My years of keeping a Rule of Life as part of the Fellowship of St. John inspired me to do something similar in the parish where I serve. We recently adopted a simple mission statement of “Following Jesus in worship, prayer and service.” Those who come regularly know that that mission means a specific rhythm of life that includes an hour of worship a week, twenty minutes of prayer a day and an hour of hands on service of those whom Jesus especially loves every week. Thank you for your inspiration!
Question:During the past year, the Brothers have been displaced from their home and Chapel while renovations are done. How well has the Rule stood up outside the structure—literally and figuratively—that the Monastery provides, both in terms of physical space and spiritual disciplines?
Br Mark Brown: I think it has fared well, though we have become very aware of how much the Monastery, where we live, work, and worship, supports our life and ministry. It’s all under one roof. I don’t know anyone who lives and works and worships under the same roof, apart from other religious. We’ve certainly come to appreciate the grace of the space, so to speak, and we’re more aware than ever of some of the challenges that Christians who are intentional in their practice face on a daily basis.
Question: The Rule notes that the passage of time itself is redeemed by the liturgical cycle of worship that the Brothers offer in their practice of the Daily Office and the Eucharist (16, 17, 18). As the Brothers anticipate re-entering the Monastery Chapel, do you have particular hopes for this year, this week, this time?
Br. Kevin Hackett: I certainly do. Our observance of Holy Week is never completely the same from one year to another, but this year, with our own “triumphal entry” to the Chapel on Palm Sunday, I’m both looking forward to and a little frightened of seeing and hearing and doing things in necessarily different ways. It’s not that we have “tamed” the drama of Holy Week over the years, but we have come to rely on some predictable patterns and practices and resources, and this year, so many things will necessarily be different—we won’t have access to the high altar, for instance. We don’t have access to our usual full wardrobe of vestments and properties. We’ll be working from a makeshift sacristy, with no running water. But that’s all for the good, I think, because we’ll have to look and listen more deeply, perhaps, than we have before. I count the unpredictability to be nothing less than the Spirit moving, blowing, roaring among us.
Br. Geoffrey Tristram: Absolutely. So much of the Rule was written with the Monastery and Emery House in mind—how could it not have been? But the Rule has a quality of inherent flexibility, I think. In this past year, particularly for those Brothers living in rented accommodation in Cambridge while overseeing the renovation, we’ve not had a proper chapel, for instance, and that has required us to think more deeply about what is necessary, what is essential to our life, in order to sustain the rhythms of daily prayer and worship. We’ve done well, I think, but we’ll be very glad indeed to return!
Question: The Rule outlines the role of the Superior in the life and mission of the Society. Br. Geoffrey, as the first Superior of the Society who was not involved in writing the Rule, what is it like for you to read that chapter (14), particularly?
Br. Geoffrey Tristram: Humbling, to say the very least. When I read that chapter, I am so aware that I simply could not do this job were it not for the mercy and grace of God, and an extraordinarily faithful group of Brothers who have entrusted me with this office. I’m aware that I could not do this job were it not for their daily prayers and support and counsel. I’m aware, too, that I could not do it without advisers and friends from outside the Community. I’m dependent on all of them, really.
In the spring of 2005, Lucas Fleming, my friend and Sigma Chi fraternity brother, convinced me to head to Boston for a brief retreat at SSJE… I needed it. Soon thereafter I joined the Fellowship of SSJE and committed to a personal rule of life. The more I understood SSJE’s powerful ministry, the more I wanted to help; but given my reality, writing a big annual check was not possible. So I decided that my gift to the ministry would be to translate the SSJE Rule into Spanish, making it available to Spanish-speakers worldwide. I envisioned essentially a technical undertaking: the Rule was masterfully written and all I had to do was “masterfully” translate it. When I received the Word document in English, I told the Brothers I’d have it done in a few months.
