“I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”[i] Instead of telling us to be kind, respectful, compassionate or patient (which we are to be), Jesus tells us to love. In the New Testament Greek there are four words for love. One is about family, love between children and parents, between siblings. Another is the erotic, sexual, falling in love. Another is the love of close friends. Then there’s agape, different from the rest. It’s not based on a relationship or affinity.
The Spring 2013 issue of Cowley takes up the theme of the Reconciliation with God.
- Br. James Koester uncovers the challenge – and reconciling possibility – of the passing of the peace.
- Br. Geoffrey Tristram looks into the mystery of the atonement.
- Br. Curtis Almquist offers a practical guide to forgiveness.
- Br. Mark Brown shares his experience of three calls to vocations int he Christian life.
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Today is the Feast of St George, the patron saint of England and an heroic figure in the Eastern Church. As with many of the early saints, the life of St George is shrouded with legend. Little is known of his life or of his martyrdom. What we do know is that he was born of noble parents in the region of Cappadocia sometime in the latter half of the 3rd century. After the death of his father, he and his mother relocated in Palestine, where the family held some land. George was enlisted in the army of the Roman emperor Diocletian and became one of the emperor’s best soldiers. But his conversion to Christianity put George in direct conflict with Diocletian, who was a bitter enemy of Christians and persecuted them viciously. George spoke personally to the emperor in defense of the Christians. His opposition cost him his life; he was tortured and then beheaded at Lydda in Palestine in the early 4th century.
It’s been a very long week. How many different emotions we have experienced, from the shock and horror of the bombings on Monday, the profound sadness and grief for those who lost their lives or were so terribly injured, to the growing anxiety as the police identified the two suspects, and then the days of tracking them down, culminating in the weird, almost surreal experience of Friday’s lockdown of the city, and the final relief when the second suspect was arrested on Friday night.
You will each have your own thoughts and experiences of Friday: being locked down, unable to go out. What I remember most vividly was having to lock the door of the Chapel. And then all though the day, the Brothers and our guests worshipping here together, with the door locked – and always just audible from outside, the eerie, unsettling sound of sirens. Continue reading
This week most of the Gospel readings have been from Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. In those readings we see the later reactions of some who witnessed the miraculous feeding of 5,000 people. They were disputing even among themselves. The question they were disputing was “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52) For them that idea was not only distasteful but it was against the Jewish Law. (E.g., Lev. 17:14, 15& Deut. 12:23)
When did you first experience a call to the monastic life?
My call to the monastic life was actually my third experience of being called to a vocation in the Christian life. It was preceded, first of all, in my mid-thirties, by a call to be a Christian. I’m an adult convert to Christianity, baptized at thirty-five. My second call was a vocation to the priesthood. Then a few years later came a sense of vocation to the monastic life here at SSJE.
Describing with a very broad brush: I was raised in a church-going family in a small Midwestern town, Coal City, Illinois, where we attended a Presbyterian church on a regular basis and were active in the congregation. By the time I reached my mid-teens, I felt like I needed to distance myself from the church. I wasn’t sure what I believed. Eventually, I stopped attending church or thinking of myself as a Christian.
After I left my hometown in 1967, to go to the University of Illinois to be a music student, I became very involved in studying music – in a sense, that was my religion for quite a while. Then, little by little, bit-by-bit, I began to feel a kind of magnetic attraction to something out there, though I wasn’t sure what that something was. So I began a kind of wild and crazy exploratory period during my college years. This period took me to some very strange (and sometimes wonderful) places: I dipped into Eastern religions and theosophy, tried out a whole range of things having to do with the occult and paranormal, attending séances, getting into astrology and numerology and all kinds of very exotic things on this spiritual quest.
In my early thirties, I made a trip to France for a vacation and was particularly attracted to the churches, as anyone would be in a country like France, where there are such wonderful old churches to visit. While in the city of Arles, in the South of France, I visited Saint Trophime, an ancient church, dating back in parts to the fourth or fifth century. I happened to be there just when a baptism was taking place.
