It was about 5:15 in the morning, and I was in the shower. There was shampoo in my hair, and my eyes were closed. I was busy imagining an argument with a Brother, which probably wouldn’t even happen.
The argument was over dried fruit. You see, I had been getting the impression that a particular Brother of mine didn’t think I was replacing the dried fruit often enough. (This all happened back when I was a postulant, and my job was to be the pantry monitor. One task of being the pantry monitor was making sure our supply of dried fruit in the pantry never ran out.)
Now, this particular Brother, in my experience, was the biggest consumer of dried fruit in the whole Monastery. One day, that Brother walked over to a piece of paper we kept clipped to a cupboard in the pantry. That piece of paper had a list of tasks the pantry monitor was supposed to do. I noticed my Brother giving the list a long look, then looking at me, then looking back at the list. Finally, he walked over to me and said that refilling the dried fruit was on the list of tasks for the pantry monitor. Then he walked away. It was a simple enough exchange.
And yet, there I was the next morning in the shower, unable to stop thinking about what I should have said to him or what I would say if he mentioned something about the dried fruit again. I can’t remember how long this went on or how it resolved, but here I am, about five years later, and I still remember that moment.
There is no denying the fact that life in a community can be tough. Back when I was an inquirer, it seemed like every single Brother warned me about the difficulties of life in community. Of course, I believed them, but there’s a massive difference between hearing about something and actually experiencing it firsthand. Try to imagine thirteen men of all different ages and backgrounds living together in one large house. They all share their meals together, run a church collectively, operate a non-profit business as a team, and sleep in bedrooms the size of walk-in closets. Most of these men have committed to doing this for the rest of their lives. This may sound like heaven, hell, or purgatory to you. I would say it’s a little bit of all three!
Life in a community can be challenging, but it is also incredibly rewarding. Living at SSJE with my Brothers has been one of the most profound experiences of my life. In particular, life in community has taught me the value of conflict and how it is an unavoidable yet potentially meaningful and transformative aspect of life.
In all our various roles and time together, inevitably we will grate against one another. We are spending so much time together and making so many decisions, that conflict is bound to happen. This is not an occasional occurrence, it is a day-to-day reality.
The chapter in our Rule of Life entitled “The Challenges of Life in Community” states that, in community life, “tensions and friction are inevitably woven into the fabric of everyday life.” This is one of my favorite lines from the Rule, and I find myself repeating it like a mantra on some days. I’m always struck by the choice of the word “everyday.” Personally, I might have preferred “weekly” or “monthly,” but such terms might not accurately reflect the reality.
Consider your own day-to-day life. Have you ever experienced a day without any tension or friction? Think about all the roles you may be playing in your life: as a family member, as a coworker, as a citizen, as a partner, or as a Christian. When have you ever gone a whole day without experiencing some conflict in at least one of those roles? (Now, if you want to know what it’s like to be a monk, imagine experiencing all of those roles simultaneously with the same small group of people).
What if God really is using the tension in your life as a means for your own conversion?
Whether you’re a monk or not, tension is inevitable in relationships. That same chapter from our Rule of Life goes on to say, “tensions and friction are not to be regarded as signs of failure. Christ uses them for our conversion.” For me, this is a very powerful and important statement. It argues that conflict can be transformative.
When you experience conflict in a relationship, do you consider it to be a sign of failure? Do you think that the presence of tension means that a mistake has been made? Do you treat it as something to be remedied or overcome? Try to imagine what it would feel like in your own life if your answer to all of those questions was “No.” Imagine what it would look like if you experienced conflict as an opportunity. What if God really is using the tension in your life as a means for your own conversion?
Consider how Jesus responded to conflict within his own community during his earthly ministry. One of my favorite anecdotes from the Gospels comes from the ninth chapter of Mark, where the disciples are engaged in an argument about who among them is the greatest. I find it both comforting and humorous that the disciples, despite being in the presence of God incarnate, are preoccupied with themselves and constantly comparing their status with one another. You would think that being so close to the only-begotten Son of God would result in permanent bliss and solve all human problems, but the disciples prove that wrong! We, like they, remain human.
