for everyday living
Br. David Vryhof invites us to the challenging, essential practice of forgiveness.
TRANSFORMATION IN LOVE
Forgiveness is essential to healthy human relationships. The French Jesuit and theologian, François Varillon, once said, “People cannot live together unless they forgive each other just for being who they are.” We all need to forgive and be forgiven, over and over again, if our life together is to be life-giving, and if we are to be the agents of healing and reconciliation in the world that Christ calls us to be.
Sometimes it is easy to forgive. We find no difficulty in setting aside the incident and moving on. But at other times we may find it extremely difficult to forgive the one who has hurt us. We may believe that we should forgive; we may even want to forgive. But we recognize that our heart is so full of anger and pain that we cannot yet say, “I forgive you,” and mean it. A declaration of forgiveness at this point would be dishonest and premature. In circumstances like these, we can at least set ourselves on a path towards forgiveness, recognizing that arriving at forgiveness is a desirable and necessary goal, not only because we are commanded to forgive one another “seventy times seven,” but also because forgiveness will rid our hearts of the toxic presence of resentment, anger, and bitterness.
In this article, I hope to raise some questions that one who is on the path towards forgiveness may want to consider. Hopefully, honest engagement with these questions will enhance and facilitate the process of healing so that we may arrive at our destination (actual forgiveness) as soon as possible, recognizing that the time required will vary, depending on the depth of the wound.
Before we set out on the path towards forgiveness, we must be convinced of the worthiness of our goal.
We might first reflect on the costs of withholding forgiveness. Without forgiveness, the hurt we have experienced is perpetuated and passed on to others. Anger, bitterness, and resentment take root in our hearts and gradually change us from within. We stay mired in the past and lose our ability to be present in the moment and to be hopeful about the future. We may become bitter and cynical, or we may be tempted to seek revenge, which will lock us into a cycle of violence that will bring on a whole series of disappointments and misfortunes. Withholding forgiveness is not a healthy option.
We might also reflect on the benefits of forgiving. Forgiveness is essential to our spiritual well-being; it is the necessary outcome of loving one another as God has loved us. “Forgive us our sins,” we pray, “as we forgive those who sin against us.” Jesus commands us to forgive, repeatedly, just as we have been forgiven. Forgiveness heals the brokenness of our hearts and sets us free; it enables us to cultivate a loving heart towards others. It will afford us a clear conscience and bring us peace. There is every reason to set out on this path.
It is important at the outset to rule out the possibility of taking revenge. (As Mahatma Gandhi – and Jesus – taught us, “Violence begets violence.”) Even if we feel that revenge is justified, in the end it will lead only to further misery and guilt, and will deepen our resentment, hostility, and anger. We do best to avoid it at all costs.
It is also important at the outset to put a stop to the offensive actions of another, which is not at all like taking revenge. As long as the offensive behavior continues, there can be no possibility of forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean giving up our rights or cowering before the offender. Putting an end to the offensive behavior may mean confronting the person, or seeking outside assistance, or even appealing to the justice system. But these hurtful actions must stop.
- What relationships or situations in your life are calling out for forgiveness?
- What is the cost of letting the situation continue as it is?
- What benefits can you foresee from addressing the situation?
Naming the Offense
We will run the risk of never being able to offer real forgiveness unless we admit the hurt we have experienced at the hands of the offender. Denying the offense or simply trying to forget it will short-circuit the process of forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean excusing the offender or absolving him or her of all moral responsibility, nor does it mean simply ‘leaving it to God’ (God does not do what is up to us to do; forgiveness depends as much on human as on divine actions). Examining the painful incident honestly is a critical first step towards healing.
We may find it helpful to share our pain with someone who is discrete and trustworthy, and who will not judge us or minimize our pain or overwhelm us with advice. It can add to our suffering if we feel that we are carrying the burden alone. Telling someone also allows us to name and relive the painful event calmly and in a safe environment. When we do this, the pain becomes less threatening and more bearable. The unconditional acceptance of the other person allows us to treat ourselves with compassion.
Examining the effects of the painful incident will help us grieve our losses and move towards genuine forgiveness. We might try to describe what has been damaged or lost (our self-esteem, our reputation, our self-confidence, our integrity, our faith in others, our ideals, our material goods or health or social image, the ability to trust someone with our secrets, admiration for a person we have loved, and so on). Recognizing these wounds is healthy and helpful, whereas taking on the label of “victim” is unhealthy and unhelpful. By labeling ourselves as victims, we lock ourselves into an unhelpful role, which makes forgiveness difficult or impossible.
While it is important to own our own responsibility in the matter (e.g. in the breakdown of a relationship), it is just as important to realize that we are not the only one responsible for the painful event or offense.
If we recognize the presence of anger, it is best if we try to express and release it in the most constructive way possible. Anger is a legitimate emotional response to the hurtful actions or words of an offender, but we must be careful to keep it from taking root and growing into resentment or bitterness. Repressed anger hinders our ability to find joy in relationships; it reveals itself in negative behaviors such as blaming, nagging, cynicism, hostility, or sulking.
- Name the offense you wish to forgive, as specifically as you can.
- Can you describe its effects on you? What emotions do you feel now as you recall it?
Confronting the Other
We will find it easier to forgive those who hurt us if they recognize their fault, express their regret, and decide never to repeat the offense again. We can go to the offender (either by ourselves or in the company of another), objectively describe the pain we have experienced (“When you did this, I felt this”), and see if these conditions are met, but the fact is they may not be met. The offender may not be willing to admit that their actions or words were hurtful, or may not want to talk about the incident or the breakdown of the relationship.
The unwillingness of an offender to accept responsibility or to express regret does not prevent us from moving towards our destination of forgiveness. Forgiveness involves a change of heart that is not dependent on the attitudes or actions of the offender; it is an internal process. If we claim that we cannot forgive the other because they have not owned their part in the matter or expressed appropriate regret, we give them power over us by letting them block our path to wholeness and healing.
- Do you wish to confront the person who has injured you? What do you expect would happen if you did?
People in distress often tend to blame themselves. They may despise themselves for having contributed to the painful event or for having failed to prevent it. They may feel humiliated or overwhelmed by shame and guilt because their shortcomings have been exposed. They may even continue to persecute themselves after the offense is over (“I should have…I was so stupid…I always do this…” are ways of blaming ourselves and further undermining our self-esteem).
If we recognize these critical voices within ourselves, we can challenge them and offer ourselves the balm of kindness and compassion. We will need to forgive ourselves before we can effectively forgive the other.
- Can you offer forgiveness to yourself? What words could you say to yourself to help heal this wound?
Understanding the Other
We can only take this step when we have stopped being preoccupied with our own pain. If that is not the case, we should return to the earlier steps of resolving to set out on the path towards forgiveness, naming the offense and describing its effect on us, sharing our pain with another, and forgiving ourselves. Only then will we be ready to change our perception of the person who has hurt us.
When we have been hurt, we are often inclined to see our offender in the most negative light – as loathsome, deceitful, unfaithful, harmful, irresponsible, etc. When we view the offender in this way, we stop seeing him as a person who can change and bind him to this painful event forever. We may then lose sight of our own weaknesses and flaws and assign all the blame to the other person. Needless to say, this will limit our ability to forgive.
Understanding those who have offended us does not mean excusing them or exempting them from blame. It is instead an effort to see them in a clearer light, to recognize that they are a mystery to us that can never be fully fathomed, and to appreciate some of the factors that may have caused them to act or speak the way they did. If we can put ourselves in their place, we may be able to begin to understand the motives behind their actions and discover within ourselves a measure of sympathy for them that will allow us to move closer to forgiveness. Of course, we will never reach a complete understanding. In the end we will have to entrust these persons to God, who alone can penetrate the mystery of their hearts.
- What do you know about the person who wronged you, or about the circumstances, that might help you better understand their hurtful words or actions?
- If you cannot understand this person, can you entrust them to God?
The Grace of Forgiveness
Even in the most difficult circumstances of our lives, we can often recognize the grace of God at work. God’s work is to bring life out of death, joy out of sorrow, healing out of pain, and hope out of defeat. At this place on the path towards forgiveness, we might be able to imagine what we could learn or how we could grow from this painful experience. We may be able to discover a positive outcome (or potential outcome) that will allow us to recall the event(s) in a more hopeful way. Perhaps we can say, “I’ve learned to say ‘no’ when my values are being compromised” or “I now have more compassion for others who are in a similar situation” or “I’ve developed some practical ways to respond if this comes up again.”
At this point we may be able to imagine a brighter future. The pain surrounding the offense no longer seems all-consuming because our perspective has changed. We may still bear the scars of the offense, but they are no longer raw, gaping wounds. They are not as sensitive or painful to the touch as they once were.
A Gift, not an Obligation
If I imagine forgiving my offender as an obligation placed upon me by a rigid or demanding God (a God, perhaps, who waits to forgive me until I have forgiven others), I will find it difficult to forgive others freely and generously. But if I have known and accepted forgiveness from God as an unmerited gift springing from God’s generosity and love, I may well find within myself the same generous capacity to forgive the one who has hurt me. “We love because he first loved us,” writes the author of 1 John, and so we might also say, “We forgive because he first forgave us.” In Luke 7, Jesus praises a woman who is able to love much because she has been forgiven much, and this serves as a reminder to us that we, too, have been graciously forgiven our offenses.
If we have known the God who (like the father in Luke 15:11-24) runs down the road to meet us and embrace us when we have come straggling home, soiled with sin and guilt; then we may be able to find within ourselves the same capacity for generosity, compassion and forgiveness towards those who have wronged us. But if we have not yet discovered this extravagant loving forgiveness of God in our own lives, we may (like the unforgiving creditor in Matthew 18:23-35) find it difficult to extend mercy toward those who have offended or hurt us.
Forgiveness is a gift of love which we receive from God, and can then pass on to others.
- When and how have you received the gift of forgiveness in your life?
- Can your knowledge of the extravagant loving forgiveness of God feed your forgiveness of others?
Forgiveness and Reconciliation
We may find ourselves pausing at the threshold of forgiveness because we wrongfully assume that forgiveness necessarily leads to reconciliation, and we are reluctant to open ourselves to further abuse. But forgiveness is not synonymous with reconciliation. Although reconciliation may be the normal and desirable outcome of forgiveness, we should not imagine that it implies a return to the way things were before the offense. When a serious offense has occurred it is impossible to resume the former relationship because it has been forever changed. At most we can try to re-imagine it or give it some other form. But we must not assume that, in every case, forgiveness will lead to reconciliation. In many cases, it would be foolhardy or even dangerous to resume the relationship.
Forgiveness is possible even when reconciliation is not. Granting forgiveness helps us to recover our inner peace and freedom, it releases us from the burdens of resentment and the desire for revenge, and it restores our self-esteem. It can help us to understand and accept the person who has hurt us, discover positive benefits in the situation, and enable us to wish them well. Our ability to forgive may even lead the offender to a change of heart.
Granting forgiveness does not magically resolve the difficulties in a relationship; nor does it guarantee that the offender will not repeat the offending actions. But it can prove beneficial to us and further our growth and transformation in love. It is also the essence of the new community which Christ has called into being, as Paul reminds the Colossian Christians:
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…and be thankful.” (Col. 3:12-15)
About Br. David Vryhof
Br. David Vryhof, SSJE was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He holds a B.A. degree in Elementary Education from Calvin College and a M.A. in Education of the Deaf from Gallaudet University. He taught deaf children at the Rhode Island School for the Deaf in Providence for six years, and trained teachers for the deaf at the MICO Teachers’ College in Kingston, Jamaica, for three years before coming to the Society in 1985. He studied at Duke Divinity School and at General Theological Seminary, earning an M.Div. degree in 1993. After serving a small church on the east side of Detroit, he returned to SSJE in 1995 and was life-professed in 1997. He is an experienced retreat leader and spiritual director and has taught throughout the United States, as well as in Africa and in Israel/Palestine.
for everyday living
Br. James Koester on how baptism enables us to share in the divine life.
SHARING THE DIVINE LIFE
Before coming to the monastery, I served for a number of years as a parish priest in a little parish on the west coast of Canada. I’d been in the parish for about six months when a woman named Alice came out of church one Sunday and told me she had only ever heard me preach one sermon. I knew that that wasn’t true. Alice and her husband had been in church nearly every Sunday since I had come to the parish and on the rare occasion they missed a Sunday they called the rectory ahead of time to explain why they were going to be absent! I obviously looked confused because she went on to say: “What I mean is that it doesn’t matter where you start, you always end up back in the same place: at baptism.” I began to apologize, but she cut in, “Oh no, no. No need to apologize. I wasn’t complaining. I was agreeing with you, because baptism is so important for the life of a Christian.” Alice of course was right. Baptism is important because baptism is about nothing less than sharing in the divine life of God.
