Day Twenty-Three – A Canon within a Canon


day23Question
: As a Community whose life is so rooted in the Gospel according to John, SSJE’s “canon within a canon” of Scripture, is there a similar canon within the canon of the Rule, some chapter or chapters which define the Community more than others?

Br. David Vryhof: For me, it’s the chapters on prayer (21, 22, 23, 2425).  I can’t imagine a better summary of our life. They’re endlessly rich. I never tire of hearing them in the Chapter Office when we read them, and I’m always surprised by how fresh and current they seem. I often give them to retreatants or suggest that a man who is considering a vocation to this life read them first when he first encounters the Rule.

Br. Mark Brown: The chapters on prayer are by far among the most nuanced, subtle, dense, rich, theologically complex, and yet utterly simple statements of our raison d’être. It would be hard to imagine writing—or even needing to write—something better. There is always something to be gleaned from these chapters, the subject is so densely and elegantly compressed!

Letter from the Fellowship of Saint John – Sarah Zygmunt

Day In.  Day Out.

As an undergraduate, I learned two things about being a Christian.  First, I cannot be a Christian in a vacuum.  Second, to use Br. Kevin Hackett’s phrase, the learning curve never ends.  Those two things are both vexation and encouragement as I live into my faith, questioning and wondering.  Now, I’ll add a third thing: being a Christian takes practice and discipline – the very things that a rule of life provides.

It’s a blessing to be surrounded by folks who follow rules of life: the Brothers in Cambridge, of course; fellow parishioners, some themselves oblates of various monastic communities; and a new community, the Benedictine Companions of St. Paul, in residence at my parish.  Surely, I do not lack for examples!

Nevertheless, I struggle.  Every day.  A rule of life forces me to give up what I might want for myself in the moment and orients me toward what God wants in the long term.  He wants me to pray, to have a relationship with him through prayer, so I am given tools to make it easier: words to say when I have no words and silence to make me attentive to God’s awe-full-ness.  It’s a slow thing, and not always given to immediate gratification.

A modern adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict for the laity by John McQuiston, Always We Begin Again, gives me hope, especially in the struggle.  Always we begin again.  I will fail sometimes, but every day is new.  Every day I begin again.  A rule of life, in the ancient sense of the phrase, derives from regla, a rule in place not as a prohibition against an action, but as a standard to strive toward.  The rule is presented as a helper, a guide.  There is room for learning, growing into God’s way of doing things.

From St. Benedict, we get conversatio morum, variously translated “conversion of life” or “conversion of manners.”  There’s a strong sense of stability and obedience associated with the phrase.  I imagine slowly turning in place 180° or what T.S. Eliot, in “Burnt Norton,” calls “the still point of the turning world.”  By staying in one place, following one pattern of life, and learning from those around me, I let myself be conformed to that life in all its joys and difficulties, in all its humanity and divinity. There is the dance, the relationship, the leading, learning, and following.

Following a rule of life is not pretty.  It’s day in and day out, long term stuff, sometimes more mere habit than conscious devotion.  There is no immediate reward, no pat on the back.  There may be “well done, good and faithful servant” at the end, but not this side of heaven.  Living with a rule of life is striving, day by day, to live in God’s light, according to his will rather than my own.  I take heart in the grace of daily obligation, knowing that I am being formed and changed.  Definitely more fully human.  Perhaps more fully divine?

 

Day Twenty-Two – Embedded in God’s Triune Life


day22Question
: As a Community of men who are grounded in this lived experience of the Incarnation, are there particular challenges that this Community faces that men and women who are living other faithful forms of Christian life do not?

Br. Jonathan Maury: I don’t think so, but I do think that by this life—grounded in the Incarnation and the Triune life of God that we know as a result—we’ve been drawn into the life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in a way that is made clear to us again and again and again. From The Call of the Society (1) to Holy Death (48) and the Hope of Glory (49), it’s all a manifestation of God’s Triune life, mediated through the dying and rising experience of the Paschal mystery, and the Rule gives us a framework for making that concrete and very, very personal. It enables us to hear Christ speak, saying very difficult things, to which we can say a wholehearted “Yes,” even when we don’t—or especially when we don’t—feel like it.

