I don’t often think of Jesus’s courage, but that’s what has come to mind during my prayer with today’s Gospel passage. Knowing that his end was near, Jesus shows his closest friends how unlike their world his kingdom will be. The Teacher and Lord humbles himself and performs the work of a servant or slave, overturning all expectations and proprieties.
This act takes courage—courage that we can look to; courage, no doubt, that our departed Brother David Campbell looked to in his challenges of leadership. Facing an English Congregation that was ageing and declining in numbers, Father Campbell managed the withdrawal from the longstanding missions in India and South Africa, closed the Mission House in Oxford, and dispersed the remaining Brothers to continue the Society’s ministries as long as possible. His actions took courage, as did the humility to accept that the Society in England’s end might be coming.
2 Corinthians 6:1-10
Today we remember the Saints of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, the Brothers who have gone before us. We remember them one by one reading aloud their obituaries at Compline.
They came from various backgrounds with a range of interests. Writers, poets, architects, artists, book-binders, and insect enthusiasts who served in England, Scotland, India, South Africa, Japan, Canada, and across the United States.
They were pastors, preachers, spiritual directors, teachers, retreat leaders and more. Sometimes much at once. I like the story of John Hawkes who during the Great Depression presided at a marriage, baked and iced the wedding cake, and supplied the rings.
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]