For many years in the Episcopal Church, today was also known as “Religious Life Sunday.” I always valued that designation because religious orders have long had an important place in my own journey of faith and I wanted more Episcopalians to become aware of their existence. It is good that St. James’s has become familiar with one particular order, namely, the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Groups from St. James’s have been going on retreat there for the past few years, and Brother Curtis Almquist, Superior of the order, was here for a weekend recently to lead a quiet day and preach on Sunday morning.
The Episcopal Church Annual lists and describes five religious orders for men, twelve for women, and one for men and women. They are located in all parts of the United States and in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the Philippines. Each has a rule of life; each requires the traditional monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; most focus on special ministries such as urban work, the poor, evangelism, retreats, hospices for the dying, work with children or adults, or overseas ministries. One lists itself as a “semi-enclosed, contemplative community.”
I have been on retreats at SSJE, Holy Cross (West Park, New York) and a great many at All Saints Sisters of the Poor in Catonsville, Maryland. All these have accommodations for both men and women, and provide a simple but comfortable and restful atmosphere for prayer, meditation and spiritual enrichment and growth. Like the Episcopal Church at large, you can find in the various communities conservatives, liberals and everything in between. Some of the monks and nuns wear habits all the time, others only at worship services. Some use predominantly “Rite I”, others “Rite II.” Some have the full traditional seven daily offices (services), others have just four. All have a daily celebration of the Eucharist.
Spending time in these communities has always renewed in me a deep appreciation for daily devotions, the Prayer Book services of Daily Morning and Evening Prayer (which were derived from monastic worship) and the rich experience of silent meditation (or contemplative or centering prayer). I have discovered the cleansing effects of private confession as provided in the Prayer Book and the value of personal conversation with monks and nuns. One of my best friends is Sister Catherine Grace of All Saints Convent who has helped me grow stronger spiritually, especially in times of trial.
Today’s Psalm, the First, always reminds me of our monastic communities. The psalmist reflects on how those who meditate “are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither.” I feel enveloped in that kind of atmosphere when I go on retreat and I commend it to all of you who have yet to experience it.
Blessings, dear friends.