Basil of Caesarea, Bishop & Theologian
By the mid-fourth century, a distinct Christian vocation had developed in the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern church that was both strange and increasingly common. Its adherents were known by many names: the servants of God, the single ones, the true philosophers, the ascetics, the zealous. Their ways of living, even at this early stage, were astonishingly diverse. They included men and women, peasants and the educated. Following in the footsteps of the holy virgins and widows of the apostolic age; galvanized by the committed sacrifice of the martyrs, they sought singleness of heart and the “peace which the world cannot give.” The core motivation that united them was a sense of urgent longing to cross over a frontier from nominal belonging onto a path of transformational belonging within the body of Christ. Today, we who are called monks represent one branch of this zealous family: as ordinary Christians who follow an ordered rule of life and prayer, under vows, in community. One of the first to follow this particular pattern was named Basil of Caesarea, whom we remember today.
Your novitiate Todd, will, I think, go down as one of the longest in the history of the Society. Sure, Father Arthur Hall spent 8 years as a novice, but I am pretty sure yours was longer. At least it felt that way. Father Edwyn Gardner was a novice for 15 years. But I think yours was longer. At least it felt that way. Brother William Buckingham spent 23 years as a novice, but yours was definitely longer than that! At least it felt that way.
When you arrived in September 2019, no one foresaw what the future held in terms of pandemic, lockdown, and the closing of the guesthouse and chapel two years ago this week. We had never heard of COVID-19, worn masks (except perhaps at Hallowe’en), or imagined that millions of people around the world, including people we knew and loved, would become sick, and die in a matter of months. No one dreamed that in the matter of just a couple of days, 11 of us would test positive for the virus, and I would spend several sleepless nights wondering if this in fact was the way the Society would end. None of us, least of all the Luddite that I am, could have fathomed that cameras or livestreaming would become a welcome fact of life here in the chapel.
No, none of that was foreseen, imagined, dreamt, or fathomed. But except for a few glorious weeks this summer when we were able to reopen the chapel, all of that has been a fact of life for us, and especially for you, and it has shaped and marked your time as a novice. No wonder then your novitiate has lasted an eternity! Brother William and Father Gardner or Father Hall have nothing on you!
On the Profession of Jack Crowley in Initial Vows
It’s not difficult for me to imagine this scene. I have stood on a beach on the shore of the Sea of Galilee four or five times. It may not be THE beach where our gospel scene took place, but it is certainly A beach, and that’s all I need for my imagination to go to work.
With memories of standing in bare feet, ankle deep in the water, gazing out across the lake at the surrounding hills, I can easily imagine this scene: the inky black water revealing nothing below the surface in the predawn darkness; the first inkling of dawn as the eastern sky begins to brighten with the rising sun; the calling back and forth from shore to boat and back, one voice strong and confident, the other voices tired, perhaps frustrated, certainly sad and grief stricken; the uncertainty of who, or maybe even what this stranger on the shore is, raising caution, perhaps even fear, among the men in the boat.
Some of what I see is right there in text. Some is what my imagination fills in. It’s those details, the ones I see and hear in my imagination, which fascinate me today.
For several years, I lived at Emery House. In the nice weather I would sleep with my windows open, and the blinds up, so I could see the night sky and hear the night noises. There was a moment in the night, that I absolutely loved. In the summer comes around 4:30 AM, just as I was waking up. On a moonless night the sky would be black as pitch. Often, I could see nothing out the window. It would also be completely silent. If I lay quietly in my bed, I could eventually hear, somewhere out my window, the very first bird begin to sing. Over the next few moments others would join in. Soon there would be a whole chorus of birds singing, chirping, and tweeting. Only then would the sky begin to brighten, as the sun slowly rose. Somehow in those predawn minutes, the birds knew what was about to happen. That 5 or 10 minutes between night and day became my favourite part of the day. In many ways it was no longer night, yet nor was it, in that moment day. It seemed to be both, and neither at the same time.
We commemorate today a monk named John Cassian, born into privilege in the mid-fourth century in what is now Romania. As a young man he was struggling as a follower of Jesus at a time when the church and world seemed to be falling apart, and for many of the same reasons familiar to us today. As a young man, Cassian traveled to Bethlehem, then to Egypt to be formed by some of the great desert hermits. At the beginning of the fifth century, Cassian moved from Egypt to what is now southern France, and there founded a monastic community for monks, and later a community for women.
