange of the peace; each act of offering, whereby we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies as bread and wine on the Table; each act of sending forth to love and serve the Lord, in the dismissal. Each of these moments in worship has the power to perfect us, not just as individuals, or even as a particular community, but as the Church gathered in a particular time and place – and beyond all time and all place.

Worship then is not something we simply offer to God. It is a participation in God’s mission, God’s purpose, God’s dream for the world, which is to reconcile all things in Christ (Col 1:20). On my worst days, I sometimes wonder if any of what goes on in our chapel makes a difference. On my best days, I know that it does, because even though I cannot tell in the moment, I do know that it changes me, it changes us, it changes the Church. In changing us more and more into the image of God, our worship changes the world, bringing evermore into reality the dream of God for all creation.

Our Rule reminds us that people are hungry for good news that life is full of meaning in union with God. One of the ways in which we proclaim that good news is through our worship, not only formally, as on Sunday mornings, but whenever we open our hearts to God. When we do that, we discover again the joy of living in union with God. 

Nearly four hundred years ago, George Herbert[1], the great Anglican poet, wrote his poem, Lent[2], better known by its first line: Welcome Dear Feast of Lent.

Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority
But is compos’d of passion.

The Scripture bids us fast; the Church says, now:

It is a poem I return to each Lent, because that first phrase turns everything upside down for me. I need to be reminded that Lent is not a time of misery, but of joy and delight. It is the springtime of the Church, and holds within it the promise of new life, similar to what we see emerging all around us, at this time of year.

Like any gardener anxiously eyeing the weather, and scouring seed catalogues, waiting, waiting, waiting, to begin the hard work of preparing the garden for another season, we turn our eyes inward, and begin the hard work of preparation, so that like Mary Magdalene, we too can encounter the Risen Lord in the garden of our souls.

Though her eyes were filled with tears, and at first unable to see clearly, Mary, like Herbert, was richly rewarded.

Who goeth in the way which Christ has gone,
That travelleth byways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
May strengthen my decays.

We begin Lent today in this way: kneeling, with ashes on our foreheads, and reminded of our sins. This is not in order to make us feel guilty and miserable, but in order to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, and hands, to the mystery of love, and the One who is Love. With eyes and hands open, we may find God taking us by the hand, and leading us the rest of the way. When that happens we, and all God’s people, will discover the fast which God chooses:

Is not this the fast that I choose: [says God]

to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?[3]

Lent is not a time to be miserable. It is a time to feast on the mercy, love, and justice of God. And that feast begins, kneeling in the garden of our souls.


[1] George Herbert (1593 – 1633), priest and poet

[2] Herbert, GeorgeLent as found in George Herbert, The Country Parson, The Temple, The Classics of Western Spirituality, edited by John Wall, Paulist Press, New York, 1981, page 204

[3] Isaiah 58: 6 – 7

Mark 4: 35 – 41

Some of you will know that this year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the theft of a number of art treasures from the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum. It was the night of 19 March 1990 that two thieves, dressed at Boston policemen, broke into the museum, stole 13 paintings, and literally vanished into thin air. It’s the biggest art theft in American history, and no trace has ever been found of either paintings, or the men. Still to this day, because of the terms of Mrs. Gardner’s will, which stipulates nothing can be moved or changed, you can go to the museum and see the empty frames where the paintings once hung.

One of those stolen paintings was Rembrandt’s 1633 oil on canvas painting of The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.

If you have ever been caught in a storm on a body of water, you’ll know exactly how terrifying they can be. The world seems to be moving every which way, all at the same time, and there is nothing between you and certain death by drowning except what seems to be a flimsy bit of wood or metal, even if the vessel you are on is a great ocean going liner.

The terror on the faces of the disciples in Rembrandt’s painting is clear, as they strain at the oars, or try to control the sails. Yet in the midst of this is a calm Jesus, roused from his sleep with the urgent query, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’[1] Matthew’s version of this same story has an even greater sense of urgency, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’[2]

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Feast of Blessed Richard Meux Benson SSJE

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 27:5-11
1 John 4:7-12
John 15:9-17

It all happened so quickly. A letter arrived in early October and three weeks later, tickets had been purchased, luggage packed, work reassigned, a notice in the parish magazine placed, and an adventure begun.

It was October 1870 when a letter from the Wardens of the Church of the Advent arrived at the Mission House in Oxford, asking Father Benson if members of the Society would be available to assist the Rector of the Parish for a number of months. The invitation was so significant, and so unexpected, that Father Benson thought it best if he himself travelled to Boston to investigate. His departure was set for All Saints Day. The day before, he wrote to members of the Parish of Cowley St. John, encouraging them to be diligent in your attendance at all the means of grace, and in your prayers.[1]

It was not an easy crossing. Father Benson, and his companions, Father O’Neill and Father Puller, were not good sailors. Early in the voyage Father Benson wrote home saying: We do not feel well. The motion of the boat makes one so dizzy and stupid that it is difficult to read or write. Last night we went to bed feeling very bad, but we are now getting wonderfully used to the motion. The sea is what sailors call smooth.[2]

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