Following the death of our beloved Brother David Allen last summer, I became the senior member of our brotherhood – both in years of age and in years in the Society. My Brother Superior James Koester dubbed me the “Brother of collective memory.”
Over the thirty-seven years that I have been in the Society, I’ve come to see how entirely our particular monastic vocation – vowed love, community life, and service – is rooted in the baptismal vocation shared by all Christians. Perhaps this is one reason why so many people are able to find transformative wisdom in our monastic Rule of Life. We created this text to shape, inform, and inspire our community quite specifically. Yet by God’s grace, its reach has proved far more expansive. Over and over again, we hear how others have found illumination for their lives in the same forty-nine chapters that shape ours.
In this spirit, I’d like to offer here a collection of some of the teachings from our Rule of Life which have most struck and stayed with me over decades of living and learning with this text. Of all its many topics, the Rule is particularly rich in its teachings navigating the challenges and rewards of life in community. These teachings point the way ahead for all of us who are trying to live together in recognition of the fact that we are bound to one another by Christ’s loving authority.
Jesus said to the disciples,“There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property… 29And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes…” 10 Luke 16:1-13
We could easily find this Gospel lesson appointed for today either confusing or offending. It seems that Jesus is praising the practices of a dishonest account manager. The manager falsifies the amounts owed to his employer so that when this manager is out of a job – mind you, he’s being fired because of his dishonesty! – these same creditors with whom he is currying illicit favor would admire him or owe him, and ultimately welcome him into their homes!
As Director of the Fellowship of Saint John, over the years I have received – from committed members of the FSJ and from probationers trying the rule – a request to temporarily suspend their participation in the Fellowship. Most often the reason given is a perceived inability to “keep up” with their personal version of a rule of life. In the past, I’ve been inclined to accept this view without argument. But more recently I’ve tended to push back. Here’s my reason why.
In the gospels, Jesus is criticized for failing to “Keep the Sabbath day holy,” both for his acts of healing and for his disciples’ “work” on the Sabbath in plucking grain to eat. Jesus answers his critics by stating that God’s loving desire to help and heal all creatures overrides a rigid interpretation of the written law. Jesus teaches that the Sabbath observance is a gift of God: the Sabbath was created to serve humanity, not humanity to serve the Sabbath.
Similarly, I’ve come to believe that keeping a personal rule of life is to be seen as a gift of God, a way for becoming fully alive in Christ. By means of our baptism into Christ’s continuous dying and rising, we participate in God’s own life as members of a beloved and redeemed community. Thus the FSJ rule is not a task by which to achieve some self-styled perfection, but an invitation to companionship with God, the SSJE Brothers, and other members. The moment when we’re feeling least able to “keep” our personal rule on our own is the very time to breathe deeply of God and ask for help to creatively, lovingly adapt the rule to our present circumstances.
I wonder if there might be readers of Cowley who have delayed or denied themselves the chance to become members of the Fellowship for similar reasons, out of a sense that they were not somehow, or in some way, “enough” just at this moment: not committed enough, not prepared enough, and so on. If so, I would encourage you: Consider whether becoming a member of the Fellowship might be, not a marker of your arrival at some destination, but a way of a joining companions on the journey. We truly are joined to the Fellowship, even when – and perhaps especially when – during difficult times and fear of failure, we gratefully accept it as Christ’s gift for us.
To learn more or apply to become a member of the FSJ, visit www.SSJE.org/fsj
I’ve been thinking about this question since November, when the Brothers sent a letter asking all the members of the Fellowship to reflect on creating and living by their rule of life. At first, I asked it of myself as an accusation… “Hey, why don’t you have a rule of life, huh? All the other members of the Fellowship have one! What’s the matter with you!?” Then, my tone got softer, more an expression of curiosity than anything else…”Hmm… No rule of life, huh John? That’s interesting. What’s that about?”
Finally, I discovered that I was asking the wrong question. I realized that, despite the fact that I don’t have a rule of life, there are rules to my life. I didn’t write these rules on my own. I got them the way a sponge gets water. I unconsciously soaked them up from the world around me, mostly as I was growing up. They direct my behavior, again unconsciously, just as surely as any set of written precepts could – maybe more. When I work backward from the pattern of my life, I can see these rules, or at least the Table of Contents they suggest. Some of the chapter titles are predictable—“Being a Good Friend”, “The Love of Learning”, “Working Hard is a Good Thing”, “Career and Achievement” . . . pretty conventional stuff.
But when I consider the chapters about God—well—I get a shock. What I see is that I live as if my God chapters had titles like “God Will Only Love Me If I Am Good,” and “Getting to God is Awful Rowing I Have to Do Alone.” Somewhere along the way, I soaked up these rules, writing them on my mind and heart, and then forgetting that I was their author, treating them as given truths. A lot of the work of my life with God is seeing these rules, and trying to erase them and replace them with others. “God Will Only Love Me If I Am Good” is fading, but slowly (apparently I wrote it with a Sharpie—what was I thinking?). In its place is one I call “He Rescued Me Because He Delighted in Me,” a verse from Psalm 18 that usually makes me cry. To replace the Awful Rowing chapter I am thinking about one, still untitled, based on the way that plants turn toward the sun naturally and without extra effort. I know that’s how God calls me, but I still have the Awful Rowing idea in me.
