Welcome to the Society of Saint John the Evangelist

Sermon

Called to Restore – Br. Keith Nelson

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Br. Keith Nelson

The Restoration of the Religious Life in the Anglican Communion:
The Profession of Marian Rebecca Hughes

“I was enrolled one of Christ’s Virgins, espoused to him and made his handmaid and may he of his infinite mercy grant that I may ever strive to please him and to keep from the world though still in it.”[i]

A twenty-four year old Englishwoman named Marian Rebecca Hughes wrote these words in her diary in the year 1841. On Trinity Sunday of that year, she stepped boldly but quietly into uncharted territory for a nineteenth-century Anglican: she vowed to remain unmarried in devotion to Christ and in service to the church. From John Henry Newman and Edward Bouverie Pusey, pioneering priests and theologians of what we now call the Oxford Movement, she had learned that such consecrated women had played a vital role in the early church. From her growing knowledge of the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy in Ireland and of the social work of Lutheran deaconesses, she drew inspiration to live a life of service. Her vows were received by Pusey in a private home, but this private ceremony also included a humble, public act. Marian went immediately to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, where she knelt at the altar rail beside Lucy, Dr. Pusey’s daughter. Lucy, aged 12, was that day receiving her first communion. Both Newman and the young Ms. Pusey were fully aware of Marian’s consecration; they were, in a sense, co-conspirators. Upon receiving communion and completing the final prayers of consecration, Marian had become the first person to take up the vocation of vowed religious life in the Church of England since the dissolution of the monasteries at the Reformation. It is difficult from our historical distance to fully appreciate how counter-cultural this decision was. While she was amply resourced by highly sympathetic male clergy, Marian was a young Victorian woman in an age that still had no cultural reference points for the life she aspired to live. For the next nine years, she gathered information about Roman Catholic women’s religious life in France and cared for her aging parents. It was not until 1850 that she would take up life in a community of Anglican sisters, the newly founded Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity.  By the time Mother Marian died in 1912, in the ninety-fifth year of her age and the seventy-first year of her religious profession, she had witnessed the firm foundation of Anglican religious life for women and men – including the founding of our Society in 1866. 

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Cast Aside Your Fear – Br. Jim Woodrum

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Br. Jim Woodrum

Feast of Bernard Mizeki

Revelation 7:13-17; Psalm 124; Luke 12:2-12

When reading the lessons appointed for today, I could not get the front page of the Boston Globe from the day after the Marathon bombings out of my mind. The large picture was of a woman lying on the sidewalk in a pool of blood with two men attending to her, one applying pressure to her badly wounded leg. The bold print accompanying the article underneath the picture read, “Amid Shock, A Rush to Help Strangers.”The article went on to describe the various reactions to the bombing.[i]The one I think we all can identify with is fear and the immediate need to get away to safety as fast as possible.  All of us have this innate instinct for self-preservation that when something devastating happens, the body is driven to action by chemical processes in the brain such as the release of adrenaline.

There was also the unthinkable reaction of some, who despite not knowing what was coming next, ran toward the explosion sites to start helping people who had been injured. Some of the first responders were trained EMT’s, doctors, and nurses….and then there were others who had no idea what to do except to apply pressure to wounds and keep talking to the injured to ward off shock.  In a chaotic scene such as that, I can only imagine the overwhelming sense of helplessness some people had, yet remained behind to help in any way possible, risking their own lives in the process.  I greatly admire these people and wonder if I would have stayed to help or if I would have followed my instinct to run away to safety.  

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Thyself Unmoved, All Motion’s Source – Br. James Koester

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Proverbs 8: 14, 22 – 31
Psalm 8
Romans 5: 1 – 5
John 16: 12 – 15 

One of the great lines from Father Benson, which is among my favourites, is something he said about the Holy Trinity. Writing to Father Rivington in 1875, he says: 

I quite feel that the practical neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity has been the great cause of the decay of Christendom. The Church – the Sacraments – Hagilogy, I had almost said Mythology – have filled the minds of devout people, partly for good partly for evil. ‘Thyself unmoved, all motion’s source’ this mystery of the circulating life of the eternal Godhead, has been almost lost to sight, spoken of as a mystery, and not felt as a power or loved as a reality.[1]

It seems like a bit of an outrageous claim, that the decay of Christendom is because of the practical neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity. Any school child, after all, can tell you that three does not equal one, and nor does one equal three. For many however, the Trinity is just that: a mathematical impossibility. So how is it then, that the neglect of this mathematical formula, and a nonsensical one at that, is the cause of the decay of Christendom?

