Spotlight on the Community Life
Reflection, Not Reaction | Monastic Immersion
So much of contemporary life is spent in reaction mode. A constant barrage of news cycles, notifications, likes, and advertisements interrupts us, asking us to react quickly (and perhaps thoughtlessly) to the latest thing. We move along to an ever-increasing drum beat, and so many of us feel beaten down by the relentless pace of contemporary life. Especially for young people – pushed along from school to university toward a career – there can be little room left for asking big questions, developing a sense of themselves, or listening to discover a larger purpose.
This is why SSJE has developed our Monastic Immersion program, inviting women and men between the ages of 21-30 to experience the transformative power of intentional living in community. Over nine months, we invite young people to experience something utterly different than our current culture of reaction: a culture of reflection. Imagine nine months paced by the ringing of a chapel bell. Instead of the static and noise of the culture, we share a day infused with silence. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Such inner transformation is a central aim of the monastic life. As we attend to our conversion in Christ and grow in love for God and one another, we trust that this monastic way is shaping us into deep reservoirs, to be used by the Spirit for the sake of the world’s healing, wholeness, and reconciliation.
We Brothers are stewards of this ancient tradition, which we hope to pass on to the Interns, sharing with them practices and skills that have enduring value: Worship. Silence. Stillness. Reflection. Prayer. Discernment. Community. Listening. Hospitality. The Interns, in turn, help us to stay engaged with the contemporary world, its needs, and its hungers. We believe that these nine months will reshape how the Interns experience our world. We pray that they will be empowered to transform it.
Why Brothers Love the Immersion Program
“Learning is mutual in our daily life classroom of worship and hospitality. They’ve nurtured my own conversion. I delight in watching them discover and change.” – Br. Luke Ditewig, SSJE
“It’s like learning a dance step with a new partner. Nervous and a little clumsy at first, and then we soar.” – Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE
“It has become impossible for me to imagine our community’s life without Monastic Immersion Interns. They are vital to our connection with the wider church and the cultural matrix.” – Br. Jonathan Maury, SSJE
Why the Interns Came | Meet the 2018-19 Interns
“I feel drawn to SSJE for the opportunity to pause from work and reflect on my vocation. It’s been a few years and I still feel uncertain about my goals and hopes for my future. I’d also like to spend more time considering how my vocation and my Christian spirituality can be more closely aligned.” – Betsy Noecker
“I’m drawn to SSJE because I’m searching for some deep discernment in a fully supportive community. I am looking to find the intersection of Food and Faith, and I’ve been interested in monastic traditions and want to learn more. I first discovered SSJE when I was searching the internet for a recording of the great O Antiphons during Advent a couple years ago. I just fell in love with how the Brothers combine tradition, education, hospitality, and sacred music.” – Jimmy Pickett
“I was originally drawn to this monastic internship because I wanted to learn more about prayer. I have trouble keeping a sustainable routine, and I thought that nine months in a relatively distraction-free setting would help me set a solid foundation. I am interested in having more two-sided conversations with the Lord (rather than long-winded monologues at Him). Basically, I am hoping to be still, and listen.” – Lina Palmer
Inquirers, Millennials, and Angels
A conversation with Br. Jim Woodrum about SSJE's new vocations website, catchthelife.org
We’re talking about SSJE’s new vocations website, called “Catch the Life.” What is “Catch the Life” and why did SSJE decide to launch this new site?
The phrase “Catch the Life” comes from our founder Richard Meux Benson, who wrote: “If we only let people see that we are living upon a truth, and loving it, they will soon catch the life.” That line has come to mean a lot to our community, because it captures how and why we love to share our life with others. Like all evangelists, we don’t want to keep the truth we’ve discovered to ourselves; we want to pass it on to guests and retreatants, friends and visitors – and that’s why we are a community who actively welcomes others to share our life. Our charism is to be the Society of Saint John the Evangelist: spreading good news. In the last few years, the phrase “catch the life” has come especially to symbolize and express our desire to share with other men the deeply satisfying and counter-cultural possibility of living the religious life today.
Many of us Brothers can point to the exact moment when we first learned that monastic life exists in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition and is a viable and accessible vocation. If you’re anything like me, that awareness hits you as a joyful revelation. Suddenly you realize that there is an answer to this yearning you’ve felt and that perhaps has evaded you until now– a desire for another way to live, for a different way to express your vocation as a Christian man.
Discussing this together as a community, we began to realize that we wanted to start being more open in talking about this life of ours – about how we love it and why we love it. The religious life is actually a very bold, adventurous life. It’s a risky life. It’s fulfilling and abundant in every way. As we began talking about this life of ours and our identity, we also began talking more broadly about masculinity and about what it means to be Christian men in the church today. We realized that we wanted more men to know that this life is out there, that it’s an option.
Catch the Life is our campaign to spread the word about the monastic life: this bold, risky, fulfilling path. To help get the word out, we’ve built a website, catchthelife.org, which is full of images, video, audio, and text we’ve drawn together to express how we are “living upon a truth, and loving it,” and that we want to help others “catch the life.”
How has the response been to “Catch the Life” so far?
It’s been really inspiring! Before Catch the Life was launched, we had three men who were actively exploring our life – “inquirers” we call them – two of whom had been at that stage with us for a long time. Nobody was biting. (And we were not alone in this. Religious life seems to be declining, not only among Anglican religious communities, but across the wider Church.)
