The Monks of Harvard Square
6:00 A.M.--While most of Harvard and Cambridge is still asleep, and the kitchens at the nearby Charles Hotel warm up for breakfast, the 18 black-robed monks of the Society of St. John the Evangelist rise, leaving their austere cells to meet in the Gothic chapel. As the morning light streams through stained-glass windows, they begin the day just as monks have for centuries, reciting matins, the traditional morning prayers written by St. Benedict.
9:00 A.M.--After a silent breakfast, the monks gather for rounds in the offices downstairs, when they go over the schedule of the day. By now, some of them are dressed in everyday clothes. They check the daily business, delegating cars to those who work beyond the abbey's walls.
Two questions probably occur to you at this point.
First: "What, a monastery? In Harvard Square?" you might say. "People just don't expect a monastery to be in a place like this," said Father James Madden, who has been a member of the community for the past 14 years.
And second: "Do they really drive cars and dress like real people?"
Yes, the Society of St. John the Evangelist is a genuine monastery, and it has been in its location at 950 Memorial Drive, behind the Charles Hotel, for 50 years. The full-fledged community of Episcopal monks wears black cassocks and observes silence at meals, but that's about as far as the monkish stereotype goes.
The Society is a truly modern religious community, combining medieval features like daily offices with modern ideas like outside charity work. All of the monks are required to do local charity work--such as helping out at shelters for the homeless--at least once every three weeks.
Explaining the community's approach to monastic life in the 1980s, Father Martin Smith, acting Father Superior, says, "We need to be honest about the patterns of twentieth century day as opposed to ninth century traditions, to be much more comfortable wearing everyday clothes [outside the monastery] while wearing a habit while we're in community, not using the symbol, as it rings false."
In order to have time to do outside work, the monks only keep four of the eight daily offices prescribed in the Rule of St. Benedict, the definitive ninth-century handbook for spiritual reflection. After rounds, they meet for a midday service of psalms and prayers at 12:30 p.m., followed by a lunch of soup, salad, and bread. At 5:40 p.m., they have choir practice, with evensong at 6:00. After that, the community has supper, and then, on talking days, they have recreation at 7:00 p.m. "We all go up to the top common room, chatter for half an hour, and make cocoa. If somebody has received a distinction or is departing, then we have drinks," says Father Francis B. Dalby. The day ends two hours later with a short compline prayer service.
The community has talking days every Sunday and major saints' feast days. On those days, the monks talk at one meal and have a reader at the other, while on Sundays, they converse during both lunch and dinner. In another blow to the monastic stereotype, readings aren't quite what you'd expect. "We read the autobiography of Anna Russell the other week. Very racy," says Father Dalby, who at age 86 is one of the senior members of the community. "Sometimes we have a more spiritual book, like some of the writings of Thomas Merton," he adds.
In addition to doing outside ministry, one of the Society's principal functions is planning retreats, both for groups and individuals. "It has been the stuff of community's ministry for 100 years," says Father Smith. Members of the community often go out to parishes or schools to run their retreats, and groups and individuals both come and stay in the guesthouse to experience the religious life. Guests come to the Society from a variety of backgrounds and places (some have come from as far as Texas to stay with the monks) and for a number of reasons. While most spend about three days at the house, guests on occasion stay as long as a week or even a month. On any given weekday, the 10-12 outside people there may range from Episcopal clergy who need a little time away from parish duties to students who need a little time away from school, especially during exams. "This is something we've always done," says Fr. Smith. "This is what I did as an undergraduate at Oxford."
Some Harvard students enjoy visiting and even staying at the monastery. Anne Hallward '88, an Eliot House resident, says she attends services at the monastery because it is a smaller, more intimate service. "The common stereotype is that monks are withdrawn and uninvolved with the world whereas they are freed from other things and have time to really be involved in what is going on." Hallward says that the first time she attended a service at the monastery, she ended up sitting at the head table at the dinner following the service, and, to her surprise, found that the superior had "an incredible sense of humor."
Almost since its inception, the Society has done overseas mission work. "We are encouraged to go out and experience the church in a different way," says Father Madden, who is preparing to go to Haiti this fall. Father Dalby, who joined the order in 1940, spent six years in South Africa in the 1960s helping to establish the Anglican Church there. "Our primary purpose was to keep the thing going," he says, adding that once the Episcopal Church was firmly established, the order left. The Society also had a branch in Japan, which Father David E. Allen worked in from 1962-1975. Japanese monks came to America in 1925 to join the order, and they returned to Japan with American brothers to found their own monastic community in the 1930s. When Father Allen returned in 1975 after the order closed its Japanese branch, he realized the "great need for Chinese ministry in Boston." He then organized a mission with a Chinese priest, with the first Chinese service in 1981. He himself studied Cantonese when that priest left, and in six months, was able to say Mass.
The Society is currently experiencing a boom--the monastery is absolutely full, and there's a waiting list for prospective postulants. Even if one is accepted as a postulant, the community has a long trial period--men who want to join must spend three months as a postulant, then five years as a novice before taking final vows.
The monastery is equally popular with people from the outside. The guesthouse is usually full, and groups wanting to have weekend retreats there must make reservations months in advance.
What is the reason behind this popularity? Why do so many people want to come to a monastery in an age of health clubs and space shuttles?
"It is a powerful symbol of the sacred at the heart of the bustling city," says Father Smith.
"We're putting on things that are worth coming to," Father Smith jokes. "The task of finding authentic religious worship is a hard one. People need help. We provide a quality or worship missing at parishes."
"Monastics serve as a powerful symbol...of single-minded consistency in a life where fidelity and consistency are very hard to find," he adds. "People who make a consistent life choice to orientate their lives around the search for God often have a magnetic effect on people which helps them make their choices and take the risks of consistency. We will be together through thick or thin and we'll still be here 10 years from now. People will always say to us `you're always there.'''
In keeping with the community's role in providing a spiritual haven from an increasingly complex and harried modern life, it seems like a world away inside the monastery despite its proximity to Harvard Square. The monastery is a quiet, peaceful place with no pretention. The atmosphere is solemn but humble, and the only ornamentation is in the stained-glass windows of the chapel. In short, the monastery is about as different from the Square and the University as possible--which may be the key to its popularity.
"You really are getting away [from Harvard]," sophomore Hallward says. "It's not a holier-than-thou type of place. These people are very human."
The "modern" bent of the Society comes from the philosophy of its founder, Father Richard M. Benson, who began the society in Oxford in 1863. "There was a clear understanding in the beginning that part of our role would be ministering to the ministers," says Father Smith. The order set up shop in an unpretentious building ministering to the lower classes of Oxford, doing active works of evangelizing, teaching and preaching. Eschewing the traditional monastic habit, they adopted the simple black cassock of the Anglican clergy, but kept to the monastic regime and took the traditional monastic vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. "We were just something new," says Father James Madden, explaining the appeal of the new order. The order came to Boston in the 1870s, and moved to Cambridge in the 1930s from downtown.
Being progressive is built into the Society. In addition to sabbaticals, the monks also have Community Development Days nine times each year when an outside expert spends the day there speaking and leading discussions about such diverse subjects as liberation theology and developmental psychology. These days help the monks "to stretch ourselves in a relevant way in relating to the community and the world. [The monks] count on their new people to bring in new ideas. Part of our rule says that we have to keep in touch with the changing world," says Brother Scott W. Curtis, who is currently a novice in the community. Curtis, who is currently the cellarer--food buyer--for the community, has brought in theories of psychology such as conflict management to help the monks in working as spiritual counselors. "I'm surprised at how open they've been," he says.