Stuff sputters in our heads. Like corn kernels popping out, into, over, and beyond the bowl, words, thoughts, and information pop, pop, pop. Emotions roll back and forth, bumping into each other. Sadness sighs and sags. Anger flares up. Fear fidgets, fingering wounds, circling questions, pushing to fight or flee. All the more so now, stuff sputters from pandemic-related grief, trauma, and weariness. We are holding so much. Life is hard, and it can be hard to pray.
Often, we keep the stuff sputtering inside our heads as with a tight mental lid: separating it from the rest of the body. About five years ago, I began practicing InterPlay, a system of facilitated group improv movement and storytelling. It’s a bit like recovery for serious people, helping us relearn how to play and connect with our whole bodies. I have been learning about that tight metal lid and opening it to witness and release what comes out.
We know that the familiar adage ends with the cheery adjective “fonder.” To feel the absence of someone we cherish does often deepen our love the longer we are apart. But absence may also make the heart grow numb or inert, grief-stricken or depressed, baffled or enraged. Absence can make the heart grow hopeless.
When I focus instead on the word grow, something shifts. The trajectory of our growth in God is through and beyond this kaleidoscope.
If the feeling of absence in our lives has anything to do with the purposes of God, growth will be its gift, but not in a way we can predict or even recognize. This has been the experience of many saints, whose patient endurance through the night of God’s felt absence has catalyzed their growth, not in fondness but in holiness. As in any relationship of true love, growth in Christ gives rise to many feelings. But it does not depend upon those feelings, and the presence of feelings we consider encouraging or consoling is not in itself a sign of growth, any more than their absence is a sign of stasis. Sometimes the opposite is true! Growth in God strengthens us both to treasure the joy of Christ’s felt presence, and to trust the slow, hidden growth called forth when we feel God is absent. This depth of trust is deeply challenging.
The question caught me off guard. A theological student entering my second year, I had spent the summer ministering in a summer chapel. Before the summer, I had been in the habit of attending the Eucharist and receiving Holy Communion almost every day. Suddenly all that had changed, and over the course of nearly three months, I had been able to attend the Eucharist only twice. I had missed the Eucharist enormously. Returning to the College in September, I was greeted by a member of the faculty who asked how my summer had been. I expected some sympathy from this professor when I answered; some recognition that being cut off from the Eucharist was indeed a loss; some assurance that things would be fine now that I was back. What I received instead was a comment that I have spent the last forty years unpacking: Well, James, he said, I assume that you dined daily at the Table of the Word?
For many months now, Christians around the world have been cut off from the eucharistic life of the Church. Where once regular attendance at the Eucharist and reception of Holy Communion was the norm, suddenly the absence the Sacrament in our lives has been the reality. Who has not missed the comforting assurance of Christ’s presence in bread broken, wine poured, in bodies cleansed by His Body, and souls washed by His Blood? Who has not missed the comforting solace of familiar ritual? Yet the comment made to me that September day – nearly forty years ago – continues to haunt me. Well James, I assume that you dined daily at the Table of the Word.
As I reflect on the situation in which we have found ourselves during these last months, I must confess that I do so from a privileged position. As a member of a monastic community, I have been able to maintain our practice of daily Eucharist and the Divine Office. However, because we normally act as a center of worship for a congregation of over 100 people on Sundays, as well as for those guests on retreat with us throughout the week, I am aware of the hunger and longing many are experiencing during this time. I also reflect on our current situation, not simply as a pastor to a congregation, but also from nearly thirty years of experience as a spiritual director.
In the practice of spiritual direction, where the role of the director is to help people recognize the movement of the Spirit in their lives, I often find myself asking people who come to see me a few simple questions: Where is God in this? What is the invitation? I believe that these are helpful and focusing questions, because they shift the focus away from the individual, to the movement of God in a person’s life. They also shift the attention towards the gift of hope. If you were sitting across from me in one of the conference rooms here at the Monastery, I would ask the same things: Where is God is this? What is the invitation? In other words: Where is the hope? To these questions I would also add, How is God feeding you now?
Father Richard Meux Benson the founder of our Society, speaks a great deal about hope. For him, the gift of hope was the result of the worship of God, and worship was not confined to what happens on Sunday morning. The whole life of a Christian is to be a life of worship, and thus the whole life of a Christian is to be a life of union with God. We remind ourselves of this in our Rule of Life where we say that human beings were created to bless and adore their Creator and in the offering of worship to experience their highest joy and their deepest communion with one another… God draws us into our Society so that our calling to be true worshipers can reach fulfillment in the offering of the continual sacrifice of praise. In this life of worship together we are transformed in body, soul and spirit. If the life of the Brothers of SSJE is to be a life of adoration, it is only because, like all Christians, in Holy Baptism we have been made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven. As baptized Christians, we live this life of worship and seek the gift of hope given to all who worship God in spirit and in truth. For Father Benson, this gift of hope – given to all who are worshipers of the Triune God – draws us to the very heart of God.