Cassian was a prolific writer. His most famous works, still in print and quite relevant today, were his Institutes, dealing with the external organization of monastic communities, and his Conferences of the Desert Fathers, dealing with the training and perfection of the heart. Cassian’s influence was vast in both the eastern and western churches. Benedict of Nursia – his Rule of Life – and Ignatius of Loyola – his Spiritual Exercises – owe their most basic ideas to John Cassian.
The Feast of St. Bede the Venerable
Today is the feast day of St. Bede the Venerable, an Anglo-Saxon monk of the 7th century. He did lots of stuff. He was a monk, a historian, a theologian, and a preacher, to name a few. I won’t recount here everything about him. What I’d like to talk about is why his work, his life, has affected me, even to the point of my standing here today.
About two years ago, now, I was a novice brother in this community, in the midst of two weeks of retreat preceding my initial vows, at a rural monastery in another part of Massachusetts.
It was slightly bizarre to see this other monastic community. At once, it was easy to recognize much of their life. Certain features, from architecture to liturgy to dress, though not exactly the same as ours, were instantly familiar. But something very much stuck out to me about one difference in particular: the setting. The abbey is out in a quite rural area, and there’s not much in the immediate vicinity.
This bothered me. One man’s peaceful seclusion is another man’s lonely isolation, and for me, it was difficult not to see all our other similarities and immediately imagine myself in that community. And I wasn’t happy in those imaginings. The relative isolation felt claustrophobic. I was reminded of being a college student in a small town, where everything that exists seems dependent on a single institution, and the thought of my life happening in that context felt smothering.
Initial Profession of Brother Sean Robert Glenn SSJE
John 4: 5 – 30, 39 – 42
Some of you will remember that for a number of years, I spent ten days each summer in Oregon, at an icon writing school. These weeks were enormously rewarding. But before they were rewarding, they were incredibly frustrating.
Each year I began with a sense of excitement and anticipation, but within a day or so that would dissolve into frustration that would put me on the edge of tears for much of the day. I just couldn’t get it, and what I couldn’t get was the geometry.
Before we were allowed to pick up a brush, we first had to analyze the icon; discover it’s geometry, indeed it’s sacred geometry, and then, on overlaid sheets of tracing paper, lay down the geometrical shapes we found in our analysis. Once we had found and placed the lines, the triangles, the semi-circles, the circles, we could then set about drawing, not tracing, but drawing the figure in the icon we were to paint.
That is where, invariably, I would be close to tears. As a school student, I was never good at math, much less geometry, and I was even worse at drawing. I would describe myself as someone who drew stick people badly. Any line I put down, never seemed right. It was always in the wrong place, or too short, or too long, or too this, or too that. Sheet after sheet of tracing paper was torn off, and tossed away, … until something happened. The line was right. It was in the right place. It was the right length. It was at the right angle. It was the most beautiful line I had ever seen, and I had drawn it. And then another. And another. And another.
Celibate life can prompt some big, existential questions about the nature of human intimacy with God. When I look at the ring on my finger and imagine a similar ring on the (invisible) hand of Christ, I wonder: What does it mean to be invited to share an intimate relationship – the most intimate relationship — with someone who is so utterly mysterious?
All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. These words from Matthew find a striking parallel in John’s gospel: No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
There is a line in our Rule of Life which, over the years, has become increasingly important to us. Indeed it has become one of our guiding principles, so much so that during the planning and actual renovation of the monastery, we referred to it repeatedly. However, having said that, I am not sure that when we wrote the Rule, we realized then that it was, or would become, so important and central to our lives. The line appears in the chapter on Hospitality and says quite simply, that our houses have simple beauty.
As we know, there is a great deal of ugliness in the world, most if not all of it, if I can make a sweeping statement, created by humanity. The ugliness of the destruction of creation, as it is destroyed solely for our benefit, and the ugliness of the sin of poverty, racism, and war is all around us, and so places that are dedicated to simple beauty are a refuge for the heart, and mind, and soul.
