Living in Rhythm: Following Nature’s Rule

Fall_Insert_Nature-CoverTo download a PDF of this article, please let us know your name and email and we will send you a link to the PDF.




Need assistance with this form?


Living in Rhythm: Following Nature’s Rule

Q. What are we by nature?
A. We are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God.

Q. What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
A. It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.

These opening sentences of the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer identify us, first and foremost, as part of God’s creation. We can only thrive when we “live in harmony with creation and with God” (“An Outline of the Faith,” Book of Common Prayer, Church Publishing: 1979, 845).

EH SpringWKD 2013 - 32I’ve come to know this myself in a profound way: Several years ago, I moved from the SSJE Monastery, right in the heart of Harvard Square in Cambridge, to our rural Monastery called Emery House. The Emery family had lived and farmed this land for over 300 years before entrusting it to the Society in 1950. From a world of high granite arches and marble altars, stained glass and organ music, with cars passing just outside the door on Memorial Drive, I found myself suddenly surrounded, day in and day out, month after month, by new sights and sounds: meadow grasses bending in a breeze, frost icing the branches of the beech grove, the companionship of a flock of wonderfully noisy, inquisitive geese. There were no street lights but the stars. And, as often as not, my experience of the Daily Office was now punctuated by bird calls. Continue reading

A Reconciling Landscape: The New Cloister Garden – Br. Robert L’Esperance

Every year in August, the Brothers gather together for a community retreat at Emery House. During this month, in lieu of posting sermons, we will be sharing with you some of the Brothers’ recent reflections from Cowley magazine on the topic of our relationship with the Creation, which will be the main theme of the Brothers’ teaching for the coming year.

In September, we’ll look forward to sharing Br. James Koester’s Monastic Wisdom article,  “Living in Rhythm: Following Nature’s Rule.” And we hope you’ll share word of our upcoming 2016 Lenten series, “Growing a Rule of Life,” which offers guidance and inspiration for individuals, parishes, and groups.

The renovated Cloister Garden at the Monastery opens the door for a new relationship with Creation, which Br. Robert L’Esperance shares.

Most High, all – powerful, all good, Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honor and all blessing.1

8574456441_9c1c76d903_oThere is a cost to being in touch with our natural world. Like just about anything worth having there is a cost to it. There is real joy in discerning nature and its wonders, yet there is also pain in knowing this.

How utterly removed many of us are from nature that we don’t even seem to have a care for what we are looking at. On the one hand we see the autumn colors in the fall and we think “What a pretty picture!” What a glorious creation. Or we see the first spring green in the woods and say to ourselves, “How thrilling!” What a glorious creation. But we know the names of nothing. And that makes our lives easier. Once you learn the name of things, maybe you will see the early fall color along New England roadsides and think, “Oh, my, look at all those choking vines aglow in yellow: oriental bittersweet, everywhere.” That first spring green in the woods? Japanese barberry. The downside to knowing the names of things can be an element of disenchantment.

To witness the Creation truly, it should be an honor to know the names of things, to know our world by name. Naming the world was one of God’s first gifts to humankind. We should be able to name Creation, even though it might sometimes mean introducing new heartache or anxiety into our lives where before there was none, where before there were just pretty pictures.

Learning the names of things also deepens our appreciation for the sugar maple, the white oak, the tree or the shrub we may before have regarded as just some tree or bush like all others. The tree and the shrub become individuals, which is what they are, with an identity in the Creation that is unique and fantastic, with an ancient lineage all its own. A lineage like your own that brought you to this place, time, and moment in Creation. That tree, that shrub is an inheritor of billions of years of survival and each also is a giver to pollinators, birds, and the myriad upon myriad of icky things from which we would rather turn our gaze.

Birders can tell a sparrow from a sparrow, or a gull from a gull – and the world becomes richer, truer, more real. And what might be thought of as a dull sparrow becomes a source of excitement and joy.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother, who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces various fruits with colored flower and herbs.

Cloister during renovationsOn an August afternoon during the Monastery’s renovation, the Brothers made a field trip to Garden in the Woods, located in Framingham, Massachusetts, about twenty miles west of Boston. That trip constituted a turning point for the community in thinking about how to restore and renovate the Cloister Garden after the site was cleared of the construction materials that were housed there during the renovation. Up to that point, we had been thinking along quite conventional lines. That trip to Framingham helped us to begin to imagine something that would seek to bring other values to our idea of what our garden should be like.

It was in that visit that the idea of a naturalistic, native plant garden was born. The results of that vision are now visible from the cloister windows.

cloister garden 1With hundreds – no maybe thousands – of hours of careful research, planning, and design, the community’s friend, Patrick Smith, helped us bring to birth (the process sometimes felt just like that!) a vision of the cloister space that has been a transforming and life-giving experience for the entire community and our guests. Like so many other notions about the earth, the environment, and our role in that great interchange, ideas about what a garden is and should be are undergoing great changes. The garden design that Patrick developed for us tries to take many of these new understandings seriously and put them into practice.

