My collaborative practice group spent four days in retreat at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist’s Monastery in Cambridge in October of 2015. The experience was much more than I could have ever imagined. The peace and tranquility shown by each of the Brothers and most particularly, the compassionate guidance of our retreat leader, helped me to become more prepared to deal with the bustle and demands of my job as I help families in pain and transition. I was overwhelmed by the generosity and humility of these men who have dedicated their lives to making a difference in the world and who challenged me and showed me, through example, how to pause in my day to breathe and move forward with gratitude and self-awareness. I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to learn from the Brothers and experience the beauty of this place.
SSJE has been a beacon of prayer, hope, and joy for me for more than thirty years. In my first days in seminary, it was a place of solitude and respite amid the storms of learning. Serving the church as a young priest, I awaited the Cowley Publications catalog like gardeners look for the spring seed catalogs. A decade in New England reconnected me to the community through spiritual direction and retreat. Now, while a little farther away, the digital world keeps me connected and I count the days until my next trip to Emery House or the Monastery. Good worship, good counsel, good hope; I have received them all from the Brothers.
I have been a lay reader at my church for fourteen years. I also do pastoral visiting at seniors’ residences and nursing homes as well as with shut-ins. I am still on call to the Hospice of Windsor and Essex County, where I have volunteered for twenty-five years. Sometimes people ask me, “How do you do it?” I reply “with prayer and with God’s help.” As I have aged I have valued prayer more, and it is good to be connected with people who have a discipline of prayer. The Brothers’ words convey that. As a cradle Anglican from Canterbury Kent UK, I like that connection and I like the depth of thought in what I have read from the Brothers. The Brothers’ online teachings keep that connection for me.
At the suggestion of my parish priest, prior to my marriage, I attended the “first retreat in silence” at Emery House. My five-day experience changed my life in many ways, but most importantly put it in correct perspective. Learning to “be” was a huge risk in my mind. Being with myself, at peace, became comfortable as I discovered Christ within. Through prayer with the Brothers and some private counseling while on retreat, I realized that I am loved by God through Christ and that is the most important aspect of my existence. I am not alone! My prayer life was revitalized and following the Fellowship Rule has become a routine, a passion. My singing in my parish choir, vestry involvement, eucharistic ministering and my marriage took on new meaning. I now love my church and feel fully at home both here and with the Brothers and look forward to and long for my next visit.
I’ve known SSJE for over forty years and, in that time, I don’t think the community has essentially changed at all. The community has always been doing its utmost for its mission to witness to Christ for everyone who comes by, or who is invited, or happens in. It’s a wonderful thing that SSJE is so steady – so steadily aware of itself and its mission to be an inspiration, a guide, a sort of spiritual home for the laity.
And yet, at the same time, I’ve also always appreciated how SSJE is forward-looking. A document like their Rule of Life is an inspiration to those who want Christianity to be imaginative, innovative, and always looking for signs that God’s will might be different from what it has been heretofore. I’ve always felt well, if SSJE is doing it, it’s okay. I had a spiritual director elsewhere for about ten years, but when that ended, I did not succeed in finding another one. Instead, now I test things against what the monks are doing, or saying, or preaching. I have a number of sermons printed out from what the Brothers make available online. There are some that I return to on a regular basis because they seem to be so clear and so applicable to what I’m experiencing. In a way, SSJE has filled in as my spiritual director. Now with Brother, Give Us a Word, I look forward to contacting my “gurus” every morning when I start my prayer session.
When I wrote my will, I decided that I wanted to leave a specific percentage of my estate to charity. In addition to my local Episcopal church and school, I wanted to give to a select few national Christian communities that not only have had a profound impact upon my life but which also have a vision for the future of Christianity that comes closest to my understanding of what the Kingdom of God should look like here on earth. SSJE is one of those communities. First, it is a shining example of the both-and holy paradoxes of our Anglican faith: contemplation & action, traditional & progressive, liturgically rich yet simple, high tech & personal, and monastic & radically hospitable. Second, the Brothers’ outreach to individuals and communities across the Episcopal world through their on-site retreat offerings as well as their weekend retreats which they lead in faith communities is a uniquely powerful ministry that is essential to the long term health of The Episcopal Church. I was recently reminded of the Brothers when I read Eugene Peterson’s final paragraph to his commentary on Jesus’ Final Discourse, “The pattern holds: Whatever we do in Jesus’ name, we begin on our knees before our friends and neighbors and conclude looking ‘up to heaven’ praying to our Father. Washing dirty feet and praying to the Holy Father bookend our lives” (Conversations, p. 1672).