While it is true that many have been separated from the Eucharist, we have not been separated from God, nor from the gift of hope, nor from the real presence of Jesus. As Anglicans it is our belief that Jesus is truly present in the sacramental Gifts of Bread and Wine, and we speak of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Yet it is also true to say that Christ, who will be present to us in communion, comes first to those who are listening in ‘the word of God… living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword,’ and as the one who ‘speaks words that are spirit and life.’ We speak of the Real Presence, but we could just as easily speak of the real presences, for Jesus who comes to us in Bread and Wine, Body and Blood, comes to us first in gathered community, Word proclaimed, prayers offered, sins forgiven, and peace restored. We may have been cut off from the Sacrament of the Eucharist, but not from the sacramental life of the Church, for in community, Word, prayer, forgiveness, and peace, the abiding presence of Jesus is with us, just as he promised. Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Throughout Scripture, God promises to be with us, because that is the nature of God Emmanuel, and God’s promises never go unfulfilled. Where is God? God is with us, because God in Christ is God Emmanuel, if only we have the grace to see.
While I have continued to receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist over these last months, I have done so knowing that it is a privilege. Each time I have received the Sacrament, I have been aware that many cannot, and I have carried you in my heart. We say in our Rule of Life that [according] to an ancient monastic saying ‘A monk is separated from all in order to be united to all.’ The pioneers of monasticism believed that the monk was called to the margin of society in order to hear within himself the deepest cries of humanity, and to discover a profound unity with all living beings in their struggle to attain ‘the freedom of the glory of the children of God.’ As I have reached out my hands to receive the Bread of Life and Cup of Salvation, I have done so as a member of the Body of Christ through Baptism. As Christ’s sacramental Body and Blood have nourished me, the whole body of the baptized has been nourished, for we are one body. A deeper understanding of our place in the Body of Christ – not as individuals, but as members of Christ – is one of the invitations which God is holding before us now.
In the last six months we have also rediscovered that the primary Christian community is the domestic church, in other words, the home. As people have been cut off from the worshipping life of their parish churches, small and large groups have gathered online or around the dinner table, to pray Morning and Evening Prayer or Compline. Households, especially those with children, have taken active parts in various kinds of Christian formation. Prayer spaces or corners have been set up in bedrooms or studies, as a way to create sacred space that is set apart for our encounter with God. The recovery of the domestic church is, I believe, a sign of hope.
Over the last months we may have been cut off from the eucharistic life of the Church, but God Emmanuel has still been with us. God’s invitation to discover our place as baptized members of the Body of Christ has still been offered. God’s gift of hope has still been drawing us deeper into the very heart of God. And, God has set other tables before us, and has fed us in wonderful and surprising ways.
Praying is hard. One of the reasons I came to a monastery was the sobering recognition of my own weakness. I wanted to pray, yet I found it exceedingly difficult to do so without the support of a community. It seems to me that all monks are marked by this weakness; even the early desert hermits rejected the idea that they were particularly holy, on account of the fact that they needed to venture into the emptiness of the desert in order not to be distracted. The real holy ones were those who could pray even amidst the din and cacophony of the city.
Throughout the pandemic, I have been lucky to be able to continue praying in community with my Brothers. It is perhaps difficult for me, then, to fully wrap my head around how much people may be struggling to pray in this time of isolation. And yet, I also know what it’s like to struggle in prayer: alone, before I came into community; and even now, in community, in light of the current circumstances. At this time, when so many Christians have found themselves in unchosen isolation, it’s helpful to delve into the Church’s theological understanding of what it means to pray alone, especially by venturing outside our own time and place to understand very different perspectives from our own. I’ve found this theology personally helpful, for two reasons.
“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you…For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:3-4, 8)
This greeting of Paul’s – read aloud to a gathering of believers meeting in a home in Philippi – came to my mind as I reflected on the FSJ Online Gathering I attended in October. The same longing and affection expressed by Paul in his letter arose in me upon seeing Brother Curtis’ and Todd’s warm smiles and hearing their heartfelt expressions of love for all of us FSJ members, who appeared as tiny passport-sized photos on the screen. In the ancient world, a letter conveyed the personal presence of the one who sent it; and so too I certainly felt Curtis’ and Todd’s presence through this electronic medium.
2020 was a year of immense challenges, filled with a great deal of loss, grief, uncertainty, anxiety, and death. For most of us, it was a year like no other, and will undoubtedly have an impact on us for years to come.
We Brothers had our own loss this year, with the death of Brother David Allen in August. He was the last of his generation of men in the Society, and his death marks a dramatic shift, since there is now no one who came to the community before 1984. We have been touched by the many notes we have received describing David’s kindness, his warm and affectionate way of greeting people, and his generosity of spirit. While his death was during the lockdown, we were able to share his funeral liturgies online. I like to think that, despite David’s age, he would have been quite amused and proud of the fact that he was the first member of the community to have had his funeral watched via the internet by countless people.