Yet after launching Catch the Life, all of a sudden we had a steady stream of inquirers knocking on our door, reaching out to us and wanting to chat, asking to look a bit further into the life. In less than a year, I’d say a good twenty or more solid candidates have been in touch with me. We’ve gone from having three inquirers to having a dozen men actively inquiring into our life.
I now spend three, maybe four nights each week having conversations with interested men, talking with them about the religious life and our community, answering their questions. Listening to these men – hearing about their desires and needs, what excites them and what gifts they have – has been an incredible process. I feel like, along the way, I’ve been gifted with the opportunity to forge relationships with men who are seeking something that resonates with them and to see the multidimensional aspects of so many men who bear God’s image, each in their own way.
What are the desires and needs you’re hearing? What is drawing men to consider the monastic life today?
Society tries to sell us this one model for a wonderful life: you have to go to school, you have to get a degree, you have to get a job and make this much money, you have to get married and have kids, you have to buy this kind of house and live in this neighborhood and have this kind of car, and accumulate this much stuff, so that eventually people will say, “Oh you must be very successful and happy.” But that’s a myth.
Younger men are seeing this. I hear them saying, “I don’t subscribe to this worldview – of dominance, of power, of toxic masculinity.” They’re sitting there going, “You know, I don’t want to give my life to something like that. But I do want to give my life intentionally and prayerfully. I do want adventure, abundance, and to live boldly. I do want to give myself to something bigger.” So many people assume that millennials are afraid of commitment. From these recent conversations, I’d say that’s not true. They aren’t afraid of living bold lives, or of giving themselves to something bigger. What they’re really afraid of is conforming to an inauthentic life that serves no one but themselves.
There are millions of ways that you can be happy and live an abundant life; the trick is finding one that is actually tailored to you and your gifts. You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. These men are seeing this – especially younger men – and they’re knocking on our door, to see if maybe this life would be a good fit for them, their talents, and the kind of life they want to lead.
How do you help men through the next step in the discernment process?
The first thing I do is encourage them to really explore this life, without any expectations or pressure. There’s another line from Richard Meux Benson that resonates for me, which I often share with them: “We cannot bound into the depths of God at one spring; if we could, we should be shattered, not filled. God draws us on.” Whatever God calls us to next is not the resting place, it’s only a step on our pilgrimage. That’s true for us monks, as much as for the men inquiring into our life. God is always calling us onward, and therefore we keep discerning the next thing. For us monks, that next thing will happen within the context of this community! But even though we remain in this place, we can never think we’re done growing and changing.
I encourage inquirers to soak up everything that this experience of discovery can teach them about themselves – whether or not they end up deciding to look further into having a monastic vocation. And I ask them to be okay with dwelling in not knowing for a time. I had a priest tell me once, “If you know where you’re going, God is probably not in it. If you have no idea where you are, or what’s going on, God is all over that! That is the fertile soil of an adventure with God.”
I think some men carry this baggage about being afraid to inquire, or to test whether they might have a monastic vocation, because they hate the idea of having been “wrong” or having “failed,” if it turns out not to be the life for them. But that’s not how we think about it at all. There’s no such thing as a “failed” vocation that has been well-tested. The experience of engaging vocational discernment – looking at this life, asking questions, learning about the monastic life of intention, prayer, and ministry: this will give you food for the next stage of your journey, wherever God is leading you.
How can friends of the community support and take part in Catch the Life?
Be an evangelist – better yet, be an angel! We get the word angel from the world euangelion, meaning “bearer of good news.” Share your knowledge of this community with those who are looking and seeking, who are perhaps unable to articulate the desire they’re experiencing.
There are men out there who are looking for something that the world can’t give them. I know because I was that square peg trying to get into the round hole; I know how it feels. And I know there are other men out there, who are wandering, who are adrift, and who are searching for happiness, but always coming up a little bit short. We need people who know us to be evangelists, to let people know, “Hey, there’s more than one way to live. There are more adventures out there than you could possibly shake a stick at. Here’s one of them; why don’t you think about this?” Keep your eyes open for men who might fit into this life.
We need angels. We need people who can say, “You know, I know this place, and this group of men, who are looking for someone like you, and you just might fit. Visit this website, and see what you think.”
Br. Jim Woodrum
Like a Beaten Bell
Praying in Place Thick and Thin
Br. Keith Nelson, SSJE
My best friend and I went camping in Utah a few months before I came to the Monastery as a Postulant in 2014. The trip was a pilgrimage into a landscape wonderfully strange to us as east coast natives. I use the word “pilgrimage” here in a less-than-conventional sense. Our holy destination was The Desert – both literal and physical, but also inward and spiritual. In the desert, we hoped to taste something of God’s vast, untamed power, just as Jesus did, and just as generations of saints have done from the ancient Israelites to the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt. Perhaps because our eyes and ears were opened by this intention, God came to meet us everywhere we turned. Every horizon held our gaze and enlarged it, beckoning us beyond that vanishing point where endless blue sky and rippling red stone merged. As we hiked about this desert paradise, we wept or fell silent or laughed in wonder, as unself-consciously as the shooting stars or lightning that flashed in the night sky or the rainbows that shimmered in the rare desert rain. At so many moments, utterly surprised by the Creator, we could have echoed the sentiment of author Annie Dillard, writing from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains: “I see something, some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell.”
