for everyday living
Br. Jim Woodrum follows the angels toward a deeper appreciation of why our church buildings matter and how they can help us to become one with the angels.
in the architecture
WHY CHURCHES MATTER
Two summers ago, while our community was on pilgrimage in Oxford, I found myself surrounded by angels. We were visiting the Church of St. Mary and St. John, on the Cowley Road, where SSJE’s founder, Richard Meux Benson, had been vicar. Inside, everywhere I looked, there were angels in the architecture: in the stone, glass, and wood. Of all the beautiful things in the church – the pipe organ, the stained glass, the altar and reredos, the arches – it was the angels that piqued my curiosity. Why were these angelic figures everywhere? What did they mean? And what were they trying to tell me?
I grew up in an evangelical tradition that did not talk much about angels, which is ironic, because it is from the Greek word for evangelist (euangelion) that we get the word “angel,” meaning a bearer of good news. While my mother didn’t speak about angels, she certainly seemed devoted to them. Upon entering my parent’s home, the first thing you would notice would be two curios filled with angels. There were cherubs, angels with trumpets, boy angels, girl angels, cupids, as well as a rather menacing angel standing on the head of a dragon-like creature with his sword in its mouth. In my adult life, I would come to know that this was the Archangel Michael, whose name means “Who Is Like God?” In Revelation, Michael defeats the dragon, “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:7-9).
The angels of Scripture are as varied as those in my mother’s curio cabinet. Angels bear all sorts of different vocations. The angel Gabriel (whose name means “The Strength of God”) is a messenger: he visits the Virgin Mary to proclaim the good news that she will bear a child who will be the long-awaited Messiah. Shortly after, an angel of the Lord visits a group of shepherds outside Bethlehem to announce the birth of Jesus. The sky fills with angels praising and worshipping God, singing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 1:26-38; 2:8-14). There are also angels who minister: after Jesus is tempted in the desert, the devil leaves him and angels come to serve him (Matthew 4:1-11). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays in anguish about what is about to happen to him, and an angel of the Lord appears to him and gives him strength (Luke 22:39-43). In the book of Tobit, it is the Archangel Raphael (whose name means “The Healing of God”) who restores Tobit’s sight (Tobit 11:7-9). All angels have a specific vocation and belong to one of the nine orders of angels that we hear mentioned throughout the pages of scripture: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Guardian angels.
With such diversity in the angel ranks, I wondered anew about the angels lining the walls of the churches we visited on our pilgrimage. Who were these angels in the architecture, and what was their mission? Every part of these churches seemed to point deeper into the mystery of God, with the angels beckoning me to follow.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit our monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, you will notice many angels straight away. Angels throng the great Rose window at the back of the church in a vibrant vision of Heaven. Below the Rose window, where the Nativity is portrayed, angels gaze adoringly at the holy child. In the Lady Chapel, the lancet windows portray the mysteries of the Rosary, beginning with the depiction of the Annunciation and the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. When the light streams through these windows, all these angels shine forth in brilliant array, witnessing to the glory of God.
What about the angels we cannot see? One of my favorite scriptural encounters with an angel features Jacob. He contends all night with a mysterious figure whom some traditions have called an angel. In the morning, Jacob realizes that he has struggled with God. Jacob names the place “Peniel,” which means “the face of God”: “For I have seen God face to face” (Genesis 32:30). Our monastery church, like Peniel, is a holy place because it is a place of encounter. The angel who wrestled Jacob greets us every time we enter the worship space, every time we prepare to encounter God.
In a subtle yet very real way, every church has angels beyond those carved in wood or illuminated in stained glass. The architecture itself acts as angels do: sharing messages which enlighten our prayer and worship of God.
Take what happens as soon as you enter the monastery church. To enter it you must ascend a small staircase and go through a door into the narthex. However, that is not where your journey ends. Once there, you must turn ninety degrees to your left and go through a second doorway in order to enter the church. This detail might be lost on us initially, but it actually is intentional: all those who enter the monastery church must undergo a “conversion” experience. The word “conversion” comes from the Latin convertere, which literally means to turn around. To enter the church you must physically turn, in order to cross a threshold, into holy space.
A passerby on Memorial Drive might venture in, curiosity piqued as to what is inside this gothic-style building. Others experience a conscious yearning to know God. These seekers or pilgrims are not wandering randomly, but rather are following the desire of their hearts, which is mysteriously moving towards the source of all holy desire: into the heart of God. The building itself thus hints at the conversion God invites, as we give up any semblance of control and are turned – sometimes even pushed – in a direction that we would not normally go in order to enter. Simply to enter the sanctuary, we have already turned and converted – perhaps unaware that we have just encountered an angel in the architecture.
A few years ago, a small group of school children, led by their teachers, made their way into the church. One of the children asked a Brother in quiet amazement, “How do you do that!?” He replied, “What do you mean?” She whispered, “How do you make it so quiet?!”
In the profound silence of the church, our eyes are drawn upward toward the light, as we follow the shape of the arches pointing to the saints depicted in the clerestory windows. The silence invites us to listen intently. In our Rule of Life, we say that in silence, “we pass through the bounds of language to lose ourselves in wonder. In this silence we learn to revere ourselves also; since Christ dwells in us we too are mysteries that cannot be fathomed, before which we must be silent until the day we come to know as we are known.” In the silence of this sanctuary, we join the angelic hosts in the ennobling act of prayer, as we seek to deepen our relationship with the one in whom we live and move and have our being. In silence, we, finite creatures, seek the infinite.
The architecture of the monastery church depicts this intersection of finitude and infinite, chronos and kairos. Chronos is physical, temporal time: the way that we, as finite beings, delineate time in terms of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries. Chonos greets us in how the rounded arches at the back of the church – in the Romanesque style (ranging from the 6th to 11th centuries) – give way to pointed gothic arches (prevalent from the 12th to the 16th centuries), in the Quire on the other side of the gate. This journey through chronos points and leads to the altar, which is a place of kairos: God’s time, the critical moment that holds all of eternity. Kairos is unknowable to us time-bound beings, yet we experience it each time we approach the altar.
Kairos is unknowable to us time-bound beings, yet we experience it each time we approach the altar.
The altar is the focus of our sanctuary, as it is of all sanctuaries. In our church, the high altar is adorned with an unusual architectural feature: a baldacchino, a canopy arching high above. Here, another angel in the architecture points us to the deeper mystery of God taking place before our eyes.
The baldacchino forms a cube through four pillars, representing the earth with its four directions. These pillars support the canopy, which is topped with a dome representing heaven. Connecting heaven and earth – and protecting a stone altar beneath – the baldacchino recalls another story earlier in Genesis where Jacob falls asleep, using a stone as a pillow. While asleep he dreams of a ladder stretched to heaven, with angels ascending and descending back and forth between earth and heaven. We read: “Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’” If we continue a little further, we read that Jacob poured oil on the stone which he had used as a pillow and built an altar there, consecrating that place and giving it a new name: Bethel (Genesis 28:10-19). In John’s gospel, Jesus recalls this story from Genesis, identifying himself as the stone altar, the place where heaven and earth meet: “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:47-51).
Upon the altar, heaven and earth are joined, and we get a glimpse of God. Upon this altar we offer up praise, thanksgiving, and all that we are to God. In return Jesus becomes truly present to us in the sacramental signs of bread and wine (which become to us flesh and blood), descending with the angels and bringing us with him up to heaven. Each time we consume this bread and wine, we ascend one more rung on the ladder with the angels, moving toward the holiness to which we have been called, becoming one with our Father in heaven. The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson once wrote: “As each touch of the artist adds some fresh feature to the painting, so each communion is a touch of Christ which should develop some fresh feature of his own perfect likeness within us.”
In a sermon delivered at the University Church in Oxford around 1826, John Henry Newman describes heaven as an endless and uninterrupted worship of the Eternal Father, Son, and Spirit. He takes as his reference point numerous passages in the Revelation to John: “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped” (Revelation 5:11-14).
