Today, we give thanks to God for one of the great saints and martyrs of the Church, St. Alban. He is one of my favorite saints because for much of my ministry as a parish priest I worked in the English Diocese of St. Albans, which is in the county of Hertfordshire, some 25 miles north of London. The city of St. Albans, in Roman times, was called Verulamium, but its name was changed in honor of the man who, like his Lord, gave his up his life for another. Continue reading
‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out of the womb?’[i] In this beautifully lyrical passage from the Book of Job, God invites Job to look and see the wonders of God’s creation. For if you look, you will surely see, in the words of today’s psalm that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.’[ii]
Or does it? When I was about fifteen, I came across Bertrand Russell’s slim volume, Why I am not a Christian, and I declared to my friends, and teachers, partly to shock, that I no longer believed in God. Well, as you can see, as the years went by, I changed my views and became theist, and eventually Christian. But I have never lost my respect for the scientific method, nor, actually, sensed any fundamental clash between the different purposes of science and religion. As far back as the Renaissance there was a clear demarcation between what was called ‘natural philosophy’ (approximately what we would call ‘science’) which concentrated on empirical evidence from nature, and theology’s concentration on questions of purpose and meaning. They were not seen as contradictory. So, for example, Sir Isaac Newton wrote as much about the Book of Revelation as about the theory of gravity! Continue reading
Over this past week, I have had the privilege of leading a retreat for men and women who are preparing for ordination. We’ve been reflecting on, and praying about the mystery of vocation. And “vocation” is the theme of the days of this week, which are called Ember Days. Each day this week we have been praying for those who have a vocation, and in particular those who have been called to ministry.
Today is the last of these Ember Days, and today’s collect is about vocation – but it’s about your vocation and mine. “We pray for all members of the holy church, that in their vocation and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you.”
If you have been baptized, then you have a vocation! So what is a vocation? Some people think it must be something that you suddenly get. You’re walking along quite happily one day, and God suddenly “zaps” you with a vocation! I don’t think that’s quite right. I believe that your vocation is that which lies at the very heart, the very core of your identity. It is discovering who it is that you most truly are. Continue reading
As many of you know, at the end of next week I am going to England to preside at the wedding of my niece Katherine and her fiancé Michael. I’m really excited about it, and I’ve been poring over the Church of England marriage ceremony online, so that I’ll look as if I know what I’m doing! I haven’t married anyone for quite a few years, and it was certainly one of the joys of being a parish priest. I have always understood Holy Matrimony as a sacrament: that God’s Holy Spirit comes down upon two individuals, and through a deep mystery, makes them one. In the words of the Church of England rite, “The couple shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind.”
They are changed. God’s Spirit has the power to change us. As a sign of this change, couples often change one or the other’s surname, and wear a ring of their finger. I’m no longer who I was. I have been changed. Continue reading
Nestling in a verdant Norman valley, surrounded by meadows and apple orchards, between Rouen and Lisieux, stands the famous Benedictine abbey of Le Bec Hellouin. In my early twenties I would often go to Le Bec for my retreats. I remember the first thing you would see in the distance – the tall, beautiful, creamy stone church tower of St. Nicholas, welcoming you into the valley. I loved the singing of the monks, I loved my conversations with the abbot about monasticism, and about my vocation.
Le Bec Hellouin also has very close historical ties with the Church of England, and in particular with Canterbury Cathedral. The reason for this is primarily because not one, but two of its abbots went on to be Archbishop of Canterbury. First, Lanfranc, and then in the year 1093, Anselm, whom we remember today. Continue reading
These last three days – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, are what the Anglo-Saxon church called the “Still Days.” The Still Days – days of silent mourning, in which all church bells were silent.
Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome came, carrying spices, to anoint the body of Jesus. For these women, another Still Day. Like the day when they witnessed their beloved Jesus arrested and tried. The day when they saw his bruised and bloodied body carrying the cross through the taunting crowds along the streets of Jerusalem, and through tearful eyes they saw him die upon the cross. The day when they watched his broken body taken down from the cross and wrapped in a linen cloth and taken to that garden and laid in the rock hewn tomb, and a great stone rolled against the door.
And then the day of Sabbath, when they rested, according to the commandment. Still Days, for prayer and silent mourning. Continue reading
This coming May, I am really looking forward to going to England. May is a lovely time in England, but what I’m most looking forward to is marrying my niece Katherine. That is, I will be officiating at her marriage! It will be particularly moving because I also married Katherine’s mother, my sister Elizabeth, just after I was ordained.
