Being a person today naturally means having hopes for tomorrow. We might hope for healing and comfort for ourselves or others. We might hope for an end to injustice, violence, and suffering. We might hope that tomorrow is a little better than today. Especially when today is a time of crisis and anxiety, hoping for a better tomorrow seems perfectly reasonable. As Christians, though, our hope is in something more, or, looking at it in a different way, less.
Our contemplative tradition teaches us that the purest way of knowing God is through “unknowing.” Unknowing means letting go of our attachment to thoughts and feelings, as well as attachment to memories of the past and anticipations of the future. When we “unknow” all things, we rely only on God, coming to rest in the Divine Nothingness of God’s eternal Presence where we find God’s Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.
Saint John of the Cross was referring to this contemplative unknowing when he wrote of living in perfect and pure hope. He suggested that we should learn to turn from our worries, distractions, and preoccupations, and, in the emptiness of everything rememberable, turn toward God’s love. Unlike our other hopes for particular outcomes and for a better tomorrow, this hope is pure because it rests only on the mystery of God present in each moment, right now.
John Sanford in his book The Kingdom Within writes that “This hope is not that this world will one day be a perfect world, but that there is a reality, a Divine Order, beyond what is immediately visible to us in this world.” The ancient desert monastics spoke of a “spiritual intellect” by which we sense this Divine Reality, God’s Presence within and among us. They described a path by which we know God’s Presence with a combination of radical acceptance of God’s will and a confident expectation of God’s love.
This pure hope may sound too good to be true, but that’s only when we measure hope by human standards. This pure hope may sound naïve, but in truth it’s the second naiveté of unknowing. The pure hope of resting in the eternal Nothingness of God’s Presence doesn’t imply that “worldly” hope, like hoping for an end to injustice, ceases to have relative importance. Instead, the pure hope of resting in God’s Presence provides the foundation from which we see ourselves and the world as God sees us, and from which we allow God’s will be done.
Our hope is in this pure hope of abiding in God’s Presence, and so recognizing the Beauty, Truth and Goodness all around us. We might pray, then, that if someone were to ask us “What do you hope for tomorrow?” we can answer from that place of pure hope, “That tomorrow be as beautiful as today.”
Peace and Be Well,
Br. Nicholas Bartoli
My dear friends,
As you can imagine, I have been reading the cards, letters, and notes that have been coming since the death of our Brother, David Allen. I have been immensely touched by your thoughtful words, and your care for us in the midst of this particular loss.
Reflecting on this loss, and what David’s death means to the community, especially in light of our Rule of Life which states that the elders of the community are to be honored as the bearers of our corporate memory who link us with our past, I was aware of what we have lost. In David’s death, the corporate memory of the community shifted by nearly 30 years. Now, Brother Jonathan, who arrived in 1984, bears the longest community memory.
As I sat with that, I was aware that this has been a season of loss for so many. Countless numbers among us have lost loved ones, financial security, jobs, ready access to family and friends, to name a few. The toll of these last months is incalculable, and just as our grandparents or great grandparents spent the rest of their lives living with the double grief of World War I and then the Flu Epidemic of 1918 – 1919, we will live with the grief of these months, for the rest of our lives.
As any who have experienced the death of a loved one will know, you never get over it. Instead, all you can do is learn to bear it, usually by leaning on another.
One of my favourite icons is of the Crucifixion. There in the center of the image is Christ, hanging on the cross. On one side is the Beloved Disciple and the soldier traditionally named Longinus. It was he who pierced Christ’s side with his spear. But it is the cluster of women standing on the other side that always moves me. There we see Mary, the Mother of the Lord, literally being held up by four other women as she gazes upward upon her dying son. I cannot imagine her grief and sorrow. What I can imagine is the consolation she experienced surrounded, and upheld, by friends in her time of loss.
Like Mary, for many this has been a time of incalculable loss and grief. Like Mary we too need the support and consolation of others. For the last several days, Mary, the Mother of the Lord – sometimes referred to as Our Lady of Sorrows because of the grief she bore – has been my companion. She knows what it is to be gripped by grief.
