Simon Gibbons, First Priest from the Inuit, 1896
In the calendar of the church, we remember today a Canadian missionary priest of the Anglican Diocese of Nova Scotia, Simon Gibbons, who died on this day in 1896. Simon Gibbons was an Inuit, a member of the indigenous people, a majority of whom inhabit the northern regions of Canada. He was the first Inuit to be ordained to the priesthood.
Simon Gibbons was born in Labrador, and both his father and mother died before he was six years old. He was raised in an Anglican orphanage, showed early signs of being very gifted intellectually, and eventually went on to King’s College in Nova Scotia. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1878. He began his ordained ministry on foot as a missionary in the northeastern tip of Nova Scotia on Cape Breton Island. On Cape Breton, the “nor’easters” and the snows begin in November, and by April the typical snow accumulation is 10-12 feet. Winter temperatures typically drop to 5° or colder. Simon Gibbons regularly walked in snowshoes a one hundred-mile circuit on the island to the many small communities to comfort the sick, to teach the hope of Christ, and to administer the Sacraments of the Church.
As a pastor, Simon Gibbons was described as “very joyful.” He was also very industrious. He eventually moved onto the Nova Scotia mainland, where he was appointed the rector of a parish on the northeastern coast. He pastored a multitude of people, and supervised various building projects for the church. He was greatly beloved. He was also greatly spent in his physical stamina. His health had been compromised in the strain from his arduous earlier ministry as a missionary on foot. He died at the age of forty-six.
The Gospel lesson appointed for today mirrors the life and ministry of Simon Gibbons. Jesus was saying, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Simon Gibbons heard this message, and he went out as what Saint Paul called “an ambassador of Christ.”[i] I find it impossible to imagine taking on a missionary ministry in any way similar to Simon Gibbons. The mere thought of it sends shivers into my spine. Simon Gibbons is an amazing example of why the church commemorates the holy ones from times past. The reason we remember such souls is not that we are to replicate their life and ministry. Rather, it is for us to draw inspiration from their lives to encourage us in our own life and ministry.
When we awaken in the morning, we can be reassured both of God’s presence and God’s provision – that we will be companioned by God and equipped by God. We can also be assured, with the dawning of each new day, that God has given us a mission, which is why we are still alive. Ignatius of Loyola – the 16th century founder of the Jesuits – said that the purpose for which we have been given life – and why our life has been sustained into today – is “to know God, and to love God, and to serve God.”[ii] We are all missionaries. By our own cultural heritage, by our own geographic setting, by our training, education, life experience, and unique access to certain people, we are to bear the beams of God’s light, and life, and love, knowing that God is with us and that God will provide.
Some years ago my younger brother, Kyle, was visiting us here in the monastery. I adored him. He was a career Air Force officer for more than 20 years, he was lay minister, he was married, and he was the wonderful father of eight children. Eight children! I remember saying to him on this visit, “I don’t know how you do it. How do you juggle your life and all your responsibilities with such amazing grace?” He looked at me rather incredulously and said, without a pause, “This is what I was made to do. This is the glove that fits.” And then he said to me, “What I don’t understand is how you do what you do as a monk. That to me is impossible.” We both chuckled because we both had found our respective vocations, our very unique callings, and we were thriving.
With each new dawn God’s calls us and equips us to be God’s own missionaries, and in ways which only we, personally, can do. Our missionary field may be as expansive as Cape Breton in northern Canada, or as focused as the neighbor next door, the clerk at the checkout counter, the person we encounter on the street. We are missionaries, all of us. That is why we are still alive.
And today we take as our own inspiration Simon Gibbons, blessed Simon Gibbons.
[i] 2 Corinthians 5:20; Ephesians 6:20.
[ii] These are Ignatius’ opening words from his “Foundation and First Principle” of his Spiritual Exercises.
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.
In the calendar of the church we remember the life and witness of Vincent de Paul. He was born in France in the year 1580 to a peasant family. He was bright, given educational opportunity, and, at 20 years old, was ordained in year 1600. This was a time of enormous change in western Europe. Most historians locate the late 15th/early 16th century as the beginning or at least maturing of western capitalism. Merchants, entrepreneurs, and bankers accumulated and manipulated capital in unprecedented levels. It was the best of times and the worst of times, worst certainly for the bankrupt and for the poor, who became more numerous and more destitute. History repeats itself.
Vincent, when called to hear the confession of a dying man, was shocked by the spiritual poverty of the penitent. Vincent began preaching sermons on confession, calling people to the necessity of repentance. His sermons were so persuasive that villagers stood in line to go to confession. It was not just the laity, but also his fellow clergy whom he found so poorly formed in their own ministry. He became a pioneer in the renewal of theological education, and was instrumental in establishing seminaries. He also pioneered conducting retreats for clergy. In year 1626, Vincent and three other priests vowed to live and pray together, and to devote themselves as mission priests. The founder of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Richard Meux Benson in the 1860s, patterned our own community on Vincent de Paul’s Company of Mission Priests.
Before I came to the monastery I worked for a number of years as a Parish Administrator at a large Episcopal Church in downtown Boston, situated on a bustling street filled with high-end fashion boutiques and office buildings. The church kept its doors open throughout the work day and served as a hub for all sorts of programming, from Twelve Step meetings to homeless ministries, lunches for the elderly and concert series. On any given day I could be found coordinating a harpsichord delivery, scheduling a repair for our broken elevator, or trying to assist a young woman who periodically slept on our front steps – often simultaneously.
Dennis was our custodian. He greeted me daily when I arrived at 7 am with a huge smile and would yell one of his nicknames for me: “Special K!” or “K Dog!” or often just “Brother!” Short, thin, and feisty, Dennis had lived a very hard life but had an indefatigable spirit of joy and a deep, inspiring love for Jesus. He sang hymns at the top of his lungs over the sound of his vacuum cleaner, and accurately understood his work as a ministry. Dennis lived his emotional life extremely close to the surface and was frequently overwhelmed by it. He often needed to visit my office on the third floor to vent his feelings.
Celebration of the Ministry of M. Thomas Shaw, 15th Bishop of Massachusetts
I am grateful for the invitation to break the bread of God’s word on this occasion as we gather here to give thanks for the amazingly fruitful episcopal ministry of the Rt. Rev. M. Thomas Shaw.
I am particularly pleased to be with you this morning to celebrate someone who has been a close friend for many years – since the 1980’s and his years as Superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, and, additionally, for the past 20 years, as a colleague in the House of Bishops where he has been deeply valued as a person of wisdom and insight with the ability to draw to draw people together beyond differing points of view into a broader understanding and wider vision.