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Monastic Wisdom Reflection

Reflection: Retreat

Retreat

three invitations

Monastic Wisdom

for everyday living

Three Brothers share their vision for how to shape a retreat experience to “enter more fully into the divine life.” 

RETREAT

three invitations

Times of retreat are essential elements in the rhythm of our life. They enable us to celebrate the primacy of the love of God above all else. Whenever we enter retreat we seek to be more available to God so that we may enter more fully into the divine life” (SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 29, “Retreat”). These lines encapsulate why we go on retreat: by setting aside the ordinary cares and patterns of our days, we hope to make ourselves more fully available to God. 

Many different settings, structures, and shapes of retreat can meet this aim. After all, God is available to us everywhere; the question is simply where and how we can best tune our perception to become aware of God’s presence. The answer will not be the same for each of us, nor even for each of us in every season. 

In these pages, three Brothers share three different visions for how one might shape a retreat experience. What framework might open your heart to God’s revelation at this season in your life? We pray that, however the Spirit leads you, your retreat will invite you to “enter more fully into the divine life.

Return and Rest - recalling God's love on retreat

Return and Rest

recalling God's love on retreat

Br. David Vryhof, SSJE

There are many ways of entering into retreat. At times we will want to use our time of retreat to listen and discern God’s purposes in our life, especially if we are in a place of confusion, conflict, or uncertainty. At other times we may be facing an important choice, and will find a period of silent retreat to be a helpful clearing space in which to weigh our options in prayer. At times, we will want to explore more deeply the nature of God, the person of Christ, or some aspect of our human condition. These are ways of using retreat to “advance” the spiritual life.

But as our Brother Curtis Almquist likes to remind us, most often “a retreat is not an advance.” Retreats invite us to return to the God we already know, to recall and to re-experience God’s love for us, to receive from God the gifts we need this day. 

“In returning and rest you shall be saved.” - Isaiah 30:15

In the Book of Common Prayer there is a collect that summarizes this last type of retreat. We pray, 

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The prayer is drawn from Isaiah 30:15: “For thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” It suggests that there are times when we need to return to God and find our rest in God’s presence, to draw from God’s strength in order to claim again the inner stillness and freedom that come from putting our trust in God’s wisdom and power rather than our own.

If you have ever watched young children playing on a playground you may have noticed how a child might from time to time interrupt his play in order to come over to his mother, sitting at the edge of the play area. She hugs him, tussles his hair, and rubs his back. He leans into her and receives her love. After a few moments, he pops up and returns to his peers to join again in their play. Retreat can be like that – a short break from the tasks of our life, during which we can lean into God to receive God’s love and affection, and hear God’s words of encouragement and support. Retreats can offer us this kind of refreshment and renewal, and can prepare us to re-enter the fray of our daily lives with new energy and hope.

Retreat can be a short break from the tasks of our life, during which we can lean into God to receive God’s love and affection.

How might we enter into such a retreat? I often encourage retreatants to begin their retreats by returning to a favorite passage of Scripture or to a favorite hymn, one that recalls for them God’s deep love and abiding faithfulness. Here are some possible starting places:

– Isaiah 43:1-9 “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

– Psalm 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not be in want.”

– Psalm 139 “it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

– Romans 8:31-38 “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.”

– 1 John 4:7-21 “In this is love, not that we loved God but that   God loved us…

– Hymnal 1982, 671 “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound”

– Hymnal 1982, 664 “My Shepherd will supply my need

“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there...

It will help if we remind ourselves that prayer is a gift, not a task. We come to prayer to offer God thanks and praise, and to receive the good gifts God has for us, gifts that God knows that we need. We do not come to achieve a goal or to produce a specific result. Nor do we come out of obligation, to fulfill a sense of duty. Christian prayer stems from a loving relationship. God has invited us into the Divine Presence in order to offer us love and strength, patience and courage, healing and wholeness. Prayer is the primary place where we receive these things. Therefore, we ought to approach our times of prayer or times of retreat not with a sense of duty, but in a spirit of receptivity and expectation. We are coming to meet the One who has created and redeemed us in love, and who reigns over all things, to receive all that we need from God’s heavenly storehouse.

The author of the First Letter of John writes, “We love because (God) first loved us” (1 John 4:9). The first thing (“we love”) is dependent on the second (that we have received and experienced God’s love for us). If we hope to be agents of God’s love in the world, carriers of God’s grace and ministers of God’s compassion, then we need to receive those gifts of love and grace and compassion from the hand of God. Only then can we offer them to others. Prayer is the place where these gifts are received. When I have experienced God’s unconditional love for me, I can offer that same unconditional love to others. When I have known God’s forgiveness, I can extend that same forgiveness to others. When I know that God accepts me as I am, without judgment, I can open myself to others and approach them with curiosity and interest rather than with suspicion and judgment. “We love because (God) first loved us.” This is the gift that God offers us in prayer and in retreat.

Begin your retreat, then, by returning to God, resting in God’s goodness and love, allowing God to restore your confidence in God’s protection and provision. God is at work in your life. “Be still, and know that God is God.”

...For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” - Psalm 139: 7-8, 13-14

pencil drawing of the Good Shepherd, by Katherine Brown

Practices to Enrich Your Retreat

Recall specific moments when you have known God’s goodness and love in your life. How did you feel? What emotions spring up in you now as you recall those earlier times? Offer them to God.


Write a letter to God. What do you wish to say to God? What does God need to hear from you? It could be words of love or heartbreak or doubt. Be as honest as you can. One of our Brothers, at the end of this meditative practice, likes to take up another pen in a second color and write the words he hears God speaking back to him. 


You might find it helpful to meditate with an image. I love to pray with Katherine Brown’s image of the Good Shepherd, rejoicing as he holds his lost lamb. As you gaze at this icon, hear God welcoming you back home. You are God’s beloved creature, the one for whom God would leave the ninety-nine, just to bring you back. 

Sip and Savor - reading sacred texts on retreat

Sip and Savor

reading sacred texts on retreat

Br. Keith Nelson, SSJE

The spaciousness, silence, and freedom from distraction that retreat offers provide an ideal context for encountering Christ in scripture and sacred writings. Times of retreat free us from the obligation of assigned readings like the lectionary. They also beckon us away from the perpetual flow of the social media feed, headlines crafted to arrest us in our tracks, and images designed to hijack our attention. Unlike the reading we shoe-horn into a daily train commute or the spare, sleepy moments before bed, on retreat we are given the gift of genuine leisure to let our reading absorb, transfix, and even transfigure us. We can rediscover the grace-bearing potential of words by giving them our full and undivided attention. In the chapter entitled “Holy Scripture” in our Rule, we read: “It is the Spirit dwelling within us who brings the revelation of Scripture into a vital encounter with our inmost selves, and brings to birth new meaning and life.” When the texts we choose to take on retreat are selected with careful, prayerful discernment and approached with reverent expectancy, the living Word can open our deafness once more. Our lives may be forever changed by just a single phrase. 

