Winter Retreat (Day 1)

Monastery of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist
Cambridge, Massachusetts

February 10, 2015

Travel. Arrival. Settling In.
Part One
Of Scholastica, Clement, John, and Genesis

Gracie the Dog and I set out this morning from Garden City NY just after 5:30 am. A blessedly uneventful drive through Connecticut brought us by 10 am or so into the cities of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. Just west of Boston, in Newton, snow was still falling as we passed through. The side streets of Cambridge and Somerville are jammed with snow, considerably narrowed. As one drives through to either side are huge irregular piles of snow, sometimes with a snatch of red or blue or green peeking out, sometimes with a side-view mirror protruding. They, of course, are all not mere snowbanks, but car and truck snowbanks. I suspect someone who knows well the shape of various makes and models might have fun guessing what’s underneath!

We stopped at Little Sisters of the Poor in Somerville to visit Mom. While there, I went with her to Eucharist in their quite lovely chapel on the second floor. We had good conversation and I promised a return visit this Friday. Off then to Arlington to visit my friends the amazing Bell family, and there to leave Gracie to visit these days her buddy Lily.

I was telling Brother Luke here after Eucharist this evening (yes, I have been to Eucharist twice today once in the Roman Catholic church and once in the Episcopalian – more on that later!), that the most onerous part of the journey was struggling through between huge snowbanks on partially cleared and narrow paths to move from the University parking garage to the Monastery. I made it, received a good welcome from Guestmaster Tom, unpacked and slept an hour before heading to the chapel for some prayer time and then the evening Eucharist.

I am in room 4. Each room is dedicated to a saint. Number four’s patron is Saint Clement. I take this as a beautiful reminder of the four years I spent in the (now no more) Saint John’s Seminary College across the Charles River in Brighton. The College was housed in Saint Clement’s Hall, a building composed of sections built, I believe, circa 1940 and 1956. Though only those few years separated their construction, one was definitely known as the ‘old building’ and the other as ‘the new.’ That structure for years now is owned and maintained by Boston College. Back in the time I lived and studied there many amazing people taught and learned there. In the time B.C. has had Saint Clement’s, there are still wonderful people there, some of whom I was privileged to come to know decades later when I worked for Boston College.

“. . . under the protection of Saint Clement . . .”

Perhaps this little retreat should all be under the protection of Saint Clement. I am told the name can refer to four or five different meritorious fellows throughout Christian history. I am going to take the name on the door of room 4 here on Memorial Drive, and on the building across in Brighton, both to refer to Pope Clement I who died as a martyr around 98 AD.

There is a letter from late first or early second century long attributed to Clement. It is addressed to the church at Corinth, after disunity had erupted among them, leading to several elders of the community being removed from office. In the midst of trouble all around, and is our day not certainly the same, Clement in chapter 20 speaks of the beauty and the order of creation as to be highly valued and as an example to humanity of the harmony that likewise could exist among us. This is what he wrote:

The heavens, revolving under His government, are subject to Him in peace. Day and night run the course appointed by Him, in no wise hindering each other. The sun and moon, with the companies of the stars, roll on in harmony according to His command, within their prescribed limits, and without any deviation. The fruitful earth, according to His will, brings forth food in abundance, at the proper seasons, for man and beast and all the living beings upon it, never hesitating, nor changing any of the ordinances which He has fixed. The unsearchable places of abysses, and the indescribable arrangements of the lower world, are restrained by the same laws. The vast unmeasurable sea, gathered together by His working into various basins, never passes beyond the bounds placed around it, but does as He has commanded. For He said, “Thus far shalt thou come, and thy waves shall be broken within thee.” The ocean, impassable to man, and the worlds beyond it, are regulated by the same enactments of the Lord. The seasons of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, peacefully give place to one another. The winds in their several quarters fulfill, at the proper time, their service without hindrance. The ever-flowing fountains, formed both for enjoyment and health, furnish without fail their breasts for the life of men. The very smallest of living beings meet together in peace and concord. All these the great Creator and Lord of all has appointed to exist in peace and harmony; while He does good to all, but most abundantly to us who have fled for refuge to His compassions through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be glory and majesty for ever and ever. Amen.

Words still beautiful and true and quite applicable the better part of twenty centuries later. These words ring out to me especially tonight because, at both Eucharists at which I was present the first reading was from the account in Genesis of the seven days of creation, to be precise the fifth and sixth days, including the creation of man and woman and their relationship to one another and to all other creatures gifted with ‘the breath of life.’