In 2017 I undertook a quite different journey, but one with some remarkable parallels. Our community embarked on a pilgrimage – in the conventional sense – to England and Scotland, to see some of the sites that have shaped the course of Anglican history and the story of our own community. We prayed our way to and from Canterbury and Oxford, Durham, Lindisfarne, and Iona, sites famed for their holiness throughout the Western Christian world. I felt drawn deeper into God’s heart through my encounters with all of these places, but the Spirit surprised me in a much humbler place: as we ascended, one behind the other, the winding staircase of our Society’s old Mission House in Oxford, to arrive at a final landing and duck through a modest door into the “Founder’s Chapel.” This is an attic room, converted into a small chapel, where the very first Brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist worshipped, day by day. It is entirely unremarkable in its outward personality. If I hadn’t known anything about its history, I would have found it quaint, but not much more. But because of who we are – men whose spiritual forbears laid hold of a strange and special calling here, who sang and knelt and preached and probably laughed and cried here – it was imbued with a holiness that made us weep and linger in love and gratitude for what God has done for us. With my eyes closed, I could almost see and hear those first courageous men whose hearts were set on fire and whose lives were offered to the glory of God as they listened to a man named Richard Meux Benson proclaim what God had done for him, and what God would do for them, if they only let him.
Now, I mention these two experiences because each place – the soul-enlarging terrain of Utah’s high desert and that soul-enfolding room at the top of the Mission House stairs – was for me a thin place. This term, originating in Celtic Christian traditions, designates a physical place where the line between Heaven and Earth is thought to be “thin”: the wall is more porous, the veil more diaphanous. It’s a term that has been in the vocabulary of contemporary spirituality for a number of years, and there is a simultaneously delightful and maddening lack of agreement about just what it means, depending on whom you ask. Questions, my own included, abound. Why should this “line” or “veil” be thinner in some places and thicker in others? After all, isn’t God present everywhere and in everything, as the One “in whom we live and move and have our being”?
Words are such fragile, brittle tools to communicate our deepest, truest, most powerful encounters with God. When the curtain is pulled back and we glimpse a flicker or flash of a reality that is both wholly other and nearer than our next breath…well, a stammer or a song or a long lull of silence will do. Word’s won’t, except as shorthand (and oh, how I love words!). The term “thin place” is a shorthand that many find helpful for pointing to a place where encounters with God are prone to happen. Such places disarm us, draw forth a deeper quality of perception from us, strip us of our expectations, and simplify or still our galloping thoughts. Deep forest or rocky ocean coastline, darkened churches flickering with candles or wayside shrines clustered with cairns are among the world’s frequently acknowledged thin places.
Alternatively, some places may leave us feeling, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “bleared with trade, seared, smeared with toil.” We feel heavier of heart; we feel less connected to God and our fellow creatures; the whispered revelations of truth or beauty are barely audible. Many people feel a heightened sense of this “thickness” in places where there is little green space, silence, or natural light (as in many urban centers) or in places where there is unceasing visual and auditory competition for our attention (as in stores, airports, or anywhere a wifi signal can be found).
And yet, we are here. And so is God. Wherever here happens to be, the possibility of reconnection with God is as close as our next breath. My experiences of thinness in Utah and Britain did unfold because I undertook those journeys with the seeking heart and open eyes of a pilgrim. But while numerous thin places can be found at the beginning, middle, and end of pilgrimage routes, going on pilgrimage to a far-flung place is not necessary for an encounter with God in the million-and-one thin places of the world. One could make an argument that the whole world – created, redeemed, sustained, and groaning for the consummation of God’s mysterious purposes – is a single thin place bequeathed to God’s children. But until we can wrap our heads and hearts around that wondrous truth, the specific, small, and particular places our wandering souls encounter as “thin” must be for us “the House of God, the gate of Heaven.” In this way, they are not unlike sacraments. Without participation in those “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace,” the awesome reality we know intimately as God in Christ would be far too large to see, taste, touch, or love in a personal way.
Our own garden patch or dining-room table or the corner where our easel stands hold the redolent grace of awakened possibility that dwells in thin places. I have come to believe that the more consciously we cultivate relationship with these particular “thin places,” however humble and ordinary, the more well-equipped our praying perception becomes at noticing God’s presence in the unlikely and challenging places. The “thickness” we anticipate at the airport security checkpoint, under the humming fluorescent lighting of the hospital hallway, in the drab office cubicle, or in the lowly but well-swept tent of a refugee camp is slowly eroded to its thinness in God’s sight. Through our trust in Jesus, the thickness of the cross becomes the thin place of resurrection – while our feet are still planted on Calvary.
The ancient Celts seem to have revered many, many thin places – and Christians in Celtic lands followed suit – but this is probably because they had a predisposition to look for them. And, by the movement of God’s Holy Spirit stirring in our depths, so too do we.
Br. Keith Nelson
Journey to the Center of the World
SSJE's Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
Br. David Vryhof, SSJE
In late May 2018, I journeyed with forty pilgrims – members of the Fellowship of Saint John and Friends of SSJE – and Brothers Jonathan Maury and Nicholas Bartoli on a ten-day pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine, the sacred land where Jesus was born, where he ministered, and where he was crucified and resurrected.
Our journey brought us to Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Savior, and to Nazareth, the tiny village where he grew up. It led us into the Judean wilderness, where we celebrated the Eucharist in dawn’s early light. It took us to the Mount of the Beatitudes, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, and Tabgha, the place where Jesus fed the multitudes. It led us through the four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem, to the Western Wall of the Temple, the Temple Mount, the Upper Room, and the Church of the Resurrection. We renewed our baptismal vows at the Jordan River and floated in the Dead Sea. We feasted on Middle-Eastern cuisine and enjoyed the generous hospitality of Palestinian Christians. We laughed and cried together. We had so much to talk about, but we also needed time alone and in silence to ponder these wonders in our own hearts.