As I watched this baptism, something came over me that felt tremendously powerful – so powerful I had to grab onto something to keep standing up straight! In that moment I knew that I needed to be baptized and join the Church.
What did you do with that urgent sense of call?
Back at home I began to raise my antennae to see what I could sense in the environment around me. I still wasn’t sure where I would land, because I didn’t feel at all drawn to the tradition in which I’d been raised. I felt somewhat drawn to Catholicism. Because my adult life had been spent in the study and teaching of music, I knew that wherever I landed would need to take the arts and beauty seriously. But I struggled with the top-down approach to authority in the Roman Catholic Church. To make a long story short, I found the Episcopal Church. On Christmas Eve, in Champaign, Illinois, it all came together in a very wonderful and marvellous way, and I instantly felt at home there. I knew that this was a place in which I could be a Christian. A few weeks later, in late February 1986, I was baptized and became a Christian – and a member of the Episcopal Church as well.
About the same time – actually a few weeks before I was even baptized! – I had begun the discipline of praying Morning Prayer using the Book of Common Prayer. One day, I remember, I was praying “The General Thanksgiving” that comes at the end of that service, meditating on the words about service: “that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service.” I was pondering what that might look like for me. And in a flash, in a moment, the thought, the words, the idea, came to mind that I should become a priest.
The first call, the call to be a Christian, was slow and incremental: a gradual increase of attraction through years of wandering and looking and searching, and then a realization that I needed to be baptized and to become a Christian.
My sense of vocation to the priesthood was very different because it was so instantaneous and unexpected. I didn’t have a conscious sense of building up to this. It seemed out-of-the-blue and unreasonable to want to be a priest without even being a baptized Christian. (Though even that is not unprecedented: St. Ambrose was not baptized when he was elected Bishop of Milan.) Yet in this second sense of vocation to the priesthood, there was something so clear, something suddenly so evident and so powerful, I never doubted its validity. I knew, as surely as I knew that the sun was shining, that this was my vocation, and that all I had to do was keep going through doors as they opened and I would become a priest. And that is what happened.
When I think back on the experience of that moment, I think of a piano string being tuned. If you’ve ever heard that happening, you’ll know what I mean. There’s a wrench that tightens the bolts that hold down the strings, and as the tuner turns the bolts, the string goes flat, goes sharp. The sound wobbles around the true pitch, and then suddenly the true pitch rings out in a very clear, bell-like way. And that’s it. You know that the note is now in tune. That’s how it felt to me, after so much wandering and searching and seeking and going this way and that way: It felt in that moment like I was perfectly in tune with what I was meant to do with my life.
So when did you experience your third call, the call to become a monk?
After seminary, I worked in a parish for a while as a priest. During that time, I was asked by a friend to preach at his wedding in New York. As I arranged to make a trip to New York I thought I might as well make a retreat at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. I loved going for retreats at a monastery in Michigan. But while I had a deep appreciation for the monastic life from that experience, I didn’t have a sense of vocation to that particular community.
After a few days on retreat at SSJE, I thought, “Maybe there’s something here for me. This might be a possibility.” I knew already that I had a strong attraction to the monastic life, and now I could see how I might live out my baptismal vows and my priestly identity in this place, with this community. So I began a correspondence with Br. Curtis, who was the novice guardian at the time. Following my retreat in July of 1996, I came for an inquirer’s visit that October and then came as a postulant in June of 1997.
This has been a different experience of vocation from the previous two because it’s been a kind of ongoing wrestling match with God. Looking back now, I have no doubt that I’ve made the right choice. I do have a vocation as a member of this community. But with this call I haven’t always had the clarity I did with my previous senses of vocation to be a Christian and a priest. I’ve had to struggle with this call much more. Once I was beyond the initial stages of wonderment about being here, once the realities of daily existence began to sink in, there certainly were times when I began to wonder, “Have I made the right decision?” Of course, I’m still here and I have the sense of this being right.