Someone once said that you don’t write poetry, you rewrite it. I think that’s probably true about rules of life as well. We re-write them. The paper is not blank. It’s full of the rules we’ve been carrying around without knowing we were dong so. Before I can write new rules, I have to erase the old rules, and before I can erase them, I have to face that they are there. And, of course, I do not do any of that work alone—I turn to it, well, the way a plant turns toward the sun, guided in my labor by His light and warmed by His Grace.
The Rev. Whitney Zimmerman
Besides it being so beautifully crafted and profoundly compelling, The SSJE Rule is a gracious mirror by which I can assess the reality of my spiritual life. So often I approach it with confusion and illusion, only to see not just me, but God’s longing for me. Nowhere is this truer than in the Rule’s frequent reference to eucharistic living: an entire way of being made possible with a loaf and a cup and a life of divine love. Eucharistic living involves all aspects of our work, hospitality, community and worship. It is the central act of our lives, beginning, of course with the actual meal. As a priest, I have the honor of presiding over it several times a week, feeding hundreds with tangible holiness. Yet among all these meals, there is one that truly fills me.
Every Tuesday morning, for the last four years, once we have coffee perking, volunteers settled, and our voicemails activated, our staff gathers to celebrate the Eucharist. The whole affair is intentionally informal with someone grabbing any small table from a hallway, another drawing a circle of chairs, and my pulling a tea candle from a box. We meet in a tiny chapel, respectfully eschewing the beautifully appointed marble, silk and mahogany worship space of our gorgeous church. Every time it is different. Every time we build a new altar, break our own bread and pour our own port; thereby intentionally offering our own lives to be that “living sacrifice” in the ancient prayer. It is intensely intimate, with unplanned spans of quiet and unscripted reams of prayer. Within the freeing bounds of the Eucharistic prayers we laugh, we cry, we worry and we grow. And by the urging of the Rule to keep our worship, prayer and Eucharistic celebrations fresh, this band of 12 has become, for all of us, the holy of holies, where we, the feeders of the church, retreat to be fed.
On any given Sunday, our large, southern church and its associated buildings seethe with humanity in perpetual motion. With several choirs, children propped on every pew and cushion and hundreds of wonderfully devoted people, our brightly lit worship space can feel like O’Hare on Thanksgiving eve. It is, as the rector says, joyful chaos. But it is chaos nonetheless. The worship moves at a decidedly un-monastic clip and the space, at times, seems to crackle in its preparedness to break into its next move; be it the prayers, the offering, or the recessional. And, when I have failed to attend Tuesday’s gathering of holiness, the chaos can preside over me, as opposed to me over it. Rather than a rhythm, it becomes a race.
Sure, I can fake it. It is my job after all. I can deign calm even as my mind flits like a honey-high butterfly. I can lace my words with inflection and intonation even as my eyes are darting about, cueing a LEM or searching a hymn text. I can win the race even as I pretend to be oblivious to it all. And I can also starve in the midst of a banquet, but I don’t want to do that either. None of us do. This is the irony of our faith; the more we live into it…the more demands are put upon us…the more easily we lose sight of what it was we were living into in the first place….
And so, every Tuesday, I pass through the great hall, genuflect the towering hand-carved table dedicated to our Lord to take my place at a card table, so that I might be fed. So that I might live the bread I eat and the wine I drink.
In the spring of 2005, Lucas Fleming, my friend and Sigma Chi fraternity brother, convinced me to head to Boston for a brief retreat at SSJE. I needed it. Soon thereafter I joined the Fellowship of SSJE and committed to a personal rule of life. The more I understood SSJE’s powerful ministry, the more I wanted to help; but given my reality, writing a big annual check was not possible. So I decided that my gift to the ministry would be to translate the SSJE Rule into Spanish, making it available to Spanish-speakers worldwide. I envisioned essentially a technical undertaking: the Rule was masterfully written and all I had to do was “masterfully” translate it. When I received the Word document in English, I told the Brothers I’d have it done in a few months.
Not quite: the full translation of the Rule took me over two years. “How,” you might ask, “can it possibly take that long to translate a relatively short book?” The answer: the SSJE Rule is a treasure chest of wisdom, insight, and Christian spiritual guidance distilled from centuries of profound Christian introspection. As I translated, it soon became apparent that literal translations of many of the concepts resulted in Spanish phrasing that omitted the sense and subtlety of the original. One nuance in the original Rule turned bland in literal Spanish; conversely, an eloquent sentence translated literally took the Spanish reader into an unintended direction.
Consider the opening sentence of Chapter One:
“He was lifted up from the earth in his crucifixion and resurrection from the dead in order to draw all people to himself.”
