Question: Many Brothers have spoken about aspects of the Community’s life that need to be addressed more thoroughly in the next revision of the Rule. What are some of things you think must be retained going forward?
Br. Kevin Hackett: One of the things I so appreciate about the Rule is the frank recognition that there is often a gap between our theology and our lived experience—both of which can be true, but neither of which is adequate in its own right. I’m thinking specifically of what we say in the chapter on Scripture (20), for instance, where we say that that “intellectual honesty and contemplative openness belong together in our life with Scripture.” I think I find this so appealing because it honors the reality of paradox, which the Rule addresses over and over, in various ways. In one of the chapters on formation (37), we say, “many stages of genuine transformation are marked by experiences of confusion and loss.” That could be said of the whole Christian life, I think!
Silence…..How can there be silence in the noisiest heart? As I slowly started adapting the Rule for the Fellowship, I had trouble. I could make my environment quiet, I don’t watch TV, I could turn off my phone and just be, but for a long time I could not quiet my heart to receive. I started going to Compline on Tuesdays after work a summer ago in Cambridge. What struck me at each visit was a growing awareness of letting go of time, letting the Brothers’ rhythm of singing back and forth like gentle waves take over. Even though Compline is obviously not silent, I learned to let go and listen and there was a type of silence in doing so. I could join in the prayers but it was ok if I didn’t and just listened. I learned that sometimes you just can’t quiet a restless mind and that was ok too.
In space and time, I gradually not let the silence be filled with my own thoughts of discernment, life, and feeling as if I had it all wrong. In really deepening my understanding of the silence–that it wasn’t just about being quiet environmentally, but making room internally–I was able to come to a fresh new place where my heart was open to the unfolding mystery. Does it always happen? No, but in the times that it does, sometimes, I can hear the Brothers through the silence chanting me home.
Question: The chapter on silence (27) is one of the most referenced by the Brothers in these conversations. Can you say what stands out to you particularly there?
Br. David Vryhof: That chapter actually addresses much more than silence, which is why I think it is so foundational to our life together. It says so much about relationships, about surrendering judgments of our friends and our enemies. When we say, “in silence we learn to let go of the curiosity, presumption and condemnation that pretend to penetrate the mystery of their hearts,” we are reminded that whoever the other is just as complex and complicated as we are—which is humbling most of the time.
Question: For a document that was written by group process, the Rule has language that is surprisingly elegant and mellifluous, with some especially memorable turns of phrase. In these conversations, most Brothers have mentioned specific favorites.
Br. Jonathan Maury: Oh, there are so many! I think our decision to include so much from Father Benson has served us really well. There’s that wonderful phrase, “men of the moment, precisely up to the mark of the times,” but I’m thinking also of his teaching on vocation being “continuous, abiding, and progressive,” a dynamic that applies to any Christian’s life. There’s nothing elitist about Father Benson.
Br. David Vryhof: Jonathan’s right. There are so many moments, but one of my favorites is from Chapter One, where we say, “Our community was called into being by God so that we may be entirely consecrated to him.” That could just as easily be said of the church, and that idea of being completely consecrated to God is actually the end to which every Christian is called.
Why don’t I have a Rule of Life?
I’ve been thinking about this question since November, when the Brothers sent a letter asking all the members of the Fellowship to reflect on creating and living by their Rule of Life. At first, I asked it of myself as an accusation: “Hey, why don’t YOU have a Rule of Life, huh? All the OTHER members of the Fellowship have one! What’s the matter with YOU!?” Then, my tone got softer, more an expression of curiosity than anything else: “Hmm… No Rule of Life, huh, John? That’s interesting. What’s that about?”
Finally, I discovered that I was asking the wrong question. I realized that, despite the fact that I don’t have a Rule of Life, there are rules to my life.
I didn’t write these rules on my own. I got them the way a sponge gets water. I unconsciously soaked them up from the world around me, mostly as I was growing up. They direct my behavior, again unconsciously, just as surely as any set of written precepts could – maybe more. When I work backward from the pattern of my life, I can see these rules, or at least the Table of Contents they suggest. Some of the chapter titles are predictable -“Being a Good Friend,” “The Love of Learning,” “Working Hard is a Good Thing,” “Career and Achievement,” pretty conventional stuff.
But when I consider the chapters about God… well… I get a shock.