“O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature,” we pray in the Collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas, “Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity..." In the Incarnation, we believe that as Christ shared in our human life, so we share in his divine life through baptism. As the Prayer Book Catechism reminds us, “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.” Thus we share in the divine life of God by being made children of God, by being made members of Christ’s body, and by becoming heirs of the kingdom of God. If we truly believe what we say, all of this happens at the font where we die to sin and rise to newness of life through the waters of baptism, just as the First Letter of Peter reminds us: “And baptism . . . now saves you – not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” In this way, even now and not at some future date, because of our baptism, we begin to share the reality of that divine life we speak of in the Collect, and which Christ promises to all who believe in him: “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
When we begin to understand that baptism does something to us now, and that that something is nothing short of incorporation into the divine life of God, then we can begin to experience the Trinity, not as some kind of mathematical puzzle – or a scientific experiment using water, ice, and steam showing that each of them is the same chemical but simply in a different form. Rather, we will know the doctrine of the Trinity as a lived reality. By our baptism we are invited not merely to understand, but to experience the Trinity.
We see in the Gospels that Jesus always calls us by name: Peter, John, Mary. We'd love to know your name.
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Sharing the Life of the Trinity
Our founder, Father Benson, speaks about how problematic is our neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity, and his comments are perhaps truer today than they were when he first said them. Father Benson goes so far as to say:
I quite feel that the practical neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity has been the great cause of the decay of Christendom. The Church – the Sacraments – Hagilogy, I had almost said Mythology – have filled the minds of devout people, partly for good partly for evil. Thyself unmoved, all motion’s source, this mystery of the circulating life of the eternal Godhead, has been almost lost to sight, spoken of as a mystery, and not felt as a power or loved as a reality.5
Imagine anyone claiming today that the decline of the Church is related to a decline in teaching about the doctrine of the Trinity! But think how rich our preaching about the Trinity could be if we connected it to our understanding of baptism. To turn again to Father Benson: “If we would know the Trinity, we must know ourselves taken into the Trinity.”6
What does it mean to say that we are “taken into the Trinity?” It actually is not as complicated as it might at first sound. Chapter Four in the Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist on “The Witness of Life in Community,” explains how every form of human community takes its cue from the Holy Trinity: “In community we bear witness to the social nature of human life as willed by our Creator. Human beings bear the image of the triune God and are not meant to be separate and isolated. All of us are called by God to belong to communities.”7 Such a lived reality of communion and community with God and one another, rooted in baptism, brings a far different understanding to the doctrine of the Trinity than any number of mathematical conundrums by which we try to convince people that 3 = 1. As communities have broken down and families fragmented, is it any wonder that the notion of community has such appeal today? As Christians, our understanding of community is, as Father Benson would say, rooted in the very heart of God who is Community.
The famous icon of the Holy Trinity by Saint Andrei Rublev offers a powerful glimpse at what the communal life of God the Trinity looks like. Our Rule calls this life one of “reciprocal self-giving and love.”8 And the icon by Rublev illustrates this, depicting three near-identical figures seated at a table. They’re involved in communication. Their heads appear to be inclined towards one another, they seem to make eye contact, and their hands are captured in a series of delicate gestures, almost as if one points to another in a circle. It is as if we have caught them mid-conversation. Look again: There are four sides to this table, but only three seats are filled. The spot closest to the viewer is left open because Rublev wants to show us that there is a place at the table for us. God is inviting us into the circle of divine communion and community.
We’re invited to participate in the Trinity not as a mathematical puzzle, an intellectual quandary to be solved, but as an experience of community to be had. As our Rule explains, “Our human vocation to live in communion and mutuality is rooted in our creation in God’s image and likeness. The very being of God is community; the Father, Son and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love. The mystery of God as Trinity is one that only those living in personal communion can understand by experience.”9 God the Trinity is a mystery, solvable only by the experience of life in community. Whether we look to the divine community of the Trinity or the human communities in which we take part on earth, we come to know the Trinity only when we experience it as a relationship of self-giving and love. And we begin to do this in baptism. So the formula for Holy Baptism proclaims that we are brought into this relationship: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Members of Christ
Sharing in the divine life of the Trinity through baptism has deep ramifications for the way we understand not just the stories in the gospels or their promises about Christ. Sharing the divine life of God has huge ramifications for how we understand ourselves as well.
To take one example, consider the Ascension of Christ. Father Benson loved the Ascension and was constantly inviting his audience to “Look to the glory of the ascended Christ.” He points repeatedly throughout his writings to Christ’s Ascension because he wants to remind us that the Ascension is not something that happened a long time ago to someone else – although it did indeed happen to Jesus. But the Ascension is not an isolated incident. If we really do believe what we say about baptism – that we are made members of Christ – then, the Ascension is about us as well. If Christ has ascended into heaven and has taken his place at the right hand of the Father in glory, then as members of Christ’s body, so too have we. The Ascension is not simply about Christ, it is about us as well.
Now, upon his Ascension, His body in them is glorified instantaneously with the glorifying of His body at the right hand of God. Like an electric flash the glory of the Spirit shines out in the fires of Pentecost. The body of Christ, however veiled in our flesh . . . nevertheless cannot but have the glory of the Spirit of holy fire burning and resting upon it. We do not, I think, dwell as we ought to dwell upon the present glorification of our nature in our own persons, as members of the glorified body of Christ.10
In the Collect for the Feast of the Ascension, we proclaim that Christ has “ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell.”11 Christ ascends so that we might also “thither ascend.” This is not just about Christ. It is about us as well.
Baptized into the Trinity, ascended with Christ, we share in the divine life of God. “Do you not know,” Saint Paul asks in the Letter to the Romans, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his life. Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”12 That glory is not something that will happen to us someday in the future. We are already glorified with Christ because we have been baptized into his life, death, and resurrection. In the same letter, Saint Paul goes on to urge, “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”13
Union and Communion
Baptism then is about union and communion. “We will certainly be united with him,” says Saint Paul. And we experience baptism as both a sign and a seal of that hope. First, we experience it as a sign of what God desires for us: namely, life and union with God. Second, we know that it is a seal of that promised life and union with God. God is reaching out to us with this gift of baptism, both as a sign and seal of God’s love. And, when we accept baptism, we reach forward to God claiming the promise and sharing the life. In baptism, we glimpse that mutuality and reciprocity that is at the heart of community, what the Rule calls, “reciprocal self-giving and love,” just as the figures in Rublev’s icon of the Trinity reach out to one another and to us.
In this way, baptism is very much like the moment of the Eucharist when God reaches out to us as we reach out to God to receive that Sacrament in our outstretched hands. We reach out to meet the One who first reaches out to us. There is a similar kind of reciprocity and mutuality in baptism. “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Saviour?” the celebrant asks the person about to be baptized. We say “Yes” and we turn to God, even as we acknowledge that it is God who has first called us.
We have the opportunity to experience and to renew our baptism Sunday by Sunday in the Eucharist. Tradition frequently calls the Eucharist the Blessed Sacrament, but Father Benson would claim that it is actually Holy Baptism. He laments how “In Western Christendom the Holy Eucharist has so entirely overshadowed Holy Baptism that the food of our life is made to be a gift greater than the life which it sustains.”14 He means to point out how the Eucharist renews and sustains the life we were given in baptism. Baptism is the fundamental event by which we are invited to share in the divine life. In the Eucharist, we have an opportunity to renew, reaffirm, and nourish that life. Even those of us who were baptized as infants and have no memory of the event can have an ongoing, powerful experience of our baptism – of meeting God and being embraced by God – when we are fed by God in the Eucharist. For in the Eucharist we are again brought into communion and community with God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As we reach out for the Bread and Wine, we can remember the divine life which it sustains in us, and by which we are made members of Christ, the children of God, and inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The weekly renewal of our baptism through the Eucharist aims to remind us that the life we share with God is not a life that is “yet to come.” We are not simply waiting for someday in the future when we will share in the life of God or be united with God. Baptism promises us that we are already sharing the life of God. We’re already sharing in the life of God, already joining the Trinity around the table, as in Rublev’s icon, already sharing in the glory of the life of the Ascended Christ. Baptized in the name of the Trinity, we are already sharing in the mystery of this communion.
Here and Now
Our sharing in the life of God, here and now, is why the sacramental signs of baptism and the Eucharist are so powerful: water, oil, bread and wine. These concrete elements ground our experience of the divine life in the here and now. They tell us that this mystery which we proclaim – the divine life we share – is happening right now. So I love the fact that we use real bread in our Eucharist at the Monastery, because you don’t need to pretend that the Eucharist is feeding you. You actually experience how the Eucharist is feeding you. You can actually taste the bread, you have to chew and swallow. And so too, I love the way we celebrate baptisms at the Monastery, because people actually get wet. Babies go all the way into the font: toes, knees, bellies, elbows, and heads. The water, the bread tell us that this is happening right now. You can feel it, smell it, and taste it.
We can sometimes treat baptism as if it’s cute, all dolled up with christening gowns and frilly bonnets. Baptism is not cute. It’s awful – not in the ghastly or dreadful sense of the word, but in the sense of the word that means “inspiring awe or wonder.” Baptism is awe-full. Baptism should strike terror and wonder into our hearts, for by it we are made members of Christ, children of God, and inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven. And this is not kids’ stuff, not child’s play, though God wants children to share in the divine life, too. While we might feel child-like wonder faced with God’s glory in baptism, we should also feel a very grown-up terror.
At their best, the visual signs we use in baptism can help us to perceive the danger we are facing as we encounter the living God. Imagine if, while baptizing you, the celebrant held your head under the water for a few seconds longer than you expected. If you were lucky, you’d come up gasping. If you were unlucky, you’d come up choking. Just as the Eucharist is about eating and drinking, chewing and gulping, baptism is about drowning and rising. It is about death and life. It is about washing and bathing. Baptism is dangerous because you could die. But it is also life-giving because, at the very moment of death, you are pulled out of the water and saved. The stark reality is that there is a danger in baptism, but there is life as well, for just as the celebrant says, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” you are plunged into the water, and then, just in time, are lifted up to breathe in the life of God – not later – right now.
Water and oil, bread and wine: these are vivid signs and seals of God’s desire for us to share in the divine life. In baptism, even as we drip with the water of life and smell the fragrance of the oil of our sealing in the Spirit, we realize that our life has been given back to us, and that it is no ordinary life, for the life we live now is the very life of God, whose divine life we share as members of Christ, children of God, and inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven.
1 Book of Common Prayer 1979: 214.
2 Book of Common Prayer 1979: 858.
3 1 Peter 3:21-22
4 John 1:12-13
5 Letters of Richard Meux Benson SSJE, A.R. Mowbray Co. Ltd., 1916: 187.
6 Cowley Evangelist, 1919: 147.
7 Rule of Life of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, 8.
8 Ibid, 9.
9 Ibid, 9.
10 Further Letters, 268-9.
11 Book of Common Prayer 1979, 174.
12 Romans 6:4.
13 Romans 6:5.
14 Further Letters, 44.
About Br. James Koester
Br. James Koester, SSJE was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. He holds a B.A. in History and English literature from Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, and an M. Div. from Trinity College, Toronto, Ontario. He was ordained to the diaconate and subsequently to the priesthood in British Columbia, where he served parishes in Parksville and Salt Spring Island.
In 1989 he came to the United States to test his vocation with the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, where he was life-professed in 1995. Br. James has served in a wide range of leadership posts in the Society, currently serving as the community’s Superior. During his time in the Society he has traveled widely in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, the Holy Land, and in Africa, leading retreats and workshops, preaching, teaching, and offering spiritual direction. His personal interests include genealogy, the study and writing of icons, and beekeeping.
for everyday living
Br. Curtis Almquist on the concrete ways we can allow conversion to take place in our lives and selves.
