Chapter 2024 Sunday Volmoed

readings for the day

This meditation is primarily directed toward the Brothers from the Order of the Holy Cross, but I also tend to believe what Br George Guiver, Community of the Resurrection asserts in his new book, all Christians are monks… so you are not off the hook.

When Rob asked me if I wanted to preach today, he suggested it might be my swan song. I know he meant this is the kindest possible way, but spoiler alert – the swan dies. Here is a short poem in case you don’t remember the story: The silver Swan, who, living, had no Note, when Death approached, unlocked her silent throat, leaning her breast upon the reedy shore, thus sang her first and last, and sang no more: “Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes! More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.” I’m not sure why, but this feels relevant to Chapter…

I’m hoping that Rob meant swan song in the artistic sense… not that he has some peculiar knowledge about my imminent demise…

And yet, transitions are a form of death, and I am on the eve of a major transition. I conclude my time in South Africa in a few days – a chapter of my life ends, and another begins. A metaphorical death and resurrection occur. For the Order of the Holy Cross a Chapter year ends and another begins… also a death and resurrection…

In Christian Tradition there is nothing fearful about death. But sometimes our cultural conditioning overpowers our faith. Our culture not only fears death, but values youth above everything. There is a reason why cosmetic surgeons are among our wealthiest doctors… But without death there is no resurrection. And without resurrection there is no Christian story. So, I’m very excited to sing my swan song… and I invite you to join me.

I am regularly startled by the way the Lectionary puts our daily life in contact with various readings from scripture in ways that form odd relevancies. In Mark’s Gospel we read that the crowds gathering to hear Jesus are getting out of hand. Many people are drawn to Jesus, but not necessarily in a good or healthy way. Jesus’ friends and family are worried and perhaps a bit scandalized. So, they’ve come to talk some sense into him.

The popular opinion seems to be that Jesus has gone crazy, or that he is possessed. The King James translation of scripture has a more artistic way of expressing this; it says that Jesus is beside himself.

This wonderful, old euphemism is built on the belief that, apparently, standing beside every crazy person is a sane person – the real person. We have lots of remnants in our language of this description of insanity. We talk about people being beside themselves with anger or fear. It is interesting that the older language is perhaps a bit more wholistic. These days we talk about somebody going out of their mind, but in Jacobean times apparently, they went out of their whole bodies.

Of course, what the folks around Jesus are saying is not a diagnosis… they did not live with the same understanding of physical and mental health that we do. They are worried because they cannot make sense of what Jesus is doing and saying – he is not acting normally… he is not himself as they understand him or expect him. He is beside himself.

This tells us something we know anyway. Faithful Christians can look crazy to others, even friends and family. Following Jesus is not following the normal path. St Paul does not talk about insanity, but he does talk about being fools for Christ which is in the same league.

Beyond notions of sane and insane, Mark also reminds us that a house divided against itself cannot stand. This would seem to suggest that a house united can stand – rules of logic not withstanding…

The house of the Order of the Holy Cross must not be divided against itself. That is the path toward destruction. But at the same time, being united does not mean being uniform or being homogenized. Within the Order there has always been a wide latitude in understanding what it means to be a monk of the Order.

Our difficulty, at times, has been in understanding that while we may be called to different paths, we are nonetheless monks of the Order. Some of us may have a more solitary call and some a more apostolic call – but the Order is a big house if you will. Our challenge is to be faithful to our founding vision… which is, in itself, faithful to our Anglican heritage of Adiaphora. Things that are not of the essence, adiaphora, are areas for discretion. The secular world and even the Christian world will at times seek to divide us. We don’t need to let that happen because the notion of adiaphora gives us wide latitude.

When I started writing this meditation, this Eucharist was to be the closing eucharist of chapter and include the renewal of our monastic vows. But apparently United Airlines, or perhaps Boeing, had other plans.

As Rabbie Burns famously said, the best-laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft aglea – go often awry… My best laid scheme to say very clever things about our vows now falls to pieces… which Adam can pick up next week.