This year, three exceptional young people took part in the Monastic Internship Program, living, worshipping, and working alongside the community for nine months. We asked them to reflect on what they would take away from the experience. Here is what Matthew Tenney had to say:
In reflecting on my time living and working and praying alongside the Brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, I’m reminded of Canon Henry Parry Liddon’s praise for the Father Founder: Continue reading
This year, three exceptional young people took part in the Monastic Internship Program, living, worshipping, and working alongside the community for nine months. We asked them to reflect on what they would take away from the experience. Here is what Sarah Brock had to say:
“Lord, it is night. The night is for stillness. Let us be still in your presence. It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done. What has not been done has not been done. Help us let it be.” So begins one of the prayers we often lift up at the office of Compline. Upon hearing it prayed aloud during my first week as an intern, I was drawn in by the poetry of the words and particularly by this desire to let go of the work of the day and be still. It has been true for most of my life that there is no end to the work that needs to be done. Every time I cross an item off of my to-do list, it seems I also add at least five more. Continue reading
“More than anything, the Monastery represents a respite from the stressful atmosphere my peers and I navigate every day. Over the past year, I have encouraged many of my friends to attend the Monastery. I tell them how the space cultivated by the Brothers is a wonderful one of quiet, contemplation, and peace, a far cry from the anxiety-ridden college environment. In my experience, I have found that students are always looking for ways to escape, albeit briefly, the worries of school. SSJE is a space in which I feel comfortable bringing my friends who have no or very negative experiences with faith (this is unfortunately hard to find). I love the quietness of the space and the holiness that pervades its walls. The Monastery is many things to many people – a place of contemplation, a place to pray, a place to hear a challenging sermon. More than that, however, worshiping at the Monastery has placed within me a desire to simplify my spiritual life. I feel much less attached to the spiritual trappings that I used to cling to to make myself feel connected to God. The Brothers have taught me that following Jesus doesn’t mean having resources or a calling to be great, but rather a desire to be used by and loved by Jesus.”
I found a real spiritual home at SSJE in 1984, after graduating from college. I’d taught math for a year at the Taft School, then moved back to Boston to work for an actuarial consulting company, designing pension plans. I loved my job, I had a fabulous apartment in the North End, and I loved going to SSJE for the weeknight Eucharist. But at the time I was wrestling with discerning a call to the priesthood: Am I called, am I not called? Do I say yes? When do I say yes? I had all these checklists in my head and I kept making deals with myself: “Once I turn this age… once I accomplish that goal… then I’ll say yes to the priesthood.” Continue reading
I’ve been thinking about this question since November, when the Brothers sent a letter asking all the members of the Fellowship to reflect on creating and living by their rule of life. At first, I asked it of myself as an accusation… “Hey, why don’t you have a rule of life, huh? All the other members of the Fellowship have one! What’s the matter with you!?” Then, my tone got softer, more an expression of curiosity than anything else…”Hmm… No rule of life, huh John? That’s interesting. What’s that about?”
Finally, I discovered that I was asking the wrong question. I realized that, despite the fact that I don’t have a rule of life, there are rules to my life. I didn’t write these rules on my own. I got them the way a sponge gets water. I unconsciously soaked them up from the world around me, mostly as I was growing up. They direct my behavior, again unconsciously, just as surely as any set of written precepts could – maybe more. When I work backward from the pattern of my life, I can see these rules, or at least the Table of Contents they suggest. Some of the chapter titles are predictable—“Being a Good Friend”, “The Love of Learning”, “Working Hard is a Good Thing”, “Career and Achievement” . . . pretty conventional stuff.
But when I consider the chapters about God—well—I get a shock. What I see is that I live as if my God chapters had titles like “God Will Only Love Me If I Am Good,” and “Getting to God is Awful Rowing I Have to Do Alone.” Somewhere along the way, I soaked up these rules, writing them on my mind and heart, and then forgetting that I was their author, treating them as given truths. A lot of the work of my life with God is seeing these rules, and trying to erase them and replace them with others. “God Will Only Love Me If I Am Good” is fading, but slowly (apparently I wrote it with a Sharpie—what was I thinking?). In its place is one I call “He Rescued Me Because He Delighted in Me,” a verse from Psalm 18 that usually makes me cry. To replace the Awful Rowing chapter I am thinking about one, still untitled, based on the way that plants turn toward the sun naturally and without extra effort. I know that’s how God calls me, but I still have the Awful Rowing idea in me.
Someone once said that you don’t write poetry, you rewrite it. I think that’s probably true about rules of life as well. We re-write them. The paper is not blank. It’s full of the rules we’ve been carrying around without knowing we were dong so. Before I can write new rules, I have to erase the old rules, and before I can erase them, I have to face that they are there. And, of course, I do not do any of that work alone—I turn to it, well, the way a plant turns toward the sun, guided in my labor by His light and warmed by His Grace.