“Without silence, words become empty.” – SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 27, “Silence”

There are a few elements that can transform our engagement with printed words into sacred reading while on retreat. I’ll consider three: what we choose to read, the pace at which we read it, and the space we give ourselves to step away from our reading and rest in wordless silence. There is abundant literature on the classic monastic practice of lectio divina – a practice which I heartily recommend. Here, however, I will consider sacred reading practices a little more broadly. 

How do we choose what texts we read on retreat? This is a fairly personal choice, but remember that your aim is sacred reading. I prefer to avoid texts which are primarily didactic – whose basic purpose is to instruct, inform, or set forth an argument. Instead, I choose texts which I trust will efface themselves and usher me gently into encounter with God, toward whom they point. I particularly relish reading poems on retreat, because a good poem can communicate directly to the heart what prose can take a volume to express! The writings of the ancient and medieval church, though sometimes difficult and obscure, never fail to reward my patient attention with gifts of grace. Some retreats have become like intimate conversations between Jesus, myself, and the saint whose holy friendship is offered to me through her or his writings. As a consummate bibliophile, I need to be ruthless in limiting the number of books I take on retreat and remind myself that this is not an opportunity to catch up on the six to eight books from the Monastery library begging for my attention. My hard rule is no more than two, plus a Bible. In reading scripture, I often aim to delve deeply into one book, or sometimes a single chapter, though I leave room for detours if they are strong promptings from the Spirit. I must cultivate, again and again, a “less is more” approach. 

Learning to read slowly and meditatively can take practice, but this is the pace and approach that our ancestors in the faith most strongly recommend. Just as timeless works of visual art or music communicate freshly to each generation of artists or musicians, texts that contain true wisdom repay an infinite number of readings. Each inwardly repeated sentence can midwife new insights or lift the eyes of our hearts to whole constellations of meaning that our initial reading passed over unawares. In the ancient and medieval worlds, the act of reading was an awesome privilege demanding intense mental and physical concentration. Receiving even a one-page letter was a singular event. The precious words on the parchment were read aloud, repeatedly. This way of reading rendered the author mysteriously and intimately present. The Rule of St. Benedict makes provision for each monk to receive one book from the monastic library as his Lenten reading. A whole book to absorb in meditative prayer over the course of a liturgical season was a sublime gift. On retreat, we can follow their lead. Rather than gulp, we sip and savor. 

“He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat...

In the sustained, meditative reading of a sacred text we expect to be impacted or transformed in some way because we honor the text’s spiritual authority or authenticity, but we don’t pretend to know how the encounter may change us. We are open to the text’s points of difficulty and obscurity (think for example of the prologue to John’s gospel, or the poems of T.S. Eliot). The Spirit patiently teaches us that when the fist of the mind closes around the words to wrest away a manufactured, quotable insight, they inevitably become opaque. The doors of perception close. Yet when we are receptive and open, without the compulsion to comprehend each particular nuance, words and phrases take on a transparent radiance. In the words of Eliot, “Every word is at home … the complete consort dancing together.” We are graced by a boundless, holistic, heart-centered way of knowing that can only be inspired — in-breathed by another power. In this moment, we close the book. 

Then what? Nothing and everything may quiver expectantly in that moment. We may remain still for a time, resting in the Word. We may gather together a few words of humble gratitude. We may turn our attention to something very different: a long walk in the cold air, a cup of tea beside the fireplace, a luxurious nap, an hour with the blessed Sacrament. The Word has used words to bear us into the silence that is their Source, and to which they will return. We let the words be, planted in the dark, mysterious soil of our hearts. We entrust their growth to the Author of Life, until the next time we take up the text, our attention refreshed and renewed, hungry again for the grace that sacred reading bestows. 

...He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.” – Ezekiel 3:1-3

John Icon

Practices to Enrich Your Retreat

Memorize a favorite passage from Scripture. Repeat the words aloud, slowly and meditatively. How do the words feel in your mouth as you “chew” them? After a while, let yourself become silent in the lingering presence of the Word. Trust that they have been written on your heart, and will be there for you when you need them.


Gaze at the icon of St. John the Evangelist. Momentarily lay aside your analytical mind and simply receive the figures, colors, and shapes just as they are. 

Now take a look at the angel hovering over John’s shoulder, whispering in his ear: a representation of the Word of God. The Word whispers to us through the printed words in front of us. But the same Word communicates in unexpected ways from the margins, or at the periphery of our vision – gently interrupting, inspiring, suggesting, or challenging. 

What is it like to “read” the Word present to you in both of these places – or to allow the Word to read you in this way?

Strive and Wrestle - facing spiritual trial on retreat

Strive and Wrestle

reading sacred texts on retreat

Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE

Prior to coming to the Monastery, my experiences of retreat were of an extended time of sabbath with God, always in the context of community with fellow believers. While times of rest in community away from the familiar scenes, routines, and challenges of life were quite beneficial to me, it wasn’t until I arrived at SSJE to test my vocation as a monk that I encountered a deeper and richer experience of retreat. As a novice, when I first studied the chapter entitled “Retreat” in our Rule of Life, one paragraph captured my attention: “Retreats will often be times in which we hear Jesus inviting us to be at rest with him. But we must expect retreats to expose us to spiritual trial. We may be tempted to tire ourselves or waste the time in busy work and preparation. We may find ourselves staying on the surface to avoid an authentic meeting with the living God. And the emptiness of retreat time may compel us to face painful signs of our need for healing which it was easier to overlook during our usual routines.” Spiritual trial!? Wasn’t retreat time about spending ‘quality time’ with God? I had never considered retreat to be so venturesome.

“We must expect retreats to expose us to spiritual trial.” – SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 27, “Silence”

This vision of retreat reminds me of a story from Genesis which I loved as a kid but never really understood until now: the story of Jacob and his encounter with a divine being. The author of this particular Genesis story says that Jacob is on a journey with his family and all his possessions when, at one point, he sends them ahead of him, while he stays behind. When he is completely alone, Jacob encounters a man who engages him in a struggle. The two spend the long hours of the night wrestling, and eventually Jacob overpowers the man. Before conceding defeat the man dislocates Jacob’s thigh and exclaims, “Let me go, for day is breaking.” But Jacob perceives something about this man with whom he has been wrestling. Aware that this is no ordinary encounter, Jacob asks his holy opponent for a blessing. The man declares that he will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, “for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” The name Israel means “a man seeing God.” The story continues: “And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip.”

