Storytelling

Kelsea's Rule of LifeWriting a rule of life is like writing a story while you sit on a park bench in the pouring rain waiting for the sun to come out: you want to be in the right frame of mind, body, and spirit. I have spent the whole time since the beginning of Lent way back in early March until last week in the process of crafting my rule. What an challenge it has been. I never would have expected it to take me as long (relatively speaking) as it has.

Typical of me, I expected that it would be done and over within the six and a half weeks it would take to finally arrive at Easter. Part of this expectation was that I had a weekly class with a Sister and the Companions Assistant about creating a rule, studying the history of different rules and reading several rules, including the Sisterhood’s original and current rule of life. The other part is very much wrapped up in my own ego and self-determination; we will speak of it no longer.

I am still not entirely certain if Lent is a prudent time to take on such an endeavor; it was precarious at best. For me, there is a certain amount of cleansing to this period of fasting that is, as it should be, unlike any other season. A stripping away of all the physical and spiritual barriers and distractions or indulgences.

This period of intensive reflection and vulnerability reveals my truest self and my lowest self, for it seems at times to be a deep pit or being lost far into the desert and my own sense of direction and tangibility has been lost with it. A time of introspection, purification, and vulnerability.

Isn’t that the exact posture we should be maintaining? Letting go of the rope, realizing it is not a tug o’ war at all, taking time to mend the burns and blisters. Time to listen, time to strip away the cracking paint and mend the splitting of the wood; slowly, methodically, intentionally. Time to let the light shine through the wounds and wander farther and deeper into uncharted territory,Wisdom being your guide.

I have spent many of my mornings pouring over this new material, praying with it, studying it, memorizing it, and not really doing anything else with it. Days turned into weeks and I honestly had not a word written nor any idea as to how or what I was going to do with this Rule I was to create for myself. By the first week of Easter, after the celebration of the light and life eternal, and my last class, I had nothing but three quotes.

Just three quotes, two from books I had read and one I stumbled upon in my work time. It was then, just then, with my three quotes in hand, that I realized I had been doing the work. I was saturating my soil and roots were growing. The boulders that had seemed like such a burden were pebbles in my palm; smooth and warm. I was looking to taste the fruit of my labor and be filled with its sweetness and water, but I received something much more filling.

Like an awakening into spring, I began to put pen to paper. Soon I was to leave for my long retreat, and I wanted to have all of my material and ideas written and collected to be put together during this time. My retreat came and off I went to Loyola House. A fierce wind and rain came through the first night and day. The next week held more rain and sun. I spent most of my time resting, being with the psalms, and some of the time, creating my rule.

This time, intentionally, I did little writing. I used the materials I had gathered, sifted through them once more, and wrote down the rest of my notes as I had intended. Time to rest and time to heal. To be with the Holy Three and with me. Even within a convent, there is work and study and chapel and always something to do – so time to focus within isn’t always as extensive as you would like. This extended retreat created the space (with a little help from a certain Trinity) to be within and realize the rule I was already living. At last, I had arrived. My destination, right where I already was. Here.

This rule I have been crafting was already breathing life into me and pumping the blood in my veins. It is not a rigid force to be reckoned with but is saturated with listening and obedience. It is carrying me as I carry, and am carried, by the spirit of the One who creates all things.

Bally Croy GateMy own spiritual practices have long been shaping this Rule. Walking when the sun is shining, drinking my tea after breakfast, selecting my clothes and sorting through them every now and again, participating in the Eucharist, the food I eat or don’t eat, and the resources I choose to use or not use (hopefully to also reduce and recycle as I can) are all apart of my own rule.

These ways of being and spiritual practices orient my day much like the Divine Liturgy of the Hours; slowly, with breath and careful concentration. Working in the background to steadily move me forward like the push and pull of gravity to create the waves of the sea.  Giving me freedom to love the ongoing act of creation in my daily life and to eagerly participate in it with the rest of the created.

Of course, more than just my daily and ongoing practices have been placed into my rule, but they need not all be revealed here. As I review it, I am struck by the leading of the Spirit in my writing. Over and over again I have turned to Christ in all areas of this rule. The guiding force with Wisdom has been the Redeemer, renewing me minute by minute.

Crafting this Rule has brought me to my knees and back up again. It has reminded me of my vulnerability and helped me to recognize it as grace. To see this act of storytelling as a blessing. For creating a Rule is a lot like telling a story. Where do we begin? Where do we end? What will the middle look like? A lifetime of experiences and feelings have played their part and we aren’t in Act One anymore. Pay attention, this is for you.