We have been encouraged to think of our garden as an opportunity for us to be the best stewards of the land that we can be. Each plant was chosen with the site in mind, bringing into play the current thinking which advocates choosing plants that are appropriate to the existing environment rather than trying to artificially modify the environment to accommodate a less appropriate choice. This is about working with nature and what nature has already given to the site, rather than imposing something out of place. We also saw our garden as a being that should be life-sustaining to itself, us, and the other living beings with whom we share this space. This impulse lies behind much of what motivates any gardener to sink her hands into the soil: the desire to cultivate and connect with life itself.

Our garden is also intended to be a marker of time. We live our life according to a liturgical calendar that marks the natural rhythms of the seasons by recalling the great salvific acts of the Creator. Through the four seasons, the garden is designed to be a grand calendar, from snow covered limbs, through the bud-break of a million shining chalices, the steamy heat of summer alive with crickets and katydids, and then through the cool and refreshing fire of autumn’s colors.

OCSO and SSJE at 980Finally, the garden is a way of extending monastic hospitality to non-human guests. We are blessedly close to the beautiful Mount Auburn garden cemetery, the home or migration ground to so many birds and animals. Our garden’s berries, water, and shelter are already drawing wild birds that we have never seen before on the Monastery’s urban-enclosed grounds. In a sense, those visiting and lodging birds have become ambassadors by carrying those seeds and berries outside the garden perimeters into the wider world. As a nourishing and nurturing place, the Cloister Garden has in common with other native plant gardens the capacity of existing beyond its borders for the benefit of all.

The new Cloister Garden is a palate that will hopefully help each of us grow more and more into relationship with the individual plants. We hope guests who come will learn, as we Brothers have, to name and know the beautiful and varied forms and flowers of native dogwoods, sourwood, sweet-bay magnolia and autumn witch hazel, old man’s beard, ironwood, serviceberry and paw-paw. We hope you’ll spot the divine presence along the paths that wind through an understory of viburnum, rhododendron, holly, spice-bush, and mountain laurel.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks, and serve him with great humility.


1. [The italicized lines throughout this article are taken from Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures (The Society of St. Francis, Little Portion Friary, Mt. Sinai, NY: 1926).]

 

Reconciliation with Creation: Reflections Written on a Summer Day – Br. Mark Brown

Every year in August, the Brothers gather together for a community retreat at Emery House. During this month, in lieu of posting sermons, we will be sharing with you some of the Brothers’ recent reflections from Cowley magazine on the topic of our relationship with the Creation, which will be the main theme of the Brothers’ teaching for the coming year.

In September, we’ll look forward to sharing Br. James Koester’s Monastic Wisdom article,  “Living in Rhythm: Following Nature’s Rule.” And we hope you’ll share word of our upcoming 2016 Lenten series, “Growing a Rule of Life,” which offers guidance and inspiration for individuals, parishes, and groups.

Can we “own” any part of Creation? Br. Mark Brown relates the Brothers’ experience of stewardship at Emery House.

“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” – Luke 14:33

SSJE134I’m writing from a room at Emery House with a bay window looking out over the meadow and the river beyond, which I can just make out through the trees along the bank. Some of you have probably stayed in this room (we call it the “Meadow Room”) while on retreat. I hear someone mowing in the distance behind me; Sophie, our “labradoodle,” is playing in the field across the road. There’s a lovely soft breeze today, the kind of delicious whispering through the woods that makes Emery House such an intoxicating place to be on a summer day.

The Brothers have been here since the 1950s, when this farm, which dates from 1635, came into our care, thanks to the generosity of the Emery sisters. But it was not only generosity to the SSJE that motivated these remarkable women. Sarah, Mary Elizabeth, Frances Louisa, and Georgiana Emery were devout Episcopalians who lived modestly on this farm, even after coming into a large inheritance. The legacy they received enabled them to be active in a number of ministries to the poor; in time, their paths crossed with Brothers from the SSJE, who were involved in some of the same charitable work.

When Georgiana, the last of the Emery sisters, died in 1952, the farm was given into the care of the SSJE with the provision in the will that the property be used for Christian ministry. The Brothers do not actually own Emery House; we have stewardship of this place for the express purpose of the ministry we continue here. Considering their inheritance a gift from God and not their own, the Emery sisters gave abundantly of those resources. They have passed along much of what they received to us, no doubt with the expectation that we will hold this place in trust to be a gift from God to be shared with others in God’s service.

photo-7We Brothers try to remember to think of ownership and possession in these terms. If we were to purchase a property and “own” it in the legal sense, it would still be with the understanding that we wouldn’t in truth “own” it, but we would be stewards or caretakers. All that we have use of, from our toothbrushes and clothing to the Monastery buildings to the financial resources that sustain our ministry, we try to remember, do not, in truth, belong to us.