This story resonates with me because it highlights the truth that any encounter which brings us into real intimacy with God will be costly. It will involve sacrifice, intention, endurance, and a desire and willingness to be changed. Jacob sacrificed all that he had, sending his family and possessions ahead unguarded while he withdrew to be alone with God. He intentionally engaged God in struggle, perhaps processing and working out the self-doubts that had plagued him. We know that Jacob had a less-than-stellar reputation in the eyes of his family and was seeking reconciliation from his estranged brother Esau. He had to abide with God in a difficult struggle, perhaps wondering at times whether he would be able to endure God’s truth and judgment. He had to desire change and make that desire known to God. At the dawning of the new day, he asked God to bless him as he moved forward into new life. Jacob left that encounter with God, not only with the new name of Israel, but also bearing a wound of love, one that would be a constant reminder of God’s grace and blessing.

“There are many conflicts on the way into the experience of divine love. As the spirit exposes it to Christ’s healing touch in prayer we shall often have to struggle with our reluctance to be loved so deeply by God...

It may be helpful to you to pray with the story of Jacob’s encounter with God, especially on retreat, since a retreat may expose us to spiritual trial. We may enter into retreat with the intention of deepening our relationship with God, only to find ourselves distracted. We live in an age where we are constantly bombarded with advertising which promises a better life. And the lure of social media – with its premise to bring us connection – actually isolates us from real, meaningful relationships. God does not relate to us through Facebook and Instagram. Rather God is drawing us into silence, stillness, and solitude, in order to share the intimacy of adoring love with us. Like any relationship that we care about, our relationship with God requires us to put aside distractions in order to gaze into the face of our Beloved. 

It seems appealing to search for God somewhere ‘out there,’ in exotic places worthy of God’s glory. However, the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth and fifth centuries taught that the kingdom of heaven begins within us: “Strive to enter the treasure chamber that is within you; that way you will see the heavenly treasure. Both are one in the same. The ladder to the kingdom of heaven is in your soul ... there you will find the steps on which you can climb up.” The Psalmist writes, “Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides.” You are God’s abiding place!

Most often Jesus enters into our lives through the cracks of our brokenness. We need not be ashamed of the fissures in our heart. Instead we must have the courage to bare them to Jesus, whose desire is to fill us with grace so that we may know the power of his love. Acknowledging our need for healing, our desire for happiness, and our longing for abundance is a sacrifice we offer to God. In return, God gives us a morsel of bread and sip of wine, the heavenly food of his own body and blood to sustain and nourish us as we begin our journey to healing.

Like Jacob, we need the courage first to let go of everything, to engage God and to ask God to reveal our true identity, the person God has created us to be. Retreat can be the perfect time for such challenging, rewarding striving with God.

...Christ himself will strive with us, as the angel strove with Jacob, to disable our self-reliant pride and make us depend on grace.” – SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 21, “The Mystery of Prayer”

IMG_5629

Practices to Enrich Your Retreat

What are you struggling with in your life – perhaps something in your past that has left you wounded? Do you share this struggle with God? Offer your wounds to Jesus in prayer, asking Him to transfigure the situation, that it might be a source of blessing to you.


Before going on retreat, note the amount of time you spend on social media each week. During the course of your retreat, resist the urge to connect virtually. Instead make a list of those whom you hold in your heart. Remember them to God in your prayer. Our founder, Richard Meux Benson, explains the power of intercessory prayer in this way: “....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.” Carry those you love with you to God in prayer.


In times of spiritual trial, you may find it meaningful to meditate with an image of Christ crucified, like the one here. Reflect on how Christ is willing to share with you in your struggle.

About Br. David Vryhof

Br. David Vryhof, SSJE lives at Emery House in West Newbury and serves as Communications Brother. He loves that his day is grounded in the Daily Office (while his actual office is grounded in plenty of post-it notes and to-do lists). He is the most enthusiastic sports fan in the community.

 

About Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson, SSJE came to SSJE in February of 2014 and professed his Initial Vows in July of 2016. He has had a life-long passion for drawing and is an avid reader of ascetical theology, particularly fourteenth-century Middle English. He loves being a monk and a follower of Jesus. 

 

About Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE lives at the Monastery in Cambridge, where he serves the community both as the Director of Music and Director of Vocations. When he is away from his desk (and that “Office” in the Chapel), he enjoys cooking southern cuisine, exploring different neighborhoods in Boston, and sampling craft beer.

Reflection: Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage

a journey within

Monastic Wisdom

for everyday living

Br. Geoffrey Tristram traces the practice of pilgrimage back to the origins of our faith and deep into the inner realms of our hearts.

PILGRIMAGE

A JOURNEY WITHIN

When I decided to stop in and visit the small village church in Lastingham, Yorkshire, I had no idea that the place was of any significance. I hadn’t set out on a pilgrimage. I hadn’t researched the site or prepared myself to have any particular kind of experience. I just happened to be passing by there with my brother-in-law. I went in and decided to go down into the crypt. 

As I entered into the low, dim stone space, I actually fell on the ground because of the overwhelming sense of holiness. I nearly passed out. I had no idea what was happening or why. I thought, “What on earth? Why am I feeling this?” 

After I came back up into the church and looked around, I discovered that this church was where Saint Chad and Saint Cedd, missionaries to the Angles, had established their monastery. And Saint Cedd is buried, still, down in the crypt. My experience there was utterly unexpected; I almost couldn’t believe it. Yet it was also undeniable. The sense of the holy was so close, it fell upon me like a huge weight. 

“People come to kneel where prayer has been valid."

People come to kneel where prayer has been valid,” wrote T.S. Eliot. 

Eliot not only kneeled, he fully collapsed – on the floor of our own Holy Spirit Chapel – during an early morning Eucharist in the 1930s. He was the only visitor in the Chapel with the Brothers. Suddenly, during the consecration of the elements, he experienced the presence of God so powerfully, so heavily, he collapsed under it. 

I love these stories because they remind me that while churches can offer sanctuary, they also can be incredibly dangerous places of encounter. We should post warnings on the door: Enter at your own risk. If you don’t want to risk an encounter that might change everything, then you might want to stay away!

Take Paul Claudel, the French playwright. Not a believer, he went one day into the vast cathedral, Notre-Dame de Paris. Claudel stood, half hiding behind a pillar, watching the Mass. He later wrote that the pillars were like great trees in a forest, and, as he stood there, something extraordinary took place. He said it was as if the Holy Spirit was hiding in that forest, and it suddenly ambushed him. At once he believed and fell to his knees.

Notre-Dame de Paris, this Monastery Chapel in Cambridge, Saint Mary’s in Lastingham, Yorkshire: it’s not just aesthetics that gives such churches their power. These places are holy, which simply means that they have been consecrated to God. They are places where generations have come seeking God; where men and women have been ambushed by God and can never be the same again. They are places where thousands upon thousands of prayers have been offered; where solemn vows have been made: monastic vows, baptismal vows, marriage vows, ordination vows. It’s almost as if the very walls have become impregnated with prayer and saturated with God’s presence. The holiness of such places is not measurable, and yet it’s undeniable. We enter and, ready or not, God is already there, waiting for us.

Enter at your own risk. If you don’t want to risk an encounter that might change everything, then you might want to stay away!