What I see is that I live as if my God chapters had titles like “God Will Only Love Me If I Am Good,” and “Getting to God is Awful Rowing I Have to Do Alone.” Somewhere along the way, I soaked up these rules, writing them on my mind and heart, and then forgetting that I was their author, treating them as given truths. A lot of the work of my life with God is seeing these rules, and trying to erase them and replace them with others. “God Will Only Love Me If I Am Good” is fading, but slowly (apparently I wrote it with a Sharpie – what was I thinking?). In its place is one I call “He Rescued Me Because He Delighted in Me,” a verse from Psalm 18 that usually makes me cry. To replace the Awful Rowing chapter I am thinking about one, still untitled, based on the way that plants turn toward the sun naturally and without extra effort. I know that’s how God calls me, but I still have the Awful Rowing idea in me.
Someone once said that you don’t write poetry, you rewrite it. I think that’s probably true about rules of life as well. We re-write them. The paper is not blank. It’s full of the rules we’ve been carrying around without knowing we were dong so. Before I can write new Rules, I have to erase the old rules, and before I can erase them, I have to face that they are there. And, of course, I do not do any of that work alone – I turn to it, well, the way a plant turns toward the sun, guided in my labor by His light and warmed by His Grace.
Question: The Rule is frank about a range of feelings in relation to the challenges of illness and death, including the recognition that one of the hardest challenges of the vowed life comes when a Brother needs full time nursing care. Do this represent a kind of memento mori (remember your mortality) for the Brothers?
Br. Eldridge Pendleton: In one sense, yes, it does. We all know we’re going to die, but not too many of us live as if we actually believe it. For me, it’s one thing to talk about the things we do in the chapters on the challenges of sickness (46, 47), but, like so much about the spiritual life, it’s another thing to live it. In our discussions, when we made mention of the possibility of a Brother needing to live apart from the Community, I thought, “This is good—but I hope that’s never me!” And yet, here I am. Personally, it was hard, coming to a place of freedom, to move into assisted living and nursing care. And yet, if I had it to do all over again, I would have come a year earlier than I did. I miss daily contact with the Community and the worship, of course, but this move has been such a grace for me, and these chapters in the Rule helped me to pray my way through what was a very difficult transition.
Question: A striking feature of the Rule is the way in which it includes an implicit “theology of aging,” with references throughout the text to the various stages of human life: young adulthood, the onset of middle age, and the particular challenges of old age. How did this theme find its way into the conversation—or did it?
Br. Jonathan Maury: Oh, it did and it was intentional! It was a way of fully appropriating the grace of the Incarnation. And it also reflected the demographics of the Community at the time, with men in every decade from their 20s through 80s. We knew we had to think harder about what it meant to be followers of a man who died when he was still, what we would today describe as, a “young adult.” Jesus was never a middle aged man, let alone an old man. I think that’s one of the reasons why the witness of the Beloved Disciple (2, 47) emerged as such an important feature of our shared experience of the life.
Br. Mark Brown: I think that we will need to think much more deeply about technology, which gets one explicit mention in the chapter on silence (27), and an oblique reference in the chapter on the cell (26), where there’s a very quaint reference to the use of the radio. When the Rule was written, we could not have imagined the wave, the tidal wave, the tsunami that was soon to beset us! We need to think theologically through what it means to be critically engaged with contemporary culture, while still maintaining some sense of enclosure. That’s one of our growing edges.
Br. James Koester: I think there are two places, particularly. Living here at Emery House, I am aware that the care of the earth and creation is there in the Rule in a number of different places, but it’s not a major thrust or even a real subtext, by any means. We need a whole chapter on that, I think. I would say, too, that our political voice is oddly quiet, almost missing, and part of what it means to stand in the prophetic tradition is being overtly political, whatever that means.
Question: It’s curious how often the chapter on Employees (35) comes up in these discussions. That suggests that a lot of energy has coalesced there. Why is that?
Br. Curtis Almquist: I think it indicates a recognition that we needed to say something, that we wanted to do the right thing. And we did our best. But I do not think it is our place to name in the Rule the role in the Body of Christ that our employees may or may not claim for themselves. That’s their prerogative, not ours. We intended good, but I think we were unintentionally presumptuous, and if the next version of the Rule includes a chapter on employees (and volunteers and advisers and all the other people who enable our life and ministry), I think we will need to speak with much more modesty and restraint. And finally, I think, we were naïve about our role as an employer, which is a legal, contractual relationship and not pastoral relationship.