PRUNING, TIME, AND HELP
On the road to damascus to continue his persecution of Christians, Saul the Pharisee has a dramatic encounter with Jesus. Saul has a conversion experience: “As he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus.’” “Conversion,” as the word appears in the New Testament Greek, means “to turn” – to turn in a new direction in response to Jesus. We see this literally in Saul’s story: He was headed in one direction, but because of his encounter with Jesus, he turned into a new path. On the other side of this dramatic conversion experience, Saul, now Paul, spends more than seventeen years in the desert of Arabia and Syria where the Scriptures are silent. What he was doing all those years before his active ministry begins, we can only conjecture. I imagine it was about his ongoing conversion to Christ. He was practicing what he would later preach: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” While it may have begun with a singular, dramatic experience, Saint Paul’s conversion to Christ would be a life-long process, and so for us.
You, too, may have had a life-changing encounter with Jesus sometime in your past – a conversion experience. That was not an experience of a lifetime; that was an experience of how to live life all the time. Every day, from dawn to dusk, we must make a good many decisions how we will respond to life: what we will say or do, what we will reveal or conceal, what we will keep or share. Conversion is about our life-long turning and returning to Christ Jesus for his cues and for his power as we navigate life. Saint Paul would say, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”4 And so for us. Yet there are concrete things we can do to allow this conversion to take place in our lives and selves. Our life-long conversion to Christ requires pruning, time, and help. In the monastic tradition, we call this conversio morum – conversion of life.
Conversion requires pruning
Not long ago I was having a conversation with one of my SSJE Brothers about my reaction to something. I said to him, “I guess I’ve got some baggage around that.” My Brother responded, “Curtis, that’s not baggage, that’s freight!” Quite. Our past informs our life; it may also have deformed our life, leaving a residue. That residue will get in the way of living our lives abundantly, as Jesus promises us. The residue will leave us reacting rather than responding to life. Your life is a streaming invitation from God to say “Yes!” Our life-long conversion is our co-operating with how Jesus wants to set us free, his work in us “to bind up the broken-hearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.”5
In the Gospel according to John, Jesus speaks of “pruning” as a metaphor for conversion of life: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”6 Jesus obviously learned something about cultivating a garden and its cost. I’m not talking about the cost to the gardener – the time and labor expended, which is real – but rather, the cost to the plants. I cannot imagine that anything is more confusing to a living plant than to be pruned. For a plant, whose sole reason for being is to be alive and to grow, to be cut back . . . it must feel like death to a plant! And yet, every gardener will know that unless the plant is pruned back, the plant may grow, but it will likely grow wild and it will spend itself prematurely, missing its great potential to flower with form and beauty, season after season. Gardens need to be cultivated, and plants need to be pruned back to bring forth the best of what they’ve been created to be. Is there something in your life that needs to be pruned? Something you may carry as baggage or freight in your soul that would be helpful for you to part with?
It may have to do with forgiving someone. Jesus speaks of unforgiveness as an imprisoning experience. Is there someone who has negatively affected or infected your life? Not forgiving them leaves them imprisoned – impeding them from changing – and it leaves you imprisoned as their prison guard. Both the prisoner and the prison guard are in prison. Forgiveness is a liberating experience for the other person and for you. Should you wait for them to ask for your forgiveness? No, absolutely not. To wait is to continue to give them power over you. If they have hurt you, you are colluding with them by your unwillingness to forgive. Unforgiveness will metastasize in your own soul and become resentment. Very dangerous. Nelson Mandela, when he was freed at age seventy-two from his twenty-six years of cruel imprisonment in South Africa, felt bitter toward his captors, but was determined not to let it ruin the rest of his life. He spoke truth; he sought reconciliation. “Resentment,” he said, “is like drinking poison and waiting for it to kill your enemy.” Forgive. Forgiveness may need to be your daily practice, otherwise a residue may build up like barnacles, weighing you down, impeding your life.
Pruning in your life may have to do with an expectation, a plan, a goal, a presumption about something which you clearly see isn’t going to be realized, isn’t going to happen. To cling to this could unwittingly cultivate the poison of resentment or anger in the ground of your being. It needs to be pruned. It might have to do with something you believed or valued, which you’re not so sure of now. Better to travel lighter. Is there some kind of pruning back of what once was alive in you but – for whatever reason – is no longer?
Life prunes us, whether or not we consent to it. Some of this comes in the form of disappointments: what we could have had or feel we should have had, but don’t; because we weren’t chosen for something; because we were chosen for something; because we grew up on the wrong side of the tracks; because we were let go (let go from a job; let go by a friend). Changes in our health, the experience of growing older and seeing our energies diminish, the experience of losing the loves of our life, the experience of simply not being able to have it all, and ultimately the anticipating of our own death and of dying: these experiences are some of the “pruning” that mortal life simply brings to us all, whether or not we choose it. But Jesus is saying to choose it. Choose to abide where you are now, which in itself is a kind of pruning from the delusion that what the MasterCard people say is true: “You can have it all.” You cannot. It’s a snare and delusion to think that life offers us limitless options. It does not and it’s not supposed to. To abide, as Jesus says, is to be rooted and grounded in the love of God – Jesus being the vine, and we the various branches that will bear the tough love of being pruned.
Pruning may also free you up from a self-image you have held since childhood but which does not fit, maybe never did. Somewhere, from someone, you may have learned what you could be or should be in life, and this simply is not who you are. You need to say “yes” to your life and yourself, amazing person that you are. If you find yourself having this internal battle – one part of you always critical about yourself, what should be different or better, and the other part pleading that you’re doing the best you can – you need to get on good speaking terms with yourself. Jesus has come, not only to break down the dividing wall between us and other people; he has also come to break down the dividing wall within us. Claim your life, the whole of it. What is clearly good, cherish and cultivate. What is clearly broken, venerate, because your brokenness becomes a breakthrough for God. Never dismiss yourself. You are a work in progress, one that will require your attention for the rest of your life. Co-operate with God. That, inevitably, will involve pruning for you to be fully alive. There’s an endearing word of insight in the Talmud: “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’” Co-operate with your soul’s God-implanted will to grow and be free.
Conversion requires time
SSJE’s founder, Richard Meux Benson (1824–1915), wrote of our life-long conversion being gradual and, for the time being, always beyond our reach. He encouraged us “to look forward to that perfection which God would give eventually.” Perfection is a word on Jesus’ own lips: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” For some of us, “perfection” is a sore subject, a deforming word which we may long to prune from our soul’s vocabulary. However, the word, as Jesus speaks it, is more accessible as a verb: to perfect.7 To perfect implies a process or cultivation or conversion over time.
To perfect your life, start with the imperfections, which is how God most often attracts our attention. Where we feel strong, well equipped, confident, we probably feel quite self sufficient. Where we are incomplete or when we feel our life to be unmanageable, we are vulnerable. Our brokenness becomes God’s point of break-through in our lives.8 Jean-Pierre de Caussade, the eighteenth-century French spiritual director, writes, “Rejoice every time you discover a new imperfection.” He counsels, if you find yourself getting impatient, try to bear your impatience patiently. If you lose your tranquility, endure that loss tranquilly. If you get angry, don’t get angry with yourself for getting angry. If you are not content, try to be content with your discontent. “Don’t fuss too much about yourself,” de Caussade says. “Don’t fight the truth of yourself. The time will come when the sight of your imperfection and brokenness, which may horrify you now, will fill you with joy and keep you in a delightful peace . . . . The fruit of grace must, for the moment, remain hidden, buried as it were in the abyss of your imperfection, underneath the most lively awareness of your weakness.”9 So says Saint Paul, “In Christ, strength is made perfect in weakness.”10
Our conversion, like the attitude de Caussade counsels, takes time. Father Benson was of a mind that a pining for immediacy of spiritual knowledge and gifts was the core sin in the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve’s “fall” came when they yielded to the persuasion of Satan “to seize upon these higher gifts at once” on their own initiative and strength, rather than receiving them as a progressive gift of God. Father Benson writes, “We cannot bound into the depths of God at one spring; if we could, we should be shattered, not filled. God draws us on.”11 Our conversion, our spiritual development, mirrors the development of children. In the Scriptures we are not referred to as “adults of God,” but rather, repeatedly, as children of God. We are God’s children. Children are not ready to know everything at once. In the fullness of time we will know what we can bear. God knows what we know, God knows what we don’t know, and God knows that we don’t know. God certainly is not in a rush in God’s work in our lives; God has all the time in the world. Our ongoing conversion to Christ requires our attention, and it takes time, a lifetime.
Conversion requires help
Down through the centuries a recurring warning has come from the spiritual masters about self-deception. Left to our own devices, we are prone to go astray like lost sheep. We need help. Help is essential in our conversion to Jesus Christ. Our relationship to Jesus is personal, but it is not private. When we hear Jesus speaking to us in the Gospels, when he says “you,” this is “you-plural”: you all. Where we belong to Christ is in the context of what Saint Paul calls “the body of Christ,” other followers of Jesus in whom Jesus lives and speaks and to whom we are joined. We need others, and they need us. Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), the Spanish Carmelite nun and mystic, said: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the world. Yours are the feet with which Christ is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which Christ is to bless all people now.” Live out your conversion by being generously available to bear the beams of Christ’s light and life and love to others, and to accept their help in bringing Christ’s light and life and love to you.
Needing help can be quite humbling. Father Benson writes that “humility is not only ready to do anything for anyone, but it is also ready to receive anything at other peoples’ hands. Many people will humble themselves to do abasing actions, and will not humble themselves to receive little kindnesses at other peoples’ hands.” There will be some people in our life to whom we are naturally drawn, people whom we trust, look to, listen for. We recognize that they are Christ-bearers to us.
There are likely other people in our life whom we’re more prone to see as an irritation, an obstacle, perhaps an enemy, certainly not a Christ-bearer. I recall Mother Teresa’s being asked many years ago whether she saw Christ in the incredibly poor, maimed, dying people whom she and her sisters served. She said, “Yes, but Jesus oftentimes comes hideously disguised.” The problem-people in our lives will often be our best teachers. Those people who snag us, who hold us fast like two interlocking strips of Velcro, hold onto us for a reason. When the “Velcro” of our own soul gets snagged on someone else’s “Velcro,” there’s an invitation for us. Inside the irritation is an invitation for our own conversion because something that had been hidden – hidden to us about our own lives – has been exposed through this emissary, this other child of God. In that encounter, there is likely an invitation for ongoing conversion to Christ. As we say in our own Rule of Life: “Our diversity and our brokenness mean that tensions and friction are inevitably woven into the fabric of everyday life. They are not to be regarded as signs of failure. Christ uses them for our conversion as we grow in mutual forbearance and learn to let go of the pride that drives us to control and reform our brothers on our own terms.” 12
If we lean into life as a recurring invitation from Christ for our ongoing conversion, we will experience life as a gift, a recurring gift, with each passing moment of the day. Our quest is to recognize Christ in everyone. Father Benson said the work of conversion in our lives follows the course from indifference to one another, to compassion for one another, to identification with one another. This is not easy – because on the surface we all appear to be so very different – but it is the way to become real, to be fully alive.
Jesus is the beginning, and the end, and the way to our conversion. Late in life, Nikos Kazantzakis, the eminent 20th century Greek philosopher, asked a monk, Father Makarios, “Do you still wrestle with the devil?” “Not any longer, my child,” replied the Father. “I have grown too old and he has grown too old with me. He does not have the strength. I now wrestle with God.” “With God?” exclaimed Kazantzakis, “And you hope to win?” “No,” answered the monk, “I hope to lose.” And so for us. In the end, we want to be able to pray as Saint Paul did at the end of his life: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”13
1 Acts of the Apostles 9:3-9.
2 Galatians 1-2.
3 Philippians 2:12-13.
4 Galatians 2:20.
5 Luke 4:16-21.
6 John 15:1-17.
7 Matthew 5:48; Luke 18:9-14; John 5:44; also Romans 10:3f; Galatians 3:10.
8 Ephesians 2:13-14.
9 Simon Tugwell in Ways of Imperfection, p. 213, quoting and citing Jean-Pierre de Caussade in Lettres Spirituelles, vol 1 (Paris, 1962). pp. 117.
10 2 Corinthians 12:9.
11 Cowley Evangelist, 1918, p. 53.
12 The SSJE Rule of Life - Chapter 5: “The Challenges of Life in Community.”
13 Philippians 3:8-9.
About Br. Curtis Almquist
Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE resides at Emery House, sharing in the daily round of prayer and worship, meeting with retreatants, stewarding the beautiful grounds, and doing some baking and cooking. He is an avid photographer and swimmer. He came to SSJE almost 25 years ago and served as Superior from 2001 to 2010.
for everyday living
Br. James Koester marvels how the rhythms of the creation can draw us into deeper life with God and greater balance within ourselves.
