for everyday living
Br. Jim Woodrum follows the angels toward a deeper appreciation of why our church buildings matter and how they can help us to become one with the angels.
in the architecture
WHY CHURCHES MATTER
Two summers ago, while our community was on pilgrimage in Oxford, I found myself surrounded by angels. We were visiting the Church of St. Mary and St. John, on the Cowley Road, where SSJE’s founder, Richard Meux Benson, had been vicar. Inside, everywhere I looked, there were angels in the architecture: in the stone, glass, and wood. Of all the beautiful things in the church – the pipe organ, the stained glass, the altar and reredos, the arches – it was the angels that piqued my curiosity. Why were these angelic figures everywhere? What did they mean? And what were they trying to tell me?
I grew up in an evangelical tradition that did not talk much about angels, which is ironic, because it is from the Greek word for evangelist (euangelion) that we get the word “angel,” meaning a bearer of good news. While my mother didn’t speak about angels, she certainly seemed devoted to them. Upon entering my parent’s home, the first thing you would notice would be two curios filled with angels. There were cherubs, angels with trumpets, boy angels, girl angels, cupids, as well as a rather menacing angel standing on the head of a dragon-like creature with his sword in its mouth. In my adult life, I would come to know that this was the Archangel Michael, whose name means “Who Is Like God?” In Revelation, Michael defeats the dragon, “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:7-9).
The angels of Scripture are as varied as those in my mother’s curio cabinet. Angels bear all sorts of different vocations. The angel Gabriel (whose name means “The Strength of God”) is a messenger: he visits the Virgin Mary to proclaim the good news that she will bear a child who will be the long-awaited Messiah. Shortly after, an angel of the Lord visits a group of shepherds outside Bethlehem to announce the birth of Jesus. The sky fills with angels praising and worshipping God, singing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 1:26-38; 2:8-14). There are also angels who minister: after Jesus is tempted in the desert, the devil leaves him and angels come to serve him (Matthew 4:1-11). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays in anguish about what is about to happen to him, and an angel of the Lord appears to him and gives him strength (Luke 22:39-43). In the book of Tobit, it is the Archangel Raphael (whose name means “The Healing of God”) who restores Tobit’s sight (Tobit 11:7-9). All angels have a specific vocation and belong to one of the nine orders of angels that we hear mentioned throughout the pages of scripture: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Guardian angels.
With such diversity in the angel ranks, I wondered anew about the angels lining the walls of the churches we visited on our pilgrimage. Who were these angels in the architecture, and what was their mission? Every part of these churches seemed to point deeper into the mystery of God, with the angels beckoning me to follow.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit our monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, you will notice many angels straight away. Angels throng the great Rose window at the back of the church in a vibrant vision of Heaven. Below the Rose window, where the Nativity is portrayed, angels gaze adoringly at the holy child. In the Lady Chapel, the lancet windows portray the mysteries of the Rosary, beginning with the depiction of the Annunciation and the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. When the light streams through these windows, all these angels shine forth in brilliant array, witnessing to the glory of God.
What about the angels we cannot see? One of my favorite scriptural encounters with an angel features Jacob. He contends all night with a mysterious figure whom some traditions have called an angel. In the morning, Jacob realizes that he has struggled with God. Jacob names the place “Peniel,” which means “the face of God”: “For I have seen God face to face” (Genesis 32:30). Our monastery church, like Peniel, is a holy place because it is a place of encounter. The angel who wrestled Jacob greets us every time we enter the worship space, every time we prepare to encounter God.
In a subtle yet very real way, every church has angels beyond those carved in wood or illuminated in stained glass. The architecture itself acts as angels do: sharing messages which enlighten our prayer and worship of God.
Take what happens as soon as you enter the monastery church. To enter it you must ascend a small staircase and go through a door into the narthex. However, that is not where your journey ends. Once there, you must turn ninety degrees to your left and go through a second doorway in order to enter the church. This detail might be lost on us initially, but it actually is intentional: all those who enter the monastery church must undergo a “conversion” experience. The word “conversion” comes from the Latin convertere, which literally means to turn around. To enter the church you must physically turn, in order to cross a threshold, into holy space.
A passerby on Memorial Drive might venture in, curiosity piqued as to what is inside this gothic-style building. Others experience a conscious yearning to know God. These seekers or pilgrims are not wandering randomly, but rather are following the desire of their hearts, which is mysteriously moving towards the source of all holy desire: into the heart of God. The building itself thus hints at the conversion God invites, as we give up any semblance of control and are turned – sometimes even pushed – in a direction that we would not normally go in order to enter. Simply to enter the sanctuary, we have already turned and converted – perhaps unaware that we have just encountered an angel in the architecture.