As a priest, it is a great joy to conduct weddings, and there is the unique opportunity beforehand to spend time getting to know the couple, and helping them understand the nature and meaning of the commitment they are about to make. I remember that one of the first choices the couples had to make was whether they wanted the modern or traditional wedding service. When it came to making the vows, the modern version had each couple say to each other, “and this is my solemn vow.” The traditional words though, had this very strange sentence, “and thereto I give thee my troth.” So what’s a troth? I don’t think any of the couples I married knew – but it is in fact a wonderful word, rich in meaning, and I don’t know any other word in English that is a synonym. It’s “I give you my love and my loyalty.” So it’s a special kind of love. Troth is the love between two people who have made some kind of commitment to each other – who are tied by a mutual commitment, or we could say covenant – in this case, between two people who have publically promised to love, comfort, honor and keep the other, in sickness and health, forsaking all others, as long as they both shall live. Continue reading
Forty years ago, there lived in England a remarkable priest called Reginald Somerset Ward. He was enormously gifted as a spiritual director, so gifted that he left his parish and took up a sort of peripatetic ministry going around the country and meeting with bishops, clergy and laity who wanted his guidance and direction. He always had one main thing that he always said to people from the very beginning if they wanted his spiritual direction. “If you want me to direct you, you will have to abide by these 3 priorities. I will always expect you to give your first priority to God, your second priority to your family, friends, leisure, recreation. And then your third priority to work. In that order. And he never changed it.
And there’s a story of a young priest who came to see him and said “Can you be my spiritual director?” Somerset Ward laid out his 3 priorities, and the priest said, “I couldn’t possibly do that: I’m far too busy.” And Somerset Ward replied, “Well, I can’t direct you, because I don’t direct mad men!” (I wonder if he’d have taken you on?) Continue reading
Mark – Chapter 7
Jesus said, “Nothing you eat can defile you.” It’s hard to realize today just how revolutionary, how outrageous such a statement was for Jesus’ Jewish listeners. Among the greatest of all the Jewish martyrs were those who were killed rather than eat pork and other forbidden foods. The Second Book of Maccabees tells of how, shortly before the revolt of Judas Maccabeus, the ruler Antiochus IV arrested a Jewish mother and her seven sons and tried to make them eat pork. When they refused, he tortured and killed her sons one by one, before her very eyes. The last of her sons makes a speech and declares that his brothers are dead “under God’s covenant of everlasting life.” Continue reading
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it.” (Jon 1:2)
Now the word of the Lord came to Simon and Andrew, and James and John, as they were casting their nets in the sea, saying, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Matt 4:19)
When Jonah heard the Lord’s voice calling him, he immediately got up and hightailed off in the opposite direction!
When Simon, Andrew, James and John heard the Lord’s voice, they immediately left their nets and followed Jesus.
Two very different responses to the call of God. And as I was reading the two stories set in today’s scripture readings, I was reflecting on the mystery of vocation – of how God is always calling us to larger life, and our very mixed, and not always very impressive or heroic responses! Continue reading
Isaiah 9:2-7 / Psalm 96:1-4, 11-12 / Titus 2:11-14 / Luke 2:1-20
Christmas is here again! It’s a dark night – it’s a very dark world right now. And yet, on this night, this holy night, joy bubbles up! Joy, that God has come into our world, and given to us a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. The joy that Isaiah announced to Israel: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” (Isaiah 9:2) The joy that the angels announced to the shepherds: “Behold I bring you good news of great joy for all people.” (Luke 2:10)
This joy, this good news, is proclaimed in the very midst of the darkness; “The light shines in the darkness” says St. John, “and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5) Continue reading
Matt. 21:23-37; Psalm 1
How dare you come into this sacred place? How dare you claim to heal the blind and the lame? How dare you vandalize this holy place, throwing tables onto the floor, with money flying in every direction?
How dare you – who are you anyway? You’re a nobody from Nazareth of all places. How dare you? And then the really telling question. Where does your authority come from? The chief priests and elders know where their authority was from: They had the legal qualifications to prove it. But what about Jesus? He had no documents – no legal qualifications. You’ve got no authority.
But he did. And it was recognized constantly. Earlier in Matthew, at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, we read, “the crowd was astonished by his teaching because he taught them as one having authority – and not like the scribes.” (Matt. 7:28) Continue reading
It was three weeks ago, on one of those stunningly beautiful fall days. I was sitting at Tom’s bedside in his beloved hermitage at Emery House, with his sister Penny. We had just anointed him and prayed with him, and he was looking out, gazing up through those huge windows at the brilliantly blue sky and the trees. He wanted all the shutters open, so he could see – see the golden leaves dazzling and shimmering in the sunlight.
We gazed with him, in silence, and it seemed that the whole of creation was on fire with God’s glory. At that precious moment it felt like God was gifting us with just a glimpse of the glory that awaits us all – the glory which I have no doubt Tom is now enjoying. Tom, who loved St. Paul, believed and trusted absolutely, that “this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory.” Continue reading
We are probably more aware than any previous generation of how we have polluted and exploited our beautiful planet. Every day, the news brings fresh evidence of the ravages humans have exacted upon the spaces we inhabit. We recognize now that we are in the midst of an ecological crisis.
