Sermon for St. Benedict’s Feast Day (Transferred to July 9, 2017)
[St. Benedict Feast Day Readings: Proverbs 2: 1-9; Psalm 119: 129-136; Philippians 2: 12-16; Luke 14: 27-33]
Let us pray. O God, help us to embrace the freedom that comes from you. Amen.
Good Morning! I am Sister Julian. Some of you know me as Helen. In 2015, I accepted the call to become a member of the Companions of St. Luke, an Order of Benedictines. I’m here to share what it means to feel liberated – to be free – from this side of the habit.
Last week our country celebrated the 4th of July—Independence Day. This week our Order is commemorating St. Benedict’s Feast Day. Both of these special days provide an opportunity to be festive and ‘chew’ on the idea of freedom and what it means to us. Freedom is both a universal ideal and something very personal.
I’m a baby boomer, born among Pennsylvania-German “plain folk”, in the small town of Millersburg, about three hours away from Philadelphia. We didn’t lock our doors and I was unafraid as a child to walk alone with my dog, Tippy, in a nearby wooded area or along the banks of the Susquehanna River. I trusted my parents and they gave me the time and space to explore my surroundings and who I was. Models of the Protestant “work ethic”, they also helped to form my Christian faith. They were known by both neighbors and relatives as “straight talkers” and their word coupled with a handshake was more than good enough. They loved me unconditionally. Coming of age in the 1960s, I was part of the “anti-establishment” movement: challenging the status quo. In high school, I organized [among other things] a boycott as a protest against the poor quality of our cafeteria’s food—“No more fake cheese; No more ‘guess what it is meat’”. And, although our local culture expected me to get married, and live within ten miles or so of the homestead, my mother, without really understanding much of what I did, gave me her blessing to go to college and be part of animal rights initiatives; the feminist movement; environmental protection; and to take a “sabbatical” from organized religion. I was beginning to learn the importance of living an intentional and authentic life, intuitively grasping St. Luke’s charge to us in today’s Gospel lesson: “To sit down and consider … the cost, the consequences of our choices”. In graduate school, I was tested to either go along to get along or to be true to my self. For example, one summer night a professor and my physiology class got in a van, ostensibly to listen to frogs singing in a nearby lily pond. I soon discovered I could join the “professor’s pot party” or remain alone with the frogs. I chose the frogs and it has made all the difference. I experienced the freedom of being—me.
At this stage of my life, I associated freedom with following my bliss and with being independent. The only major thing I was willing to commit to was my career—inspired early on by studying aquatic organisms and how they were affected by atomic power plants. The science appealed to me, yes, but even more were the artistry and mystery of God’s creation. As part of my mission in life, I decided I would act on behalf of the voiceless—even algae, which many consider “just scum” but that I consider part of the circle of life. Subsequently, I served as an environmental scientist, attorney, and government agency executive—positions that gave me the power to honor my commitment to the voiceless. Some unexpected by-products of my work included my ability to travel, to buy good quality art, and eat in the best restaurants. I also began to experience stress and poor health.
I got a wake-up call. The major movements of my generation—as noble as they were— were leaving me feeling fragmented, torn in many directions, and depleted. In retrospect, I realize the previous decades were my time in the proverbial wilderness, of being tested by the demands of the world. I was ready to hear the voice of God, telling me major change was called for.
I retired early from my career [at age 55], rebuilt my health, opened a glass art studio, and moved from suburbia into a St. Paul neighborhood, where in six months I experienced community in a way I hadn’t for 20 years commuting from “out there”. I joined the Episcopal Church in 2002 and felt I had come home—home to a place that spoke to my heart and a Rector and congregation who welcomed me as only “kin” can do. Then, after becoming acquainted with the Rule of Benedict through the Episcopal House of Prayer in Collegeville, I came to believe I had discovered a portal into the right room for me in this home—perhaps even a portal to holiness.
Initially, the idea of following a “Rule”, of being part of a monastic community, felt so contrary to my perceived need to be an individual, to be independent, to be free. And really, what did I know about monks and nuns, about monastics? or even that there are Episcopal monastics? Raised as a Protestant, my only connection with nuns was through films and TV, such as Sally Fields and the Flying Nun. I was mildly curious about Catholic nuns and their aura of “angelic presence” and was positively affected by Penn- sylvania Quakers and the Amish, whom I did know and think of as variations of monas- tics. More recently, I became aware that there are many stereotypes about monastics— they’re so serious; they have no fun; they go around looking “serene” all the time; they pray a lot; and they are “just different”. I have come to see we monastics are different in that our focus is on God and living a contemplative lifestyle—but we also are very much like others. We do cry and laugh, and, at times, we get frustrated or become excited.