For Father Benson, the Trinity had nothing to do with mathematics. It’s not about trying to convince people that something which makes no sense, actually does. The Trinity isn’t about math. It is about God, and it has to do with the reality of God who can be known, felt, and loved, in practice. And that’s what Father Benson is getting at here. He’s not speaking of the almost or nearly neglect, as in saying about something well that’s practically impossible, as in it’s unlikely to happen. Instead Father Benson is speaking of the practice, the experience, the experiential. What he is saying, is that people are no longer experiencing the Trinity and that the circulating life of the eternal Godhead is no longer a felt power or a loved reality. Because that circulating life of the eternal Godhead is no longer a felt power, or loved reality, it is rejected as a nonsensical mathematical formula, and one more thing to discredit, an already largely discredited, and irrelevant Church.

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The Gift of Pentecost – Br. James Koester

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Preached at Order of the Holy Cross, West Park NY

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Romans 8:14-17
John 14:8-17 (25-27)

I know that not many of you know me, but those of you who do, will perhaps remember that my undergraduate degree is in history. All my life I have been interested in history. There was even a time long ago when asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, my response was more likely to be a pioneer, than anything else. I remain fascinated by history and especially, for obvious reasons, by the history of the revival of monasticism within the Anglican tradition.

Reading the history of the monastic movement within Anglicanism is lots of fun, because you come across all kinds of people, some of them inspirational, like Father Huntington or Father Benson, and some of them just plain nuts, like Father Ignatius of Llanthony.

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Paul’s Secret – Br. David Vryhof

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Br. David Vryhof

Acts 16:16-34                        

Something unusual happens to me every time I read this story from Acts chapter 16.  In some ways it’s an odd story, featuring a slave woman who is possessed by a spirit that enables her to predict the future.  Two thousand years removed from the story and its setting, we wonder what this description could mean.  It’s hard to know for sure what troubled her.  It poses an interesting question, but that isn’t the part of the story that grabs my attention.  

The slave woman follows Paul and Silas around town, calling out to anyone who will listen that “these people are servants of the Most High God” and that “they are proclaiming a way of salvation to you.”  She is speaking the truth, though Paul is unwilling to acknowledge it as truth because it is prompted by an evil spirit.  She harasses them for several days until Paul has finally had enough. He stops, turns to her, and rebukes the demon that possesses her.  She is instantly healed.  The miracle demonstrates the power of God at work in these early apostles, the same power that was at work in their Lord.  It poses the question of how that same power might be available to us, but even this isn’t the part of the story that grabs me by surprise and causes me to wonder.  

The healing annoys the woman’s owners, who have lost a convenient source of income, and they turn against Paul and Silas.  They seize them and drag them before the local authorities with the accusation that they are “causing an uproar” in the city.  The crowd joins in on the attack against Paul and Silas, which compels the authorities to order that they be stripped of their clothing and beaten.  Accused and found guilty without a trial, they are “severely beaten,” thrown into prison, with their legs secured in chains. 

And then there is this line: “Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God…”  And that is what grabs me in this story.  Every time. I’m always surprised by that line. I find myself thinking, “How can that be?”  Unjustly accused by greedy men, seized upon by a crowd, hauled before the authorities, severely beaten, thrown into a first-century prison, bloodied and in pain, publically humiliated and soundly defeated, their legs locked in irons… and then: “Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.”  How is that possible?  Who would be singing hymns to God in those circumstances?  I try to imagine myself in their place.  I wonder if this would have been my response. 

What is Paul’s secret?  What enables him to praise and thank God in the most difficult of circumstances?  From what deep place in his heart is he drawing this strength?  What enables him to sing and to worship in such trying conditions?

I’ve thought about this and here’s what I’ve come up with:  I think what we’re seeing here reveals Paul’s true identity.  Our identity, what we truly believe about ourselves, expresses itself in our words and actions.  And it seems clear to me that Paul’s sense of himself has nothing to do with accomplishments or achievements or success; it does not depend on any external factor.  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul acknowledges that there was a time when he was enamored by the marks of success.  He writes that at one time he had it all: he was from a reputable family, he had received a top-notch education from one of the leading educators of his time, he was passionate about his faith and lived it with a zeal that impressed both his peers and his elders, he was popular and acclaimed by all.  In short, he had it all. (Phil. 3:4-6)

Until he met Jesus.  And his life was changed completely.  From that moment on, all of the marks of status, all of his achievements, all the respect and admiration he had won, became as nothing to him.  “I wrote them all off as a loss for the sake of Christ,” he tells the Philippians.  “I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil. 3:7-9a)  From that moment on, Paul’s identity was hidden in Christ.  He recognized that he was no longer his own; that he had been bought with a price.