The Rev. Whitney Zimmerman
Besides it being so beautifully crafted and profoundly compelling, The SSJE Rule is a gracious mirror by which I can assess the reality of my spiritual life. So often I approach it with confusion and illusion, only to see not just me, but God’s longing for me. Nowhere is this truer than in the Rule’s frequent reference to eucharistic living: an entire way of being made possible with a loaf and a cup and a life of divine love. Eucharistic living involves all aspects of our work, hospitality, community and worship. It is the central act of our lives, beginning, of course with the actual meal. As a priest, I have the honor of presiding over it several times a week, feeding hundreds with tangible holiness. Yet among all these meals, there is one that truly fills me.
Every Tuesday morning, for the last four years, once we have coffee perking, volunteers settled, and our voicemails activated, our staff gathers to celebrate the Eucharist. The whole affair is intentionally informal with someone grabbing any small table from a hallway, another drawing a circle of chairs, and my pulling a tea candle from a box. We meet in a tiny chapel, respectfully eschewing the beautifully appointed marble, silk and mahogany worship space of our gorgeous church. Every time it is different. Every time we build a new altar, break our own bread and pour our own port; thereby intentionally offering our own lives to be that “living sacrifice” in the ancient prayer. It is intensely intimate, with unplanned spans of quiet and unscripted reams of prayer. Within the freeing bounds of the Eucharistic prayers we laugh, we cry, we worry and we grow. And by the urging of the Rule to keep our worship, prayer and Eucharistic celebrations fresh, this band of 12 has become, for all of us, the holy of holies, where we, the feeders of the church, retreat to be fed.
On any given Sunday, our large, southern church and its associated buildings seethe with humanity in perpetual motion. With several choirs, children propped on every pew and cushion and hundreds of wonderfully devoted people, our brightly lit worship space can feel like O’Hare on Thanksgiving eve. It is, as the rector says, joyful chaos. But it is chaos nonetheless. The worship moves at a decidedly un-monastic clip and the space, at times, seems to crackle in its preparedness to break into its next move; be it the prayers, the offering, or the recessional. And, when I have failed to attend Tuesday’s gathering of holiness, the chaos can preside over me, as opposed to me over it. Rather than a rhythm, it becomes a race.
Sure, I can fake it. It is my job after all. I can deign calm even as my mind flits like a honey-high butterfly. I can lace my words with inflection and intonation even as my eyes are darting about, cueing a LEM or searching a hymn text. I can win the race even as I pretend to be oblivious to it all. And I can also starve in the midst of a banquet, but I don’t want to do that either. None of us do. This is the irony of our faith; the more we live into it…the more demands are put upon us…the more easily we lose sight of what it was we were living into in the first place….
And so, every Tuesday, I pass through the great hall, genuflect the towering hand-carved table dedicated to our Lord to take my place at a card table, so that I might be fed. So that I might live the bread I eat and the wine I drink.
In the spring of 2005, Lucas Fleming, my friend and Sigma Chi fraternity brother, convinced me to head to Boston for a brief retreat at SSJE. I needed it. Soon thereafter I joined the Fellowship of SSJE and committed to a personal rule of life. The more I understood SSJE’s powerful ministry, the more I wanted to help; but given my reality, writing a big annual check was not possible. So I decided that my gift to the ministry would be to translate the SSJE Rule into Spanish, making it available to Spanish-speakers worldwide. I envisioned essentially a technical undertaking: the Rule was masterfully written and all I had to do was “masterfully” translate it. When I received the Word document in English, I told the Brothers I’d have it done in a few months.
Not quite: the full translation of the Rule took me over two years. “How,” you might ask, “can it possibly take that long to translate a relatively short book?” The answer: the SSJE Rule is a treasure chest of wisdom, insight, and Christian spiritual guidance distilled from centuries of profound Christian introspection. As I translated, it soon became apparent that literal translations of many of the concepts resulted in Spanish phrasing that omitted the sense and subtlety of the original. One nuance in the original Rule turned bland in literal Spanish; conversely, an eloquent sentence translated literally took the Spanish reader into an unintended direction.
Consider the opening sentence of Chapter One:
“He was lifted up from the earth in his crucifixion and resurrection from the dead in order to draw all people to himself.”
A literal translation of that underscored clause into Spanish would convey, using the first-response word choice (e.g. dibujar – “to draw”) gave a nonsensical result. To get the true meaning of the clause—the selflessness of His return to the world—the right word to translate from English was not “draw” but, rather, “attract.” And even that adjustment required finessing:
“…para atraer a todo el mundo a él.”