The traditional monastic vow of poverty, the giving up of “all our possessions,” as Jesus counseled, actually opens up for us a way to relate to all of Creation. We could say a more “reconciled” relationship with Creation. Yes, we may in a legal sense “own” something – ownership is a convenient and necessary legal construct for a kind of stability in society (not without problems, however). But there is freedom in the full realization that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24). We are passing through and may have the care of resources for a season.

And who, after all, “owns” a poem? After the poet speaks the poem into existence, who can say he owns it? Who can say she possesses it? We are, and the world is, in a sense, the poem. When we recite the ancient creeds we say we believe in God, the maker or creator of all things. As it happens, the original Greek of the creeds uses the word poietes, for maker and creator. This is the same word used in the Bible for “poet” (Acts 17:28). God is the maker, the creator, the poet of the universe; we and all things visible and invisible are spoken into existence – we ourselves are the poem, heaven and earth are the poem, the seas and dry land and all that dwell therein and thereupon are the poem. Can one line of a poem possess or own another – in truth?

8147674248_20769fdc51_oCan the sunshine over the meadow own the moonlight over the woods? Can the river say to the grassy hill, “I own you”? Once we begin to awaken to the wonders to be told in stones and trees and the lay of the land; once we begin to hear the poetry in roots and leaves and micro-organisms; once we begin to read the words of the Divine Poet in all creation, we begin to see how absurd the idea of possession is. Beholding the glory of one single tree (let alone the forest); really seeing the complexity of a single flower (let alone the glory of the meadow) – how can we say we own any of these things? We can only stand in awe. Or, perhaps, even kneel in silent wonder.

Jesus’ words from Luke quoted above this article sound very hard, even unattainable. Who can do without stuff? All God’s children need stuff. But we might hear in those challenging words an invitation to a new way of being: Give up “possession” itself. Give up the notion of ownership and be opened up to a new way of being in relationship to the world around us. Relinquish notions of dominion and domination and subjugation (all rooted in fear) and discover your rightful place in the seamless web of life, in God’s seamless, infinite web of poetry. God’s infinite web of poetry whose words are written in light and life and love.

One Foot in Eden: Gardens in Scripture – Br. James Koester

Every year in August, the Brothers gather together for a community retreat at Emery House. During this month, in lieu of posting sermons, we will be sharing with you some of the Brothers’ recent reflections from Cowley magazine on the topic of our relationship with the Creation, which will be the main theme of the Brothers’ teaching for the coming year.

In September, we’ll look forward to sharing Br. James Koester’s Monastic Wisdom article,  “Living in Rhythm: Following Nature’s Rule.” And we hope you’ll share word of our upcoming 2016 Lenten series, “Growing a Rule of Life,” which offers guidance and inspiration for individuals, parishes, and groups.

Br. James Koester delves into the scriptural meaning of gardens and how they reflect our deepest longings.

8735353734_f2fa08dbb0_o Gardens and farms have been associated with monastic communities since the beginning of the monastic movement in the Church. We read stories of the Desert Ammas and Abbas tending their gardens. We know from the history of gardening that the monasteries of Europe were always associated with gardening (and in some cases plans and inventories have survived telling us, for instance, that garlic was one of the most popular things grown in English monasteries before the Reformation!) This connection between monasteries and gardens was for practical, theological, and spiritual reasons.

Practically speaking monasteries needed to feed themselves and the extended communities that grew up around them. As they are today, monasteries were centers of hospitality and mission, and there were always people who needed a bed, a meal, and a listening heart. Then, as now, food played an integral role in the daily life of any monastic community. What could not be produced by the monastery needed to be purchased, and so a surplus of what could be produced was used to buy or trade for what could not be produced. By the late middle ages, some monasteries in Europe had become great landholders, employing hundreds of people to farm and tend the land. In some cases land management and tenant relationships became a major preoccupation for many of the monks. Continue reading

“Grace Upon Grace”: God Pardons the KingåÊ- Br. David Vryhof

Br. David VryhofII Samuel 11:26-12:15

The warrior-king is at home. His troops are on the battlefield, defending the land against its most recent invaders, but the king is at home. He’s older now, perhaps a little heavier than he once was, a little slower – still handsome, but a bit softer, certainly less agile and strong. In his younger days he would have been leading the troops, but he’s the king now and no longer needs to go out with his armies; he can monitor the battles from the situation room in the palace. He’s not the man he once was, so perhaps it’s best he’s not embarrassing himself or his officers by displaying his diminished skills for all to see.

If the truth be told, he’s bored. He’s accomplished all he set out to accomplish. He has consolidated the kingdom, built up the holy city, brought justice and peace to the land. No doubt he misses the excitement of battle, to say nothing of the notoriety and public affirmation it brought him. It’s been some time now since the crowds shouted his name: “Saul has killed his thousands, but David his tens of thousands!” (I Sam 18:7) He’s missing the thrill of conquest. Ruling and governing has its perks, but it’s not the same. Continue reading