Day Twenty-One – Love Bade Me Welcome


day21Question
: Chapter 44, “Maintaining Our Health and Creativity” has come up many times in these discussions. Why do you think that is?

Br. Kevin Hackett: It’s interesting, because this chapter is one of the few that causes me to “tremble” or at least squirm a little when it comes around, and I know I’m not alone in that. It’s a chapter that I both love, for its steely-eyed, unflinching  frankness, and hate—for its steely-eyed, unflinching frankness! I am thrilled that we included such an eloquent testament to our potential and such a blunt measure by which to assess our progress—or lack thereof! It’s really an invitation to grace, to accept the grace of our creatureliness.  I always hear George Herbert’s  poem, “Love Bade Me Welcome,” singing between the lines of this chapter and the one on Rest and Recreation (45).

Day Twenty – Incarnate Life


day20Question
: Would it be accurate to say, then, that a renewed understanding of the Incarnation, the lived reality of God taking on flesh, both in members of the Community individually and in the Society  collectively, was the catalyst for renewal?

Br. Curtis Almquist: The Incarnation became the hermeneutic through which we had our conversations—though it wasn’t in my memory, a conscious thing.  Rather, it transformed how we talked about ourselves and the innate gifts and interests that each Brother carried within his person, and we distanced ourselves from the kind of faux asceticism that, at one time in our history, automatically discounted the interests and gifts a Brother brought with him when he entered the Community. It seemed obvious as we had conversations around maintaining our health and creativity (44), that we were moving into a very different relationship to this document.


Samaritan Woman – Br. David Vryhof

John 4:5-42

Jews hated Samaritans.  In fact, they despised them.

There were a number of reasons why they held them in such contempt:

  • First, they considered them schismatics because they had built a rival temple to the one in Jerusalem.
  • Second, they were seen as heretics because they took only the five books of the Torah to be their scriptures.
  • Third, they were a mixed breed, people of questionable ancestry who had intermarried with foreigners and had been influenced by heathen customs and practices.
  • And fourth, they refused to follow Jewish rituals or keep Kosher.

The very mention of Samaritans could turn the stomach of a Jew.  Jews hated Samaritans – despised them – and avoided them in every possible way.  Jesus knew this, which is why he makes a Samaritan the hero of his best-known parable; he’s the one, you remember, who stopped and helped the beaten man by the side of the road after both a priest and a Levite had passed him by.  It’s also why he points out that when ten lepers were cured, the only one returned to him to give thanks was a Samaritan. Continue reading

Day Nineteen – Words Made Flesh


day19Question
: Br. James, you were an active participant in the process of rewriting the Rule, though a novice. What stands out to you as particularly significant, as utterly central, in this Rule?

Br. James Koester: Oh, that’s easy—my answer is found in the very first words of the Rule, from Chapter One: The Call of the Society (words that, in turn, are taken from the Gospel according to John):  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, the eternal Word by whom all things were created, to become flesh and live among us.”  That’s it.  John 3:16.  Everything else flows from that, the Incarnation. And the Incarnation permeates the Rule. Yes, it’s a spiritual document, but it’s thoroughly grounded in the mystery and the pragmatism of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh.

Br. Curtis Almquist: And it’s the Incarnation that gave us the courage to name things which earlier eras of the Society simply could not, given the constraints of Victorian propriety. We name sexuality as a driving force in our life together, for instance, acknowledging without any sense of shame that we might fall in love at some point (11); we name the reality of “tension and friction” being “woven into the texture of daily life (5);” we name the challenges of sickness (46), the frustrations that can accompany old age (47), and the reality of death (48). The lived human experience is not denied; it’s given its rightful due as a means of revelation.

Day Eighteen – A Continuous Call


day18Question
: The published version of the Rule makes much of how it might be used by Christians in other walks of life, with several pages of suggestions for how even some of the specifically monastic chapters might be appropriated. What is your experience of using the Rule with retreatants, directees, and other people who come to you for counsel?