I have titled my Rule Peregrination, which means “a journey, especially a long or meandering one.” This wandering journey continues as does this living Rule, as a witness to the liturgy I have been and will continue to be part of; a liturgy for a pilgrim on the Way.

The Holy One is calling. May you listen faithfully.

Deep calls to deep
at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
(Psalm 42:7-8)

Kelsea Willis, SSJD Companion

 

Come Home

These wandering tales and postings as a Companion have followed me through the gospel.

Through Advent, in joyful expectation and the coming of the light.
Birth has carried to term transformation; a new miracle.
From three gifts and great kings; winter.
From the desert, over forty days and forty nights, to Jerusalem.

Finally, finally, we have ascended to the city of the people of God.
Into the streets and roads, to a hilltop, carrying the cross after the long fast.

Before Friday has come and gone, flesh and blood from the One; I am not worthy, please wash my hands and my head too.

We have observed and wailed into the night.
Keeping vigil.
We have carried to the tomb gifts of preparation.
Unknowing: He was not there.
He is not here?
We have not been believed, yet have seen.

He has risen!
We have walked the road and broken the bread.
He has appeared.
Emmanuel.

Have we yet seen the way, the truth, and the life?

Today is the Companions Assistant Coordinator’s last day. I am a bit saddened to see her go, but I am just as eager for the next. Every ending has a new beginning. As I was reflecting with her this morning during our last meeting, I came to the convent expecting answers. Expecting renewal and the knowledge to go forward into whatever the future holds. In some ways, seeking a spiritual experience and feeling and maintaining it, but the Trinity has had a heck of a time telling me I am wrong. My time is not yet over, and it will continue, for I am returning as a Companion for a second term in September.

Over and over I have been humbled in my youth and pride. I have learned that being a follower on the Way and being Anglican is not subjected to the places or people I have been there with. It is not exclusive to conservative or liberal or from Alberta or Ontario. It is not about being from a prayer book congregation (even with its flaws, I will hold it close) or one without all the smells and bells. It isn’t even about living in a convent and praying the Divine Office and participating in thanksgiving in the Eucharist almost daily. Home, as I will continue to learn, is where I am. Home comes from the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. This liturgy has carried me through death and resurrection. Through anger at the people and places I have come from. Through joy and heartache at being away from those people and places; who am I without them?

In Lent, I have dwelt in the desert for forty long nights. In Holy Week, I have walked through Jerusalem and the hectic chapel preparations. Our vigil began before dawn on the third day, and it was the night that gave us back what we had lost. The night turned to day, and even though my week-long cold tried to persevere in my exhaustion, conversion still happened anyway.

Liturgy has brought me once again to conversion. It has once again brought me from the hospital room to these halls and chapel choir stalls. It has been, for me, the turning and the returning. Here, right in the middle, in expectation of eternity, that home has suddenly found me. Death and resurrection, just where I am. Praying, when all else has led me to ruin. Sometimes aesthetic needs to turn into ascetic. Maybe, more than sometimes, the desert dwellers have something to tell us. Sometimes this liturgy is not about empty pews and dusty tomes. Sometimes, maybe even all of the time, it might just be worthy of changing your life, and if you let it in, you might just have a life you believe is worth breathing for.

Alleluia, the Lord is risen indeed. Amen.

Kelsea Willis, SSJD Companion

“Put on the Lord Jesus Christ”

Homilies for the Paschal Triduum by Fr Bill Morrison,
for St John’s House, Victoria April 18, 19, 21, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

Maundy Thursday

“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then be poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”

Jesus “took off his outer robe.”

What does Christ put off? He puts off his divinity, all that separates him from us, all that indicates disparity of rank or status or privilege. Paul puts it this way:

Though he was in the form of God,
Christ Jesus did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.

Christ empties himself, he divests himself of the external appearances of divinity, if we can put it that way. He becomes “like one of us,” sharing our life, and sharing our death.

This act of disrobing, of laying aside his vesture, of emptying himself, is the movement of God’s love towards us, the movement of grace and reconciliation. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us.”

Paul says:

Christ Jesus did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death —
even death on a cross.

And here in the Upper Room with his disciples, Jesus acts out the meaning of that self-emptying that will not stop pouring itself out in love until all his been accomplished on the Cross. He lays aside his garments to serve his disciples, to wash their feet, to be their slave — to do what is necessary for them if they are to be included in the cleansing of the world effected by the shedding of his blood.

