I had no formal religious upbringing before the age of nine, when my family moved from a little suburb in southern New Jersey to a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. It was a huge cultural shift – and culture shock – for all of us, from minor things (like learning I had an accent) to one big thing: we began to go to church for the first time. I had grown up on a rich diet of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Greek and Roman mythology – great story traditions that informed my play as a child. When I encountered the Bible and the story of Jesus for the first time, I took to it like a fish to water, in part I think because of the groundwork that had already been laid in my heart and psyche by those stories. The difference, of course, was that this particular hero was God, who desired a relationship of love with me, personally, and that there was a whole community of people living out this great Story, capital S. Learning that was hugely horizon opening and ground shaking for me. I was baptized when I was ten.
In his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius proposes a prayer exercise to help us consider “the call of Christ.” He asks us to imagine a charismatic leader, chosen by God and revered by all, who calls people to join a movement to end poverty and disease, and to do away with ignorance, oppression, and slavery – in short, to address the evils which beset humankind. The invitation comes with a warning: whoever chooses to follow must imitate this leader, by laboring in the day and watching by night, so that afterwards they may share in the victory just as they have shared in the work. Ignatius imagines that, in spite of the sacrifices, most people would want to follow a good and kind leader with so noble a purpose.
Cowley Magazine - Fall 2020
We invite you to explore the Fall 2020 issue of Cowley Magazine, which takes up the topic of Answering God's Call. We hope that, in these pages, you will discover an underlying wisdom which you can adopt as you make your own prudent and wise decisions in the uncertain, challenging days and months ahead.
Br. James Koester & Br. Jim Woodrum trace the essential outlines of the monastic life and suggest how these principles can help the rest of us – beyond the Monastery – to live lives of love, purpose, and meaning.
When we feel paralyzed, when we feel impotent, when we feel stuck, what is God’s call to us?
Meaning-making happens in the context of life as it is – not as it was, or could be, or as we may think it should be, but in life as it is.
We need God and other people to reveal to us the invitation or opportunity embedded in each of today’s stark challenges.
I had a really wonderful day with God in this community yesterday; let’s do it again today.
“Truth shall spring up from the earth,
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”
“Normal will never return. I hope not.” An African-American friend said this to me recently. She was speaking about the experience of injustice and suffering that has been so poignantly exposed during the coronavirus pandemic: the strains and inequities in healthcare, the economic disparity, the hijacking of hope and trust, the infectious cynicism, the splay of racism. We have right now both the need and the opportunity to make meaningful changes in how we live and share life together. How to begin?
Our present circumstances have left me feeling very stuck. I feel some paralysis and malaise over the experience of not really moving forward, not really doing anything productive, constantly planning to do things, waiting for my working life to begin anew. Of course, my life contains work right now, but it’s work that feels like it’s in a bit of a holding pattern, work designed to keep things afloat until things can really start happening again. And I’m finding it difficult to pray in this time, because I just feel stuck.
I suspect many of us have similar feelings. The United States right now is a country ravaged by two sicknesses: a global pandemic and the violence of racism. Both are huge and intractable problems. Both simultaneously demand a response and seem to swallow up anything most ordinary people are capable of doing, to render our best intentions and actions impotent in the face of these deadly plagues. Actions, like protesting, that might help us to face one problem might play right into the hands of the other in a horrible lose-lose situation. We are in a position of having to trust the judgment and skill of our leaders, many of whom have proven themselves to be unworthy of that trust. So the question arises: when we feel paralyzed, when we feel impotent, when we feel stuck, what is God’s call to us?
Renewing Our Foundations: Cowley Magazine - Summer 2020
We invite you to explore the Summer 2020 issue of Cowley Magazine, which takes up the topic of Renewing Our Foundations. We Brothers want to share a few of the realizations – lessons and challenges – that have come out of this past year of reflection together. We hope that some of what we’ve gleaned from this year will prove helpful to you as you tackle continuity and change within your own communities, large and small.
The ancient tradition of the Church reminds us that when it is impossible to be present at a celebration of the Eucharist, and to receive Holy Communion, the desire to be united to Christ in the Sacrament is enough for God to grant all the spiritual benefits of Communion. What follows is a way for individuals, or small groups to open themselves up to the graces of Holy Communion and the blessing of God.
Our brotherhood – as a particular manifestation of the body of Christ – is not static but continuously adapting, renewing, and affirming the charism given our predecessors.