Not quite: the full translation of the Rule took me over two years. “How,” you might ask, “can it possibly take that long to translate a relatively short book?” The answer: the SSJE Rule is a treasure chest of wisdom, insight, and Christian spiritual guidance distilled from centuries of profound Christian introspection. As I translated, it soon became apparent that literal translations of many of the concepts resulted in Spanish phrasing that omitted the sense and subtlety of the original. One nuance in the original Rule turned bland in literal Spanish; conversely, an eloquent sentence translated literally took the Spanish reader into an unintended direction.
Consider the opening sentence of Chapter One:
“He was lifted up from the earth in his crucifixion and resurrection from the dead in order to draw all people to himself.”
A literal translation of that underscored clause into Spanish would convey, using the first-response word choice (e.g. dibujar – “to draw”), a nonsensical result. To get the true meaning of the clause – the selflessness of His return to the world – the right word to translate from English was not “draw” but, rather, “attract”. And even that adjustment required finessing:
“…para atraer a todo el mundo a él.”
Close but not right: in Spanish, while that is grammatically correct, the power of the original language is totally missed; it turns this extraordinarily brief and powerful expression of the utter gift of Jesus into something that sounds, in Spanish, more like something a carnival barker or soap-box pundit would do. To complete the sense of purpose, it is necessary to add what is a slightly awkward ending, literally “to draw all people to he himself”. Accordingly, the translation reads like this in Spanish:
“…para atraer a todo el mundo a si mismo.”
And all that was only for the FIRST sentence!
As a second example, consider Chapters 9-11, dealing with celibacy. That was perhaps the most difficult section to translate, not only because many of the Spanish words were new to me but also because of the cultural nuances which, generally speaking, require a more limited and conservative word choice than what English gives us. What appears as a clear and open comment in the rule in English can appear crass and disrespectful in Spanish. Consider this sentence in Chapter 9:
“The exploration of our sexual solitude through prayer will reveal the depth of Christ’s desire to be the one joy of our hearts.”
I wrestled with this one for awhile: to most Spanish speakers, the discussion of “exploration of sexual solitude”, however subsequently qualified, has no business in a document as profound as the SSJE Rule. I tried various other wordings in order to circumvent this issue (e.g., ”Recognizing our sexual solitude”, etc.) but when I did so, I was distorting the message. I finally realized that the mention of the “exploration of sexual solitude” could translated accurately if the balance of the sentence tempered that initial, somewhat-shocking-in-Spanish clause with devotional word choices overriding any such reaction. And so that sentence became:
“La exploración de nuestra soledad sexual a través de oración revelará la profundidad del deseo de Cristo para ser la única alegría en nuestros corazones.”
The process of translating the Rule forced me to rethink and reexamine every phrase and thought contained therein, and I treasure it more than ever as a result. As so often happens when we delve into the divine, the “gift” of my translation pales when compared to the blessings I received through the experience.
Question: The input of outside advisers and readers seems to have been a significant factor in the Rule’s final form. What was the most significant input from the circle of outside readers who gave feedback on early drafts of the Rule?
Br. James Koester: That’s easy. We would not have had the final chapter (49) on the hope of glory if we had not had outside readers of the early drafts. We ended—and I can hardly believe that we didn’t see how “anti-Johannine” this was—we ended the Rule with the chapter on holy death (48). There is a fleeting reference to resurrection there, but we ended at the tomb—and not the empty one!
Br. Kevin Hackett: From my perspective, as one who was not here when those conversations were happening, I think having those outside readers was a harbinger of things to come for the Society. When I arrived, we had very few volunteers or advisers in our life. Now we couldn’t do what we do without them, everything from baking altar bread and preparing materials for our liturgies to consultation concerning our financial affairs and mission work.
Question: The Rule is a corporately “personal” document, particular to SSJE in many ways, and yet the Community made an important decision to make it public document as well. Given that these conversations are also “public” in nature, have there been, are there downsides to opening the Community’s life in this way?
