for everyday living
Br. Sean Glenn marvels at the incredible, redemptive promise of the Incarnation, when God shared our tent in the wilderness.
I Will Take You to Myself
when God shared our tent in the wilderness
In general terms, one might say that the problem of incarnation in Christian theology concerns how one imagines God’s difference in a way that makes it consistent with God’s presence in our world. Can the absolute be present in the concrete without coming too near or being too far away?
– Ola Sigurdson
A Claim to Stake a Life on
At the climax of his sermon On the Holy Transfiguration, St. Ephraim the Syrian speaks at length through a cycle of complementary questions. Of the strangeness and paradox that we find in the very being of Jesus Christ, he writes,
If he was not flesh, whom did Joseph take and flee into Egypt? And if he was not God, in whom were words “Out of Egypt I have called my Son” fulfilled? If he was not flesh, whom did John baptize? And if he was not God, to whom did the Father from heaven say, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased”? If he was not flesh, who fasted and hungered in the desert? And if he was not God, whom did the Angels come down and serve? If he was not flesh, who was invited to the wedding in Cana of Galilee? And if he was not God, who turned the water into wine?
This cycle of call and response (“If he was not flesh … / If he was not God …”) takes up more than a quarter of the entire sermon. What is Ephraim getting at? Why ask his congregation questions like these? Through this repetition of an apparent contradiction, our second-century saint is trying to read two seemingly incompatible forms of being together. As his refrain echoes back and forth, one deep calling to another, Ephraim undoes a common division between the material and the spiritual. In the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the material and spiritual sing together in harmonious concert.
Ephraim does not stand alone among the voices of the Christian movement. In the pages of the New Testament we find this strange claim made again and again, particularly in the work of our own spiritual patron here at SSJE, Saint John the Evangelist. “The material and the spiritual,” writes Shelly Rambo, “are often read in opposition to each other. But […] the Gospel of John positions them together.” From the very beginning of John’s gospel the astonishing affirmation is made: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Or, as David Bentley Hart’s recent translation evocatively (yet faithfully) renders it, “And the Logos [Word] became flesh and pitched his tent among us… and we saw his glory, glory as of the Father’s only one, full of grace and truth.” By pitching himself in the tent of our frail humanity, the glory of God’s desire for us is unveiled in Jesus.
From as early as I can remember hearing about the figure of Jesus, this strange claim always accompanied him. As a convert to the faith in early adulthood, I still remember how outlandish it sounded to me during my childhood and adolescence. Given the centrality of this proclamation to Christianity, the whole of the faith must have seemed just as outlandish and, frankly, impossible to me.
Looking back, I can see a number of reasons I balked at the idea that God could become human (… or that a human could be God). Some of these reasons were emotional, grown from the seeds of my sense of shame at my own body, judgements about the bodies of others, or ways my culture had taught me to see and value bodies. No, I would think, how could the creator of the universe (if there were such a thing) become human – so frail, so limited, so full of rage and anger and spite? How could the divine come so close to something that makes foul smells and produces substances like urine and feces? Some of these reasons were intellectual, the result of my unfamiliarity with the gospel and Christian thinking through the centuries. Surely, the great power of the creator would completely overwhelm the tiny frailty of a human being. How truly human could this Jesus have been if he were also God?
Yet more deeply, all of these reasons really grew from one crucial blind spot: the God revealed in Jesus Christ wound up being a far cry from the god I had been imagining God to be. Even as I refused to believe in a creator (let alone one who would come to share our lot with us) I was aware of keen tension already expressed in the pages of scripture. As Ola Sirgurdson fittingly expressed it at the outset of these pages, “Can the absolute be present in the concrete without coming too near or being too far away?”
Even now, years after my own confirmation, God continues to be very far from anything I could ever imagine. But I find it easier to live with this kind of unknowing because of the unique relationship enabled and sworn by what the church calls the Incarnation – that is, the very claim I had misunderstood. God has made it plain that any distance between our flesh and God’s self is forever closed, because in Jesus Christ both the fullness of God’s divinity and the fullness of our humanity meet in one form. It is the event by which Saint Paul knows that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Not only is the absolute present in the concrete, it neither competes with nor destroys it. It perfects it. Like the burning bush encountered by Moses, the Incarnation reveals that God does not consume the fragile creature the nearer it comes, but instead makes the creature more beautifully what it is.
We are living through a season in the world when the importance of this unique meeting of the finite and the Infinite cannot be underestimated. I feel the significance of the Incarnation now more than ever. For as pandemic, social division, racism, and nationalism(s) threaten to divide the vibrant body of our humanity, this supreme gift of God invites us to reimagine our relationship to one another, our bodies, our nature, and our destiny in a most unexpected way.
An Existence Reaffirmed “Good”
The Christian believer cannot but honor the body as an integral part of man’s complex being, the work of God’s hand, the Creator of all things in heaven and on earth, material as well as spiritual. The Christian believer must honor the body as redeemed from degradation and restored to its true dignity by the Incarnation of the Eternal Son; “the Word was made flesh” – conceived by the Holy Ghost, and born of the Virgin Mary; as sanctified moreover by the Holy Ghost, the shrine of His indwelling presence, Who in many ways appeals to our inner being through our bodily nature, and confers on us the highest gifts of spiritual grace through material channels.
– Fr. Arthur C. A. Hall SSJE
By taking a human body to himself, the God revealed in Jesus reminds us that our bodies are good gifts. In our fallen state, however, it can be easy for us to either forget or (worse) all out deny this affirmation. Consider how often we tend to think of the body as something that holds us back, something to be escaped. The body is where we experience the dualities of pain and pleasure, freedom and confinement, identification and alienation. Our bodies reveal us to be at once like other creatures, yet imprinted with this strange otherness to other creatures.