In this action of the servant-master, the emperor with no clothes, the self-emptied God, Christ sets us an example, John says. As Christ laid aside the garments of divinity and glory to become one with us and serve us, so we are to lay aside whatever garments hold us aloof from our fellow human beings, whatever apparel hems us in and restrains us from becoming servants to one another. To use Paul’s language, we are to put off the old humanity, because its fabric is no longer in fashion, and put on Christ, the new humanity.

Writing to the Church in Rome, Paul says, “Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

“For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Good Friday

The tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another,
Let us not rend it.”

In 1997 U.S. President Bill Clinton went home to Arkansas to honour the “Little Rock Nine,” the nine black students who first crossed the lines of segregation and entered the “white only” world of the city’s Central High School. In his speech he quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior: “We are woven into a seamless garment of destiny.”

Actually, he misquoted Dr. King. King’s image was “a single garment,” not a seamless one: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. President Clinton may have made a mistake, but I’m glad he did, because by conflating John’s words with Dr. King’s he gave me this sermon.

What Christ was doing at the cross was reuniting the seamless garment of humanity. Paul, speaking of what was for him the most obvious tear in the fabric of humanity, the divide between Jews and Gentiles, writes, “now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us … that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting that hostility itself to death” (Ephesians 2. 13-16), “nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2. 14).

On this Good Friday, when we read a story that has stirred hatred of Jews in the hearts of Christians and led to terrible pogroms and eventually death camps; when all but the most recent printings of our prayer book include a prayer for “the Jews … and all who reject and deny thy Son,” accusing them of “ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of God’s word” — on this day when the story of Christ was used to divide and separate, we are called to build one world, to fight against what Paul calls the principalities and powers which, he says, God disarmed and made a public example of, triumphing over them in the cross (Colossians 2. 15). Nailed to the cross.

For, to quote Paul yet again, in the great passage that ties the cross to Dr. King, the Little Rock Nine, and all who resist oppression and work for justice: “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male of female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3. 24-26).

Humanity is a seamless garment. Let us not rend it.

The Church, Christ’s body, is a seamless garment. Amidst all the voices that threaten to tear it apart, let us not rend it. For Christ is not divided.

The seamless garment of God’s creation and love reaches beyond the Church, even beyond humanity. Dr. King hinted at that when to the words, “We are … tied in a single garment of destiny” he added, “All life is interrelated.”

The earth, Gaia, the ecosystem, is a seamless garment. Let us not rend it.

For this Christ whose garment is seamless is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible … — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Easter Day

Our theme this Easter is clothing.

On Maundy Thursday we read that, at dinner with his friends, Jesus got up, took off his outer garment, girded himself with a towel, and washed their feet, doing in effect the work of their slave. We saw that the garments Jesus puts off are the signs of his divinity, his lordship; and that his purpose in divesting himself of that raiment of glory was to serve humanity, to ransom us and to save us. And we thought that Christ’s action was an example to us, that we are to put off whatever “raiment” separates us from our fellow human beings or makes us think of ourselves as “special” or better than they are, so that, following Christ’s example, we too will become servants of one another in love.

On Good Friday we looked at Christ’s seamless garment, the one the soldiers at the cross were loath to divide, saying, “Let us not rend it.” We used Dr. Martin Luther King’s aphorism that “We are woven into a seamless garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality” to get at the truth of the cross, that in Christ God was nailing all that divides humanity to the cross, to create a new, single humanity in him. Humanity is a seamless garment; let us not rend it. The church is a seamless garment; let us not rend it. The earth, the ecosystem, is a seamless garment; let us not rend it. The universe, God’s creation, is a seamless garment; let us not rend it. To paraphrase the well-known line from the marriage service, “What God has put together, let no one put asunder.”

Today, Easter Day, we turn to ask what St. Paul means when he says we are to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” We begin with the end, and words of Paul from a little later in the same chapter of the letter to the Church in Corinth we heard read earlier in this service. There he writes, “this perishable body must but on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” For, he says, “we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and” — like Superman in his phone booth — “we will be changed.” That is the ultimate putting off of the old and putting on the new, this laying aside of the garment of this body to be clothed in the glorious body of the resurrection.

