Sermon for The Restoration of Religious Life in the Anglican Communion, 1841
The leaders of the Oxford Movement in the Church of England in the 19th Century came to a general agreement that there was a need to establish Monastic communities. This was because in the four years between 1536 and 1541 over 800 monasteries and convents had been dissolved and destroyed, or given over to other uses. This was a regrettable part of that tumultuous period of the Anglican Reformation.
Finally, on June 5, 1841, under the guidance of Dr. Edward Bouverie Pusey, a young woman, Marian Rebecca Hughes, made solemn monastic vows in St. Mary’s Church, Oxford. That event marks the restoration of the Religious Life in the Anglican Communion. The vows that she took that June morning were an act of love for God, who loves us.
In the following years a number of communities for women were founded. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to establish communities for men. Eventually our own Society of Saint John the Evangelist was successfully founded in 1866, and others soon followed.
It is of significance for us who are living the monastic life here today, and for you who come here to worship with us, because from that event which we commemorate today other communities did develop and flourish. Many good works have developed from those communities. These have become centers for teaching deeper understanding of the spiritual life of the whole Church. This witness to the life of prayer continues today here and in many other parts if the world.
Will you pray with us for more vocations to the Religious life? Pray also for a deeper understanding of that life and of all that it stands for in the life of the whole Church.
In the calendar of the church we remember today an Egyptian monk named Pachomius, who lived years 290-346. Pachomius was born in a small village in northern Egypt to a family who worshipped the gods of the Pharaohs. As a young man Pachomius was conscripted into military service. His fifth-century biography, the Vita Prima, recalls that where he was billeted, he for the first time met Christians who did “all manner of good… treating [everyone] with love for the sake of the God of heaven.” Pachomius was smitten by the kind and generous camaraderie, the koinonia, of Christian believers, the very thing described in the Acts of the Apostles: “They were of one heart and one soul,” and who essentially practiced three things: these Christians lived together in community, they prayed and worshipped, and they served others. This experience for Pachomius was life-changing. He prayed to this Christian God, promising that he would live his life in the same way. When he was discharged from military service, he was baptized, and for several years was formed in the Christian life by one of the desert hermits.
Pachomius had a series of visions, something he had never experienced before. The visions were about his becoming a monk, but not alone. Christian hermits had already been living in solitude in the Egyptian desert for about 50 years, since the late 3rdcentury. But Pachomius’ visions were about his living as a monk in community. He had as a model the words which we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles: “All who believed were together and had all things in common. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”[i]And “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
The Spirituality of the Cistercians
On the Feast of St Robert de Molesme (Cistercian monk, 1029-1111)
Genesis 12:1-4 and Matthew 19:27-29
It’s not easy for us to imagine a group of 22 men, in the latter half of the 11thcentury, heading into a remote and thickly forested region of France to establish a new monastery. With whatever tools they had brought with them, they began to clear the trees and bushes, and to build small individual huts out of branches. They had little to eat, few possessions, and none of the comforts that we so routinely take for granted. In addition to this, they set for themselves a rigorous daily schedule, based on the Rule of St Benedict: four hours of sleep in the night, followed by four hours of prayer, both private and communal. A meager diet of roots and herbs. Hard manual work during the day, off-set by more worship and periods of reading or study.
Like Abram and like the apostles in our readings tonight, they left everything– homes, families, possessions, livelihoods, friends, one could say even civilization itself – to give their lives (as completely as they knew how) to God. Their leader was a 69 year-old man, Robert de Molesme, who had become a Benedictine monk at the tender age of 15. Not long after having entering the monastery, he began to be recognized for his piety and sanctity, and at a comparably young age, was elected as its prior.