This passage from Revelation gives me chills, because this is what we do here in this monastery church every day: worship God, bestowing on Him blessing and honor and glory and might with the very best of our abilities. Perhaps our numbers are few and the quality of our voices is sometimes nowhere near angelic; but we, like the angels, were created for the love and pleasure of God and He delights in our love just as much as we delight in His. We have an inherent instinct to adore our creator. In this, we mirror God, who gazes in reverence on the Creation and yearns for us to know God as God knows us. Our love and praise are mutual. We offer them in tandem with the worship of the heavenly hosts. In his book The Angels and the Liturgy, Eric Peterson writes “When the church gathers in worship on earth, it is conjoined to the worship which is offered in the heavenly city by the angels. Through all the pain of this world there remains, eternal and unmoved, that worship which the angels offer to the Eternal, and in which the Church on earth takes part.” With the angels we sing, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people of earth,” and “Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the Highest!”
Worship is a sanctifying act. The word “sanctify” has the same root as the Latin word sanctus, which means holy. These roots imbue the word “sanctuary.” In this sanctuary, in the shared experience of worship, we offer all we are, all we have, all of our blessings, and all of our sufferings, and we give it to God in sacrifice, asking nothing but to be sanctified and become more like God, that is: holy and fully God’s. In the same sermon, Newman goes on to say: “To be holy is … to live habitually in sight of the world to come as if we were already dead to this life.” In other words, now is our time to prepare and practice, joining the angels in the eternal praise of God, here on earth as it is in heaven.
A pew card at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Iffley near Oxford, describes the meaning and purpose of its church building: “With the passing of the centuries there have been inevitable changes, but there have been no drastic alterations to the basic plan of the building, nor to its function. It exists to praise God. And for worship, sacred ritual and teaching. It is a sacramental reminder to the identity of those who gather inside it each day.”
Our churches are angels – angels, made of architecture – which exist to praise God as they help to deliver God’s messages. Even when we sleep, the angels keep at this holy task. And when we gather as a community in our own churches, chapels, and sanctuaries, with our hearts and minds turned toward God, we ourselves become channels of grace, temporal containers of eternal love. We become one with all the angels – both the angels in the architecture and the eternal company of heaven – as we too become bearers of good news, teaching, guidance, protection, and sanctuary to others. We lift up our voices with them, crying, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest!”
About Br. Jim Woodrum
Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE lives at the Monastery in Cambridge, where he serves the community as the Director of Vocations. When he is away from his desk (and that “Office” in the Chapel), he enjoys cooking southern cuisine, exploring different neighborhoods in Boston, and has a keen interest in craft beer.
John 15: 1, 6-17
Today is the feast of St. Matthias, chosen to replace Judas among the twelve apostles. Matthias had been with them since John baptized Jesus in the Jordan. Perhaps he was one of the 70 whom Jesus sent out. Hardly anything is written about him. All we know is Matthias had been with them since Jesus came among them. The apostles selected two candidates. They drew lots thereby choosing Matthias.
The group probably was not seeking a big personality. They already had that in Peter, James, and John. Now they were amid grief as Jesus had ascended back to heaven. I suspect they sought stability. They chose one who had been with them. They trusted Matthias would remain with them. Remaining, staying put through loss and grief, is hard. Our culture increasingly offers and expects mobility frequently adjusting where we live, work, and the kind of work we do.
Someone asked Antony, founder of desert monasticism, “What must one do in order to please God?” Antony said to stay focused on God, live according to Scripture, and “in whatever place you find yourself, do not easily leave it.”[i]Do not easily leave it. Then and now we are prone to leave. There is a hunger for and wisdom in stability: remain, stick it out, and keep finding God here.
for everyday living
Three Brothers share their vision for how to shape a retreat experience to “enter more fully into the divine life.”
“Times of retreat are essential elements in the rhythm of our life. They enable us to celebrate the primacy of the love of God above all else. Whenever we enter retreat we seek to be more available to God so that we may enter more fully into the divine life” (SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 29, “Retreat”). These lines encapsulate why we go on retreat: by setting aside the ordinary cares and patterns of our days, we hope to make ourselves more fully available to God.
Many different settings, structures, and shapes of retreat can meet this aim. After all, God is available to us everywhere; the question is simply where and how we can best tune our perception to become aware of God’s presence. The answer will not be the same for each of us, nor even for each of us in every season.
In these pages, three Brothers share three different visions for how one might shape a retreat experience. What framework might open your heart to God’s revelation at this season in your life? We pray that, however the Spirit leads you, your retreat will invite you to “enter more fully into the divine life.”
Return and Rest
recalling God's love on retreat
Br. David Vryhof, SSJE
There are many ways of entering into retreat. At times we will want to use our time of retreat to listen and discern God’s purposes in our life, especially if we are in a place of confusion, conflict, or uncertainty. At other times we may be facing an important choice, and will find a period of silent retreat to be a helpful clearing space in which to weigh our options in prayer. At times, we will want to explore more deeply the nature of God, the person of Christ, or some aspect of our human condition. These are ways of using retreat to “advance” the spiritual life.
But as our Brother Curtis Almquist likes to remind us, most often “a retreat is not an advance.” Retreats invite us to return to the God we already know, to recall and to re-experience God’s love for us, to receive from God the gifts we need this day.
“In returning and rest you shall be saved.” - Isaiah 30:15
In the Book of Common Prayer there is a collect that summarizes this last type of retreat. We pray,
O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The prayer is drawn from Isaiah 30:15: “For thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” It suggests that there are times when we need to return to God and find our rest in God’s presence, to draw from God’s strength in order to claim again the inner stillness and freedom that come from putting our trust in God’s wisdom and power rather than our own.
If you have ever watched young children playing on a playground you may have noticed how a child might from time to time interrupt his play in order to come over to his mother, sitting at the edge of the play area. She hugs him, tussles his hair, and rubs his back. He leans into her and receives her love. After a few moments, he pops up and returns to his peers to join again in their play. Retreat can be like that – a short break from the tasks of our life, during which we can lean into God to receive God’s love and affection, and hear God’s words of encouragement and support. Retreats can offer us this kind of refreshment and renewal, and can prepare us to re-enter the fray of our daily lives with new energy and hope.
Retreat can be a short break from the tasks of our life, during which we can lean into God to receive God’s love and affection.
How might we enter into such a retreat? I often encourage retreatants to begin their retreats by returning to a favorite passage of Scripture or to a favorite hymn, one that recalls for them God’s deep love and abiding faithfulness. Here are some possible starting places:
– Isaiah 43:1-9 “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
– Psalm 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not be in want.”
– Psalm 139 “it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
– Romans 8:31-38 “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.”
– 1 John 4:7-21 “In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us…”
– Hymnal 1982, 671 “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound”
– Hymnal 1982, 664 “My Shepherd will supply my need”
“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there...
It will help if we remind ourselves that prayer is a gift, not a task. We come to prayer to offer God thanks and praise, and to receive the good gifts God has for us, gifts that God knows that we need. We do not come to achieve a goal or to produce a specific result. Nor do we come out of obligation, to fulfill a sense of duty. Christian prayer stems from a loving relationship. God has invited us into the Divine Presence in order to offer us love and strength, patience and courage, healing and wholeness. Prayer is the primary place where we receive these things. Therefore, we ought to approach our times of prayer or times of retreat not with a sense of duty, but in a spirit of receptivity and expectation. We are coming to meet the One who has created and redeemed us in love, and who reigns over all things, to receive all that we need from God’s heavenly storehouse.
The author of the First Letter of John writes, “We love because (God) first loved us” (1 John 4:9). The first thing (“we love”) is dependent on the second (that we have received and experienced God’s love for us). If we hope to be agents of God’s love in the world, carriers of God’s grace and ministers of God’s compassion, then we need to receive those gifts of love and grace and compassion from the hand of God. Only then can we offer them to others. Prayer is the place where these gifts are received. When I have experienced God’s unconditional love for me, I can offer that same unconditional love to others. When I have known God’s forgiveness, I can extend that same forgiveness to others. When I know that God accepts me as I am, without judgment, I can open myself to others and approach them with curiosity and interest rather than with suspicion and judgment. “We love because (God) first loved us.” This is the gift that God offers us in prayer and in retreat.
