The Fellowship of St. John is composed of men and women throughout the world who desire to live their Christian life in special association with the Society of St. John the Evangelist … Together [with the brothers] they form an extended family, a company of friends abiding in Christ and seeking to bear a united witness to him as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” following the example of the Beloved Disciple. (Rule of the FSJ)
Singing the Daily Office
I was first drawn to the Society of St. John the Evangelist because of the Daily Office.
When I was in the Diocese of Chicago’s discernment process leading to ordination as a deacon, I attended a weekend retreat held at the DeKoven Center in Racine, WI. In the bookshop (a necessity wherever Episcopalians gather) I found a cassette tape of the SSJE brothers discussing and singing Morning and Evening Prayer.
I’m a devotee of the Daily Office, as those who read this blog will understand.
What I found most attractive about SSJE was that they were a monastic order who worshiped according to the Book of Common Prayer. That meant they were praying essentially the same prayers I was, using the same forms for Morning and Evening Prayer, for Noonday Prayer, and for Compline.
My own project, so to speak, has been to pray the Daily Office “by the book” these last 20 years — and I find immense support and encouragement knowing that the brothers are praying from the same book.
A sign to the Church
Later I came to value even more the Society’s wisdom about Christian community.
When the Church Insurance Company began to mandate training in sexual misconduct prevention in the early 1990s, the Diocese of Chicago’s pastoral care officer (Chilton Knudsen, who went on to be Bishop of Maine) invited me to help write the curriculum for the diocese.
All told, I spent more than a dozen years training lay people and clergy in the Dioceses of Chicago and Milwaukee in the prevention of child abuse and sexual harassment.
The early years of teaching were very difficult. Nobody wants to talk about child sexual abuse in the first place. Lay people, especially vestry members, resented the mandatory training that focused so heavily on penalties — up to and including the threat of losing insurance coverage. Clergy resented being told how to practice pastoral care and being required to accept limits on their freedom.
The tension was palpable; I would finish each four-hour training session with a splitting headache.
When the community published their Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in 1997, I discovered in its pages an extended meditation on right relationship in Christian community.
The contemporary Rule helped me reframe my teaching, away from penalties and toward a vision of ministry and interpersonal behavior so clear, so transparent, that any attempt at abuse would stand out by sharp contrast.
That vision of right relationship also transformed those who attended the training in later years. Rather than grudging, reluctant attendance, parish leaders became more eager to invite each year’s new Sunday School teachers and youth workers. Many parishes even began scheduling training sessions a year in advance.
Christ’s gift of enduring love
Meditating on the SSJE community’s Rule transformed not only my teaching, but also my own spirituality.
I began training sessions with an icon of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple — an image of the intimacy which God desires each one of us to experience with God and with each other.
Icon of the Beloved Disciple from Mt. Angel Abbey
My teaching focused on the ordering of our affections and our disciplined care for vulnerable children and adults, over against the disorganized, scatter-shot attention to safety that is too prevalent in our institutions.
My spiritual life these last 17 years has blossomed with extended reflection on the Beloved Disciple and intimacy with God.
That’s not to say I don’t fall short, and sometimes pretty spectacularly. Disorder and lack of discipline, sin and failing, are a daily reality. The Rule of Benedict, on which most Western monastic Rules are based, observes that “every day we begin again to follow our Lord’s teaching.”
What I have come to understand in the company of the SSJE brothers is that I do not need to hide from that suffering, for it will be transformed by Christ and will bear fruit in my life.
If we abide in that perfect love shown on the cross we will receive the grace to face together all that we are tempted to run from in fear. Christ’s gift of enduring love will be the heart of our life as a community … Love will make us [people] of faith who know God’s power to bring life out of death. (SSJE Rule, Chapter Two).