In the meantime, Paul tells us elsewhere, in this present life we are to be “renewed in the spirit of our minds,” to “strip off the old self, the old humanity, with its practices, and clothe ourselves with the new humanity, the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” We are to clear all the out-of-date fashions out of our closets, clothing made of “bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, lying, abusive language, quarrelling, jealousy,” and all those other well-worn items that feel so comfortable. Instead of that bunch of filthy rags, we are to put on Christ, the seamless robe woven from the threads of kindness, tender-heartedness, forgiveness — “forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” Paul says in another place, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another, and … forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”

The message of Easter is one humanity, one world, one seamless, star-bedecked garment of creation; the call of Easter is to put off the old garments of divisiveness and prejudice, of hatred and name-calling, of race and clan, language and colour, and to live in Christ, to realize, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior, that “We are woven into a seamless garment of destiny” together.

Forty Days and Forty Nights

The third week of Lent has arrived, at last, and to paraphrase something I heard Sunday morning, we are in the deep of it now.

Indeed, the trudging towards Jerusalem has begun.

I wonder if, like the grass outside my window, we are all just waiting to be brushed through into spring,

though spring began in the calendar some days ago.

Wilderness Painting

The wind is sweeping away the dead leaves,

baring us to the wilderness.

The snow is melting, and we are caked in debris from the season before.

Our leaves are long since gone, lying at our feet.

The layers of ice and snow have not quite departed; damp.

 

Earth and dew cling like shadows to our branches and barriers.

I wonder in this wilderness if spring will ever come.

Green has not yet made its way into the trees or the plants.

It is a mirage sprouting from the tendrils of the earth.

Our roots are beginning to spread forth from the tree in trepidation; desperate.

 

It has been a long winter.

The wind has carried freezing rain and frost from the heavens.

We have huddled for warmth and nourishment.

Seeking the sun yet embracing the darkness.

Our white coats are shed in the heat of the sun.

Disillusioned and trembling we reach out into the open air; grasping.

 

Into the wilderness, we have begun wandering.

Forty days and forty nights from a mere fortnight ago.

Wind-stirring and breathtaking currents sweeping away our dew.

 

Have I yet been brushed back into existence?

Have I been in the wilderness long enough?

I wonder, where did the snow and rain go?

How long has this sun been scorching my flesh and this wind searing my hands?

I am parched and cannot yet begin to quench this thirst.

 

Forty days and forty nights.

I am long here in this Lent.

This charcoal heart has not yet begun its smoldering aching; renewed.

Lent has not yet closed, we are not yet arrived at this destiny.

My sackcloth has not kept me warm, and these ashes have not shed my mourning.

To dust I am driven, to the beginning, I am returning.

 

Kelsea Willis, SSJD Companion

Ordinary Holiness

Recently, January seventeenth to be exact, it was the fourteenth year of the dedication of the Chapel of St. John at the Convent. It is a special day that comes around every year, and just as it is for the Sisters and the community, so it is for me. Five years ago this January seventeenth, my daughter was born. My story from then on has revolved around and without her. Motherhood, as I experience it inwardly and apart from her, has everything to do with moments in time; moments of dedication. First steps and words, like the Sisters took on this day, towards an open future; an unknown. What will happen from here? Where are we going now? Who am I without her? What do I do now? Five years on, I have started to walk along the ancient paths, to the Convent, and to the Chapel of St. John in North Toronto. I have come a long way from a hospital room in Southern Alberta.

This January seventeenth, I took my monthly retreat day and came into the chapel for the weekday service of thanksgiving, took my place in the choir, and waited for the invitation. This year, the opening hymn at the Eucharist was from the hymnal Gather (#850): “All Are Welcome.” Here are a few of the verses:

“Let us build a house where hands will reach
beyond the wood and stone
to heal and strengthen, serve and teach,
and live the Word they’ve known.

Front View of Chapel
Chapel of St. John the Divine, St. John’s Convent

Here the outcast and the stranger
bear the image of God’s face;
let us bring an end to fear and danger
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.

Let us build a house where all are named,
their songs and visions heard
and loved and treasured, taught and claimed
as words within the Word.

Built of tears and cries and laughter,
prayers of faith and songs of grace,
let this house proclaim from floor to rafter.
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.”

As these words were presented to me, as the choir behind and before me, the organ pipes sounded with praise, where else could I be? Of course, it is here. Here, where I must be. What does it mean for all to be welcome? What if we truly carried this promise out? What does it mean for the outcasts, the liars, the enemies? What does it mean for the non-believers and the church-goers? For the hypocrites and the thieves? What would it mean for those not living in freedom? For ourselves, what does it mean? What does it mean for me with the pain and grief I have gone through? For the divide in my life on this day? A day where I can’t help but remember I am alone, without her, but filled because of her. Filled with sound and silence. Filled with waiting and filled with knowledge. Knowing, when I have waited so long to be understood, to be known.