It is easy to caricature the Christian worldview as one that is deeply mistrustful of the body. To be sure, there are historical reasons for this and the Church has had its own part to play in the ways we have tended to misread the role of the human body. Yet the Church still affirms something that tends to scandalize other forms of religion around the world (including western secularism), an insight named at the very beginning of the Bible: Creation (the material universe) is good. The author(s) of Genesis show no ambivalence about this: God beholds all that God creates and names it “good.” Still, it is only after God speaks the words “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” and creates human beings that we read, “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
The Incarnation of Jesus echoes the scriptural affirmation that human beings bear the image of their Creator, reminding us to affirm the goodness of our own bodies and the material of Creation all around us. In fact, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ testifies, in flesh and blood, that God is at work in our fragile, time-bound bodies. God shows us in Jesus that the material body is “the shrine of His indwelling presence, Who in many ways appeals to our inner being through our bodily nature, and confers on us the highest gifts of spiritual grace through material channels.”
Yet through this self-revelation, God did much more than merely reaffirm our image-bearing status. In fact, the whole picture of our image-bearing status is refined and clarified in the way God interacted (through the humanity of Jesus) with our bodies. The kinds of bodies with which Jesus moved, the bodies who experienced Jesus’ love, the bodies with which Jesus identified himself tended to be bodies most societies cast off, disregard, or pity. Jesus, however, shows us the very power of God on display and at work in them. Even more, by freely handing himself over to be tortured and crucified by the very creatures he came to save, Jesus allowed his own precious body to become one of those so often cast off, disregarded, or pitied. He allowed the marks of death to fall upon his body in the same way they fall upon all bodies. Indeed, these marks would become pivotal identifiers after his Resurrection.
By “pitching his tent among us” in this way, God has definitively met us – and promises to meet us – in the body. As such, any spirituality that denies the body a place and role in the redemption of the human person must confront the cross of Jesus. God has met the human being truly and concretely in the tortured, suffering body of Jesus. All bodies, astonishingly, may become chalices of God’s active grace – but in particular those bodies Jesus identified with, those the world may find deficient, broken, disturbing, or repugnant. Not the bodies we have moralized into a strong, sound independence; but the broken bodies, discarded, harassed, or ignored, dependent upon God and one another. The world may try to tell us the body is for any number of things, including escape. Yet the Incarnation tells us that the body is good, that the body is for the showing forth of the divine love.
Nature: Body and Soul
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
… by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made truly human.
– The Nicene Creed
There is profound wonder in the fact that God would take a human body to himself. It scandalizes or undoes so many of our ideas about the physical’s relationship to the spiritual. It shows us that the fire of divine Love does not intend to consume and destroy us, but to enliven us and make us more gloriously who we are. But there is a larger significance to the Incarnation. When we confess that, in the words of the Creed, Jesus is “God from God” and “became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made [truly human],” we are naming something much larger than the fact that Jesus took to himself a human body.
By becoming incarnate from the Virgin Mary and becoming truly human, God not only took a human body to himself, but took a human nature. Not simply our physical condition, our poverty, our bodily limitation; but our psychological poverty, our spiritual poverty, our experiences of separation, loss, anxiety, and death. Both realities he transfigured in the Spirit. Although Christians are called to live lives in the Spirit, this does not elide or undo the fact that Jesus Christ took to himself this crucial aspect of our humanity, something the scriptural tradition rather unfortunately and misleadingly calls “flesh.”
While commonly mistaken as another word for our bodies, “flesh” is more than our physical embodiment. Although flesh is wrapped up in our experience of being embodied, flesh was generally understood before the Reformation as distinct from body. Reading imagery of the flesh informed by the Gospel of John, Shelley Rambo reclaims early Christian insights about this strange area of human experience. “Flesh binds individual bodies to a world. Flesh is marked by the world and by its various processes of life and death. Flesh attests to a way of being constituted in relationship with everything that is around us.” Our psychology, our social formation, our wounds and traumas, even the languages we use (all of these realities that seem to share in the material while always somehow transcending it) are the world named by the word “flesh.” And the world with which it is in relationship, we remember from Genesis, is created “good.”
Further, wondering at the significance of the wounded body the resurrected Christ presents to Thomas in the twentieth chapter of John, Rambo names another revelation for us:
Thinking of Jesus’ return in terms of a marked body, we see him as one subjected to the … realities of his day. He was crucified under Roman imperial rule. But this is not the whole account. [John’s] prologue also presents him in incarnational terms, as the eternal Word taking on flesh. If we read his return in terms of marked flesh, the history is not just singular but collective. His entrance into history affirms all that is fleshly, but also moves it toward its fullness.
All of these material-yet-not-material realities of our total humanity – the intersections of our embodiment and our inner nature – are taken up by the Only-Begotten-One when he pitches his tent among us. By retaining the marks of his torture and death, the resurrected Christ reveals that he has not just entered our embodiment, but indeed has entered all of the realities that inform our very spiritual condition, our humanity in its wholeness: wounds and joys, body and soul.
Even this is not the end of the story, however. It would be one thing if God had met us in our condition and then simply departed as he came. But that is not the story the Church preserves. Not only does God the Only-Begotten-One stoop his infinity down into our physical and spiritual limitations, failures, and struggles. That kind of identification would be gift enough, to be sure, but God’s generosity revealed in Christ’s Incarnation goes even further – even to the very heart of the God.
Glorification: I Will Take You to Myself
After his glorious resurrection he openly appeared to his disciples, and in their sight ascended into heaven, to prepare a place for us; that where he is, there we might also be, and reign with him in glory.
I want to attempt to illustrate this further significance of the Incarnation with a musical image first. One of the most deeply moving experiences I can have when listening to a piece of music is encountering a moment, say of a symphony, when the composer takes a musical idea that initially sounded melancholic or dejected and then completely re-clothes it with a new harmony, a new texture, a new color. Moments when a theme of despair will come back, emerging from the texture of the orchestra with a new color, lit and transfigured by a new set of chords, singing a new song of celebration. Because of their initial appearance as themes of sorrow, their unanticipated transformation into songs of joy is all the more palpable, mysterious, and miraculous. These moments speak to me of the kind of destiny God has disclosed for us in the revelation of Jesus.
Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection give us a foretaste of the way God has promised to incarnate us all in the age to come. The Ascension of his Incarnation shows something equally remarkable: the generous destiny for which God has made us from the very beginning.
Having been made flesh, having pitched his tent – body and soul – among us his creatures to live and eventually face the shame of death, Jesus resurrected – wounds and all – reveals the glory for which it has all been purposed. It has all been purposed for an unanticipated glory. That is, the divinization of the human being. An early Christian phrase summarizes this glorious destiny in this way, “Deus fit homo ut homo fieret Deus” (God became human so that the human might become [like] God). Or, as our visionary founder, Richard Meux Benson has written, “We cannot have an abiding faith in the Incarnation unless we recognize consequences in ourselves proportionate, and nothing can be proportionate to God becoming flesh short of the great mystery of ourselves becoming one with God as His children.” Like the transfiguration of a melancholy motif, the Risen Lord carries the body of this glorified humanity (still bearing the marks of death – both physical and spiritual) into the very heart of God. Not only has God pledged to meet us in our bodies, not only has God vowed to meet us in the fullness of our humanity, God has promised to take us, with the Risen Jesus, to his very self.
In an act only the power of God could accomplish, God came as close to humanity as is possible and has invited humanity to enter into that tender intimacy, which is God’s desire. God became human so that our humanity could be healed and redeemed from the inside. God became human so that our humanity might be taken to the place for which it was always destined: the heart of the Father. God’s Incarnation in Jesus Christ reveals to us that our creatureliness will be neither consumed nor destroyed by the fire of his Love, but will be at last enlivened as we become more completely the creatures God creates us to be.
for everyday living
Br. James Koester & Br. Jim Woodrum trace the essential outlines of the monastic life and suggest how these principles can help the rest of us – beyond the Monastery – to live lives of love, purpose, and meaning.
why MONKS matter
One of the most dinstinctive features of monasticism is that it is a life lived in community. We wanted to reflect this truth by making this discussion of monastic life into a conversation. Look for Br. Jim’s comments in blue sidebars throughout Br. James’ text.
In the chapter of SSJE’s Rule of Life on “The Witness of Life in Community,” we read one vision for the purpose of our Society: “In an era of fragmentation and the breakdown of family and community, our Society, though small, can be a beacon drawing people to live in communion.” This vision draws on the teachings of our founder, Father Richard Meux Benson, who believed that the small body of our monastic brotherhood could realize and intensify the gifts belonging to the whole Church. This life was never intended to benefit only those of us within the Monastery, or even those individuals who can directly participate in our life of worship, hospitality, and teaching. The monastic way of life has always had a far broader goal: to strengthen the common life of the whole body of Christ.
People are hungry for communion – not a superficial connection, but real intimacy. I think that the men who make their way here to the Monastery are desiring a kind of connection that goes beyond just friends or housemates. Monastics live in intentional community in holy intimacy with God and one another. This sounds nice and neat – like it’s in a pretty package, doesn’t it? But the reality is that it’s difficult, it’s messy, and it takes a lot of guts.
This ambitious goal hints toward one answer to that fundamental question every way of life should pose to itself: out of all the things we could do, why do this? Why become a monk? (Why stay a monk?) Ultimately, why do monks matter?
Here, then, is one answer: monks matter because we are a sign, a symbol – even a sacrament – to the whole Church, calling the whole Church toward the larger life of God. As we live for God, we model to the Church its own purpose; we beckon it toward its true calling: to be a communion of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ, and the company of Christ’s friends.
It’s an ambitious thing, to dream that you can actually influence the macro from the micro; that one person or one community can stop pollution or influence systemic racism, or inspire the Church. As monastics we commit our lives to this broad, ambitious claim: we want to help change the world. We want to join Jesus’ mission to change the world and to bring about his Kingdom.
This answer to why monks matter derives directly from the Scriptures’ teaching around the Christian’s calling to be a witness. A witness is somebody who sees something and says something. From the very first chapter of the book of Acts, Jesus says to his disciples, “You are my witnesses. You are my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” As Christians, we are called to be witnesses to Jesus: witnesses of his life, his ministry, his teaching, his death, his resurrection. In the New Testament, the witnesses not only see something, they say something. Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” And she, the first witness to the Resurrection, does: “I have seen the Lord!”
Monks matter because we act as a witness to the whole Church. A community like ours, dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist, cannot help but refer constantly to the writings of John, both the Gospel and the Epistles. An Evangelist is primarily a witness. So perhaps it’s not a surprise that the word “witness” appears no fewer than thirty-eight times in our Rule of Life. One of the passages of John’s writings that keeps coming back to us over and over again is that section from the first chapter of the First Letter of John: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
A witness is somebody who not only sees something, but says something, and the reason why they say it is so that their joy may be complete. That, for me, is what Christian witness is all about: seeing, saying, and joy. And ultimately, this is the fullest explanation of why monks matter: because through our life, we’ve not only seen something, but we also say something, so that our joy may be complete in showing it, sharing it, and spreading it, to the whole Church.
True confession: while I experience joy in many aspects of the monastic life, I tend to think of this life primarily in a Johannine way, as “abundant” or “full.” It’s the whole bag. It’s the good, the bad, the sad, the ouch. It’s the ways in which you have to grow, encounter your shame, confront your demons. The Desert Fathers actually went out into the desert, and they spoke of fighting demons out there. We fight them in here. Somehow I think it’s that very struggle which makes this a life of abundance for me. Living a happy life doesn’t mean that I don’t experience things that are unpleasant, but it means that I can face them, I can handle them. Experiencing the fullness of life, even in its darkness and difficulty, makes life more vivid. Fullness of life vibrates in a different way. Life is not always about dopamine, you know. Monastic life is perhaps sometimes not joyful in a traditional way, but it’s full, abundant, rich.
