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.
Twenty years ago Carl McCunn, a wildlife photographer, travelled into the remote heart of Alaska, intent on spending several months close to nature, hunting and fending for himself. But he miscalculated. He ran out of food, and the weather turned exceptionally bad. He became weaker and weaker, and recorded every day in his diary his growing despair and crippling frostbite.
But friends, who were wondering how he was managing, asked State Troopers to fly over his camp to see if he was OK. Carl ran out, full of excitement, when he heard the plane, and he wrote in his diary that he was so elated to see the plane that “I recall raising my hand, shoulder high, and shaking my fist – it was like a little cheer.” That was a big mistake – for that was the signal for “All OK – do not wait” – and the plane circled around, the pilot waved and flew off, thinking all was well. Carl had given the wrong signal. Three months later he was dead.
There is something haunting in this story. For me, it is a metaphor of life lived in isolation, where your signal of distress is either not noticed or misunderstood. A friend of mine who is a doctor said that isolation is probably the most common disease in America today. So many family units are fractured and more people live alone today than ever before in American history. The lack of interpersonal relationships causes severe loneliness to millions. Please look at me. Talk to me.
As I was praying over today’s Scriptures, one line in particular from St. John’s Gospel stood out for me: “Jesus said, ‘anyone who comes to me I will never drive away’.” And that for me is an apt way of describing John’s remarkable ministry. Like his Lord he would never ignore or turn away from someone in need, however desperate their lives had become.
The first time I met John was thirteen years ago, when I first visited the monastery. He was walking slowly towards Harvard Square in his own rather distinct habit: those blue denim farmers’ overalls! When I introduced myself, his whole face lit up with that wonderful smile – which has given hope and encouragement to so many over the years.
Today we remember St. John Chrysostom, the 5th century Bishop of Constantinople. John Chrysostom, John “golden mouth” was celebrated for his eloquent preaching. So, with a tip of the hat and a salute to the preacher, I’ll preach on one of the texts appointed for today, from the prophet Jeremiah:
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.”[Jer. 1:6-7]
Luke 5: 1–11
This evening I am so full of thanksgiving that after more than a year we brothers are able to welcome you back to our Tuesday evening Eucharist. It is so appropriate that our Gospel today is all about vocation: about how God calls us to life.
The monastery is here because in 1866 Richard Meux Benson, Charles Grafton, and Simeon Wilberforce O’Neil answered God’s call and founded the Society of St John the Evangelist. We are all here tonight because in different ways we too have heard the call of God in our own lives and have said yes.
“They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and the woman hid themselves from God. But the Lord called to the man, and said, ‘Where are you’?” (Gen 3:8-9)
Those words, “Where are you?” send a shiver through me. They express in just three words something of the terrible existential loneliness, the alienation of life lived cut off from God. These words perhaps also express something of the pain and sadness of God when he loses his children, when they break their relationship with him. God’s plaintive cry ‘where are you’ is his heart-broken response to what Milton in Paradise Lost calls “man’s first disobedience.”
But there are three other words which are spoken time after time throughout Scripture. And these words, coursing through Scripture like a drum beat, are full of hope, full of promise for the mending of our relationship with God, and of the return of prodigal humanity to the loving heart of God. These three words are words of faithfulness and obedience, words which will allow God to redeem that which was lost, and bring all of humanity back into relationship with him. These three words are “Here am I.” If “Where are you?” are the most tragic words in Scripture, then “Here am I” are the most hopeful.
One of the happiest times of my life was the five years I spent as a teacher in a large Anglican high school in England. It was wonderful to be able to help young men and women grow and mature into adulthood. One of the greatest challenges though was not the children but their parents! It was a very academic school, and some children were put under an awful lot of pressure to perform by parents who made a tremendous fuss if their child dropped a grade. It could have a really crippling effect on a child to have every piece of work examined forensically by a judgmental parent. And a child could begin to feel that her parents’ love was dependant on how well she performed at school.
In our Gospel reading today (Matt. 5:38-48) there is a sentence which sounds horribly like some of those demanding parents: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:48)
“Be perfect? How can I be perfect?”
Four times a day when I was at seminary in England we were called to chapel by the sound of a bell. And on that bell were inscribed, in Greek, the words “faithful is he who calls.” (1 Th 5:24) Faithful is he who calls. And our readings today on this second Sunday of Epiphany are all about being called.
In Isaiah we read, “The Lord called me before I was born. While I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” Called into being – and named. That is what God has been doing from the beginning of Genesis, where he called the creation into being and then named it. “God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night.”
Each one of us were called into being by God – and given a name to show that we have a unique and special vocation. “The Lord called me before I was born. While I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” We are not just anybody – not just a number, a statistic.
We are each unique. We are, each of us, as the Psalmist puts it, “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Ps 139:14)