The English word “despair” comes from the Latin desperare from de- “without” + sperare “to hope.” Without hope, life can easily be too much, and despair comes knocking at the door. Hope is not optimism. Optimism is a mere gloss on the surface. The traditional symbol for hope is an anchor. An anchor will hold you fast and keep you from drifting, and yet, pulled up and stowed, an anchor also travels with you as you sail ahead in life. Hope is a “steadfast anchor of the soul,” we read in the Letter to the Hebrews 6:19. Hope is something that rests deeper in the water than what happens on the stormy surface of life. For Saint Paul, all that we do and every step we take is underlined by hope. We live by hope, he reminds us. Most everything else in life is fleeting, and yet “faith, hope, and love abide.”1 Cor. 13:13

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Fr. Spence Burton next to Ralph Adams Cram, with three unidentified contractors, at the construction site of the Monastery.

Fr. Spence Burton next to Ralph Adams Cram, with three unidentified contractors, at the construction site of the Monastery.

In October 1929, the stock market crashed, sending the nation into the worst economic depression in history, the Great Depression. During this time, Spence Burton, the superior of SSJE, was working with the celebrated architect Ralph Adams Cram on plans for the new Monastery on Memorial Drive. The project, when finished, would not only enable the Society’s work in the spiritual formation of students, lay people, seminarians, and clergy, but would also be a living monument to the Society’s hope for the future

The American Congregation of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist gained autonomy from the English branch of the order in 1914. When Spence Burton was elected the second superior of the American branch in 1924, he had high aspirations for its mission; aspirations that required a suitable mother house for the Society’s growing numbers and ministry. The project began to be realized when initial financial gifts from Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Burton family allowed land to be bought and the first building to be built. This building, known as Saint Francis House, was completed in 1926. A second unit, with more rooms and a temporary chapel in the basement, was added to it in 1928. It was used for ten years to house the members of the Society, and is now the Guesthouse of the Monastery. But much was left to be built, including the chapel and new living quarters for the Brothers, as well as a refectory, library, and common rooms.

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“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
– Jesus

“Simplify, simplify, simplify.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden.

Rules for a simpler lifestyle cannot be universal rules. We are responsible for their imagination and situation. Nor is a simpler lifestyle a panacea for what ails. But, a simpler lifestyle can be an act of faith as a matter of personal integrity and commitment to a more just distribution of the world’s scarce resources. It can be a resolution against a mindset that calls for overconsumption.

Jesus called his disciples to become simpler like a child. Withdrawal from the often neurotic pressure of our materialistic society can be a response to that call. It can be an act of solidarity with the vast majority of humanity which lacks the range for choices we enjoy.

A simpler lifestyle can be a way to share with those who have less and a way of returning to them what is usurped by unjust social and economic structures. Assuming a stance of under-consumption can be provocative invitation to others into a conversation about affluence, poverty and social justice.

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