Begin your retreat, then, by returning to God, resting in God’s goodness and love, allowing God to restore your confidence in God’s protection and provision. God is at work in your life. “Be still, and know that God is God.”
...For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” - Psalm 139: 7-8, 13-14
Practices to Enrich Your Retreat
Recall specific moments when you have known God’s goodness and love in your life. How did you feel? What emotions spring up in you now as you recall those earlier times? Offer them to God.
Write a letter to God. What do you wish to say to God? What does God need to hear from you? It could be words of love or heartbreak or doubt. Be as honest as you can. One of our Brothers, at the end of this meditative practice, likes to take up another pen in a second color and write the words he hears God speaking back to him.
You might find it helpful to meditate with an image. I love to pray with Katherine Brown’s image of the Good Shepherd, rejoicing as he holds his lost lamb. As you gaze at this icon, hear God welcoming you back home. You are God’s beloved creature, the one for whom God would leave the ninety-nine, just to bring you back.
Sip and Savor
reading sacred texts on retreat
Br. Keith Nelson, SSJE
The spaciousness, silence, and freedom from distraction that retreat offers provide an ideal context for encountering Christ in scripture and sacred writings. Times of retreat free us from the obligation of assigned readings like the lectionary. They also beckon us away from the perpetual flow of the social media feed, headlines crafted to arrest us in our tracks, and images designed to hijack our attention. Unlike the reading we shoe-horn into a daily train commute or the spare, sleepy moments before bed, on retreat we are given the gift of genuine leisure to let our reading absorb, transfix, and even transfigure us. We can rediscover the grace-bearing potential of words by giving them our full and undivided attention. In the chapter entitled “Holy Scripture” in our Rule, we read: “It is the Spirit dwelling within us who brings the revelation of Scripture into a vital encounter with our inmost selves, and brings to birth new meaning and life.” When the texts we choose to take on retreat are selected with careful, prayerful discernment and approached with reverent expectancy, the living Word can open our deafness once more. Our lives may be forever changed by just a single phrase.
“Without silence, words become empty.” – SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 27, “Silence”
There are a few elements that can transform our engagement with printed words into sacred reading while on retreat. I’ll consider three: what we choose to read, the pace at which we read it, and the space we give ourselves to step away from our reading and rest in wordless silence. There is abundant literature on the classic monastic practice of lectio divina – a practice which I heartily recommend. Here, however, I will consider sacred reading practices a little more broadly.
How do we choose what texts we read on retreat? This is a fairly personal choice, but remember that your aim is sacred reading. I prefer to avoid texts which are primarily didactic – whose basic purpose is to instruct, inform, or set forth an argument. Instead, I choose texts which I trust will efface themselves and usher me gently into encounter with God, toward whom they point. I particularly relish reading poems on retreat, because a good poem can communicate directly to the heart what prose can take a volume to express! The writings of the ancient and medieval church, though sometimes difficult and obscure, never fail to reward my patient attention with gifts of grace. Some retreats have become like intimate conversations between Jesus, myself, and the saint whose holy friendship is offered to me through her or his writings. As a consummate bibliophile, I need to be ruthless in limiting the number of books I take on retreat and remind myself that this is not an opportunity to catch up on the six to eight books from the Monastery library begging for my attention. My hard rule is no more than two, plus a Bible. In reading scripture, I often aim to delve deeply into one book, or sometimes a single chapter, though I leave room for detours if they are strong promptings from the Spirit. I must cultivate, again and again, a “less is more” approach.
Learning to read slowly and meditatively can take practice, but this is the pace and approach that our ancestors in the faith most strongly recommend. Just as timeless works of visual art or music communicate freshly to each generation of artists or musicians, texts that contain true wisdom repay an infinite number of readings. Each inwardly repeated sentence can midwife new insights or lift the eyes of our hearts to whole constellations of meaning that our initial reading passed over unawares. In the ancient and medieval worlds, the act of reading was an awesome privilege demanding intense mental and physical concentration. Receiving even a one-page letter was a singular event. The precious words on the parchment were read aloud, repeatedly. This way of reading rendered the author mysteriously and intimately present. The Rule of St. Benedict makes provision for each monk to receive one book from the monastic library as his Lenten reading. A whole book to absorb in meditative prayer over the course of a liturgical season was a sublime gift. On retreat, we can follow their lead. Rather than gulp, we sip and savor.
“He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat...
In the sustained, meditative reading of a sacred text we expect to be impacted or transformed in some way because we honor the text’s spiritual authority or authenticity, but we don’t pretend to know how the encounter may change us. We are open to the text’s points of difficulty and obscurity (think for example of the prologue to John’s gospel, or the poems of T.S. Eliot). The Spirit patiently teaches us that when the fist of the mind closes around the words to wrest away a manufactured, quotable insight, they inevitably become opaque. The doors of perception close. Yet when we are receptive and open, without the compulsion to comprehend each particular nuance, words and phrases take on a transparent radiance. In the words of Eliot, “Every word is at home … the complete consort dancing together.” We are graced by a boundless, holistic, heart-centered way of knowing that can only be inspired — in-breathed by another power. In this moment, we close the book.
Then what? Nothing and everything may quiver expectantly in that moment. We may remain still for a time, resting in the Word. We may gather together a few words of humble gratitude. We may turn our attention to something very different: a long walk in the cold air, a cup of tea beside the fireplace, a luxurious nap, an hour with the blessed Sacrament. The Word has used words to bear us into the silence that is their Source, and to which they will return. We let the words be, planted in the dark, mysterious soil of our hearts. We entrust their growth to the Author of Life, until the next time we take up the text, our attention refreshed and renewed, hungry again for the grace that sacred reading bestows.
...He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.” – Ezekiel 3:1-3
Practices to Enrich Your Retreat
Memorize a favorite passage from Scripture. Repeat the words aloud, slowly and meditatively. How do the words feel in your mouth as you “chew” them? After a while, let yourself become silent in the lingering presence of the Word. Trust that they have been written on your heart, and will be there for you when you need them.
Gaze at the icon of St. John the Evangelist. Momentarily lay aside your analytical mind and simply receive the figures, colors, and shapes just as they are.
Now take a look at the angel hovering over John’s shoulder, whispering in his ear: a representation of the Word of God. The Word whispers to us through the printed words in front of us. But the same Word communicates in unexpected ways from the margins, or at the periphery of our vision – gently interrupting, inspiring, suggesting, or challenging.
What is it like to “read” the Word present to you in both of these places – or to allow the Word to read you in this way?
Strive and Wrestle
reading sacred texts on retreat
Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE
Prior to coming to the Monastery, my experiences of retreat were of an extended time of sabbath with God, always in the context of community with fellow believers. While times of rest in community away from the familiar scenes, routines, and challenges of life were quite beneficial to me, it wasn’t until I arrived at SSJE to test my vocation as a monk that I encountered a deeper and richer experience of retreat. As a novice, when I first studied the chapter entitled “Retreat” in our Rule of Life, one paragraph captured my attention: “Retreats will often be times in which we hear Jesus inviting us to be at rest with him. But we must expect retreats to expose us to spiritual trial. We may be tempted to tire ourselves or waste the time in busy work and preparation. We may find ourselves staying on the surface to avoid an authentic meeting with the living God. And the emptiness of retreat time may compel us to face painful signs of our need for healing which it was easier to overlook during our usual routines.” Spiritual trial!? Wasn’t retreat time about spending ‘quality time’ with God? I had never considered retreat to be so venturesome.
“We must expect retreats to expose us to spiritual trial.” – SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 27, “Silence”
This vision of retreat reminds me of a story from Genesis which I loved as a kid but never really understood until now: the story of Jacob and his encounter with a divine being. The author of this particular Genesis story says that Jacob is on a journey with his family and all his possessions when, at one point, he sends them ahead of him, while he stays behind. When he is completely alone, Jacob encounters a man who engages him in a struggle. The two spend the long hours of the night wrestling, and eventually Jacob overpowers the man. Before conceding defeat the man dislocates Jacob’s thigh and exclaims, “Let me go, for day is breaking.” But Jacob perceives something about this man with whom he has been wrestling. Aware that this is no ordinary encounter, Jacob asks his holy opponent for a blessing. The man declares that he will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, “for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” The name Israel means “a man seeing God.” The story continues: “And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip.”
