Today is one of those days where the compilers of the lectionary have, whether intentionally or not, paired together two passages from the New Testament that I find—because of their pairing— unexpectedly arresting.
At first glance, this pairing of epistle and gospel may strike us as a bit lopsided. We hear a dense admonition from St Paul, some of his harshest words, as he decries the inclination of the community at Corinth to pursue one another with lawsuits. In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?
And then there is this bit from the Gospel According to Luke, a good seventy percent of which is but a list of names, names familiar to us now, names so familiar we might wonder what could possibly edifying about them. Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
It is perhaps no accident that I have been thinking a lot about clothing in the last few days. Yesterday at Evening Prayer we had the wonderful occasion to clothe our brother Lain in the habit of the Society. Some of you were here for that, and others perhaps joined us remotely.
As I have said before, a clothing ceremony is probably the most dramatic of all the rites of passage that a Brother of the Society undergoes in his time in the community, except perhaps for the last rite of passage, his funeral. Unlike a profession, we actually see a man change, literally, before our very eyes.
Having put on, and taken off my own habit, thousands of times, over the last 30 years, it is this putting on of the habit for the first time, that I find so moving. It is especially moving watching him as he fumbles and searches the fabric for various hidden buttons, and snaps, and tries to wind and knot the cord with as much dignity as possible. Getting dressed, in a strange outfit, in public, with everyone watching, is actually much more difficult than you might think! In that moment, it is just an awkward and cumbersome suit of clothes. But the habit is much more than a suit of clothes. As we say in our Rule, [the habit] is dense with meaning, [and] a source of joy.
As many of you saw, at one point in the service another Brother gives the habit to the postulant saying let the habit remind you of the baptismal gift of your union with Christ. You have put him on; he clothes you with his own self.
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.