A few years ago, a small group of school children, led by their teachers, made their way into the church. One of the children asked a Brother in quiet amazement, “How do you do that!?” He replied, “What do you mean?” She whispered, “How do you make it so quiet?!”
In the profound silence of the church, our eyes are drawn upward toward the light, as we follow the shape of the arches pointing to the saints depicted in the clerestory windows. The silence invites us to listen intently. In our Rule of Life, we say that in silence, “we pass through the bounds of language to lose ourselves in wonder. In this silence we learn to revere ourselves also; since Christ dwells in us we too are mysteries that cannot be fathomed, before which we must be silent until the day we come to know as we are known.” In the silence of this sanctuary, we join the angelic hosts in the ennobling act of prayer, as we seek to deepen our relationship with the one in whom we live and move and have our being. In silence, we, finite creatures, seek the infinite.
The architecture of the monastery church depicts this intersection of finitude and infinite, chronos and kairos. Chronos is physical, temporal time: the way that we, as finite beings, delineate time in terms of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries. Chonos greets us in how the rounded arches at the back of the church – in the Romanesque style (ranging from the 6th to 11th centuries) – give way to pointed gothic arches (prevalent from the 12th to the 16th centuries), in the Quire on the other side of the gate. This journey through chronos points and leads to the altar, which is a place of kairos: God’s time, the critical moment that holds all of eternity. Kairos is unknowable to us time-bound beings, yet we experience it each time we approach the altar.
Kairos is unknowable to us time-bound beings, yet we experience it each time we approach the altar.
The altar is the focus of our sanctuary, as it is of all sanctuaries. In our church, the high altar is adorned with an unusual architectural feature: a baldacchino, a canopy arching high above. Here, another angel in the architecture points us to the deeper mystery of God taking place before our eyes.
The baldacchino forms a cube through four pillars, representing the earth with its four directions. These pillars support the canopy, which is topped with a dome representing heaven. Connecting heaven and earth – and protecting a stone altar beneath – the baldacchino recalls another story earlier in Genesis where Jacob falls asleep, using a stone as a pillow. While asleep he dreams of a ladder stretched to heaven, with angels ascending and descending back and forth between earth and heaven. We read: “Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’” If we continue a little further, we read that Jacob poured oil on the stone which he had used as a pillow and built an altar there, consecrating that place and giving it a new name: Bethel (Genesis 28:10-19). In John’s gospel, Jesus recalls this story from Genesis, identifying himself as the stone altar, the place where heaven and earth meet: “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:47-51).
Upon the altar, heaven and earth are joined, and we get a glimpse of God. Upon this altar we offer up praise, thanksgiving, and all that we are to God. In return Jesus becomes truly present to us in the sacramental signs of bread and wine (which become to us flesh and blood), descending with the angels and bringing us with him up to heaven. Each time we consume this bread and wine, we ascend one more rung on the ladder with the angels, moving toward the holiness to which we have been called, becoming one with our Father in heaven. The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson once wrote: “As each touch of the artist adds some fresh feature to the painting, so each communion is a touch of Christ which should develop some fresh feature of his own perfect likeness within us.”
In a sermon delivered at the University Church in Oxford around 1826, John Henry Newman describes heaven as an endless and uninterrupted worship of the Eternal Father, Son, and Spirit. He takes as his reference point numerous passages in the Revelation to John: “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped” (Revelation 5:11-14).
This passage from Revelation gives me chills, because this is what we do here in this monastery church every day: worship God, bestowing on Him blessing and honor and glory and might with the very best of our abilities. Perhaps our numbers are few and the quality of our voices is sometimes nowhere near angelic; but we, like the angels, were created for the love and pleasure of God and He delights in our love just as much as we delight in His. We have an inherent instinct to adore our creator. In this, we mirror God, who gazes in reverence on the Creation and yearns for us to know God as God knows us. Our love and praise are mutual. We offer them in tandem with the worship of the heavenly hosts. In his book The Angels and the Liturgy, Eric Peterson writes “When the church gathers in worship on earth, it is conjoined to the worship which is offered in the heavenly city by the angels. Through all the pain of this world there remains, eternal and unmoved, that worship which the angels offer to the Eternal, and in which the Church on earth takes part.” With the angels we sing, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people of earth,” and “Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the Highest!”
Worship is a sanctifying act. The word “sanctify” has the same root as the Latin word sanctus, which means holy. These roots imbue the word “sanctuary.” In this sanctuary, in the shared experience of worship, we offer all we are, all we have, all of our blessings, and all of our sufferings, and we give it to God in sacrifice, asking nothing but to be sanctified and become more like God, that is: holy and fully God’s. In the same sermon, Newman goes on to say: “To be holy is … to live habitually in sight of the world to come as if we were already dead to this life.” In other words, now is our time to prepare and practice, joining the angels in the eternal praise of God, here on earth as it is in heaven.