At Little Sisters of the Poor the priest-celebrant, whom I had not seen for twenty years or more methinks, noted today as the celebration of the sister of Saint Benedict, Scholastica. He told the story of her fervent prayer overcoming her brother’s reluctance to remain overnight at her convent and to continue the rich conversation they had been sharing. Benedict said he had to go. His sister prayed and such a storm erupted that he could not possibly leave the place. “You see,” Scholastica said (on what turned out to be one of the final nights of her earthly life, “what you would deny me, God has given me.” You go girl! Tell that wise man where to stay, and why!

It happens that I am staying this week at a Benedictine house. Their hospitality, as has been true at every Benedictine foundation I have ever visited, is exemplary. One does indeed feel as if they could not be kinder if you were indeed the Christ. And here is a place of valued respite, quiet (even silence) and peace.

Continue reading “Winter Retreat (Day 1)”

Slaves of Jesus Christ: Be Stretched

Hagia Sophia ; Empress Zoë mosaic : Christ Pan...
Hagia Sophia ; Empress Zoë mosaic : Christ Pantocrator; Istanbul, Turkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I was honored to be asked to preach yesterday at the ordination of Marie, Lauren, and Fred as deacons yesterday at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, New York.  Here follows my offering.  I will not provide the scriptural citations as they are quoted within the sermon. 


May the ministry of these three in Jesus’ name be long, happy, and graced!




Bishop Provenzano, deacons, priests, holy people of God:


I remember lying on the floor on the day I was ordained a deacon as the voices of the people gathered prayed.  I remember the strange feeling of lying face-down there, the sound of prayer above and surrounding.  I remember the old carpet on which we lay was dusty.  It had been swept in a vain attempt to clean it up by brooms made of great lengths of straw, some of which had come out of the brooms and remained on the carpet, and now they jabbed and stabbed us as we lay there in the middle of that community of prayer.  We were stretched out, one with the community and very much alone, apparently at rest but vigilant, every bone and muscle tensed as the prayer continued and the stubble from the brooms poked us.


The same ancient word of God to young Jeremiah that we have heard this morning was read that day as well.  To the prophet’s protestation that he was not ready to prophesy, the God of Israel responded, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you and shall speak whatever I command you.  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”


The same hope we prayed moments ago in Psalm 84 beat in our hearts that day too: “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose hearts are the highways to Zion, Who going through the barren valley find there a spring, and the early rains will clothe it with blessing.  They will go from strength to strength . . . .”


We took, as Lauren, Marie, and Fred do today, Saint Paul’s description of the ministry as our own: “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”


Like you this morning, we pledged anew that day, in a quite particular way, to follow Jesus the Christ.  Our hearts were filled with the desire to learn from him, and with him and through him and like him, to be within the community of disciples “as one who serves.”


With my fellow ordinands I lay on that dusty rug that morning with openness of heart and sincerity of mind.  We hardly knew it then, but we had no idea to whom we would be sent, what we would be commanded to say, and just what it was that we were being told we need not ever fear.  We did not know how barren some of the valleys we’d pass through would be; how long we would feel the wait for the blessing of God’s rain, nor how going from strength to strength would sometimes feel like the acrobat waiting for the next trapeze to appear after she’d let go of the last and hung in mid-air, foolishly faithful and faithfully foolish.  We hardly knew then how the temptation to proclaim ourselves rather than Christ Jesus would be real, because we knew more  – or so we thought – about ourselves than about him, and because our commitment to know him more deeply would wax and wane through the years.


We knew little then, really, about what it means to serve in the church or even what kind of servants the church would need.  And if I am entirely honest, I don’t know that much more today than I did then.  Like you, I got up off the floor and wiped myself off.  I took a first step, and life happened.  Ministry happened.  Service and preaching and sacraments and connecting to people on the streets happened.  Hour followed hour.  Day followed day, and year followed year.  Joy came, and so did tragedy.  Clarity came, and so did profound confusion.  Sin came and forgiveness followed.  Hunger came and Eucharist nourished.  The world turned and the church changed.  The proclamation of the Word went on, and amazingly, that Word has had something to say to every place, to every person, to every parish and ministry, to every situation, to every Sunday everywhere since then.  And it still does.


