Br. Geoffrey Tristram: Glory. Father Benson taught us to “look to the glory,” and we enshrined that in the Rule in the first chapter, where we say, “God chooses us from varied places and backgrounds to become a company of friends, spending our whole life abiding in him and giving ourselves up to the attraction of his glory. Our community was called into being by God so that we may be entirely consecrated to him and through our common experience of the glory of the Father and the Son begin to attain even now the unity that God desires for all humankind.” That summarizes our call as religious as well as anything I know, and the glory to which he refers is the same that is made known to every Christian.
Br. Jonathan Maury: Well, as Br. James has pointed out, it wasn’t that way when we finished the first draft. We ended with the chapter on Holy Death (48). It was our outside readers who pointed out to us that surely death should not have the final word, and of course we agreed, so we drafted the Hope of Glory (49), which wasn’t that difficult because the notion of glory is one of Richard Meux Benson’s key themes. And, that is our hope: death does not have the final word!
What continues to inspire me about the Brothers is their dual witness to their monastic Rule and discipline along with their active engagement with the outside world. They practice their Christian faith not only in community among themselves but also reach out to the community at large.
For those Christians like myself who struggle to live by a personal rule, I always regard their steadfast example as my template for what might be for myself. As I learn from these Lenten “A Living Tradition” offerings about their on-going struggles and triumphs living with their Rule, I feel better about my often inadequate attempts to maintain my own personal rule. Volunteering at the Bedford Veterans Administration Medical Center has helped me come to appreciate that the sacred is often experienced in the simple acts of everyday living: the glory of a sunrise, a friendly smile, the offered push of a wheelchair bound veteran, the friendly greeting in the passageway. Thanking God for these precious moments as they happen throughout the day has become an important part of my own personal rule. Acknowledging His presence in the simplest things is comforting to me whose busyness tends to trump practicing contemplation and silence.
The interplay of simplicity and engagement within the monastic routine is a reality I always try to keep before me. As I know that the Brothers struggle daily to live within the confines of their Rule amidst the demands of the outside world, I take heart that my struggles are a tiny reflection of their experience too.
: You’ve often said, Br. Curtis, that the reasons you came to the Monastery are not the reason you stayed, and that most of your Brothers could say the same. What does that mean, then, in terms of vocation and discernment?
Br. Curtis Almquist: The first thing to remember is that any vocation—call—whatever name you care to give it—begins with desire. God’s desire. God’s desire that we be and become all that we are intended to be. And in order to get through to us, in order to break in, God will use just about anything, including (perhaps usually) something that is broken. My own experience tells me that those places of brokenness and suffering, of vulnerability are the places where God has the best chance of reaching us. All of my Brothers are incredibly talented, gifted men, and everyone of us is incredibly broken, in need of grace each and every day.
I am deaf, and a good many people (some of whom should know better) seem to think that that gives me a kind of “leg up” on silence. ‘Tain’t necessarily so…. simply because my ears don’t work so well does not mean that my mind and heart are therefore silent. In fact, since I have a very inquisitive mind, and read a lot, and therefore have lots of phrases and concepts floating around in my mind, I often think that I may have more in the way of distracting thoughts and ideas than many hearing folks. It took me a LONG time (years and years, actually) to learn to silence my inner being and make room for God to speak. (And, yes, I DO hear God speak in that silence.)
I agree with what Fr. David said about silence extending to relationships and, I would say, even to things…possessions, sensory impressions (a nice rich hot cup of cocoa can really call to you at times, as can the almost irresistible desire to turn away from struggling with distractions and get back to that interesting book or movie on CD or knitting project…they all have their own individual voices, many very hard to resist) or just the kind of innate feeling that “I shouldn’t be wasting time, there’s work to be done, I better get on with it” self-talk. And then there are the zillions of stream-of-consciousness distractions, each of which leads to another in an impenetrable hedge that can eventually wall you off from silence, no matter how still you try to be. I have found, sometimes, that those stream-of-consciousness distractions can actually be turned into prayer, and eventually lead back to silence, if one is patient and works with, rather than against, the mind. But they are very tempting, and can lead off in all (very un-prayerful) directions if allowed to take over.