 

We believe, of course, that God is everywhere. God can be found on a mountaintop, as well as in a valley; in the dark and in the light; in a holy place and in the gutter. The place where we encounter God is actually not material, for God of course is immaterial. Seen this way, there is no need to go anywhere at all to experience God. 

And yet, as Christians, we also believe in the Incarnation. John’s Gospel tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” or, as another translation has it, “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (Jn 1:14). Within the more Catholic traditions of the Christian church, believers pray in front of the tabernacle – where the Sacrament is placed – out of a desire to be close to the sacramental presence of Christ, the Christ who became flesh and dwelt among us. We believe that Christ is physically there, in the Sacrament. Even though God is everywhere, we embodied creatures do experience God (like everything else) in our bodies and through our senses. Our sacramental practice within the Church is reflective of this; it invites us to experience God’s presence somatically, in our flesh, with our taste and with our touch. The God who became flesh comes to us again in the flesh every time we hold out our hands and “Take, eat” the Sacrament.

And so, too, there are physical places where we feel that God can be experienced in a uniquely powerful way. “Thin places” we call them, where the veil between Heaven and earth is thinned, somehow. Where – even if you aren’t expecting it, or are unprepared for it – you can become aware of an almost overwhelming sense of God’s presence, as I did at Lastingham.

These places of divine encounter are holy places with the power to transform us, just as the Sacraments do, by bringing us into contact with the living God. In these places of encounter, God’s presence is so palpable that it’s actually very easy to pray. We can be very vulnerable. We feel close to the Source of Life.

Such places of encounter become sites of pilgrimage.

Places of encounter become sites of pilgrimage.

 

While pilgrimage rose as a widespread devotional practice in the Middle Ages, humans have been practicing pilgrimage for as long as we have experienced and commemorated encounters with God. 

Think of that wonderful story in Genesis 28, the story of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob falls asleep and dreams of a ladder ascending up to Heaven, with angels going up and down. When he awakens, he knows that he’s been visited by God. He says, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the Gate of Heaven.” He calls that place Bethel, “the house of God.” 

What’s significant is that Jacob is sleeping on a rock as a pillow. When he wakes up and realizes that he’s been visited by God, he takes that rock, makes it into an altar, and pours oil on it. As word spreads, people begin to come to that place. That site becomes holy because that’s where God came down and touched a human. It’s a place where, to quote T.S. Eliot again, we “apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time.” The transcendent God has actually broken through into our time-bound world, and we can point to where it happened. There, right there. Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to call these “little anticipations of Heaven,” moments of transcendence. They can happen in sacred places, they can happen on pilgrimage, and they can happen in the daily journey of our everyday life.

The transcendent God has actually broken through into our time-bound world, and we can point to where it happened. There, right there.

As Christians, we are a pilgrim people. 

Pilgrimage is woven into the very roots of our faith, beginning with Abraham, the first pilgrim. In Genesis 12, God calls Abram (whom God will later call Abraham) to leave his house and journey to a land unknown. “Leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house, and go on a journey to a foreign land.” So Abram becomes nomadic. He pitches a tent each night; the next morning, he takes up the tent pegs and moves on. I think that this “Abrahamic” spirit is fundamental to our Judeo-Christian tradition: we are pilgrim people, from the very start.

The thread picks up with the most formative experience of salvation in the Hebrew Scriptures: the story of the Exodus, which is essentially a forty-year pilgrimage. God’s people are enslaved in Egypt, brutalized by Pharaoh, and God raises up Moses to be their savior. And Moses leads them on an epic journey across the desert, to the Promised Land.  

This thread continues throughout the Gospels, as Jesus calls disciples to follow him away from their homes and all that they have known, on a journey into the unknown: 

He saw Simon and Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.  And Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mk 1:16-18)

“He saw James and John who were in their boat mending the nets.  He called them and they left their father Zebedee and followed him.” (Mt 4:21-22)

“He called the rich young man and said, ‘Sell everything that you have and follow me.’” (Mt 19:21)

“He saw a tax collector called Levi and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up, left everything, and followed him.” (Lk 5:27-28)

Jesus’ uncompromising command to leave everything – and indeed the longing to leave everything to follow Jesus – inspired many of the first monastics: Saint Anthony and the Desert Fathers in the fourth century, who left all their property and wealth behind, to head out into the western deserts of Egypt.

And in the early Celtic Christian tradition, such men as Patrick and Columba embraced what was known as “white martyrdom” when they left their homes to travel to foreign lands, leaving everything behind, to follow Jesus. As a contemporary writer put it, “They sailed into the white sky of morning, into the unknown, never to return.

While most of us are not called to such extreme acts of renunciation for the sake of following Jesus, yet those words in the Gospel are surely addressed to each one of us: “Leave everything and follow me, and you will receive eternal life.

This command contains a deep truth for each of us: the first step in our pilgrimage will always be a movement away from, a renunciation of the familiar. Unless we let go of the familiar, the safe, the secure, unless we take the risk of becoming vulnerable, we cannot grow. 

This is one of the main reasons why pilgrims set out for holy destinations: they are longing to take a journey of transformation. To do so, they literally leave behind the familiar and the known, and physically journey into a place and a future that only God can envision. The pilgrim’s physical journey can “jumpstart” the transformation, as it were, through the radical act of leaving behind the world that is known. It’s no accident that so much of the great literature of the world picks up on this very theme of the hero’s transformative journey; from the story of Abraham in Genesis, to the great epics, The Odyssey, The Iliad, even The Lord of the Rings. A pilgrimage of transformation requires first that we leave everything behind, and set out on a journey that will lead to new life.

Unless we let go of the familiar, the safe, the secure, unless we take the risk of becoming vulnerable, we cannot grow. 

Simply leaving home is not enough, of course. 

Physical pilgrimage has value primarily for its ability to inspire inner change. In this, the physical journey of pilgrimage symbolizes (and often catalyzes) the spiritual journey that we are called to take within. In her wonderful treatment of medieval pilgrimage, Pilgrimage of the Heart, Sr. Benedicta Ward, SLG, catalogues four possible stages along the spectrum between physical and spiritual pilgrimage:

1. It was possible to stay and to stay, in other words to be completely lazy and attempt nothing, go nowhere, stay shut within the walls of self, to ignore pilgrimage altogether.

2. It was possible to stay and yet to go, by undertaking the pilgrimage of the heart while remaining in one place, which was the fundamental monastic way.

3. It was possible to go inwardly by longing and desire in the heart and to confirm this by outward pilgrimage with the feet, to be a true pilgrim.

4. It was possible to go on pilgrimage with feet, but not with heart, as a tourist, a runaway, or a drop-out from responsibility, a curious inquirer, in which case there had been no real movement; the traveler had taken the shell of self with him and whatever its name it was not in essence a pilgrimage at all.

Of this last kind of pilgrimage, the great biblical translator Saint Jerome observed, “It is better to live for Jerusalem than to journey to Jerusalem.” Better to stay home and be changed in heart, than to journey with your feet yet remain internally unmoved. 

