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.

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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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.

Living in Rhythm

Living in Rhythm

Following Nature's Rule

Monastic Wisdom

for everyday living

Br. James Koester marvels how the rhythms of the creation can draw us into deeper life with God and greater balance within ourselves.

LIVING IN RHYTHM

FOLLOWING NATURE'S RULE

Q. What are we by nature?
A. We are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God.
Q. What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
A. It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.

These opening sentences of the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer identify us, first and foremost, as part of God’s creation. We can only thrive when we “live in harmony with creation and with God” (“An Outline of the Faith,” Book of Common Prayer, Church Publishing: 1979, 845).

I’ve come to know this myself in a profound way: Several years ago, I moved from the SSJE Monastery, right in the heart of Harvard Square in Cambridge, to our rural Monastery called Emery House. The Emery family had lived and farmed this land for over 300 years before entrusting it to the Society in 1950. From a world of high granite arches and marble altars, stained glass and organ music, with cars passing just outside the door on Memorial Drive, I found myself suddenly surrounded, day in and day out, month after month, by new sights and sounds: meadow grasses bending in a breeze, frost icing the branches of the beech grove, the companionship of a flock of wonderfully noisy, inquisitive geese. There were no street lights but the stars. And, as often as not, my experience of the Daily Office was now punctuated by bird calls.

As I adjusted to these new surroundings – which were of course already known to me from my frequent stays at Emery House – it turned out that this new world was not as familiar as I’d thought. I found no end of lessons waiting in the world around me. The bees, for instance, taught me to do one thing at a time. If my focus or attention drifted, I found they had an unpleasant habit of reminding me who actually was in charge. The garden taught me that you can’t simply take the harvest, you also must invest in the soil by rotating crops and adding nutrients, by composting and mulching. The geese constantly reminded me of the importance of joy in our lives, for they are some of the most joyful creatures God ever created, especially first thing in the morning when I let them out of the coop or when they attempt to take flight in a rush to greet me when I appear in the garden later in the day.

The more I listened and learned, the more I began to suspect that, living more closely in touch with nature at Emery House, I wasn’t just becoming a better gardener and a better gosherd and a better beekeeper. I realized that, perhaps, I was also becoming a better monk, a better Christian – even, a better human being.

I found no end of lessons in the world around me.

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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The masterpiece of the Creator is all around us, drawing our hearts to God.

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.

Reflection: Time

Time

Redeeming the Gift

Monastic Wisdom

for everyday living

Br. Geoffrey Tristram proposes that much of our stress and anxiety derives from our pollution of Time. Ordering our relationship to Time can help us to experience the joy of the present moment.

It’s Time To... Stop, Pray, Work, Play & Love

Recapture time as a gift. Discover how to experience the joy of the present moment.

Find out more about this series >

TIME

REDEEMING THE GIFT

We are probably more aware than any previous generation of how we have polluted and exploited our beautiful planet. Every day, the news brings fresh evidence of the ravages humans have exacted upon the spaces we inhabit. We recognize now that we are in the midst of an ecological crisis.

What we are, perhaps, slower to recognize is that our ecological crisis also reflects a theological crisis. The earth we have polluted is none other than God’s creation. The Book of Genesis expresses in unforgettable language the great act of creation: With power and love, God brings forth dry land from the watery void, and in successive stages creates a wondrous world filled with every kind of plant and animal, and at creation’s climax, makes humankind. To these humans is entrusted the incalculably important task of caring for this dazzlingly complex and precious work of God. “Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”(1)

But Genesis goes on to describe in tragic verses humankind’s Fall from grace and its dire consequences. Humans, who were created to live in harmony with the whole of creation, were doomed to experience a profound sense of rupture and alienation: “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.”(2) They would now live in a fundamentally ‘disordered’ relationship with all of creation.

Looking around us now, it is not difficult to see traces of this disordered relationship with creation in our lives. On a global scale, we see how our greed and insatiable appetite for more have encouraged us to plunder and exploit the earth’s resources in irresponsible and unsustainable ways, as we live with the consequent pollution and global warming. And in our individual lives, we are becoming aware that our disordered and unsustainable relation to the created order is a cause of malaise and great suffering.

Now, there is another gift from God, given in creation, which is equally fundamental to our well-being as our relationship with the Earth. This gift, too, has been abused and polluted, although the destructive effects of this abuse may be less immediate for us to discern. This is the gift of Time.

Abraham Heschel, in his classic book The Sabbath observes:

One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the word qadosh, holy; a word which more than any other is representative of the mystery and majesty of the divine. Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world? Was it a mountain? Was it an altar? It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word qadosh is used for the first time: in the book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.”  There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness. This is a radical departure from accustomed religious thinking. The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place – a holy mountain or holy spring – whereupon a sanctuary is to be established. Yet it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first.(3)

We have each been given the gift of time, and of all the gifts God has created, time is uniquely holy: “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.”(4) Time is the medium in which we are able to live and move and have our being. Without time, what would this beautiful creation be – humankind included – but a lump of inert matter? God animates matter in time and sets it into motion through history. By God’s grace, we live in time and through time. And so, either deliberately or unthinkingly, to pollute time is a recipe for great suffering: We are polluting the very medium in which we live, as surely as we have polluted the air and the oceans around us. For us to live in a disordered relationship with time can be just as damaging as living in a disordered relationship with the created world. And just as surely, it is killing us.

We are polluting the very medium in which we live, just as we have polluted the air and the oceans around us. And it is killing us.