Life Profession of Keith Robert Nelson SSJE
2 Chronicles 6: 12 – 15, 41 – 42 – 7: 4
1 Peter 1: 3 – 9
John 15: 1 – 11
I don’t know if this was your experience, Keith. It certainly was mine. When I announced to my friends that I was coming here to test my vocation, a number of them responded, what a waste. Some thought that I had suffered a setback, a disappointment, in life, and that I was going off to the monastery to lick my wounds, to heal, to hide. Others thought that I was throwing away my life as a parish priest, in exchange for a life they could not understand, much less comprehend. A few thought that I was turning to a life that was too heavenly minded, to be any earthly good. There were one or two, who thought that I was disappearing behind the monastery wall, and would never be heard of, or seen again, and they grieved my coming here, as if I had died. A few assumed that I was simply running away from something. It was impossible to explain in ways they could understand, what I was doing, and why I was doing it. It took a huge amount of determination, and persistence to come, because in this day and age, our life does seem to many, to be a waste. It appears to them that we are running away. It looks to them that we are hiding from the real world. Why on earth would a talented, young man, with enormous potential, choose such a life that is so foreign, so alien, so strange, to the world around us?
Looked at one way, our life is unfathomable. It makes no sense. It is a waste, because the one thing at the core of our life is so, so incomprehensible, to so, so many people. That incomprehensible thing of course, is God.
This life makes absolutely no sense unless, and until, God makes sense. As Father Benson reminds us, [we] must seek to realize increasingly the purposes for which our Society is called together – to live for God…. It is this single-minded living for God that is at the core of our life, which sets us apart from the prevailing culture around us, and which to some, makes no sense at all.
Feast of St. Alban the Martyr
Profession of Initial Vows: Brother Lucas Hall SSJE
Today is one of those days when we have the opportunity to pull back the veil, if ever so slightly, and look within, in order to catch a glimpse of a wonderful mystery. This mystery is at work all around us. Mostly, however, it works in secret, away from prying eyes, for it is too precious, sometimes too fragile, often too personal. But today we are allowed a momentary glimpse, and what we behold causes us to stop, to step aside, to look, to see, to think, to ponder, to change our direction, even to offer our lives. It is only when we have stopped, and stepped aside to see, and ponder, does this mystery give us its name.
Today we see that mystery, and hear it speak its name.
We see the mystery and hear its name, in the life of Moses, the Servant of the Lord. Touched by this hand of mystery at birth, and snatched from certain death in a watery grave, he encountered that same saving mystery once again in today’s lesson from Exodus. This time he is not a baby floating in a basket made of reeds, but a man, a shepherd, keeping watch over his father – in – law’s flock, in the wilderness. There at Horeb, near the mountain of God,the angel of the Lord appeared to [Moses] in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.Such was the mystery that Moses encountered, that he could not but stop and look. ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’It was only when Moses stopped and turned aside, that the mystery spoke. When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’And in speaking, the mystery was revealed. ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Having heard the voice of God, Moses can do no other, but hide his face. But this mystery, who is God, asks for more. ‘Come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’And having asked, God promises. ‘I will be with you.’
Having stopped, to step aside, to look, to see, to think, to ponder, Moses’ life was changed, as he offered it to the service of the mystery who is God. And at this, the veil is lifted, and we glimpse, even just for a moment, the mystery of God at work in the soul of Moses. And there, in the heart of Moses, we see God making a home.
We see the mystery, and hear its name in the story of Alban, whose feast we keep today. Alban was a Roman soldier stationed in Britain. One night a Christian priest, fleeing from persecution, appeared on Alban’s doorstep. For some reason, rather than handing him over to the authorities, Alban took him in, and hid him. Perhaps likes Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, Alban knew that in the presence of this priest, he was on holy ground. And like Moses, the mystery who is God was revealed to Alban, and having stopped, to step aside, to look, to see, to think, to ponder, Alban’s life was changed, as he offered it to the service of the mystery who is God. When the soldiers finally came to his door in search of the priest, Alban gave himself up, proclaiming his name to be Alban, and [that] I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things.And at this, the veil is lifted, and we glimpse, even just for a moment, the mystery of God at work in the soul of Alban. And there, in the heart of Alban, we see God making a home.
For some of us, once we have encountered this mystery who is God, like Moses, like Alban, we can do nothing except to stop, to step aside, to look, to see, to think, to ponder, and our lives are forever changed, as we offer them to the service of the mystery who is God.