Br. Geoffrey Tristram: One of the things I so appreciate about the depth of thought represented by the Rule is its application to virtually any form of Christian life. In the first place, it removes any possibility of a false distinction between monastics and other Christians, as though the religious life is for some kind of spiritual elite. Virtually every chapter of the Rule has something to say to ordinary Christians because the end is the same for all of us: the experience of larger life. Christ is always calling us to something more. This is why Father Benson said that Jesus’ call to us is continuous—it never ends and we never arrive.

Letter from the Fellowship of Saint John – Clint Cappers

Creating a Rule of Life

My journey to the actual realization that a written Rule was a tool that the practicing Christian needed, took several years. I assumed that following various relevant bible verses, the baptismal vows, and adding spiritual practices would be enough for a guide to Christian living and maturity. This was a disastrous assumption! Over time it became easy to edge away from this unwritten guide. I found myself procrastinating, conveniently forgetting, or simply ignoring the guide, since only God and I knew what it looked like. My mental guide was easy to modify with editing out rather than adding to the guide my usual habit.

Through a mentor and a friend, who became my spiritual director, I learned of the Society of St. John the Evangelist and the writings of Irenaeus, Evagrius Ponticus, Benedict, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Edward Schillebeeckx. These authors were clear. A written and accountable Rule of Life is a must for a Christian. A Rule of Life should be written, doable, and revised as the Christian moves from one life phase to another.

I did nothing about writing a Rule until after I attended a meeting sponsored by the SSJE. As a Fellowship member, one needed to prepare a Rule of Life. The Rule would be a written document, read and approved by me as well as others. The Rule’s written standards contained what would hold me personally accountable before my mentor, my spiritual director, and God.

Shortly after writing my Rule of Life, I was once again floundering around convincing myself that I was following my Rule. At this time I became interested in the spiritual direction program, Formation in Direction. As a FIND student, I needed a spiritual director. The first item we discussed was a Rule of Life. Did I have one? Was it written? Did I actually pay any attention to it?  I did have a Rule and did, occasionally, refer to its content but slippage had occurred. Since then I have been much more faithful to following my Rule of Life.

When I first wrote my Rule, I was careful to include participating in the sacraments, reading, studying, and meditating on scripture, the Creeds, and other holy writings, contemplation, active charity and church work. Surprise! This version was rejected by my spiritual director. Two important areas were missing: the areas of personal health and wellbeing. These included annual physical and dental checkups, personal wellness programs, recreation, Sabbath and leisure time. I remembered that as Christians we are a triad composed of a physical body, a mind/spirit, and heart/soul. This triad is the whole person of who I am as a child of God made in God’s image. Since these are my personhood, they must all be nourished. No one area is more or less important than another: all must be kept healthy.

To practice daily Christian “life” and mature in Christ, a spiritual director or companion who is a prayerful guide and listener  and  a written Rule of Life are vital.

Day Seventeen – A Different Three-Legged Stool


day17Question
: Br. Jonathan, you entered the Society at a time when it was clear that the previous Rule of Life was no longer a lively or living tradition. As part of the corps of men who were here throughout the rewriting process, what would you say are some of the most significant changes in the new Rule?

Br. Jonathan Maury: There are so many! But for me personally, I would name the chapters on Maintaining our Health and Creativity (44), the Graces of Friendship (42), and the Witness of Life in Community (4).  I’d especially mention the chapter on Mission and Service (31), which makes clear that our various ministries arise from the authority conferred on us by Christ at our Baptism and that only a few are the specific responsibility of the ordained. For me, as a lay Brother, this has been especially important.

The other change that I think is so important is the way in which we incorporated the theology of the Gospel according to John, as mediated in the teaching of our founder, Richard Meux Benson, along with the ancient monastic tradition, with implicit references to the Desert Fathers and the Rule of Saint Benedict, as well as our lived experience—our own three-legged stool.

Day Sixteen – The Sound of Silence


day16Question
: The chapter on silence (27) has been named by several Brothers as one of the richest and most important in the Rule, and I believe it is still the case that, next to food, the silence at the Society’s houses is the most commented on feature of guests’ experience. Does that surprise you?

