Following the death of our beloved Brother David Allen last summer, I became the senior member of our brotherhood – both in years of age and in years in the Society. My Brother Superior James Koester dubbed me the “Brother of collective memory.”
Over the thirty-seven years that I have been in the Society, I’ve come to see how entirely our particular monastic vocation – vowed love, community life, and service – is rooted in the baptismal vocation shared by all Christians. Perhaps this is one reason why so many people are able to find transformative wisdom in our monastic Rule of Life. We created this text to shape, inform, and inspire our community quite specifically. Yet by God’s grace, its reach has proved far more expansive. Over and over again, we hear how others have found illumination for their lives in the same forty-nine chapters that shape ours.
In this spirit, I’d like to offer here a collection of some of the teachings from our Rule of Life which have most struck and stayed with me over decades of living and learning with this text. Of all its many topics, the Rule is particularly rich in its teachings navigating the challenges and rewards of life in community. These teachings point the way ahead for all of us who are trying to live together in recognition of the fact that we are bound to one another by Christ’s loving authority.
“A great deal of our politics, our ecclesiastical life, often our personal life as well, is dominated by the assumption that everything would be all right, if only some people would go away.” – Rowan Williams, The Way of Benedict
Of course, other people are not going to “go away”! But there has been, throughout history, this continual assumption, at least in politics, that if you gain enough power, you can effectively make these other people whom you dislike or fear, disappear, through systematically disempowering them, disenfranchising them, or at the most extreme, ethnically cleansing them. For the Christian, all such attempts to make other people “go away,” are essentially sinful and a gross abuse of power. For the Christian, every single person is a beloved child of God “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). For the Christian, power and authority are given to us by God in trust, for the building of God’s Kingdom on earth. In God’s Kingdom everyone is important, because our faith teaches us to see the face of Jesus in the face of every person, however unlike me they are. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
I stood patiently by the door, waiting to be told where to sit. I saw all my Brothers take what I thought was their designated seat. It was my first time at “rounds” (what we Brothers call our daily morning meeting: that time where all the Brothers are in the same room at the same time to talk over the day’s business face-to-face).
I kept waiting to be told where to sit. I felt like a stray dog who had just been adopted days before, trying to figure out the ways of the household, not wanting to cause a stir, just looking to obey. Eventually I realized no one was going to tell me where to sit, and so I just sat down in an empty chair. I kept waiting for one of my elder Brothers to look at me and explain kindly but firmly that I was sitting in a chair that another Brother had been sitting in for longer than I had been alive. Luckily that never happened.
I went through thousands of moments like that in my early days as a Postulant: long moments of waiting for someone with authority to swoop in and tell me exactly what to do. It took me a long time to realize that was not the way authority was exercised at SSJE. Those in power were not going to tell me where to sit. Instead, those in authority were focused on having a productive morning meeting and getting through the day. This was a big difference from the days back when Novices had their mail read.
One of the things which surprised me when I became the Superior in our community was my relationship to the vow of Obedience. At our Profession, we promise “to Almighty God, and to you my brother, the Superior of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, and to your successors in this office, that I will live in the life-long observance of Poverty, Celibacy, and Obedience, according to the Rule of this Society.”
As we know, the English word “obedience” comes from the same Latin word as “audio,” so that in the monastic tradition, obedience is primarily about listening. At times we are called to “be attentive to the voice of the Spirit within our hearts.” On other occasions we are challenged by obedience to “let go of attachment to our individual preferences and [learn] to trust in the wisdom of the community.” As a Brother in the community, it was my experience that there was one Superior. Now as Superior, I find that I am constantly challenged to listen to the wisdom of the community. In doing so, I find that, as Superior, I have twelve superiors.
This relationship between power, authority, and obedience is difficult to keep in balance. We know what happens when the authority of some comes at the cost of disempowering others. We know too the terrible tragedy that occurs “when in the name of obedience human beings have gladly abdicated responsibility and taken refuge in passivity and conformity.”
It is not an accident that this issue of Cowley is devoted to these connected dynamics of power, authority, and obedience. Nor do I believe that it is an accident that, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, these issues have been thrust onto center stage. As the pandemic has unmasked many inequalities in society, we have seen and experienced what happens when the balance between power and empowerment, authority and authoritarianism, obedience and listening have resulted in division and dominance rather than reconciliation and cooperation.
It is our hope that these reflections, rooted in our monastic tradition of obedience, will help in some small way as we practice the art of listening to one another deeply, and with open hearts and minds.
That kind of deep listening is not, I assure you, simply empty monastic talk. It is something we Brothers are engaging in currently as we attempt to navigate how best to consider re-opening the Chapel and the Guesthouse. Trying to balance the hopes, needs, and concerns of guests, members of our congregations, staff, and Brothers is not an easy thing. As we are discovering, every decision delights and relieves some, and concerns others. Nor are we trying to address concerns about health and safety issues without abdicating responsibility or giving way to fear. As we carry on these conversations about re-opening, I know we can count on your patience. We ask for your prayers for wisdom.
I cannot conclude this letter to you without once again expressing our gratitude to each of you for your abiding care, support, friendship, and prayers over these past challenging months. They have been sources of strength, grace, and hope to each of us, and especially to me. We Brothers are enormously thankful for the gift of your friendship.
Please know that just as you pray for us, we pray for you.
Faithfully in Christ,
James Koester, SSJE
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. Whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.
As a monk I cannot deny Paul’s wisdom. Within the dance of a monastic community, the challenges of obedience to one’s superiors come with many unexpected and needful graces. Much of life in community is spent learning to receive the gifts at hand when we do not get our way. But we do not all live within the precincts of a vowed community, and too frequently have these words of Paul been used to lend and air of divine approval to otherwise illegitimate and abusive forms of state power. Colonialism, chattel slavery, the convulsions of the twentieth century, and bold abuses of contemporary leadership, all accompanied by cries of human beings battered at the hands of nations, ring out a warning: be careful not to mistake coercive power for God’s power. For it is Christ—not a Caesar, or an empire, or a nation—who is the Lord of History.
While civil authority’s claim to coercive power rests on an aspiration to do justice and preserve order, this same authority is always liable to abuse and malformation. Civil authorities do not in fact always punish evil behavior and reward good. Sometimes, with great boldness, civil authority actively rewards evil and punishes good. And so a superficial reading of this text will at best leave us sadly distant from a vengeful and coercive God, and at worst lend license to unspeakable crimes.
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Some years ago I had the privilege of taking a course with Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian who was then on the faculty of the Divinity School at Duke University. Dr. Hauerwas, the son of a bricklayer, was a straight-shooting, no-nonsense kind of guy who believed that living as true disciples of Jesus in the world would necessarily put us in conflict with the culture in which we live. I remember being surprised to hear him say that participating in the Eucharist was one of the most radical actions any Christian could undertake. Tonight we will understand why this is true.
Tonight we watch in wonder as the only-begotten Son of God, the Eternal Word who was “in the beginning with God” and through whom “all things came into being” (Jn 1:1-3), stoops to wash the dirty feet of his disciples. Tonight we behold the Incarnate Son of God, the “King of kings” and the “Lord of lords,” tying a towel around himself, pouring water into a basin, and assuming the role of a servant. The King kneels before his subjects; the Master washes the feet of his disciples.