LIVING IN RHYTHM
FOLLOWING NATURE'S RULE
Q. What are we by nature?
A. We are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God.
Q. What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
A. It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.
These opening sentences of the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer identify us, first and foremost, as part of God’s creation. We can only thrive when we “live in harmony with creation and with God” (“An Outline of the Faith,” Book of Common Prayer, Church Publishing: 1979, 845).
I’ve come to know this myself in a profound way: Several years ago, I moved from the SSJE Monastery, right in the heart of Harvard Square in Cambridge, to our rural Monastery called Emery House. The Emery family had lived and farmed this land for over 300 years before entrusting it to the Society in 1950. From a world of high granite arches and marble altars, stained glass and organ music, with cars passing just outside the door on Memorial Drive, I found myself suddenly surrounded, day in and day out, month after month, by new sights and sounds: meadow grasses bending in a breeze, frost icing the branches of the beech grove, the companionship of a flock of wonderfully noisy, inquisitive geese. There were no street lights but the stars. And, as often as not, my experience of the Daily Office was now punctuated by bird calls.
As I adjusted to these new surroundings – which were of course already known to me from my frequent stays at Emery House – it turned out that this new world was not as familiar as I’d thought. I found no end of lessons waiting in the world around me. The bees, for instance, taught me to do one thing at a time. If my focus or attention drifted, I found they had an unpleasant habit of reminding me who actually was in charge. The garden taught me that you can’t simply take the harvest, you also must invest in the soil by rotating crops and adding nutrients, by composting and mulching. The geese constantly reminded me of the importance of joy in our lives, for they are some of the most joyful creatures God ever created, especially first thing in the morning when I let them out of the coop or when they attempt to take flight in a rush to greet me when I appear in the garden later in the day.
The more I listened and learned, the more I began to suspect that, living more closely in touch with nature at Emery House, I wasn’t just becoming a better gardener and a better gosherd and a better beekeeper. I realized that, perhaps, I was also becoming a better monk, a better Christian – even, a better human being.
In the gospels, Jesus frequently points to creation as a way to teach us about the Kingdom and our abiding in God. He invites us to consider the lilies of the fields, to look at the mustard seed, to abide in the vine, and to ponder the mystery of pruning. His parables illustrate their lessons with common objects and activities from the natural world – sowing, pruning, and reaping, for example – admittedly more familiar to his original audience than to readers two millennia later. (We tend to have lives more distanced from nature now.) But there is also a deeper reason for the presence of such natural imagery throughout the Scriptures. From the very opening of the book of Genesis – when we see God at work, making the earth – the creation promises to offer us a direct link back to its Creator. By looking to the wonder of creation, we begin to fathom the mystery of our belonging to the God who made us, too. As people with the eyes of faith, we see in the yearly cycle of the seasons the transfiguring power of the Spirit, restoring all things in Christ who himself fills all things.
One of the earliest members of our community, Father George Congreve, SSJE, taught powerfully about this restoration. He saw that humanity’s perfect unity with creation had been lost in the Fall: “The coming of sin brought estrangement between man and nature. The happiness of their union in serving God was broken.” But Father Congreve also saw that the resurrection of Christ promises a restoration of that unity: “As the Son of Man raised to the Right Hand of God gathers all mankind into blessing . . . so He heals the estrangement between man and nature, and lifts up to God both together in Himself. Thus the unity not of mankind only, but the whole of creation is restored in Christ.” Restoration – the restoration of our balance with nature, as well as the restoration of the natural world itself – teaches us our own place as creatures, natural creatures, placed on this earth by a loving Creator.
And what a creation it is! SSJE’s founder, Father Benson, encourages us to “look to the glory” of God, and we behold this glory not only in the Ascended Christ, where Father Benson focused our attention, but we see this glory too, imprinted on creation. It’s visible everywhere around us. Such wonder and beauty reveals the bounty and generosity of God, the Chief Gardener, working endlessly toward the good of God’s creation and creatures. As the psalmist reminds us: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all, the earth is full of your creatures” (Psalm 104: 25).
For this reason, one of the things that I really value about Emery House is the night sky. I don’t know very much about stars – I can’t identify constellations or anything like that – but I just love to look up at the heavens. Living under the stars teaches me over and over again about the magnificence of God. As counter intuitive as it might seem, in a way, I would say the same thing about sitting in the Monastery Chapel: When I sit in the Monastery Chapel, I’m amazed by the skill of the Master Craftsman who made the human craftsmen who built it. (How could God have created humans who could create something like this?) Whether sitting in the Monastery Chapel or gazing up at the night sky at Emery House after Compline, the masterpiece of the Creator is all around us, drawing our hearts to God.
When we begin to be attentive to the work of the Creator, it can transform the way we are alive to the lessons unfolding around us. We notice purpose and intention behind the beauty. There is form and structure and order in creation, put there by the hand of the Chief Gardener who tends it. Seen from a distance, the natural world may look crazy and chaotic – just a jungle to us – and yet, nature is much more dependent and interdependent than we might think.
We invited Tom Wessels, a natural historian, to walk the Emery House property with the Brothers and some of our advisors. Tom’s expertise allows him to “read” a landscape and interpret its history: what the land was used for, how it has changed over time, what crops may have been grown on it, when certain parts of the property might have been used for pasture, and when the meadows and fields were allowed to revert to forest. Tom explained to us that nature actually communicates with itself through various means. Trees can communicate with one another underground through the root system, and in the air, through their leaves, allowing them to synchronize the production of leaves and seeds as well as to prepare themselves for an invasion of pests. (See Tom Wessels’ book, Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England, The Countryman Press, 1997.)
So, for instance, take oak trees. Oak trees produce acorns on a seven-year cycle. Every year, they produce a few acorns and then, on the seventh year, they produce a plenitude of acorns. This is called masting. It turns out that all the acorns in New England mast on the sameseven-year cycle, because they can communicate with all the other oak trees across New England – except the trees on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, which mast on a different cycle. The trees can’t communicate that far. From even this one example we see that while nature may look quite chaotic, in the mind of God it’s much more ordered and has more form, pattern, and rhythm than we might at once perceive.
The most easily perceptible patterns in nature take the shape of cycles. There is the yearly cycle of the seasons. There’s the daily cycle of the sunset, night, dawn, and day. And then there are other, more specific cycles. My favorite example is one I didn’t learn about until a few years ago, here at Emery House: the chicken cycle!
It turns out that a chicken can lay an egg every twenty-five hours, depending on the amount of sunlight it gets. (A chicken needs about fourteen to sixteen hours of sunlight in order for the hormones to kick in to lay the egg.) Who knew that egg-laying was connected to the sun? Well, with our brood at Emery House, we noticed that the production of eggs declined as the days got shorter and the nights got longer. Of course, commercial farmers have learned that there are ways to alter this natural cycle. If you put a light in the chicken coop, to fool the chickens into thinking it’s light twenty-four hours a day, they increase their productivity. Under such artificial constraints, they produce their egg every twenty-five hours, whether it is pitch black outside for twenty of those hours or not.
At Emery House, we decided that such an approach didn’t seem fair to the chickens. For some reason or other, God created them to work in this very specific way. And if we tried to artificially stimulate them to produce eggs, it would be like us artificially stimulating ourselves to work overtime all the time. I have the feeling that God didn’t make us for that kind of life either.
Yet because we humans are no longer solely dependent on the sun for light, we’ve been able to extend the day beyond what is natural or sustainable. For a lot of people, this means we’ve been able to extend the workdaybeyond what is natural or sustainable. One hundred and fifty years ago, when the Emery family lived on this land and farmed, they simply could not work for most of the year at 6:00 pm, 7:00 pm, 8:00 pm, not to mention 9:00 or 10:00 at night. Now, I want to be clear that I’m all in favor of electricity. It has changed our lives mostly for the good. But it’s also contributed to the temptation we experience to live an unbalanced life. We’ve pushed the boundaries of day and night beyond their natural elasticity – a natural elasticity that was put there as a boundary, for our own good.
Taking a lesson from the chickens and their relationship to the hours of daylight, we see that, just as the chickens need a break from egg laying – it’s built into their makeup – so too, do we need a break from our labors. Even God chose to rest! “And on the seventh day, God rested” (Genesis 2:2). So we need a rest at the end of each day, as well as weekly, on the Sabbath, and even yearly, with an annual holiday or a retreat to recharge. Lessons in time management might seem to be of human design – after all we’re the ones with schedules and work calendars to follow – but the proof comes to us directly from the natural world. Our need to rest is retaught to us with each sunset. The creation points the way to the rhythm that is natural to us.
As monastics, we Brothers are committed to seeking balance in our lives and helping others to discover the natural rhythms that will enable them to thrive. This desire is at the heart of what it means to us to be monks. People who encounter our community for the first time are often shocked to learn how ordered the Brothers’ lives are. Even novices in our community often comment that one of the things that most surprises them is how every hour is scheduled – even the rest hours – and every activity, work, and play, has its place in the monastic day.
We live in this ordered way in the hopes of finding a more natural, life-giving rhythm for our day than what we might do if left to our own devices. God, the Chief Gardener of our souls, is responsible for nurturing our growth, but God also enlists our help. Although we cannot make ourselves grow, we can arrange the conditions of our lives for optimal growth. Just as a gardener provides the stakes and lattices on which plants can grow, so we put in place various spiritual disciplines and habits that support the young shoots growing toward fruitfulness in our souls.
Monastic spirituality has offered us a useful tool called a “Rule of Life,” which can help us create the necessary conditions for growth in our lives with God. The monastic movement began when holy men and women left the distractions and relentlessness of their busy lives to try to learn how to live more harmoniously – with God, themselves, one another, and with all of creation. They sought out wild places, places where they could be alone, or gather in small communities, so as to shape their lives more intentionally. To aid them in this endeavor, the early monastics began to draft “Rules” for their communities: written documents that set out how the community wanted to live. Our word “rule” derives from a Latin word, regula, which connotes not so much a system of rules or laws, but rather a way of regulating and regularizing our lives so that we can stay on the path we have set out for ourselves.
One of the most important early rules, the Rule of Saint Benedict, has inspired countless generations of monastic communities and individuals in the fifteen centuries since it first guided Benedict’s community at Monte Cassino. It might surprise you to see how little apparently “spiritual” teaching this Rule includes. The chapters detail topics like, “How the Night Office Is to Be Said in Summer Time,” “How They Are to Sleep,” “On the Weekly Servers in the Kitchen,” and “On the Daily Manual Labor” – not topics that would seem to skyrocket anyone toward spiritual enlightenment. But the goal of Benedict’s Rule is precisely to order the Brothers’ common life, to keep them in tune with God above them, the world around them, the people beside them, and the needs within them. This rhythm of life allows the soul to be true to itself, more loving toward others, and thus, to grow deeper in tune with God.
Discovering a life in tune, in harmony, in rhythm, in balance is the underlying goal for any Rule of Life. To borrow the words from the Catechism that open this article, a Rule explicitly aims to help us “to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.”
Two of my favorite things to grow are scarlet runner beans and morning glories. I love the deep red and purple of their flowers and the way they grow up their respective trellises, twining themselves up the poles which give both stability and structure to the plants. This image of the trellis is an important monastic image, as the root words for “trellis” and “rule” are related. Both provide shape and strength to the thing they are supporting. This connection suggests a wonderful parallel, for a Rule of Life functions much like a garden trellis does to a growing plant: It aims to give stability, strength, and guidance, but never in a rigid way. After all, it wants to foster growth, not stunt it!
The support any one individual needs to thrive will be as unique as that individual is. Marjorie Thompson observes in her book, Soul Feast: “Tomatoes need stakes, and beans must attach themselves to suspended strings…Without support, these plants would collapse in a heap on the ground. . . . When it comes to spiritual growth, human beings are much like these plants. . . . We need structure in order to have enough space, air, and light to flourish. Structure gives us the freedom to grow as we are meant to” (Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, Westminster John Knox: 2014, 149).
The structure a Rule provides aims ultimately at creating freedom, not control. Look at a rose trellis: The roses are all over the place, varied in their shape, color, and size. Yet without the support and strength of that trellis, the plant could never grow so wonderfully beautiful, unruly, and unique.