If you need the support and consolation of others in your time of grief and loss, in your prayer, you might ask Blessed Mary to stand beside you, and hold you up, for she is also known as Mary, Consoler of the Afflicted. At the same time, you may know someone who needs to be consoled. Now is the time to reach out to them, and hold them up, as those women in the icon held up the Lord’s Mother. It may be that even in your grief and loss, you have the strength and courage to hold and console another.
However you find yourself in these days of grief and loss, know that we Brothers stand beside you, holding you up in our prayers. And may you find that the companionship of Our Lady of Sorrows, who is also Mary, Consoler of the Afflicted, gives you the strength and courage to face whatever the days ahead bring.
Thank you for your prayers for us during these days of our loss. They are a tremendous consolation.
Faithfully in Christ,
James Koester SSJE
Dear Friends in Christ,
It is very possible that you are feeling exhausted and discouraged in the midst of the many crises we are facing now; especially here in the United States. The deadly Covid-19 virus continues to claim thousands of lives, with failed businesses, massive unemployment and school closings following in its wake. Unrest continues in our cities in response to ongoing attacks on people of color. Our deeply ingrained racism is being exposed again and again in every sphere of life: in education, health care, housing, employment, fair treatment under the law, access to food… Wild fires in California and hurricanes in Louisiana remind us of the high cost of environmental destruction and global warming, which we have failed to adequately address. Partisan politics has paralyzed our government and put the upcoming election at risk.
How can we respond creatively and courageously to such immense challenges? When we’re exhausted from the battle, how do we resist the temptation to simply give up and stop caring? What do we, as people of faith, have to offer our neighbors and colleagues in such demanding times? We are called to be people of hope, whose trust in God gives them the resilience to pick themselves up when they’ve fallen or been pushed down, and to continue to answer the call. We must be like sturdy trees, able to stand their ground in the face of violent winds because their roots reach deep into the soil from which comes their food and their strength.
We can find courage to fight on in the examples of those who have gone before us. I’ve been reflecting recently on the words and wisdom of Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983), a Dutch Christian woman who, with her father and sister, helped Jews escape the Nazis during World War II by hiding them in their home. The three were arrested and sent to the Nazi concentration camp at Ravensbrück ,where Corrie’s father and sister subsequently died. Corrie survived the terrible ordeal and went on to author The Hiding Place, which recounts the story of her family’s efforts and how she found hope in God while she was imprisoned at the concentration camp. Countless Christians have been inspired by her story. I recall some of her memorable quotes: “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still;” “Now I know in my experience that Jesus’ light is stronger than the biggest darkness;” “Love is larger than the walls that shut it in;” and this one, which has spoken to me recently, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”
These are uncertain times, surely, and none of us knows – or can ever know – what the future will bring: not only in our lives but in the lives of our children and grandchildren, our country and our world. We face so many challenges, so many unknowns, and there is so much at stake. But we are not the first human beings to face daunting challenges, nor will we be the last. We fight on – for justice, for peace, for the welfare of all people, for the health and safety of all creation – working as if all depended upon us (which it does), while praying as urgently and persistently as if all depended upon God (which it does).
May God bless and keep you in these troubled times, and nourish and strengthen you for the fight.
Br. David Vryhof, SSJE
A story was aired on NPR’s “Kid Logic” of a very young boy on his first airplane flight. Soon after takeoff he turned to his mother and asked, “When do we start getting smaller?” Up to then, his experience of airplanes in flight was watching them shrink as they disappeared into the sky. The little boy had not yet developed what psychologists call “object permanence,” i.e., an airplane disappearing into the sky is the same size it was on the runway.
Navigating life faithfully during the Coronavirus epidemic may be a huge challenge for you. Your experience of God may seem to be receding. Where do you look for the stability and permanence you need to navigate life not only in the best of times but in the worst of times? Here are several suggestions.