This story resonates with me because it highlights the truth that any encounter which brings us into real intimacy with God will be costly. It will involve sacrifice, intention, endurance, and a desire and willingness to be changed. Jacob sacrificed all that he had, sending his family and possessions ahead unguarded while he withdrew to be alone with God. He intentionally engaged God in struggle, perhaps processing and working out the self-doubts that had plagued him. We know that Jacob had a less-than-stellar reputation in the eyes of his family and was seeking reconciliation from his estranged brother Esau. He had to abide with God in a difficult struggle, perhaps wondering at times whether he would be able to endure God’s truth and judgment. He had to desire change and make that desire known to God. At the dawning of the new day, he asked God to bless him as he moved forward into new life. Jacob left that encounter with God, not only with the new name of Israel, but also bearing a wound of love, one that would be a constant reminder of God’s grace and blessing.
“There are many conflicts on the way into the experience of divine love. As the spirit exposes it to Christ’s healing touch in prayer we shall often have to struggle with our reluctance to be loved so deeply by God...
It may be helpful to you to pray with the story of Jacob’s encounter with God, especially on retreat, since a retreat may expose us to spiritual trial. We may enter into retreat with the intention of deepening our relationship with God, only to find ourselves distracted. We live in an age where we are constantly bombarded with advertising which promises a better life. And the lure of social media – with its premise to bring us connection – actually isolates us from real, meaningful relationships. God does not relate to us through Facebook and Instagram. Rather God is drawing us into silence, stillness, and solitude, in order to share the intimacy of adoring love with us. Like any relationship that we care about, our relationship with God requires us to put aside distractions in order to gaze into the face of our Beloved.
It seems appealing to search for God somewhere ‘out there,’ in exotic places worthy of God’s glory. However, the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth and fifth centuries taught that the kingdom of heaven begins within us: “Strive to enter the treasure chamber that is within you; that way you will see the heavenly treasure. Both are one in the same. The ladder to the kingdom of heaven is in your soul ... there you will find the steps on which you can climb up.” The Psalmist writes, “Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides.” You are God’s abiding place!
Most often Jesus enters into our lives through the cracks of our brokenness. We need not be ashamed of the fissures in our heart. Instead we must have the courage to bare them to Jesus, whose desire is to fill us with grace so that we may know the power of his love. Acknowledging our need for healing, our desire for happiness, and our longing for abundance is a sacrifice we offer to God. In return, God gives us a morsel of bread and sip of wine, the heavenly food of his own body and blood to sustain and nourish us as we begin our journey to healing.
Like Jacob, we need the courage first to let go of everything, to engage God and to ask God to reveal our true identity, the person God has created us to be. Retreat can be the perfect time for such challenging, rewarding striving with God.
...Christ himself will strive with us, as the angel strove with Jacob, to disable our self-reliant pride and make us depend on grace.” – SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 21, “The Mystery of Prayer”
Practices to Enrich Your Retreat
What are you struggling with in your life – perhaps something in your past that has left you wounded? Do you share this struggle with God? Offer your wounds to Jesus in prayer, asking Him to transfigure the situation, that it might be a source of blessing to you.
Before going on retreat, note the amount of time you spend on social media each week. During the course of your retreat, resist the urge to connect virtually. Instead make a list of those whom you hold in your heart. Remember them to God in your prayer. Our founder, Richard Meux Benson, explains the power of intercessory prayer in this way: “....in praying for others we learn really and truly to love them. As we approach God on their behalf we carry the thought of them into the very being of eternal Love, and as we go into the being of him who is eternal Love, so we learn to love whatever we take with us there.” Carry those you love with you to God in prayer.
In times of spiritual trial, you may find it meaningful to meditate with an image of Christ crucified, like the one here. Reflect on how Christ is willing to share with you in your struggle.
About Br. David Vryhof
About Br. Keith Nelson
About Br. Jim Woodrum
Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE lives at the Monastery in Cambridge, where he serves the community both as the Director of Music and Director of Vocations. When he is away from his desk (and that “Office” in the Chapel), he enjoys cooking southern cuisine, exploring different neighborhoods in Boston, and sampling craft beer.
for everyday living
Br. Geoffrey Tristram traces the practice of pilgrimage back to the origins of our faith and deep into the inner realms of our hearts.
A JOURNEY WITHIN
When I decided to stop in and visit the small village church in Lastingham, Yorkshire, I had no idea that the place was of any significance. I hadn’t set out on a pilgrimage. I hadn’t researched the site or prepared myself to have any particular kind of experience. I just happened to be passing by there with my brother-in-law. I went in and decided to go down into the crypt.
As I entered into the low, dim stone space, I actually fell on the ground because of the overwhelming sense of holiness. I nearly passed out. I had no idea what was happening or why. I thought, “What on earth? Why am I feeling this?”
After I came back up into the church and looked around, I discovered that this church was where Saint Chad and Saint Cedd, missionaries to the Angles, had established their monastery. And Saint Cedd is buried, still, down in the crypt. My experience there was utterly unexpected; I almost couldn’t believe it. Yet it was also undeniable. The sense of the holy was so close, it fell upon me like a huge weight.
“People come to kneel where prayer has been valid,” wrote T.S. Eliot.
Eliot not only kneeled, he fully collapsed – on the floor of our own Holy Spirit Chapel – during an early morning Eucharist in the 1930s. He was the only visitor in the Chapel with the Brothers. Suddenly, during the consecration of the elements, he experienced the presence of God so powerfully, so heavily, he collapsed under it.
I love these stories because they remind me that while churches can offer sanctuary, they also can be incredibly dangerous places of encounter. We should post warnings on the door: Enter at your own risk. If you don’t want to risk an encounter that might change everything, then you might want to stay away!
Take Paul Claudel, the French playwright. Not a believer, he went one day into the vast cathedral, Notre-Dame de Paris. Claudel stood, half hiding behind a pillar, watching the Mass. He later wrote that the pillars were like great trees in a forest, and, as he stood there, something extraordinary took place. He said it was as if the Holy Spirit was hiding in that forest, and it suddenly ambushed him. At once he believed and fell to his knees.
Notre-Dame de Paris, this Monastery Chapel in Cambridge, Saint Mary’s in Lastingham, Yorkshire: it’s not just aesthetics that gives such churches their power. These places are holy, which simply means that they have been consecrated to God. They are places where generations have come seeking God; where men and women have been ambushed by God and can never be the same again. They are places where thousands upon thousands of prayers have been offered; where solemn vows have been made: monastic vows, baptismal vows, marriage vows, ordination vows. It’s almost as if the very walls have become impregnated with prayer and saturated with God’s presence. The holiness of such places is not measurable, and yet it’s undeniable. We enter and, ready or not, God is already there, waiting for us.
We believe, of course, that God is everywhere. God can be found on a mountaintop, as well as in a valley; in the dark and in the light; in a holy place and in the gutter. The place where we encounter God is actually not material, for God of course is immaterial. Seen this way, there is no need to go anywhere at all to experience God.
And yet, as Christians, we also believe in the Incarnation. John’s Gospel tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” or, as another translation has it, “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (Jn 1:14). Within the more Catholic traditions of the Christian church, believers pray in front of the tabernacle – where the Sacrament is placed – out of a desire to be close to the sacramental presence of Christ, the Christ who became flesh and dwelt among us. We believe that Christ is physically there, in the Sacrament. Even though God is everywhere, we embodied creatures do experience God (like everything else) in our bodies and through our senses. Our sacramental practice within the Church is reflective of this; it invites us to experience God’s presence somatically, in our flesh, with our taste and with our touch. The God who became flesh comes to us again in the flesh every time we hold out our hands and “Take, eat” the Sacrament.
And so, too, there are physical places where we feel that God can be experienced in a uniquely powerful way. “Thin places” we call them, where the veil between Heaven and earth is thinned, somehow. Where – even if you aren’t expecting it, or are unprepared for it – you can become aware of an almost overwhelming sense of God’s presence, as I did at Lastingham.