So when we Brothers talk about living by a Rule – as we’ll be doing this Lent in the series Growing a Rule of Life – we mean something more like a trellis than a law code, a system very dynamic and fluid and flexible. A Rule describes a rhythm of living – a rhythm that gives life, much as the varied and beautiful rhythm of sunset and sunrise gives shape to the day. What sort of organic rhythm, which grows out of your life, would give you more life?
Over the last few years, as we Brothers have been deepening our connection with the property at Emery House – working the land to grow food, conserving the land to restore native habitats – we’ve come to appreciate more and more just how fundamental our connection to the creation is to our lives as monks and our wholeness as human beings. We believe that living in rhythm with nature, by the structure of a Rule, helps each of us to grow into that vibrant life the Gardener dreamed when we were created.
Our guests at Emery House have encouraged and inspired us in this direction, by sharing with us how their experiences of the creation at Emery House have opened their hearts to God. Working alongside us in the meadows, woods, and gardens, they’ve learned, as we have, that living in rhythm with nature is not all sunsets and lark song! Yet the hard work of tending the land has proven even more valuable, for those who’ve come to assist us as volunteers, than simply relaxing in the refreshing air. Last year, I had a guest cleaning garlic for me. He was sitting out in one of the Adirondack chairs, working away. At one point I came by and said to him, “Thank you for doing that.” And I’ll always remember his response. He said, “Oh, no, thank you. This is the first time in a year I’ve gotten my hands dirty.”
This is what we need: We need to get our hands dirty. We need to be physically in touch with the creation. We need to get reconnected to nature, in a place that isn’t just manicured lawns or city parks bordered by skyscrapers. We need to experience the good ache of using our bodies in fresh air. We need honest sweat.
I think we need this because, ultimately, it reminds us who we are, that fundamental identity the Catechism defines as “part of God’s creation.” The creation connects us with the Creator. It grounds us in the living rhythms of which we are a part. We remember not just that we have a body, but that we are a body – a working, interdependent, natural, physical miracle that God made. “For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will thank you because I am marvelously made…” (Psalm 139:12).
We need to live in rhythm with nature because we arenature. We’re not over and above or outside of nature; we’re part of nature, we’re part of the whole ecosystem. When we live in rhythm with nature, we take our place as one part of this magnificent whole that God has made. Our own restoration is fundamentally linked with the preservation and restoration of the natural world we inhabit and of which we ourselves are a part.
As we strive to live in rhythm – as God intends us to live – we feel ourselves called into the woods, the desert wastes, beside the running waters, under the deep blue sky. We respond to the deep fellowship with nature that the Spirit urges, and which is a fundamental part of our humanity. We learn from the natural world the rhythms by which we can live richer, more human and humane lives. And when we begin to heed these rhythms, in the words of early SSJE member Father Congreve, then the Creation “shall become a living and personal word revealing to each of us the heart of God.”
About Br. James Koester
Br. James Koester was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. In 1989 he came to the United States to test his vocation with the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, where he was life-professed in 1995. Br. James has served in a wide range of leadership posts in the Society, currently serving as the community’s Superior. During his time in the Society he has traveled widely in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, the Holy Land, and Africa, leading retreats and workshops, preaching, teaching, and offering spiritual direction. His personal interests include genealogy, the study and writing of icons, and beekeeping.
for everyday living
Br. Curtis Almquist suggests why and how to prepare our hearts for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
PREPARING FOR THE SACRAMENT
In our relationship with God we are always respondIng. God is wooing us, luring us, loving us into a more beloved relationship. How God will break through to us will oftentimes be through something that is broken within us. Our break will be God’s “break,” God’s breakthrough, God’s point of entry into our lives.
Any awareness of a need to confess our sin is already an act of preparation, God’s preparatory work in our souls. If you are sensing a need to make a confession of sin – and the fact that you are reading this suggests that, perhaps, you are – then trust that this is already a response to God’s initiative, and that is good news. God’s invitation is for you to be reconciled to God, to your own self, and to others. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a powerful means of grace available to you. In the Anglican tradition, this is not a mandated sacrament. You have every liberty, in the privacy of your own heart and in your own words, to confess your sins in prayer directly to Jesus. In the scriptures we read, “For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:5-6). And from John’s first letter: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9).
Another opportunity for the confession of sin in our tradition comes in the corporate confession of sin included in most liturgies. The Book of Common Prayer provides language for you to express aloud your awareness of sin “in thought, word, and deed, by what [you] have done, and by what [you] have left undone.”(1) With the authority Jesus gives to the Church, the priest responds to the corporate confession of sin with words proclaiming God’s forgiveness. Availing yourself of these personal and corporate practices, you may have every assurance you need of God’s forgiveness. As Anglicans, we say of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, “all may, none must, some should.” And you will know when you should. Either at a particular point in time or on a regular basis, you may need the help of this sacrament. You may be at a point of crisis, aware of some egregious breakdown on your part, or rather burdened by a tedious, repetitive sin. Either way, if left alone, you may conclude you are both unforgiven and unforgivable. You may need a very personal and powerful intervention of the grace available in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You may need certainty – certainty that Jesus has both heard your confession and assured you of his forgiveness. That will happen: “The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and ￼ spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”(2) You may need this very explicit assurance of your forgiveness, of your being liberated from an internal prison of condemnation.
What to confess?
If you have determined that confession might be the gift, the grace, that you need now in your relationship with God, yourself, or with others, the question next arises what you ought to confess. The most basic answer is: your awareness of sin. And what is sin? The Catechism describes sin as “the seeking of your own will instead of the will of God.”(3) You have been created in the image of God, to use your God-given will to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God. From the beginning, human beings have misused our freedom and made wrong choices, rebelling against God. You will likely know about this personally, as we all do, given your capacity, your proclivity, to hoard life, to act in such a way that makes you a god – it’s all about you! – in some particular or pervasive way. Some actions or inactions have compromised your will, which is only free insofar as your will acts in sync with the will of God, with God’s purposes in life. The most prominent New Testament word for sin quite literally means “not a rightful share,” that is the over claiming what is yours to have in life; the word also means “not hitting the target,” i.e., missing the mark of what you know to be right.(4)
And you do know it. You do. Confession is born from a conscious awareness of a breakdown: You either momentarily or methodically have “slipped” in what you know full-well to be right – right by you and by others – and have compromised your integrity. Or perhaps you may realize your lapse only in the sobriety of retrospect. You may have no answer to your own haunting question, “Why did I do that?” “Why did I say that?” Saint Paul makes quite a humbling confession: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom 7:15).
Oftentimes a wrong we have committed was the surfacing of some deeper character flaw or inner wound, perhaps an infected wound. Jesus calls these the sins of the heart: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly” (Mk 7:21-2). Sin is an experience and exercise of alienation – an alienation from our own true self, from others, and from God. A breakdown in relationship in one of these realms (to self, to others, to God, to the Creation) will affect the other. Sin goes viral. We need to be rescued by a power greater than ourselves.
Jesus has come to save us. The Greek root for the verb “to save” also means to salve and to salvage. Jesus has come to save us from living hell. Jesus has come to salve us from the wounds we have received out of other people’s hell, from others’ sin against us. We come to confession to name our own sin; however, in a tragic way, we may have colluded with how we were hurt and, in some way, replicated that hurt both onto ourselves and onto others. Alice Miller, the esteemed child psychologist, speaks of this as “the leaden rule”: “children [even as adults] do unto others what was done unto them, long before they could do anything about it.”
Should you be burdened by a sin that springs from wrongs done to you, perhaps the Sacrament of Reconciliation can offer some much-needed help for your soul. Confession becomes a way that we can unlock those prisons that may have been built before we can even remember. Turning ourselves over to the healing power of Jesus, we break the long-ingrained patterns that have bound us.
When I meet with someone to hear their confession, I always have at hand healing oil – the Sacrament of Holy Unction – because this person seeking God’s forgiveness (what the Scriptures call “unbinding”) may also need inner healing (what the Scriptures call “binding up”) from the root causes of their sin. Jesus has come to save us, to salve us, and to salvage us. Jesus has come “to seek and to save the lost”: lost hope, lost love, lost joy, lost innocence (Lk 9:10). To salvage is to reclaim what is otherwise lost and to see it made into a new and beautiful thing.
This is what Jesus is up to. Even the most appalling ravages of life can be redeemed in the most amazing ways. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, one of the experiences of grace will come through the priest’s helping the penitent sift and sort through sin: What is your own sin? What is the sin against you which you carry and perhaps replicate? What of your broken life needs to be retrieved, reclaimed, redeemed through Jesus’ intervention? Jesus tells his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost” (Jn 6:12). Hear this as a personal promise from Jesus to you, about your own life. Nothing is to be lost.
Pondering in Preparation
How you prepare for making a sacramental confession will be informed by the factors that have inspired you to undertake this:
• If this is your first confession or “life” confession, allow enough time, enough days, to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory.”(5)
• If the confession is prompted by some specific awareness of sin that weighs on your conscience, then allow your reflections to focus on this particular sin and others that might be connected to it.
• If you make a confession on a regular basis (perhaps quarterly) as a spiritual discipline, then allow your reflections to revisit the topics and gleanings that have arisen in past confessions.
Whether you are making a review of a lifetime, or reviewing only this past season of your life, note where your soul is troubled.
• Do you have memories that sear your conscience, be they of particular incidents or a chain of events that set off a kind of a tsunami of sin in some aspect of your life?
• Is there a recurring, damaging pattern of behavior?
• Do you have a residual experience of self-loathing or shame? Why is that?
In asking these questions, you are not “digging for dirt”; you are simply uncovering what is soiled in your soul, what you no longer have energy to conceal. The energy it takes to conceal our sin (even from ourselves) is like keeping a part of ourselves locked up in prison, where we are both the prisoner and the prison guard. You need to be able to live your whole life. (In English, the words “whole,” “holy,” and “health” all come from the same etymological root.) When Jesus begins his public ministry, he quotes the prophet Isaiah in claiming his anointed role “to bring good news to the poor... to proclaim release to the captives... to let the oppressed go free.”(6) Jesus’ forgiveness is liberation, quite literally a lightening of the weight of sin, and the opening of the door to the abundant life he promises.
Praying in Preparation
Whether you take one period of time to prepare for a sacramental confession, or whether you will take many days, perhaps weeks, to prepare, here are a few suggestions to help you structure that time:
• Begin your time(s) of recollection with a prayer of thanksgiving that God’s reconciling love has already broken through to you. God is already with you in this.
• Read a passage of Scripture that gives you hope and encouragement. Here are two possibilities:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness;
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me...
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.” – Psalm 51:1-11
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” – Matthew 11:28
• Then ask God to open the eyes of your heart for the clarity and courage to remember what weighs on your conscience, what you long to be forgiven.
• If you knowingly (or unwittingly) brought a “whip” into this time of recollection, you need to hand that over to God. Give it up. Reconciliation is not about heaping up blame, but about releasing yourself from its burden.
• At the conclusion of your time(s) of recollection, offer a prayer of thanks that God is inviting you into personal freedom, and into a more intimate relationship with God.
Selecting a lens through which to review your life
To prompt and clarify your recollection, you may find it helpful to use one of the following sets of focusing points as you examine your conscience.
I. Adapted from the Ten Commandments (7)
Where have I failed:
- To love and obey God, and to bring others to know God.
- To put nothing in the place of God.
- To show God respect in thought, word, and deed.
- To set aside regular times for worship, prayer, and the study of God’s ways.
- To love, honor, and help my parents and family; to honor those in authority, and to meet their just demands.
- To show respect for the life God has given; to work and pray for peace; to bear no malice, prejudice, or hatred in my heart; to be kind to all the creatures of God.
- To use all my bodily desires as God intended.
- To be honest and fair in my dealings; to seek justice, freedom, and the necessities of life for all people; to use my talents and possessions as one who must answer for them to God.
- To speak the truth, and not to mislead others by my silence.
- To resist temptations to envy, greed, and jealousy; to rejoice in other people’s gifts and graces; and to do my duty for the love of God, who has called me into fellowship with God.
