I don’t often think of Jesus’s courage, but that’s what has come to mind during my prayer with today’s Gospel passage. Knowing that his end was near, Jesus shows his closest friends how unlike their world his kingdom will be. The Teacher and Lord humbles himself and performs the work of a servant or slave, overturning all expectations and proprieties.
This act takes courage—courage that we can look to; courage, no doubt, that our departed Brother David Campbell looked to in his challenges of leadership. Facing an English Congregation that was ageing and declining in numbers, Father Campbell managed the withdrawal from the longstanding missions in India and South Africa, closed the Mission House in Oxford, and dispersed the remaining Brothers to continue the Society’s ministries as long as possible. His actions took courage, as did the humility to accept that the Society in England’s end might be coming.
Your novitiate Todd, will, I think, go down as one of the longest in the history of the Society. Sure, Father Arthur Hall spent 8 years as a novice, but I am pretty sure yours was longer. At least it felt that way. Father Edwyn Gardner was a novice for 15 years. But I think yours was longer. At least it felt that way. Brother William Buckingham spent 23 years as a novice, but yours was definitely longer than that! At least it felt that way.
When you arrived in September 2019, no one foresaw what the future held in terms of pandemic, lockdown, and the closing of the guesthouse and chapel two years ago this week. We had never heard of COVID-19, worn masks (except perhaps at Hallowe’en), or imagined that millions of people around the world, including people we knew and loved, would become sick, and die in a matter of months. No one dreamed that in the matter of just a couple of days, 11 of us would test positive for the virus, and I would spend several sleepless nights wondering if this in fact was the way the Society would end. None of us, least of all the Luddite that I am, could have fathomed that cameras or livestreaming would become a welcome fact of life here in the chapel.
No, none of that was foreseen, imagined, dreamt, or fathomed. But except for a few glorious weeks this summer when we were able to reopen the chapel, all of that has been a fact of life for us, and especially for you, and it has shaped and marked your time as a novice. No wonder then your novitiate has lasted an eternity! Brother William and Father Gardner or Father Hall have nothing on you!
I stood patiently by the door, waiting to be told where to sit. I saw all my Brothers take what I thought was their designated seat. It was my first time at “rounds” (what we Brothers call our daily morning meeting: that time where all the Brothers are in the same room at the same time to talk over the day’s business face-to-face).
I kept waiting to be told where to sit. I felt like a stray dog who had just been adopted days before, trying to figure out the ways of the household, not wanting to cause a stir, just looking to obey. Eventually I realized no one was going to tell me where to sit, and so I just sat down in an empty chair. I kept waiting for one of my elder Brothers to look at me and explain kindly but firmly that I was sitting in a chair that another Brother had been sitting in for longer than I had been alive. Luckily that never happened.
I went through thousands of moments like that in my early days as a Postulant: long moments of waiting for someone with authority to swoop in and tell me exactly what to do. It took me a long time to realize that was not the way authority was exercised at SSJE. Those in power were not going to tell me where to sit. Instead, those in authority were focused on having a productive morning meeting and getting through the day. This was a big difference from the days back when Novices had their mail read.
When a man first comes to the monastery to test his vocation, you may be surprised to know that he does not get a large ‘how to’ manual on being a monk. Nor does he receive a week-long orientation in the essentials of monastic living. Much of what a postulant and novice learns is by observation, trial and error, and asking questions when they arise. When he sings the Offices with the Community, (regardless of his proficiency in music fundamentals) he learns a strange musical script with a four-line staff and peculiar square notes that when stacked on top of each other means they ascend and when written in progression means they descend. He learns that the bell rings ten minutes prior to each service although he may find himself sitting in chapel alone and confused for fifteen to twenty minutes when the Angelus bell rings at noon and no one shows up. There is often that awkward moment when learning to acolyte that he lights the candles on the altar at noonday prayer only to have them extinguished with an explanation that candles are not lit at the noon office. I sometimes joke that I’ve been here over five years and I’m still learning new things each week, although now they are more often epiphanies that dawn on me mysteriously, out of the blue. For me, our lesson this evening from John’s gospel illustrates how the experience of novice monks is not dissimilar from that of Jesus’ disciples.
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.
One day back in October 2003, I started exploring the “links” section of the website for the church I was then attending, and I found there a list of monastic communities’ sites. I already knew that there were monastic communities, but for some reason, on this day, the fact that they had websites intrigued me. I wondered, “What the heck do they put on them?” So I started clicking through – the Franciscans, the Benedictines – and, you know, there weren’t really any surprises; it was just monks and nuns. But the last website I visited was SSJE’s. And it had this line on the front page: “We’re men living traditional vows in a non-traditional setting of Harvard Square. We’re learning to pray our lives.” And for some reason that is what struck me: Tradition in a non-traditional place and praying our lives.