One of the many reasons I love this passage is that Jesus immediately addresses the conflict. I imagine that he can feel the tension in the air and knows it needs rectifying. Jesus asks his disciples, “What were you arguing about on the way?” Notice how Jesus doesn’t ignore the conflict, nor does he start addressing it by pointing fingers. He simply asks a question to initiate a dialogue between himself and his disciples. His question is an invitation to transformation, an invitation to address the conflict and make something out of it.
So, the next time you find yourself reeling from an argument, try to imagine what it would be like if Jesus asked you a similar question as he asked his disciples. What would you say if Jesus walked in and asked you what you were arguing about? Try to envision what he would respond to you as well.
I firmly believe that Jesus is right there in the midst of our most serious conflicts. In fact, I also believe that Jesus is present in the midst of our most petty arguments as well. During times of conflict and arguments, it is easy to push Jesus aside or think that we will simply have to wait to reconnect with him after the problem is over. However, when we do this, we miss the chance to discover Jesus right in the midst of our struggles and to allow him to help us grow through them.
Think back and consider how God has used previous conflicts in your life for your own conversion. In my time living in community, I have seen this happen many times. I have seen my community get closer together after going through conflicts. I have seen many Brothers disagree over something but have their relationship improve from navigating through that disagreement.
I firmly believe that Jesus is right there in the midst of our most serious conflicts.
After all, conflict can force us to communicate. This may not always be pleasant, but it is usually helpful. I have been a participant in many difficult conversations during my time as a monk in this community. These discussions can be excruciating and draining, but from my experience, they are worth it. Some of the best changes I have witnessed in our community have arisen from such dialogues. The challenging conversations that may emerge from conflicts aid us in gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves and the state of our relationships.
I find that one of the best feelings in the world is being able to look back upon difficult times of conflict in the community and have a laugh, knowing that the storm has passed, and things are better now. The Brother whom I thought was admonishing me about the dried fruit has been resting in heaven for about three years. When I look at the dried fruit now and remember the brief time we shared together, I both laugh and cry, reflecting on the full range of experiences we went through as Brothers in community. I can’t help but think that in heaven, when we are reunited with our loved ones, we will be able to do the same together again.
Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, did not lead a life free of conflict. He freely and fully entered the maelstrom that is humanity at large. He did so with grace and tact beyond measure. We are called to follow his example every day of our lives. We cannot evade conflict; instead, we must embrace it. When we do so, we also welcome the transformation it brings.
Questions for Reflection
– Think back: How has God used the conflicts in your life for your own conversion?
– Think about your own communities. How have they formed you? What have they revealed about you?
– How does your personal, day-to-day life feed into that broader whole of the Church’s mission and witness?
In this utterly relatable reflection, Br. Jack Crowley takes us from an imagined argument – had entirely in his own mind while in the shower – through the complex realities of the tension that marks all forms of community. What if Jesus really was there, in the midst of those conflicts, big and small, that make community so hard? And if that very tension was a force for our transformation?
“Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.”
When I was in college, I was a member of a social fraternity whose particular charism was the promotion of music for the uplift of humankind. We believed that there was a divine spirit of truth in music. Our chief philanthropy was a Music Mission (started by our founder here at the ‘Alpha Chapter’ in Boston), where we would go to nursing homes and hospitals and sing for all those whose spirits were downtrodden: the aging, infirm, or those suffering from dementia. We had a hymnal-like book filled with songs in 4-part harmony that we would break out and sing at meetings, in restaurants, or even an occasional serenade to a young lady we wanted to impress. Now, you might think we were a sweet group of young, geeky, idealistic music nerds who took their craft a little too seriously. But we also were typical college students who loved to get together and have a good time, consuming beer and pizza, and occasionally getting a little rowdy. We loved each other and we would always come to a brother’s aid if an occasion demanded it.
Jesus selected a small group of disciples to particularly teach and transform, a very unusual assortment including uneducated fishermen. Choosing a tax collector is striking. Working for the occupying Roman Empire, he was considered a traitor, outcast by the Jewish community. Other disciples would have resisted or been uncomfortable by Jesus’ latest invitation.
Walking along after teaching and healing, likely amid a crowd asking questions, Jesus saw Levi. Jesus paid attention to the periphery and saw those rejected or overlooked. Looking widely, Jesus saw Levi, saw a human with dignity and worth and honored him with a call. Seen and invited, Levi experienced Jesus’ healing mercy.
