Feast of James Otis Sargent Huntington

Readings for the feast are here

Today the Church remembers James Otis Sargent Huntington. We think of him as founder of the Order of the Holy Cross. Typically, the Church remembers people on the anniversary of their death, or sometimes their birth. But this is neither the anniversary of his death nor his birth. Rather this is the anniversary of his life profession in the Order of the Holy Cross. Father Huntington is perhaps most remembered as a monastic, so this seems appropriate. But the truth is that the other dates were already claimed by other saints… 

Remembering the Founder of the Order of the Holy Cross seems like a straightforward thing… and yet it offers food for thought… 

Father Huntington at the monastery in West Park NY

Father Founder, as we tend to call him, did not refer to himself this way. The truth is that he did not found the Order… he joined the Order. James Huntington was the third member of the Order of the Holy Cross. But simple truth is often not the whole truth. The two brothers of the Order that preceded Father Huntington did not proceed to life profession. So, Father Huntington was the first life professed member of the Order of the Holy Cross, the first Superior of the Order of the Holy Cross, and his charism became the formative charism for the Order of the Holy Cross.  

Father Huntington was an odd character for a heroic founder. He was at times a rather shy homebody. He was a germophobe which made him uncomfortable with crowds. He was a high Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian which made him at home in some parts of the Episcopal Church, but not so comfortable in the broad, low-church sector that dominated most of the country. He was from a wealthy and well-educated family and his second home, after the Monastery, seems to have been the Harvard Club in New York City – a elite center of posh “old boy” chumminess. And most of all he was a champion of social justice and of those who were at the bottom rung of the social ladder. His various eccentricities should have made him an outcast. But in reality, he seems to have been able to move comfortably from place to place and be welcomed wherever he went. 

Harvard Club in NYC

Father Huntington did not purchase a warm welcome by compromising his beliefs. Rather, I think he found welcome because he truly loved people and recognized everyone, those with whom he agreed and those with whom he disagreed, as full children of God.  

It was entirely natural when the Order needed to elect a Superior, a leader, that Father Huntington was chosen. He was the only life professed member, so there was no other choice. But more than that, he was central in the formation of the Order and its members. It seems that almost everyone was happy with Father Huntington as Superior – everyone that is except Father Huntington… As quickly as a second brother was life professed, Father Huntington was happy to engineer the election of that brother as Superior. Father Huntington did not aspire to be leader. He aspired to be a monk. 

This, I think, may be one of his greatest gifts to the Order. If Father Huntington had wanted, the Order would surely have kept him as Superior for the rest of his life. It would have been his Order with his followers. There are numerous examples of monastic communities that are inextricably bound to their founder. It is very hard for these communities to survive much beyond the life of their founder because it is hard in such a community for new leadership to develop. But James Otis Sargent Huntington insisted that leadership had to pass from person to person, even to persons with whom he had strong disagreements. Father Huntington sought an order of adults faithfully obedient to their baptismal and monastic vows, not an order of obedient children. 

Grand Central Terminal (CCL Photo)

This is important not just in understanding who James Huntington was, but in understanding how the Order of the Holy Cross understands itself. Father Huntington was the living embodiment of a contradiction. On the one hand he seems to have held nothing in higher esteem than the archetype of a monk, in silent prayer, in his cell, eyes upturned toward a crucifix… And in practice Father Huntington seems to have spent as much time on a train as praying in his cell. We still strive to resolve this contradiction – monks of the Order are active in the world and contemplative.  

Certainly, one of the reasons that Father Huntington did not want the office of Superior as a permanent occupation is that he had too many other things to do. He was passionate about labor organizing. He was passionate about monetary and tax policy. He was a close friend of Single Tax proponent Henry George. There is an old joke within the Order that Brothers saw each other as frequently at Grand Central Terminal in New York as at the monastery in West Park. Indeed, if there was a strike or a labor dispute somewhere, Father Huntington was, if possible, on the next train to that place.  

In his rule for the Order, Father Huntington goes out of his way to privilege the contemplative brothers. I find this curious because Father Huntington seems to have had little time for contemplation.  One of the early brothers described Father Huntington as the least mystical person he had ever known.  