Thomas Merton taught me, via one of his books, one way into true, deep silence, the silence within which one can sometimes hear God talking. When he was a postulant and novice, he struggled with silence. His writer’s and scholar’s mind kept leading him into tangles of distraction. He would go into the novitiate chapel and simply kneel there, focusing on the tabernacle, allowing nothing to disturb that focus…not praying, not thinking, not attending to anything else at all. The Silence of the tabernacle and its Occupant would gradually steal over him and enfold him and penetrate his mind and establish itself there. I have found this works for me, too. You don’t actually need to be in front of a tabernacle…you can visualize the tabernacle of your favorite church, or a crucifix that you see in your mind’s eye, or even a gently flowing stream in a meadow, or some favorite scene from the Bible, and concentrate on that. Ever since I went to Egypt and Israel some years ago, the Garden Tomb works for me in this way, too. Or you can use the method from The Cloud of Unknowing, but that takes more practice and is harder to learn. Centering prayer is another route to the silence within…so is the Jesus Prayer.
One of the things I have learned, gradually, is that once I find silence in my morning prayer and meditation, I can carry it with me through the day, and return to it at will, for short times of prayer every now and then when circumstances permit. Someone said (I cannot recall who) that “Speech is a journey that one makes out of charity for the needs of others, but silence is the homeland.” I have found that, also, to be true.
Question: These conversations about the Rule reveal a deep love and respect among the Brothers for its wisdom, a regard similar to a love of the Scriptures or the Book of Common Prayer. Do you have particular words or phrases or sentences to which you return again and again, like watchwords?
Br. Kevin Hackett: I certainly do. When I am at my lowest (and when I’m at my best, actually), I take great solace in that part from the very last chapter (49) where we say, “Our hope lies not in what we have done for God, but in what God has done for us.” That says it all. That’s the Good News in small. It does not relieve me—or anyone else—of full responsibility for my/their part in demands of discipleship, but it does make clear the priority of grace.
Besides it being so beautifully crafted and profoundly compelling, The Rule is a gracious mirror by which I can assess the reality of my spiritual life. So often I approach it with confusion and illusion, only to see not just me, but God’s longing for me. Nowhere is this truer than in the Rule’s frequent reference to eucharistic living: an entire way of being made possible with a loaf and a cup and a life of divine love. Eucharistic living involves all aspects of our work, hospitality, community and worship. It is the central act of our lives, beginning, of course with the actual meal. As a priest, I have the honor of presiding over it several times a week, feeding hundreds with tangible holiness. Yet among all these meals, there is one that truly fills me.
Every Tuesday morning, for the last four years, once we have coffee perking, volunteers settled, and our voicemails activated, our staff gathers to celebrate the Eucharist. The whole affair is intentionally informal with someone grabbing any small table from a hallway, another drawing a circle of chairs, and my pulling a tea candle from a box. We meet in a tiny chapel, respectfully eschewing the beautifully appointed marble, silk and mahogany worship space of our gorgeous church. Every time it is different. Every time we build a new alter, break our own bread and pour our own port; thereby intentionally offering our own lives to be that “living sacrifice” in the ancient prayer. It is intensely intimate, with unplanned spans of quiet and unscripted reams of prayer. Within the freeing bounds of the Eucharistic prayers we laugh, we cry, we worry and we grow. And by the urging of the Rule to keep our worship, prayer and Eucharistic celebrations fresh, this band of 12 has become, for all of us, the holy of holies, where we, the feeders of the church, retreat to be fed.