“Why eat with tax collectors and sinners?” say self-confident and serious religious folk. Condemn traitors. Build barriers. Stick together. Keep clean.
Because the sick need a doctor. “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Jesus comes as Great Physician to those who accept they are sick, who are in need.
Sometimes Jesus healed immediately by touch. Jesus also healed and formed over a long time, teaching and living especially with that small group of disciples. Like a doctor, Jesus offers ways to engage healing, including slowly in community. Here are three: look, honor, and receive.
Look widely. Pay attention not only to those close to you. Look to the periphery, see and welcome the outcast and stranger.
Honor mystery. We Brothers say in our Rule of Life: “… honor the mystery present in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, strangers and enemies. Only God knows them as they truly are and in silence we learn to let go of the curiosity, presumption and condemnation which pretends to penetrate the mystery of their hearts.”[i]
Receive wisdom. What do others have to teach you, especially companions you didn’t or wouldn’t choose?
Jesus comes offering healing, including through ways to give and receive together. Look widely. Honor mystery. Receive wisdom.
The Feast of St. Bede the Venerable
Today is the feast day of St. Bede the Venerable, an Anglo-Saxon monk of the 7th century. He did lots of stuff. He was a monk, a historian, a theologian, and a preacher, to name a few. I won’t recount here everything about him. What I’d like to talk about is why his work, his life, has affected me, even to the point of my standing here today.
About two years ago, now, I was a novice brother in this community, in the midst of two weeks of retreat preceding my initial vows, at a rural monastery in another part of Massachusetts.
It was slightly bizarre to see this other monastic community. At once, it was easy to recognize much of their life. Certain features, from architecture to liturgy to dress, though not exactly the same as ours, were instantly familiar. But something very much stuck out to me about one difference in particular: the setting. The abbey is out in a quite rural area, and there’s not much in the immediate vicinity.
This bothered me. One man’s peaceful seclusion is another man’s lonely isolation, and for me, it was difficult not to see all our other similarities and immediately imagine myself in that community. And I wasn’t happy in those imaginings. The relative isolation felt claustrophobic. I was reminded of being a college student in a small town, where everything that exists seems dependent on a single institution, and the thought of my life happening in that context felt smothering.
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.
Note: This is the third and final part of a sermon preached by three Brothers: Jack Crowley, n/SSJE; Sean Glenn, SSJE; and Keith Nelson, SSJE.
I want to circle back to that obscure but evocative passage in John’s first Epistle:
The Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.
The testimony is one, as the Spirit is one, but it seems the encountering of it is (at least) three-fold: in the baptism we share; in the costly self-offering we must each make; and in the speaking of the Spirit of Truth on the tongue of each believer in living witness.
Three preachers do not regularly step up to this ambo on a single occasion, but the fact that today we are three merely underscores something essential about this life: the mutuality of our common witness and the complementarity of our testimony to the Truth. We are a community of preachers because we need each other’s help to lay hold of and live in the Truth. As the nucleus of a wider fellowship we are “sustained by many energies of mutual service”: the Truth proclaimed from many mouths, moving in many hearts, and lived in many lives.
Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
The focal point of much of Jesus’ preaching and teaching in the gospels is “the kingdom of God.”
The opening of Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus “came into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mk 1:14-15) Of course, this kingdom that Jesus proclaims is quite unlike the kingdoms of the world that we human beings know from experience:
God’s reign is not about exerting authority; it’s about offering service;
it is not about dominance and power; it’s about humility;
it is not about being first or greatest; it’s about identifying with the lowly and the poor.
Here in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus employs a number of images or metaphors to introduce the concept of God’s kingdom to his hearers, most of whom were peasants, subsistence farmers, living in an agrarian society. Jesus speaks about agriculture, about planting and harvesting, about sowing seeds – images easily understood by the people. His images regularly startle and surprise his listeners, and us. Over and over again, his point seems to be that this kingdom of God is never quite what we expect.
Amos 8: 4 – 6, 9 – 12; Psalm 119: 1 – 8; Matthew 9: 9 – 13
There is a saying that I am fond of quoting. You have no doubt heard me, as I use it in any number of different contexts. It goes, if you pull a string, you’ll find that the universe is attached. To be fair, it is a misquote of something the naturalist and conservationist John Muir said: when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.
