Corpus Christi 2024

May I speak to you in the power of the living God: Source of all being, Eternal Word, and Holy Spirit.

Before I get underway, … wow … I am so incredibly grateful for your presences here that if I weren’t somewhat stunned into incomprehension, I’d probably be crying too hard right now to speak. I’d like to thank Bishop Jeff in particular for ceding his prerogative to preach tonight.

Partially by reason of this gratitude, I wanted to write, of course I did, some magical words tonight. Words that would answer your questions, allay your anxieties, inspire your imaginations, and let you see all the possibilities that I see. So, as you can see, I put no pressure on myself over this.

So, instead of the impossible, I’m going to give a bit of a meditation on the vows that we are not making tonight. The vows that we have just publicly announced our intention to take. As one of my mentors here tonight is wont to say: I’m going to give you an interpretation of our vows. It’s not the interpretation.

Poverty, celibacy, obedience. Each of these, we interpret as fundamentally about non-attachment and interdependence. And more importantly than that, we are going to fail, spectacularly, at each one.

Poverty: Poverty is, for us, about non-attachment to things. It is about valuing human connection, connection with God, and relationality over things. It does mean we strive to live simply[GS1] . As and when we move into life vows, we will renounce individual ownership of things entirely to hold all things in common. As we move through this period of testing, we will be pooling more and more of our resources towards that goal. Intentionally sharing our material resources in that way both hearkens back to the early church structures, to later monastic practice, and most importantly for us it. This emphasizes that nothing, that is no-thing, properly belongs to us. In the words of the Indigo Girls:

we own nothing, nothing is ours
Not even love so fierce it burns like baby stars
But this poverty is our greatest gift
The weightlessness of us as things around begin to shift

Non-attachment to things and a recognition of our interdependence is freeing.

Poverty also means that we strive to use our resources ethically, using our resources in ways that harm as few people as possible. As we live in the world, we know that consumer choices are not neutral, and that self-sufficiency is a myth. The most self-sufficient community requires inputs and outputs, and poverty is the lens through which we make those decisions. Poverty should call us deeper into relationality. Our economic lives are so transactional, and the cultural pressures of the day encourage that more and more of our lives be governed by transactions, whether they are monetary or “likes and follows.” When we prioritize relationality, we prioritize local businesses, small businesses, and local farms in our transactions. For example, we bought our vacuum cleaner from a guy in West Hartford who inherited the business from his father and loves fixing vacuum cleaners. So, he gave us a discount because we traded in our broken one, which he will refurbish and resell. And we know the farmers who grow the vegetables we eat in season, and have been with them through drought and flood (in just two years!). Some ancient rules called for all those in vows of poverty to purchase always and exclusively the least expensive product—those counsels were written long before we humans invented “planned obsolescence.” When we think relationally, we see the product that costs the least dollars is not always the least expensive. Failure? And we still shop for many things “on Amazon.” And we’re still going to fall for the myths of ownership and control, for a pretty bauble, a new convenience, a superfluous stop at Dunkies[GS2] —every time failing to realize that all we have belongs to God.

And then there’s Celibacy: This is the one that trips people up the most. We believe (and pardon me for this one—they sent me to way too much school) that celibacy is fundamentally about the orientation of our affective relationships. It’s about where and in whom we choose to invest our emotional energy. When Jesus tells us in Luke that “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple,” this does NOT mean that at this point in the evening, I throw my mom out of the church to be a better Christian. (Hi mom) Instead, my work is not to value my mom’s worth over the worth of every single one of the rest of you. Over every single one of the rest of … everyone! And—importantly—not because Jesus is telling me to love my mom less. The counsel is to love everyone more.

What celibacy further recognizes is that sex can introduce ties—including the ties of children—between people which tend to cause people to value those connections over others. Traditionally, the choice to value in that way has also been a path of Christian vocation, and we call it marriage. It’s for this reason we’ve chosen to use the word “celibacy” which is the state of being unmarried, rather than “chastity” which is the state of being sexually pure. We feel that Christianity has done quite enough work in the arena of sexual purity, and much of that work has cause people to regard sex as an off-limits topic in church. We firmly believe that in order to live into a vocation of celibacy, we must be able to talk about sex, and about the challenges of not engaging in those kinds of connections. Dedication to this life means trying to take all that love that we might be pouring into one—or more—other persons and to show that instead to everyone we meet. Did I mention we expect to fail? Of course, we will fail! We will develop intense emotional connections that interfere with our common life. We may develop intense emotional antipathies too, which interfere with our common life. Celibacy, too, is about relationality, about striving to use our emotional and affective resources ethically.

Obedience: obedience is about non-attachment to our own wills. This is the trickiest one, I’m not going to lie! Especially at this time. We work to let God work through us. But this introduces such a tension between humility and something like certainty. If I feel called, strongly called, to do something, like, for just a random example, to found a religious community, how, how can I ever really know that it is not a temple to my own ego? (Spoiler alert, the answer is prayer. It’s always prayer.) I think and worry a lot about this community, about its founding, about its direction. But as the founder—the Victorian name for my position was “Mother Foundress,” so there we are on naming!—the biggest spiritual threat, probably of my life, is to build this as a temple to my own ego. The Elon Musk of religious life. Continual grounding in prayer and meditation, obedience, to our Rule of Life—The Rule of St. Albert—obedience to the collective will of the community—obedience to Jesus’ teaching and ministry—even when it goes against what society thinks is right, even what the church thinks is right… these practices of non-attachment to my own will are my hope in retaining the kind of humility that Jesus calls us to while also trying to be a bold witness in the world for conversion of life. The life of community too, and the deep listening we practice to each other’s needs and experiences helps keep us grounded and out of our ego-spaces. The ways we try to communicate so that everyone feels that we are building together something that is working to address the needs of the world as we perceive them—that helps us know that we are not working for ego’s sake. Except, we’re definitely going to fail there too. We’re going to be overproud of something we’ve built. Or overdespairing about some part that failed. Flip sides of the same ego-driven coin. It’s going to happen; it’s probably happened 8 times today as we prepared for this event. Each time we will breathe deeply, and try to reorient ourselves to say and mean: your will be done on earth as in heaven.

So, yup, we are aiming for radical non-attachment and relationality and, we will fail. And we will keep in mind the words one of my favorite Samuel Beckett sayings, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Of course, we will fail, we will fail every day. The scope of what we are attempting here is vast—to be a group of Jesus followers of the 21st century, attempting to jump into a tradition that stretches back to the previous millennium. And to enter into the stream of that particular beast that is Anglican religious life, which had also stretched back to the last millennium, but which then slept reasonably quietly from the dissolution of the English monasteries by Henry VIII around 1530 until 1841 when Marian Rebecca Hughes took vows as the first Anglican religious in over 300 years. We are both thinking in terms of a hundred-year plan, and we are also thinking about how to pay the electric bill. And we’re going to spend money unwisely; and we’re going to spend our emotional resources unwisely; and we’re going to put our own wills first unwisely. But God’s Grace is wider still than Samuel Beckett’s: ever tried, ever failed, ever caught and cradled by God and community, and held in care and love until it’s time to try again.

May it be so.