The great French monastic and martyr, Charles de Foucauld, once said, “As soon as I believed there was a God, I realized that I could do nothing else but live for him alone.”[i]  The same was true of Paul.

But can you see the freedom that this new identity gives him?  He no longer has to curry favor from the rich and powerful; he no longer has to please or impress; he no longer has to strive to be ‘successful’ in the eyes of others.  All this, he says, he counts as “refuse” – as “sewer trash” (as one translation puts it).  Now he is a new creation in Christ.  The old has passed away; all things have been made new.

Have you known this kind of freedom?  Freedom from the tyranny of having to achieve what the world measures as success?  The freedom of not having to be better or stronger or more attractive or more talented or wealthier or more popular in order to be counted as worthy?  This is the ‘glorious freedom’ of the children of God and it comes from knowing that we are unconditionally loved by God.  Always.  Paul knows this freedom.  He has cast aside the marks of worldly success and embraced the truth that he is a new creation in Christ.  All things have been make new.

Paul has one purpose for being in the world and that is to proclaim Christ.  He lives for this.  He writes to the Philippians from jail, and tells them that he is pleased to be in prison because the word is spreading, people are hearing about Jesus.  He has suffered countless hardships, but they have been nothing to him in comparison to the joy he has found in Jesus.  

“Who will separate us from Christ’s love?” he asks the Roman Christians, “Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” No, he says, “I am convinced that nothingcan separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord; not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” (Rom 8:35-39)

As a beloved child of God, Paul knows the perfect freedom of belonging to God: “You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear,” he reminds the Christians at Rome, “you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children… if we are children, we are also heirs.  We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ…” (Rom. 8:15-17) 

It is this knowledge – that he belongs to Christ and is unconditionally and forever loved by God – that gives him the boldness and courage to take the risks that he does.  He is like a tree with deep roots, roots that give him a stability and steadfastness that enable him to withstand all kinds of challenges, setbacks and disappointments without giving up or becoming discouraged.  He has an unshakeable faith that he is God’s, and this faith holds firm even in the storms and tempests of his life.

Perhaps this is why he can encourage the Christians at Philippi to “rejoice always,” as we see him and his companion rejoicing here in a first-century prison cell after having been beaten and abused.  “Rejoice always” – because you belong to God, because you are deeply and irrevocably loved by God, because there is nothing in all the world that can ever separate you from God, because you are God’s beloved child, a fellow heir with Christ of all that God is and possesses.

When you are facing life’s trials, when life seems to be an uphill battle, when you fear being overwhelmed by fear or worry or grief, recall this image of Paul and Silas, beaten and bloodied, locked in chains, singing and praising God!  This joy can be yours as well. This freedom belongs to you as a child of God.  Nothing can destroy it or take it away from you.  You are, and always will be, the beloved of God.

Send down your roots into this deep soil, so that when trouble comes, you can remain steadfast and unmovable, knowing that God always has the final word. And rejoice.  Always and everywhere.  No matter what circumstance you find yourself in.  Trust God’s power and love.  Easter is Love’s Victory over evil and death; all fear is washed away. You! – yes, you! – are a beloved child of God.

“See what love the Father has given us,” exclaims the author of First John, “that we should be called the children of God, and that is what we are!” (NRSV) Alleluia!

Note: Except where otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Common English Bible, ©2010. 


[i]Quoted by Jean-Francois Six in his book Witness in the Desert: The Life of Charles de Foucauld, MacMillan Press, 1965, p. 28.

Holding and Beholding Divinity – Lydia Simmons

Preached at Emery House

Lydia Simmons, former SSJE Monastic Intern

Luke 1:39-57

When the angel Gabriel visits Mary to tell her that she will bear the son of God, we hear in Luke’s gospel that she was “much perplexed by his words” and asks “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”. Immediately after the Annunciation, Mary travels to visit Elizabeth, who also responds to this visitation with a question: not “how”, but “why” – “why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”.  “Why me?”

Elizabeth is the wife of a priest, so she’s probably used to important visitors and even divine visitations in the household – just not to her. Six months ago, her husband Zechariah was chosen to offer incense in the sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem. As he was standing there, separated only by a veil from the presence of God in the Holy of Holies, he was visited by an angel, and he hasn’t been able to speak ever since.

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Up, Down, and All Around – Br. Keith Nelson

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Br. Keith Nelson

Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

Before I entered monastic life, I experienced the Ascension in both its scriptural telling and its liturgical observance a bit the same way I experienced a lay-over between flights. Why this seemingly unnecessary stop on the journey from Easter to Pentecost – and so close to our final destination? Jesus had risen. Why did he now need to go up still farther – to a Heaven I certainly believe in but did not (and do not) regard to be “up” at all?  In the monastery, where scripture rains from above and seeps up from below until it gets inside you, it was clear that the Ascension meant more – much, much more than I had assumed. But it still felt like an irritant – a grain of sand that might produce a pearl – one day. 