So what are some of these things that we have seen? What are some of these things that we say? How is our joy made complete? In the following pages, I want to share with you a glimpse of some of the distinctive values, disciplines, and principles of the monastic life, as we live it, and which shape our witness and embody our discipleship. I hope that in these core monastic practices and beliefs, you might find fodder for your own adventure with God. What sparks here might be fanned into flame in your own life?
People don’t tend to use words like “adventure” to describe the monastic life, but it truly is a life of adventure. You put your life in someone else’s hands – and that is a thrill! I think that men who come to us are driven by this need for adventure, to live a life of purpose and intensity. They see something in us that resonates with their own need. This isn’t a passive life. Even when it’s mundane – and it can be – it’s exciting because you never know what you’re going to be asked to do.
At the heart of the monastic life is enclosure. When people think of monastic communities, even though they may not know the word “enclosure,” they do tend to think of walls, towers, cloisters – a life that is physically ‘set apart’ from the world. This stereotype begins to inch us toward the true meaning of enclosure.
I first discovered what enclosure means not by being a monk, but by being a gardener. A number of years ago I was living at Emery House, a 150-acre colonial farm about an hour north of Boston, which had been entrusted to our Society by the Emery family in 1952. As I was living there, I had the wonderful opportunity to discover the ‘inner farmer’ in me. It was a life-long dream come true! If you’d asked me when I was five what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have answered, “a farmer!” Well now I had chickens and pigs and ducks and geese and bees to take care of, and a huge kitchen garden.
One year, in the fall, I planted garlic. The ducks and geese were out there with me, keeping me company while I planted. That all seemed fine until the next spring, when I noticed that – despite my care in spacing the garlic – there were great gaps in my rows! That’s when I realized that the ducks and geese had been following me, eating the garlic as I planted it. That spring we also returned one day from the nursery with a bunch of pepper starts, which we planted in the garden, and then we went inside for lunch. When we came back, all of the leaves from the new pepper plants had been nibbled off by the ducks! I finally got it. “We need a fence.” That’s when I discovered what enclosure is really about.
An enclosure is partly about keeping things out – in this case, keeping the ducks and geese outside the garden. But enclosure is also about protecting what is inside, which is valuable. By creating a boundary, enclosure does not say that what is outside the boundary is necessarily bad, but rather that what is within the boundary is worth protecting.
An enclosure, like a fence, is a sign: it declares that something is special, of particular value, and worth protecting. As monks, we model enclosure in our physical space. Within our Monastery, there are distinct areas that are marked “Monastic Enclosure,” into which only monks can go. This physical separation reminds us about a broader application of enclosure: there are parts of our life which are precious, which are private, which need to be protected.
When I first came here as an inquirer, the life behind the enclosure was a mystery to me. I remember staying in the Guesthouse and wondering, “What do they do over there all day?” Like many, I had this unrealistic vision of monks somehow floating above the floor, reading spiritual classics all day long! Now that I am a monk, I know that on most days, I’m not doing anything spectacular. I might cook a meal or clean the toilet; I might sing the Office as cantor. The truth is that the monastic life is nothing very supernatural. We Brothers just live our life in this slow, methodical, regular way, punctuated by prayer. And people come along and sit beside us in this. And somehow, that encounter changes them. When they arrive, their faces are often stressed out. But by the end of their stay, something’s happened. And we haven’t done anything extraordinary. We’ve just been working out our salvation, our conversion with Jesus. The Holy Spirit uses the example of our lives to create momentum in other people in ways that we can’t possibly imagine or control. It’s beautiful and very humbling, how God can do so much with so little.
By marking off certain hallways, floors, and rooms as private, worthy of protection, we remember those hidden and harder-to-see parts of our selves and our common life, which are precious and might need protection. An enclosure is not about secrecy, it is about protection; protecting what is precious. Monastic life itself is a sort of enclosure, into which we enter in order to focus on and foster our life with God, because that life is precious and needs protecting.
So the question for you is: what parts of your life need to be protected? What parts of your life are precious enough to need a boundary? By practicing enclosure, you can help that which is most precious to grow and thrive.
None of us are saints. We’re rough around the edges. We wrestle with the same struggles we had outside the Monastery. We don’t just put on the habit and magically our lives become easy! I think of the old story from the Desert Fathers: someone asks a monk, “What do you do in the monastery all day?” The monk answers, “We fall down. We get up.” We fall down and get up, over and over again. The falling down doesn’t mean we’re failing at this life; it is this life. You just show up for the day and say, “Alright, what is this day going to be?” Some days, you’re going to to perform the task with flying colors. Some days, you’re not. Both days are a success. Because as long as you get back up, you’re learning. You’re becoming. You’re beginning to know yourself a bit more as God knows you. The Rule says that “we too are mysteries that cannot be fathomed until we come to know as we are known.” There’s so much to learn.
Another value which has proven helpful to us, as it has to centuries of monastics before us, is the gift of silence. Silence is at the heart of our life. And that’s not because there is nothing worth saying, but because there is so much worth hearing.
I remember a number of years ago, we hosted a group retreat at Emery House. During the first night’s talking meal, I asked the woman next to me, “Are you looking forward to the silence?” She was shocked to hear that following the meal, the entire rest of the retreat would be in silence. She said, “Oh my God, if I’d known this was going to be a silent retreat, I never would’ve come!” After that reaction, I expected to see her leave; I was surprised to see that she stuck around for the whole weekend. When Sunday lunch rolled around, and we once again welcomed the retreatants to a talking meal, I made a point to sit beside her and ask her how it had gone.
She replied, “When you told me on Friday that this was going to be a silent retreat, I panicked. I decided that I was going to leave right after supper and go home.”