On the joyous and painful day of January seventeenth, ‘all are welcome’. Moments are miracles happening in time, little by little. Music rings from our lips and keys and organ pipes. Can’t you just see it? Take a listen… where all God’s children dare to seek…all are welcome…here the love of Christ will end divisions…all are welcome. During the chorus, I look up, share a smile with a Sister ahead of me; don’t they say singing is praying twice?

Living with the Sisters has taught me the value of time. There is more than enough of it, and never enough. We will never have as much time as we would like, but there will always be more time later. Later, after the Daily Office. After serving one another and the Lord. Time will pass just as it had up to this moment, the moment for prayer. It will remind us of what we have done and left undone. It will remind us at noon, that the Table is not just for me, or you, but for everyone; no really, everyone. Jesus doesn’t just look like the people you are used to seeing. Silently we wander through the day, with rest and toil and the work of God permeating the time that has passed. Pausing, in this work, to be reminded that we are beings in time, with the hope of eternity. Once, eternity seemed ever so long, ever so dim. It seemed so far off when I could not even bear to welcome myself.

I imagine myself now, singing this promise in a procession in my church back in Lethbridge. I served for a while last year, and I can see the pews and vaulted ceiling above me, the crucifer ahead, the choir and clergy behind me. As they like to say, walking ‘holy and slowly’ and all our robes swaying with the movement. For reverence has its own pace that we can never quite keep up with, but it looks a lot like ordinary to me. I wonder if we could recognize this holiness in each other? What would it look like to welcome this holiness in the day to day outside chapel and church walls? In the Starbucks, downtown and in the side alleys maybe? Or to even recognize it in our pews, chairs, and choir stalls. What would it look like? Would it look like the hotel clerk or the lawyer, or the street performer? Would it look like your enemy? Would it look like your neighbor? I remember walking into the church just over a week after January seventeenth five years ago, feeling a lot like the stranger; like the neighbor. I was the person next to you in the pew you did not know, even in a place I had known my whole life. I was the woman at the well just trying to go through my day the best way I knew how. I was among the five thousand. Wandering. Waiting. Seeking.

You may not have to like your neighbor, but they are as much a part of creation and as deserving of resurrection as you are, so I hope you can find it within yourself to love them; they are just as worthy of approaching the feast with ordinary holiness in their heart. This has nothing to do with you or me, but with Jesus. This is what I have been learning from the Sisters: all are welcome.

Please, come and give thanks where fear and danger have no place.

Kelsea Willis, SSJD Companion

A Flickering Light

Advent is drawing to a close; Christmas is soon upon us. Time has slowed down and sped up all at once it seems. Only last year was I living at home once again, uncertain, yet hopeful to be accepted as a Companion. What a joy and relief it is to be here over a year later in my own room in the convent; amongst friends. In this last week before the white candle is lit, hours and days carry new meaning. Silence and stillness shed the layers of noise and restlessness so etched into every aspect of my life. During this season I have begun to ask myself: who am I in the middle of all of these preparations? Where do I fit in my own adventure and the wider story around me? Where is Jesus?

Mary 1914

I believe Jesus came into the world to be the light in the darkness. I definitely see this in my own life and experience. Joyful expectation is hard to manage among the griefs and sorrows of being human; being vulnerable. This is a time of waiting, of looking forward and behind. This season is peppered with the turmoils of the past; divorce, death, loneliness, poverty, anger, regret, grief. Even in a place called ‘the heart of the church’, I have not gone unaffected. I have slowly been more agitated and withdrawn; even without noticing it myself.

Until I took the time to look up.

To look up past the vulnerability and cares in my life. Look away from the sorrows of yesterday. Looking to the star in the sky, leading the way; lighting up the night. Now, I guess this means Jesus must have been born at night, but I do not think there is a better message of hope than this. Just when the world seems to tilt a little too far, just when it seems to get just a bit darker, a flickering light captures those dark tendrils. The shadows’ lengthening pauses and instead, evening begins to feel warm, night begins to open into an embrace instead of a cold shoulder, and I am once again, disturbed by grace. Unashamedly, powerless and helpless, to grace. Maybe, this vulnerability is why it means so much to look forward to the coming of Emmanuel. For God with us as an infant could not remind us more to look within, and to love with abandon.

