Chaos Better - GROWTH

... tries to sit with what is hard: those places where we are struggling, whether on a personal, interpersonal, or global level. It recognizes and offers ways to navigate the very real chaos within us, between us, and around us – and it asks how the very chaos that challenges us can become the place for our most profound growth.

2024 Summer Cowley_Cover

Cover image: A fallen tree becomes a circle of seats, welcoming guests and Brothers into fellowship around a make-shift altar. When we embrace the chances and changes of life, in all their chaos and complexity, we can find the Holy One in our midst.

A Word of Welcome

To be alive in this planetary moment is to be subject, on a daily basis, to grinding and relentless pressures. Some are tied to historic shifts of such magnitude that we feel helpless to effect change. Some confront us hourly with reminders of the fragility and complexity of living in our own skin.

But in reading my Brothers’ words in this issue of Cowley, I am reminded of the ways that firm (even painful) pressure can also form, reform, mend, and heal. The firm pressure of the potter squeezes, compresses, and hollows. In massage, physical therapy, and other healing arts, the practitioner finds her way to the source of the patient’s ailment by pressing, pushing, and prodding the places that hurt most. Certain kinds of pressure applied consistently, lovingly, over time, change us for the good.    

This is the role of pressure in the spiritual life. The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wrote: “We are pressured from within to become more. The Spirit invites us to evolve; to respond graciously to the changes that God may be inviting us to embrace.”

In this vision, the Spirit is intimately present to who and what we are in this moment. At the same time, the Spirit exerts a dynamic force – a pressure – urging each creature forward into God’s future, a further unfolding of its purpose. Unlike the day-to-day economic or social pressures that bear down upon us from the world, or even the internal pressures of our own psyche, the pressure exerted upon us by the Holy Spirit is always creative, generative, and life-giving beyond what we can anticipate or imagine.

St. Gregory of Nyssa, a bishop and theologian of the fourth century, was captivated by the question of what drives this forward momentum in the spiritual life. Gregory uses the word progress, epektasis in Greek, in a very particular way. He takes his cue from Phillipians: “I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” For Gregory, this “straining forward” is our dynamic response to the Spirit’s pressure from within.

Gregory’s vision didn’t stop with earthly life. He envisioned an eternity in which the soul will always keep searching for greater fulfillment of its desire. Beyond the restless dissatisfaction that often propels our earthly desires, the soul’s desire under the Spirit’s creative pressure is transformed. At each new moment that it grasps its desire, the soul discovers its desire has expanded to let in a further vista of God’s breathtaking beauty. Our capacity to evolve – to respond to the invitation to change – becomes as infinite as the goodness, truth, and beauty of God are infinite.

We are pressured from within to become more – but we need not become perfect. The unfolding of our purpose is never final. God wants more and more of us, and in God’s time the Spirit bestows more and more of us to offer in return. Perhaps this is the heart of how our true growth unfolds: not in spite of the chaos around us, but in and through its seeming maelstrom. We stay put, we dig down, we turn back again and again to the broken place, and to the dream of something more that one day sprouts there. It seems as sudden as Christ slipping from the tomb when its green shoot shocks our vision. But it was growing inside us from the beginning. The chaos was fertilizer.


Keith Nelson, SSJE
Deputy Superior

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Note from the Series Editor
Br. Lucas Hall

You’ve seen arches. Strong- built structures of support, ingenious ancient developments of architecture and engineering, classic, enduring, open. But the working principle of an arch isn’t as still as it appears. Each stone comprising the curve of the arch is wedged against its fellow stones, exerting pressure down from gravity and out toward its neighbors. There’s tension, there’s friction, there’s force. The archway, the building, the order, isn’t a static accomplishment of the past; it’s happening now. Real pressure and strain aren’t impediments to the strength of the arch, they’re necessary components.

This issue of Cowley is arranged around the idea that, as chaos unfolds, as we find ourselves in the midst of difficulty, we are pushed into action, some sort of response. Maybe it’s small, maybe it’s revolutionary, but as we encounter disorder, as we feel embattled by concerns around us, that very difficulty is the material out of which we build something new, something sturdy and lasting. Brothers in this issue have written in various ways, not on how they’ve achieved perfect, uneventful calm, but of how they’ve built, and you may build, new order, structure, meaning, and growth out of the struggles of life. As you read and pray with us in this issue, I encourage you to reflect on your own struggles, not as failings or obstacles, but as the resources God has given you to grow and to build something new.

Click the image below to read the print version of this issue of Cowley Magazine

Additional Pieces

A Word with the FSJ: Fasting for Peace in Gaza

The brothers of SSJE pray regularly for the cessation of war, the safe return of captives, and just and lasting peace for the Holy Land. We spoke with Christian Calawa, a regular worshiper at the monastery, about a recent experience of prayer and fasting for peace in Gaza that he helped organize.

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The Rest of My Life: An Interview about Vocation

On the other side of his Profession in Life Vows, Br. Lucas Hall reflects on what it’s like to know you have your whole life ahead of you.

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Formation in Practice

We hope that in reflecting on the growth that can come from chaos, you will find it meaningful to share in discussion of these questions with others.

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Images from this issue

Explore the first issue of this series: Chaos Better: STRIFE

... tries to sit with what is hard: those places where we are struggling, whether on a personal, interpersonal, or global level. It recognizes and offers ways to navigate the very real chaos within us, between us, and around us – from reckoning with America’s racial past, to dealing with community conflict, from asking questions of theodicy in light of global violence, to wrestling with mental illness.

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