- Discover good news. Open the New Testament and do some detective reading. What assurances, provisions, comforts, strengths are we promised in the face of loss? You won’t have to read very far before you find good news amidst the bad news. So much of the New Testament is written in the face of suffering and death. Jesus assures us that he is with us always, even to the end: the end of life, but before that, the end of each sorry day. Jesus is God Emmanuel, God with us: God’s presence, and power, and provision.
Saint Paul’s writings are chock full of his own testimony about God’s strength filling the vacuum of our own weakness. Saint Paul even makes a list of everything he could possibly imagine that might give us pause to wonder whether God is with us. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, [nor Coronavirus], nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”Romans 8:35-39
Find some verses in the Scriptures that speak to you now. Write the Scripture on a Post-it note and stick it to your bathroom mirror, or write it on an index card and carry it in your pocket or use it as a bookmark.
- Claim a hero. Read about a person whom you revere or with whom you can identify, someone who conquered adversity. Whether you read a substantial biography or scan online, find one or more persons whose personal qualities, whose life practices, whose decisive tacks speak to you. We have an innate need for heroes. Claim an identification with someone whose experience of life enlarged and was strengthened through the crucible of suffering.
- Write a prayer. Awaken to the new day with a prayer that acknowledges God’s presence, and names both your awareness of need and your experience of gratitude. Make this your morning offering. Bring before God your own needs and those whom you carry in your heart and encounter along the way. You might want to use a Collect from The Book of Common Prayer or some other source. Adapt it so that the prayer is yours.
Curtis Almquist, SSJE
My dear friends:
I recently rediscovered a quotation I had noted down in my common place book a number of years ago. Coming upon it the other day was like being reunited with an old familiar friend: the true pilgrim who has found the way says in his thankful heart, I will run when I can, when I cannot run I will go, and when I cannot go I will creep.
I found it originally while reading the writings of Father George Congreve SSJE, an early member of our community, and a companion of Father Benson. At the time, I was getting ready to walk the St. Cuthbert’s Way, a long-distance walking path in Britain. I took the words literally. During my walk of 65 miles over the course of a week that summer, I often reminded myself that I did not have to go faster than I was able to at any given moment. Walking some of the hills, I would tell myself, all I needed to do was to take the next step, and then to rest. It did not matter that someone who passed me twenty minutes before, was already at the top, and out of sight. All I needed to do was to take the next step, or in Father Congreve’s words, to creep. I did a lot of creeping that week, and in the end, I managed to walk the entire route from Melrose, Scotland to Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, on the east coast of England. Finally, at my destination and sitting on the rocks of Holy Island looking out across the water to the mainland, I was amazed by what I had accomplished. There had been moments during the week when I could not imagine it was possible for me to walk another 40, or 30, or 20 miles. What I could imagine, was taking one more step. And so I did. And then another. And another. And another. That week was full of single steps.
Not having a clear sense of what the future holds is unsettling for many of us. We don’t know when all the restrictions will be lifted, or whether or not they will be put back into place. We can’t imagine living as we have done for another four, or three, or two months, with requirements to physically distance from family, friends, and colleagues. We can barely imagine life in a day, never mind a month.
But like me, sitting on the rocks that day reflecting on what I had just accomplished, we can all be filled with both amazement and courage: amazement at what we have done, and courage simply to take the next step on this particular path.
It is true that life is full of challenge at the moment, and we may not feel up to the challenge. If that is the case for you, perhaps God’s invitation right now, is not to surmount the challenge, but simply to take one single step, or in Father Congreve’s words, to creep, and then as I did climbing those hills, to rest.
However it is that you are facing the challenges of these days, even if you are creeping through them one step, one moment at a time, remember that as you creep, you are not alone. The One who promised to be with us, even to the end of the age, is with us still, whether we are running, or going, or creeping.
This week, as you creep along, look back with amazement at what you have managed, and look forward with courage, knowing that Jesus is with you, even in your creeping.