We gathered first, as you would expect, in the Old City of Jerusalem. At the Church of the Resurrection – regarded as the most holy site in all of Christianity – a marble compass marks “the center of the world.” The reference is from Psalm 48:1, where Jerusalem is described as “the city of our God…beautiful and lofty, the joy of all the earth…the hill of Zion, the very center of the world…” Jerusalem is a focal point not just for Christianity, but also for Islam and Judaism. A short distance from this compass is the Western Wall of the Temple, the holiest site for Jews. Atop this wall is the Temple Mount, home of the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended into the heavens on his Night Journey. A tremendous amount of sacred and strife-filled history is encompassed within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Pilgrims experience this mix of energy. Jerusalem, and what surrounds it, is as fascinating and as complicated now as it was in Jesus’ own day.
The psalms speak repeatedly of “going up to Jerusalem,” this “city set on a hill.” For many centuries before Jesus’ birth and since, Jerusalem and the Holy Land have been a magnet for pilgrims. Joseph and Mary, with Jesus, would have observed the great Jewish holidays, three of which were pilgrimage festivals, ideally spent in Jerusalem. Passover, in the spring, recalled the exodus from Egypt. Fifty days later, the “Feast of Weeks” was an agricultural festival thanking God for the fruitfulness of the land. In the autumn, the “Feast of Booths” was an eight-day harvest celebration marked by music, feasting, and dancing; which recalled the forty years the people of Israel spent in the wilderness. During this festival everybody was to live in temporary dwellings or “booths.”
Throughout our pilgrimage, we were companioned by a local guide, Canon Iyad Qumri, our cherished, long-time friend. Iyad is a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, an Anglican and a licensed Israeli guide. His understanding of the history and geography of the region, of the Bible, and of the intersection of cultures, ancient and new, is brilliant. We Brothers complemented Iyad by leading worship and offering meditations along the way to help our companion-pilgrims make meaning of the many layers of revelation.
Every first-time pilgrim to the Holy Land arrives with at least some sense of what he or she will experience. A pilgrim may have their mind’s eye informed by museum artwork and stained-glass depictions of scenes in the life of Jesus. These scenes may or may not prove to be accurate depictions of the places and people we discover on pilgrimage. Usually not. We soon discover that the people of the Holy Land bear little resemblance to the Anglicized figures depicted in our Sunday School papers. We knew that, intellectually, before we arrived; but it’s a completely different experience to be immersed in a Middle-Eastern culture which, in so many ways, parallels the political, social, and religious landscape of Jesus’ own day. Pilgrims also bring expectations and biases, conscious or otherwise.
The SSJE Brothers serve as chaplains to the pilgrims, helping them to integrate and make meaning of their personal histories, of the biblical accounts, of the geography and culture, and of the present situation in Israel/Palestine. Sometimes, when visiting a particular place, we would say, “This is where the Church has remembered such-and-such happening,” e.g., a particular scene remembered in the Gospels. Whether or not the scholars are in agreement that this particular place is definitely The Place, nevertheless the site has been made holy, down through the centuries, by the countless number of pilgrims who have come there to pray and to worship. In SSJE’s Rule of Life, we speak of helping people “to pray their lives,” and this takes on a multi-dimensional meaning in the Holy Land.
A pilgrimage typically includes three experiences: leaving something, gaining something, and struggling with something. Many pilgrims will want to leave a concern, or leave a need, or leave a sin or a sorrow in God’s hands while on pilgrimage. The desire is for relief of this burden which weighs down one’s life. Many pilgrims are also looking to gain something: healing, hope, freedom, a sense of belonging, an insight that comes from “the eyes of one’s heart” being enlightened. Pilgrimage also typically includes a bonum arduum, an “arduous good.” There’s at least one thing about a pilgrimage that will be difficult for each person. Pilgrims following Jesus’ way will somehow get in touch with “the cost of discipleship.” The cost may have to do with one’s own internal “baggage.” The cost may relate to one’s memories, or hopes, or health, or to one’s fellow travelers. Pilgrimages are fascinating and transformative; they are not altogether easy. Sometimes they’re messy or overwhelming. Nonetheless, most pilgrims will say or sense that making a pilgrimage is something they really needed to do in their lifetime.
Whether or not you have the experience of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land sometime in your lifetime, you may find it very significant to make pilgrimage a periodic practice in your life. You may be drawn to make a pilgrimage to some place or places that were significant to you, your family, or to others who are important to you. A pilgrimage invites you to recollect your life, or perhaps to make meaning of your life in and through a particular setting. A pilgrimage will inspire you to find freedom to be fully alive. To where are you intrigued to go on pilgrimage? God’s inspiration is behind your intrigue.
Br. David Vryhof
Letter from the FSJ: Amy Nizolek
Late last spring, forty pilgrims and three SSJE Brothers gathered in Jerusalem to begin a ten-day pilgrimage through the Holy Land. As a group, we were diverse: there were married couples and single individuals; monks, clergy, and laypersons; retirees and working professionals; and members of a variety of Christian traditions. Some had the calm demeanor of seasoned pilgrims. Others looked a bit more apprehensive. As we sat together for the first time in Saint George’s Guesthouse to begin the process of getting to know one another, we were each asked to answer a question: “What have you left behind, and what do you hope to find?”