The big champion of the contemplative way within the Order was Father Hughson, someone who seemed regularly to be at odds with Father Huntington – they were in some ways polls pulling the Order in opposite directions. Father Allan Whittemore knew both men and described their places within the Order as follows: Father Huntington was philosophical; Father Hughson was practical. Father Huntington was forward-reaching; Father Hughson was an historian. Father Huntington stood for liberty; Father Hughson for authority. If Father Huntington said yes; Father Hughson said no.  

Father Huntington and Father Hughson coexisted in the same Order – though I suspect it was uncomfortable at times. It seems to me that Father Huntington, in writing his rule, was trying to assure that both callings, active and contemplative, would be equally treasured in the Order of the Holy Cross.  

Human nature wants to see things on a spectrum from good to bad. But Godly nature seems to want to see things as beautiful in diversity. Flowers are beautiful in one way, rocks in another. Put them together and a whole new type of beauty comes forth. Thus it was with Father Huntington and Father Hughson. And thus it is for the Order of the Holy Cross as we continue to struggle to contain the philosophical and the practical, liberty and authority, progressive forward-reaching and deep love and respect for history and tradition. Thus it is for Volmoed too.  

Much of Father Huntington’s legacy comes to us in the form of writing. To say he was a prolific writer is vastly understated. He wrote articles and sermons, reflections and instructions, books and pamphlets… The Archives of the Order are filled with box after box of his correspondence. It’s remarkable that copies of handwritten letters and notes survive in great number because there was no such thing as a photocopier at the time… Someone had to take the time to transcribe all that material. 

In Father Huntington’s letters one thing which jumps out is just how tender he could be. He answered letters from just about everyone who wrote to him. I can imagine that some of these letters must have been wonderful, but some must have been a test of patience – people being people… But his responses seem to be warm, insightful, and faithful. 

In his writing Father Huntington was a man of his time – the late Victorian/Edwardian time… Cory Griffin, in an essay on Edwardian Prose offers this observation: “Earnest, effervescent, sometimes overwrought 19th century prose can, in the right hands, not only describe the scene with vivid intensity but convey the mood of overstuffed Victorian formality. In less capable hands they are a mulch of jagged cliches, stilted dialogue, and bizarre Eurocentric … attitudes.” Father Huntington seems to have had capable hands… Most of the time… 

Father Huntington’s Rule of the Order of the Holy Cross is a masterpiece. Section ten is titled: Of the Devout Study of ascetic Writers. The chapter begins “We are vowed not only to seek perfection, but to use the means whereby perfection is to be attained.” This seems to be flirting with Mr Griffin’s mulch of stilted dialogue. But Father Huntington fairly soon comes to this: “The Kingdom, for which we earnestly pray, advances not only by the conversion of sinners, but by the raising of some souls to great holiness of life. Holiness is the brightness of divine love, and love is never idle, it must accomplish great things. Love must act as light must shine and fire must burn.”  

Calligraphy from Br Roy Parker OHC

These last few words may be Father Huntington’s most remembered words. And they are truly remarkable. What Father Huntington has accomplished, in my opinion, in these few words tucked into the middle of his discussion of Ascetic Writers, is to outline his entire theology, his vision for how Christians in general and monks in particular are called to live. Study of Ascetic Writers somehow leads to this flood of imperatives. Love must act. Light must shine. Fire must burn. Love must accomplish great things. I believe this is written with John’s Gospel imperative in mind: that it is by our love, and only by our love, that we will be known as followers of Jesus. 

Elsewhere in the rule Father Huntington tells us that study that does not lead to prayer is dishonesty. The truth is that when we live with scripture, when we pray with psalms, when we encounter the Holy Spirit in our brothers and sisters, we are touched by the Sacred. That inspires us – literally. It fills us with the Spirit. And thus inspired, our love must act, our light must shine, and our fire must burn.  

With joyful and loving hearts, we celebrate James Otis Sargent Huntington and give thanks for his many gifts to the Order of the Holy Cross, to the Episcopal Church and the Worldwide Anglican Communion, and to the body of all faithful people.  

3 thoughts on “Feast of James Otis Sargent Huntington”

  1. Scott – What a excellent biography of & reflection on our Founder. You add much that makes him 3 dimensional for me. How many times I’ve prayed in the crypt with him looking over my shoulder.
    For this – a gift to us all ,I am greatly appreciative.

    Laurel Stewart

  2. Sjoe (Wow) Scott, thank you for this. It is comforting and challenging in so many areas of my life at the moment. The synchronicity of it all not to be ignored. Appreciate it.

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