Your fellow pilgrim on the way,
 Father George Congreve SSJE 1835 – 1918
 Matthew 28:20
I have been spending quite a lot of time with the Lord’s Prayer lately. It has become a regular feature in my own private prayer, and I have relished it more than I typically do when the brothers come together to pray in the chapel. I have seen much of what’s going on in the world for months, and sometimes, I just cannot put together my own words. “What more can I say? What more can any of us say?” is the common refrain of my heart. I can’t imagine I’m alone. Sometimes, in those moments, through some prompting of the same Spirit whose sighs are enough, I am given the gentle reminder, “Remember the words he has taught you.”
Of particular note for me recently is the plea, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” It’s difficult for me not to pay attention to the political situation of the country, from the very big stories to the particular zigs and zags of individual newsworthy figures. Again, I can’t imagine I’m alone. And, paying that attention in the midst of all that has gone on, the picture seems very bleak. The failures, incompetencies, and abuses of those in power right now leave me feeling sad and angry. But the words of the Lord’s Prayer, the hope for the coming of God’s kingdom, is a touchstone of hope for me, for three reasons.
First, that this is the prayer of Jesus, the one who intercedes for us, and who abides close to the Father’s heart, comforts me. Christ assures us that we, even in our imperfection, know how to give to the needy. “How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” The promises of Jesus, and the hope of Jesus, are not idle, for he knows the heart of the One from whom all good comes. The kingdom of God will come. When we show forth the love of God, we participate in that kingdom, and anticipate its full revelation.
Second, it assures me that God’s kingdom is something fundamentally different from what we see before us. It’s not the domain of earthly rulers to enact for themselves, even in the best of times. It is certainly at odds with rank and blatant injustice; as the psalmist writes, “Can a corrupt tribunal have any part with you, one which frames evil into law?”
Third, it reminds me that this sadness and anger, this dissonance between what is and what should be, is a normal part of what it means to be a Christian. “Here we have no lasting city,” reads the letter to the Hebrews, “but we are looking for the city that is to come.” We have been called to the greater kingdom, and it has not yet been revealed in its fullness and glory, its mercy and justice. We should feel somewhat alienated from the halls of power; we should be able to see what’s wrong. And the fact that we do is itself a sign of the hope to come.
Many of us are wearied by the changes and the uncertainty of our civil lives, our political communities. I certainly am. But we can take heart, and pray together for the coming of God’s kingdom; it is a hope, big and sturdy enough for us all.
Br. Lucas Hall, SSJE
I am listening more deeply, more intently, and with a greater sense of urgency, than I have ever listened. I am listening to the lonely cry out for human touch and the holy cry out for sacraments shared. I am listening to words of joy and lament from the masked mouths of strangers and friends alike. I am listening to Black, Latinx, Asian, and Native American people cry out afresh an old, old song of unspeakable trauma, yet refulgent with hope. I am listening to slow-motion sounds of collapse as political maneuvers falter and fail. I am listening to ice melting beneath the paws of the polar bear. I am listening to the inhalation and exhalation of breath, rhythmically reminding me that every moment is precious, and none is a given. I am listening to the heart of God beneath it all.
Are you listening? I hear you, even as I type this, and I know that you are. Somehow, I hear us, gathered in ourlistening. It is the sound of a single heart learning, re-learning to listen to the Word, and to the world.
In such listening, St. Paul heard creation groaning “in eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” In such listening, Elijah heard that “still, small voice” which was not to be heard in wind, earthquake, or fire. In such listening, Jesus heard the God he knew as Abba say, “This is my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” And he heard another call, to the darkness of Calvary.
If you’re hearing what I’m hearing, maybe we’re listening to the Church becoming more. In this place “within listening distance of the silence we call God” (R.S. Thomas) and within shouting distance of one another, we are finding something precious: a deep church. These are shouts of ‘Why?’ and ‘How Long?’ but also ‘Thank You’ and ‘I’m Here for You’ and ‘Amen.’ We’ve long stewarded this deep church in packets of seeds, but often planted them in seasonal gardens: a retreat here, a small group there, an afternoon of Sabbath rest. In this new place, we’re learning a different way. In between the unmaking of one world and the gestation of another, stricken in conscience, overflowing with questions, and wrestling with demons, we’re learning that spiritual practice, presence, and purpose are the seeds we need to survive.