But she said that then the evening session approached, and she thought, “Well I might as well stay for the evening meditation, and then I’ll leave after that.” And then she said, “And then it was Compline, so I thought, ‘I may as well stay for Compline.’ And then it was 9:30 and I thought ‘Well, I’ll leave tomorrow morning after breakfast.’ And then after breakfast,” she said, “Well it’s kind of a nice day, I’ll go for a walk before I leave.” And so on, for the rest of the weekend. It was what she said next that really struck me: “This morning, after the Eucharist, I made some coffee and sat on the porch of my hermitage.” And then she said, “and I heard the birds. I can’t tell you the last time I heard birds singing. So I spent an hour just listening to the birds.”
I feel like that every single day! “Okay. Alright. I made it through today. I’ll stay a little bit longer.” Father Benson says that truly we are novices for the whole of our lives. As in any life, of course, there are days when I think, “ Oh man, the grass is greener over there.” Or, “Wow life would be easier if I didn’t have to deal with X... if I were doing Y... etcetera, etcetera.” But we keep showing up. God keeps drawing us back.
For monks, silence is not about preventing or stopping talking. It isn’t about living under a strict and rigid regimen of silence.Silence is about enabling something else to happen. In this woman’s case, silence was about enabling her to hear the birds for the first time in years.
Our Rule’s teaching on silence is particularly rich. “The gift of silence we seek to cherish is chiefly the silence of adoring love for the mystery of God which words cannot express. 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 silence, we honor the mystery present in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, strangers, and enemies. Only God knows them as they truly are, and in silence we learn to let go of the curiosity, presumption, and condemnation that pretend to penetrate the mystery of their hearts.”
When everyone’s talking, no one’s listening; it’s just noise. So many people these days are burned out because they’re constantly going, and so life feels like this constant noise. Every battery needs to be recharged eventually. Drawing back into silence, we aim to rediscover the silence and stillness in our inner core, so that no matter what storm is raging outside us, we can face it with clarity of mind. We actually have to practice that. We have to take time to go into ourselves and practice being still and quiet. This is a skill – as is learning to listen to our brothers and sisters with an open heart.
The Rule goes on, “True silence is an expression of love, unlike the taciturnity that arises from fear and avoidance of relationship.” True silence is an expression of love. So what happens when we enter into this mystery of silence? We enter into relationship. We enter into relationship with the other, and with the Other.
Where in your life, and in your loves, could silence help you to hear what is most important?
Silence is one of the chief ways that we enter into another value that dominates our life together as monastics: the mystery of friendship. We say, “no honor exists that could be greater than Jesus calling us his friends. The more we enter into the fullness of our friendship with him, the more he will move us to be friends for one another, and to cherish friendship itself as a means of grace.”
Friendship is one of the values we hold dear as monks because it helps to sustain our community. As monks, we are called not only to be friends of God, but also to be friends of one another. While the word “monk” comes from the Latin word “monos,” meaning “solitary,” our community derives from the cenobitic, or communal monastic tradition, which arose when solitary monks began to cluster together into loose communities.
As monks committed to a common life, we consider friendship to be important enough that our Rule teaches us “we must devote time, energy and prayer to the fostering of friendship.” Friendship takes a lot of work. We have to work to be friends with somebody. It’s not because that person is difficult to be friends with, but because friendship requires an investment of time. You can’t leave them on a shelf and come back twenty years later thinking you’re still going to be friends. So we Brothers recognize that even though we live and work closely alongside one another, we must devote time, energy, and prayer to the fostering of friendship among ourselves. It will not simply happen on its own.
On the other hand, something can happen in friendship without our even trying: friendships can break down. Sooner or later, you not only need to say “I love you” to a friend; sooner or later you’re going to need to say “I’m sorry.” Sooner or later you’re going to need to say “I forgive you.” That is part of what being a friend is all about. And paradoxically, it seems that the better the friend, the more likely we are to hurt them – and be hurt by them.
Our commitment to friendship is another one of the reasons why monks matter. We matter because we model what it looks like to live in intense community. And trust me, while we might model this goal, we also model its challenges; we have not got it all figured out! It’s far from easy, to live with a dozen other guys 24-hours a day. Some people might look at our community and see a homogenous mass of similar men. (The black habits help with this illusion.) Yet each man in our community is an individual, different from all the others. And I’ve promised to live with them – even to love them – until death do us part. Sooner or later – and mostly sooner – I’m going to need to say “I’m sorry. I forgive you. I love you.” In a monastery, reconciliation isn’t just a theory, it’s a necessity, a lived reality. Without ongoing reconciliation, a monastic community can become a vision not of heaven, but of that other place!
How do you devote yourselves to fostering those relationships that matter to you? Where do you need to speak those essential words: “I’m sorry. I forgive you. Please forgive me. I love you.”
Our Rule envisions the Monastery as a school for reconciliation, and I think that’s so important. To “reconcile” is to come back together, to re-member. The first step in reconciliation is to recognize that you’re not all together. First you have to see how you actually are broken. To be a monk in the school for reconciliation asks you first to be in touch with how you’re broken. Yet this is not about shame. There’s so much in our world that tries to shame us: the world tells us “you have to look a certain way, you have to model a certain behavior, and if you don’t then you’re not worthy or you’re an outcast.” But in the shame of the cross, Jesus has put all that to rest. Putting us in touch with our own brokenness is one way in which Christ is healing us and raising us to new life.
Another key reason why monks matter is because we model what it looks like to live lives of limitation. Everyone, in a sense, lives a life of limitation simply by having a physical body. We’re limited to being in one body, this one; and as much as we might like to try, we can’t be in two places at one time.
Yet a monk’s sense of limitation is a bit different from the sense of limitation that simply comes with being embodied. We choose a life of specific limitations through our vows. We live under baptismal vows. Some of us live under ordination vows. These vows we share with many Christians. Yet at our Profession, we take three specifically monastic vows: poverty, celibacy, and obedience.
