By The Most Rev. Fred Hiltz.
Let me begin by wishing all the Sisters and the wider family of The Sisterhood of St. John the Divine a very Happy Mother’s Day!
It is said of Hannah Grier Coome that “she built a religious community from the ground up and for more than thirty years she shaped its life and work.”
In “A Journey Just Begun” it is recorded that during her years as the Rev. Mother more than 70 women had joined the Community to test their vocations and 45 had stayed through to Life Profession. Mother, we read, “was uncompromising in her strong belief that the Sisters had chosen a State of Life, not a job or career.” Unwavering in her conviction about the ideals of the Community she wrote “the life of prayer and devotion must come first or the Community will soon sink down into society of persons living together for the work they do instead of a Society gathered together in The Church to live in living devotion to Almighty God, irrespective of the work each member May accomplish”.
Mother died on this date, February 9th in 1921. Her funeral was held at St. Thomas Church on Huron St..History reminds us that the church was packed with Sisters, Associates, Friends, Clergy and many members of her family. the President of The Associates spoke of her with great affection and respect. “Those who knew her in the day of small things and anxious tentative beginnings, and have watched the growth of the Community and of its activities, realize how much has been done due to the Mother’s own gifts and character…and her personal care for the Community to which she devoted all her gifts and energies, and her experience of the dedicated life. For many years in the fullness of her powers she watched loyally and lovingly over the inner life of the Community, eager that the spirit of those who wait on The Lord should be the spirit in which all works of mercy and service should be offered to Him.”
As we keep Mother’s Day this year, our thoughts are particularly turned to the Sisters’ abiding commitment to the ministry of hospitality. The heritage of that ministry is long and noble. It has and continues to bless the lives of hundreds and hundreds of women and men with experiences of the grace, goodness and guidance of God.
Last week I read an address on Monastic Hospitality given by Brother James Koester at the Committee on Religious Life in the Americas Conference in April, 2021. He was speaking about the nature of hospitality given the emotional and spiritual impact of COVID and the social and political upheavals of our time. He spoke of “the need to respond to grief, loss, trauma, and dislocation and the need for our response to be rooted in hope and prayer.” Speaking more broadly he said “one of the gifts of monastic hospitality is that we are not a hotel. We do not deal with customers but with real people…with individuals who have names and stories.” One could go to say individuals with deep yearnings for God and real needs for rest and renewal.
In the The Rule of Life of The Brothers of The Society of St. John the Evangelist there is a chapter devoted to Hospitality. “It is not enough” they write “to offer accommodation to visitors. Our faith must recognize The One who comes to us in the person of the guest, stranger, and pilgrim. It is the Lord who has identified himself with each of his sisters and brothers.” They go on to describe what they offer. “ We have silence for our guests, which protects the mystery of their hearts and brings healing. We have our ongoing stream of worship which they can enter. We have the fellowship of our altar and table. We offer security, where guests are safe from intrusion and free to pray. Our houses have simple beauty. We offer courtesy, acceptance, and intercesssion. And the Spirit has given us gifts of guidance, teaching, and encouragement by which we can help retreatants grow in Christ.” (Chapter 34)
Here is hospitality deeply rooted in The Rule of Benedict who wrote “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ …Once they arrive they are to be met and treated with all the courtesy of love.”
In their abiding commitment to Monastic Hospitality The Sisters of St. John the Divine have recognized the need to renew their Guest House- to do necessary replacements, upgrades and refurbishing based on principles of energy efficiency and environmental stewardship; and to redesign the Reception area, and redo bedrooms based on principles of simplicity and spaciousness.
The Guesthouse is now the only major Anglican retreat house in Canada, Over the years it has come to be affectionately known as “A Home for The Heart”, a designation given as much by guests as by the Sisters. It is a place of quiet, a place to come apart for a while. It is a place to pray and ponder God’ call. It us a place to read and write. For some it is a place of refuge from the chaos in which they have been living. For others it is a place for healing and taking next steps through grief. For families of patients in long term care at St. John’s Rehab Hospital it is a nearby place to stay that is quiet and comfortable. Individuals come on retreat here. Parish Councils come on retreat here. Numerous diocesan and national committees of our beloved Church make use of the Guesthouse. And much of what they are about when they are here is the very thing of which Jesus speaks in the Gospel we heard today-abiding in Him, growing in Him, budding, blossoming, and bearing fruit, fruit that will last.
While the majority of those who use the Guesthouse are Christian, there are many others of a variety of Faith Traditions that use it as well, all of them appreciating the simplicity, quietness, and prayerful atmosphere for which it is widely known and appreciated.
Now just one more word from The Brothers of The Society of St. John The Evangelist- “The source of hospitality is the heart of God who yearns to unite every creature within one embrace”. With that in mind they speak of “having the power to be a sacrament of God’s hospitality, offering his nurture and protection to all who come under our roof.” The power of which they speak is of course a power to serve, to be agents of the hospitality that is divine. I believe we can say that the Sisters of St. John the Divine also aspire to be “a sacrament of God’s hospitality,” and that the Guesthouse is a precious venue through which that sacrament is continually celebrated.
It is thus fitting that a campaign to renew the Guesthouse be formally announced with a Call to Prayer. The Rev. Mother, Sister Elizabeth leads us in that call.
“Loving God who makes all things new, we are so grateful to Mother Hannah who had the courage to start a religious community in Canada in 1884. It was part of her vision that we should welcome quests into our home with all the courtesy of love to enjoy a space apart for rest, prayer and refreshment. This we have done for over 138 years. We now give thanks for our donors and and pray for your blessing on the renovations of the Guest House so that we may continue this ministry fir many years to come. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”