Feast of the Saints of the Society of St. John the Evangelist
In a monastery, the past is inescapable. Formal, stately portraits of departed SSJE brethren hang on the walls of our refectory, placidly gazing upon daily breakfasts and Easter dinners alike. The names of others are inscribed on the bottoms of communion chalices or on memorial plaques, hanging in both obvious and out of the way places. Names and dates in elegant cursive script grace the inside covers of some of the older books on our library shelves. Occasionally, I stumble across prayers copied out on title pages or notes penciled in the yellowing margins, and I’m unexpectedly moved; I feel as if I am entering a conversation that began long before me. Finally, and most significantly, there is our practice of reading the obituary of a departed brother on the anniversary of his death. This moment at Compline is not simply a gentle reminder of our mortality. It is also a loving gaze at a portrait in the family photo album. And that probably points to the heart of the matter. When I say that the past is inescapable here, I do not mean that in an antiquarian or anachronistic way, as if living in a monastery were like living in a museum or an antique gallery. Nor do I mean that we are haunted by ghosts. In the phrasing of Donald Allchin, former Canon of Canterbury Cathedral and a friend of this community long before I came along, it is the “living presence of the past” that makes itself so mysteriously and palpably felt in a monastery.[i] Before I came to monastic life, my personal relationship with the past felt both very passionate and very piecemeal. Confined to favorite authors and artists and a handful of saints, I found it difficult to describe why these figures exerted such a persistent, gravitational tug upon my heart – and what meanings that tug signified for my life in the present. But as I come more and more to take my place in a lineage, and to discover my individual story knit into a fabric whose folds extend beyond my imagining, I begin to grasp in my daily experience the words from our Rule of Life: “As we explore the spiritual legacy of our forebears we remember that they are not dead figures from the past. Risen in Christ, they belong to the great cloud of witnesses who spur us on by their prayers to change and mature in response to the Holy Spirit who makes all things new.”[ii]
My vocation didn’t start with a particular interest in monasticism, because when I was young I didn’t know what a monk was, or that monasticism was even a thing. But I do remember, as a little boy, being intensely spiritual and interested in God. A seed of sorts was planted really, really early in me. I felt a sense that walking in the light of God’s presence was my calling, that it was my vocation first and foremost, regardless of whether I became a plumber, or a computer programmer, or whatever.
When I was about six or seven, I remember my mom asking me, “Are you looking forward to getting married one day?” And I said, “I don’t think I want to love just one person; I want to love everybody.” I have no idea where that came from, but I remember the conversation. Amazingly, it has carried forward to today.
Now the sad part of the story – I suppose there’s always a sad part to any true story – is that my temperament, my personality, the gift from God of my being open to God’s presence, also left me open to some bad teasing and bullying. In fact, it was so horrific that I was traumatized from an early age. As a result, I basically shut down, my heart closed down completely, in an effort to protect myself.
That severe contraction and closing off of my heart ruined the beautiful relationship I had with myself, with God, and with the world. I also divorced myself from anything that even hinted at spirituality or religion. I was a self-proclaimed atheist.
I feel like that seed – the desire for God which God planted in me – never left. But because the sense of God’s presence had retreated, it wasn’t available to me any longer. Eventually I went into a really severe depression, which lasted for most of my life – from about second or third grade until 2010. As I understand it in retrospect, I think that my depression was less of a disease in itself and more of a symptom: a symptom of my denial of self, denial of God, denial of who I was meant to be.
It’s actually a very long story. Here’s the short version.
The first movement toward any kind of resolution – which I only recognized in retrospect – came when I discovered dance in 1997. At the time, I was living in Washington, D.C., I had an internship with the Environmental Protection Agency, and I basically couldn’t function. I was walking around in a fog. I was just so horribly depressed that I was numb. And yet, somehow – and I think this was maybe God putting his finger lightly, gently, somewhere – this idea came to me out of nowhere, “Hey, maybe I should try something physical, an exercise class or something.” The thought was like a foreign object that had entered my brain.
Then I was walking along near where I lived and saw a poster in a window: “Dance workout.” Where the energy for this came from, given where I was at, I have no idea, but I dragged myself to the class one day. And it was amazing. The people were lovely and welcoming. So I went back. I wound up totally, totally falling in love with modern dance, and in the process, discovering a way of re-inhabiting my body and learning to express myself in movement. And it was a renaissance. My brain started working a little differently, my body started responding differently. I credit the discovery of modern dance as being the initial crack.