Br. Geoffrey Tristram: It doesn’t surprise me at all.  As a culture, we are simply saturated with input. It come at us on every front, usually from multiple sources. To put limits on that—the grace of limitation that we were talking about earlier—is counter-cultural. The din of noise is deafening, whether it’s literal—coming from the radio, television, and CD player—or figurative, in the barrage of information that comes to us through the Internet and smart phones. The monastic tradition bears witness to the quietness of God’s voice, to how it is heard in stillness, not in “earthquake, wind or fire,” but in “sheer silence.”

Day Fifteen – Unusually Articulate


day15Question
: These conversations about the Rule have begun to function as a “live commentary,” with a lot of insight into the provenance of a particular word or phrase in the Rule. How helpful (or not) is this?

Br. Kevin Hackett: Very helpful, I think. It gives me insight into how some of the early Christian churches must have experienced the constant reading of documents that became what we call the New Testament. I like this live dynamic, especially when I know that I’m hearing a particular Brother, who is speaking for all of us. James is the source of the insight in our chapter on silence (27) concerning the healing power of that practice. And because of that insight, I always urge retreatants to be the guardians and therefore agents of one another’s healing by protecting one another’s silence.

Day Fourteen – The Scandal of Particularity


day14Question
:  One of the most fascinating points arising from these conversations is various Brothers’ memories of how a particular turn of phrase or word came to be used. What stands out to you from your experience of those conversations?

Br. James Koester: Sometimes, I can hear the distinctive voices of Brothers—some still with us, some who have moved on—in a particular chapter.  And sometimes that’s comforting and sometimes it’s a little frustrating because I (and on occasion we) sensed at the time that this or that wasn’t quite right. I don’t think we could have written it any other way, but I’ll also be glad when certain words and phrases are “disarmed” or deleted. Having said that, I can hear my voice quite clearly in the chapters on the novitiate (36, 37), because I was a novice when those conversations were taking place! And to the community’s credit, we novices were invited to be full participants.

Day Thirteen – A Change in Propriety


day13Question
: Br. David, you’re now the senior Brother of the community, “the bearer of our corporate memory,” as the Rule says (47). You’ve lived under several different iterations of the Rule. When you consider the present version, how does it compare with what you experienced in earlier forms?

Br. David Allen: Well, in many ways, of course, it doesn’t compare because it is so completely different from the earlier forms of the Rule, all of which were spiritual guides and documents, while this version of the Rule is more pragmatic. This version engages issues in contemporary culture in ways that, at the time we were writing, made some of us feel quite uncomfortable to be discussing such things in print. I’m thinking, for instance, of our reference to same-sex couples (11), and even the mention of sexual orientation (9). In the old days, not only would we not really mention such things, it was as though they didn’t even exist. But I think our including such things was actually quite prophetic, though, at the time, it just felt uncomfortable. Now it feels completely natural.

Day Twelve – Noise and Haste


day12Question
: Were there things that got left on the “cutting room floor” that you regret, turns of phrase, subjects, passages of Scripture that you wish had found their way into the finished text?

Br. David Allen: I’m very happy with the Rule as it stands, of course, but I will say that I wish we had included a phrase from the previous Rule that spoke to me quite deeply, from the chapter we had on demeanor: “Haste and noise are to be always avoided.” I suppose we addressed the subject of noise in the chapter on silence, but I think we could have done more with haste. It’s possible, you see, to move very quickly and even silently, and still create a disturbance or disrupt another person’s silence. It’s probably too soon to think about a revision—we haven’t given this one twenty years yet—but I’d like to see haste, or rather a prohibition of haste, included in the next version of the Rule, perhaps in a chapter like the one on Mutual Support and Encouragement (43) or the one on Silence (27).

Day Eleven – Listen to This!


day11Question
: We’ve talked about money and sex, which leaves us with the third vow. What might we say about obedience, about power?