So, let’s talk more about that dying swan… remember her?

There is a tragedy in this dying creature – and it’s not that she is dying, sad as that may be. It’s that she had a song to sing – according to mythology a distinctly beautiful song. Yet, she has never sung it until this very last possible moment. God gave her this gift of song of which she has made little use.

Which makes me wonder – at this chapter time of year – what gifts we as individuals may have that we make little use of… More urgently at Chapter Time, we must ponder what gifts the Order of the Holy Cross has that we leave unsung. And what might it take to sing those songs not as swan songs, but as praise songs.

Monasticism in general, and the Order of the Holy Cross in particular are gifts for the wider church and for the world. The relationship between monastics and the various reformed traditions was a bit rocky at first… to massively understate things. But time has at least closed, if not healed those wounds.

The Church, pre-reformation, was a very big, very powerful, and very wealthy institution. Many monasteries were right in the center of that. In modern times, the Church is becoming smaller, less powerful, and less wealthy. As goes the Church, so too go the monasteries. That is disturbing at first glance but remember Jesus… He was drawn to the powerless, the poor, the outcast… What can look like decline brings us closer to Jesus. It may not feel good, but it is Christlike. It is good.

This is the context in which, I think, we are meant to sing our non-dying swan song.

My favorite Marist Brother, Don Bisson, said some years ago that a healthy monastic community needs two things: It needs viability, and it needs vitality.

The notion of viability, for him, means an honest understanding of our present state. If we think that our first task is to restore ourselves to some previous glory, then we are not being honest or faithful. It is not viable. As Father Huntington tells us, when we think if we just had a few more resources – a few more brothers or a little more money – then we could undertake some great work. Except then we are the impediment, not our lack of resources.

The notion of vitality is the notion of life. Vitality is having a vision of who we are and what we are called to do and then doing it. As Don says, we have three options at any major turning point: We can look at what needs to be done, agree to do it and then do it. We can look at what needs to be done and decide that we do not have the energy or the vitality and not do it. Those choices are both choices of integrity.

The third option is to look at what needs to be done, agree to do it, and then not do it. That is a choice that lacks integrity, but it is also an easy choice since it feels good – we agree to do the right thing, after all… Being in a group, like a community, makes it easier still. As the old saying goes, none of us is as stupid as all of us…

My personal assessment is that the Order is in the most viable and vital it has been in a very long time. It is tempting to say that this is due to the miraculous leadership of one person, or of our excellent financial manager, or of the Holy Spirit, or whatever. But to do so is to refuse to sing our song. It is not one person’s song; we are a monastic choir, it is our song.

To misquote Psalm One Hundred Forty-Six, while we live, we will sing this song, our monastic song, for it is a song of praise to the Lord. We can sing with our mouths, with our bodies, with our whole being… we can even sing beside ourselves. And we can die and rise again and sing some more.

There is an American hymn that says “And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be. And through eternity I’ll sing on.”

1 thought on “Chapter 2024 Sunday Volmoed”

  1. Oh, Brother Scott! How am I going to exist without being able to look forward to your messages?
    You dance so beautifully, with such delight and flow in your words….your storytelling, poems, sense of humour, sudden curve balls that hit gently but with loving purpose….you are a master at this Work of the Word! You weave the most amazing strands that seem to float all over the place, and take one in completely, and then somehow you make one of a completely different colour, so that my small brain and my “trying-to-be-open-to-expansion heart wonders where the heck are you going now? And then …. suddenly sometimes, slowly other times – they come together in this extraordinary, intricate web of pure brilliance and sensational reflections – transforming heart and mind in phenomenal ways. Thank you for enriching my own journey with the Lord, in all your Holy authentic humanity!
    May you have many more opportunities to sing to your heart’s content amazing Swan and may Love hold you close during your massive transitions in location. May He give you much grace and courage to hold gently the many frailties, disappointments and pain that comes with these bodies of ours and may you find unexpected mercies around every corner.

    I, and SA, shall miss your presence but I trust that your Spirit (and Words) will live in, and for us, forever.

    Much love

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