There was a lot more to come. Dance led me to yoga, which led to yoga philosophy, which brought me back around to things spiritual and religious. From yoga I got into Buddhism, and I ended up actively practicing Buddhism for quite a while. So I had a good Yoga practice, a dedicated Buddhist practice, I was meditating and learning things from that, and I started to see a therapist. Eventually, I ended up leaving my job and moving to Boulder, Colorado, where I started the Somatic Counseling Psychology program at Naropa University. Soon after I started that program, I also started another independent program on the side, called Hakomi, which is a very particular form of psychotherapy and therapeutic approach based on mindfulness and the body.
It was in 2010, during a four-day Hakomi intensive training on “the inner child,” that I had a spiritual experience which has radically shaped me and my entire life since then. I can’t go into it in detail here, but during one of the exercises, on June 25, 2010, I experienced a profound reintegration of all those parts of myself and my heart that had been closed off and contracted so many years back when I was a small boy. The experience broke me open. I might even describe it as a kind of mystical experience. And the next two weeks after that event were very strange; I don’t know how else to explain it, except to say that I was living in this kind of thinly-veiled reality, having a lot of mystical experiences. It was very, very powerful, and beautiful, and wonderful, and also terrifying. I was crying almost every day for huge chunks of the day – out of delight, out of gratitude.
To share one instance: I go to the gym and I’m on the treadmill, running. And then all of a sudden, I look out from the treadmill and everybody in the gym, every single person – the old lady in the corner, the bodybuilder guy, everyone in between, everybody – they are glowing like a sun. Just glowing. I can’t even say it without crying. Each person was infinitely beautiful, just glowing with this light. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. And somehow just by witnessing it, I felt like I was burning up. Now, mind you, the subject of God had not yet come up in my brain. But I said my first spontaneous prayer on the treadmill that day. I said, “God, I can’t take it. It’s very beautiful but I can’t take it. I’m human.” And as soon as I said that, it started to fade. Mind you, I’m this atheist, Buddhist guy. So that left me a little, well – as you can imagine – off-balance, wondering what was going on.
Shortly after that, I found a book of poetry from the Sufi mystical tradition. I had encountered this stuff before, but it didn’t register. Now I began reading at random one of these poems, and a spark of recognition came into me. I realized, “Okay, either he was crazy in the same way that I’m crazy, or neither one of us is crazy, and am I falling in love with God? Is this what’s happening?” I started to read more Sufi poetry and other mystical poets, and realized that they were totally describing what was happening to me – everything I was experiencing. And that gave me a lot of comfort because it helped to solidify for me that, yes, apparently this is what God feels like. It brought God into the picture.
I felt like I was rolling down a hill, like I really didn’t have control over anything. At some point, I felt pushed – I felt an impulse – toward bringing other people on board to help me out with this. I don’t know how else to say it, but I felt myself called to go to a church. It was very powerful and it was that simple: “Find a church.” I was really shocked that God was pushing me in this direction. Honestly, I was pretty resistant, because at the time I thought that all Christians were basically conservative homophobes. I was wishing that it would have been a push to go to a Buddhist temple or an Ashram, or anything else. I might have even considered a synagogue. But the command was strong.
So, because that was the only thing I had to go on, I did some church shopping. I made the rounds of five or six churches, including Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, a Baptist church, the Latter Day Saints. I was just randomly trying places. But nothing seemed to really fit.
Eventually, one Sunday, I happened across a United Church of Christ and went in. The whole experience was just amazing. The sermon and the pastor touched on so many points that reflected this new reality I was experiencing. I was like, “Wow! Really? They talk like that here? In church?” And so I stuck around. After the service, I went and talked to a couple people. The Assistant Pastor, Jason, invited me out to lunch with him and had a wonderfully, grounding, normalizing conversation with me. I was boiling over with all these crazy, mystical experiences, and a new way dealing with morality, and this light coming from everywhere, and this joy like God was going to consume me at any minute, just bursting with it. And Jason had the perfectly appropriate response to help me: he was totally nonplussed. And he started throwing out these theological phrases: “the Christ within,” “mystical experience,” “sharing the resurrection,” and “born again.” All of a sudden, my random experiences felt like they had an anchor in reality and could be a part of my journey.