I feel this way a lot of the time. I especially feel it when I read Scripture, and today is no different.
On the surface we have the story of the calling of Matthew to be a disciple of Jesus. In many ways, it’s quite simple. Jesus calls. Matthew follows. End of story. But nothing in Scripture is that simple. This story is not just about the call of Matthew to be a follower of Jesus. It is a story about how God’s reign of mercy, justice, and peace breaks in upon us in unexpected ways.
Matthew, as we know, was not a good boy. He may have been a good ole boy, but he was certainly not a good boy. He was a collaborator with the oppressive imperial Roman occupation. He was on the side of the bad guys and represented everything that was wrong and evil during the dark days of the Roman occupation of Palestine. Yet it was to this man that Jesus said, follow me, and, amazingly, he got up and followed him. Luke tells us that Matthew got up, left everything, and followed [Jesus].
We are reminded in our Rule of Life that [the] first challenge of community life is to accept whole-heartedly the authority of Christ to call whom he will. Clearly that was a lesson needed by those who asked why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? My hunch is, that’s a question even some of Jesus’ other followers were asking. Why on earth him, Lord? I’ll bet looking around at the other Brothers, it’s a question you ask yourself, every so often. I know I do.
1 Peter 4:7-11
It’s oftentimes quite fascinating to read the scriptures forensically, that is to search the scriptures like a good detective. If what we’re being presented in a scriptural passage is the answer to a question, or a solution to a problem, or the right way to live and act, what’s the presenting issue? Why does this need to be said, whatever we’re being told? So in the First Letter of Peter – our first lesson today – why are we being told what we are being told? If this is the solution, what’s been the problem? What’s the “back story”?
- “Maintain constant love for one another…” (What’s that about? There’s been a breakdown in love. Love has been patchy, inconsistent, unpredictable.)
- “Love covers a multitude of sins…” (“Sins,” plural. The people around you have been disappointing and disingenuous… repeatedly, which has elicited disdain, not love.)
- “Be hospitable to one another…” (To be hospitable is to be welcoming and generous to others… especially those whom you otherwise find irritating and off-putting. Have space in your heart and space in your home for those whom you could easily distance. Be hospitable.)
- Don’t be “complaining.” (The issue here is not about expressing a complaint, a dissatisfaction, a disagreement. No, the problem is not about a complaint. The issue here is about being a complainer. Having a predisposition that someone or something is always wrong and should be different. The issue here is about a state of being: being a complainer.)
- We’re to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” (So what’s that about?) Peter writes we are to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serving one another with whatever gift each of you has received…” (So each of us is gifted, but not gifted in the same ways. Our gifts are not our possessions. Our individual gifts have been temporarily entrusted to us. We are to be “stewards” of our gifts, not possessors. If we don’t learn about our temporary stewardship of our gifts earlier in life, we will learn later in life… because our gifts are fleeting. Our gifts diminish and then go away.) We’re to be temporary “stewards” of the gifts we’ve received from God. And we’re to use our God-given gifts not to lord over one another but to “serve” one another.
In the calendar of the church we remember today an Egyptian monk named Pachomius, who lived years 290-346. Pachomius was born in a small village in northern Egypt to a family who worshipped the gods of the Pharaohs. As a young man Pachomius was conscripted into military service. His fifth-century biography, the Vita Prima, recalls that where he was billeted, he for the first time met Christians who did “all manner of good… treating [everyone] with love for the sake of the God of heaven.” Pachomius was smitten by the kind and generous camaraderie, the koinonia, of Christian believers, the very thing described in the Acts of the Apostles: “They were of one heart and one soul,” and who essentially practiced three things: these Christians lived together in community, they prayed and worshipped, and they served others. This experience for Pachomius was life-changing. He prayed to this Christian God, promising that he would live his life in the same way. When he was discharged from military service, he was baptized, and for several years was formed in the Christian life by one of the desert hermits.
Pachomius had a series of visions, something he had never experienced before. The visions were about his becoming a monk, but not alone. Christian hermits had already been living in solitude in the Egyptian desert for about 50 years, since the late 3rdcentury. But Pachomius’ visions were about his living as a monk in community. He had as a model the words which we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles: “All who believed were together and had all things in common. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”[i]And “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”