On any given Sunday, our large, southern church and its associated buildings seethe with humanity in perpetual motion. With several choirs, children propped on every pew and cushion and hundreds of wonderfully devoted people, our brightly lit worship space can feel like O’Hare on Thanksgiving eve. It is, as the rector says, joyful chaos. But it is chaos nonetheless. The worship moves at a decidedly un-monastic clip and the space, at times, seems to crackle in its preparedness to break into its next move; be it the prayers, the offering, or the recessional. And, when I have failed to attend Tuesday’s gathering of holiness, the chaos can preside over me, as opposed to me over it. Rather than a rhythm, it becomes a race.
Sure, I can fake it. It is my job after all. I can deign calm even as my mind flits like a honey-high butterfly. I can lace my words with inflection and intonation even as my eyes are darting about, cueing a LEM or searching a hymn text. I can win the race even as I pretend to be oblivious to it all. And I can also starve in the midst of a banquet, but I don’t want to do that either. None of us do. This is the irony of our faith; the more we live into it…the more demands are put upon us…the more easily we lose sight of what it was we were living into in the first place….
And so, every Tuesday, I pass through the great hall, genuflect the towering hand-carved table dedicated to our Lord to take my place at a card table, so that I might be fed. So that I might live the bread I eat and the wine I drink.
Question: We’re well into Holy Week now, and tomorrow, we enter more fully into the Paschal Mystery with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Day. Some Brothers have said that this year, since closing the Monastery for renovation, has been a prolonged experience of dying and rising. Can you tell us some of the ways in which this has been so?
Br Jonathan Maury: Oh, absolutely. On the one hand, of course, there’s the experience of loss—and the grief that comes with that—loss of routine, work, access to belongings, etc., which can sound terribly petty, but these occasions are real opportunities to let go of something that we have held to tightly. And on the other hand, well, there’s just abundance, God’s abundance, and the generosity of our benefactors that make this possible in the first place. The key is gratitude—it’s not an accident that our highest form of worship is called the Eucharist, which means, thanksgiving.
I find that a rule of life is most important, it is a never-ending fountain of nourishment, whatever shape the rule may take.
Over the years I have noticed that my spirit seems anemic, it becomes less energized without that vertical source of prayer. Without that vertical type of relationship, the horizontal posture is at loose ends, it seems to lack a rudder, a directional finder for the course of the day.
I am reminded of someone I taught years ago. He came to mind often toward the beginning of a new college semester. As I began to pray for him, I saw an image in my mind, the impression of a short vertical cylinder with one or two short, open-ended troughs toward the top. After some quietness in prayer, the image then changed. There was a much taller cylinder with several troughs toward the bottom and several streams of water flowing from the side of the cylinder near the top, down into the troughs and out of the end of each.
Then it seemed that these troughs which surrounded the cylinder, five or six of them, could be responsibilities that this student would be carrying throughout his senior year. The sprays of water from the upper section of the cylinder down into the troughs suggested provision for carrying out each responsibility portrayed at the bottom.
How to pray for this student? Perhaps that he would remember that he needed to be focused, to remember that prayer is most important. From that center of prayer will come provision for the work at hand. If we forget, if we neglect our prayer, the cylinder and the water flowing from it (God’s provision) will seem shorter, and , in comparison the open-ended troughs (responsibilities) will seem much more imposing. To be focused, to be a person of prayer, invites provision beyond our knowing.
Br Geoffrey Tristram: I suppose we’d have to say yes, at a literal level, but certainly not in spirit. The Brothers living at Emery House, for instance, have had a more or less seamless transition from the Monastery to West Newbury, and we have a long track record there. So while some practices there are modestly different from the Monastery (the times for prayer, for instance), the Rule has still provided the framework for life together there. For those Brothers living in rented accommodation in Cambridge, the challenges have been a little greater: we lack a dedicated space for worship, for instance, and we work at offices a fair distance from both the house and the Monastery (where we meet weekly for construction oversight). We have to plan each day much more carefully, and sadly, we do not observe the full round of worship that we do at the Monastery. But that’s only a temporary interruption, one which will change upon our return later this summer. And it’s important to remember that a monastic rule is not law—it’s a flexible framework.