In the Monastery, we Brothers live a very ordered life. We have a schedule that determines our waking and our sleeping, when we work and when we eat. The bell calls us, surely and unchangingly, to prayer, ten minutes before the liturgy begins, five times each day. Look at our schedule, and it will probably appear that every day in a Monastery is the same, week in and week out. Furthermore, as a monastic community in the Episcopal church, we also follow a liturgical year that assures us, month by month, year after year, that we will keep the same feasts, recall the same holy days. On a given time of a given day, we Brothers can tell you, with some confidence, where we will probably be, and what we will probably be doing, at that same time the next year, and the year after that.

From the outside, it might seem that we Brothers should have the ordering of time all figured out. If only that were true! We actually often have to admit that we come to the Monastery because we are particularly bad at living an ordered life.

Even in the Monastery, it is difficult for us to keep true to the use of time that our Rule prescribes. We Brothers are as prone as anyone to overwork, to misuse time. It’s a constant problem. And when the Chapel bell rings, making us stop our work by calling us to the Divine Office, it can sometimes be rather annoying! It sounds out across the Monastery and forces us to stop what we are doing – probably right when we were in the thick of it – and we sigh a little, because what we were doing just then was no doubt something that seemed quite important. But the bell reminds us that, actually, we’re not here just to work, just to do and to accomplish. We’re here to glorify God by our lives. The bell, which makes us stop, actually calls us back to our truest identity.

The bell, which makes us stop, actually calls us back to our truest identity.

As I reflect on my own life and upon the lives of the many people I have ministered to, I become increasingly aware of how much stress, suffering, and anxiety derives from our pollution of time. There are so many ways that we can make time out to be our enemy. Colloquially, we talk about “killing time,” and what we mean by that is wasting time, frittering it, trying to get rid of it. Time itself seems to be our enemy, some unwanted burden. And so we find ways to “kill” it, squander it, throw it away – on the internet, perhaps, or in some mindless interaction with our cell phone, the video console, or other technologies of distraction. We are always on the look-out for ways to feel “free” from time; we seek moments we can blissfully call a “time out of time.”

It’s no wonder if we sometimes feel the urge to escape time, since, more often than not, it feels as if time itself is out to get us. In our struggles to keep up with our demanding and relentless schedules, time, this holy gift from God, begins to feel like something of a demon, whipping at our backs. “I just don’t have enough time!” we cry, again and again.

But if we never feel that there is enough time, there is something wrong with us, and not with time! God created time. God created it, and God called it holy. There is enough time. “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die . . . a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance . . . a time to seek and a time to lose.”(5) These wise words from the Book of Ecclesiastes point to a profound truth: When we feel that we do not have enough time, the issue is not with time, but with our use of time. We feel we do not have enough time because we do not have enough of it to accomplish certain goals, fill certain needs, meet certain expectations. The problem is not with time, but with our use of it, our attitude toward it. “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven,” and if we can only get in touch with a right attitude toward time, if we can recover the holiness of time, then we will know that every moment is enough.

There is enough time. The problem is not with time, but with our use of it, our attitude toward it.

Every moment is pregnant with possibilities beyond our imagining. Not to see that truth is to have a disordered vision of the gift of time, unfolding before us and for us, in every moment. I love that phrase from the renowned historian Arnold Toynbee, who referred to a theory of history and the passage of time as “just one damned thing after another.” For many people, that is what their life feels like, and it highlights the profundity of our disordered relationship to time. Time is not an endless succession of things to do, bitter sighs, tired nights, and disappointments. Time is a gift from God.

Each new day will never come again, which makes it incredibly precious. Carpe diem, the ancient philosophers urged, “Seize the day.” Each new day asks of us, in the words of our contemporary, Mary Oliver, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”(6) Your one wild and precious life could stretch on for decades, or it could just be today. What are you going to do, who are you going to be, in that time?

A redeemed way of understanding and relating to time asks us to see every moment as significant and having meaning as part of a whole. There is meaning to our lives: We have been given this period of time, this one wild and precious life, in limited amount, in order to become the person that God created us to be. How we use the time allotted to us in this life is how we glorify God in our lives. As Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is the person fully alive.”(7)

God put us here, and God has given us this time, in order that we might become fully alive. Jesus promises, “I came that you may have life and life in abundance.”(8) Reordering our relationship to time is one of the chief ways in which we can access that abundant life Jesus promised us, and that glory for which God created us.

Every moment is pregnant with possibilities beyond our imagining.

This life is a dance, and we cannot move through it meaningfully and beautifully without having a sense of the rhythm to which our life responds. None of us want to live in monotone, being victims of the relentless drumroll of the to-do list. In order to flourish, we need a rich and varied, but consistent rhythm of life: We need to listen for and respond to the call of different tempos and tunes; we need rests.

Take heart that any small step you try in reordering your time will probably leave you a better steward of your time than you were the day before. Over the course of the next year, we Brothers will be thinking and teaching about Time. We need to learn to take time to stop, pray, work, play, and love in order to be fully alive, as God intended. We hope that you’ll join us and catch the life!

 


(1) Genesis 1:26
(2) Genesis 3:17
(3) Heschel, Abraham Joshua, The Sabbath, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 1995
(4) Genesis 2:3
(5) Ecclesiastes 3:1-6
(6) Oliver, Mary,The Summer Day”, House of Light (Boston: Beacon Press), 1990
(7) Irenaeus of Lyon, Adversus Haereses, Book 4, Chapter 20, c. 175-185 CE
(8) John 10:10

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.