We need to know our histories; to drink deeply enough that we are refreshed, but not so deeply as to become bloated and unable to move.
What risks do we need to take to be faithful to God’s call in our own time?
Far from being the traditional imitators of bygone days, we are to be “men of the present moment and its life.” What does the present moment invite?
Will we as a society discover a new strength and collective vision for the future?
Listening is one of the most important gifts we can give to ourselves and to others.
Even though we have taken a vow of celibacy, we recognize our own need for intimacy.
A prophetic voice can be seen as both calling from the wilderness or the margins, and calling us to the margins.
Each generation must interpret the tradition so that it speaks a living Word.
In this process of discussion, I am learning how to love without agreement.
The unique threads of our individual lives begin to weave a compelling tapestry as we find our varied strands used by God to fashion a work of art and life larger than our individual lives could show forth.
I listened, I watched, I tried to help out when I could, but above all else I learned.
It’s worthwhile to step back from time to time and revisit those things that have shaped our lives in Christ.
Renewing Our Foundations: Cowley Magazine – Summer 2020 We invite you to explore the Summer 2020 issue of Cowley Magazine, which takes up the topic of Renewing Our Foundations. We Brothers want to share a few of the realizations – lessons and challenges – that have come out of this past year of reflection together.…
“It’s a long courtship.” As I was preparing to come to the Monastery, that’s how I would usually describe the long path that leads a man to making life vows in SSJE. It often got a laugh but it also seemed to resonate a lot with folks who could make connections to their own lives of relationship and discernment. It continues to be a useful metaphor for me as I’ve continued to test this vocation. When I learned that the community was going to be involved in the “Renewing Our Foundations” discussions, I was excited that I would have a chance to take part in the concentrated work of looking back, and looking forward to set off confidently aware of priorities and passions.
Everyone knows what it is like being the new guy. Few people know what it is like being the new guy in a Monastery. Even fewer people know what it is like being the new guy in a Monastery that is “Renewing Our Foundations.” Let me tell you what it is like.
If you have ever dined with us Brothers in our refectory, you will have seen our water pitchers. We place two full water pitchers on each table at every meal. Obviously these water pitchers do not just fill themselves up. A Brother has do that, and one of my first days as a Postulant here at SSJE, I was that Brother.
I was nervous. How much water do I put in? How much ice? Which faucet do I use? Do I turn the faucet on full blast or would that be too loud? The questions swirled through my head as the water filled up the pitcher in my hand. I thought I had nailed it. The water looked good in that pitcher, and I was proud of myself.
“Try to fill it a little higher, that way we don’t run out of water during the meal.” I did not even hear the Brother come up behind me. He took the water pitcher from me and showed me with his finger where a good spot to fill it to was. He then turned the faucet back on and filled up the pitcher a little more, smiled and walked away.
I grabbed another empty pitcher. Round two. Time for redemption. I eyeballed the spot where my Brother had pointed. I carefully watched the water fill up and gently turned off the faucet. I smiled. I got it right. I was sure.
“Try not to fill it so high, it might spill when a guest is pouring it.” A different Brother was over my shoulder this time. He poured out a little water from the pitcher and walked away. Welcome to community living.
A few weeks later I was told we would be pausing our guest ministry at Emery House and all the Brothers would be living in Cambridge. My first thought was. “Oh good, more Brothers here, less work for me.” My next thought was “how on earth do you renew foundations?”
Renewing foundations, for me, ended up being a lot like filling those water pitchers. I listened, I watched, I tried to help out when I could, but above all else I learned. Most importantly, I learned the value of endurance. The via media of our way of life is both fruitful and agonizing; it requires endurance to abide in Christ in community. Mistakes are going to be made, miscommunication is going to happen, and opinions will always differ, but we always manage to get the water to the table and share a nice meal.
One of the things that has struck me continually since coming to the Monastery is the way in which narrative is so essential to our lives together. We all tell stories about ourselves to help us find meaning and significance, to find out who we are. The rich matrix of narrative allows us to find the multi-dimensional tapestry that unfolds within the confines of time and place, of necessity and contingency. Although our poverty means we are always limited in our knowledge and understanding, stories (if we let them do their work and tell them honestly) have a way of lifting our gaze out of and above the daily ooze of chronological time. In a sense, stories give us brief tastes of God’s time, Kairos time. This is especially true when we begin to allow the threads of a story larger than our own to weave their way into a tapestry we thought we had begun on our own.