Whether or not each of us eventually chooses to embark on a physical pilgrimage at some point in our life, we are all of us called to set out, ever afresh, on the inner kind of pilgrimage, the pilgrimage of the heart. We are called, in the words of Jerome, to “live for Jerusalem,” as we follow Christ on a journey of growth and transformation. 

Come follow me. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (Jn 14:6). Christianity has never been a static body of doctrine, but rather is a dynamic way of life. The first term used in the New Testament to describe Christians is “followers of the Way,” because of Jesus’ compelling invitation to take to the road, to make all of life into a continuous pilgrimage. Monica Furlong, in her book Traveling In, wrote, “The religious person is the one who believes that life is about making some kind of journey. The non-religious person is the one who believes there is no journey to make. 

The journey – whether it be the journey of Abraham or Moses, Jesus’ disciples or medieval pilgrims – has never been simply about traveling across physical space toward a holy site. Every outward journey of pilgrimage always has as its true goal an inner journey of transformation. 

The essence of pilgrimage, then, is the journey within. Therefore the essential pilgrimage to undertake is not the one of the feet, but the one of the heart. For this reason, I love the story that Sr. Benedicta recounts of the early Egyptian recluse, who fell under criticism for living a sedentary life. “Why are you sitting here and doing nothing?” one monk asked her. She replied, “I am not doing nothing; I am on a journey.”

We can embark on the most amazing journey without ever leaving our room. Every day Jesus calls us to embrace new life, and that means to let go, to leave behind what has become too comfortable, our habits, our compulsions. It means each morning awakening to a new day and saying to God, “Where do you want to lead me today on the journey of life? What are you asking me to leave behind? How are you asking me to change?”  

 To live is to change,” wrote Cardinal Newman, “and to be perfect is to have changed often.”  

We are all of us called to set out, ever afresh, on the inner kind of pilgrimage, the pilgrimage of the heart.

Jesus’ continuous call to grow and change can make us feel insecure and, frankly, scared. I suppose, if we are honest, we’re not always very keen to take to the road. And yet that is what this resurrection Life is all about. “For here we have no abiding city, for we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14).

As pilgrims, we are not simply wanderers. This pilgrimage of ours is not just away from our old life, nor is it solely into the depths of our hearts. Our journey is actually toward something very specific. “We seek the city which is to come.” We are headed somewhere. We have a specific destination: our heavenly home. Our pilgrimage journey is toward God!

This is the fundamental difference between traveling through life as a pilgrim and as a tourist. To the tourist, every part of the journey has equal value, whereas the pilgrim definitely has a goal. To understand our life as a pilgrimage is to see this life as teleological: to know it actually has an end, and a goal, in Heaven. God is the end of our journey – both our destination and our goal. 

One thing that can be very helpful as we press along on this journey, is periodically to stop and make a sort of “map” of the road we’ve traveled and the road ahead. Ultimately, we know that our destination is God; yet like any traveler pressing on along an unknown road, we may need to check in and reorient ourselves from time to time, to be sure that we haven’t taken off on the wrong path. 

Honestly take stock of your journey so far: Where am I now, where have I been, and where do I feel I should be going? Ask yourself: Where do I feel God is drawing me now? What is the vision I have of the person God wants me to become? What are the things in my life right now which are stopping me from realizing that vision, or dulling my sight? Where am I being pulled off the path?

It doesn’t matter how far along the path you are. And if you have come off the way, that’s ok too; you simply need to get back on it. “To repent” in the Greek is metanoia, which means to “turn around.” If you find you’ve gone astray, then turn around! Retrace your steps to the last time you knew that you were in the right spot, and start again from there. 

This exercise can be particularly helpful when we undertake it with a companion, someone we trust, who knows us and loves us, and who also understands the things of the Spirit. Find someone who can act as a guide in interpreting your map and pointing you toward the next step on the road. In this, the Road to Emmaus offers such a wonderful image for this pilgrim life (see Lk 24:13-27). The disciples set out on pilgrimage to Emmaus. Suddenly, Christ draws near to them, but they don’t recognize him, until they reflect on the teaching the stranger has shared. So too, we need to be open and expectant that, along the route, somebody may draw close to us, and they may be the Christ, speaking words which set us on the path to life again, by renewing our vision. 

To understand our life as a pilgrimage is to see this life actually has an end, and a goal, in Heaven.

Wherever we are on our life journey, we are never alone. The story of Emmaus promises us that we are always joined by another, the Risen One. He always walks beside us. When we are at the extremity of our strength, he is with us; in the wilderness of ice or the furnace of the fire; in our times of greatest loneliness or trial, Emmaus reassures us, “You are not alone: you have a companion.”

The Risen Christ walks by our side, but he also goes ahead of us. In John’s Gospel, we read, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places: if it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (Jn 14:2). The word used by John for “dwelling place” is very interesting. It’s the Greek word monai, which doesn’t mean a “house,” and certainly not a “mansion,” but rather a “stopping place,” like a wayside shelter, where a traveler could rest a night or two on a journey (like the mountain huts you find in the White Mountains). In the East, it was the custom for travelers to send someone ahead to prepare the next shelter along the road, so that when the travelers arrived, they might find comfort, as well as shelter.

Jesus, in this famous passage, is promising that he is that person for us. He is just ahead of us on our life’s journey: he prepares the way for us. Even though the next step of our journey may seem scary, “I have gone before you to prepare a place for you.”

As comforting as this image is, we should also hear in it something of a prod. We often reach a stage in our life where we have found a very comfortable wayside shelter, and decide that we’d like to stop there for good. We begin putting up curtains and might even stow our pack under the bed! But that is to forget our Abrahamic roots, which call us to take out the tent pegs in the morning, and move on.

We are a pilgrim people. Christ urges us on: “Get back on the road. Don’t be afraid. For I will always be the one walking by your side – and I will always go before you to prepare the way.”

In this pilgrim life, we are called to an ongoing journey, with God and toward God. And yet there is this amazing sense that, the more we travel away from what we know, the more familiar the landscape will become. My journey does not actually lead me away from myself, but toward it. I am called by Jesus to become more and more the Geoffrey that God had in mind when God created me. And so, too, are you: called to become the person God made you to be. We have this little time on Earth for that to happen, to become who we truly are, so that when we finally get to Heaven, it won’t be such a shock! 

To quote T.S. Eliot once more, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and to know the place for the first time.” At the end of our journey, we will find ourselves, finally, home. 

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 fifteen years ago to join SSJE and has pursued a ministry of teaching, spiritual direction, and retreat leading, 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 St. Albans, as well as the head of the department of theology at Oundle School, a large Anglican high school in the English Midlands.

Monastic Wisdom: Transfiguration

Transfiguration

To Bear the Beams of Love

Monastic Wisdom

for everyday living

Br. Geoffrey Tristram on how we can perceive and experience God's glory in the world around us.

