There was a Sunday afternoon when I was a child that I sat my mother down and demanded to know about life and death, where babies come from, and where we go. When my mother had answered all my questions to my satisfaction, I announced, “I’ve learned a lot today,” and left the room confident in my grasp of existence.
How did your journey to the Monastery begin?
I’m a cradle Episcopalian. I grew up going to church and was an acolyte, a crucifer, a torchbearer, and a server. I enjoyed the church youth group and socializing with kids my age in the fun activities they put on, but I found church boring. Like many people, I stopped going at the first opportunity. I don’t think I ever made the connection between being a church-going Episcopalian and having a relationship with Jesus. Certainly it was the receiver, not the message, that was broken, but that element wasn’t really communicated to me. So I left the church and became wayward (in my own way).
When I was about six, two collegians who were allergic to cats asked me to move a cat away from them. I tried but had difficulty, so I said: “The easiest thing would be for you to move. You could come back later and by then the cat will have moved.” The students later told my dad they could tell I was his son. People still recognize my parents in how I speak, listen, and serve. How we live communicates our community, to whom we are connected.
This year, we Brothers are praying, preaching, and teaching around the five Marks of Mission of the Anglican Church. These five points are one way to summarize who God is and what it looks like for us to be known as God’s beloved daughters and sons. They communicate that we are connected to and being converted by Christ. The five marks may be summarized: tell, teach, tend, transform, and treasure.
As Episcopalians we talk about five “Marks of Mission.” To think of these as five marks of love seems to me to be a helpful reframing. God is love. And whatever mission is or is not, it is about the God of love. Indeed, we might say that mission is who God is and what God does. Christians think of God, in God’s being, as burning “with an unchecked Flame, red hot, incendiary. God does not have Love any more than He has Knowledge or Power: He just is these things.” God is love. Love without object or act (Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology Volume 1, 489, 485).
God is love. Too often we skim over such words as a rock skitting across water thrown from a boat to a shore. We touch the truth for a passing moment. We fail to plumb the depths. If, by the power of Christ’s Spirit, we could begin to experience and encounter the depths of divine love we would avoid much of the misunderstanding and malpractice that passes for mission in the Church. God is love.
Check out these practices to help you get in touch with contentment in your life:
Can you give thanks for what is throughout your day?
How do you fill the time when you’re waiting?
What are you living for?
Will you share your index card Rule of Life with us? Add a comment below!
There are many ways to read and share this Cowley magazine:
Click on the links below to read selected articles from the Summer 2016 Cowley Magazine:
- Br. Curtis Almquist explores the monastic principle of contentment, with practical advice for how to integrate contentment into our lives.
- New and Abiding Friends of SSJE—Gates & Pat Agnew, Julie H. Quaid, Mark Delcuze, Laura Chessin, Dr. Norman “Sam” Steward, Jr., Char Sullivan, Jane Buttery, and Scott Christian —share their experiences of the Monastery and Emery House.
- A simple web search led to a dramatic change of life: Br. Jim Woodrum shares his story of vocation.
- The Director of the Fellowship, Br. Jonathan Maury, shares his vision for how and why members might keep the FSJ Rule.
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An ancient monastic principle about inner freedom: freedom to be fully alive is found in the context of limitation. This is quite counter-cultural. In western society we are identified as “consumers” in a market economy that is constantly alluring us with dissatisfaction, where what is next or what is new is promised to be better than what is now. We hear the pitch, “You can have it all … and you should,” as if more is more and never enough. Monastic wisdom counters this delusion with the elixir of “contentment,” a word which comes to us from the Latin contentus: to be satisfied or contained. Less is more. The grace of contentment presumes that what is, is enough.
As Director of the Fellowship of Saint John, over the years I have received – from committed members of the FSJ and from probationers trying the rule – a request to temporarily suspend their participation in the Fellowship. Most often the reason given is a perceived inability to “keep up” with their personal version of a rule of life. In the past, I’ve been inclined to accept this view without argument. But more recently I’ve tended to push back. Here’s my reason why.
In the gospels, Jesus is criticized for failing to “Keep the Sabbath day holy,” both for his acts of healing and for his disciples’ “work” on the Sabbath in plucking grain to eat. Jesus answers his critics by stating that God’s loving desire to help and heal all creatures overrides a rigid interpretation of the written law. Jesus teaches that the Sabbath observance is a gift of God: the Sabbath was created to serve humanity, not humanity to serve the Sabbath.
Similarly, I’ve come to believe that keeping a personal rule of life is to be seen as a gift of God, a way for becoming fully alive in Christ. By means of our baptism into Christ’s continuous dying and rising, we participate in God’s own life as members of a beloved and redeemed community. Thus the FSJ rule is not a task by which to achieve some self-styled perfection, but an invitation to companionship with God, the SSJE Brothers, and other members. The moment when we’re feeling least able to “keep” our personal rule on our own is the very time to breathe deeply of God and ask for help to creatively, lovingly adapt the rule to our present circumstances.
I wonder if there might be readers of Cowley who have delayed or denied themselves the chance to become members of the Fellowship for similar reasons, out of a sense that they were not somehow, or in some way, “enough” just at this moment: not committed enough, not prepared enough, and so on. If so, I would encourage you: Consider whether becoming a member of the Fellowship might be, not a marker of your arrival at some destination, but a way of a joining companions on the journey. We truly are joined to the Fellowship, even when – and perhaps especially when – during difficult times and fear of failure, we gratefully accept it as Christ’s gift for us.
To learn more or apply to become a member of the FSJ, visit www.SSJE.org/fsj
Pat’s spontaneous evaluation of our recent six days at Emery House: It was “magical.” Both of us have years of experience sitting grueling 7-day Zen sessions while faithfully attending Trinity Episcopal Church here in Bloomington, Indiana. God decided last year it was finally time to have our cake and eat it too. Long days and nights of perfect silence and stillness before the Buddha with chanting and simple meals became at SSJE periods of contemplative solitude before icons on demand, amplified by 4-5 services a day including Eucharist, extraordinary food, the wonderful hospitality of the Brothers, and a lovely rural New England setting. More specifically we remember Br. Nicholas’ warm greeting at Emery House, Br. John’s quiet introduction to the Virgin Mary, and Br. Curtis’ daily routine of helping Pat, who has difficulty balancing on stairs, down into the main dining room. We remember building and feeding daily fires in our hermitage, eating breakfast, reading and enjoying quiet together listening to an intern chop wood outside: an intimacy like a spiritual honeymoon. We remember reciting psalms in congregation, then chanting psalms, then breaking into harmony with hymns (the latter even more thrilling in Cambridge). We remember frosty country walks, and night reflections on the Merrimack River at flood stage. Despite a long drive, we remember coming home rested.
My collaborative practice group spent four days in retreat at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist’s Monastery in Cambridge in October of 2015. The experience was much more than I could have ever imagined. The peace and tranquility shown by each of the Brothers and most particularly, the compassionate guidance of our retreat leader, helped me to become more prepared to deal with the bustle and demands of my job as I help families in pain and transition. I was overwhelmed by the generosity and humility of these men who have dedicated their lives to making a difference in the world and who challenged me and showed me, through example, how to pause in my day to breathe and move forward with gratitude and self-awareness. I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to learn from the Brothers and experience the beauty of this place.