A literal translation of that underscored clause into Spanish would convey, using the first-response word choice (e.g. dibujar – “to draw”) gave a nonsensical result. To get the true meaning of the clause—the selflessness of His return to the world—the right word to translate from English was not “draw” but, rather, “attract.” And even that adjustment required finessing:
“…para atraer a todo el mundo a él.”
Close but not right: in Spanish, while that is grammatically correct, the power of the original language is totally missed; it turns this extraordinarily brief and powerful expression of the utter gift of Jesus into something that sounds, in Spanish, more like something a carnival barker or soap-box pundit would do. To complete the sense of purpose, it is necessary to add what is a slightly awkward ending, literally “to draw all people to he himself.” Accordingly, the translation reads like this in Spanish:
“…para atraer a todo el mundo a si mismo.”
And all that was only for the FIRST sentence!
As a second example, consider Chapters 9-11, dealing with celibacy. That was perhaps the most difficult section to translate, not only because many of the Spanish words were new to me but also because of the cultural nuances which, generally speaking, require a more limited and conservative word choice than what English gives us. What appears as a clear and open comment in the Rule in English can appear crass and disrespectful in Spanish. Consider this sentence in Chapter 9:
“The exploration of our sexual solitude through prayer will reveal the depth of Christ’s desire to be the one joy of our hearts.”
I wrestled with this one for awhile: to most Spanish speakers, the discussion of “exploration of sexual solitude” however subsequently qualified, has no business in a document as profound as the SSJE Rule. I tried various other wordings in order to circumvent this issue (e.g., “Recognizing our sexual solitude” etc.) but when I did so, I was distorting the message. I finally realized that the mention of the “exploration of sexual solitude” could be translated accurately if the balance of the sentence tempered that initial, somewhat-shocking-in-Spanish clause with devotional word choices overriding any such reaction. And so that sentence became:
“La exploración de nuestra soledad sexual a través de oración revelará la profundidad del deseo de Cristo para ser la única alegría en nuestros corazones.”
The process of translating the Rule forced me to rethink and reexamine every phrase and thought contained therein, and I treasure it more than ever as a result. As so often happens when we delve into the divine, the “gift” of my translation pales when compared to the blessings I received through the experience.
Ellen Bradshaw Aitken
I lived for a year in the early 1980s in the town of St. Andrews on the east coast of Scotland. This year was my first serious time of engagement with a rule of life, (although I didn’t think of it in those terms then), including the daily office, regular conversations with a wise friend, times of solitude and retreat, as well as my first forays into disciplined theological study. It was also a year of living within sight of St. Rule’s Tower, an eleventh-century, immensely tall, stone tower built at the headland of the town overlooking the harbor and the often-stormy North Sea. By legend, St. Rule (or St. Regulus) brought the bones of the apostle Andrew from Greece to this Scottish headland in the fourth century. St. Rule’s Tower is what remains of the church built to house these relics, and it served as a beacon to travelers and pilgrims—at sea and on land. It is not known if St. Rule existed or if this name arose out of the foundation of Christian life and practice in that place. To my mind, the name may well enshrine the monastic rule by which the early communities in that place lived—enshrining the notion of the rule in the memory of the holy person, St. Rule. It is a “rule” because it holds the apostolic witness, the sign of Jesus’ death and resurrection dwelling there.
One of the primary graces for me in forming a rule of life in conversation with the Rule of SSJE has been the Rule’s emphasis on the indwelling of God (e.g. chapter 21) and on the cruciformity of love (e.g. chapter 2). The Johannine insight that in Christ God makes a home with us has become a touchstone as I shape a rule of life for myself. It makes me desire that my way of life be shaped in such a way that I have an ever-greater capacity for God. I understand my rule of life as shaping a hospitable space and a hospitable life for the dwelling of God. I understand my rule of life as a way of cooperating with the mystery of resurrection and thus of creating greater capacity to take the needs, sorrows, and desires of others into my life, work, and prayer in order to offer them to God for healing and for life.
A rule, in my experience, turns what I desire for my way of life into practice, practices that are flexible and transformable, but practices nonetheless. A few examples: At home, our breakfasts and our dinners are eaten unrushed, with candles lit, attention to the food and drink however simple, and a spaciousness for conversation. These are moments when we gather the thoughts of a busy day and whether there are guests or not it recollects me toward a life lived hospitably toward God. Or at work at the university, amid innumerable demands, deadlines, emails, the rule helps me to remember that the person in front of me, in conversation with me at that moment, is to have my full attention, the undistracted capacity of my heart and mind. The rule recalls me to the practices of listening for both sorrow and joy, strength and struggle in my students, my colleagues, and my staff. The rule helps me, though not without much difficulty, to make decisions about my calendar and time, so that there is the necessary spaciousness and freedom from distraction.
What I recognize as less well seasoned in practice for me are the ways of entering more directly, more intentionally into the capaciousness of God. These are practices of solitude, the nurturing of creativity and delight, and, for God’s sake, times of doing nothing except abiding in God. The rule—like a beacon—recalls me to such practices, tells me to wrestle with my schedule and calendar so that I do them, and reminds that these practices too are part of sharing in the mystery of death and resurrection.