For this love, this is why I came to Toronto. What does it mean for my story to intersect even more closely with the body of Christ? This oblation is written on my heart, and on those around me. These preparations remind me that I am just as me as I was when I arrived, and am just as willing as I was a year ago. That this adventure is ongoing, and this Advent is being spent waiting, and being wrecked by grace over and over again; joyfully.

Kelsea Willis, SSJD Companion

A FRESH BEGINNING

 

Readings for the First Sunday in Advent: Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36

Every day I want to make a fresh beginning – and I offer that desire to God every morning. And then every day it seems I make some mistake, I work against my own best intentions, I do not live up to my own desires. As St. Paul has said about himself I can say about myself: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I do not want.”

What gives me hope is that other desert monk who was asked, “What do you do all day in the monastery?” His answer: “We fall and we get up. We fall and we get up.“

Well today is the first day of Advent, the Church’s New Year.  And in spite of what at first seems like a rather gloomy gospel, the day is full of hope. Every year we have the opportunity to make a new beginning in our spiritual lives, in our relationships, in our attitudes, in our attempts to follow God’s will, to live out our own deepest desires.

The scripture readings this morning at first seem contradictory. The reading from Jeremiah is uncharacteristically optimistic – that is for Jeremiah! “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”

Really? Will Jerusalem ever live in safety? We urgently hope so, and we pray so – not only for Jerusalem but for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia, for the United States in all its internal and international conflicts, for the migrants from Central America wanting to enter the United States, and for so many others in the world including Canada who do lot live with a sense of peace and safety – and for the conflict in our own church as well.

Abba Poemen said about Abba Pior that every single day he made a fresh beginning.

God has given Jeremiah the promising words that God will make a fresh beginning – as God did with Adam and Eve, with Noah and his family at the time of the flood, with David and the many other people chosen of God who sinned time after time. And especially the fresh start God made for us all in sending Jesus – and as God continues to do every time a human being is open to accepting the great love of a Creator who has stamped us with the divine image. “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise,” says the Lord.

That is the great hope of Advent, and we see that same hope in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians when he prays that God will “make you increase and  abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” As we increase in love, each person on this earth, we increase the hope for peace and justice in the world.

I mentioned earlier that the gospel appears – in contrast to the other readings – to be quite gloomy. But if you look at it more closely, you see how Jesus is offering us hope even in the midst of predicting the terrible disasters to come on earth – disasters that we don’t have to wait for, by the way, because they are disasters that have already come, over and over in human history:

And it’s that hope offered by Jesus which is at the heart of the parable about the trees – when they sprout leaves “you know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the reign of God is near.” Every place, every time we see disaster or death or pain or sorrow, the reign of God is near. In other words, Jesus is reminding us of what he says elsewhere that the “reign of God is within you” – within you personally, as God makes a home in each of us. But also within or among you in your community, your family, your church, your city – wherever disaster falls, or conflict or sorrow or pain, the reign of God is visible when we respond with love and prayer and active service to others. And when we ask forgiveness for the times that we did not respond with love or gratitude, whenever we fall and get up, fall and get up.

Abba Poemen said about Abba Pior that every single day he made a fresh beginning.

Just as the disasters described by Jesus happen numerous times in human history, just as often the reign of God is right there, wherever people are willing to act in the image of the Creator, on behalf of the Creator. As Teresa of Avila said, Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. We are Christ’s body. And so to some extent the hope of Advent is lived out in each of us, individually and corporately. Where each of us is willing to get up and go on whenever we fall, where each of us is willing to be Christ’s hands and help another when they fall, where each of us is open to conversion of heart and mind – there is the hope of God’s reign, there is God’s reign already within us and among us.

And so as we start our journey toward Christmas where we will celebrate Christ’s birth among us and within us, so we also muse on the second coming, the coming of Christ in us in the midst of the disasters in our world, and we pray for all who hurt – especially those who have no one to pick them up when they fall.

We pray too that each of us, each time we make a promise to ourselves to do better, to live more fully into God’s loving will for us – that for each of us our friends and community and family will be able to say “every single day she makes a fresh beginning.”

Sr. Constance Joanna Gefvert, SSJD
Companions Coordinator

Holy Cross Day

Around the year 325, Emperor Constantine sent his mother Helena to the Holy Land to erect churches on the sites associated with the birth, life, and death of Jesus.

Crosses carved by pilgrims into a wall of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.  (Yair Talmor, Wikimedia Commons).The Jerusalem Helena came to bore no resemblance to the city Jesus knew. Even the name “Jerusalem” no longer existed. The Romans had been so angered by the Jewish revolts in the decades following the crucifixion that in the early second century they had levelled the old city, and on its rubble had built a new, pagan city, which they called Aelia Capitolina.