TRANSFIGURATION

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.

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.

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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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.

Monastic Wisdom: Conversion

Conversion

Pruning, Time, and Help

Monastic Wisdom

for everyday living

Br. Curtis Almquist on the concrete ways we can allow conversion to take place in our lives and selves.

CONVERSION

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.

There are concrete things we can do to allow conversion to take place in our lives.

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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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.

Monastic Wisdom: Baptism

Baptism

Sharing the Divine Life

Monastic Wisdom

for everyday living

Br. James Koester on how baptism enables us to share in the divine life.

BAPTISM

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.

Behold what you are; may we become what we receive.

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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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.

Monastic Wisdom: Eucharist

Eucharist

A Sacrifice of Thanksgiving

Monastic Wisdom

for everyday living

Br. Eldridge Pendelton explores the richness of the fundamental act of Christian worship, the Eucharist.

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.

I went away that afternoon resolving that I would be a regular at those suppers where Jesus fed everyone.

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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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.

Monastic Wisdom: Intercession

Intercession

Close to the Heart of God

Monastic Wisdom

for everyday living

Br. Geoffrey Tristram explores how Intercession brings us, and those for whom we pray, close to the heart of God.

INTERCESSION

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.

Jesus prayed for us while we was on earth, and he carries on praying for us still.

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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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.

Monastic Wisdom: Forgiveness

Forgiveness

Transformation in Love

Monastic Wisdom

for everyday living

Br. David Vryhof invites us to the challenging, essential practice of forgiveness.

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.

People cannot live together unless they forgive each other just for being who they are. —François Varillon

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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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.

Monastic Wisdom: Reconciliation

Reconciliation

Preparing for the Sacrament

Monastic Wisdom

for everyday living

Br. Curtis Almquist suggests why and how to prepare our hearts for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

RECONCILATION

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.

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How God will break through to us will oftentimes be through something that is broken within us.

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.

Reflection: Behold What You Are

Behold What You Are

Seeing Jesus & Ourselves in the Gospel According to John

Monastic Wisdom

for everyday living

Br. Keith Nelson reveals through his own experience how reading and praying with John’s Gospel can allow each of us to see the ordinary, challenging, and even painful events of our lives as signs imbued with meaning.

BEHOLD WHAT YOU ARE

SEEING JESUS AND OURSELVES IN THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN

He came to center our senses in himself.

In his work On the Incarnation, the church father Athanasius wrote these words about Jesus, to describe one aspect of his cosmic purpose and mission: “He came to center our senses in himself.” It’s a simple and memorable phrase, with a pleasing, rhythmic consonance in English. I first encountered it in a library in my mid-twenties, while writing a paper for a graduate course. At first, it was simply the bright, felicitous thread that connected many conceptual beads into a strand that hung together. But I walked around repeating it over and over. I couldn’t get it out of my head. Nor did I want to. My fingers caressed the beads, as it were, and the thread held. It held much more than I imagined. The words haunted me for days and whispered me to sleep at night. Whatever was happening, this was not about the theology that I thought I knew. God (?!) was apparently happening to me, and in the smoldering depths of my heart.

It armed me with the nerve I needed – a firm resolve with a trembling underbelly – to trundle into the snow on a Sunday morning in Advent of 2007, to find a seat in the back of a monastic chapel. I had come, vulnerably, to center my senses on him. I needed his body, his blood. To find a center for senses flung, dispersed throughout the wide world and home-sick for their Maker. As the moment I’d been waiting for got closer, I got more and more nervous. I thought about how I could make my exit without anyone noticing. But then, as the bread and wine were lifted high, I heard the words from behind the altar:

Behold what you are; may we become what we receive.

I think my mouth literally fell open.
It sounds so painfully earnest to put it this way, but Jesus Christ changed my life that day.

Behold what you are; may we become what we receive.

In those tumultuous early days of my adult reconversion, I showed all the symptoms of a lovesick man. I cried for seemingly no reason, other than the inexplicable gratitude and subtle grace that seemed to lead me through each hour. I found myself gazing at anything and everything with a thirsty wonder, drinking in the miracle of its simple being. And I did something I hadn’t done since childhood: I read the Gospel. Over and over and over. I slept with my Bible under my pillow. Not since those childhood summers spent in Vacation Bible School at Hunter Street Baptist Church (Hoover, Alabama) had I spent so much time poring over the Word. Only this time, it really spoke. He really spoke: in me, to me, through me, around me.

And the words that spoke to me with the most bewildering clarity and burned with the most intuitive truth were those from the Gospel of John.

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.1

A Person – the Son of God – was making himself known in my heart, taking the driver’s seat after years of quietly looking out the back window as a passenger, so quietly that I often forgot he was there. Quiet Jesus, taking pictures and making sketches and letting the road trip simply sink in while I determined the itinerary. Now, as he drove the car and I examined all that he had been doing in silence, he began to speak. As I listened, I felt a fuller expression of my own Personhood being brought to ground and sifted to surface. I heard my heart’s reply: “Jesus, I love you. This makes no sense. But I love you. Let’s drive anywhere you want. Just keep driving.”

My journey of faith has mellowed and matured since those earliest days of conscious re-connection with Jesus. But the Gospel of John remains at the center of our relationship. As a member of a monastic community with a singular devotion to this Gospel, it suffuses my daily, lived experience as a follower of Jesus. But it also breaks into – erupts into – the daily, as sparks of new inspiration find tinder and crackle to Life.

Monastics throughout the centuries have heartily commended reading and praying with John’s gospel as a sure path to intimacy with God in Jesus. They have found in its pages a central source of inspiration in seeking and discovering a life of mystical union with Christ, realizing by way of their monastic call the birthright of all Christians by our baptism. There is something more deeply, instinctually, intuitively transformative about John the longer I travel this monastic way. Why is this so? At its heart, monastic life is just the ordinary Christian life lived within a very particular frame, according to a distinctive rhythm, and under vows. But that frame, that rhythm, and those vows are designed to saturate the monastic mind, heart, and will with the Life and Light of Christ, to the degree that something extraordinary begins to suffuse and transfigure the ordinary. Everyday occurrences, objects, and interactions speak a living Word that, over time, become the nouns and verbs of a language.

Likewise, at the heart of John’s gospel we find Jesus continually stepping into similarly ordinary interactions and handling ordinary objects, but in doing so, transforming them into signs that reveal the truth of who Jesus is and who we are becoming in him. The powerful, experiential truth I glimpsed in my first encounter with SSJE – through participation in the Eucharist – was a moment of glory revealed by a sign in this Johannine sense.

 

Everyday occurrences, objects, and interactions speak a living Word that, over time, become the nouns and verbs of a language.