That Word has been living and active all along simply and marvelously because the One who spoke it remains living and active.  God spoke the day my class was ordained.  God speaks today.  We believed, as I know you do, that we meant everything we said that day, that our words were true.  But that mattered infinitely less than the fact that what God spoke that day, and this, and what God will speak tomorrow is true.  True and transformative and saving.


The beautiful prayers of this liturgy, in the words of the Bishop and in your responding affirmations, offer you the church’s guidance in the ministry of deacon which you take up today.  “A special ministry of servanthood,” with service especially to “the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.”  For them and for us all you make the love of Christ known.  You make certain that the church remains attentive to the needs of the world.  You as deacons, in the words of the second century martyr, Justin, whom the church recalls today, bring the body and blood of Christ ‘to those who are unable to be present at the Eucharist.’  You remind the church, constantly in your very being, that the church’s vocation is to be servant in the name of Christ.  Servant to every need known and every pain shared.


As vans belonging to one communication company constantly remind us along our streets and, it seems, at every stop light: “This is huge.”  This is tremendous.  This is a tender, personal, demanding, sustaining, communal, huge calling: to be ‘a slave for Jesus’s sake.’  Neither you nor I nor anyone could do it at all unless we belong entirely and lean daily on the One who is first among us as One who serves.  But belonging there and leaning there, you will do it every day for the rest of your lives.


There is a wonderful moment early in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead.  Three generations of preachers, each named John Ames, are gathered in one place – at the grave of the senior Ames, somewhere in Kansas.  The older man’s son and grandson have sought out that resting place.  They found it in an unkempt and lonely place.  They set about cleaning up the grave of their loved one and the whole graveyard.  As they finish the work, the middle generation Reverend Ames closes his eyes in prayer.  His 12-year old son with him there, his own calling and ordination still in the future, finds his father’s prayer much too long.  He opens his eyes, and we read this:


At first I thought I saw the sun setting in the east; I knew where the east was, because the sun was just over the horizon when we got there that morning.  Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the son was going down.  Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them.  It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them.  I wanted my father to see it, but I knew I’d have to startle him out of his prayer, and I wanted to do it the best way, so I took his hand and kissed it.  And then I said, “Look at the moon.”  And he did.  We just stood there until the sun was down and the moon was up.  They seemed to float on the horizon for a long time, I suppose because they were both so bright you couldn’t get a clear look at them.  And that grave, and my father and I, were exactly between them, which seemed amazing to me at the time, since I hadn’t given much thought to the nature of the horizon.


My father said, “I would never have thought this place could be beautiful.  I’m glad to know that.”


This calling of yours will stretch you, not only today on a cathedral floor, but it will stretch you in every way all your days, asking you to reveal more of what you can be, and to allow grace to unwrap its unexpected gifts in you for the sake of the others.  Jesus, who lay stretched in a manger and later on a cross in generous love, who gave everything for you, will not ask you for less than everything.


This can be frightening.  Although we are told to never fear, I know it has been frightening to me.


But my friends, know that we stand together exactly where the three generations of the Ames family stood that evening.  We stand as custodians of the past, of what has been handed on to us.  We stand on the foundation of the past. We tend its monument and honor it.  We stand in the present, in prayer and focused on what surrounds us, with our attention fixed on the future.  But most importantly, we stand together, and though day end and night come, we are never in darkness.  We are always together, and together in the marvelous eternal living light that is the face and the voice and the gentle hand of the God who bids you today and tomorrow and the day after, to serve.


John P. McGinty


June 1, 2013








Maundy Thursday: Finding Jesus

Thursday evening of Holy Week: Holy Thursday. Maundy Thursday. The moment when the liturgy recalls the mandatum of Jesus in the fourth Gospel. To paraphrase, “Do you know what I have done? I who am master and Lord have watched your feet. I have given you an example. As I have done, so you must do for each other.”

Do we know what he has done?

Perhaps partially, if at all. He has served, yes. But in doing so in this particular way, at this particular moment on the way to his death, he has revealed the very heart of God as a a heart of service. He has introduced God as One who wills to bend down before the other, to hold, to embrace, to wash and dry, to do whatever is needed. Whatever is needed for the sake of love.