About our vow of poverty we say, “If our religious poverty is to be authentic we must stay soberly aware of the essential difference between the deprivation of those whose poverty is forced on them, and the way of life we choose by vow.” Professing a vow of poverty isn’t about destitution or deprivation; it’s really a vow of simplicity. “This simplicity of life finds expression in the way we enjoy and value the goodness of ordinary things and the beauty of creation.”
“The movement towards simplicity puts us at odd with our culture, which defines human beings primarily as consumers, and gives prestige to those who have the power to indulge themselves in luxury and waste.” Our vow of poverty helps us to remember that our primary identity is not as consumers. The call of God is to be a saint, not a consumer, just as our role in society is to be a citizen, and not just a taxpayer.
The vow of poverty is a vow to live within our limits. “As a community and as individuals we shall have to struggle continually to resist the pressure to conform. Our vow of poverty inevitably commits us to conscientious participation in the movement to establish just stewardship of the environment and earth’s resources.” In the words of that bumper sticker from twenty years ago, “Live simply so that others may simply live.”
Our vow of celibacy is also a vow of limitation. Through our vow of celibacy, we offer ourselves, as members of the community, to be completely available to Christ. You could say that’s also true about marriage: through a vow of marriage, you offer yourself as a spouse, as a partner, to be completely available to the other. The vow of celibacy, like the vow of marriage or partnership, is really about fidelity: it’s a vow of fidelity to the one joy of our hearts.
As monks we share a common goal, and that goal is union with God. We want to give our life to God. Our vows are not some ascetic weights that God puts on us to punish us, or to make an example out of us. The monastic vows, at their core, are about relationship (just as a marriage vow is about relationship). The vows are what help us to live together in intentional community with God as our shared focus.
Celibacy, then, isn’t about renouncing sex or sexuality; instead, it’s about adhering to fidelity. And in our case, we give our vow of fidelity to God, who is the joy of our hearts. By doing so, we hope to function as witnesses to others who have also taken vows of fidelity, like marriage vows, which are in truth also vows of limitation.
Like poverty and celibacy, our third vow, of obedience, is also about limitation. “The vow has many facets. It is a pledge to unite in a common response to God by embracing and fulfilling the Rule of the Society. It is a promise to work together to discern God’s will as a body and act in concert to God’s glory. The vow binds us to cooperate with the Superior in carrying out our mission. It is a pledge to listen to the voice of the Spirit speaking within the heart and to respond to God’s invitations to self-surrender.”
Obedience, as you probably know, is not so much about rule-following as it is about listening. The word “obedience” comes to us from a Latin word meaning “to listen.” It’s no coincidence that the very first words in Benedict’s famous monastic Rule are “Listen my son, listen my daughter, with the ears of your heart to the teaching of a loving Father.” It’s interesting that the word “listen” appears in our Rule twelve times. The word “obey” never appears in the Rule. Obedience is about listening. Obedience is about listening to the wisdom of somebody else – somebody else who (I hate to admit this) frequently knows what’s better for me than I do. That’s certainly been my experience, living this particular life.
You can’t be obedient with your mouth open. Obedience at its core has to do with listening – especially listening with an ear to respect and cooperation with one another. That’s how obedience helps us to live together and do the jobs we are called to do. Our devotion to listening is another way the monastic life is very counter-cultural, because in today’s political and cultural climate, everyone’s talking; few people are listening.
The limitations that the vows place upon us are not just restrictions. Limitations aim to help us to find rhythm and balance in our life. So many people who come to our Monastery mention they suddenly realize how unbalanced, undisciplined, uncontrollable their life is. Limitation can actually be an experience of liberation.
How might embracing limitation help you to find balance in your life – a balance that, paradoxically, could help you to enjoy more of the goodness of life?
Finally, I think monks matter because we offer another way to live in the world today, a way that we are seeing once again in the lives of so many. During this season in the history of the world we are seeing once again women and men from many walks of life living lives of self-offering. It is a way of life which is deeply embedded in the monastic tradition. The monastic life as a life of self-offering is counter-cultural.
On our “Catch the Life” site for monastic vocations, we ask: “Do you have a truth you’re willing to give your life to?” Our life-long conversion to Christ is really about passion: about finding what you want to strive for, what you love, what change you want to see in yourself and in the world. What sparks might be ready to be fanned into flames in your own life? Monastics find inspiration in the witness of the martyrs. “Losing your life” doesn’t always mean dying. It also means the gifting of your life. Giving of your means, your talents, your whole self to something much bigger. “You’re going to have to lose your life to gain it,” Jesus says. How will you lose your life for love?
In our Rule of Life, we remind ourselves that the source of a life of self-offering is, of course, the life of Christ. In it we say, “Jesus’ offering of his life on the cross was the supreme expression of his love for the Father, made in perfect freedom through the Spirit. ‘No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.’ This free self-offering is expressed anew in our lives when, abiding in Christ, we find in him the power to surrender ourselves entirely to God, by taking the vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience for life.” However, like all humans we often find ourselves seeking “fulfillment without self-offering.” As monastics, we seek to offer our lives to God so that God in turn can take them and use them in any way God sees fit. A life of self-offering, modeled after the life of Jesus, is a life rooted in obedience, grounded in humility, and overflowing with charity.
During this time when the world is wracked with a global pandemic, we are discovering our mutual interdependence, as each one of us renews our own self-offering in order that by our actions others may remain safe and well. We see this especially through the witness of our health care professionals and other essential workers, such as grocery store employees, truckers, and postal workers.
At a time when it has once again become clear that our safety and health depend on the actions of others, how might you renew your own self-offering, following the pattern of Jesus’ life, to live a life of obedience, humility, and charity?