The old city may have gone, but it lived on in the memories of the Christians who still lived there. When Helena asked them about the place of Christ’s crucifixion and burial, they had no doubts. They took her to a particular spot, and, pointing down, said, “Here.” “Here” was a temple dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite. What Helena was seeking, the people said, was buried here. A few metres in any direction, and the work would have been much easier, but it had to be “Here.” And so they set to work. They dismantled the temple, they broke up the great stone platform on which it stood, and they cleared away tonnes of rubble, the remains of the old city.

When the rubble had been cleared away they were standing on the floor of an old quarry that, in the time of Jesus, had already been abandoned – a wild, overgrown place off the main road just outside the city walls. On the floor of the old quarry they found an outcropping of stone a few metres high, that the masons had passed over because it was cracked. This, the Christians of Jerusalem said, was Calvary, the “stone which the builders rejected.”

A little to the west, the quarry ended in a high vertical wall which, as was customary in the first century, had been honeycombed with horizontal grave shafts. Was there any question about which was the grave? Absolutely not. It had to be this one, they told Helena. So they set to work again, quarrying away the entire rock face to leave that one tomb standing free.

Then, to the east, there was an area where the floor of the quarry sloped steeply down, forming a cistern. At the bottom they found some pieces of wood, which Helena declared to be the wood of the cross on which Jesus had died.

Helena had a great church built over Calvary, the tomb, and the cistern – now become the chapel of the Holy Cross. Relics of the cross were embedded in the altar that faced the empty tomb. The church was called Anastasia – the Resurrection. It was dedicated on September 14, in the year 335; and ever since the Church has kept this day as Holy Cross Day.

The Anastasia was destroyed by the Calif Hakim and then rebuilt on a much smaller scale by the Crusaders, and renamed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

My favourite part is the steps leading down to the Chapel of the Holy Cross, because the walls along the steps are covered with little crosses that the Crusaders, those “soldiers of the cross” had carved into the stone. It’s as if they wanted to say: I was here; and I claim this place for Christ and Christ’s cross, as Christ and his cross have claimed me.

I told that story, at somewhat greater length, at the ordination of a friend a few years ago. Hers had been a long journey to ordination as a deacon, and went on for several years before she agreed to be ordained priest.

I called the Anastasia a parable of how God works with us. A parable of vocation. God comes to us and says, “I want to dig right here.” We say, “Here? There’s nothing here worth the effort of clearing away the rubble. Why don’t you try just over there a bit? Try that person instead. I’m sure the digging will be much easier there, the soil much less stony.”

But, like those people in Jerusalem, God points, “right here.” God digs away the rubble to find the place in us where death gives way to life, to find what we think of as dry wood but he knows is the tree of life.

God is always doing that, pointing and saying “right here,” in moments of conversion, in baptism, in the call to ordination or to the religious life, or to other vocation in the church and in society, always saying, “here my life meets your death and transforms the world. Here have I carved my cross, here I proclaim, ‘I am here,’ and I will not be shut out.”

And the rubble gets pushed aside, our objections, our reasons why it won’t work, why we aren’t worthy, drowned out by God’s declaration, “I chose you; in your weakness is my strength.”

The Rev. Canon Bill Morrison is a retired priest of the Diocese of British Columbia and a good friend and supporter of the Sisters’ ministry in Victoria.

Soil for Ministry: A Journey in Two Parts (cont.)

Part 2

The pull to go to the Convent had become consuming. I felt a strong need to be set apart from the world so that the Spirit of God could do its work of sanctification within me. I didn’t know at first if I was physically strong enough to complete the program, but by God’s grace, and with a whole lot of love from the Sisters and my two beloved fellow Companions, I began a year in the Companions Program that I will always cherish.

Once I arrived, I discovered that this “hospital” I had come to for a spiritual overhaul was even more than I expected.

The other Companions and I prayed and worshipped, both privately and corporately with the Sisters. We took classes together and read books together. We studied the Rule of St. Benedict. And we looked at what life in Christ is really all about, what it means to love God with all our hearts and to love his people as ourselves. We learned about Lectio Divina, and we met in groups to practice different forms of prayer. Day by day, a space was made for me to be open and to share how I felt. I found out that being open and vulnerable, while risky, was necessary if I wanted to be made whole.

