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.
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.
I listened, I watched, I tried to help out when I could, but above all else I learned.
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.…
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.
This is my first Presidential Election since coming to the Monastery. I follow politics pretty closely; it’s what I originally went to school to study, and I ran for local office when I was nineteen. It’s an intense interest, and I cannot help but look on the political state of this country right now and feel a great deal of sadness, anger, and confusion. Things seem utterly broken and chaotic, and it seems foolish to think that there’s some quick fix, some reset button we can press to go back to when things were “normal.” Too much rot, too much that was and is wrong about the way we’ve been running our country and our world, has been laid bare.
Before I entered the Society, my daily life often felt history starved. I have always taken an active interest in Church history and the history of art and ideas, and I am on meaningful terms with my personal history, but there was some integral potential in my relationship with history that eluded me. Looking back, I can now say that I longed for direct participation in a way of life infused by the presence of the past – a living presence in dynamic relationship with the present and the future. This living presence is a foundational element of monastic life. It roots, stabilizes, and nourishes the life in the midst of much contemporary change and discontinuity. It orients our movements like a transpersonal lodestar. That is the authentic power of tradition.
One of the most prevalent needs in the human condition is that of intimacy. Intimate relationships allow us to be vulnerable and share things that are deeply personal and guarded. If these are not handled with great care and compassion, we can experience deep shame and humiliation.
In our national civic discourse, we see devastating examples of a lack of empathy and compassion for each other. Our government leaders use bully tactics to berate, infantilize, and minimize those with whom they disagree. The cultural equating of intimacy with sex has resulted in people allowing themselves to be vulnerable without the requisite building of trust and emotional connection. Our inherent yearning for true intimacy, coupled with our experience of shame at the hands of those who have betrayed our own sense of what is good and true, can leave us mired in fear. As a result, we engage others with unrealistic expectations and misunderstandings that lead to disillusionment and the eventual disintegration of relationship. Lack of intimacy is often a contributing factor in addiction, depression, and bodily illness.
When you ask a monk a question, ask another and you may get a very different answer. It’s clear the fourteen of us – or even just a few – have a whole lot to say and many perspectives. We began with a long list of topics to discuss and from the start we had much to share.
We are so grateful to work with Jay Vogt, our organizational consultant and facilitator, this year. From our varied topics and desires, Jay created an overall scheme for the year and worked with a team of Brothers to plan the sessions. As more thoughts and desires emerged through the year, Jay kept adapting. Referring to our past intentions, the planned scheme for the year, and discoveries from recent discussions, he gave options for where we could go next. Jay prompted next steps and helped us proceed. He organized and facilitated sessions, keeping us all involved.
It is very hard to reflect on our monastic year of renewal without seeing it in the context of how our whole world will be changed and renewed by this time of pandemic. Renewal has everything to do with hope and confidence, and grasping a vision for the future. But how can we feel any of these things when week after week we are in lockdown, cut off perhaps from family and friends, fearful for our jobs and for the economy, and discouraged by gloomy stories in the newspapers? Rather than exuding hope and confidence, we are perhaps more likely to feel sad and listless.
Our founder, Richard Meux Benson, coined the turn of phrase “men of the moment” to envision the timeliness of SSJE’s life and witness. 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? This question has informed our year of praying, talking, and listening with one another. We have also been in communication with friends and advisors who companion us.
Weighty choices in life require us to consider the risk involved in taking one path over against another. This is a skill we’re having to employ almost daily now as a result of the danger posed by the coronavirus. Will we risk taking public transportation, or going to the grocery store, or running an errand, when we know a deadly virus is on the loose? When will the risk be low enough that we can begin to gather again with others and return to our work or to places of worship? Knowing that the stakes are high makes this risky business.
Father Benson is reputed to have said that no religious community should survive past the first generation. I think that what he meant by that is that no religious community will survive if it simply addresses the needs of a bygone era. We aren’t in the business of addressing the needs of the Church from a century ago, or a decade ago, or even a year or a week ago. Each community needs to found itself anew for the present age.
In many ways we have done that in this community. In each generation our community has re-formed, if not re-founded itself, to meet the needs of the contemporary Church. When the Church needed solid catholic priests for parishes, SSJE provided that. When the Church needed missionaries in underserved areas, and places far removed from the center of things, we provided that. When people needed food, or clothing, or education, or medical care, we provided that. When the Church needed people to help form those in leadership, whether lay or ordained, we provided that. When the Church needed competent spiritual directors and retreat leaders, we provided that.
Like our predecessors in the Society our call today is to drink deeply from our own history and tradition, but not to be antiquarians. We are called today to look at ourselves through the lens of our histories, and to discover what it is from the past that may be of service in the present. To recover, or uncover, or discover those elements of our histories – Benedictine, Dominican, Ignatian, Vincentian – that speak to the needs of the contemporary Church. We are called to found a new Society of Saint John the Evangelist for this age.
To do so, 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. We need to be prepared to look critically at our histories and see what can be carried into the future, and what also needs to be respectfully laid aside.
The work of the historian is to study the past from a variety of angles and to discover the various histories in their fullness and complexity. Unlike the antiquarian, the work of the historian does not end there. The historian needs to interpret those histories in light of the present moment so that the lessons of the past are relevant to the present and the future.
That, I believe, is what Father Benson did in the early days when our community was founded. He looked to the past to see what it might hold for the present and the future. This remains our task today: to look at our past and to discover what it might say to the present and the future. In that way, a new Society of Saint John the Evangelist will be founded, one that will address, not the needs of the Victorian Church, but the needs of the church as it exists today, and perhaps tomorrow.