Blessedly, history shows that these are the causes and conditions that make saints: Christians of depth. Moved by those pressures, we’re doing our inner work because it is the work to be done. We’re learning to pray one distracted word at a time, to meditate one distracted breath at a time, to measure our hours and days. We’re speaking the truth of what truly matters to us and listening to others do the same because none of us have all the time in the world, and we know it. The powerful among us are learning to listen to the disempowered without defensiveness or pride. We’re discovering how to abide like a planted seed in the darkness of impasse because our faith, our impossible “conviction of things not seen,” tells us that seeds were made to grow. We can’t go over or under or around the pain. And so, together, we are going through it, into the depths.
Jesus said, “Pay attention to how you listen.” Let’s keep listening to him, and to one another.
Yours in Christ,
Br. Keith Nelson
My dear friends:
I was recently involved in a conversation about solitude. Over the course of the conversation it dawned on me that we should not speak so much of solitude (singular) as solitudes (plural), because there are different kinds of solitude, and different people experience them in different ways.
Since the lockdown began in March many of us have been experiencing more solitude than in the past. That has brought with it, its own struggles as well as graces.
One way in which people speak of solitude is as me time. This is a time to recharge our batteries and renew our energies. We all need to do this, and we all find different ways to do it. This experience of solitude as an opportunity to recharge and renew has been once of the graces of this season.
For others, and especially for those who live alone, this period of extended solitude has been a time, not of recharging and renewing, but of isolation and loneliness, when work and social routines have become virtual or remote, and physical connections limited to what can happen sitting six feet away from another.
For some this time of solitude has been a time of grace and for others a time of challenge.
In the Christian spiritual tradition, there is another facet to solitude that is neither about solitude as me time, or as isolation. In the monastic tradition solitude is not about recharging our batteries or experiencing isolation but enabling an encounter with the Divine.
We remind ourselves in our Rule of Life that the cell, which is the primary place of our personal prayer, is a place of divine presence and companionship. Like Jacob we say surely the Lord is in this place as we open ourselves up to an encounter with the living God, each time we enter our cells and shut the door. In the monastic tradition solitude enables us to encounter God whose name is Love.
While I have experienced this time of solitude as both incredibly renewing and enormously lonely, I have also experienced this solitude as an invitation to encounter the God who so loves the world. In an unexpected way, that is the solitude I have found most challenging, for as I have encountered the God who is Love, I have come to see the world the way God sees it, through the tears of God’s loving eyes.
Some days, I find the burden of this heartbreaking love almost too much to bear. Yet as Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, I know that tears of loving sadness, though they are the story for today, are not the end of the story. He who wept, is also resurrection and life.
The Psalmist reminds us that weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning. In this time of solitude, as I encounter the God whose name is Love, I am coming to see the world the way God does, and I weep. But as surely as I know that dawn will come, I know this time of weeping will one day end, and with the Risen Son we will again know life in all its abundance.
However you experience this time of solitude: as a time of personal renewal, unbearable loneliness, or disturbing encounter, this comes with the assurance of our prayers. We are, as always, grateful for your prayers for us.
Faithfully in God whose name is Love,
These are momentous, stressful times we live in. It may seem that around every corner there’s something to be fearful, angry, or distraught over. Our minds may habitually return to the last article we read, or video we watched, or podcast we listened to. We may feel compelled to stay up-to-date on the latest news, out of a sense of duty, from a powerful curiosity, or a need to be on top of what’s going on so as to feel safe and prepared. And all of this takes a toll on us.
Psychologists have long studied what is called vicarious trauma or vicarious traumatization. This kind of trauma arises not from a first-hand experience of a traumatic event, but from witnessing such an event. Such vicarious trauma has often been seen in professionals who work in fields where witnessing traumatic events or interacting with trauma survivors is common. However, it’s now known that vicarious trauma can also affect those who are regularly exposed to traumatic events in the media. Constant exposure to traumatic events in media has been shown to cause anxiety, difficulties in coping, immense fear, and feelings of hopelessness. This is especially true for those of us who have a history of trauma ourselves or just happen to be particularly sensitive.
Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers,” and as children of God that is our calling. Being a peacemaker, which is so needed is these tumultuous times, begins with being at peace ourselves. A big fan of the beatitudes himself, Gandhi once said that “there is no way to peace, peace is the way.” And Martin Luther King Jr. told us to “be the peace you wish to see in the world.” In other words, one of the very best gifts we can offer a troubled world is letting ourselves rest in God’s presence, resting in the Peace and Joy of Christ.
If you feel yourself caught up in a cycle of fear, anger, and despair, as you digest all the latest news of a world and people in crisis, you owe it to yourself and the world to be kind to yourself, and take a break. And even Jesus needed to be alone every now and then, so you know you’re in good company. In a world inundated with news 24-hours a day, here are some helpful tips on being a peacemaker, beginning with making inner peace:
- Set limits on the consumption of news media, videos, etc. Consider taking a Sabbath from all kinds of media, for a day or even longer.
- If you have trouble setting limits, put notes on the devices you use reminding yourself to ask “Is what I’m doing now nourishing for my soul?”
- Practice noticing patterns in your thoughts and feelings around consuming traumatic news, and take a break when needed.
- Make a list of things that bring you hope, peace, and joy, and practice them.
- If you feel called to do something, then do something! Consider even the smallest gestures that could turn hopelessness and anxiety into action.
- Make time for silent prayer, and practice letting God take on the cares of the world while you rest in God’s presence.
Remember, your greatest contribution to God’s Kingdom is to cultivate the Kingdom within. Stay informed in moderation, be kind to yourself, and be the Peace and Joy of Christ the world so needs.
Peace and Be Well,
Br. Nicholas Bartoli
We Brothers recently spent a few weeks at our rural sanctuary Emery House. I am most alive praying out in woods and fields and by water. I love to go out to the northern bluff and then down to the riverbank, especially at low tide and sunset. I am embarrassed to admit I long ignored stepping over the plastic bottles. My excuses included: “It’s not my problem. This is a big job. I just want to enjoy this place.” Something shifted in me the past few weeks. I brought gloves and bags to collect the bottles. As I began to see anew and more, I carried out rusty barrels, tires, and foam.
Though talking more about caring for the environment this year, it felt distant, both abstract and daunting. What could I really do? Collecting trash on the riverbank opens a connection. This is how I can treasure creation right here. See the beauty and the harm. I stand still to gaze and lament at the scene and admit being part of the problem. I see this as lurking grace, God surprisingly starting to change me.
When grace found me at the riverbank, protests against racial injustice and police brutality began springing up round the country. Something has shifted. We are disturbed. Perhaps the pandemic and our leaders’ varied actions increase pressure or permission for us to act differently. It can be inviting stepping up together. I am uncomfortable and disturbed, feeling more daunted and distant by racism. It’s harder to remain with the discomfort, including not knowing what to do. I am trying to listen and learn more. I appreciate Brené Brown’s podcast “Unlocking Us” especially recent conversations with Austin Channing Brown and Ibram X. Kendi. I find Peter Jarrett-Schell helpful reflecting on being White.
While I am sad these days at sickness, loss, change, murder, and injustice, I am also grateful and hopeful. Grateful for what is shifting in us, in numerous peaceful protests and rippling changes. Grateful for what is shifting in me, for surprising invitations, practical steps, and provocative voices. Hopeful because these are glimpses of divine activity echoing past experience. Jesus keeps bringing light especially where we are blind, bound in narrow perspectives, unaware of history or the impact our actions.
Each sunrise and sunset reminds me of God’s loving gaze now and steadfast presence over generations. I sense the Spirit breathing in and through us. I hear an invitation to keep returning to riverbank, going to be refreshed and going with gloves in hand to refresh that treasure. I am also invited to listen to Black voices and reflect on being White, seeking to remain with discomfort.
What has surprised you? What is shifting? What is God’s invitation for you?
We Brothers pray for you and are grateful for your sustaining friendship.
May you be surprised and empowered today with the Spirit’s lurking grace.