II. Adapted from the Litany of Penitence (8)
Where I am aware of my:
Pride, hypocrisy, and impatience with life
Self-indulgent appetites and ways, and exploitation of other people Anger in my own frustration
Envy of those more fortunate than myself
Intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts
Dishonesty in daily life and work
Negligence in prayer and worship
Failure to commend the faith that is in me
Blindness to human need and suffering
Indifference to injustice and cruelty
False judgments and uncharitable thoughts toward my neighbors Prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from me
Waste and pollution of God’s creation
Lack of concern for the generations to come
III. A Lens for Life Confession
If this is your first confession, or a “life” confession, you may feel unfocused or overwhelmed in knowing where to begin a review of your entire life. If so, you may find it helpful to demarcate your life history into quadrants, and then use one of the above sets of focusing points as you examine each quadrant.
Quadrant 1: Your earliest memories up through childhood
Quadrant 2: The beginning of adolescence into young adulthood
Quadrant 3: Young adulthood
Quadrant 4: Later life
The Present: This past week, up to the present moment
* BCP, 267-8.
Make notes. You will most likely find it helpful to record what has come to mind as you prepare for your confession. You may be nervous when you make your confession and you won’t want to trust only your memory. If you make notes, don’t use a journal where you save your personal writing. Once you have made your confession, you will want to destroy your notes. They reflect a part of your history from which you have been freed. The end.
Finally, as part of your preparation, review what The Book of Common Prayer says about the Sacrament of Reconciliation (446), and read through the two suggested Forms (Form One, 447-8; Form Two, 449-51). The two Forms are equivalent; however you may find the language of one more inviting. When you meet with your confessor, tell him or her your preference.
The Confessor, the Setting, the Aftermath
In your confession, you will want the freedom to be transparent. Choose a confessor whom you sense to be trustable. Your parish priest may not be the best choice, not because of his or her character or experience, but because of your existing relationships with both the priest and other parishioners. Your confession could put an invisible strain on those relationships. If you don’t have access to a priest outside your parish, you might ask your priest if he or she has a recommendation for an “outside” confessor.
The priest who hears your confession will “seal” what you speak forever. “The secrecy of a confession is morally absolute for the confessor, and must under no circumstances be broken.” (9) Even if you are alone with this priest at some point in the future, the content of your confession will not normally be a matter of subsequent conversation.
A confession may be heard anytime and anywhere. (I have heard confessions at the altar rail, in a private conference room, in a crowded gymnasium, on an airplane, on a hiking trail in the mountains...) The confessor and the timing may determine the setting. You may want to sit for the entire confession; you may want to sit for your confession and kneel for the absolution; you may want to kneel throughout. Carry a handkerchief with you.
A condition for receiving absolution is your contrition. The English word “contrition” comes from the Latin contritus, literally “worn out” or “crushed in spirit” by a sense of sin. You come to confession not as a legalistic duty but out of abject need to be saved, and salved, and salvaged. Implied in your contrition is your pledge for amendment of life. You do desire to change, and you are seeking (maybe desperately) God’s help.
At the conclusion of your confession, the confessor may ask you whether you forgive yourself. The confessor may ask you whether you forgive those who have sinned against you. You have come to confession asking for Jesus’ forgiveness, yet forgiving yourself and forgiving others is a necessary complement in co-operating with what you are asking of Jesus. This is the very thing we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” The great English poet, George Herbert (1593- 1633), wrote: “He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass if he would ever reach heaven; for every one has need to be forgiven.”
The priest will offer words of comfort and counsel and will pray for the absolution of your sins. The confessor may also give you a “penance.” A penance is not a condition for your forgiveness. Forgiveness is already guaranteed. A penance may simply help you grasp and appropriate the forgiveness you have already received. For a penance, the confessor may suggest, for example, that you recite the Song of Symeon, the Te Deum, the Magnificat, or a psalm. (10) I sometimes will counsel a penitent to be patient and gentle with themselves, to allow the healing to happen: “Don’t pick at the scab.” I sometimes encourage a penitent to take in something beautiful – fresh flowers, music, artwork, a soothing cup of tea.
Saint Paul writes, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:17-8). The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a very powerful doorway into this discovery: recovering, restoring, renewing life in the most amazing way.
- The Book of Common Prayer (BCP), 360.
- From the “Catechism,” BCP 857.
- BCP, 845; 848-9.
- The Greek word, hamartía: a “not” + méros “a part, a share of.”
- The language of Step 4 from the 12-Step program.
- Luke 4:18-9; Jesus quoting Isaiah 61.
- BCP, 847-8.
- BCP, 267-8.
- BCP, 446.
- The Song of Symeon (BCP, 93); The Te Deum (BCP, 95); The Magnificat (BCP, 119); Psalms 63, 103, or 139.
About Br. Curtis Almquist
Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE resides at Emery House, sharing in the daily round of prayer and worship, meeting with retreatants, stewarding the beautiful grounds, and doing some baking and cooking. He is an avid photographer and swimmer. He came to SSJE almost 25 years ago and served as Superior from 2001 to 2010.
for everyday living
Br. Geoffrey Tristram explores how Intercession brings us, and those for whom we pray, close to the heart of God.
CLOSE TO THE HEART OF GOD
“I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day.” So Paul writes in his second letter to his beloved Timothy (2 Timothy 1:3). At the very heart of Paul’s ministry to the young Christian churches was prayer. Paul prayed constantly for them. “I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for you all,” he writes to the church of Philippi (Philippians 1:3-4). And to the church in Colossae: “We have not ceased praying for you” (Colossians 1:9). It is this kind of prayer – intercessory prayer – which underpins and empowers Paul’s entire ministry. And it is this prayer of intercession which has the power to transform and empower our own lives as well as the lives of those for whom we pray.
The first disciples learned about prayer from Jesus. They prayed with him and near him. Simon Peter finds Jesus before daybreak praying in a deserted place (Mark 1:35). Luke tells how Jesus would withdraw to deserted places to pray (Luke 5:16) and spent a whole night on a mountain in prayer to God before choosing the twelve disciples (Luke 6:12-13). He later prays on the mountain where he is transfigured; he rejoices in prayer because his message is being received; he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane; and prays during the hours on the cross. In John chapter 17, he prays that great prayer, which is a kind of summary of the inner meaning of all his prayer – giving glory to God the Father.
After Jesus died, was raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven, the disciples believed that although he was now exalted to the right hand of God in glory, he was still near to them and sharing very intimately in their earthly lives. Above all, they had no doubt that he continued to pray continually for them. And so we get the imagery in Paul’s letters, as well as in the Letter to the Hebrews, of Jesus as “high priest” whose intercession continues. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). Jesus prayed for us while he was on earth, and he carries on praying for us still. But how does he pray for us? Interestingly, the verb we translate as “to make intercession for us,” in the original Greek is the verb entunchanein. This likely does not mean “to make petitions” nor to say any words at all. It means rather “to meet with” or “be with someone on behalf of another.” So when we talk of Jesus “making intercession” for us to the Father, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, we should not imagine Jesus talking to God about us. Rather, it is Jesus being intimately close to his Father and carrying us whom he loves on his heart and into the heart of God.
And that is what we are doing in intercessory prayer. Profound intercession is not the reciting of a detached, impassioned “shopping list” of the needs of the world, which it can sometimes feel like. Nor is it informing God of something God does not already know! But rather it is a profound, loving and costly holding up of others in their need, before God. If we long to pray for others as Jesus prays for us, God invites us first to become very close ourselves to the heart of God, in loving adoration, and then bring those whom we love and long to be healed, with us.
True intercession is being with God with the people we love on our heart. In The Christian Priest Today, Archbishop Michael Ramsey writes movingly about intercessory prayer, and he gives a great image for what we are doing when we pray for others, drawn from the Book of Leviticus. Aaron, the high priest, would go into the Holy of Holies in the Temple wearing a breastplate on which were jewels representing the tribes of Israel, whose priest he was. He literally went into the holy presence, the heart of God, carrying the people, represented by the jewels, on his heart. At the heart of this image is love. It is our love that animates and gives power to our intercessory prayer. As Chapter 24 of our Rule puts it, “It is a wonderful thing that God makes us his fellow-workers and uses our love, acting in intercession, to further the reconciliation of all things in Christ.”
For me, this means that the words I use in intercessory prayer are much less important than the offering of my love for and deep desire for healing for another. God doesn’t really need to be told what he knows already, however eloquently! As our Rule says, “Our intercession does not call down the divine presence to come to the place where we have seen a need, for the Christ who fills all things is already in that place. It is his Spirit who calls us to join him there by offering our love in intercessory prayer and action, to he used by God for healing and transformation.”
So in my own life of prayer I find that before I move into intercessory prayer I first like to spend time “centering” and becoming conscious of God’s loving presence. And it is into that relationship, into the loving heart of God, that I can then bring those whom I have on my heart. Sometimes I use words, at other times I hold a person up without words. I often use the story told in Mark’s Gospel (2:1-12) of the four friends who hold up the paralyzed man on a mat before Jesus to be healed. Without words, I just imagine holding the person I am praying for, before Jesus. Like those friends, it can be very hard work! They didn’t give up, and neither should we. Being faithful to intercessory prayer is hard work. Paul prayed for the churches on his heart “constantly night and day.” Perhaps we all need to pray with more passion. In the Gospels, the crowds, and individuals, longed and yearned, they begged, and beseeched to be healed. Intercessory prayer is a work of love, but it is work: carrying those we love and long to be healed on our hearts, and taking them mysteriously and wonderfully into the very heart of God.
And when we do this, something else rather wonderful can happen to us. This kind of prayer can change us; it can mould and shape our own hearts. In intercession we can be given the power to love those we find difficult. Father Benson, as our Rule puts it (Ch. 25), taught that “in praying for others we learn really and truly to love them. As we approach God on their behalf, we carry the thought of them into the very being of Eternal Love, and as we go into the being of him who is Eternal Love, so we learn to love whatever we take with us there.” That is a wonderful gift.
Intercessory prayer plays a large part in our daily life as Brothers. As our Rule says, “From the beginning the Church has entrusted to the monastic communities a special responsibility for intercession.” Several times a day in chapel we pray aloud for those who have asked us to pray for them, and we have an intercessions board near the chapel where we can read prayer requests. We also encourage visitors to light a candle in the church, which can be a powerful way of expressing our heartfelt prayers for others.
When I was a parish priest, I greatly valued the presence of an intercessions board and candles in the church, as well as the group of men and women who pledged to meet together regularly to pray for the parish and for me. It seems to me that their work of intercessory prayer lay at the beating heart of the life of the whole church. In my own times of intercessory prayer, I keep a notebook by my side and write down the names of all those whom I want to hold up before God. After Christmas I keep a basket by my prayer desk filled with Christmas cards which I have received. Over the following weeks, I pick up a card one by one and pray for the person who sent it.
Praying for another is one of the most beautiful things that we can do. It is a sign of our dignity as children of God, called to share in the intercessory work of Christ. It is a prayer which can change others and change ourselves. If we abide in Christ, he will accept the offering of our prayers and use them to bless and uphold the world.
Texts for Further Reflection
The prayers printed below are taken from Praying our Days: A Guide and Companion, a fine collection of prayers and teaching on prayer by Bishop Frank T. Griswold (Morehouse Publishing, 2009). The rule passages come from The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (Cowley Publications, 1997), which can be read online at www.SSJE.org/rule.
A beautiful prayer composed by St. Augustine of Hippo:
This prayer, which is included in the Office of Evening Prayer in the Book Of Common Prayer, captures many aspects of our care and concern for others.
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
A prayer by J. S. Hoyland, holding those whom we love in our hearts before God:
Teach us, O Father, to trust Thee with life and with death,
And (though this is harder by far)
With the life and death of those that are dearer to us than our life.
Teach us stillness and confident peace
In Thy perfect will,
Deep calm of soul, and content
In what Thou wilt do with these lives Thou hast given.
Teach us to wait and be still,
To rest in Thyself,
To hush this clamorous anxiety,
To lay in Thine arms all this wealth Thou hast given.
Thou lovest these souls that we love
With a love as far surpassing our own
As the glory of noon surpasses the gleam of a candle.
Therefore will we be still, And trust in Thee.
Chapter 24 of the Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist: The Mystery of Intercession
Father Benson taught us to look always to the glory of the ascended Christ and find the meaning of all we do in union with him. We shall enter into the mystery of intercessory prayer only if we realize our oneness with Christ the great High Priest, who lives forever to make intercession for all the world. Christ makes this prayer to the merciful Father through the prayers of all the faithful who are baptized into his body. His voice does not appeal to God separately from theirs; “They are . . . so many mouths to Himself; and as they pray . . . His voice fills their utterance with the authority and claim belonging to Himself” (R.M. Benson, The Final Passover, v. 2, 307). The Father hears the voice of his beloved Son in our prayers and accepts them as Christ’s.