We have a special relationship with Episcopalians. As a member of the Companions of St. Luke, a hybrid Christian-Monastic community, I’m expected to be active in the Episcopal Church. The vows we take are extensions of our Baptismal Covenant with the Church and affirm our intent to listen to and follow God’s will for us, through both our church and religious community. Although the Companions live across the U.S. and beyond, we are a mix of people [about 50], not unlike the people of this parish in St. Paul. Some are introverts and intense like me [although I sometimes do chuckle inside]; others are “jolly” and extroverted; some come from a Protestant background and others from the Catholic tradition; and so forth.
What has drawn me and many of my sisters and brothers to the Benedictine life is its goal of being Christ-centered, through moderation and a balance between prayer and work, akin to the via media (the middle way) of the Episcopal Church. A major surprise for me is how my formation process has led to my having more balance in my life and to feeling “whole”. For example, my compulsion to make lists is balanced by my losing all sense of time while working on art projects and remembering to “just breathe”. My daily rhythm of life and sense of peace are enhanced through praying the Daily Offices contained in the Book of Common Prayer—attributed to Thomas Cranmer, who “borrowed” extensively from the Rule of Benedict. For me, being both a member of St. John’s and the Companions feels like a match made in heaven. And, I’m excited, as a novice, to be entering into a vocation that has no expiration date.
In the 73 compact chapters of St. Benedict’s rule of life, the word “listen” is paramount, acutely reflecting Biblical Scripture. For the Companions, listening means we not only pray [a lot] and care about our personal spiritual growth, we also respond to the needs of others. Western monasticism, largely because of St. Benedict, has not only survived for the past 1500 years but has thrived because of its impact on individuals and on the larger society and culture. St. Benedict lived during the decline of the Roman Empire, when violence, ignorance, and a loss of civility and meaning were rampant. …Sound familiar? … In response, Benedictines extended hospitality not only to their brethren but to travelers, refugees, the sick, and the poor. They preserved the Scriptures and other books by hand-copying and safeguarding them. And, they invented agricultural practices such as crop rotation and machines such as the waterwheel and windmills. Later on, their ministries included building hospitals and providing nurses during times of both war and peace; and teaching, among others, immigrant children in 19th and 20th-century America. Today, additional challenges we share are cultural materialism, mistreatment of Mother Earth, and estrangement from God—and each other.
In the 21st century, more than ever, we all need to “consider” how we are to live attentively and intentionally. Through the practice of contemplative prayer, I began listening with the ears and eyes of my heart, with my whole being, as both St. Benedict and the reading from Proverbs today challenge us to do. This was the key to unlocking a new world for me. I have shed the illusion that I control my life and now hear the word interdependence (rather than independence). I have come to know God and my neighbors not as abstractions but as partners. I now feel freer than ever to work with others for the common good. And, I can experience, almost counter-intuitively, the freedom to ask for help; to cry with abandon; and to be easy on myself—it really is OK to miss a yoga class from time to time. The ultimate freedom: I can express my true self, the self that is part of a mystery larger than life itself—that is beyond time and space—yet is intimate, and personal, and very real.
To close, I’d like to share my version of the Abilene Parable with you. A group of people got in a van, after someone said “Let’s go somewhere.” Another suggested: “How about Abilene?” Later, someone else chimed in: “I don’t think I really want to go to Abilene, why are we headed there?” Someone else added: “I think we might be lost or have taken a wrong turn?” In time, they all realized they weren’t sure where they were going or how to get there. They also realized they were just going along to get along. They concluded that going to Abilene without knowing how might just be a waste of time; and not knowing why might mean a wasted life. A clear vision, though, together with thoughtful action could change everything.
My Abilene journey is seeking God by becoming a Benedictine. My presence here today is a result of my discernment to become a religious and is a testament to my readiness to “come out” as a Christian and be a witness to the Gospel. Part of my message includes my habit, which is both practical and symbolic. To some, it may appear restrictive. But it actually frees up my morning from thinking about my appearance and what I am going to wear. Much more importantly, I am freer than ever to focus on my new understanding that I am here to fulfill the Will of God for this small town girl with big dreams—who at long last, with the help of the Holy Spirit, is tearing down the walls around her heart and can see more clearly the pathway ahead. I can enjoy the rediscovered sensation of never needing to feel alone along the Way of Christ. Others are traveling with me. I am blessed by and have much gratitude for my fellow Companions and you here at St. John’s, who continue to support me—as I will you—as we work together to help heal our wounded, if not broken, world…and in the process, God willing, learn what it really means to be free.
Lastly, as the namesake of Julian of Norwich, I’d like to leave with you this assurance and blessing from her: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Amen.