This evening I went to pray at an evening Eucharist nearby. The homilist directed our attention to feet. Oft overlooked (no pun intended) they tell the story of who we are, of where we’ve been, and (in the path of the steps behind us) they tell what is important to us, what counts for us, where we have had the energy and the will to go. The two priests of the parish came into the assembly, got down on the floor, and washed the feet of all who came forward, of almost all who were there. Gently. In silence. With respect for the story told by the feet of each sojourner who stepped forward.

I love this night, with a special love. I always have, as long as I remember. This evening I recall Holy Thursday at dear Sacred Heart Parish in Lynn. I believe the night I picture in my mind now was either in 2003 or ’04. Two winters before, a frigid killing winter, we found Tommy. He was living in a car up the street. He was wrapped in blankets. He was cold, very cold. He wasn’t eating right. He didn’t have the medication he needed. He didn’t have the daily reminders of the love we all need. He was often drunk. He had a heart of gold.

Over the year and a half we had known him at Sacred Heart, Tommy came and went. He sometimes helped out at the Food Pantry on Thursdays. He would offer to do odd jobs. Sometimes he was sober for weeks at a time and stood taller and walked stronger and told stories about his childhood and growing up, and about his dad the fire chief. Other times he was very low, dragging himself to the door; hungry but not knowing it; lonely, but it couldn’t be admitted. The hole was too deep and dark.

But this one year I thought: Tommy should be asked if he will be one of those having their feet washed at the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. We were asking twelve. I thought, ‘Tommy should be one of those twelve.’ I was thinking: ‘he’s become part of this community. He’s not perfect, Sometimes he’s radically imperfect. But hell, he’s only showing out loud what is true of every one of us here. Including the priests.’ So I asked. And he said yes.

Holy Thursday evening came. And so did Tommy. I wasn’t sure he would show up. It depended on a bunch of factors coming together just right. And they did. I think the English word for such a moment is: God. We came to the point in the liturgy for the washing of feet. Tommy moved up with the others and sat down. He took his shoes off, the best ones he could find. As I was privileged to do with the others, I poured warm water over his feet into a basin. I wiped them dry. I kissed them. I looked into his eyes. He was smiling. He was smiling like nothing had ever gone wrong for a single moment his whole life long. I think there’s a word in English, and every other language, for moments like that. I think you know what that word is.

In the 13th chapter of the Gospel according to John, it is Jesus who washed his disciples’ feet. Peter first protests, and then insists. The others, it seems, went along. Judas was there among them. Jesus washed his feet as well. With a special knowledge, but still with the very same love.

I was thinking on that evening ten years ago, and ever since, and again tonight: when you today as priest kneel down in front of men and women and do what Jesus did; when you hold their feet gently, when you look into their eyes, you are the disciple. That night, when I looked up into Tommy’s eyes as I dried his feet? I was looking at Christ. I was looking into the eyes of Jesus. Jesus struggling. Jesus suffering. Jesus trying. Jesus loving.

Saint Augustine, the amazing North African bishop long ago said it this way:

“If you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to what the apostle Paul says to the faithful: ‘You are Christ’s own body, his members’; thus, it is your own mystery which is
placed on the Lord’s table. It is your own mystery that you receive. At communion, the priest says: ‘The body of Christ,’ and you reply ‘Amen.’ When you say ‘Amen,’ you are saying yes to what you are.”

It was true before he said it and it is still true. But he said it so beautifully.

So did Saint John Chrysostom, who warned us sternly to care for Christ first on the streets, in the squares, lying in the gutters, and then after inside the church building. Chrysostom preached: “The temple of our afflicted neighbor’s body is more holy than the altar of stone on which you celebrate the holy sacrifice. You are able to contemplate this altar everywhere, in the street and in the open squares.”

During the distribution of the Eucharist tonight, as each one affirmed that here was present the Body of Christ and the Bread of Heaven, we sang the hymn Where Charity and Love Prevail. The tune was different than the one I learned as a boy at Saint John’s Parish by the water in Swampscott, on the north shore of Boston. But the lyrics remain the same. And the things that remain the same are rock-solid, damn-that’s- good-count-on-this foundational.

Remember the last couple of verses?

“Let us recall that in our midst dwells God’s begotten Son; As members of his body joined, we are in Christ made one.
No race or creed can love exclude, if honored be God’s name; Our family embraces all whose Father is the same.”

That is saving truth, given us to live. This night and every night. There are feet to be washed on any given evening. And Jesus to be found.

Tommy, thank you, on this Thursday evening when you are alive to me again. And rest in peace, dear brother.