What we are, perhaps, slower to recognize is that our ecological crisis also reflects a theological crisis. The earth we have polluted is none other than God’s creation. The Book of Genesis expresses in unforgettable language the great act of creation: With power and love, God brings forth dry land from the watery void, and in successive stages creates a wondrous world filled with every kind of plant and animal, and at creation’s climax, makes humankind. To these humans is entrusted the incalculably important task of caring for this dazzlingly complex and precious work of God. “Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”(1) Continue reading
Ever since I was a child I have always been fascinated and moved by the Olympic torch – the light which is lit several months before the opening of the Games at the site of the ancient Olympics in Olympia, Greece. The light is then carried by torch-relay across the world to the site of the Games. Traditionally, it has been carried on foot by athletes. But it first traveled on a boat in 1948, across the English Channel, and then by airplane in 1952 to Helsinki. In 1976 the light was transformed to an electronic pulse and laser beam. And in 2000 divers carried it underwater near the Great Barrier Reef.
It’s a very powerful image. I used to imagine the responsibility of carrying this precious light. It must not go out. And every four years there is a new and exciting way of transmitting that light. Continue reading
Ezekiel 34:11-16 / Psalm 87 / 2 Timothy 4:1-8 / John 21:15-19
Today is a day which we have been hoping for, and praying for, for a very long time. A day of rejoicing. Our dear brother Jim is to make the vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience, as a professed brother of our community. And what a wonderful day, the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, for the profession.
When these two great apostles first met Jesus: Simon the fisherman by the Sea of Galilee, and Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, neither of them could have imagined how Jesus would change their lives. When they said yes to Jesus’ invitation, “Come follow me,” their lives would never be the same again.
Jim, when you first said ‘yes’ to Jesus’ invitation to “Come follow me” as a twelve year old at Abingdon Baptist Church, Virginia, could you ever have imagined the adventures that lay ahead, and that eventually would lead you to this day – this day, when you will become a full member of this community, and our brother? Continue reading
Genesis 1:1-8 / Acts 2:1-21 / John 20:19-23
Four years ago, we brothers were gathered together at Emery House for the start of our annual retreat. The weather was hot and very still. Not a breath of air. I was sitting in my room, and was feeling very tired and, frankly, a bit discouraged. The renovations, living in a temporary home away from the monastery, had left me feeling depleted and spent. Usually, the prospect of a week’s retreat would have really energized me, but now it just sounded daunting. I offered a few desultory prayers – Come on Lord, help me get some energy. I want to feel alive again. Come, Holy Spirit – do something!
So I thought I’d go out for a walk, and went into the Maudslay State Park, and sat on a bluff over the river. As I sat there, the temperature suddenly started to plummet, and out of nowhere there came this huge wind, blowing over the bluff. I started laughing. It just seemed such a gift from God, an answer to prayer. Thank you God – and I remember running down the hill towards the river, feeling quite exhilarated. Here comes the Holy Spirit. Continue reading
Look to the glory! Look to the glory! Words that the brothers will know very well, words often on the lips of our founder Richard Meux Benson – who loved this day – the Ascension – a day so central to his life and spirituality: Christ, risen and glorified, reigning in heaven, and through the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.
I was sitting in the chapel yesterday afternoon, reflecting on the readings for today, and those words came to me: “Look to the glory” – and I looked – and there, high above the altar, I gazed at the crucified Lord. The cross, which for St. John is the glory: the place where God’s glory was manifested, most perfectly revealed, as self-giving love. The cross which reconciles heaven and earth, reconciles God and humankind. The cross which opens for us the gate of glory. “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) Continue reading
Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
The disciples had just witnessed the extraordinary feeding of the five thousand and marveled and wondered what it could all mean. And in their hesitating and stumbling way they ask Jesus what is this new thing which is happening. And Jesus in those stunning words, ‘I am the bread of life’ is making a connection between bread and life; anew kind of life. The bread of life gives life to the world, and I, Jesus, am that bread. ‘I am the living bread. If you eat this bread you will never be hungry again, because if you eat this bread you will live forever. And the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ Continue reading
It’s Easter! Alleluia! Today is the glorious culmination of these days of Holy Week. Today, our Lord Jesus Christ has been raised gloriously from the dead: Alleluia.
It was still very early in the morning, Matthew tells us, with just the first streaks of dawn, when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. They had been there, in that garden, on Friday Evening. They had witnessed Joseph of Arimathea wrapping their beloved Jesus’ body in a clean linen cloth. They saw him lay the body in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. And they watched as he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb. The two women had seen it all, perhaps through tear-stained eyes. Matthew tells us that on that dark Friday the two of them, the two Marys, were sitting there, opposite the tomb. They had seen it all, remembered every detail. Continue reading