These places of divine encounter are holy places with the power to transform us, just as the Sacraments do, by bringing us into contact with the living God. In these places of encounter, God’s presence is so palpable that it’s actually very easy to pray. We can be very vulnerable. We feel close to the Source of Life.
Such places of encounter become sites of pilgrimage.
While pilgrimage rose as a widespread devotional practice in the Middle Ages, humans have been practicing pilgrimage for as long as we have experienced and commemorated encounters with God.
Think of that wonderful story in Genesis 28, the story of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob falls asleep and dreams of a ladder ascending up to Heaven, with angels going up and down. When he awakens, he knows that he’s been visited by God. He says, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the Gate of Heaven.” He calls that place Bethel, “the house of God.”
What’s significant is that Jacob is sleeping on a rock as a pillow. When he wakes up and realizes that he’s been visited by God, he takes that rock, makes it into an altar, and pours oil on it. As word spreads, people begin to come to that place. That site becomes holy because that’s where God came down and touched a human. It’s a place where, to quote T.S. Eliot again, we “apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time.” The transcendent God has actually broken through into our time-bound world, and we can point to where it happened. There, right there. Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to call these “little anticipations of Heaven,” moments of transcendence. They can happen in sacred places, they can happen on pilgrimage, and they can happen in the daily journey of our everyday life.
As Christians, we are a pilgrim people.
Pilgrimage is woven into the very roots of our faith, beginning with Abraham, the first pilgrim. In Genesis 12, God calls Abram (whom God will later call Abraham) to leave his house and journey to a land unknown. “Leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house, and go on a journey to a foreign land.” So Abram becomes nomadic. He pitches a tent each night; the next morning, he takes up the tent pegs and moves on. I think that this “Abrahamic” spirit is fundamental to our Judeo-Christian tradition: we are pilgrim people, from the very start.
The thread picks up with the most formative experience of salvation in the Hebrew Scriptures: the story of the Exodus, which is essentially a forty-year pilgrimage. God’s people are enslaved in Egypt, brutalized by Pharaoh, and God raises up Moses to be their savior. And Moses leads them on an epic journey across the desert, to the Promised Land.
This thread continues throughout the Gospels, as Jesus calls disciples to follow him away from their homes and all that they have known, on a journey into the unknown:
“He saw Simon and Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mk 1:16-18)
“He saw James and John who were in their boat mending the nets. He called them and they left their father Zebedee and followed him.” (Mt 4:21-22)
“He called the rich young man and said, ‘Sell everything that you have and follow me.’” (Mt 19:21)
“He saw a tax collector called Levi and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up, left everything, and followed him.” (Lk 5:27-28)
Jesus’ uncompromising command to leave everything – and indeed the longing to leave everything to follow Jesus – inspired many of the first monastics: Saint Anthony and the Desert Fathers in the fourth century, who left all their property and wealth behind, to head out into the western deserts of Egypt.
And in the early Celtic Christian tradition, such men as Patrick and Columba embraced what was known as “white martyrdom” when they left their homes to travel to foreign lands, leaving everything behind, to follow Jesus. As a contemporary writer put it, “They sailed into the white sky of morning, into the unknown, never to return.”
While most of us are not called to such extreme acts of renunciation for the sake of following Jesus, yet those words in the Gospel are surely addressed to each one of us: “Leave everything and follow me, and you will receive eternal life.”
This command contains a deep truth for each of us: the first step in our pilgrimage will always be a movement away from, a renunciation of the familiar. Unless we let go of the familiar, the safe, the secure, unless we take the risk of becoming vulnerable, we cannot grow.
This is one of the main reasons why pilgrims set out for holy destinations: they are longing to take a journey of transformation. To do so, they literally leave behind the familiar and the known, and physically journey into a place and a future that only God can envision. The pilgrim’s physical journey can “jumpstart” the transformation, as it were, through the radical act of leaving behind the world that is known. It’s no accident that so much of the great literature of the world picks up on this very theme of the hero’s transformative journey; from the story of Abraham in Genesis, to the great epics, The Odyssey, The Iliad, even The Lord of the Rings. A pilgrimage of transformation requires first that we leave everything behind, and set out on a journey that will lead to new life.
Simply leaving home is not enough, of course.
Physical pilgrimage has value primarily for its ability to inspire inner change. In this, the physical journey of pilgrimage symbolizes (and often catalyzes) the spiritual journey that we are called to take within. In her wonderful treatment of medieval pilgrimage, Pilgrimage of the Heart, Sr. Benedicta Ward, SLG, catalogues four possible stages along the spectrum between physical and spiritual pilgrimage:
1. It was possible to stay and to stay, in other words to be completely lazy and attempt nothing, go nowhere, stay shut within the walls of self, to ignore pilgrimage altogether.
2. It was possible to stay and yet to go, by undertaking the pilgrimage of the heart while remaining in one place, which was the fundamental monastic way.
3. It was possible to go inwardly by longing and desire in the heart and to confirm this by outward pilgrimage with the feet, to be a true pilgrim.
4. It was possible to go on pilgrimage with feet, but not with heart, as a tourist, a runaway, or a drop-out from responsibility, a curious inquirer, in which case there had been no real movement; the traveler had taken the shell of self with him and whatever its name it was not in essence a pilgrimage at all.
Of this last kind of pilgrimage, the great biblical translator Saint Jerome observed, “It is better to live for Jerusalem than to journey to Jerusalem.” Better to stay home and be changed in heart, than to journey with your feet yet remain internally unmoved.
Whether or not each of us eventually chooses to embark on a physical pilgrimage at some point in our life, we are all of us called to set out, ever afresh, on the inner kind of pilgrimage, the pilgrimage of the heart. We are called, in the words of Jerome, to “live for Jerusalem,” as we follow Christ on a journey of growth and transformation.
“Come follow me. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (Jn 14:6). Christianity has never been a static body of doctrine, but rather is a dynamic way of life. The first term used in the New Testament to describe Christians is “followers of the Way,” because of Jesus’ compelling invitation to take to the road, to make all of life into a continuous pilgrimage. Monica Furlong, in her book Traveling In, wrote, “The religious person is the one who believes that life is about making some kind of journey. The non-religious person is the one who believes there is no journey to make.”
The journey – whether it be the journey of Abraham or Moses, Jesus’ disciples or medieval pilgrims – has never been simply about traveling across physical space toward a holy site. Every outward journey of pilgrimage always has as its true goal an inner journey of transformation.
The essence of pilgrimage, then, is the journey within. Therefore the essential pilgrimage to undertake is not the one of the feet, but the one of the heart. For this reason, I love the story that Sr. Benedicta recounts of the early Egyptian recluse, who fell under criticism for living a sedentary life. “Why are you sitting here and doing nothing?” one monk asked her. She replied, “I am not doing nothing; I am on a journey.”
We can embark on the most amazing journey without ever leaving our room. Every day Jesus calls us to embrace new life, and that means to let go, to leave behind what has become too comfortable, our habits, our compulsions. It means each morning awakening to a new day and saying to God, “Where do you want to lead me today on the journey of life? What are you asking me to leave behind? How are you asking me to change?”
“To live is to change,” wrote Cardinal Newman, “and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
Jesus’ continuous call to grow and change can make us feel insecure and, frankly, scared. I suppose, if we are honest, we’re not always very keen to take to the road. And yet that is what this resurrection Life is all about. “For here we have no abiding city, for we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14).
As pilgrims, we are not simply wanderers. This pilgrimage of ours is not just away from our old life, nor is it solely into the depths of our hearts. Our journey is actually toward something very specific. “We seek the city which is to come.” We are headed somewhere. We have a specific destination: our heavenly home. Our pilgrimage journey is toward God!
This is the fundamental difference between traveling through life as a pilgrim and as a tourist. To the tourist, every part of the journey has equal value, whereas the pilgrim definitely has a goal. To understand our life as a pilgrimage is to see this life as teleological: to know it actually has an end, and a goal, in Heaven. God is the end of our journey – both our destination and our goal.
One thing that can be very helpful as we press along on this journey, is periodically to stop and make a sort of “map” of the road we’ve traveled and the road ahead. Ultimately, we know that our destination is God; yet like any traveler pressing on along an unknown road, we may need to check in and reorient ourselves from time to time, to be sure that we haven’t taken off on the wrong path.