Of course, I have to say that monks matter, because I’m a monk. (If I didn’t think monks mattered, I wouldn’t be here.) But I also recognize that the fact that I matter isn’t primarily due to me, or to my gifts or my own goodness. Monks aren’t particularly holy or special or significant, as individuals. Monks matter because we are witnesses to the truth that we all belong to God. If we matter, it’s not in ourselves or for ourselves, but because we can help to remind someone else, or the Church – or maybe even you – who you truly are: a child of God, a member of Christ, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.
This life is not something I would have picked for myself. (A lot of people find themselves surprised by this!) Yet this life was the way that God got in touch with me. I think it’s been God’s way of saying, “I have something that’s just for you and I want to give it to you. Will you come and see?” We still have to say “Yes.” For me, that’s what being a monk is all about. And my answer reveals why I’m a monk: because this is the expression of life in which I find love and fulfillment and abundance and everything that I most deeply desire. Yet it’s not easy. It’s not always fun. I skin my knees a lot. But I also have entered into relationships that are enriching and have shown me so much about myself. The Desert Fathers taught, “If you want to know God, learn about yourself.” Or as we read in Scripture: “the Kingdom of God is within.” Over and over we discover that we are these mysteries whom God has created. Being a monk has helped me – is helping me day by day – to know more fully who ‘Jim Woodrum’ is. I’m learning how it is that God made me and why God made me and why I have the resilience I do. It’s an ongoing conversion. I’m just trying my best to become ever more who God is calling me to be today.
You matter because you belong to God. How might monastic practices and values help you to embrace your life on its own best terms as a beloved child of God?
One of my favorite passages of Scripture is Psalm 26:8, “O Lord, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides.” Well, where does God dwell? Where does God’s glory abide? In the heart. God dwells inside the human being – and not just once in the Incarnation. Every day, in every one of us! God’s abiding glory is in me – and in you– and over there – and over there. It’s in all of us.
How could enclosure help you to protect what is precious? How could silence help you to hear what is essential? How could living a life of friendship help you to grow into the body of Christ? How could embracing limitations give you freedom? How might a life of self-offering be truly rewarding?
I hope that embracing one or more of these monastic values might convince you not just that monks matter, but that you matter, “so that [y]our joy may be complete.”
Can we reclaim waiting – during these uncertain times – as an experience not imposed on us from without, but which can nourish us from within? Explore the monastic wisdom of waiting with Br. Geoffrey Tristram >
If the idea of a day-long “retreat-in-place” seems inviting to you, then it is God who has whetted your desire. What is God’s invitation to you? Prayer is always a response to God’s initiative, and retreat is the same. Retreat, at heart, is simply about making ourselves available to God.
This guide invites you to cooperate with God as you plan your retreat time. Less is more. We hope the suggestions in these pages will set the stage, so that you can receive God’s gift of love in a time of retreat.
the current longing of your soul
Don’t frontload your retreat day with “guilt appeasement”: catching up on overdue correspondence, organizing your closet, reading the stack of books that is gathering dust. Don’t have your electronic gadgetry close at hand. (Take a digital sabbath!) Keep a “Not for Now” pad of paper at hand, on which you can make a cryptic list of the niggling thoughts and reminders that surface on your retreat day… things to which you will attend after your retreat day.
Do get current with the longing of your soul.
- From what do you need freedom? Perhaps from fear, despair, anger, jealousy, loneliness, discouragement, grief, overwhelmedness …
- What do you crave? Perhaps hope, forgiveness, peace, love, light, compassion, wisdom, encouragement, joy…
Your retreat won’t be about everything. It will be about something which has caught your heart’s attention. God is behind that.
setting the stage
Where can you be still and silent?
What setting will be re-creative for your soul? An inside space, or outside space, or both?
What “accompaniment” do you need? Perhaps:
- music, a window, a candle, an icon
- a comfortable chair, a prayer cushion, a kneeler
- a Bible, a book of poetry or meditation, a journal
- food and drink (enough, but not too much)
- a place to rest; a place for physical exercise
- gentle re-creative activity (e.g., drawing or painting, sewing or beading, photographing, playing a musical instrument)
What is necessary and helpful?
a loose schedule
When will your retreat day begin and when will it end? How will it begin and end?
The entire day will offer you space to “pray your life”; however you might find it helpful to demarcate three specific times in the day, each for about an hour, when you will be especially focused in your prayer. You know your own “biorhythms.” When are you most attentive between the early morning until the evening? The bright times will be the right times for you to be intentional in your prayer.
getting ready to pray
To begin, you want to come into a clearing, as best as possible. The late Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, when asked if he spent much time in prayer said, “No.” But, he said, he spent a great deal of time “getting ready to pray.” How to prepare? Use the preparatory practice that is meaningful to you, or, if you are out of practice:
- You might find it helpful to use your breathing as respiratory therapy for your soul. Breathe out what is in the way. In a word, repeatedly name the “blockage” with each exhalation. Breathe in the elixir. In a word, breathe in what is healing, or helpful, or hopeful. Do this repeatedly with each inhalation.
You might get in touch with more than one thing that is in the way, and more than one thing that will help you get on the way. Breathe your prayer.
How long? Long enough.
- You might find it helpful to prepare with a passage or scene from the Bible, or with some poetry that helps you recollect your life in God’s presence. For example:
“I waited patiently upon the LORD; he stooped to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay; he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.” (Psalm 40:1-2)
- What do you need to be lifted out of?
- What do you need to be lifted into?
“Mercy and truth have met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” (Psalm 85:10-11)
- God already knows the truth about you, and about others. Name the truth God already knows.
- And ask for mercy:
God’s gift of mercy for you.
God’s gift of mercy for some other person whom you carry in your soul.
receiving the gift
Prayer is a gift. If you are out of practice, or if you have lost your way, here are two suggestions.
- Pray your gratitude. Being thankful to God is Eucharistic, absolutely transformative. Being grateful for your life will help you pick up the scent on the trail of life.