What had we left behind? Pilgrims must travel lightly out of necessity, but that extends to more than just one’s suitcase. Every pilgrim sitting there that evening had left something meaningful thousands of miles away. Some had left family members, some had left demanding jobs, and some had left an intangible onus such as grief. From a distance, this feeling of lightness might sound like a relief, but the reality can be quite different. Those mundane burdens are often the ballasts that keep us stable. Our group of pilgrims was temporarily unanchored and sailing straight into uncharted spiritual territory.
The second part of the question (what do you hope to find?) was harder. We typically get to choose the weights that anchor our lives. We can choose our careers, our friends, and our partners in life and love. But when we become pilgrims, we are not given the luxury of choosing the gifts of the Spirit that will fill the gaps where our carefully-chosen burdens once were. Go on a pilgrimage to find peace, and you’re just as likely to find yourself aflame with passion. Go on a pilgrimage to find an answer, and you’ll leave with questions that had never even crossed your mind. That is, however, the beauty and mystery of a pilgrimage – you open yourself to God, you trust that God will plant the right seeds in your soul, and you wait in anticipation and wonder to see what grows. God will give your soul the ballast it needs; it just may not be the one you expected!
Of course, that is an easy enough statement for me to write as I sit in England three months after leaving the Holy Land, but it was much harder to keep in mind while I was actually on the pilgrimage. Although I had few well-defined expectations of what gifts I would find, I did have a strong notion of where I would find them. Surely they would happen at the holiest of the holy sites! Surely my unbidden emotional responses to each place and church would be in proportion to its particular Biblical importance! But alas, that is not how such things work.
I don’t know why some places moved me more than others that I had deemed “more worthy.” I have no idea why I wept when I stood beneath the sealed Golden Gate, but not when I touched Golgotha, and I can’t answer why I wanted to walk straight out into the Judean desert at dawn in search of God, but found it difficult to pray at the Church of the Annunciation. At the time it was frustrating; I wanted the whole experience, and if I was not moved, stretched, and impassioned by every site, then I must have missed something. But if the pilgrimage taught me anything, it’s that you cannot anticipate when the Holy Spirit will enter your heart. Some of us cried while standing in the Jordan River; I personally was more distracted by my feet being wet. Nevertheless, when I looked around at my fellow pilgrims glowing with the love of God, I saw the Holy Spirit at work moving others, even if I myself remained still.
It seems to me that this is exactly as it should have been for me, as one small part of a large group of pilgrims. Although some of what I experienced was intensely private and always will be, much of what moved me was visible to my companions. We saw the Holy Land through our own eyes first, and then through the eyes of our fellow pilgrims. When my own spiritual well had run dry, and the Holy Spirit seemed momentarily to have forgotten about me and my expectations of holy sites, I learned to look for God’s work in the friends who surrounded me. Their joy became my own. If at any given moment I failed to find God’s grace and gifts within myself, I learned that I could find them in the hearts of my companions, my fellow pilgrims on the journey of a lifetime. I may not have understood that perfectly at the time, but as I continue to pray about the pilgrimage, God reveals more and more wonderful gifts. My time in the Holy Land may have come to an end, but the pilgrimage is far from over.
Amy Nizolek, Former SSJE Intern
Dear Members of the Fellowship of Saint John and other Friends,
This spring, as we once again read our way through the book of Exodus at Morning Prayer, I couldn’t help but reflect on how the story of God’s people in Exodus has been imprinted, not only in our hearts and minds, but also on the soles of our feet. Like the ancient people of Israel, we are a people on the move. We may not cover much distance in our lives, at least physically, but as God’s pilgrim people, we are always on the move, slowly but surely making our way through the wilderness of this life, to the land of promise in the next. This pilgrim journey of ours is marked not so much by miles traveled, but by hearts melted. As Ezekiel reminds us: A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
If this journey from stony hearts to hearts of flesh is the story of God’s people throughout time, then it is our community’s story, not simply as God’s people, the Church; nor just as individuals, as Christians; but as a monastic community as well. We Brothers often speak, as Father Benson did, of being men of the moment, but I would also say that we are men of movement. Like all of God’s people, we too are called to be pilgrims.
Last summer, we Brothers were able to embark together on an incredible pilgrimage to England, celebrating the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of our founding, by getting in touch with the deep roots of our tradition and visiting sites sacred to our community. We stood in the place of the Society’s founding, prayed in Father Benson’s parish church, and took a week’s retreat on Iona, where members of our Society once ministered. We laughed, we cried, and we were transformed by our experiences. As so many pilgrims do, we returned home with hearts aflame.
You can see some glimpses of our journey throughout this issue of Cowley, which takes up the theme of pilgrimage. In the Monastic Wisdom reflection, Br. Geoffrey explores the inner dimensions of spiritual pilgrimage. In his article, “Like a Beaten Bell,” Br. Keith reflects on experiences of thin places. You can also read about the recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, through reflections by a former SSJE intern, Amy Nizolek, and Br. David Vryhof. These stories of diverse experiences in diverse lands testify to how, in amazing ways, any pilgrimage takes us out of our everyday life only to return us to it more energized and ready to follow God’s call. Our community’s time overseas galvanized our passion for this life of ours, here in Cambridge and West Newbury. For more on that, check out Br. Jim’s interview about our new vocations website “Catch the Life” (p. 16-19). We hope that these stories of pilgrimage will strengthen and inspire you, wherever you find yourself along your path.