It is the Spirit of Christ who stirs our prayer and weaves the movements of our hearts into his great offering. Because the Spirit moves so deeply within us we cannot always be conscious of the full meaning and substance of our prayer. Often our intercessions will feel weak and incoherent. Yet the Spirit is helping us “in our weakness for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom 8:26-27).
Through faith we see Christ not only in his majesty in heaven, but in his lowly presence in every creature. He suffers with and in everyone in need. Our intercession does not call down the divine presence to come to the place where we have seen a need, for the Christ who fills
all things is already in that place. It is his Spirit who calls us to join him there by offering our love in intercessory prayer and action, to be used by God for healing and transformation.
It is a wonderful thing that God makes us his fellow-workers and uses our love, acting in intercession, to further the reconciliation of all things in Christ. We offer thanks with joy whenever prayer results in the transformation for which we had hoped. However, we must often suffer the pain of seeing no visible result to our prayer. But we should let no frustration wear down the trust that sustains our waiting on God. Every offering of love will bear fruit. “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13).
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” (Rom 8:21). In our intercessory prayer this solidarity will find its deepest expression. We shall also experience through faith our communion with all the saints in glory who pray unceasingly with us and for us.
From Chapter 25 of the Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist: The Practice of Intercession
Our hearts must always be open to those who ask for our prayers and depend on us to share their burdens. We will rejoice with them when the gift we have sought together from the Lord is given them. And we will stay joined to them in their struggle if God’s response seems to deny their request or calls them to wait . . . .
We shall intercede also in our personal prayers day by day, appealing to God to pour out his saving grace on particular people and situations. In intercession we shall discover the power to love those we find difficult. Father Benson taught that “in praying for others we learn really and truly to love them. As we approach God on their behalf we carry the thought of them into the very being of eternal Love, and as we go into the being of him who is eternal Love, so we learn to love whatever we take with us there” (R.M. Benson, Instructions on the Religious Life, 108). God will also inspire each one of us to make certain causes our special concern. We may also be moved to draw the needs of the world into our contemplative prayer, holding them silently in the radiance of God’s mercy within our hearts.
Intercession is not an intermittent activity, restricted to those times in which we are deliberately praying for the world and for people. The entire life of each member of Christ’s body is intercessory. Christ takes up our actions and everyday experiences into the eternal offering of his whole self to the Father. If we abide in Christ he will show us that he accepts our labors, our struggles, our afflictions and the ordinary actions of our daily lives as sacrificial, and uses them to bless and uphold the world.
A moving prayer of intercession from India:
Jesus, let your healing love which flows from your cross flow through your Spirit into my spirit and into _______’s spirit. Heal _______ and let your healing love flow into the depths of _______’s heart and mind. Let healing love find its way into all parts of _______’s body, bringing with it wholeness, health and peace.
Let healing love flow back to my spirit, and back to you, so that a stream of healing love flowing from you, through me, and through _______ and returning to you may make _______ whole, and may make me whole. Glory to you, and praise and thanksgiving now and forever. Amen.
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 eighteen years ago to join SSJE and has pursued a ministry of teaching, spiritual direction and retreat leading. He recently served as the community’s Superior 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 Saint Albans, as well as the head of the Department of Theology at Oundle School, a large Anglican high school in the English Midlands.
for everyday living
Br. Eldridge Pendelton explores the richness of the fundamental act of Christian worship, the Eucharist.
A SACRIFICE OF THANKSGIVING
For me it all started with a red light when I was nine years old. That summer I was spending two months with my aunt Grace at her home on the Texas Gulf coast. One day I was playing outside with Sharon, my cousin who was my age, and Judy from next door, when the two of them started arguing about whose church was best, resuming the religious wars of 500 years ago. Sharon was a Presbyterian and Judy a Roman Catholic. Both sides slung abuse, but in the midst of it, Judy, realizing I had never seen a Catholic church and ever the missionary, offered to take me to Saint Mary’s some afternoon.
The first thing I noticed through the gloom of the unlighted interior was a red lamp hanging above the altar. When I asked, she said that Jesus was there in that box behind the altar, and that at every mass he hosted a meal for everyone. He fed them on bread and wine which he mysteriously changed into his body and blood. In that way, he forgave them, strengthened them, nourished them, protected them, and answered their prayers. No one could see him, but he was always there. You could feel his presence. Furthermore, Sr. Mary Agnes, her teacher, said he lived in every Catholic church.
That was my first exposure to the Christian teaching that Christ is present in the Eucharist, and it made an indelible impression. I went away that afternoon thinking that grape juice in shot glasses and crumbled crackers did not compare to what she had, and resolving that one day I would be a regular at those suppers where Jesus fed everyone.
According to the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer, “the Holy Eucharist is the sacrament commanded by Christ for the continual remembrance of his life, death, and resurrection, until his coming again” (BCP, p. 859). It is one of the two dominical sacraments actually instituted by Jesus during his ministry. On the last day of his life, at supper he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, “Take, eat: This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.” As the Great Thanksgiving, spoken during the Eucharist, narrates the scene: “After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, ‘Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me”’ (BCP, p. 363). According to Matthew and Luke, he did this at a Passover meal, and the prayers that accompanied it were thanksgiving for Israel’s liberation from bondage in Egypt. Later, as the Apostles and those attracted to the Way (as Christianity was first called) gathered for worship they “broke bread” as Jesus had commanded them, and in that way he became mystically present, the host of the supper. A number of his resurrection appearances also occurred during the course of a meal (Mark 16:14; Luke 24:42; John 21:9-14). The pilgrims to Emmaus only recognized the stranger who had walked with them as Christ when he broke bread with them (Luke 24:30).
From the accounts of Paul’s missionary efforts in the Acts of the Apostles we have an idea of how early Christian worship was structured. Keep in mind most of the early Christians were Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah. Paul had done his early proselytizing in the synagogues of cities and towns in Asia (modern day Turkey), Macedonia, and Greece in the middle years of the first century CE. When driven from these synagogues by Jews outraged by his message, he set up rival Christian synagogues, using the synagogue liturgy of teaching and prayer, and adding to it the breaking of bread. By the end of the first century CE, even after Christianity had become dominated by gentile believers, the liturgy remained true to its Jewish origin. There was a structural division to the worship service; the liturgy of the Word, because it centered around the reading of Scripture, preceded the table liturgy, the communion service. Both sections had four parts. The liturgy of the Word was made up of Collect, the Epistle, the Gospel, and Creed. At the Last Supper Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it, so the liturgy for communion, the second part of the Eucharistic service consisted of the Offertory, the Consecration, the Fraction and the Communion. For the next 1,600 years of Christian history, when communities gathered for worship, this was the form it took. This is still true for Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans.
Originally, when the first Christians “broke bread,” they brought bread and wine from home and gave it to the priest who blessed it, broke it, and then gave it to the worshipers. They understood that, through the consecration of these elements, using the same words Jesus had used at the Last Supper, bread and wine were changed into Christ’s body and blood. At that time, only baptized Christians received communion. Since they were mystically incorporated into his body by the sacrament of baptism and fed on him through the Eucharist, they became a part of his ongoing sacrifice of love to God the Father. This is a sacrifice of thanksgiving, just as the Temple sacrifices had been for the Hebrew people. (Eucharistos is the Greek term for thanksgiving.)
Here we must remember the spiritual dynamic of the Trinity. God is love and God is continually pouring out love on his Son and those who believe in him, for all eternity. At the same time the Son is pouring out his total being in love to the Father, as he had done on the cross. This is a mutual exchange, a mutual indwelling through the Holy Spirit, and when we participate in the Eucharist we are caught up in it, we become a part of Christ’s gift of love. A prayer of the Eucharistic liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer presents this dynamic most tellingly:
Here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.(BCP, p. 336)
To join with Christ in this sacrifice of love, as a part of this divine action, it is necessary that we also repent our collusion in the sin of the world through the General Confession.
When the celebrant calls down a blessing on the bread and wine, a spiritual reality alters, a real change takes place which is not limited to the bread and wine. All who take part in the Eucharist are transformed as well because Jesus is present. As we partake of his body and blood, in a mysterious way we become his body and blood. Christ lives in us and works through us for the transformation of the world. We do not presume to know how this happens, but we believe it does. This is a sacred mystery. Bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus. Materially they remain unaltered, but the inward reality becomes the means through which our souls are fed by the divine life of Christ. Northern European mystics of the Middle Ages believed the more we feed on Christ, the more we desire to do so.
Most of us, most of our adult lives, hunger for intimacy. We long for someone to share life’s joys and sorrows. In the sacrament of the Eucharist we find that longed-for intimacy with Christ. Through it we have a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. According to the SSJE Rule, the Eucharist “is the meal which intensifies our union with Christ, draws us together as a community, and nourishes us with the grace needed for our transformation and mission. It is the mystery through which we are caught up into the communion of saints on earth and in heaven . . . It is the gift through which we experience a foretaste of the life to come” (Ch. 17). At every celebration of the Eucharist with those we see and know, there is also a great cloud of witnesses, men and women who have testified with their lives to the Truth in past ages and are now a part of the Communion of Saints, standing around the altar with us. Love is our reason for being, and in the sacrament of the Eucharist we are caught up in an interchange of love with God that is ongoing and unending.
In many churches and chapels the light of a red lamp indicates that, near the altar in a tabernacle or aumbry, the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist are reserved so that not only will the community have a means to communicate the sick, but there will also be a sign of Christ’s abiding in our midst. Strangers, encountering the lamp’s light for the first time, sense they are in the presence of holiness. Here they encounter Christ. It makes an unforgettable impact.
Resources for Further Reflection:
Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament
Charles Grafton, one of the founders of SSJE, was responsible for bringing the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament to America and making its ministry popular. More than any other organization or movement, the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament – an Anglican devotional society founded in the mid 19th century – is responsible for the Eucharist being the “principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts . . . appointed for public worship in [the Episcopal] Church” (BCP, p. 13). Devoted to Eucharistic teaching and intercessory prayer, the Confraternity is still flourishing today. So, one might claim that the responsibility for making the Eucharist the principal act of worship in the Episcopal Church lies with Charles Grafton and the early work of SSJE in America. The Confraternity’s website offers devotional materials around the Holy Eucharist.
“We offer the world and ourselves to God. But we do it in Christ and in remembrance of him. We do it in Christ because he has offered all that is to be offered to God. He has performed once and for all this Eucharist and nothing has been left unoffered. In him is Life – and this Life of all of us, he gave to God. The Church is all those who have been accepted into the Eucharistic life of Christ. And we do it in remembrance of him because, as we offer again and again our life and our world to God, we discover each time that there is nothing else to be offered but Christ himself – the Life of the world, the fullness of all that exists. It is his Eucharist, and he is the Eucharist. As the prayer of offering says – it is he who offers and he who is offered . . . the only Eucharist, the only offering of the world is Christ” (For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, 41-42).
The clearest and most complete explanation of Jesus’ admonition “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you will not have life in you” is found in Ronald Rolheiser’s The Holy Longing, pages 96-99. For Rolheiser, the mystery of Real Presence is far more inclusive than popular understanding contends. In the Eucharist Christ is present in the consecrated bread and wine and the gathered worshipers, even the disruptive ones we would ignore, who give us grief.
About Br. Eldridge Pendleton
Br. Eldridge Pendleton, SSJE (1940-2015) met members of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) when he was twenty-one. Later, after teaching at several universities and directing a museum in Maine, he joined SSJE in 1984. Eldridge served in many capacities, including archivist, Senior Brother of Saint John’s House in Durham, North Carolina and Director of the Fellowship of Saint John. He was a life member of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament. Despite many health challenges in recent years Eldridge remained full of vigor and in 2014 he published, Press On, The Kingdom, a biography of Charles Chapman Grafton, one of the founders of the Society. Eldridge loved recounting stories of the founding brothers of the Society and their enthusiasm for the religious life and God in the hope of inspiring future monastics.
for everyday living
Br. Geoffrey Tristram on how we can perceive and experience God's glory in the world around us.