So Jason did a lot to normalize my experiences. And then finding a home in a church, and committing to it, really helped me grow. Christianity gave me a way to relate to all the stuff that was happening in my heart. It gave me a way to talk about God.
So how did this faith develop into a sense of a monastic vocation?
Ever since my June 25th experience, I only knew what God wanted for me – and it was very clear and felt like a tall order, all at the same time: it was clear that God just wanted me to be present in the world, in a particular way, for God, and out of love, sharing that love with everyone. That was my mission. As I grew in faith, God kept tapping me on the shoulder to point me toward ways I could realize that vocation. For instance, I felt called to more and more radical simplicity. I felt drawn toward celibacy. It was like God had flipped a switch in me. I remember sitting at my computer, literally about to go on match.com, and thinking, “What am I doing?” Whenever I had thought about celibacy before, it had worried me to feel like I was giving something up. Suddenly it occurred to me that celibacy is actually about choosing something: choosing to take all my sexual, emotional, intellectual energy, and direct it in one direction, toward God.
As I was figuring this all out, Jason and my spiritual director, David Frenette, both suggested that I needed the support of a community. At that time, I was so ignorant about monasticism, I didn’t realize that they meant a monastic community. And then Jason was more explicit. He said, “You need to try a monastic vocation.”
After that, things snowballed really quickly. Jason suggested SSJE to me because he had once expressed interest in a vocation with SSJE, so he knew the community quite well. Once Jason actually verbalized it and started talking about SSJE, the idea felt like it had its own life.
I was rolling down the hill.
Did you struggle with the decision at all?
The only really scary thing for me was the question of whether or not this was my life calling. I kept wondering, “Is this where I’m going to end up?” I feel like I was asking God for assurances, because I wanted to stop moving around. I didn’t want to just try it. I wanted to know for sure that this was going to be it. But God never gave me that assurance. My clear sense was basically that God was saying, “I can only tell you what’s right to do now.” So then I just took a deep breath, and here I am.
Even once I arrived, I had to surrender to testing my vocation, and just trusting whatever happens next. Once I was able to surrender to that, life settled into a rhythm and time began to move pretty quickly. Now I’m just living here, living as a monk, doing monk stuff.
What surprises you about living as a monk?
I was surprised at first at how involved the wider congregation is in the life of the community. All the people who worship at SSJE on a regular basis, and repeat guests who come on retreat, make for a larger community. That was a little surprising, because my primary sense of vocation felt like a call to the desert. When I first came here, I was expecting more silence and less connection with people. Even now, I would say that this life has a real tension between a call to the desert and a call to sharing the fruits of the desert with others. I’ve discovered that the more I feel centered in the desert within my heart, the less I feel like I need exterior desert around me. Sometimes I feel like I can bring the desert with me in all situations: washing the dishes, playing video games, offering spiritual direction.
My greatest joy is the feeling of walking in the light of God’s presence. There’s a lot of talk in the Bible and especially the Psalms about peace and joy. In my experience, the greatest joy comes wrapped up in peace – “the peace that passeth understanding.” In this life, I have a sense of really profound stillness and resting, like Nicholas is letting himself totally rest in the stillness that is in the center point, his heart, where Christ’s light is. That’s who I truly am; it’s my real identity. Not a monk or even Nicholas. Just this I-in-Christ, who I truly am. And when I’m resting in that place, my identity becomes alive and it feels real. And it’s not even a question of feeling joy or peace. In a way, I feel like I become joy and I become peace, and that’s the greatest joy that I feel.
