Following the death of our beloved Brother David Allen last summer, I became the senior member of our brotherhood – both in years of age and in years in the Society. My Brother Superior James Koester dubbed me the “Brother of collective memory.”
Over the thirty-seven years that I have been in the Society, I’ve come to see how entirely our particular monastic vocation – vowed love, community life, and service – is rooted in the baptismal vocation shared by all Christians. Perhaps this is one reason why so many people are able to find transformative wisdom in our monastic Rule of Life. We created this text to shape, inform, and inspire our community quite specifically. Yet by God’s grace, its reach has proved far more expansive. Over and over again, we hear how others have found illumination for their lives in the same forty-nine chapters that shape ours.
In this spirit, I’d like to offer here a collection of some of the teachings from our Rule of Life which have most struck and stayed with me over decades of living and learning with this text. Of all its many topics, the Rule is particularly rich in its teachings navigating the challenges and rewards of life in community. These teachings point the way ahead for all of us who are trying to live together in recognition of the fact that we are bound to one another by Christ’s loving authority.
Howard Thurman, the great African-American teacher and pastor, wrote extensively on what Jesus said “to those who stand with their backs against the wall: the poor, the disinherited, and the dispossessed.”[i] Thurman drew his inspiration from Jesus, who grew up in poverty. Because of their race and religion, Jesus’ people had for decades been cruelly subjugated by the oppression and discrimination of the Roman Empire. For his first thirty years, Jesus would also have faced the ignominy of his own birth. Either he was born to a mother out of wedlock; or his mother and father, Mary and Joseph, were fabulous liars and blasphemers; or both parents were mentally unsound. How could this be, the “miraculous” story of Jesus’ birth? Jesus faced prejudice and persecution from the very beginning of his life.
When Jesus finds his voice, one word recurs in Jesus’ speech and actions: power. People would ask, “Where did he get all this power?” because Jesus teemed with power.[ii] In the end, as Jesus was coming down from the Mount of Olives, “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen” (Luke 19:37). And his departing words were about power: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (Acts of the Apostles 1:8). Power.
“A great deal of our politics, our ecclesiastical life, often our personal life as well, is dominated by the assumption that everything would be all right, if only some people would go away.” – Rowan Williams, The Way of Benedict
Of course, other people are not going to “go away”! But there has been, throughout history, this continual assumption, at least in politics, that if you gain enough power, you can effectively make these other people whom you dislike or fear, disappear, through systematically disempowering them, disenfranchising them, or at the most extreme, ethnically cleansing them. For the Christian, all such attempts to make other people “go away,” are essentially sinful and a gross abuse of power. For the Christian, every single person is a beloved child of God “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). For the Christian, power and authority are given to us by God in trust, for the building of God’s Kingdom on earth. In God’s Kingdom everyone is important, because our faith teaches us to see the face of Jesus in the face of every person, however unlike me they are. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
I stood patiently by the door, waiting to be told where to sit. I saw all my Brothers take what I thought was their designated seat. It was my first time at “rounds” (what we Brothers call our daily morning meeting: that time where all the Brothers are in the same room at the same time to talk over the day’s business face-to-face).
I kept waiting to be told where to sit. I felt like a stray dog who had just been adopted days before, trying to figure out the ways of the household, not wanting to cause a stir, just looking to obey. Eventually I realized no one was going to tell me where to sit, and so I just sat down in an empty chair. I kept waiting for one of my elder Brothers to look at me and explain kindly but firmly that I was sitting in a chair that another Brother had been sitting in for longer than I had been alive. Luckily that never happened.
I went through thousands of moments like that in my early days as a Postulant: long moments of waiting for someone with authority to swoop in and tell me exactly what to do. It took me a long time to realize that was not the way authority was exercised at SSJE. Those in power were not going to tell me where to sit. Instead, those in authority were focused on having a productive morning meeting and getting through the day. This was a big difference from the days back when Novices had their mail read.
“To lie with my back flat on the fragrant ground is to receive a transfusion of the same power that makes the green blade rise.”
– Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith
“Black Power, in short, is an attitude, an inward affirmation of the essential worth of blackness.”
– James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power
Power and authority can so easily be misunderstood and misused, not only in politics and the workplace, but also in our homes and in our congregations. So many of our first-hand experiences tend to be negative and sometimes even traumatic. It can be a challenge to find positive role models of those who use their power and authority for good. So I commend the Brothers for tackling these important questions in this issue of Cowley, because we need such wisdom now more than ever.
I am struck by these words in Chapter Fourteen of the SSJE Rule, reflecting on “The Office of Superior”:
The benefits of endowing our leader with strong authority are great, but so are the demands. We need to be aware of both the negative and positive psychological forces that are inevitably brought into play wherever authority is strong … only prayer and genuine love can sustain him in his office.
As followers of Jesus, it is natural for us to turn to Scripture for guidance. We might consider the humble man riding a donkey into Jerusalem, who shows us a different kind of authority than that of Caesar. How exactly will this new Son of David challenge Roman imperial power? And by what authority? But we must not forget, even here, that the hosannas coming from the crowd include both “negative and positive psychological forces” coming into play that will be costly.
