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Homily for the Sisters of St. Anne 5-30-18

The Restoration of the Religious Life in the Anglican Communion

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Colossians 3:12-17; Ps. 63:1-8; Matthew 16:24-27

How very ironic that you would have someone who is not vowed to the religious life preach to you who ARE so vowed, on the occasion of the Restoration of the Religious Life in the Anglican Communion! It seems strongly to me as if the tide of communication should be flowing in the opposite direction! Perhaps we should be reading these potent readings together and then sitting down together so YOU can tell ME what they say to you of the religious life to which you have long been pledged and in the discipline of which you have long been formed!?

Not to say I haven’t been drawn to the religious life, because I always have, almost as long as I can remember knowing anything about it. Even as a girl growing up in an unchurched family, where the name of God was almost never mentioned, I gravitated toward expressions of the religious life. In particular, I fell plumb in love with the Benedictine life as portrayed by British novelist Rumer Godden in her novel In this House of Brede, in which the rhythms of daily worship and the changes of liturgical season - as well as the changes of nature’s seasons - set the framework within which all the human life takes place, and within which the struggle to create and sustain community is formed and reformed. In fact, although the sisters in that novel are vowed to strict enclosure away from the rest of the world’s hustle and bustle whereas you are not, there is much about their rhythm of life amidst a garden that parallels your own amidst your own garden! As Marion Hatchett so tellingly titled his introduction to liturgical study, “sanctifying life, time & space” as you do in the religious life made sense to me before I knew anything at all of church or even of Jesus or of the Holy Trinity One God.

The life of prayer – prayer both individual and liturgical – was more of a mystery to me in those unchurched days than now, but like the redolence of incense in a room the censor has long left, I picked up the resonance of prayer from Rumer Godden’s novel and it drew me. It wasn’t until I joined my new husband’s Episcopal church choir in the 1970’s and had a full-immersion baptism into Anglican music that I finally found a core of faith on which to hang a practice of daily prayer. And even then, it wasn’t until I gave birth to my first daughter and felt profoundly ill-equipped to mother her that my prayer became heartfelt, un-constructed and urgent, a matter of necessity to establish relationship with the Holy Spirit, and my sighs finally became too deep for words. And it was years later – 8 years of part-time seminary while raising two infants later – that I finally made a one-night retreat at a monastery – the Society of St. John Evangelist – and Brother Carl Winter counseled me on the eve of my ordination to the priesthood. THAT was a revelation indeed, steeping myself in the prayer of that community even just for 24 hours, and finding I loved it so deeply that I came back every year after that for a week’s silent retreat, letting my own prayer be swept up into the mighty stream of prayer the brothers sustain day in and day out on Memorial Drive.

Still, a week’s retreat every year hardly prepares me to speak in depth about the religious life – YOUR religious life! What it does do – my retreat practice springing as it does from a long affinity for your commitment to the rhythm of daily prayer and the deep cultivation of community in Christ, an affinity that began long before it was anything but gut instinct – makes sense for me of the need, after the paroxysm of the Reformation’s reaction to anything perceived to be “Romish” or “Popish,” to restore this way of devoting oneself to Christ to our array of practices available to those following the Way of Jesus. Of COURSE some of us would be so deeply drawn to Christ, and so deeply invested in a life of prayer undistracted by all the other vicissitudes of human endeavor that we would gather to support each other to make and sustain such a commitment. So the “restoration” part of this honoring seems to me inevitable: this kind of “sanctifying of life, time and space” would find its expression again, sooner or later, irresistibly.

Interesting that what little I could find with reference to today’s honoring of the Restoration of Religious Life was simply the Wikipedia entry on Anglican Religious Orders. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglican_religious_order] It said little about prayer or “ora et labora,” or the liturgical aspects of religious community life. Rather, it focused on “compassion for the needs of the destitute in great cities, and the impulse of a strong Church revival.”

The focus of this little Wikipedia quote reminded me that a daily rhythm of prayer and liturgy, not to mention a cultivation of community life, are not the only, maybe not even the most important facets of “the religious life” which we restored as a vocational possibility in the 19th century. There is a broader call to service of the well-being of the wider “whole,” the whole of God’s Creation and the whole of the human family, not just those in the community. This seems paramount – “for God so loved the world” – even for contemplative orders: all that prayer is for a purpose besides adoration of God’s own Self – the purpose of healing and restoring relationship in the entire broken and alienated world.

And the means for that seems underscored by the fact that the opening Colossians passage is one we use for the blessing of marriages – marriage, which we now freshly construe as a “renewal of our baptismal covenant,” covenanting ourselves anew to live by the “rule of life” provided in the baptismal vows, in relation to another human being. If marriage is indeed, as our resources for the new marriage liturgy “I Will Bless You & You Will Be A Blessing” say, a covenant to fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God,” does that not also describe the covenant YOU make as “religious,” to each other within the community, and to the whole human and natural world beyond? [https://extranet.generalconvention.org/staff/files/download/15668 ]

Like a marriage between two people, the religious life is a covenant made with a community of people and directly with Jesus himself: a covenant intended to “signify the union between Christ and his Church,” as the Book of Common Prayer’s exhortation at the opening of the marriage rite says. And any covenant among human beings will be fraught with the same liabilities of sin and offer the same gifts of grace! It’s just that in a community of sisters, you’re married to a WHOLE COMMUNITY of people, maintaining “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” and forgiving each other and being thankful and grateful, as Colossians abjures, when it’s complicated enough – speaking from my own experience – to be married to just one. And you are more explicitly vowed also to contribute to the healing and well-being of the whole world, than those vowing marriage to each other have traditionally been.

In your experience – as in mine, not in the religious life per se but in the “union of holy matrimony” – is this not a matter, as Matthew’s Jesus says in our Gospel for today, of “denying ourselves and taking up our cross and following Jesus?” Or, as he says in the “new commandment” in John’s Gospel, “Laying down one’s life for one’s friends?” [John 15:13] Is this “denying oneself” not a fundamental part of covenanting to inhabit and cultivate respectful, mutual relationship, as long as it is enacted by all parties, whether in marriage or in the religious life? “For,” as Jesus goes on, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

As austere as that sounds, my experience in marriage has been that such a covenant, enacted mutually, is not somber but joyous – a joyous realization of greater good, my own included! And a joyous encounter with the mighty, ever-generous, ever-surprising and imaginative GRACE OF GOD poured out in blessing upon all involved! I hope and pray that such as at least from time to time also been YOUR experience in the religious life!

Let us indeed pray for such full “restoration” to the covenanted baptismal life, whether within a community of prayer such as yours, or within our marriages, or outside of marriage altogether, in our relationship with the whole human and natural community. AMEN.