In John, we are initiated into a wondrous Life of being-and-becoming along with the disciples by means of the signs Jesus performs. The Johannine community developed such a sensitive receptivity to the significance of Jesus’ words and actions, gestures and relationships, that they would never experience the world he redeemed the same way again. They became sign-readers, utterly convinced that “life is full of meaning in union with God.”2 In John’s prologue, we hear whispers of Christ’s cosmic role: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (Jn 1:3-4). This suggests that meaning is literally hidden in plain sight, and that Life and Light are never far beneath the surface of things. This is part of what makes John’s gospel an especially illuminating path toward seeing Jesus and seeing ourselves as we read and pray with the Fourth Gospel. John wants to give us the Rosetta Stone to decipher that divine language, to make us light-bearers and life-revealers in a world hungry for meaning and thirsty for grace.

In order to plumb the Johannine meaning of the word “signs” at greater depth, it will help to explore some scriptural scholarship here. Bear with me, the lens I’m looking through may feel clunky, but I think it helps us to see the stunning, three-dimensional relevance of Johannine signs in a whole new way.

The Greek word translated as signs in most Bibles is semeia. I prefer, along with scholar Sandra Schneiders, the translation “symbol.” Schneiders’ definition of the word semeia in John is, well, a mouthful, but it has been a crucial key to my understanding of their powerful significance. She uses the word symbol to mean “a sensible reality which renders present to and involves a person subjectively in a transforming experience of transcendent mystery.”3 Symbols are not “signs” in the sense that we traditionally use that word, because a symbol opens us to the wide horizon of meaning and relationship with the Divine, rather than pointing to a single, absent or invisible concept. She points out the breath-taking truth that Jesus is thus the essential Symbol (semeion) of God, in that the “Son of the Father” makes sensibly real and personally accessible the transcendent reality of “the Father who sent him.”

And Jesus is a Symbol who saves by generating symbols of himself. When Jesus unexpectedly turns water to wine at a wedding banquet or heals a man born blind, he is, on the level of reality that we can see and touch, enacting what we might initially call a “miracle.” But while the sudden surprise and wonder these semeia evoke is significant, it cannot be the bedrock of a mature faith, and the eye of the believer must gaze more intently. Mature faith for John continues to receive and interpret the semeia at deeper levels of fullness, through times of both joy and challenge. In signs, over time, we catch a glimpse of not only a miraculous thing happening in front of us, but also one happening within us, as our selves are transformed in ways more miraculous than mere water into wine.

The first followers of Jesus experienced these semeia and responded by placing their wholehearted trust in him, though the full flowering of that trust unfolded in a way unique to each disciple. There is a repeated, dialectical movement – sometimes tense, sometimes tender – in which Jesus responds to a basic creaturely need such as bread, water, eyesight, or loving community by offering himself as that Thing. This catalyzes in the needy one – if their need is great enough and their boundaries are open enough to Jesus’ charged, unconventional, symbolic communication – a recognition of unconscious, spiritual need (“I was hungry, but now that you mention it, I’m also hungry for belonging”). John’s Jesus moves deftly and unflinchingly from offering miraculous loaves aplenty to the tantalizing promise of “bread from heaven,” to saying “I am that Bread. Eat me!”

This journey through signs is unique to John’s gospel, and it’s part of what makes this gospel so rich for aiding in the transformative inner work of the Christian life. The reality of God – mediated to us by the “symbols” that flow from Christ and the “Symbol” that is Christ – breaks in upon the contours of ordinary Christian life as we read and pray with this gospel. Together, we grow in our capacity to discern these transfiguring signs in the details of everyday discipleship. The glorified and risen Christ continues to work these signs in you and me: “if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25). What close encounters with God’s gracious signs have interrupted your own journey, shown you something new about Jesus, and shown you yourself in a new light?

 

Jesus is a Symbol who saves by generating symbols of himself.

The recession of the American economy that began in 2009 left me – like so many others – struggling not only to earn a living, but suffering from internalized feelings of failure. I had made it through several buoyantly optimistic rounds of interviews and had come excruciatingly close to job offers. The offers had de-materialized late in the game and had left me truly struggling to discern God’s plan. As a result, I had also begun to grapple with periodic depression and low self-esteem. I had a healthy sense of realism about the particular offer I was waiting on this time, to teach high school history, but after an unusually promising day-long visit to the school, I couldn’t help but believe that I’d gotten this one. When I finally got the rejection call, I felt gutted like a fish and, after the shock wore away, I dissolved in a flood of tears. I was wound so tightly in a self-narrative of failure that all I could feel was gut-wrenching lack.

To make matters worse, I had been planning a large birthday party for my closest friend all week, and I had only a couple hours to pull myself together and make a party happen. “I don’t have the inner resources to handle this tonight,” I told myself. “How can I possibly summon the joy, let alone the composure, to help host a party? What about my pain?” I arrived at my friend’s house and threw myself into chopping dinner ingredients, letting my friend and co-host handle the early guests.

It became clear that there wasn’t going to be enough wine, so I trudged out the door and down the street to buy some, feeling like a true martyr. It was a late spring, Friday evening. I heard the bumping bass of bachata music coming from the house on the corner, where a large Dominican family gathered almost every Friday. Beaming old folks and posturing teenagers and bare-footed kids all danced and ate and talked at the same time. Their passion to be alive on a spring Friday evening spilled out onto the porch and wafted down the sidewalk. Though I’d passed this weekly gathering before, this time its joy felt contagious. With the comfortable weight of a bottle of cheap merlot nestled inside my backpack, I returned to my friend’s house.

When we sat down to dinner, and I uncorked the wine, it suddenly became clear to me that Jesus was there. The story of the wedding feast at Cana flooded into my heart (Jn 2:1-11). At the wedding of a poor peasant couple, the wine has run out. The couple and their families are surely embarrassed. What’s a wedding without wine? Mary addresses to her son a simple plea, “They have no wine.” Her son replies, “Woman, what does that have to do with you and me? My hour has not yet come.” She tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” At the wedding feast – the first of seven signs that Jesus performs in John’s gospel – Jesus transforms lack into more-than-enoughness.

At the birthday party, I experienced this same transformation. In the course of dinner conversation over that uncorked and flowing bottle, I poured out my own heart. I chose to be fully present to the reality of my own suffering and, in its midst, to participate in joy by celebrating – really celebrating – the life of a beloved friend. I certainly saw Jesus in the sign given in that bottle, but I also discovered something about myself: The presence of Christ in my life did not depend upon my mood, my “successes” or my “failures.” He was holding the cup of my pain. Where before there had been only lukewarm water, I was now filled to the brim with the good wine of his Life. Cheap merlot never tasted so delicious. The whole experience unfolded as it did because that particular story from John had soaked down into my heart, and Christ stood ready to reveal a new sign by bringing that text into transformative dialogue with the ups and downs of my life. I could see it – and Jesus – and myself – in a whole new light.

 

I could see it – and Jesus – and myself – in a whole new light.