It’s easy to read Exodus as an account of something which happened long ago, to a people far away. It’s easy to think of Saints Columba and Aiden and Cuthbert, whom we encountered in Britain, as dusty relics of a bygone time. But these are living stories. Their power comes when we allow them to be a lens through which we can examine our life as God’s pilgrim people today. To read Exodus simply as history is, perhaps, interesting. To read it as a pilgrim journey of risk and renewal – in which God’s people discover for themselves the meaning of their life with God – invites us to discover for ourselves the story of our own pilgrim journey, as we journey ever deeper into life in union with God.
Thank you for being our companions on this journey.
Br. James Koester SSJE
for everyday living
Br. Geoffrey Tristram traces the practice of pilgrimage back to the origins of our faith and deep into the inner realms of our hearts.
A JOURNEY WITHIN
When I decided to stop in and visit the small village church in Lastingham, Yorkshire, I had no idea that the place was of any significance. I hadn’t set out on a pilgrimage. I hadn’t researched the site or prepared myself to have any particular kind of experience. I just happened to be passing by there with my brother-in-law. I went in and decided to go down into the crypt.
As I entered into the low, dim stone space, I actually fell on the ground because of the overwhelming sense of holiness. I nearly passed out. I had no idea what was happening or why. I thought, “What on earth? Why am I feeling this?”
After I came back up into the church and looked around, I discovered that this church was where Saint Chad and Saint Cedd, missionaries to the Angles, had established their monastery. And Saint Cedd is buried, still, down in the crypt. My experience there was utterly unexpected; I almost couldn’t believe it. Yet it was also undeniable. The sense of the holy was so close, it fell upon me like a huge weight.
“People come to kneel where prayer has been valid,” wrote T.S. Eliot.
Eliot not only kneeled, he fully collapsed – on the floor of our own Holy Spirit Chapel – during an early morning Eucharist in the 1930s. He was the only visitor in the Chapel with the Brothers. Suddenly, during the consecration of the elements, he experienced the presence of God so powerfully, so heavily, he collapsed under it.
I love these stories because they remind me that while churches can offer sanctuary, they also can be incredibly dangerous places of encounter. We should post warnings on the door: Enter at your own risk. If you don’t want to risk an encounter that might change everything, then you might want to stay away!
Take Paul Claudel, the French playwright. Not a believer, he went one day into the vast cathedral, Notre-Dame de Paris. Claudel stood, half hiding behind a pillar, watching the Mass. He later wrote that the pillars were like great trees in a forest, and, as he stood there, something extraordinary took place. He said it was as if the Holy Spirit was hiding in that forest, and it suddenly ambushed him. At once he believed and fell to his knees.
Notre-Dame de Paris, this Monastery Chapel in Cambridge, Saint Mary’s in Lastingham, Yorkshire: it’s not just aesthetics that gives such churches their power. These places are holy, which simply means that they have been consecrated to God. They are places where generations have come seeking God; where men and women have been ambushed by God and can never be the same again. They are places where thousands upon thousands of prayers have been offered; where solemn vows have been made: monastic vows, baptismal vows, marriage vows, ordination vows. It’s almost as if the very walls have become impregnated with prayer and saturated with God’s presence. The holiness of such places is not measurable, and yet it’s undeniable. We enter and, ready or not, God is already there, waiting for us.
We believe, of course, that God is everywhere. God can be found on a mountaintop, as well as in a valley; in the dark and in the light; in a holy place and in the gutter. The place where we encounter God is actually not material, for God of course is immaterial. Seen this way, there is no need to go anywhere at all to experience God.
And yet, as Christians, we also believe in the Incarnation. John’s Gospel tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” or, as another translation has it, “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (Jn 1:14). Within the more Catholic traditions of the Christian church, believers pray in front of the tabernacle – where the Sacrament is placed – out of a desire to be close to the sacramental presence of Christ, the Christ who became flesh and dwelt among us. We believe that Christ is physically there, in the Sacrament. Even though God is everywhere, we embodied creatures do experience God (like everything else) in our bodies and through our senses. Our sacramental practice within the Church is reflective of this; it invites us to experience God’s presence somatically, in our flesh, with our taste and with our touch. The God who became flesh comes to us again in the flesh every time we hold out our hands and “Take, eat” the Sacrament.
And so, too, there are physical places where we feel that God can be experienced in a uniquely powerful way. “Thin places” we call them, where the veil between Heaven and earth is thinned, somehow. Where – even if you aren’t expecting it, or are unprepared for it – you can become aware of an almost overwhelming sense of God’s presence, as I did at Lastingham.
These places of divine encounter are holy places with the power to transform us, just as the Sacraments do, by bringing us into contact with the living God. In these places of encounter, God’s presence is so palpable that it’s actually very easy to pray. We can be very vulnerable. We feel close to the Source of Life.
Such places of encounter become sites of pilgrimage.
While pilgrimage rose as a widespread devotional practice in the Middle Ages, humans have been practicing pilgrimage for as long as we have experienced and commemorated encounters with God.
Think of that wonderful story in Genesis 28, the story of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob falls asleep and dreams of a ladder ascending up to Heaven, with angels going up and down. When he awakens, he knows that he’s been visited by God. He says, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the Gate of Heaven.” He calls that place Bethel, “the house of God.”
What’s significant is that Jacob is sleeping on a rock as a pillow. When he wakes up and realizes that he’s been visited by God, he takes that rock, makes it into an altar, and pours oil on it. As word spreads, people begin to come to that place. That site becomes holy because that’s where God came down and touched a human. It’s a place where, to quote T.S. Eliot again, we “apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time.” The transcendent God has actually broken through into our time-bound world, and we can point to where it happened. There, right there. Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to call these “little anticipations of Heaven,” moments of transcendence. They can happen in sacred places, they can happen on pilgrimage, and they can happen in the daily journey of our everyday life.