God helped me to realize during my time in the Companions Program that for now I could set aside some of my questions. First I needed to focus on my relationship with God. I came to see that along the previous leg of my life’s journey, some of the ideas I had picked up about God were wrong. I had taken bits and pieces of scripture and turned them into what I believed was true. I had this image in my mind of a God that punishes. This image of a punishing God had not helped when I came up against the biggest spiritual struggle of my life. Instead of being able to turn to God when faced with tragedy, I believed that I had been abandoned because I had failed.

Day by day, living here in the Convent began to change this. We prayed together. The Sisters and the other two Companions loved me and prayed for me. They shared scriptures, songs, and videos that were meaningful to them. I was accepted by all of them as I was, and for the first time, I did not feel I needed to do or be anyone else but me. More than that, I realized that this was the person God also loved and wanted and waited to be with. I found out that God is love.

Maria in kitchen 2 c

Here in the Convent, there is rhythm and balance. There is time to worship. In a wonderful and inexplicable way, the rhythm of life here even givens time back. There is time here to seek God’s face, and to soak in the rich meaning and symbolism of the liturgy. My ears actually hear differently here.

Life at the Convent has helped me to understand true freedom and real peace. It is a life that restores to wholeness through a common bond of unity and purpose. It puts relationships in perspective. We want to see everyone as Jesus sees them. We want to love them as He has loved us. We work together contemplatively and with purpose: To show hospitality to all. To fight for justice and peace. To speak for those who do not have a voice.  To build relationships on the strong foundation that we are all God’s children. And to glorify God in all that we say and do and are.

In July, I was admitted as a postulant. I believe that God called me, and brought me here to set myself apart, to equip me with instruction, and to send me forth with a mission to show to others the care and healing that I myself freely received.

Maria Potestio
Postulant, SSJD

Soil for Ministry: A Journey in Two Parts

EA & MariaPart 1

I believe that the monastic life is soil for ministry. Here I have found fertile soil for the cultivation of the fruits of the Spirit. To be still and to listen. To be. Here I hear the words of the Hymn by Carol Owens: “…freely, freely you have received, freely, freely give. Go in my name and because you believe, others will know that I live.”

This place is a school and a hospital for the soul. Within these walls are people that demonstrate with their lives the power of God’s love. It is the power that saves people’s souls. I know because it saved mine.

I first visited St. John’s Convent in July of 2016, when I attended the Women at a Crossroads Program. During Women at a Crossroads, I learned that the vows my parents made on my behalf at my baptism were to be a foundation for my life in Christ. When I renewed my Baptismal vows at the end of the three-and-a-half week program, I knew that I was embarking on a great journey, though I didn’t know what lay ahead.

Following the conclusion of Women at a Crossroads, I underwent a series of life-changing events that led to an exhaustion beyond belief. I was already living in this shadow when I lost my brother and my son within ten days of each other. Now total darkness came. I had lost all. Father, three brothers, and my son.

I felt like I had been hit by a train.

This loss called everything I had ever thought into question. I had never had much courage, and now, the courage that I did have was shattered. Worse, everything I had ever believed about God seemed to vanish. The beliefs that I had once cherished became like foreign thoughts. My faith had suffered serious trauma. I needed spiritual surgery. I needed a hospital.

I returned to St John’s Convent in February for a Lenten quiet day led by the Rev. Stephen Kirkegaard. The topic was God’s Peace in a Troubled World. It was a message I really needed to hear. We spoke about the prisons we build for ourselves. How in our efforts to save ourselves we build walls so high that we block ourselves in, away from everyone and everything. And we spoke about how God can break through these walls and break into our prisons.

You can imagine how my exhausted and groping soul clung to these words. All I heard was “God can break in.” This kindled a spark within me.

We spoke about seeing our calling with the eyes of our heart as in Ephesians 1:18. I had long felt a call to the religious life, but up to that point, everything had seemed to point me away from pursuing that call.

We spoke about how the Spirit sent by the Father in Jesus’ name will reveal all things, and in an Affirmation prayer, we prayed together:

God make haste to help me.
Sow the seeds in my heart
And open the eyes of my heart
That I might see again.
Amen.

I thought I had prayed genuine prayers before, but now I was hanging on for dear life. I believe that God heard that feeble and weak-kneed prayer that day. And when I applied for the Companions Program, I knew two things. The first was that nothing mattered except getting my relationship with God fixed. The second was that if God was going to help in any way, shape, or form, it would be here.

To be continued . . . 

Maria Potestio
Postulant, SSJD