Close but not right: in Spanish, while that is grammatically correct, the power of the original language is totally missed; it turns this extraordinarily brief and powerful expression of the utter gift of Jesus into something that sounds, in Spanish, more like something a carnival barker or soap-box pundit would do. To complete the sense of purpose, it is necessary to add what is a slightly awkward ending, literally “to draw all people to he himself.” Accordingly, the translation reads like this in Spanish:
“…para atraer a todo el mundo a si mismo.”
And all that was only for the FIRST sentence!
As a second example, consider Chapters 9-11, dealing with celibacy. That was perhaps the most difficult section to translate, not only because many of the Spanish words were new to me but also because of the cultural nuances which, generally speaking, require a more limited and conservative word choice than what English gives us. What appears as a clear and open comment in the Rule in English can appear crass and disrespectful in Spanish. Consider this sentence in Chapter 9:
“The exploration of our sexual solitude through prayer will reveal the depth of Christ’s desire to be the one joy of our hearts.”
I wrestled with this one for awhile: to most Spanish speakers, the discussion of “exploration of sexual solitude” however subsequently qualified, has no business in a document as profound as the SSJE Rule. I tried various other wordings in order to circumvent this issue (e.g., “Recognizing our sexual solitude” etc.) but when I did so, I was distorting the message. I finally realized that the mention of the “exploration of sexual solitude” could be translated accurately if the balance of the sentence tempered that initial, somewhat-shocking-in-Spanish clause with devotional word choices overriding any such reaction. And so that sentence became:
“La exploración de nuestra soledad sexual a través de oración revelará la profundidad del deseo de Cristo para ser la única alegría en nuestros corazones.”
The process of translating the Rule forced me to rethink and reexamine every phrase and thought contained therein, and I treasure it more than ever as a result. As so often happens when we delve into the divine, the “gift” of my translation pales when compared to the blessings I received through the experience.
Ellen Bradshaw Aitken
I lived for a year in the early 1980s in the town of St. Andrews on the east coast of Scotland. This year was my first serious time of engagement with a rule of life, (although I didn’t think of it in those terms then), including the daily office, regular conversations with a wise friend, times of solitude and retreat, as well as my first forays into disciplined theological study. It was also a year of living within sight of St. Rule’s Tower, an eleventh-century, immensely tall, stone tower built at the headland of the town overlooking the harbor and the often-stormy North Sea. By legend, St. Rule (or St. Regulus) brought the bones of the apostle Andrew from Greece to this Scottish headland in the fourth century. St. Rule’s Tower is what remains of the church built to house these relics, and it served as a beacon to travelers and pilgrims—at sea and on land. It is not known if St. Rule existed or if this name arose out of the foundation of Christian life and practice in that place. To my mind, the name may well enshrine the monastic rule by which the early communities in that place lived—enshrining the notion of the rule in the memory of the holy person, St. Rule. It is a “rule” because it holds the apostolic witness, the sign of Jesus’ death and resurrection dwelling there.
One of the primary graces for me in forming a rule of life in conversation with the Rule of SSJE has been the Rule’s emphasis on the indwelling of God (e.g. chapter 21) and on the cruciformity of love (e.g. chapter 2). The Johannine insight that in Christ God makes a home with us has become a touchstone as I shape a rule of life for myself. It makes me desire that my way of life be shaped in such a way that I have an ever-greater capacity for God. I understand my rule of life as shaping a hospitable space and a hospitable life for the dwelling of God. I understand my rule of life as a way of cooperating with the mystery of resurrection and thus of creating greater capacity to take the needs, sorrows, and desires of others into my life, work, and prayer in order to offer them to God for healing and for life.
A rule, in my experience, turns what I desire for my way of life into practice, practices that are flexible and transformable, but practices nonetheless. A few examples: At home, our breakfasts and our dinners are eaten unrushed, with candles lit, attention to the food and drink however simple, and a spaciousness for conversation. These are moments when we gather the thoughts of a busy day and whether there are guests or not it recollects me toward a life lived hospitably toward God. Or at work at the university, amid innumerable demands, deadlines, emails, the rule helps me to remember that the person in front of me, in conversation with me at that moment, is to have my full attention, the undistracted capacity of my heart and mind. The rule recalls me to the practices of listening for both sorrow and joy, strength and struggle in my students, my colleagues, and my staff. The rule helps me, though not without much difficulty, to make decisions about my calendar and time, so that there is the necessary spaciousness and freedom from distraction.
What I recognize as less well seasoned in practice for me are the ways of entering more directly, more intentionally into the capaciousness of God. These are practices of solitude, the nurturing of creativity and delight, and, for God’s sake, times of doing nothing except abiding in God. The rule—like a beacon—recalls me to such practices, tells me to wrestle with my schedule and calendar so that I do them, and reminds that these practices too are part of sharing in the mystery of death and resurrection.