The point I’m making is that when we talk about having a sense of vocation, we can be talking about very different experiences. I, for one, have experienced a variety of calls: first the gradually increasing gravitational attraction experience, then the sudden insight experience, and finally the Jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel kind of experience.
It’s important for people to know that vocation can be played out in many different ways. There’s no wrong way or right way; it happens as it happens, and it can happen in any number of different ways.
What’s been the most rewarding thing for you about accepting the call to be a monk?
The single most gratifying thing is probably living a life rooted and grounded in a regular practice of corporate prayer. This is a wonderful place in which to be a priest, partly because of the care and skill that goes into our liturgical life. We put a tremendous amount of thought and energy into liturgy because we love it. So it’s a very gratifying place to celebrate the Eucharist. I find this an especially wonderful place to be a preacher. In a parish, a preacher has to be all things to everyone and try to meet a very wide range of needs, to speak to a wide range of people. Since we have many Brothers preaching, each one can develop his own unique voice, without feeling the need to be all things to all people. So I’ve found tremendous freedom in this context to develop my own voice as a preacher without being anxious about whether it’s speaking to everyone all the time. One of my Brothers affectionately has called my preaching eccentric, and I take that as a great compliment. I’m glad to be able to be in a place where I can be an eccentric preacher.
Do you think that everyone has a vocation?
It depends on how we understand “vocation.” If we’re talking about a spectacularly dramatic moment when we experience God calling us, a kind of Damascus Road experience, I’d say that’s comparatively rare. I suspect that the most common sense of vocation is one that develops over time, which may also involve a certain amount of struggling. In retrospect, even my sudden sense of vocation to the priesthood, which in the moment seemed unexpected and unprecedented, may have been a more organic movement in the trajectory of my life. A sense of vocation forms around what we might call “the heart’s desire”: what we truly desire for ourselves in God, for those around us, and for the world. I suspect that our own deepest desires are most often the strongest indication of vocation. We need not wait for or expect a call that seems to come from outside of us, but rather be attuned to that which is becoming alive within us.
Forgiving is in your best interest. To not forgive someone is to incarcerate them in your memory: your offender being the prisoner; you being the prison guard. The tragedy is that both of you are in the prison. Forgiving is setting someone free for your sake. By forgiving someone, you unbind yourself from the residual power this person – from whom you have experienced an injury, offense, or disappointment – continues to have on you. To not forgive will leave your wound vulnerable to infection, which eventually can metastasize into resentment. Nelson Mandela, on being freed from twenty-six years of imprisonment in South Africa, felt bitter toward his captors; however he was determined to claim his inner freedom, to forgive and not to resent. “Resentment,” he said, “is like drinking poison and waiting for it to kill your enemy.”
Do you wait until someone who has hurt or offended you asks for your forgiveness? No. To wait gives this other person tacit power over you, certainly a control over the healing of your wound. And they may never own or even realize they have committed a wrong toward you.
Do you tell someone that you have forgiven them? Probably not. To do so might sound terribly pompous or presumptuous on your part; you could offend them. They might say something like, “Who do you think you are to speak so condescendingly to me?” Most often your forgiving someone is a matter within your own heart, though you may need some assistance from a trusted soulmate or professional helper.
Do you forgive someone for a repeated offense? Yes, but with a qualification. This is the energy in Peter’s questioning Jesus, “How often should I forgive?” Jesus answers in code language: “endlessly.” You will understand this if there is a person or some kind of person from whom you cannot escape and whom you find repeatedly offending. Your relationship may have a Velcro-like quality, “hooking” you. You may find in this relationship both a need and invitation “to pray without ceasing” for yourself and for this other person. They may even be a disguised teacher, exposing you to your own character flaws. SSJE’s founder, Richard Meux Benson, taught that “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.” The qualification is when the offense has an abusive or addictive quality. Then there is a need for you to establish at least a protective boundary, and maybe an escape plan. You will need help with this – pastoral, sacramental, psychotherapeutic, and/or the assistance of a support group or 12-Step meeting. Help is very helpful. Get help.