Br. Mark Brown: The three chapters on obedience (12 – 14) are extraordinarily subtle and forward-looking, and break new ground. The kind of obedience that the Rule imagines is very different from the way that practice is ordinarily thought of. Like the chapters on prayer, the community was, for some reason, able to plumb extraordinary depths here.

Br. Curtis Almquist: It’s interesting because I would say that these chapters embody the entire process of rewriting the Rule. I say that because when we began this process, it was the first time that we’d really listened to one another talking about things that mattered. It was a challenge for most of us. Most of us were surprised to learn that Brothers we thought we knew well held opinions and hopes and dreams that were widely and sometimes wildly different than our own.

We had solicited counsel from several orders who were engaged in a similar process. We were advised to start with a completely blank slate. Then several things happened: first, we trusted ourselves to talk with each other about things that mattered. So we started listening to one another, deeply. I think this is why the three chapters on obedience are so extraordinary and so very different from the top-down vision of Father Benson.

Ultimately Fair – Br. David Allen

Ezek. 18:21-28

Sometimes when we are among children, or immature adults, we will hear words like those that we have heard in this passage from Ezekiel, “You are being unfair!”  Usually it means that one side or the other feels that the other side is not playing by the same rules that they think they are playing by. The words of the prophet, speaking for God, “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is unfair,’” (v. 25) seem to me to be saying that the house of Israel, of which he spoke, wanted the game of right and wrong, life and death, salvation and damnation, to be   played by their own rules.  But to us, following in the inheritance of the teachings of Jesus, the statement made in the second part of today’s reading, “when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life,” (v. 27) seem ultimately fair. Continue reading

Letter from the Fellowship of Saint John – Susan Harriss

Surprising Advice to a Newlywed

When I was first ordained I confided to Sr. Andrea, at the Order of St. Helena, that I was having trouble finding time to read Morning Prayer. I was a newly wed at the time. She responded quickly and fervently: she didn’t think it was a good idea to roll out of bed early leaving the husband behind for the sake of my spiritual life. She wasn’t sure that I needed to read Morning Prayer at all.

I was taken aback: this was not advice I was expecting from a nun, and especially not from a nun to a priest. But her gentleness set a tone for me which I have kept: my rule ought to be kind, to myself and to those I love. Certainly a spiritual practice warrants solitude, but it had best not be an escape. Husbands, lovers, babies, dogs, teen-agers – all have to hold their places in our regard. Sometimes, surprisingly, putting God first means tending to these others now and praying later. Or praying differently. Or, oh joy, praying together.

We’d love to hear and share your reflections of the challenges, hesitations, rewards, decisions, and questions that have informed how you have (or haven’t!) created and lived your own Rule of Life!   We invite you to email your reflections to friends@ssje.org.

Day Ten – Frank Talk about Sex


day10Question
: Yesterday we addressed how the Rule talks about money (and it sounded like the beginning of a new conversation). What do you want to take on next, sex or power?

Br. Curtis Almquist: I’ll speak to the chapters we wrote on celibacy (9 – 11). I think the language is not quite real enough yet. We moved in the right direction, but the subject was still too fraught with fear and anxiety for many of us and it was just too difficult for some of us to talk about frankly. We were moving in the right direction, but we need to go further.

Br. Mark Brown: Some of the language around both poverty and celibacy struggles for the ring of truth, I think. We take the practice seriously, of course, but some of the language overreaches, even obfuscates. Those chapters are the ones that I find myself critiquing when they come around in our daily reading.

Day Nine – The Messiness of Money


day9Question
: Br. Curtis, your nine years as Superior gave you the access of a surgeon to the Community and its life lived under this Rule. Can you comment on the vows as they are presented in the Rule?

Br. Curtis Almquist: Gladly. I’ll do this in three parts, beginning with an integral aspect of our vow of poverty. I’d say I do not think we reflected as deeply as we might have on the subject of money. I think many of us were/are embarrassed by it, embarrassed by our need for it, embarrassed by our dependence on our benefactors for it, and I think if we were to approach those chapters today, we’d think and write about it very differently. Part of that—I hope—is just a function of our maturing and growing, but part of it is a franker awareness that we are not self-sufficient, nor have we ever been.