Br. David Allen: When I was first exploring a vocation with the Society, I was given a copy of the Rule and told that it was not to be circulated, that it was a private document, for the Society’s members only. I think our opening up the process has been enormously enriching, and I am pleased we made the decision to be so transparent. It’s not always been comfortable, but I think it’s been good.
Br. Curtis Almquist: It was our decision to open the process, albeit late in the process, that led to some of the new chapters being included, like the one on employees (35). We’ve already noted we need to think more deeply about that chapter, but we would not have included the subject at all without having opened the conversation beyond ourselves.
I lived for a year in the early 1980s in the town of St. Andrews on the east coast of Scotland. This year was my first serious time of engagement with a rule of life, (although I didn’t think of it in those terms then), including the daily office, regular conversations with a wise friend, times of solitude and retreat, as well as my first forays into disciplined theological study. It was also a year of living within sight of St. Rule’s Tower, an eleventh-century, immensely tall, stone tower built at the headland of the town overlooking the harbor and the often-stormy North Sea. By legend, St. Rule (or St. Regulus) brought the bones of the apostle Andrew from Greece to this Scottish headland in the fourth century. St. Rule’s Tower is what remains of the church built to house these relics, and it served as a beacon to travelers and pilgrims—at sea and on land. It is not known if St. Rule existed or if this name arose out of the foundation of Christian life and practice in that place. To my mind, the name may well enshrine the monastic Rule by which the early communities in that place lived—enshrining the notion of the Rule in the memory of the holy person, St. Rule. It is a “rule” because it holds the apostolic witness, the sign of Jesus’ death and resurrection dwelling there.
One of the primary graces for me in forming a rule of life in conversation with the Rule of SSJE has been the Rule’s emphasis on the indwelling of God (e.g. chapter 21) and on the cruciformity of love (e.g. chapter 2). The Johannine insight that in Christ God makes a home with us has become a touchstone as I shape a rule of life for myself. It makes me desire that my way of life be shaped in such a way that I have an ever-greater capacity for God. I understand my rule of life as shaping a hospitable space and a hospitable life for the dwelling of God. I understand my rule of life as a way of cooperating with the mystery of resurrection and thus of creating greater capacity to take the needs, sorrows, and desires of others into my life, work, and prayer in order to offer them to God for healing and for life.
A rule, in my experience, turns what I desire for my way of life into practice, practices that are flexible and transformable, but practices nonetheless. A few examples: At home, our breakfasts and our dinners are eaten unrushed, with candles lit, attention to the food and drink however simple, and a spaciousness for conversation. These are moments when we gather the thoughts of a busy day and whether there are guests or not it recollects me toward a life lived hospitably toward God. Or at work at the university, amid innumerable demands, deadlines, emails, the rule helps me to remember that the person in front of me, in conversation with me at that moment, is to have my full attention, the undistracted capacity of my heart and mind. The rule recalls me to the practices of listening for both sorrow and joy, strength and struggle in my students, my colleagues, and my staff. The rule helps me, though not without much difficulty, to make decisions about my calendar and time, so that there is the necessary spaciousness and freedom from distraction.
What I recognize as less well seasoned in practice for me are the ways of entering more directly, more intentionally into the capaciousness of God. These are practices of solitude, the nurturing of creativity and delight, and, for God’s sake, times of doing nothing except abiding in God. The rule—like a beacon—recalls me to such practices, tells me to wrestle with my schedule and calendar so that I do them, and reminds that these practices too are part of sharing in the mystery of death and resurrection.
Question: The Rule sets a very high standard for life together whether that’s in a monastery or in some other form of Christian life. Is there a gap between the life the Rule describes and the one that the Community actually lives?
Br. Curtis Almquist: Yes, and it changes on a daily basis! We worked hard to come up with a document that was both prescriptive for our life together and descriptive of our lived experience. Because of that, we knew we would end of with a Rule that functioned on multiple levels, not unlike the way the Gospel according to John does. We live with the knowledge that none of us will ever fully live up to the demands the Rule and, by God’s grace, we are better men for trying.