Honestly take stock of your journey so far: Where am I now, where have I been, and where do I feel I should be going? Ask yourself: Where do I feel God is drawing me now? What is the vision I have of the person God wants me to become? What are the things in my life right now which are stopping me from realizing that vision, or dulling my sight? Where am I being pulled off the path?
It doesn’t matter how far along the path you are. And if you have come off the way, that’s ok too; you simply need to get back on it. “To repent” in the Greek is metanoia, which means to “turn around.” If you find you’ve gone astray, then turn around! Retrace your steps to the last time you knew that you were in the right spot, and start again from there.
This exercise can be particularly helpful when we undertake it with a companion, someone we trust, who knows us and loves us, and who also understands the things of the Spirit. Find someone who can act as a guide in interpreting your map and pointing you toward the next step on the road. In this, the Road to Emmaus offers such a wonderful image for this pilgrim life (see Lk 24:13-27). The disciples set out on pilgrimage to Emmaus. Suddenly, Christ draws near to them, but they don’t recognize him, until they reflect on the teaching the stranger has shared. So too, we need to be open and expectant that, along the route, somebody may draw close to us, and they may be the Christ, speaking words which set us on the path to life again, by renewing our vision.
Wherever we are on our life journey, we are never alone. The story of Emmaus promises us that we are always joined by another, the Risen One. He always walks beside us. When we are at the extremity of our strength, he is with us; in the wilderness of ice or the furnace of the fire; in our times of greatest loneliness or trial, Emmaus reassures us, “You are not alone: you have a companion.”
The Risen Christ walks by our side, but he also goes ahead of us. In John’s Gospel, we read, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places: if it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (Jn 14:2). The word used by John for “dwelling place” is very interesting. It’s the Greek word monai, which doesn’t mean a “house,” and certainly not a “mansion,” but rather a “stopping place,” like a wayside shelter, where a traveler could rest a night or two on a journey (like the mountain huts you find in the White Mountains). In the East, it was the custom for travelers to send someone ahead to prepare the next shelter along the road, so that when the travelers arrived, they might find comfort, as well as shelter.
Jesus, in this famous passage, is promising that he is that person for us. He is just ahead of us on our life’s journey: he prepares the way for us. Even though the next step of our journey may seem scary, “I have gone before you to prepare a place for you.”
As comforting as this image is, we should also hear in it something of a prod. We often reach a stage in our life where we have found a very comfortable wayside shelter, and decide that we’d like to stop there for good. We begin putting up curtains and might even stow our pack under the bed! But that is to forget our Abrahamic roots, which call us to take out the tent pegs in the morning, and move on.
We are a pilgrim people. Christ urges us on: “Get back on the road. Don’t be afraid. For I will always be the one walking by your side – and I will always go before you to prepare the way.”
In this pilgrim life, we are called to an ongoing journey, with God and toward God. And yet there is this amazing sense that, the more we travel away from what we know, the more familiar the landscape will become. My journey does not actually lead me away from myself, but toward it. I am called by Jesus to become more and more the Geoffrey that God had in mind when God created me. And so, too, are you: called to become the person God made you to be. We have this little time on Earth for that to happen, to become who we truly are, so that when we finally get to Heaven, it won’t be such a shock!
To quote T.S. Eliot once more, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and to know the place for the first time.” At the end of our journey, we will find ourselves, finally, home.
About Br. Geoffrey Tristram
Br. Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE was born in Wales and studied theology at Cambridge University before training to be a priest at Westcott House theological college. He came to the United States fifteen years ago to join SSJE and has pursued a ministry of teaching, spiritual direction, and retreat leading, and for three years he served as chaplain to the House of Bishops. Before coming to SSJE he served as a parish priest in the diocese of St. Albans, as well as the head of the department of theology at Oundle School, a large Anglican high school in the English Midlands.
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.
for everyday living
Br. James Koester marvels how the rhythms of the creation can draw us into deeper life with God and greater balance within ourselves.
LIVING IN RHYTHM
FOLLOWING NATURE'S RULE
Q. What are we by nature?
A. We are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God.
Q. What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
A. It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.
These opening sentences of the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer identify us, first and foremost, as part of God’s creation. We can only thrive when we “live in harmony with creation and with God” (“An Outline of the Faith,” Book of Common Prayer, Church Publishing: 1979, 845).
I’ve come to know this myself in a profound way: Several years ago, I moved from the SSJE Monastery, right in the heart of Harvard Square in Cambridge, to our rural Monastery called Emery House. The Emery family had lived and farmed this land for over 300 years before entrusting it to the Society in 1950. From a world of high granite arches and marble altars, stained glass and organ music, with cars passing just outside the door on Memorial Drive, I found myself suddenly surrounded, day in and day out, month after month, by new sights and sounds: meadow grasses bending in a breeze, frost icing the branches of the beech grove, the companionship of a flock of wonderfully noisy, inquisitive geese. There were no street lights but the stars. And, as often as not, my experience of the Daily Office was now punctuated by bird calls.
As I adjusted to these new surroundings – which were of course already known to me from my frequent stays at Emery House – it turned out that this new world was not as familiar as I’d thought. I found no end of lessons waiting in the world around me. The bees, for instance, taught me to do one thing at a time. If my focus or attention drifted, I found they had an unpleasant habit of reminding me who actually was in charge. The garden taught me that you can’t simply take the harvest, you also must invest in the soil by rotating crops and adding nutrients, by composting and mulching. The geese constantly reminded me of the importance of joy in our lives, for they are some of the most joyful creatures God ever created, especially first thing in the morning when I let them out of the coop or when they attempt to take flight in a rush to greet me when I appear in the garden later in the day.
The more I listened and learned, the more I began to suspect that, living more closely in touch with nature at Emery House, I wasn’t just becoming a better gardener and a better gosherd and a better beekeeper. I realized that, perhaps, I was also becoming a better monk, a better Christian – even, a better human being.
In the gospels, Jesus frequently points to creation as a way to teach us about the Kingdom and our abiding in God. He invites us to consider the lilies of the fields, to look at the mustard seed, to abide in the vine, and to ponder the mystery of pruning. His parables illustrate their lessons with common objects and activities from the natural world – sowing, pruning, and reaping, for example – admittedly more familiar to his original audience than to readers two millennia later. (We tend to have lives more distanced from nature now.) But there is also a deeper reason for the presence of such natural imagery throughout the Scriptures. From the very opening of the book of Genesis – when we see God at work, making the earth – the creation promises to offer us a direct link back to its Creator. By looking to the wonder of creation, we begin to fathom the mystery of our belonging to the God who made us, too. As people with the eyes of faith, we see in the yearly cycle of the seasons the transfiguring power of the Spirit, restoring all things in Christ who himself fills all things.
One of the earliest members of our community, Father George Congreve, SSJE, taught powerfully about this restoration. He saw that humanity’s perfect unity with creation had been lost in the Fall: “The coming of sin brought estrangement between man and nature. The happiness of their union in serving God was broken.” But Father Congreve also saw that the resurrection of Christ promises a restoration of that unity: “As the Son of Man raised to the Right Hand of God gathers all mankind into blessing . . . so He heals the estrangement between man and nature, and lifts up to God both together in Himself. Thus the unity not of mankind only, but the whole of creation is restored in Christ.” Restoration – the restoration of our balance with nature, as well as the restoration of the natural world itself – teaches us our own place as creatures, natural creatures, placed on this earth by a loving Creator.
And what a creation it is! SSJE’s founder, Father Benson, encourages us to “look to the glory” of God, and we behold this glory not only in the Ascended Christ, where Father Benson focused our attention, but we see this glory too, imprinted on creation. It’s visible everywhere around us. Such wonder and beauty reveals the bounty and generosity of God, the Chief Gardener, working endlessly toward the good of God’s creation and creatures. As the psalmist reminds us: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all, the earth is full of your creatures” (Psalm 104: 25).