Both Moses and Alban could have acted differently. Both could have failed to see what was before them. Moses could have walked passed the burning bush, failing to see in it the mystery of God. Alban could have left that priest outside, alone, in the dark, to face his persecutors alone, failing to see the mystery of God in the one who stood before him. But neither did. In both bush and priest, Alban and Moses heard the voice of God speaking their name: Moses, Moses, Alban, Alban. And hearing that voice, their lives were changed.
Father Benson, the founder of our community, puts it this way: It is a most blessed thing to [hear God’s] call. [When God] opens the ear of the soul to hear His voice calling, directing us by His providence, impelling us by His constraining grace to be wholly His, then we must continue in this life by a reliance on the Divine strength. The vow does not remove the uncertainties of the will, the fluctuations of feeling, the tendencies to depression, the uprisings of passion. It does not shut out the visions of the world or quench the fires within, or benumb the lower human will. But it brings down the pledged blessing in giving to the soul the unchanging assistance of God. The life-giving hand of the Eternal is given to the soul [that] is bound to Himself, enabling it to rise triumphant over all the temptations of the world. The soul becomes dead, not with the death of apathy, but dead to the world because alive to God.
Lucas, like Moses and Alban, you have heard the voice of God speaking your name, and as Father Benson reminds us, that is a most blessed thing. It is a most blessed thing to hear the voice of God speaking deep within a heart that it eternally aflame with love, aflame with the love of God, aflame with the love of all whom God has made.
For the last three years we have watched, Lucas, as your heart has burned, but not been consumed, with God’s love. And with Father Benson we can say, looking at you, that [it] is a most blessed thing to [hear God’s] call. [For when God] opens the ear of the soul to hear His voice calling, directing us by His providence, impelling us by His constraining grace to be wholly His, then we must continue in this life by a reliance on the Divine strength.
Today Lucas, the veil is once again lifted, if even for a moment, and all of us who love you, are privileged to see, if only just for a moment, that which is precious, and fragile, and deeply personal. And what we behold causes us to stop, to step aside, to look, to see, to think, to ponder, for we see that the God of Moses, and the God of Alban, has made a home in your heart, inviting you to [spend] your … life abiding in him and giving [yourself] up to the attraction of his glory.
But Lucas, there is more that we see, for having given yourself to God, as you do this day, God gives to you, as he gave to Moses. I will be with you,God promised Moses. I will not leave you orphaned, I am coming to you,Jesus promises us.
Again as Father Benson reminds us, [in] the vow of a Religious, there is to be the real trusting of the soul to the love of God, I believed, and therefore will I speak. God has promised all we can desire; we need not fresh promises. We trust ourselves to Him who cannot deny himself. We give ourselves up in perfect confidence to His love, and He will give more than human words can make known. Give up all to God, and God will give up His holy Being to us. All for all, the all of earth for the all of heaven, the all of man for the all of God.
Today, as you trust your life and soul to God, God in Christ gives himself to you. I will be with you, God promises you this day. I will not leave you orphaned, Jesus promises you this day.
As our Rule of Lifereminds us, it is a great privilege to be called to the religious life.And for us who love you Lucas, it is a great privilege to be with you this day, and behold with awe and wonder the fire of God’s love burning deep within you. Like Moses we cannot but stop and turn aside. And having turned aside, we too see a great mystery, and know that in your presence, we stand on holy ground. As you give yourself up to the mystery who is God today, we know also the promise God makes to you today, I will be with you. That promise comes again to you today from the lips of the Lord Jesus,I will not leave you orphaned.
Lucas, as you make your vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience today, we who love you are on holy ground, for in you we see a great sight: we see nothing less than the power, and the glory, and the majesty of God, burning within you, as the eternal mystery who is God, Father, Son, and Spirit comes and makes a home in your heart.
Exodus 3: 2
Exodus 3: 3
Exodus 3: 4
Exodus 3: 5, 6
Exodus 3: 10
Exodus 3: 12
John 14: 23
A Great Cloud of Witnesses, Church Publishing, 2016, June 22
John 14: 23
Benson, Richard Meux, Instructions on the Religious Life, First Series, 1927, page 14 – 15
SSJE, Rule of Life, The Call of the Society, chapter 1, page 2
John 14: 18
Benson, Richard Meux, Instructions on the Religious Life, First Series, 1927, page 13
SSJE, Rule of Life, Prayer and Life, chapter 22, page 44