We might also meditate on the account from the beloved disciple on the last night of Jesus’ life, when he takes a towel and a basin to show his followers that the power of love is indeed stronger than the love of power. Again he models humble servant-leadership. Perhaps this witness reveals how “only prayer and genuine love” sustain all leaders, who are regularly tempted to misuse their power by lording it over others.
There are also other texts that may be more difficult to integrate with these images of servant-leadership. We sing of the “king of kings” and “lord of lords” who shall reign forever. What does that mean exactly? We read in John’s Apocalypse of the Lamb who is now on a throne. In my close work with bishops, I worry sometimes that the accoutrements with which we clothe them look a little too regal, and their cathedra may too closely resemble a throne. All of this can be a bit confusing and can also unleash both “negative and positive psychological forces.” We do well to remember that only prayer and genuine love sustain those whom we entrust with authority in the work God has given them to do.
As a priest, and in particular in my role as Canon to the Ordinary, my experience of church people is that we are sometimes more afraid of our own power than we are at risk of becoming Machiavellian. Lacking a theology of power or a rule of life about leadership, we simply know that we don’t want to be grasping for it or consolidating it or using it to coerce others. And we surely know that we don’t want those who have power over us to be doing those things. Too often, though, we settle for this via negativa, and without a via positiva we are vulnerable to those who are more than ready to misuse their power and authority whenever given the chance.
If we have ever felt powerless, then we know that is not where we want to live our lives. Or where God wants us to live our lives. Conversely, if we have ever felt empowered to do more than we previously could ask or imagine, it’s hard not to recognize that this is a gift from the holy, living God. The transfusion of power that Barbara Brown Taylor speaks about and the inward affirmation of human dignity that James Cone speaks about seem to be gifts from the Holy Spirit.
This issue of Cowley is therefore quite timely, as we begin to discern what lies ahead after a global pandemic. As a longtime member of the Fellowship of Saint John, I am always grateful for the wisdom and courage and leadership of the Brothers as we continue that journey, with God’s help.
The Rev. Dr. Richard Simpson serves as Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, a position he has held since 2013. Prior to that he served for fifteen years as the rector of St. Francis Church in Holden, MA. Rich was received into the Fellowship of St. John in 2006. He and his wife, Hathy, live in Worcester. They have two grown sons, Graham and James, who both live in New Jersey.
One of the things which surprised me when I became the Superior in our community was my relationship to the vow of Obedience. At our Profession, we promise “to Almighty God, and to you my brother, the Superior of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, and to your successors in this office, that I will live in the life-long observance of Poverty, Celibacy, and Obedience, according to the Rule of this Society.”
As we know, the English word “obedience” comes from the same Latin word as “audio,” so that in the monastic tradition, obedience is primarily about listening. At times we are called to “be attentive to the voice of the Spirit within our hearts.” On other occasions we are challenged by obedience to “let go of attachment to our individual preferences and [learn] to trust in the wisdom of the community.” As a Brother in the community, it was my experience that there was one Superior. Now as Superior, I find that I am constantly challenged to listen to the wisdom of the community. In doing so, I find that, as Superior, I have twelve superiors.
This relationship between power, authority, and obedience is difficult to keep in balance. We know what happens when the authority of some comes at the cost of disempowering others. We know too the terrible tragedy that occurs “when in the name of obedience human beings have gladly abdicated responsibility and taken refuge in passivity and conformity.”
It is not an accident that this issue of Cowley is devoted to these connected dynamics of power, authority, and obedience. Nor do I believe that it is an accident that, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, these issues have been thrust onto center stage. As the pandemic has unmasked many inequalities in society, we have seen and experienced what happens when the balance between power and empowerment, authority and authoritarianism, obedience and listening have resulted in division and dominance rather than reconciliation and cooperation.
It is our hope that these reflections, rooted in our monastic tradition of obedience, will help in some small way as we practice the art of listening to one another deeply, and with open hearts and minds.
That kind of deep listening is not, I assure you, simply empty monastic talk. It is something we Brothers are engaging in currently as we attempt to navigate how best to consider re-opening the Chapel and the Guesthouse. Trying to balance the hopes, needs, and concerns of guests, members of our congregations, staff, and Brothers is not an easy thing. As we are discovering, every decision delights and relieves some, and concerns others. Nor are we trying to address concerns about health and safety issues without abdicating responsibility or giving way to fear. As we carry on these conversations about re-opening, I know we can count on your patience. We ask for your prayers for wisdom.
I cannot conclude this letter to you without once again expressing our gratitude to each of you for your abiding care, support, friendship, and prayers over these past challenging months. They have been sources of strength, grace, and hope to each of us, and especially to me. We Brothers are enormously thankful for the gift of your friendship.
Please know that just as you pray for us, we pray for you.
Faithfully in Christ,
James Koester, SSJE