For this reason, one of the things that I really value about Emery House is the night sky. I don’t know very much about stars – I can’t identify constellations or anything like that – but I just love to look up at the heavens. Living under the stars teaches me over and over again about the magnificence of God. As counter intuitive as it might seem, in a way, I would say the same thing about sitting in the Monastery Chapel: When I sit in the Monastery Chapel, I’m amazed by the skill of the Master Craftsman who made the human craftsmen who built it. (How could God have created humans who could create something like this?) Whether sitting in the Monastery Chapel or gazing up at the night sky at Emery House after Compline, the masterpiece of the Creator is all around us, drawing our hearts to God.
When we begin to be attentive to the work of the Creator, it can transform the way we are alive to the lessons unfolding around us. We notice purpose and intention behind the beauty. There is form and structure and order in creation, put there by the hand of the Chief Gardener who tends it. Seen from a distance, the natural world may look crazy and chaotic – just a jungle to us – and yet, nature is much more dependent and interdependent than we might think.
We invited Tom Wessels, a natural historian, to walk the Emery House property with the Brothers and some of our advisors. Tom’s expertise allows him to “read” a landscape and interpret its history: what the land was used for, how it has changed over time, what crops may have been grown on it, when certain parts of the property might have been used for pasture, and when the meadows and fields were allowed to revert to forest. Tom explained to us that nature actually communicates with itself through various means. Trees can communicate with one another underground through the root system, and in the air, through their leaves, allowing them to synchronize the production of leaves and seeds as well as to prepare themselves for an invasion of pests. (See Tom Wessels’ book, Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England, The Countryman Press, 1997.)
So, for instance, take oak trees. Oak trees produce acorns on a seven-year cycle. Every year, they produce a few acorns and then, on the seventh year, they produce a plenitude of acorns. This is called masting. It turns out that all the acorns in New England mast on the sameseven-year cycle, because they can communicate with all the other oak trees across New England – except the trees on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, which mast on a different cycle. The trees can’t communicate that far. From even this one example we see that while nature may look quite chaotic, in the mind of God it’s much more ordered and has more form, pattern, and rhythm than we might at once perceive.
The most easily perceptible patterns in nature take the shape of cycles. There is the yearly cycle of the seasons. There’s the daily cycle of the sunset, night, dawn, and day. And then there are other, more specific cycles. My favorite example is one I didn’t learn about until a few years ago, here at Emery House: the chicken cycle!
It turns out that a chicken can lay an egg every twenty-five hours, depending on the amount of sunlight it gets. (A chicken needs about fourteen to sixteen hours of sunlight in order for the hormones to kick in to lay the egg.) Who knew that egg-laying was connected to the sun? Well, with our brood at Emery House, we noticed that the production of eggs declined as the days got shorter and the nights got longer. Of course, commercial farmers have learned that there are ways to alter this natural cycle. If you put a light in the chicken coop, to fool the chickens into thinking it’s light twenty-four hours a day, they increase their productivity. Under such artificial constraints, they produce their egg every twenty-five hours, whether it is pitch black outside for twenty of those hours or not.
At Emery House, we decided that such an approach didn’t seem fair to the chickens. For some reason or other, God created them to work in this very specific way. And if we tried to artificially stimulate them to produce eggs, it would be like us artificially stimulating ourselves to work overtime all the time. I have the feeling that God didn’t make us for that kind of life either.
Yet because we humans are no longer solely dependent on the sun for light, we’ve been able to extend the day beyond what is natural or sustainable. For a lot of people, this means we’ve been able to extend the workdaybeyond what is natural or sustainable. One hundred and fifty years ago, when the Emery family lived on this land and farmed, they simply could not work for most of the year at 6:00 pm, 7:00 pm, 8:00 pm, not to mention 9:00 or 10:00 at night. Now, I want to be clear that I’m all in favor of electricity. It has changed our lives mostly for the good. But it’s also contributed to the temptation we experience to live an unbalanced life. We’ve pushed the boundaries of day and night beyond their natural elasticity – a natural elasticity that was put there as a boundary, for our own good.
Taking a lesson from the chickens and their relationship to the hours of daylight, we see that, just as the chickens need a break from egg laying – it’s built into their makeup – so too, do we need a break from our labors. Even God chose to rest! “And on the seventh day, God rested” (Genesis 2:2). So we need a rest at the end of each day, as well as weekly, on the Sabbath, and even yearly, with an annual holiday or a retreat to recharge. Lessons in time management might seem to be of human design – after all we’re the ones with schedules and work calendars to follow – but the proof comes to us directly from the natural world. Our need to rest is retaught to us with each sunset. The creation points the way to the rhythm that is natural to us.
As monastics, we Brothers are committed to seeking balance in our lives and helping others to discover the natural rhythms that will enable them to thrive. This desire is at the heart of what it means to us to be monks. People who encounter our community for the first time are often shocked to learn how ordered the Brothers’ lives are. Even novices in our community often comment that one of the things that most surprises them is how every hour is scheduled – even the rest hours – and every activity, work, and play, has its place in the monastic day.
We live in this ordered way in the hopes of finding a more natural, life-giving rhythm for our day than what we might do if left to our own devices. God, the Chief Gardener of our souls, is responsible for nurturing our growth, but God also enlists our help. Although we cannot make ourselves grow, we can arrange the conditions of our lives for optimal growth. Just as a gardener provides the stakes and lattices on which plants can grow, so we put in place various spiritual disciplines and habits that support the young shoots growing toward fruitfulness in our souls.
Monastic spirituality has offered us a useful tool called a “Rule of Life,” which can help us create the necessary conditions for growth in our lives with God. The monastic movement began when holy men and women left the distractions and relentlessness of their busy lives to try to learn how to live more harmoniously – with God, themselves, one another, and with all of creation. They sought out wild places, places where they could be alone, or gather in small communities, so as to shape their lives more intentionally. To aid them in this endeavor, the early monastics began to draft “Rules” for their communities: written documents that set out how the community wanted to live. Our word “rule” derives from a Latin word, regula, which connotes not so much a system of rules or laws, but rather a way of regulating and regularizing our lives so that we can stay on the path we have set out for ourselves.
One of the most important early rules, the Rule of Saint Benedict, has inspired countless generations of monastic communities and individuals in the fifteen centuries since it first guided Benedict’s community at Monte Cassino. It might surprise you to see how little apparently “spiritual” teaching this Rule includes. The chapters detail topics like, “How the Night Office Is to Be Said in Summer Time,” “How They Are to Sleep,” “On the Weekly Servers in the Kitchen,” and “On the Daily Manual Labor” – not topics that would seem to skyrocket anyone toward spiritual enlightenment. But the goal of Benedict’s Rule is precisely to order the Brothers’ common life, to keep them in tune with God above them, the world around them, the people beside them, and the needs within them. This rhythm of life allows the soul to be true to itself, more loving toward others, and thus, to grow deeper in tune with God.
Discovering a life in tune, in harmony, in rhythm, in balance is the underlying goal for any Rule of Life. To borrow the words from the Catechism that open this article, a Rule explicitly aims to help us “to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.”
Two of my favorite things to grow are scarlet runner beans and morning glories. I love the deep red and purple of their flowers and the way they grow up their respective trellises, twining themselves up the poles which give both stability and structure to the plants. This image of the trellis is an important monastic image, as the root words for “trellis” and “rule” are related. Both provide shape and strength to the thing they are supporting. This connection suggests a wonderful parallel, for a Rule of Life functions much like a garden trellis does to a growing plant: It aims to give stability, strength, and guidance, but never in a rigid way. After all, it wants to foster growth, not stunt it!
The support any one individual needs to thrive will be as unique as that individual is. Marjorie Thompson observes in her book, Soul Feast: “Tomatoes need stakes, and beans must attach themselves to suspended strings…Without support, these plants would collapse in a heap on the ground. . . . When it comes to spiritual growth, human beings are much like these plants. . . . We need structure in order to have enough space, air, and light to flourish. Structure gives us the freedom to grow as we are meant to” (Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, Westminster John Knox: 2014, 149).
The structure a Rule provides aims ultimately at creating freedom, not control. Look at a rose trellis: The roses are all over the place, varied in their shape, color, and size. Yet without the support and strength of that trellis, the plant could never grow so wonderfully beautiful, unruly, and unique.