What about mutual forgiveness: both persons being offended; both persons forgiving each other? Those are amazing moments when they happen. When you do find yourself sharing conversation with someone about your afflicted relationship, if you are prepared to forgive, also be prepared to be forgiven. You may have missed or misinterpreted something in your altercation, how they experienced you. That missing information may make all the difference, not just in the freedom that comes with forgiveness but in the shared delight of reconciliation.
Must you always be reconciled with someone whom you have forgiven? No. Reconciliation, when it can happen, is a beautiful thing. But the timing and setting must be right, especially when there was or is a power differential between the two individuals, i.e., a difference in age, in seniority, in status, in authority. The less-powerful person continues to be quite vulnerable.
I recently shared a conversation with a young woman who had been appallingly abused by her father in her childhood. (I write about this with her permission.) The woman was a walking miracle. She had not only survived but found the courage, the desire, the help to thrive. She claimed what she called “an amazing grace” to have forgiven her father. The point of our conversation was about her reconciliation with her father who had never admitted his repeated transgressions. The young woman thought she should and must be reconciled to him, and she was very, very anxious about this. She invited my response. I said, “No, not now.” I strongly sensed it was not safe for this woman to attempt the reconciliation. It would have every prospect to tear open the sutures in this woman’s soul; it could re-ignite her father’s prowess. It was essential for her wellbeing to retain a clear boundary with her father.
We ultimately talked about what more she could do in her relationship with her father. Pray. She was aware of his own upbringing, how he had been abused by his own father, and – from a safe distance – she actually felt a good deal of compassion for him. How to pray? I asked her. She had a flood of images: to pray for her father’s liberation and healing, for hope, for love.
Sometimes this is the best we can do: to pray for Jesus’ light and life and love to shine upon a person from whom we need to keep distance. In the fullness of time – and maybe not until eternity – reconciliation may be able to happen. In the meantime, use Jesus as a go-between. Ask for Jesus’ mediation, whether this person be alive or dead. At death, “life is changed, not ended” (the language of the Book of Common Prayer). You may find enormous comfort and streaming energy to whisper into Jesus’ ear your own hopes for this hurtful, hurting soul. Pray candidly. Even if your feelings toward this person remain conflicted, pray your conflict. Jesus will sort it out. For how long should you pray? You will know.
There is a beautiful story told about the English nineteenth-century landscape painter John Constable. John loved painting the idyllic countryside of East Anglia, and he also loved his many children. His oldest son, also called John, kept a diary, and he writes about one particular day which he would never forget.
There was to be a special exhibition of his father’s new works, and critics from far and wide came to their home in the Suffolk countryside to see the new paintings. The highlight of the day was the unveiling of a very large canvas, and it was hidden behind a curtain. The great moment came. Everyone was very excited, and Constable walked up to the curtain and pulled the cord, and the new painting was unveiled. But there was a groan and shocked intake of breath, because right across the canvas, from top to bottom, was a great tear. Continue reading
It is not unusual, when Brothers are speaking with guests, that they have lots of questions for us. It is safe to say that people are interested in what and why we do what we do, especially if the idea of monasticism is new to them, or if they are on a first visit to either the Monastery or Emery House. They are interested in who we are; where we came from; what we did before we came to the community; what we do in the community. Inevitably most of them are curious about two other things: what is the best part of community life and what is the worst part of community life?
I am no longer surprised when people ask me those two questions, and frequently now I will beat them to it and answer them even before they have a chance to ask. On hearing my answer, many people are surprised at first, because the answer is the same. The best and worst part of community life is … community life.