TO BEAR THE BEAMS OF LOVE
Whitchurch canonicorum, a tiny village in West Dorset, England, is a sacred place for me. The ancient parish church is the only one in England which still contains the bones of its patron saint, Saint Candida, and it has attracted pilgrims seeking healing for well over a thousand years. It lies hidden deep in the folds of the beautiful Dorset hills, and whenever I visit my family I go on pilgrimage to the church.I know that God’s presence is everywhere, in the hills and woods and meadows of that lovely place, but I long to go inside the church and kneel down and pray. There, the presence of God is palpable, and I always feel in some way changed, blessed, transformed after my visit.
I was recently sitting quietly in our chapel at Emery House, looking out across the meadow towards the river. I was praying for the work of renovation and restoration in which we are engaged at the Monastery in Cambridge. As I sat in the chapel I remembered that it is dedicated to the Transfiguration, and I gave thanks to God for the power of sacred places to open us to the grace and power of God, to transform and transfigure us, to change us, as St Paul says, “from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians3:18) Charles Wesley paraphrases this Pauline promise into those wonderful words in his hymn: “Changed from glory into glory / Till in heaven we take out place.” Over the years that I have been a monk, I have had the immense privilege of seeing the miracle of transformation in many people’s lives. In some extraordinary way, both Emery House and the monastery have become for many, sacred places, places of divine encounter and transformation “from glory into glory.” By the grace of God, these places allow us to catch a glimpse of God’s glory.
It is good for us to seek out sacred places, places where God seems quite close, since our world often seems increasingly frenetic and complex. It can feel unsafe and even hostile. We seek out places where we may go to be ‘held’: held by the physical stone and bricks, held by prayer, held by the beauty of worship and the power of silence. We seek out places where it is safe to bring our pain and suffering, safe to open ourselves up to God and allow God’s healing and renewing love to fill us and transform us. Times of retreat are important for the same reason that sacred places are: we need times away from the hectic and harried pace of life, so that we can attend more fully and completely to the transformative love of God. I often say to someone at the start of a few days of retreat, to begin by spending some time praying before the cross, and to consciously lay at the foot of the cross all the cares and burdens which they have brought with them, and to leave them there. When it is time for them to go back into the world and take up their burdens again, so often, miraculously and wonderfully, they recognize that the burdens are much lighter. Some they are just able to leave behind!
This movement toward God and then back out into the world is the fundamental rhythm that allows for and marks the work of transformation. Look to the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, one of the key scenes in his ministry and the revelation of his identity as the chosen one of God. In the Gospels we read that, “Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.” (Mark 9:2). They go away from the world, to a mountaintop, where they can be alone with each other and with God, almost as for a time of retreat. In that sacred place, they see Jesus transfigured before them, and his clothes become dazzling white. This divine encounter changed not just Jesus, but the disciples too. The disciples were granted the grace to see Jesus transfigured in glory and majesty, reflecting the glory of God. “It is good that we are here,” they say, and perhaps we can sympathize that they would want to stay up on the mountaintop, where God seems quite near. But the gift of vision and insight that the Transfiguration imparts to them and to Jesus comes not as a good in itself, but rather in order to strengthen them all for the trials that still lie ahead. Indeed, in the Gospel account, the moment the group comes down from the mountain they are met by excited crowds and a boy thrown into convulsions, rolling on the ground and foaming at the mouth. The world returns, with all its hectic care, but the disciples are strengthened and ready to deal with it, because of their time on the mountaintop with Jesus. The Trans- figuration readied them all for the work of transformation demanded by the crowds and the epileptic boy waiting below. Their theophany, or encounter with God, had readied them for the mission God had prepared them to undertake.
The interplay between theophany and mission revealed in this scene of the Transfiguration is true throughout the Scriptures. Whenever God calls someone, he calls them with a distinct purpose. Isaiah encounters the glory of God, Moses sees the burning bush, Jacob has a vision of angels ascending and descending; like the Transfiguration, these are experiences of theophany, of encounter with God. But God never lets it stop there. Once God has transfigured the individual through this exposure to his glory, he directly sends them out to do something: “Go and set my people free.” He always calls us for a purpose, a purpose that usually involves sending us out into the world. God comes to us to transform us, so that we can take part in God’s transforming work of redemption, to help bring about God’s kingdom.
The famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton tells a remarkable story that bears upon this connection between theophany, transformation, and mission. He speaks of an experience he had on March 18, 1958. He was standing at a street corner in downtown Louisville, when something happened which changed his life. It was an ordinary day and ordinary people were going about their business. But as he looked at them they suddenly changed. He wrote, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people … I saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. To me”, he writes, “they seemed to be walking around shining like the sun.” He went on to wonder what the world would be like if we could all see each other as we really are, as was revealed to him in this shining moment. He muses, “I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other!” Merton had been granted a rare moment of clarity, in which he saw the people around him transfigured, as Jesus was, ablaze with the glory of God. And his response to this amazing moment is the one to which we are all called by Christ; his response was love for them.
Thomas Merton’s epiphany through which he experienced this love for the people he saw on the street must have been like peering, for a moment, through God’s eyes, and seeing each individual as precious and worthy of love. While the intensity of this moment was extraordinary for Merton, as it would be for any of us, one of the key points about Merton’s visionary moment is actually that it occurred in a very ordinary place, an ordinary street corner traversed by ordinary people. It wasn’t any special day; he wasn’t in a sacred place. Merton’s visionary experience arose out of the ordinary circumstances of this life, and so it suggests how the ordinary is actually extraordinary if only we had the eyes to see it. When our eyes adjust, even a bit, the very ordinary people and things that we hardly notice can suddenly become transfigured with God’s glory. So Julian of Norwich, the English mystic, tells how she suddenly saw the whole world within a hazelnut. And Moses, in his biblical theophany, saw an ordinary bush flame up with the glory of the Lord.
Moments of transfiguration—whether Merton’s or Moses’—reveal the sacramental nature of the world that surrounds us. An ordinary bush, like an ordinary street corner, can become an instrument for the encounter with God, just as in the sacraments, ordinary objects like bread and wine and water become charged with God’s transformative power. In fact, the whole of creation can reveal God to us in this sacramental way. While we may seek out sacred places, because they ‘tune’ us more readily to experience God’s presence, God is not limited to these distinct places. God can just as well be seen on the street corner as at the cathedral. Thus the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins shares his vision that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” He had a vision of God’s glory, shimmering everywhere, like shook foil. If we can but learn to see it, everywhere we look is ablaze with the glory of God!
The good news is that we can learn to see this glory. All of us can develop our inner eye simply by practicing the presence of God. And this practice, like the vision it can help us to develop, comes about in ordinary places, through ordinary activities. We don’t have to go to the Monastery, or the mountaintop, or any particular place. Jesus tells us, “Go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father who sees in secret.” (Matthew 6:6) Practicing the presence of God simply means spending time in prayer and being still before God. This practice attunes our inner eye to see the world as full of God’s glory, to see other people as shot through with God’s love. Spending time with God, we learn to see as God sees.
I have a place in my own cell, a corner, which I set apart for this daily time with God. I always sit in a particular chair that I set aside for prayer; I light a candle; I have an icon and a cross. Because I’ve set it apart for God, I approach this place now with a sense of expectation and a certain amount of awe. Conscious that I am entering into the presence of God, I cross a sort of threshold in awareness as soon as I approach that corner. I come into that place, very consciously, not only aware that I am coming into the presence of God, but also aware that God is already there waiting for me, full of expectancy. The Psalms tell us that God actually ‘delights’ in us (Psalm18: v. 19), and so I believe that God delights in me when I come to that place of encounter. I don’t have to do much more than that; I just have to show up, full of expectancy that God is there waiting for me, even more, that God ultimately has drawn and invited me to that place and that time of encounter.
If you find yourself struggling with distraction during your time with God, you might say over to yourself a Psalm that helps you to become centered. I sometimes say, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:v.11) or “O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you.” (Psalm 63:v.1) Once the repeated phrase has helped to still you, then you can simply sit and wait in the presence of God, listening for the voice of God in the stillness. Usually, I like to turn at this point to the ancient way of monastic praying with Scripture called lectio divina. I’ll read a short passage of Scripture to myself very slowly. Recently I have been reading from the Gospel of John, Psalm 139, and from Isaiah chapters 40-45. I will read the passage over several times, and wait for the Holy Spirit to cause a word or phrase to, as it were, ‘leap off the page’. I will then repeat that phrase over and over again, meditatively, and I’ll let it sink down within me so that it really soaks my roots. I receive that ‘word’ as God’s gift to me that day, and the gift of the word prompts me to a time of prayer and thanksgiving. Lectio divina can be a powerful way to hear God’s word speaking directly to our heart.
However you like to pray, whether through lectio divina, or silent contemplation of an icon, the important fact about this practice of the presence of God is that we are not the ones in the driving seat. Our transformation is wrought by God, and is not ‘ego driven’. We cannot make transfiguration happen. We can only place ourselves in the presence of God and allow God’s wonderful work of grace to happen to us. But we do need to turn up! I sometimes rather humorously suggest that it’s rather like getting a sun tan. All you have to do is lie in the sun and the sun will do everything else. But you do have to actually lie there. So too with prayer, we do have to ‘turn up’, faithfully and expectantly placing ourselves in God’s presence, to give that time over to God. Even if you don’t feel anything, or you don’t think you’re in the right mood, just show up and stay there. Turn yourself toward God’s light and let God do the rest!
When we turn ourselves toward God, we soak in the rays of God’s transforming light. The poet, William Blake writes, “And we are put on earth a little space, / That we may learn to bear the beams of love.” In that moment on the mountaintop, Jesus shone with the beams of the love from the Father, until even his garments blazed white as light. And Moses comes down from an encounter with God on Mt. Sinai shining so brightly that he had to cover his face with a veil, for the Israelites could not bear to look upon him. For most of us, this transfiguration will be a much more hidden experience, even unseen, for the transformation will happen within. Yet as we turn again and again toward the beams of God’s love, we too will begin to bear those beams of love back out into the word.
That is the ultimate goal of our life: we aim to be transformed by the glory of God, in order to transform the world. Saint Irenaeus wrote that each one of us was made in the image and likeness of God, yet that in consequence of the Fall, we lost that likeness. But while we may have lost the likeness, he is quite clear that we never lost our divine image, our imago Dei. Each of us still holds within us the image of God. One of the mysteries of Christian transformation is that as we ourselves are changed more and more into the likeness of Christ, so our own vision changes. We begin to see others in a new light. Just as Merton’s visionary moment revealed to him, we can begin to see others more as God sees them. We begin to see more clearly the indelible image of God in them. So Irenaeus writes those wonderful words, “Gloria Dei homo vivens”: “the glory of God is a person fully alive”. We participate in this glory when we allow ourselves to be renewed in God’s image, to know ourselves as made in God’s image. This awareness, in turn, retunes our inner vision, to allow us to see other people as God sees them. Only then can we serve the greater glory of God, as we help to bring others more fully to life. Gloria Dei homo vivens.
If we want to transform the world, then we have to allow ourselves to be transformed by God. So the life of discipleship is a constant movement between seeking the presence of God for renewal and transformation, and then going out to bring that transforming love to the world. God’s world—the torn canvass of God’s beautiful creation—needs mending. We are called to mend it, to bring healing, and to give new hope. At the end of the celebration of the Eucharist we are charged to, “Go forth into the world.” We who have been transfigured by the Sacrament of the Eucharist are called to take our new peace and hope out into the world. The last words which Jesus speaks at the end of Matthew’s gospel calls us to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them.” We are commissioned, sent out, to “bear the beams of love” to the whole world.
As large as this commission sounds, it is accomplished through the small and daily work of prayer. If we are not transfigured every day by God, then the world will disfigure us. The world’s message is not one of God’s redemption and transforming love. We need to allow God to continue the daily work of transformation—to transfigure us—lest the world disfigure us by leading us away from the vision to which we’ve been called. Every day, we make a new beginning; we come to God again and allow Him to forgive us, to renew us, to transform us, so that we can become agents of God’s transformation in the world.
Taking daily time with God retunes our inner vision to enable us to see other people as God sees them, as charged with God’s glory. “In your light we see light” (Ps 36:9). Turn yourself, as Jesus did, to that light. And then bear the beams of God’s love.
About Br. Geoffrey Tristram
Brother Geoffrey Tristram 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 eleven years ago to join SSJE and has pursued a ministry of teaching, spiritual direction and retreat leading, and for three year years he served as chaplain to the House of Bishops. Before coming to SSJE he served as parish priest in the diocese of St. Albans, as well as the head of department of theology at Oundle School, a large Anglican high school in the English Midlands.