I Peter 2: 4-10
For several years, each September, I had the delight of meeting a group of Harvard first-year students enrolled in an introductory Humanities course. Somewhere between reading Plato, the Gospel of Matthew, and St. Augustine, their professor shepherded them over to the monastery for a field trip. Another Brother and I greeted them in our antechapel and we’d begin with an exercise: I opened the gates of the choir grille and invited them to wander wherever they liked for fifteen minutes in silence. I encouraged them to look, listen, smell, and touch – to let their senses lead the way. After being assailed with words and information in their first few weeks of college, they welcomed this task, letting fingertips play across the rough-hewn stones of our chapel walls or lying down on the cool marble floor. When we sat down to speak about their experience, their faces often radiated calm. One young woman exclaimed, “The stones seem almost alive! I could almost hear them speaking.” I asked, “What did you almost hear them say?” She thought for a moment, and said: “Be still – you can rest here.”
“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals, yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.”[i]The author of the First Letter of Peter takes up the image of a cornerstone and interprets it afresh in relation to Jesus, our Rock and our Refuge. The cornerstone – often inscribed with a date and ritually blessed – is the first stone to be laid in a foundation. It is the stone which orients the building geographically and orients the builders in their labor. The reference is to Isaiah’s chapter 28, where we read: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: ‘One who trusts will not panic.’[ii]The stability of a tested cornerstone will bear the weight of countless others. As they take their places, they participate in its fundamental strength. Jesus, the Head of the Corner, speaks to us as the stones of our chapel spoke to that young woman: “Be still: you can rest here.” He invites us, in the words of Mary Oliver, “to take our place in the family of things.”[iii]
Hebrews 12: 1 – 4
Psalm 22: 22 – 30
Mark 5: 21 – 43
It’s been quite a week. It’s been quite a week and, no doubt there is more to come. We have seen protests, demonstrations, and acts of witness, support and solidarity. We have seen millions in this country and around the world on the streets, in airports, in front of hotels all voicing their concern, their objections, and their resistance. It’s been quite a week, and there promises to be more to come. It seems that there is a new normal taking root, not just in this country, but around the world. My hunch, and it’s only a hunch, is that what we have seen in the past week, is what the next four years will be like, so we had all better get used to it.
For us a Christians as we watch the news, read the newspapers, talk with our friends and neighbours the questions at times like these is always: “should the Church be involved? Should the Church ever be involved?” There are those among us who would argue that the Church should stay out of politics; that the Church should never take a stand on this issue or that; that the Church must limit itself to the spiritual realm and leave the temporal realm alone. There are those who would argue that Jesus was not political; that he came to establish a heavenly kingdom and not an earthly one; that he opposed the mixing of the things of God with the things of Caesar, and so should we.
I don’t know if today’s readings from Acts and the Fourth Gospel were in the minds of Thomas Cranmer and the other compilers of the First Prayer Book in 1549; but the sentiments expressed in those readings must certainly have been in their thinking—devotion to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship; the breaking of bread and the prayers—worship in spirit and truth.
If you are anything like me, and I have been around long enough to know that none of you are like me; but I have also been around long enough to know that you are all like me. You all have your own interior cycles of feasts and fasts. Sometimes this interior cycle is connected to the calendar. Sometimes it is even connected to the liturgical cycle of the church. But sometimes it is connected to your gut. You find yourself thinking or feeling or pondering something and you don’t know why or where it has come from and then, days or weeks later you understand. Right, you think. That’s where it is coming from.
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.
We all know what a significant contribution is made to the total life of the Church by women. But, very little emphasis has been given to the significance of the contribution that women made to the life of the early Church, although it must be obvious to anyone paying attention to the reading of the Epistles and Gospels of the New Testament that women have been very much involved in the life of the Church from the very beginning. To my knowledge it is only within the past 50 years or so that women have been elected or appointed to major roles in the Episcopal Church.
1 Sam. 3: 1-20; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Cor. 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
This is surely one of Jesus’ more obscure sayings. “Very truly I tell you,” he says to Nathanael, “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” The reference is to Jacob’s dream in Genesis when he sees angels on a ladder ascending to and descending from heaven. But what can it possibly mean? We need to do a little detective work.
So, why not start in Paris? I’m not a regular in Paris, but have managed to get there three or four times. On one visit way back when I happened to go into a book store—an old-fashioned book store (remember book stores?). Very high ceilings with shelves all the way to the top, ladders to get up there. The overflow in stacks on tables, even on the wood plank floor. The fragrance of old leather bindings in the air. It happened to be a Left Bank version of what we would call a “New Age” bookstore: all the world religions, and then some. Theosophy, Anthroposophy, astrology and numerology and the occult, etc. etc.–all the more exotic for being in French. There in the Christian section of the store a little book jumped out at me (have you ever had books jump out at you?) “Le Symbolisme du Temple Chrétien”. The symbolism of the Christian temple. By someone named Jean Hani. I bought and read it.
Dr. Charles Connick believed that stained glass is “the handmaiden of architecture.” Quite. We experience in this monastery chapel the extraordinary synergy of two devoted friends, who both were artisans and spiritual seekers: Ralph Adams Cram, the architect, and Charles J. Connick, the glassman. You have to be prepared to take it all in. As a visitor, you don’t simply walk into this monastery chapel from Memorial Drive.
First you must ascend, you must climb the steps. Most of the cadence of monastic prayer is based on the Psalms, which are chanted in this monastery chapel from early morning, before the dawn, until the completion of the night before we sleep. Many of the Psalms are Psalms of Ascent: about lifting one’s step, lifting one’s heart, lifting one’s hands, lifting one’s eyes to the holy place where God dwells. You must reenact that posture of ascent to enter this chapel as you necessarily ascend the steps, but then you must do one more thing. You cannot enter the chapel full stride. As you will know, at the top of the steps, you are forced to turn before you enter the rear door of the chapel, the antechapel. That turning is an experience of conversion. The word “conversion,” as the word appears in the New Testament Greek, means just that: “to turn,” to turn in a new direction in response to God. To enter this chapel you willingly ascend, and then you must change course – an act of conversion – before you cross over a threshold.
Today is the Eve of the Feast Day of St. Mary, mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. This monastic church is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and tomorrow, August 15, is the 75th anniversary of that dedication. So a great cause for thanksgiving.
You may not have ever looked behind the organ, but there, on the wall, is a very large and splendid plaque with these words: “To the glory of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In veneration of our Lady St. Mary the Blessed Mother of God, this conventual church of the Society of St. John the Evangelist was built in the year of Our Lord, 1936.”
In England, there are so many churches dedicated to Mary, and in the Middle Ages, England was known as “Mary’s dowry.” I was ordained priest in the Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin in Salisbury, and before coming to America, I was rector of the church of St. Mary the Virgin in Welwyn, Hertfordshire. And so in my own Christian pilgrimage it seems providential to me that the church, in which so much of my life is now spent, is also dedicated to Mary.