Wednesday, September 10, 2014

130th Anniversary of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine Sermon The Most Rev. Fred J. Hiltz, Primate

In his book “Here I am: Reflections on the Ordained Life” Richard Giles writes “Ordained life is for those who are absolutely fascinated by God and absolutely and therefore tirelessly interested in people, knowing that this fragile and funny stuff called human nature is the raw material of God’s ceaseless re-creating.”

The same could be said of Religious Life.

Giles says those who are ordained are called to be artists of community. “We have”, he writes, “the supreme privilege of shaping with our hands, our prayers, our preaching and presiding communities of faith, caravans of pilgrims who will together discover and celebrate the love, healing and transformation of life in God’s grace.”

The same could be said of Religious Life.

Giles maintains that life in ordained ministry is “not for the faint hearted, the lazy, or those constantly given to checking their allowance for time off.”

The same could be said of Religious Life.

Today this Religious Community of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine (SSJD) celebrates the 130th anniversary of its founding in 1884 by Hannah Grier Coome, “She”, writes Stephen Reynolds, “was a godly woman whose life and work was characterized by holiness practical wisdom and a sense of humour that pierced high flying pretensions of unreasonable gloom.” Of her sisters she wrote, “A gravity of seriousness ought to mark your life and quietness of deportment but also true joy, peace and brightness and these shine forth on your countenance” and indeed it does to this day.

As the Sisters give thanks for the grace of God that has grown and sustained their community through numerous life professions; for the grace of God that has supported their life and witness through the companionship of their Alongsiders Associates and Oblates, bishops and parish clergy and many friends; for the grace of God by which they are being guided into a future not yet fully known; all the rest here present are giving thanks for the many ways in which this religious community has touched our lives personally and in some cases quite profoundly, and profoundly and graced our Church from one end of the country to the other.

When we’re too busy or too tired or too disillusioned to pray, the Sisters are gathering in their chapel praying the Daily Offices and lifting the life of the Church and the world heavenward. Even for them I suspect at times this round of daily offices is what Giles describes as “not so much a dance of exuberation as a steady plod of determination”.

By day and by night this community is given to this its first work – the work of prayer. Thank you dear Sisters, for holding us in this manner.

Every day the Sisters are meeting individuals in the spirit of companionship – listening to their joys and struggles in endeavouring to follow the way of Christ and offering out of their own experience, words of wisdom and encouragement. Thank you dear Sisters, for walking with us.

Every week the Sisters are receiving men and women in their Guesthouse – people longing for a time apart to rest awhile; to simply read and walk and pray and sleep. Thank you dear Sisters, for your welcome and your hospitality.

Year in and year out, indeed for 130 years the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine has offered a ministry of wholesome pastoral care for the sick, those in rehab from major surgery, and the elderly. They have maintained a posture of solidarity with the poor and the lonely, and with all who long for that justice that flows from the heart of God. Thank you dear Sisters, for all the compassion and courage exemplified in your ministries.

Indeed how blessed we are to be invited to join you as you mark this very special anniversary.

It is the day the whole Church remembers The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In that great volume, “For All the Saints” Stephen Reynolds shares the legend of her birth to Anne and Joachim. Quoting some ancient source he writes, “At the tender age of three she was presented to the Lord. The high priest placed her on the third step of the altar and the Lord put grace upon the child and she danced for joy and the whole house of Israel loved her” - a sign in time of the great truth that the whole Church loves her. Anglicans love her in accord with the counsel of the great Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsay, who said “Let us keep the language of the early Church. … Let Mary be honoured. Let her Son be worshipped and adored.”

Moving from legend to the Canon of Scripture itself, we first meet Mary through St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation, the gospel appointed for today.

Much has been offered through the centuries by way of commentary on this moment in Mary’s life. I am personally intrigued by how Marie Azarello, a Sister of the Community of Notre Dame in Montreal speaks of the moment. “In many analysis” she writes, “it is a moment of consent. She did consent but it is important to note that she freely gave her consent. Otherwise we see her only as a passive, docile, obedient woman rather than a strong and courageous woman, prepared to live with the Holy Spirit working in and through her life, one in whom the purposes of God are fulfilled not only for her own moment in time but indeed for all time”.

In the Gospel, this moment of Annunciation is followed quickly by The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. As they greet one another, one’s word becomes known in time as The Hail Mary and the other as The Magnificat.

Of Mary’s Song “it would be taken” writes Herbert O’Driscoll, “from her lips and be augmented into a mighty anthem echoing in basilica and cathedral. In the centuries long monastic round of daily offices it would be the song that welcomes the approach of evening, the center point around which a jewel called English Evensong would revolve. Yet it would also be a dark and terrible song of revolution quoted in societies moving through political turmoil, or continents seething with a desire for change”.

“Why this strange mingling of the personal and the political, the heart and the world? Did Mary know not with her mind, but at some level beyond her knowing, that the child she was carrying would speak not only to the human heart but to the disturbing of the world?” that his gospel – was not only about individual redemption and personal renewal, but about the renewal of society under the reign of God’s love, peace and justice for all.

Of The Song of Mary, Azarello writes, “To pray the Magnificat each day as a disciple of Jesus is to pray in union with Mary in joy, faith, and thanksgiving to God as the source of our being; it is ‘to sing of God’s everlasting love and mercy which extends from age to age and to proclaim Mary’s hope in the fulfilment of the divine promises in favour of the whole of humanity’…

To pray the Magnificat is an expression of our desire to be honest about the state of our world and shows our conviction that the kingdom of God that Jesus preached is not a vision for an end time but a vision that begins now, in this world…

To pray the Magnificat in union with Mary draws us deeper and deeper into the heart of our baptism.”
This is strong commentary and it is a challenge to live the gospel of which we sing.

It leaves me pondering to what extent The Song of Mary is truly my song; the song of my life and my work, the song of our Church and its life and work in many places.

And I wonder how this song might inspire and influence the shape of the ministries of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine for years to come?