One day back in October 2003, I started exploring the “links” section of the website for the church I was then attending, and I found there a list of monastic communities’ sites. I already knew that there were monastic communities, but for some reason, on this day, the fact that they had websites intrigued me. I wondered, “What the heck do they put on them?” So I started clicking through – the Franciscans, the Benedictines – and, you know, there weren’t really any surprises; it was just monks and nuns. But the last website I visited was SSJE’s. And it had this line on the front page: “We’re men living traditional vows in a non-traditional setting of Harvard Square. We’re learning to pray our lives.” And for some reason that is what struck me: Tradition in a non-traditional place and praying our lives.
In his Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius of Loyola asks us to imagine a charismatic leader whom we admire and whose life and mission have been an inspiration to us. Think for a moment of who this person might be for you. Whom do you admire? Who has inspired you?… You believe in this person’s values and priorities. You admire his/her integrity. You are convinced that the cause he/she represents is so true, so important, so worthy, that you are ready to offer your full support.
There are times in the gospels when it seems like Jesus is his own worst enemy. Here he returns to his hometown, where he gets a warm reception – initially. The gospel writer reports that “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (v.22). Then, suddenly, he seems to turn on the crowd, blasting them with words they find completely offensive, and the next thing we know, we’re reading that “all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff!” (v.28-29). How does he go from ‘warm reception’ to ‘angry mob’ in the span of a few minutes? And why?
When did you first begin to have a sense of your vocation?
Even as a little kid, I somehow or other knew that I wanted to be a priest. I used to have a very dark blue wool dressing gown, which I would wear backwards as I wandered around the house pretending to be Mr. Pasterfield, the rector of our parish. I couldn’t have been more than maybe six or seven years old. I remember saying to my mum, down in the laundry room, “When I grow up I want to be like Mr. Pasterfield.” So, from childhood, I always felt attracted to the priesthood, and that attraction never really went away.
My awareness of the religious life came a bit later. While I knew that there were nuns in the Anglican Church – in fact I’d been taught nursery school by a sister of the Sisterhood of Saint John the Divine (SSJD) – it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned that there are monks in the Church as well. I learned that through an advertisement in our church newspaper for a summer vocations program at SSJE’s Mission House in Bracebridge. Though I ended up not being able to attend that program, I finally made it to Bracebridge for a reading week when I was at university. During that initial visit, I was really drawn by the silence, the prayer, and the worship. I came away from that first experience thinking, “I could do this.”
When I think of the early martyrs I often think of Tertullian’s words, “The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church.” (Apologeticus Ch. 50) That simple sentence contains the answer to many questions about the martyrs’ willingness to face death.
Ignatius of Antioch was one of those martyrs, a century earlier than Tertullian.
Jesus’ responses to those who said they would follow him that we heard in today’s Gospel have sometimes made me uncomfortable. They can seem abrupt or off-putting. We usually think of Jesus speaking to people with compassion.
Profession In Initial Vows – Luke Ditewig, SSJE
Today is a day which we have been hoping for, and praying for, for a very long time. A day of rejoicing. Our dear brother Luke is to make the vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience, as a professed brother of our community.
And what a wonderful day, Trinity Sunday, for this profession! First, because, Luke, you grew up and for many years were formed in the Christian faith by the community of your home parish, Trinity Presbyterian, Santa Ana, California. Secondly, our understanding as brothers, of what Christian community is all about, is profoundly rooted and grounded in the very nature of God, the Holy Trinity.
My earliest memories are of the church. When I was about eight, I said to my parents that I wanted to be a priest. I was something of the odd one out in my family, and the church was the one place where I felt really appreciated. My father was very influential with me. Of course, football was also important to him, but I wasn’t interested in football; and business was important to him, but I wasn’t interested in that. So, the church felt like the one place that was right for me where I could connect with my father – and that proved to be true. As I was growing up, monks and nuns were never foreign to me. We lived about thirty miles from an Episcopal Benedictine community. My father, who worked in shoe manufacturing, used to give them all their shoes. They were guests in our house a lot, and we would go over to the Abbey. When I was ateenager, I started to go there periodi-cally on retreat. My mother and all my aunts on both sides of the family were educated by Episcopal nuns. So the whole language of monasticism was there throughout my childhood. It was in my DNA.
Q: When did this familiarity develop into a personal feeling of call?
When I was in seminary I began to feel attracted to the religious life. I had a professor who really encouraged me to pray and, with that, I started to become intrigued. Before then, I had basi¬cally thought that monks were losersprobably because they make this very counter-cultural decision to reject what we are always taught to value: They don’t get married, they don’t care about making money or climbing the ladder to success. When I was a child that differ¬ence seemed off-putting, but over time it became intriguing to me. In seminary there were several of us who became intrigued about living a common life, a simple life – not forever, but for a while. I suppose, in some ways, we also wanted to prolong seminary. So we talked a bishop into letting us share a house and salaries, and to be respon¬sible for five churches. By the end of the final year in seminary, I was basically the only one left: Somebody had gotten a good fellowship; somebody had gotten married; and, actually, somebody had decided to become a monk. I didn’t want to do this alone, so I went off to England, where I’d heard there was a house like the one we’d intended to start. In England, I lived for two years in a clergy house, where four of us shared one and a half salaries. We were parish priests who prayed together four times a day and shared meals. We took yearly promises to live a simple life. It was re¬ally wonderful training. Finally, I decided that it was time to come home. During the next two years, as assistant rector of a parish in the inner city in Milwaukee, I started to under¬standunder¬stand that I probably had a vocation to a more traditional kind of religious life. I started looking around. I knew all the religious communities in the United States except the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, which I knew of only from England, but I wasn’t ready to make a commitment to any of those communi¬ties. My spiritual director said to me, “You should do what people always do when they can’t decide what to do with the rest of their lives – apply to graduate school.” So I did. I went off to Catholic University that fall to do a Masters in Liturgical Theology. While I was there, I came up to Cambridge to visit the Monastery because SSJE was the one religious order that I hadn’t visited.
