You awake into an environment that is, at first, strange and disturbing. At 6:35 Brother James Madden strides heavily through the dimly lit corridor, banging on the door of each cell, intoning, "Let us bless the Lord." Having thus been rescued from a host of bad dreams, you arise and in complete silence take your place in the chapel, prepared at the stroke of 7 to begin celebrating the mass. It will be an awe-inspiring performance.
The mass, especially in the ancient form practised by the monks at the Cowley monastery at 980 Memorial Drive, is one of the fundamental esthetic experiences of the western world. Major elements of the liturgy have been performed with little change in churches since New Testament times. The monks are professional worshippers and they perform their ancient roles with grace and impeccable timing. The priest at the altar, the candles, the incense, the mysticism, and the compelling solemnity--or their equivalents--are found in the rites of almost all religions, even the most primitive. They strike a chord deep within us, and refuse to leave us unmoved.
The setting for the services is strikingly beautiful and fitting. Built by Ralph Adams Cram in the mid 1930s, the chapel is one of his simplest and most moving. Its load-bearing arches recall the earliest Christian basilicas. The polished marble of the High Altar is set off from walls of rough-hewn granite, by vague natural light from two Connick studio stained glass windows above.
The monks convene in the chapel to worship seven times each day. In the rhythm of their prayer they formally dedicate each part of their day to God. They pray at 6 a.m. after they rise; they pray before eating, working and sleeping. To discuss the choreography of the Eucharist and the Office is to risk missing the point. However, the absorption of the actors in a transcendental purpose, and the unself conscious tone of the whole performance, only increase its artistic value.
The monastery is run by the American congregation of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE), founded in 1865 in England by Richard Benson. This monastic order grew directly out of the Oxford movement, which wrested the control of the Anglican Church from the hands of the English State. Theologically, the movement sought to restore the practices of the church to their original condition, as they were long before the Reformation. In the jargon of the church, the monks are high church anglo-Catholics. That is, they use an elaborate ritual and they agree with the Roman Catholic Church on most important theological points. However, they consider themselves to be completely independent of the Pope. For example, unlike the Catholic Church, women may become high church Anglican priests, and priests may marry.
Although the SSJE is comparatively young, it is related to an ancient monastic tradition. Like Benedictine monks of a thousand years ago, members of the Community live in poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Cambridge monastery operates with the proceeds of a large endowment; its style of life is not uncomfortable. The vow of poverty is now interpreted to mean that community members possess no personal goods, except camera equipment.
Although Benedictine monks were celibate, they took no vow of chastity. Rather, the remoteness of the typical monastery, and the vow the monks took never to leave it, settled the issue. However the monastery in Cambridge is surrounded by a sea of women, some of whom visit the monastery frequently for services and other religious purposes. The permanent vow of chastity that SSJE members take is thus their most serious commitment to their faith and their fellows.
The monks usually say their celibacy strengthens their capacity to love the other members of the community. The kindly Father Superior, Paul Wessinger '36, explains "the vow of celibacy is a sign that shows there can be real human fulfillment and genuine relationships of love and friendship in which there isn't a genital relationship." He continues, "You know, there is so much misuse of sex--so often two people manipulate each other for their common gratification, that there is a need for a community such as ours which is a witness to a healthy manifestation of sexuality, but in a different context."
"The monastic life is a call from God to live one's Christian life in a particular way," he adds. "It is an offering of the whole of one's humanity to Christ, which includes one's sexuality."
Regular visitors to the monastery usually stress the spiritual nourishment they receive from the rhythm of the monastery and its monks. Kimberly Patton '80, began attending services at the monastery last spring. For her, daily visits provide a framework to a life that once seemed fragmented. According to her, "the orderedness of their life is very different from the way students live their lives. To go to a place with a set schedule revolving around worship of God is a powerful experience. I was particularly attracted to the Eucharist and the chanting and singing. The forms are very beautiful and fitting. It seems to be the way that we should worship--with reverence and appreciation for the esthetic."
Betsy Inskeep '75, a Divinity School student, was one of the first women to stay in the guest house when it was opened to women a year ago. She found the community's orientation around the Eucharist to be particularly significant. "When I first started going to the monastery two summers ago, I liked the quietness of the place. It was important to go there and start the day peacefully. That summer and last year were some very hard times for me. When my life became most intense it was really important for me to center all that in God. I met him each day in the bread and wine in a very tangible way."