As Christians, we are a pilgrim people.
Pilgrimage is woven into the very roots of our faith, beginning with Abraham, the first pilgrim. In Genesis 12, God calls Abram (whom God will later call Abraham) to leave his house and journey to a land unknown. “Leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house, and go on a journey to a foreign land.” So Abram becomes nomadic. He pitches a tent each night; the next morning, he takes up the tent pegs and moves on. I think that this “Abrahamic” spirit is fundamental to our Judeo-Christian tradition: we are pilgrim people, from the very start.
The thread picks up with the most formative experience of salvation in the Hebrew Scriptures: the story of the Exodus, which is essentially a forty-year pilgrimage. God’s people are enslaved in Egypt, brutalized by Pharaoh, and God raises up Moses to be their savior. And Moses leads them on an epic journey across the desert, to the Promised Land.
This thread continues throughout the Gospels, as Jesus calls disciples to follow him away from their homes and all that they have known, on a journey into the unknown:
“He saw Simon and Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mk 1:16-18)
“He saw James and John who were in their boat mending the nets. He called them and they left their father Zebedee and followed him.” (Mt 4:21-22)
“He called the rich young man and said, ‘Sell everything that you have and follow me.’” (Mt 19:21)
“He saw a tax collector called Levi and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up, left everything, and followed him.” (Lk 5:27-28)
Jesus’ uncompromising command to leave everything – and indeed the longing to leave everything to follow Jesus – inspired many of the first monastics: Saint Anthony and the Desert Fathers in the fourth century, who left all their property and wealth behind, to head out into the western deserts of Egypt.
And in the early Celtic Christian tradition, such men as Patrick and Columba embraced what was known as “white martyrdom” when they left their homes to travel to foreign lands, leaving everything behind, to follow Jesus. As a contemporary writer put it, “They sailed into the white sky of morning, into the unknown, never to return.”
While most of us are not called to such extreme acts of renunciation for the sake of following Jesus, yet those words in the Gospel are surely addressed to each one of us: “Leave everything and follow me, and you will receive eternal life.”
This command contains a deep truth for each of us: the first step in our pilgrimage will always be a movement away from, a renunciation of the familiar. Unless we let go of the familiar, the safe, the secure, unless we take the risk of becoming vulnerable, we cannot grow.
This is one of the main reasons why pilgrims set out for holy destinations: they are longing to take a journey of transformation. To do so, they literally leave behind the familiar and the known, and physically journey into a place and a future that only God can envision. The pilgrim’s physical journey can “jumpstart” the transformation, as it were, through the radical act of leaving behind the world that is known. It’s no accident that so much of the great literature of the world picks up on this very theme of the hero’s transformative journey; from the story of Abraham in Genesis, to the great epics, The Odyssey, The Iliad, even The Lord of the Rings. A pilgrimage of transformation requires first that we leave everything behind, and set out on a journey that will lead to new life.
Simply leaving home is not enough, of course.
Physical pilgrimage has value primarily for its ability to inspire inner change. In this, the physical journey of pilgrimage symbolizes (and often catalyzes) the spiritual journey that we are called to take within. In her wonderful treatment of medieval pilgrimage, Pilgrimage of the Heart, Sr. Benedicta Ward, SLG, catalogues four possible stages along the spectrum between physical and spiritual pilgrimage:
1. It was possible to stay and to stay, in other words to be completely lazy and attempt nothing, go nowhere, stay shut within the walls of self, to ignore pilgrimage altogether.
2. It was possible to stay and yet to go, by undertaking the pilgrimage of the heart while remaining in one place, which was the fundamental monastic way.
3. It was possible to go inwardly by longing and desire in the heart and to confirm this by outward pilgrimage with the feet, to be a true pilgrim.
4. It was possible to go on pilgrimage with feet, but not with heart, as a tourist, a runaway, or a drop-out from responsibility, a curious inquirer, in which case there had been no real movement; the traveler had taken the shell of self with him and whatever its name it was not in essence a pilgrimage at all.
Of this last kind of pilgrimage, the great biblical translator Saint Jerome observed, “It is better to live for Jerusalem than to journey to Jerusalem.” Better to stay home and be changed in heart, than to journey with your feet yet remain internally unmoved.
Whether or not each of us eventually chooses to embark on a physical pilgrimage at some point in our life, we are all of us called to set out, ever afresh, on the inner kind of pilgrimage, the pilgrimage of the heart. We are called, in the words of Jerome, to “live for Jerusalem,” as we follow Christ on a journey of growth and transformation.
“Come follow me. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (Jn 14:6). Christianity has never been a static body of doctrine, but rather is a dynamic way of life. The first term used in the New Testament to describe Christians is “followers of the Way,” because of Jesus’ compelling invitation to take to the road, to make all of life into a continuous pilgrimage. Monica Furlong, in her book Traveling In, wrote, “The religious person is the one who believes that life is about making some kind of journey. The non-religious person is the one who believes there is no journey to make.”
The journey – whether it be the journey of Abraham or Moses, Jesus’ disciples or medieval pilgrims – has never been simply about traveling across physical space toward a holy site. Every outward journey of pilgrimage always has as its true goal an inner journey of transformation.
The essence of pilgrimage, then, is the journey within. Therefore the essential pilgrimage to undertake is not the one of the feet, but the one of the heart. For this reason, I love the story that Sr. Benedicta recounts of the early Egyptian recluse, who fell under criticism for living a sedentary life. “Why are you sitting here and doing nothing?” one monk asked her. She replied, “I am not doing nothing; I am on a journey.”
