Brothers in front of Holy Cross Priory (north of High Park in Toronto), the Canadian home of The Order of the Holy Cross since the early 1970s. Originally built in the late 1800s by James T. Jackson, newspaper and real estate firm owner.
IT WASN'T AT ALL like the Sean Connery movie 'The Name of the Rose'. The sounds of the big city are omnipresent. The 'chapel' is a corner of the living room; thus, their prayer life is not worlds away from mine or yours. They aren't avoiding the world, much less despising it. Instead, they are continually fed and formed to serve the world in the particular way to which God has called them.
By Rev. Matthew Kieswetter
This month I'm pleased to introduce what I hope will be an ongoing series I'm calling "The Wisdom of the Desert."
In this series we'll meet various people from our diocese who have found inspiration from the monastic tradition, oftentimes leading to a relationship with a religious community.
It will surprise some people to learn that there are indeed communities of monks and nuns within our Anglican tradition, alongside other dispersed religious orders, with people united by shared vows, values, and ways of life. It is appropriate to start this series in the season of Lent, as we reflect on Jesus's time in the desert.
The most pivotal moment in my faith journey was attending a Lenten lecture in the late '90s at which I was introduced to the life and work of Thomas Merton.
He was a gifted and charismatic young man living in the mid-20th century who had a dramatic conversion experience that eventually led him to a monastery in Kentucky. There is no small irony that in wanting to disappear behind the walls of the monastery, he would write his autobiography and become a best-selling author...
Merton had something of a second conversion years later when he was out in the city for an appointment. At a busy intersection he had the realization that he loved the people around him; the people whom he had tried to escape years earlier. This experience led him to engage more fully with the life of the world. It was said by one prominent peace activist that Merton was the conscience of the peace movement.
I'll leave you to do some further reading on Merton — both his devotion and his contradictions. But for me, I'll simply write that the experience of discovering Merton was like finding aspects of my own self and my own story in his. It cracked open and enlivened aspects of our Church life: a deeper appreciation of the liturgy; the contemplative tradition; inter-religious dialogue; faith-inspired activism.
A few years after that Lenten lecture, I made contact with a small Anglican monastery in Toronto: Holy Cross Priory. What a joy and relief to learn that the monastic tradition overlapped with my own denomination! And now for about half my life I have been an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, connecting my life to theirs, and living in some small way the values that inspired their founding and their ongoing ministry.
Much more could be said, but for me, two surprising things stand out.
The first is that through my visits and retreats at the priory I realized that the monastic tradition was much more relatable and 'this-worldly' than I had expected.
The brothers at prayer: I had expected a group of... hmmm... eccentrics? Extremists? Saints? What I found instead was a community as diverse and as human as any other. I have sensed and observed different pieties; different personalities; different theological and political leanings.
It wasn't at all like the Sean Connery movie 'The Name of the Rose'. The sounds of the big city are omnipresent. The 'chapel' is a corner of the living room; thus, their prayer life is not worlds away from mine or yours. They aren't avoiding the world, much less despising it. Instead, they are continually fed and formed to serve the world in the particular way to which God has called them.
My second surprise flowed out of the first: I had expected a group of... hmmm... eccentrics? Extremists? Saints? What I found instead was a community as diverse and as human as any other. I have sensed and observed different pieties; different personalities; different theological and political leanings. Not to mention a more nuanced, healthy, and mature understanding of human sexuality (and human sexuality as expressed in the context of Christian life) than I had assumed I would find.
Ultimately, I found a collection of people striving to follow God's calling. For some of us, God's call includes some sort of engagement with one or more living expressions of the ancient Christian monastic tradition. I pray that we, as a diocese, will be blessed by our religious orders: through their prayers, their example, and their wisdom.
I invite you, dear reader, to join me at Renison University College on Saturday, April 15 for a half-day introduction to Anglican monasticism, which will include several special guests. Look for more info online and in diocesan announcements, or email me for more information.
Rev. Matthew Kieswetter is the rector of St. Andrew's Memorial, Kitchener.
Photo: Michael Hudson