By Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD.
Acts 2.42-47 Psalm 34.1-8 John 15.12-17
The Sisters of Saint John the Divine, in the spirit of their patron, are called to live to the glory of God in fulfillment of the two-fold law of love. Each sister will seek to do everything as one who has been baptized into Christ’s death, and has entered into the new life of his resurrection, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We are committed to lifelong conversion and to growth in union with God through the life of prayer and the undivided service of Jesus Christ. In Christ we are both called and sent to be open and responsive to the needs of the church and of the world, and to pray and work for peace, justice, unity and the integrity of creation.
I’ve been thinking a lot about St. Benedict and his “little rule” this week in the context of the adaptations our church and all our societal institutions have had to make as a result of the current pandemic. Religious communities have always had to be adaptable if they were to survive social, political, and religious upheavals. Think about the many crises during Christian history, and especially the English Reformation, which has affected our Anglican tradition the most. Watching Wolf Hall in particular reminds us that our history is not always laudable – not even “Christian” in the sense of what we mean by Christian values of love, kindness, mercy, forgiveness, and basic respect for human life. Last week we saw the horror of Tyndale being burned at the stake beause he dared to translate the New Testament into English and prophetically called for reformation of doctrines like purgatory, selling of indulgences and other practices that he could find no scriptural basis for. Many of the great Benedictine and Cistercia abbeys were dissolved, the monastics put out on the streets (roads) and forced to beg, or (the lucky ones) being exiled to monasteries in France. It was 300 years before monastic communities were founded or re-founded in Britain, thanks to the courage of leaders of the Oxford Movement, and thanks to Parliament which eventually passed legislation to allow Roman Catholic orders to be re-established in England. But the spirit of monasticism never died in Britain – it just went underground and eventually began to reappear in the form of what you might call new monastic communities like Little Gidding, or Mary Astell’s designs for women’s communities.
Our Sisterhood comes directly out of that heritage, and we owe our existence to martyrs like Tyndale as well as to the not-so-nice and not-so-Christian antics of royalty – from the manipulative politics of Henry VIII to the compromising peace of Elizabeth I, to the bloody reign of Mary Tudor, and on it goes.
Would Benedict ever have been able to imagine such centuries of upheaval and constant adaptation? Probably he would. He lived near the end of a period of bloody persecution of Christians, followed by a time of peace under Constantine which actually gave birth to desert monasticism, followed by the barbarian invasions, followed by the theological wars that led to the separation of Roman Christianity from what we now call the Oriental Orthodox churches. That period of history, too, lasted for centuries. Benedictine communities were a center of peace, prayer, and hospitality.
It all sounds a lot like our own time. Monasticism – especially in the Benedictine/Cistercian tradition – has adapted over and over, and so in the brief expanse of 136 years so has this Sisterhood. In fact adaptability is written into our Rule of Life. Being “responsive to the needs of the church and the world” means that we are committed to change. The needs of the church and the world change continually. We started our life as a community by being called to work in a field hospital in Moose Jaw. From there we opened all kinds of ministries in Toronto and across our country – for a brief period even venturing into Chicago and New York State. Even as we continued our work with the elderly and in hospitals in the late 20th century, we were already shifting our ministry of education into spiritual formation of various sorts – retreats, preaching, parish missions, spiritual direction. Old ministries shifted – as in Edmonton we moved from work with single women who were expecting children to a ministry of presence and hospitality alongside some hands-on ministries in the city of Edmonton. And new ministries we opened have largely been ministries of prayer, presence, and hospitality – in Montreal and Victoria.
The most dramatic change we have experienced is here in Toronto, where we are suddenly confronted with at least the temporary loss of our two major ministries – St. John’s Rehab and our Guest House.
And yet spiritual care continues in many of the creative ways our sisters who work at SJR have adapted to keeping in touch and supporting patients and staff, and our retreat ministry is shifting – at least for the time being – to an online ministry.
In the midst of all of this is our commitment to prayer – the basis of everything else that we do – and our community life. I have been moved to watch the ways in which today’s scripture passages are especially relevant to us in these times:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Our loving one another, in turn, is supported by our Rule of Life, which like all faithful monastic communities is inspired by the passage from Acts:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
And so as we claim our Benedictine Anglican heritage and celebrate it today, let us never forget that Jesus calls us to be friends, and in our friendship with him, as we walk and talk, listen and discern, may we have the courage to ask the important questions: Where are we being called next? What changes has God in store for us? How will we discern this? Are we willing to say yes to radical change as well as the continued stability of our community life and prayer? The answer has been yes, over and over in our history. And I have faith that we will discern carefully and then say yes, again.