We can embark on the most amazing journey without ever leaving our room. Every day Jesus calls us to embrace new life, and that means to let go, to leave behind what has become too comfortable, our habits, our compulsions. It means each morning awakening to a new day and saying to God, “Where do you want to lead me today on the journey of life? What are you asking me to leave behind? How are you asking me to change?”
“To live is to change,” wrote Cardinal Newman, “and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
Jesus’ continuous call to grow and change can make us feel insecure and, frankly, scared. I suppose, if we are honest, we’re not always very keen to take to the road. And yet that is what this resurrection Life is all about. “For here we have no abiding city, for we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14).
As pilgrims, we are not simply wanderers. This pilgrimage of ours is not just away from our old life, nor is it solely into the depths of our hearts. Our journey is actually toward something very specific. “We seek the city which is to come.” We are headed somewhere. We have a specific destination: our heavenly home. Our pilgrimage journey is toward God!
This is the fundamental difference between traveling through life as a pilgrim and as a tourist. To the tourist, every part of the journey has equal value, whereas the pilgrim definitely has a goal. To understand our life as a pilgrimage is to see this life as teleological: to know it actually has an end, and a goal, in Heaven. God is the end of our journey – both our destination and our goal.
One thing that can be very helpful as we press along on this journey, is periodically to stop and make a sort of “map” of the road we’ve traveled and the road ahead. Ultimately, we know that our destination is God; yet like any traveler pressing on along an unknown road, we may need to check in and reorient ourselves from time to time, to be sure that we haven’t taken off on the wrong path.
Honestly take stock of your journey so far: Where am I now, where have I been, and where do I feel I should be going? Ask yourself: Where do I feel God is drawing me now? What is the vision I have of the person God wants me to become? What are the things in my life right now which are stopping me from realizing that vision, or dulling my sight? Where am I being pulled off the path?
It doesn’t matter how far along the path you are. And if you have come off the way, that’s ok too; you simply need to get back on it. “To repent” in the Greek is metanoia, which means to “turn around.” If you find you’ve gone astray, then turn around! Retrace your steps to the last time you knew that you were in the right spot, and start again from there.
This exercise can be particularly helpful when we undertake it with a companion, someone we trust, who knows us and loves us, and who also understands the things of the Spirit. Find someone who can act as a guide in interpreting your map and pointing you toward the next step on the road. In this, the Road to Emmaus offers such a wonderful image for this pilgrim life (see Lk 24:13-27). The disciples set out on pilgrimage to Emmaus. Suddenly, Christ draws near to them, but they don’t recognize him, until they reflect on the teaching the stranger has shared. So too, we need to be open and expectant that, along the route, somebody may draw close to us, and they may be the Christ, speaking words which set us on the path to life again, by renewing our vision.
Wherever we are on our life journey, we are never alone. The story of Emmaus promises us that we are always joined by another, the Risen One. He always walks beside us. When we are at the extremity of our strength, he is with us; in the wilderness of ice or the furnace of the fire; in our times of greatest loneliness or trial, Emmaus reassures us, “You are not alone: you have a companion.”
The Risen Christ walks by our side, but he also goes ahead of us. In John’s Gospel, we read, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places: if it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (Jn 14:2). The word used by John for “dwelling place” is very interesting. It’s the Greek word monai, which doesn’t mean a “house,” and certainly not a “mansion,” but rather a “stopping place,” like a wayside shelter, where a traveler could rest a night or two on a journey (like the mountain huts you find in the White Mountains). In the East, it was the custom for travelers to send someone ahead to prepare the next shelter along the road, so that when the travelers arrived, they might find comfort, as well as shelter.
Jesus, in this famous passage, is promising that he is that person for us. He is just ahead of us on our life’s journey: he prepares the way for us. Even though the next step of our journey may seem scary, “I have gone before you to prepare a place for you.”
As comforting as this image is, we should also hear in it something of a prod. We often reach a stage in our life where we have found a very comfortable wayside shelter, and decide that we’d like to stop there for good. We begin putting up curtains and might even stow our pack under the bed! But that is to forget our Abrahamic roots, which call us to take out the tent pegs in the morning, and move on.
We are a pilgrim people. Christ urges us on: “Get back on the road. Don’t be afraid. For I will always be the one walking by your side – and I will always go before you to prepare the way.”
In this pilgrim life, we are called to an ongoing journey, with God and toward God. And yet there is this amazing sense that, the more we travel away from what we know, the more familiar the landscape will become. My journey does not actually lead me away from myself, but toward it. I am called by Jesus to become more and more the Geoffrey that God had in mind when God created me. And so, too, are you: called to become the person God made you to be. We have this little time on Earth for that to happen, to become who we truly are, so that when we finally get to Heaven, it won’t be such a shock!
To quote T.S. Eliot once more, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and to know the place for the first time.” At the end of our journey, we will find ourselves, finally, home.
About Br. Geoffrey Tristram
Br. Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE was born in Wales and studied theology at Cambridge University before training to be a priest at Westcott House theological college. He came to the United States fifteen years ago to join SSJE and has pursued a ministry of teaching, spiritual direction, and retreat leading, and for three years he served as chaplain to the House of Bishops. Before coming to SSJE he served as a parish priest in the diocese of St. Albans, as well as the head of the department of theology at Oundle School, a large Anglican high school in the English Midlands.