I am not ashamed of the Gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith…for in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith. (Rom 1:16-17)
Last weekend, I traveled with a group of twenty-four parishioners to Holy Cross Monastery, where we were going to make a Lenten retreat. The monastery, perched high on a bank of the Hudson River, houses a community of fourteen monks, Episcopalians following the Rule of St. Benedict. From the warm welcome the Porter gave us, leading the members of each carpool on a tour of the monastery, to the worship and the guidance of Prior Scott, the monks embraced us with warm hospitality. Surrounded by their prayers and welcome, we prayed; we rested; we learned.
We learned some things we did not expect. The community follows the Rule of St. Benedict, but we learned that there is a difference between following a monastic Rule and obeying it. Following it means acknowledging that a Rule written in the sixth century is likely to require some adaptation to work well for a community living today. It requires the monk or nun to read seriously but also creatively, asking what it means to adapt regulations about food or sleep or work or discipline today.
I think that Prior Scott’s distinction is also a healthy way to think about following the teaching of Christ in a non-monastic life. It requires us to think of Jesus, not as an historical figure trapped in the past. but as a living God who acts in our time as well to carry on God’s work of love, justice, reconciliation, and healing in ways that are appropriate for the situations we inhabit and the world we have made.
One example came at prayer, near the end of a liturgy that felt ancient. We had been summoned to chapel by the tolling of a great bell; had gathered ourselves around the Angelus, had chanted psalm after psalm in chants dating to the ninth and tenth centuries, had listened to Scripture and sat in silence. Then Prior Scott turned and explained to us that it was the custom in the monastery to toll the bell whenever a person was scheduled to be executed in the United States. He told us that a man was due to be killed in Georgia at an unscheduled time this week, and recounted the nature of the crime. He asked us to pray for the man and for his victim and for both their families, by name. Then the bell began to ring, on and on and on.
There is nothing in the Rule of Benedict about praying about executions. There is nothing about it in the Gospels, either. What they do speak about is peace, mercy, kindness to those who have been condemned unjustly. What the monks did was to imagine what following those teachings might look like in our time.
And you, how can you practice peace? How can you witness to mercy? How can you live the Gospel boldly, not as a quietly devout person who relegates its teachings to a matter of personal preference, but as a courageous person who believes the Gospel was meant to live and breathe in our world, to be bread for the hungry and water for those who faint? What does it mean not to be ashamed of the Gospel?