My relationship with the Ascension is now very different. I now delight to get off the Easter-to-Ascension plane, stretch my legs, and take in the breath-taking view before climbing aboard for the Ascension-to-Pentecost leg of the journey. I understand why lay-overs and way-stations are necessary on long journeys – and what they can do to shift the perspective of the traveler toward the terrain. I understand that “direct flights” in the spiritual life are available only to angels. I do not understand the Ascension, anymore than I can levitate – or fly. But I love the Ascension because I love the Ascended Christ and I sense now more than ever what his Ascension means for us here below. 

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Thank the Good Giver – Br. Sean Glenn

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Br. Sean Glenn

Job 38:1-11, 16-18
Luke 24:44-53

A world in need now summons us to labor, love, and give;
to make our life an offering to God that all may live;
the Church of Christ is calling us to make the dream come true:
a world redeemed by Christ-like love; all life in Christ made new.[1]

Rogationtide is upon us, dear friends: a little season within a season when the church traditionally remembers and prays for the good blessings of the earth, a fruitful harvest, and freedom from agricultural calamity. While the cycle of sowing and harvest leaves a less distinctive mark on our common life than it did in our more agricultural past, the church’s act of Rogation (from the Latin, Rogare, or “to ask”) still asks our attention and reflection. As we begin to feel the impending shifts in our global climate caused by two centuries of industrialization and consumerism, the church’s inherited awareness calls us to remember that, as we brothers pray at Compline, it is God’s “unfailing providence [that] sustains the world we live in and the life we live.”[2]This little handful of days in the church calendar is but one of the many reminders of our shared vocation as givers of thanks—thanks to God for the “wonderful works of creation,”[3]lest, like the wealthy landowner in this morning’s gospel, we mistake the gift for the giver and miss out on the living possibilities always before us.

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Where Does the Light Go? – Nicholas Bartoli

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Br. Nicholas Bartoli

Matthew 6.19–24

Years ago, I would often practice something called “authentic movement,” a kind of contemplative, movement-based exercise with similarities to Carl Jung’s active imagination. In authentic movement you typically have your eyes closed, cultivating an inner stillness of the heart from where you listen for subtle impulses and intuitions guiding spontaneous movement. There would also normally be an observer, whose role it was to witness your movement, and then together you would explore the experience.

I was introduced to the practice as part of a class taught by one of my instructors at the time, a woman with extensive skill and experience as a dance therapist, also trained as a psychological analyst. And I remember one class in particular when I was assigned the role of mover and she the witness.

Starting from a place of stillness, with my eyes closed, I very soon felt a kind of a pull toward what seemed like a source of light. I began reaching for it, orbiting it, losing track of it, then finding it again. In felt like a dance in which we sometimes made contact, and then the distinction between myself and the light would seem to blur. As the time of movement came to a close, I slowly opened my eyes, and found the instructor, my witness, gazing at me with an open, gentle expression.

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A Parting Gift – Br. David Vryhof

Br. David Vryhof

John 14:23-29

Parting from someone we love is never easy.  The lump in our throat, the tears welling up in our eyes, bear witness to the pain of separation.  Even when there is good cause for the separation, when our friend or family member is going off to do something very worthwhile, something we agree is right for them, we still find it hard to say good-bye.  We know that there will be an empty space in our hearts and in our lives that will not be easy to fill.

Imagine the emotion with which the words of our gospel lesson were spoken.  Jesus, gathered with his closest friends, tells them that he will soon be separated from them.  “I am going away,” he says, “I am going to the Father…”  He has loved each one of them; they have left all to follow him. And now they face together the end towards which this path is leading them.  As he has said to them, he is about to be betrayed and handed over to his enemies, and put to death.  Imagine their anguish!  How will they carry on without him?  What has this time with him meant if it is to end this way?  How will they fill the terrible void that his leaving will cause? They are filled with anxiety and fear– for him, for themselves, for all who have believed in him.

Jesus sees the fear in their eyes.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he tells them, “and do not let them be afraid.” “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”  Do not be afraid.  I am leaving you to return to the Father, but you will not be abandoned, you will not be left alone.  One who is called “the Advocate” is coming, the “Comforter,” the Holy Spirit – the One who will teach you everything you need to know, the One who will remind you of all that I have said to you and who will guide you into all truth.

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