So when we Brothers talk about living by a Rule – as we’ll be doing this Lent in the series Growing a Rule of Life – we mean something more like a trellis than a law code, a system very dynamic and fluid and flexible. A Rule describes a rhythm of living – a rhythm that gives life, much as the varied and beautiful rhythm of sunset and sunrise gives shape to the day. What sort of organic rhythm, which grows out of your life, would give you more life?
Over the last few years, as we Brothers have been deepening our connection with the property at Emery House – working the land to grow food, conserving the land to restore native habitats – we’ve come to appreciate more and more just how fundamental our connection to the creation is to our lives as monks and our wholeness as human beings. We believe that living in rhythm with nature, by the structure of a Rule, helps each of us to grow into that vibrant life the Gardener dreamed when we were created.
Our guests at Emery House have encouraged and inspired us in this direction, by sharing with us how their experiences of the creation at Emery House have opened their hearts to God. Working alongside us in the meadows, woods, and gardens, they’ve learned, as we have, that living in rhythm with nature is not all sunsets and lark song! Yet the hard work of tending the land has proven even more valuable, for those who’ve come to assist us as volunteers, than simply relaxing in the refreshing air. Last year, I had a guest cleaning garlic for me. He was sitting out in one of the Adirondack chairs, working away. At one point I came by and said to him, “Thank you for doing that.” And I’ll always remember his response. He said, “Oh, no, thank you. This is the first time in a year I’ve gotten my hands dirty.”
This is what we need: We need to get our hands dirty. We need to be physically in touch with the creation. We need to get reconnected to nature, in a place that isn’t just manicured lawns or city parks bordered by skyscrapers. We need to experience the good ache of using our bodies in fresh air. We need honest sweat.
I think we need this because, ultimately, it reminds us who we are, that fundamental identity the Catechism defines as “part of God’s creation.” The creation connects us with the Creator. It grounds us in the living rhythms of which we are a part. We remember not just that we have a body, but that we are a body – a working, interdependent, natural, physical miracle that God made. “For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will thank you because I am marvelously made…” (Psalm 139:12).
We need to live in rhythm with nature because we arenature. We’re not over and above or outside of nature; we’re part of nature, we’re part of the whole ecosystem. When we live in rhythm with nature, we take our place as one part of this magnificent whole that God has made. Our own restoration is fundamentally linked with the preservation and restoration of the natural world we inhabit and of which we ourselves are a part.
As we strive to live in rhythm – as God intends us to live – we feel ourselves called into the woods, the desert wastes, beside the running waters, under the deep blue sky. We respond to the deep fellowship with nature that the Spirit urges, and which is a fundamental part of our humanity. We learn from the natural world the rhythms by which we can live richer, more human and humane lives. And when we begin to heed these rhythms, in the words of early SSJE member Father Congreve, then the Creation “shall become a living and personal word revealing to each of us the heart of God.”
About Br. James Koester
Br. James Koester was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. In 1989 he came to the United States to test his vocation with the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, where he was life-professed in 1995. Br. James has served in a wide range of leadership posts in the Society, currently serving as the community’s Superior. During his time in the Society he has traveled widely in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, the Holy Land, and Africa, leading retreats and workshops, preaching, teaching, and offering spiritual direction. His personal interests include genealogy, the study and writing of icons, and beekeeping.
Experience Holy Week as a journey into the heart of God through prayer.
In Lent 2013, the Brothers offered a video series on “Praying Our Lives,” exploring the gifts and modes of prayer. Click on each video below for inspiration on how to pray this day of Holy Week.
For a resource page on prayer, including select videos from “Praying Our Lives,” click here.
To view the full “Praying Our Lives” series, click here.
“Easter is a feast of hope. Not because the resurrection is a nice idea for wishful thinkers, but because God’s promise of life and liberty to all who believe is real. We know that God will keep the Divine Promise and grant us life, liberty and healing, even as we live in the shadow of death.” – Br. James Koester
The Great Vigil of Easter is the most solemn and ancient liturgy of the entire year. It is the culmination of Lent and Holy Week, and the Triduum.
Ring the bells! Worshippers at the Great Vigil of Easter ring handbells as we sing God’s Paschal Lamb at the beginning of the first Eucharist of Easter and during the singing of Jesus Christ is Risen Today. The tradition of silencing church bells on Maundy Thursday and ringing them again on Easter Day likely reflects an even more ancient custom of keeping silence before a spring equinox or a winter solstice, then celebrating it with a joyous celebration of light and sound announcing that the darkness has fled and that new life is coming back into the world. We know that this is true on Easter Day.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
- The Exsultet
- Easter Acclamation and Paschal Hymn
- Psalm 33:1-11
- Psalm 46
- The Song of Moses
- Psalm 122
- The First Song of Isaiah
- Psalm 42:1-7
- Psalm 30
- Psalm 98
- The Litany
- Jesus Christ is Risen Today
“Resurrection Knowing” – Br. Keith Nelson
On Easter morning, Br. Keith Nelson evokes the power of resurrection knowing, which implausibly, illogically, mysteriously, tangibly, palpably, materially, personally, lovingly, victoriously prepares us to sing into the mouth of the grave, “Alleluia.”
“Prisoners of Hope” – Br. James Koester
Br. James Koester celebrates how the life and love of God, through the resurrection of Jesus, can shatter our chains, and set us free.
“Calling by Name” – Br. Luke Ditewig
God comes to us when we are face-first with death. On Easter Sunday, Br. Luke Ditewig encourages us to look back to remember, look up to give thanks, and look forward in hope, to claim Jesus’ resurrection power over all that is killing us in this life.
“Ring Your Bells!” – Br. James Koester
We experience Holy Week, not just with our minds but in our bodies. Br. James Koester invites us to recognize not just the aches and pains and grip of fear that Holy Week can evoke, but also the resurrection of Jesus, surging like an electric flash in our bodies.
“Experience the Resurrection” – Br. Curtis Almquist
Claim the hope in Jesus’ resurrection for you in the here-and-now.
“Love Reborn” – Br. James Koester
We should all be standing on a street corner today throwing our hats, or gloves, or coats or even our surplices into the air, because hope and forgiveness and love are reborn, and we want the world to know. Alleluia.
“Those Five Words” – Br. James Koester
Those five words turned the world upside down. They renewed love. They restored hope. They rekindled courage. “I have seen the Lord.”
“From Still Days to Dawn” – Br. Geoffrey Tristram
We stand with the women at the empty tomb, at the dawn of universe, at the threshold of Life.
“A Cause For Great Joy” – Br. Geoffrey Tristram
On Easter, we celebrate that Jesus has called us brothers, as he rolls the stone away from our hearts.
“Joy Comes in the Morning” – Br. David Vryhof
The evidence for the Resurrection lies not in the empty tomb, but in the encounters of the first disciples with the Risen Lord.
“The Power of God” – Br. Geoffrey Tristram
The power of God, which raised Jesus to life, which is more powerful than anything else in all creation, is the power of love.
“Shekinah” – Br. Geoffrey Tristram
We need all the help we can get to keep us awakened to the wonder and significance of Easter: that “because he lives, we live also.”
“This is the profound mystery at the heart of the Christian faith: that we can come to the foot of the cross and bring our hurts and failures, even our greatest pain, and know what it is to be held in God’s love. And then most mysteriously of all, we can experience that pain transfigured by the love of God, and taken up into the resurrection of Christ.” – Br. Geoffrey Tristram
Holy Saturday is a day of waiting, anticipation, and preparation for Easter. We know that Jesus is in the Tomb.
An ancient homily for Holy Saturday, which you can listen to below, meditates on the mystery of this day: “Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep.”
You might pray today with stillness, silence.
What parts of you are dying? What parts of you are waiting for new life?
Consider what in your life is giving you life right now – and give thanks. Consider what is draining or destroying life in you right now. As we await the glory of Easter, ponder what God’s invitation to ‘new life’ might look like in your present circumstances.
Liturgy of the Word, an ancient lyrical homily
Br. James Koester
Holy Saturday (2:01)
Br. Curtis Almquist
| “Resurrection and the Life” (55:37)
Br. David Vryhof