Q: How was that first visit to SSJE?
I walked in the door and, before I’d even talked to anybody, I said to myself – “This is it.” Later on, I had a conversation with Paul Wessinger, who was the Superior at the time. I told him, “I’m coming in the fall.” I think he was a little surprised at how forthright I was. He said, “Well we should probably get some references for you.” So I gave him some references. And then he said, “It would probably be a good idea if you came back again for another visit.” So I came back for a week to visit. Then I came back the following fall as a novice. I’ve been here ever since. As I look back on it now, I think I came here because I was looking for two things that were quite positive: I wanted to be able to pray more, to really learn how to pray. That desire was quite genu¬ine, I think, and of God. And secondly, while I liked parish life well enough, I wanted a much more intense experience of community. If those desires were positive and of God, I think there were also some that pushed me here that weren’t so great. Even as a little boy, when my grandfa¬ther, uncle, and father – who were all in business together – would sit together on Sunday afternoons before the family meal, having a drink and talking about business and making money, I knew that that was not a world I wanted to enter. Certain issues around money and relationships certainly influenced my curiosity about the religious life. I don’t think those issues are entirely gone, but I think they’re in the process of going on their way. And they helped to bring me here.
Q: How would you describe what happened in that moment when you walked through the door for the first time?
Grace. I’ve had a few other instances like that in my life, where it’s been clear to me – to my core – that I am supposed to do this thing. It’s grace. That’s the only way I can describe it. My experi¬ence wasn’t mediated by anything or anyone; it was just the experience of standing for the first time in that front hall and suddenly saying to myself, “Well, this is it.” I think that when you’re in the place you’re called to be, you know. Something in you just clicks. It clicks and makes sense. Standing there in the front hall, this made sense to me. It’s funny, because, once I got here, I didn’t really have the luxury of discern¬ing a vocation the way some people do, because I was given so much responsi¬bility almost from the very beginning. I was the Novice Guardian almost immediately after I made my first vows. And I was elected Superior the year after I made my life profession. So I didn’t have a lot of time to think about wheth¬er or not this was my vocation until after I finished being Superior. With all that was happening, I just didn’t question my vocation very much. There were certainly times when I was unhappy, times when I wanted to leave. There may even have been times when I threatened to leave. But I don’t think I ever questioned that this is what God wants me to do, that I am where God wants me to be.
Q: What’s the most rewarding thing about accepting that call?
Self-awareness. The self-awareness that comes from a life of prayer and from liv¬ing in community. It’s not about being a bishop; it’s not about being a priest; it’s not, ultimately, even about being a monk. It’s about the gift of self-aware¬ness. I never thought my life would be this wonderful
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, the eternal Word by whom all things were created, to become flesh and live among us. In all the signs that he did and the teaching that he gave, he made known to us the grace and truth of the eternal Father. When his hour came the Son consummated his obedience to the Father, and expressed his love for us to the uttermost, by offering himself on the cross. He was lifted up from the earth in his crucifixion and resurrection from the dead in order to draw all people to himself.
We whom God calls into this Society have been drawn into union with Christ by the power of his cross and resurrection; we have been reborn in him by water and the Spirit. God chooses us from varied places and backgrounds to become a company of friends, spending our whole life abiding in him and giving ourselves up to the attraction of his glory. Our community was called into being by God so that we may be entirely consecrated to him and through our common experience of the glory of the Father and the Son begin to attain even now the unity that God desires for all humankind. “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Our mission is inseparable from our call to live in union with God in prayer, worship and mutual love. Christ breathes his Spirit into us to be the one source of our own conversion and of our witness and mission to others; “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” We are sent to be servants of God’s children and ministers of the reconciliation which the Lamb of God has accomplished. Our own unity is given to be a sign that will draw others to have faith in him. Christ has entrusted to us the same word that the Father gave to him, so that those who hear it from our lips and perceive it in our lives may receive the light and through believing have life in his name.
By giving us the grace and courage to make lifelong vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience in an enduring fellowship, God makes us a sign of his eternal faithfulness. A community of men who pledge to stay together until death is a powerful sign to the world of the grace that enables those who love Christ to abide until he comes.
The divine Wind that blows where it chooses has not restricted our Society to a few ministries. Varied gifts within our brotherhood bear witness to the living power of Christ and extend his salvation. Though our gifts differ we share one call to be consecrated in truth, through the power of God’s word and the grace renewed by feeding on Christ and drinking his life-blood in the Eucharist. As a sign of our identity God gives us all an affinity with the witness of the beloved disciple embodied in the Gospel of John. We bear the name of St John the Evangelist to show the Church what is the source of our inspiration and our joy.
Br. Geoffrey Tristram takes us to the roots of Christian monasticism, to the Desert Abbas and Ammas, to share the words of life these holy men and women left behind. He finds in their uncompromising witness an invitation from God to us all, to be still, silent, and open to the discerning, penetrating gaze of the Almighty.
This sermon is available only in audio format.