There are many reasons why I came to the community to test my vocation. One reason is that after living on my own for a number of years as a parish priest, I knew that I needed and wanted to live with other people who took seriously the same things that I took seriously. I knew that I needed the support of a community. I also knew that I needed the companionship of others as I learned to face more honestly all that was within me: good and bad; light and dark; joy and sadness. I knew that I needed a container for my life that would channel my gifts, but would also bind up my wounds.
Probably the greatest joy of community life is in fact the community. But that does not make less true the fact that the most challenging aspect of community life is also the community. It is no accident that our Rule of Life requires us to make our confessions once a quarter. We do this not because we are especially pious (or conversely incredibly wicked), but in part because we live so closely with one another. It is not possible to live in community, whether that community be a family household, a university residence, or a monastery, without sooner or later manifesting to one another our frailties, our brokenness, and our need of forgiveness.
The possibilities of forgiveness and reconciliation lie at the heart of the Christian faith. Because of that they are part of the daily bread of community life. Living and working as closely with one another as we do, there inevitably (and frequently) comes the time when we need both to forgive and be forgiven. Our Rule teaches that “we cannot keep pace with the Risen Christ who goes before us if we are encumbered by guilt. If we stay estranged in our hearts we jeopardize the communion we have with our brothers and our fellow members of the Body of Christ” (Ch. 30).
As sacramental and liturgical Christians we believe that the sacraments and liturgy have the power to transform us. One of my favorite passages from Father Benson on the subject of Holy Communion reminds us of this. In The Religious Vocation he says:
And we must look for the development of the life of Christ within us. Each communion should be, as it were, adding some fresh point to the image of Christ within our souls. 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. And it is not that it does this merely in some one direction, but as each moment of the morning adds imperceptibly a fresh glow to the whole illuminated hemisphere, so each communion imperceptibly should add a fresh glow, a fresh brightness, a fresh coloring to the sphere of the soul which it penetrates; the whole nature should assume a fresh glory with each communion. As the form and color of the landscape come out with the sun’s advance, so with each communion the form and color of our spiritual life, not merely in this or that particular, but in all its complex bearings of form and color, is to stand out with greater clearness and beauty, each communion bringing its own fresh illumination, and perfecting us in the Sun of righteousness.
If it is true that Communion has the power to change and transform us more and more into the likeness of Christ, so I would suggest that each exchange of the Peace also has the power to change and transform us.
For me, the thing that is more challenging is not the frequent receiving of Holy Communion, but the frequent exchange of the Peace! There are some days I simply do not want to encounter a particular Brother, never mind exchange the peace with him. When I find myself in that place, an exchange of the Peace is exactly what needs to happen. Slowly but surely, day after day, liturgy after liturgy, exchange of the Peace after exchange of the Peace, my heart begins to melt, and I find myself in a place where I can at last speak to the one from whom I have been estranged or else the wound has been healed and the Peace again becomes a genuine expression of my desire for all that is good to be bestowed upon the other.
Wisely, our Rule of Life recognizes that we will “fall and fall again.” The question is not if but when. When that does happen, there is a mechanism to help us all get back on our feet again, and for me it begins with the exchange of the Peace.
There is a story that comes to us from the desert tradition. There was an old woman who lived near a monastery, but she never saw any of the monks. One day, by chance, she saw a monk returning from a journey, so she approached him and asked: “What do you do in there all day?” He looked at her and replied: “We fall and get back up. We fall and get back up.”
For me, part of the getting back up involves a simple gesture and an equally simple word: the clasp of a hand, and a word of Peace.