 

In the ninth chapter of John, Jesus singles out a man blind from birth and offers him sight. The man receives his sight – and this interaction numbers among the traditional seven “signs” in the gospel – but he also receives much more. By choosing to claim his new sight as his own in the midst of a dauntingly complex and antagonistic new world, he receives the grace of insight or illumination, a foretaste of glory.

John’s blind man is given a rather specific set of instructions. Jesus “spat on the ground, made a paste with the spittle, put this over the eyes of the blind man, and said to him, ‘Go and wash in the Pool of Siloam’ (the name means ‘one who has been sent’). So he went off and washed and came back able to see.” The gift of sight for this man begins with Jesus’ direct, earthy, tactile initiation, but depends for its completion upon an act that the man himself must perform, an act with clear baptismal overtones. Then there is that subtle but startling detail: the man is sent by Jesus to Siloam, which means ‘the one who has been sent.’ In John, Jesus refers often to ‘the Father who sent me.’ The blind man acts as one sent by the Son. This synergy and even co-identification between the man and Jesus is crucial, and points to a breath-taking reality of the Johannine vision of discipleship. The disciple who persists in the hard Way of Jesus and becomes a ‘child of light’ acts as a direct emissary and representative of the Son in the same way that the Son is the direct emissary of the Father. As a light-bearer in a dark world, like Jesus, he or she will be brought into conflict with darkness, which will try to overtake the light at every turn.

A key to my own relationship with Jesus in this passage has been a simple question: What was the first thing this man saw when his sight returned? And that inner Voice of prayer that speaks in my own primordial darkness, that source of my own dawning illumination, whispers to me: He saw himself.

In contrast to other stories of blindness healed by Jesus, where the newly sighted open their eyes and see the face of their Healer, this man first encounters Jesus as a voice and a touch, and is sent away to wash his eyes. In a world where mirrors were rare, costly, and often crude, a calm, reflective pool of water would have been an excellent means for discerning one’s own likeness. After the ripples in the pool subside, I see this man seeing his own reflection. For the first time. As the first thing he sees. I think this event becomes the Big Bang of this man’s spiritual universe: the realization that his was a face seen and loved by Jesus in the primordial darkness and in the darkness of social alienation and unrealized personhood that had been the sum total of his life until this moment.

I’d been praying with the ninth chapter of John in the second year of my novitiate when I received some unexpected advice from my spiritual director. He said, “I’d like you to spend some time each day looking at your own face in the mirror as a sign revealing God’s glory.” I had been sharing with him how the practice of simply, silently gazing on Christ’s face in love had become an intuitive impulse in my meditative prayer time. He suggested I do the same with my own face, really cultivating the recognition that Christ sees my face as a beautiful revelation of God. This was not an easy practice for me. Frankly, years of bullying and abuse by peers during my adolescence has left me with chronic low self-esteem. While today I feel confident in my own skin and deeply loved, those ancient feelings of not-enoughness and adolescent self-consciousness still come knocking now and then. Gazing at my face in this way has been a powerful, prayerful aid to seeing myself as I really am: beloved of God.

The man born blind does not see Jesus as he really is until the end of the story, a moment of illumination awakened by Jesus’ question, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” But his initiation into that journey toward beholding the face of Jesus is begun in this glimpse of himself as he really is. Perhaps he could have said, with author Annie Dillard, “I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”4 Acting from this core truth, the man is given the courage to declare of Jesus: “I do not know whether he is a sinner. I know one thing, that though I was blind, now I see.” Because he clings to that one thing that Jesus has done to him and for him by means of that life-changing sign, he knows who he is. In the same way that Jesus knows “where he has come from and where he is going” because all of his knowing proceeds from being utterly known by the Father, this man has been known by the Son. But his gaze does not stop there. Because his gaze is undeterred by every distraction and menace placed in its path, he will gaze upon Jesus in worship, the only kind of gaze which sees Jesus as he really is.

 

“I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.5

The words spoken, signs performed, and glory revealed by Jesus – in short, the whole of his personhood – are oriented toward the initiation of relationship with you and me. They exist for the sole purpose of bringing us into abiding union with him and, through him, the God he calls “the Father who sent me.” If “having faith in God” as assent to the proposition that God is real and Jesus is God has been a stumbling block in your engagement with the Way of Christ, consider the following perspective on the verb “to believe” in John:

It is the fundamental openness of heart, the basic readiness to see and to hear what is really there, the fidelity to one’s experience no matter how frightening or costly it appears to be, the devotion to being that refuses to tamper with reality in order to preserve the situation with which one is familiar...

To believe in Jesus is to accept him, to identify with him, to follow him, to grow in discipleship....This is not a theological position, an assent of the mind. It is a life stance which could only be legitimate if Jesus is indeed who he claims to be, the one sent by the Father.6

You know that experience when the sunlight hits a clear windowpane in such a way that you can simultaneously see through it to the landscape beyond, as well as see your own reflection? I think of that experience as a sign. Jesus is that clear windowpane. Without the window, I couldn’t see the landscape beyond; there would be only a wall. Without the light reflected in just the right way, I couldn’t see my own reflection. As Christians, Jesus is our window onto the Beyond, displaying a clear and breath-taking view of God’s glory and training our eyes on the far horizon of eternity. But he is also our mirror, the one in whom we “behold what we are,” in whom we taste and experience our truest identity as participants in the divine nature, beloved of the Father. That light reflected in just the right way that I can perceive both visions at once is the gospel – and for me, the gospel of John in particular. The other gospels are sources of abundant Life for what they tell me about Jesus, especially the teachings by which I seek to pattern my life. John is that strange and glorious slant of light that shows me what can be told in no other way.

Reading and praying with John’s gospel can allow each of us to see the ordinary, challenging, and even painful events of our lives as signs imbued with meaning. As we read the signs in the mirror and through the window, we travel a path of increasing intimacy with Jesus and clearer knowledge of ourselves. Seeing Jesus and seeing ourselves, we are gifted and graced with deepening glimpses of God’s glory.


1. [John 1:18]

2. [“The Word of God in Preaching,” Ch. 19, The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1997), 39.]

3. [Sandra M. Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1999), 66.]

4. [Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper Collins, 1974), 36.]

5. [John 20:30-31]

6. [Schneiders, 88.]

About Br. Keith Nelson

 

Br. Keith Nelson came to SSJE in February of 2014 and professed his Initial Vows in July of 2016. Raised in both southern New Jersey and central Alabama and educated at Kenyon College (B.A. 2004) and Harvard Divinity School (M.T.S 2008), Keith has lived in the Boston area since 2008. For five years he was a committed member of The Crossing at St. Paul’s Cathedral as well as a parishioner at Trinity Church, Newton Center. He has worked as a high school theology and history teacher, a teacher and director of adult English classes for recent Chinese immigrants, and most recently as the parish, building, and financial administrator at Emmanuel Church, Boston. He has had a life-long passion for drawing and is an avid reader of ascetical theology, particularly fourteenth-century Middle English. He loves being a monk and a follower of Jesus.