Life Profession of Jim Woodrum SSJE
Exodus 33: 7 – 1, Psalm 139: 1 – 12, 1 John 4: 7 – 12, John 15: 9 – 19
Well I am certainly impressed. Never in a million years did I imagine that so many people would show up today. I really only expected the brothers, the guests in the guesthouse and our regulars at the Saturday Eucharist. But look at you! You have come from near and far: Georgia, and South Carolina, from New York and parts in between. You have come from any number of places around Cambridge and Boston, and all to show your dedication, your devotion, your loyalty, your faithfulness, your friendship to someone whom we are told, was of remarkable life and learning. And you are all dressed up to boot! That’s all pretty impressive, and we are honoured by your presence at this celebration today. The one person that I don’t see here though, surprises me by his absence. I don’t see the Mayor of Boston here. And that surprises me. Of all the people who should be here, he’s at the top of the list. Why isn’t he here with us today as we celebrate the feast of St. Botolph, the Patron Saint of Boston?
Today we remember Antony of Egypt, the founder of Christian monasticism, who moved out into the desert alone to pray. When Antony emerged from the desert and learned of a great persecution of the church, he returned to the city and cared for those in trouble. Later he returned to the desert but many people came out to see him and hear his wisdom. Judges repeatedly called Antony down to the city to advise them in their rulings.
Solitude for prayer, for focusing on relationship with God, is key to our life and what we offer on retreat. Monasticism like ours is life shared together, a company of friends who prioritize friendship with Christ.
Feast of Saint Edward the Confessor and Requiem for Brother John Goldring SSJE
Wisdom 3: 1-6
1 John 3: 1-2
John 20: 1-9
I first met John in the fall of 1981. I was at the Mission House in Bracebridge with a group of my fellow divinity students from Trinity College, Toronto for our annual fall retreat. I remember a number of things about that weekend. I remember that it was a wonderful fall weekend, much like the last several days have been here. Father Dalby, whom some of our will remember, was our retreat leader. And John preached at the Sunday Eucharist.
Now I don’t remember what John said in his homily, but I do remember that I, like my other classmates, was stunned by its simplicity, its brevity and its depth.Little did I know at the time, that John’s sermons would become a regular and important part of my spiritual life. Nor would I have ever guessed on that Sunday in the chapel at Brace bridge, that I would be standing here, 35 years later, presiding at his funeral as his brother and Superior.
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Profession of Life Vows by Brother Luke Ditewig, SSJE
Now I can’t claim to be the list king in this community. There is another brother, who will remain nameless, who is the king of lists, charts and calendars in this community. But what I can claim to be is the brother obituariest (the brother’s call me something else, but it’s a little rude so I won’t repeat it!). Anyway, I am the one responsible for writing the obituaries which we read at Compline, on the anniversary of a brother’s death. It’s a job that I take great delight in. One thing I have done is to make lists of all the brothers who have died in the community since our founding in 1866 beginning with Father Coggeshall, who was the first in our community to die in 1876, up to and including Brother Bernie whose death earlier this year was the most recent. By my count there have been 153 deaths in the community. But while I was making that list, I became curious about another list. I began to wonder how many men have made their life profession in our community, and when. So I began to dig, and it has taken quite a lot of digging, because our records are somewhat incomplete. But according to my count Luke, you are at least the 201st person since Father Benson to make his life profession in the Society of Saint John the Evangelist and the 47thto make his life profession here in this Chapel since Father Lockyer, who was the first to be professed here, on 21 July 1938.
Whenever a man expresses an interest in our life, David, who is the novice guardian, invites him to make a few visits to us here to the monastery. Over these visits he gets to know us, and we him. During those visits, he has a brief experience of our life. He joins us for the Offices and the Eucharist, shares in some of the household chores that need to be done to keep this place running, and is invited for countless walks along the river or endless cups of tea, so that individual brothers can have a conversation with him.
For a number of years now, when it is my turn to have a conversation with a prospective member of the community, I ask him the usual questions. Where is he from? What does he do? How did he find us? What is he looking for? I wait for him to ask me questions. Eventually I ask him the one question, indeed really the only question that I am interested in. I ask him if he has ever fallen in love before. For whatever reason, most men, when I ask that question are completely taken aback. It is not a question they are expecting. But for me the question, or in truth the answer, is essential.
Now, just to be clear, I am not interested in the ins and outs of his love life. I don’t want to know the gory details of his romances. I just want to know if he has ever fallen in love and what that experience was like for him.