- Don’t do all the talking. The psalmist says, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Prayer is our relationship with God, at God’s initiative, and God has something for you. Listen up. All of your preparation to pray may simply leave you in a clearing where you can listen. Listen up.
collecting the day
At the end of each prayer session, “collect” the grace of your prayer. What did you say; what did you hear? What did you receive; from what were you relieved? In the Gospel according to John, after the feeding of the multitude, Jesus says to his disciples, “Gather up the fragments that nothing be lost.” Gather up the graces. You might find it helpful, at the close of each prayer time, to write what is clear to you: your questions or answers, the gifts you’ve been given or the help you need, the next step to take.
Finally, at the end of the day, collect and pray your gratitude for your day and for your life. The psalmist asks, rhetorically, “How shall I repay the LORD for all the good things he has done for me?” (Psalm 116:10). Start and end with gratitude.
In this season of staying at home, what might it look to take time to stop, be still, and listen to God? What might it be like to take a retreat at home? The added work and stress of these days may mean brief respite for some while others seek meaningful ways to use their time. Realizing we have different capacities, here are a few ideas to consider.
If stopping at all seems overwhelming yet desired, consider something small, a short pause. Susanna Wesley—the mother of Methodism—had ten children including John and Charles. Susanna couldn’t get away. She would sit or kneel in the kitchen, sometimes for ten minutes, and pull her apron up over her head. The children were still all about, but everyone knew not to interrupt when the apron was up because she was praying.
Perhaps it’s not an apron. Maybe putting on a particular jacket or hat or shawl could symbolize to your family and to yourself—I am stopping now to pray for ten minutes, even in a room with others. Perhaps you have the ability to go into a room or a closet for a time. Perhaps you could hang something on the door to show—I am in here now to pray. What would it take for you take ten minutes a couple times a day? Could you schedule a day off from most of your usual routine? If so, what would you reduce? To what extent, in what space, or during what time could you be uninterrupted?
Besides time and space, try doing one thing in order to slow down. Turn off your devices. Whether standing, sitting, or dancing, just do that. When eating or drinking, savor the flavor. When something catches your eye, stop and gaze at it. Perhaps a picture or the sunlight or a shadow. Gaze to really see it. Perhaps get closer or see how it or your perception changes with time. Sleep, savoring, and gazing help us slow down to pay attention and be still with God.
Exercise and gentle movement enliven and refresh. Take deep breaths, and exhale with sighs. Stretch your arms up and out. Swing your arms, your legs, and what you sit on. Imagine you are tossing paint at the ceiling and like throwing or hitting. Try some slow, gentle movements, as if you are seaweed swaying in the ocean. Stop and be still. Take deep breaths, and exhale with signs. Put on music and move as you can, fast and slow, energetic and calm. Dance for an audience of one. Afterward, notice what you feel in your body.
Silence helps us hear what is present now. Shared silence still creates community. Retreat may something to share with those with whom you live. What would it be like to share intentional silence together? Perhaps you could choose to not talk, not listen to music, not watch devices, and still be together. Create a beautiful center, perhaps a candle or flower or image, and do your own reading, journaling, gazing, and praying. Then reflect about the experience together and name your gratitude. I know some housemates who tried this for a season. They doubted the idea but found it doable and refreshing. This practice might be as regular as a weekly Sabbath or a monthly or quarterly retreat.
On retreat, pray as you already do, in whatever form is already familiar: with or without words, eyes open or closed, standing, sitting, kneeling, in another shape, or moving. Pray with scripture. Read a short text slowly a few times and notice what phrase or word stands out. Hold it gently and listen for an invitation. That may be by drawing and coloring it. Take a psalm and write it in your own words, or use it to journal. When have you felt this way? How does your current life connect with these words? You might also pray without words. Sit in silence gazing a candle or focus of beauty. Sit in adoration at the One who is already gazing with love at you. Set a few times to pray through the day. Do what you know, and try something different.
Retreat, and any particular retreat, may take many forms and locations. How to begin? First, consider what time, space, activity and even clothing distinguishes and defines it.
- What could you claim to calm and refresh?
- What helps you slow down, rest, and listen?
- Where do you feel safe and secure?
- What invites you to encounter and struggle with God?
- What prompts thinking deeply?
The location, time, or practice itself doesn’t matter. What’s important is choosing to stop and spend time to be attentive, listen, and pray. What would you stop, and what would help you stop? What would support you in putting aside your daily work and routines in order to focus on prayer? How would companionship help or hinder you either in the planning, provision, or experience of retreat?
Start small. Be creative. There is no right way. Be gentle with yourself. You are worth it. God is present here at home with you, and delights in time turned toward each together.
In this podcast, Br. Luke Ditewig shares a conversation about “Stability” as an essential practice we can adopt during quarantine. The conversation is followed by Luke’s reflections on how stability helps us to find God here, suggested practices, and a prayer. View the full “Stability” resource >
My dear Friends,
My Brothers and I have been deeply touched by the messages of concern and hope that so many of you have expressed since we made the difficult decision to close not only the Guesthouse, but also the Monastery Chapel for public worship, during this time of tremendous anxiety.
Never before has a line from our Rule of Life seemed so appropriate. In the chapter on Worship we read that we Brothers offer our worship … on behalf of the entire world. At a time when so many Christians are cut off from physically gathering to worship and celebrate the Eucharist, our life of corporate worship continues. Even though others may not be able to be physically present, your presence is none the less felt. This is especially true at the daily Eucharist and Compline, when we have the opportunity to mention before God so many of you by name. We offer our worship on behalf of the entire world.
Last week we made a recording of Compline which is now online at www.SSJE.org. We invite you to join us, wherever you are, and uphold the entire world in your prayers.
Please know of our prayers for you during this anxious time.
Faithfully in the One who calms our fears,
James Koester SSJE
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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