I just returned from a weekend on retreat at the monastery of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a remarkable weekend, filled with time for prayer and reflection—and all the quiet I could want. Four days of quiet and without technology, plus two travel days, also meant lots of time to read. In the spirit of the weekend, I took with me several books pertaining to matters of faith. They were short, and over the course of the weekend, I polished off four of them, plus another I found in the monastery guesthouse library. The books all intersected in interesting ways with each other and with the aspects of prayer that we spent the weekend exploring, so it’s fitting that I tell you about them all at once. (Also, writing five posts about similar books seems like too much work.)
Elizabeth Esther’s grandparents were founders of a fundamentalist Christian sect known as the Assembly. The group focused on preparing for the end of the world and maintaining strict purity and isolation from the world, except when attempting to win the world to Jesus. Children, including young Elizabeth, were raised strictly, sometimes with spankings that left marks even for minor infractions. Elizabeth developed anxiety at an early age but received no help until she forced her way out. In her memoir, she describes her gradual realization that most of what she’d been taught was terribly wrong and that the only way she could have a healthy and whole life and faith is to leave. The pathway out was a long one, and even after she left, Elizabeth continued to deal with the aftereffects of spending her whole life in what amounted to a cult. But she does find a way out and she does so without giving up on God. Instead, she finds a new path to a faith that provides hope instead of fear.
I’ve had some experience with quite conservative versions of Christianity but nothing like what Elizabeth Esther describes here. I could see echoes of things I was taught as a young adult, particularly around gender roles and modesty, but the difference is that I was never totally isolated, and I was encouraged from a young age to think for myself. Even so, I find myself struggling to shed the guilt-based version of Christianity that I was immersed in for a time. The full immersion that Elizabeth Esther experienced from birth makes her getting past it especially remarkable. She’s now one of several Christian women who have found a voice online, speaking out against abusive and otherwise troubling practices within the church. Her writing is engaging, and I enjoyed reading about her experiences. You can get a taste of her voice on her website.
It’s strange that I went from a book about the toxic aspects of strict Christian communities to a book about a church that requires a high level of commitment of all its members. This book tells the story of Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. I first became familiar with this church’s work when I was in college, and I attended a small group for a while with someone who was part of that church. Church of the Saviour is an unconventional ecumenical church founded in the 1940s with an emphasis on teaching and mission. This book, written in the 1960s, details its early history.
Instead of focusing on a church building and drawing in as many members as possible, Church of the Savior keeps its membership small, requiring intense levels of commitment from members who then create and run ministries that involve people from throughout the community. One such ministry is a coffee house; another is a retreat center. They help people find jobs and work with the mentally ill. When someone gets an idea of a thing God might be leading them to do, the community prays about it and looks for a way to make it happen.
As someone with a strong aversion to anything that smacks of legalism, I was initially put off by the pledge members are required to make, even though the practices in the pledge (reading the Bible, praying, attending worship, giving, serving on a mission) are good things for Christians to do. Making these things a requirement of membership rubs up against my impulse to welcome all as they are. But reading this while at a monastery helped me see it in a different light. The members of Church of the Saviour are, from what I could understand, the group that plans and makes decision and leads the work. Nonmembers can also participate as associates who might commit to a particular task. There are different ways to be part of the church; formal membership is just for the most committed. The monastery where I spent the weekend is the home of men who’ve made an intense commitment that is not for everyone. But those who don’t join the order may become fellows who commit to a modified version of the monastic rule that fits their situation. And the monastery welcomes all who wish to come to worship or go on retreat. That seems fair, and thinking of Church of the Saviour membership as being similar helped me get past my mental block.
This little book by a 17th-century French mystic offers brief and simple instruction in contemplative prayer, that is, prayer which is about being in God’s presence, rather than presenting requests to God. Guyon, both encouraging and stern, writes that God “desires to be more present to us than we desire to seek Him. He desires to give himself to us far more readily than we desire to receive Him. We only need to know how to seek God, and this is easier and more natural than breathing.”
In my experience, it’s easy to know what to do when it comes to prayer, but less easy to make it a habit. Guyon’s advice, which includes such suggestions as reading scripture slowly and resting in God’s love, dovetailed nicely with the retreat sessions we had.
The brother who led our retreat sessions gave us one of Mary Oliver’s poems (“The Blue Iris”) to read, and he noted that she had visited the community. I loved the image in the poem of prayer as patching words together to give thanks for mundane beauties and wanted more. The monastery library happened to have a copy of Thirst, written after the death of her partner, is filled with beautiful poems about the intersections of nature and faith and pain and life. My favorite poem in the collection, “Coming to God: First Days” ends with these lovely stanzas:
Lord, I would run to you, loving the miles for your sake,
I would climb the highest tree
to be that much closer
Lord, I will learn also to kneel down
into the world of the invisible,
the inscrutable and the everlasting.
Then I will move no more than the leaves of a tree
on a day of no wind,
bath in light,
like the wanderer who has come home at last
and kneels in place, done with all unnecessary things;
every motion; even words.
The themes of noticing and silence (and silence as an aid to noticing) were prominent all weekend.
The author of this book, an Episcopal priest and a millennial, doesn’t remember a world before the Internet, although he’s been around long enough to remember its earlier, slower days. In this book, he considers the mixed blessing that the Internet has become, how it allows us to communicate with people we’d never have known while distancing us from the people who live next door. A lot of what he says won’t seem that new to people who think a lot about online communication and presence, although I did find his insights about the importance of bodily presence and the link to the Incarnation of Christ to be interesting. The fact that Jesus lived in a body, not just in pixels, is important.
A few times, I thought he attributed problems to technology when they are really human problems that happened pre-Internet, just in a different way. (I was also a little aggravated by his decision to refer to online communications as the Tech throughout. It seemed like a silly affectation to me.) He has some good suggestions for giving yourself a tech sabbath and getting focused on seeking God’s presence. I might have appreciated this advice more had I not spent a weekend immersed in hearing similar suggestions from others. By the time I got to this book, it was just more of the same. But taking time to focus on God is a good practice for any Christian, and it doesn’t hurt to hear it from one more source.