Even a small serving of the Gospel of John is rich, complex food; there are several ingredients just in these few lines—much to savor, lots to chew on. I’d like to draw out one morsel: where Jesus says he’s the living bread and whoever eats this bread will live forever. Continue reading
Every year it strikes me, as if for the first time. On December 25 we celebrate the wondrous story of the birth of Jesus. We meditate on the coming of the Prince of Peace. We gaze adoringly at the crèche, at the Holy Family – the love between Mary and Joseph and their beloved child. Continue reading
I wonder how many of you remember Kathryn Kuhlman. Ms. Kuhlman, who died in 1976, was a well known evangelist and faith healer. Her television program featured a now familiar mix of preaching, music (with Dino at the piano) and faith healings. Ms. Kuhlman began each of her broadcasts with these very carefully enunciated words, “I believe in miracles” or more precisely in Ms. Kuhlman’s own inimitable pronunciation, “I believe-a in miracles.” Continue reading
In order to understand today’s Gospel more clearly we should look back to the middle of this same Chapter 3. There we find the familiar verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:16)
The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary;
And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.
And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord;
Be it unto me according to your word….
Thus begins the Angelus, at Morning and Evening Prayer here in this chapel. Most of the year–we do something different in Eastertide. The Angelus is based on the passage from Luke that we’ve just heard. With the addition, the important addition, of John 1:14. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Word who was with God in the beginning, who was God; the Word through whom all things came to be. The Word, the Logos, of God became human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. The Incarnation. The Angelus is in part a salute to the Virgin Mary and a request for her prayers. It is also a proclamation of the Incarnation and, in the concluding prayer, a concise summary of salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ. A good way to start the day. Continue reading
The Apostle Thomas has been caricatured as “doubting Thomas,” but that’s unfair, and it’s inaccurate. I think the opposite is true. Thomas is heroic and exemplary. There are two scenes in the gospels prior to what we’ve just read that shed light on Thomas. One is when Jesus was trying to say “good-bye” to his disciples, just prior to his being seized in the garden at Gethsemane. Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled…. I go to prepare a place for you… and you know where I am going….” No. Not so. Not at least for Thomas. It seems only Thomas had the courage to admit that he is clueless. “My Lord,” Thomas says, “We don’t have the slightest idea where you are going! How can we know the way?”[i] (It’s a good question; an honest question for us, too. How can we know the way, especially when the path is dark and the risks are many, and the fear is great, and the route is unsure?) How can we know the way?
Something mysterious happens to us when we find something to believe in. We discover that some task, some project, some idea has so captured our imaginations that we want to give ourselves wholeheartedly to it. We become dedicated to its fulfillment. Perhaps it leads us to support a cause or join a campaign, perhaps to take up a new role or responsibility, perhaps to make a commitment of time, energy or financial resources.
You don’t have to wait till you have died to receive the gift of eternal life – it begins now. When we receive the Holy Spirit into our lives, we are already, now being transformed, being made alive – already in the process of passing from death to life.
– Br. Geoffrey Tristram
Society of Saint John the Evangelist
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Question for Reflection:
Can you let go of the past and the future, to meet God in the now?
“You all: abide in love.” Jesus here is speaking to us collectively, and he presumes that we need one another. Because we must be reminded so many times “to abide,” we know that this is not always easy. Necessary, exceedingly challenging, possible. Only made possible by Jesus who calls us to this high mark.
– Br. Curtis Almquist
Society of Saint John the Evangelist
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Question for Reflection:
How will you abide with God as you navigate your way through the day?
Respond to the invitation of the Eucharistic Great Thanksgiving to lift up one’s heart and let love and gratitude inform each moment of the day. By doing so our whole life becomes love and we are ever drawn more deeply into the mystery of the divine presence, near to the heart of God.
– Br. Eldridge Pendleton
Society of Saint John the Evangelist
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Question for Reflection:
Will you try to approach your life today with gratitude?
Unfailingly, Jesus directs our attention to those parts of our lives that remain desert just because living water has never gotten there. He asks us to go where we have no desire to go, because going there shatters the illusions we hold about ourselves and reveals our need for a Savior.
– Br. David Vryhof
Society of Saint John the Evangelist
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Question for Reflection:
Will you pray the name of Jesus for the salvation of all?