A pew card at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Iffley near Oxford, describes the meaning and purpose of its church building: “With the passing of the centuries there have been inevitable changes, but there have been no drastic alterations to the basic plan of the building, nor to its function. It exists to praise God. And for worship, sacred ritual and teaching. It is a sacramental reminder to the identity of those who gather inside it each day.”
Our churches are angels – angels, made of architecture – which exist to praise God as they help to deliver God’s messages. Even when we sleep, the angels keep at this holy task. And when we gather as a community in our own churches, chapels, and sanctuaries, with our hearts and minds turned toward God, we ourselves become channels of grace, temporal containers of eternal love. We become one with all the angels – both the angels in the architecture and the eternal company of heaven – as we too become bearers of good news, teaching, guidance, protection, and sanctuary to others. We lift up our voices with them, crying, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest!”
About Br. Jim Woodrum
Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE lives at the Monastery in Cambridge, where he serves the community as the 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 has a keen interest in craft beer.
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.
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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In the first creation story told in the Book of Genesis, God’s spirit broods over the waters of chaos and speaks the universe into being, “Let there be light”—the first day of God’s creating work. Over a succession of five days, God continues creating—dry land, the dome of the heavens, winged birds, earthly creatures and humankind—and blessing everything that God has brought into being, pronouncing it all “very good.”
Then comes the seventh day: “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” After much creative labor, God takes “a day off,” simply to enjoy the fruits of this work and delight in all that creativity. “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”
Though enshrined in the Hebrew Scriptures as the Sabbath, a weekly day of rest, the rhythm of activity and leisure, creation and recreation, remains as countercultural in our present moment as it was in the world of our ancestors in faith.
Join us at the Monastery for our Tuesday night (5:30 pm) Lenten preaching series on “Growing a Rule of Life.” Following the Eucharist and sermon, you are invited to join us for a soup supper and for conversation with the preacher in the undercroft. If you are unable to join us in person, you can read and listen to the sermons on our website.
Growing a Rule of Life: To subscribe to a daily morning email with a short video and download a PDF of the accompanying workbook enter your name and email.
More information here: SSJE.org/growrule
Tues, Feb 9 Rules of Life & the Rhythms of Nature Br. James Koester
Tues, Feb 16 Our Relationship with God Br. Geoffrey Tristram
Tues, Feb 23 Our Relationship with Self Br. Mark Brown
Tues, Mar 1 Our Relationship with Others Br. David Vryhof
Tues, Mar 8 Our Relationship with Creation Br. Keith Nelson
Tues, Mar 15 Living in Rhythm and Balance Br. Luke Ditewig
Here is my sermon preached this morning. As I prayed and thought with the first reading, from the Book of Proverbs, the words “be attentive” made me remember having read that phrase mentioned in regard to the Lonergan Method in a book on Mystical Theology by Fr. William Johnston, S.J. I don’t think I know any more about the Lonergan Method than what I have mentioned in the sermon, but I think even using those key words I have mentioned can be useful for prayer and meditation in order to grow in our understanding of God’s love.
[Prov. 4:1-9 / Lk 8:16-21]
The beginning verses of the reading from the Book of Proverbs gives a way of looking at the reputation for holiness and humility seen in Sergius, the Russian Saint whom we commemorate today. In the first verse of the reading the word is followed shortly by the words, (Prov. 4:1) The first of these draws attention to the second. This phrase is part of a way of considering the Love of God called the Lonergan transcendental method.
"I really appreciate it."
How often in a single day do you speak or hear these words? We Brothers hear them day after day, from our Friends, who write to thank us for a word we've shared, or a sermon we've posted. We are so grateful for this stream of thanks, which inspires and heartens us, that we wanted to stop and take a moment to reflect on how just powerful gratitude can be in our lives.
As our friend Anders sums it up: "Gratitude seems to be shortest path to love God with all our hearts and souls, and to love one another as ourselves . . . In gratitude, we are co-creators with God, and it is good."
Gratitude is so important that the fundamental action of Christian worship is the Eucharist, an act of gratitude that literally means "great thanksgiving." "Let us give thanks to the Lord," the celebrant invites us. And we respond, "It is right to give God thanks and praise."
Gratitude is a great gift, which we are made to receive and offer back to God. And to do that, we need to practice!
Our friend, Ruth put it perfectly: "How often we see the hole instead of the donut! How blessed we are from day to day! May God grant us the ability to see those blessings!"
Living a Day Full of Gratitude
Gratitude, like any other spiritual practice, is something we do, not just something we feel. And it's something we need to practice. To practice gratitude, we don’t need a special cushion on which to sit, nor a special lamp to light, nor a special icon on which to gaze, nor special incense to smell, nor special prayer beads to finger, nor a special prayer or mantra to recite. (None of that is in any way bad or inappropriate. It may well help. It is simply not enough.)
What is enough is here and now. The Psalmist reminds us, “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps 118: 24). Gratitude consecrates our life and makes us real, because it makes us really available to the real presence of Christ, who is at work within us and around us – now.
We hope you'll try out these four simple invitations and see how they change your day.
6 AM: Pray your gratitude
The Psalmist asks rhetorically, “How shall I repay the LORD for all the good things he has done for me?” (Ps 116:10). Start with gratitude. Br. Geoffrey suggests that the best time to practice gratitude is first thing in the morning – even Monday mornings! (God Loves to be Thanked – Br. Geoffrey Tristram) Before you ask God for anything, say thank you for one thing or many things.
Noon: Keep your ears open
People will want to thank you today. Let them. (This can be a hard one!) They need to speak their gratitude; you need to hear it. Respond to them, “You are welcome,” and say it from the bottom of your heart. And keep your ears open to hear God’s gratitude for you. There is no one else like you, and God – believe it or not – is immensely grateful for who you are and all the good that you do.
6 PM: Express your gratitude to others
People are so easily taken for granted. Whether they be people whose labor is menial or in leadership, or whose lives are closely linked with yours, people are so easily taken for granted. You'll change their day, perhaps change their life, by expressing your gratitude for who they are and what they do. Stop throughout the day and thank someone. Make an unexpected phone-call to say thank you for something that happened, even long ago. A handwritten note can be equally powerful.
9 PM: Savor your life
Take time to remember and reclaim what is so amazingly good in your life. (Br. Luke Ditewig offers tips on how to do this in this short video.) Gratitude means saying “Yes” to the life you’ve been given, accepting the good gifts of life without resentment for what is not there, or no longer there. Try to complete the daily chapters of your life by remembering and appreciating what has been so very good today.
Read, Listen, and Watch More from the SSJE Brothers on Practicing Gratitude
- Does prayer elude you? In his article "Living Gratefully," Br. Curtis Almquist encourages a practice of gratitude, assuring us, "Gratitude in prayer is like oil to a frozen gear box." Get some tips here >
- “Our whole life is a life of gratitude,” said Thomas Merton. But how can we cultivate a spirit of gratitude in all things? Br. David Vryhof offers some suggestions in his article Life Becomes Rich: The Gift of Gratitude >
- In this short video, Br. Robert L'Esperance makes a passionate argument for how gratitude helps us embrace the newness of every moment. Watch it here >
- "Our life should overflow with thanksgiving to Jesus. Thanksgiving should be the driving force in our daily lives." Say a simple Thank you, Jesus with the late Br. John Goldring.
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!
The Church has made steadfast witness to the Resurrection of Jesus for nearly 2000 years. Empires have come and gone, civilizations have waxed and waned, generation after generation has made its way through the changes and chances of this world—and the Church still makes its primary proclamation, still proclaims the reason for its very existence: Jesus of Nazareth, teacher, prophet, wonder-worker, social revolutionary and many other things died, but rose again from the dead on the third day.
Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead, a unique event historically, demonstrates the ultimate power of life over death, God’s intention to restore us to life, even greater life beyond the gateway we call death. But resurrection (lower case “r”) is also a dynamic woven into the fabric of existence in this universe. Jesus, the Word made flesh, as John’s Gospel puts it, is the one through whom all things came to be [John 1: 3]. The cosmos, his creation, partakes of his essence. The one who said “I am the Resurrection” [John 11: 25] has woven resurrection into the woof and warp of all life. In proclaiming Resurrection, the Church also proclaims Life. In proclaiming Resurrection in the life to come, the Church awakens us to the possibilities for resurrection in the midst of this life.
A four-part teaching from Br. David Vryhof on how discernment in prayer can help us to discover our vocation. We recommend taking time with this offering and praying with each part in turn, perhaps over a series of days.
What is it and do I have one?
Another word for vocation is calling, and every person has one. Each of us has a purpose for being in the world that relates to the purposes of God. We often think of vocation too narrowly, imagining that only those called to ordained ministry in the Church have a vocation from God. In truth, everyone has a vocation, some particular work that God is calling them to do. A vocation could be any work or service we do that furthers God’s work of helping, healing, reconciling and restoring the created order.
Not only does every person have a calling from God, in fact, most of us have several callings! For example, one person may be called to be a teacher and a parent and a member of a political party and a member of a parish church who visits the sick and advocates for the homeless. And this person may experience in each of these things a sense of vocation. Your particular vocation can be carried out only by you. It is unique to you; no one else can do it quite the way that you can. Thus your vocation will always be rooted in who you are; it will reflect your gifts, your temperament, your personality, your interests. Resist the temptation to compare yourself with others and find a vocation that fits you. Better yet, discover the vocation that is already calling out from within you.