Becoming a Companion
Photo: Rivendell General Chapter 2018, Dunnegan, MO
Unbelievably, it’s been seven months since I’ve posted a new entry here (outside of the Sermons section)! Life has felt busy and full and I’ve had little room for the kind of spaciousness that promotes writing and reflecting. That said, my inner life has been very active! I continue onward in profound gratitude for the continual, deepening integration of my Christian and Islamic/Sufi journeys (the next post will be on that!), and much of my pondering and preaching of late has been related to the near-fascistic and human rights nightmare that has descended on our country. But as much as our political climate concerns and engages (and enrages) me, I won’t go into that here, now. Simply know that, with the wider Church, I stand in the resistance.
In my last post, I promised a reflection (here it is!) on The Rivendell Community, in which I was still a Novice at the time. Since then, I’ve taken first vows and become a professed Companion (companion, from the Latin com- ‘together with’ and panis ‘bread’... "those who break bread together"... a fitting designation for members of a Eucharistic community). If you don't know about Rivendell, it's a member community within the National Association of Episcopal Christian Communities. “Christian Communities” are a form of religious life within the Episcopal Church similar to monastic life, but not requiring celibacy or shared residential living (although they can include both of these).
Entering Rivendell involves committing to a shared Rule of Life within the framework of the evangelical counsels (or “Gospel invitations”) of holy poverty, chastity (married or celibate), and obedience. These have traditionally been understood by the Church as counsels but not requirements for those walking the Jesus path. That said, it's hard for me to imagine any authentic Christian life that doesn't necessarily include them!
Holy poverty (not to be confused with the unholy poverty that plagues so much of our world) is essentially a call to simplicity of life—to take a stand against the currents of capitalist and consumer culture in which we’re so deeply embedded. It has something to say about the kind of work one does, what one buys (and where we buy it), and ultimately reminds us that, in truth, we "own" nothing—everything is gift, is held in trust, and is never to be hoarded. If humanity could embrace holy poverty on a wide scale, we would end hunger, ecological devastation, and unholy poverty overnight.
Chastity, while inclusive of a responsible and healthy relationship to one’s sexuality (whether partnered or celibate), ultimately points to purity of heart. The root meaning of chastity is just that, purity, as in Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). This isn't simply a moralistic purity; as Br. Aidan, OHC pointed out in a recent sermon, "purity, in this context, could better be translated as 'unity' of heart. The goal of the Christian life is unity of heart, which is to say, the directing of our entire being toward God: body, mind, spirit, heart—all that we are centered in love on the one who gives us life."
In both Christian and Sufi contemplative traditions, the heart is seen principally as an organ of spiritual perception—that part of us that perceives from oneness and wholeness (unlike our more familiar, fragmented, and dualistic modes of perception rooted in either/or and "us vs. them"). When the heart is "purified"—freed from all the ego-muck we layer over it—we quite literally see God: the One in whom “we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28)—not in heaven when we die, but right now, all around us, in every rock and tree and creature. The vow of chastity—of purity and unity of heart—is a pledge to strive for that seeing.
Obedience, at the most basic level, calls us to obey the guidance of our Rule and Constitution, as well as the Guardian of the Community; at a deeper level, it's a reminder that true Christian obedience is always and only to God, and to Jesus Christ as Lord. (Our Community motto, from St. Teresa of Avila, is Solo Dios basta—"Only God is enough" or "God alone suffices.") We are not to mindlessly obey the forces of Empire, of culture, or the whims of our ego, but to listen for the guidance of the One. The root of obedience (from the Latin oboedire) means “to listen"; as a vow, it calls us to the deepest listening possible—for the movement of God in our lives and the world.
To listen and hear rightly, however, requires the kind of discernment which can only come from a chaste or purified heart—which will always lead to holy poverty and simplicity of life... and so the three vows are one.
Beyond these traditional vows, the Rivendell Rule is essentially a call to the full sacramental and liturgical life of the Church—both simple and universal in its intentions (every Christian is invited to these things) but representing a fullness or intensity of commitment not often uplifted or represented within a parish church (or, truth be told, among the clergy). Rivendell took me beyond “Sunday religion” in a way that even my priesthood had not, offering a framework that made my experience of the Church more robust and coherent as vision, path, and practice. (As I've written elsewhere, learning to pray the Daily Office was a big part of that.) At the same time, I found the Community down to earth and grounded, or “homely” as Julian of Norwich would say; these weren’t folks “playing monastic” or engaging in something otherworldly—they were just humble, stumbling, and committed followers of Jesus.
Beyond our Rule and vows, Rivendell’s charism calls us particularly to ministries of hospitality and contemplative prayer, as well as toward concern for “smaller and less affluent churches.” For me, this simply fit: it’s who I am and what my ministry is about—or, who I strive to be, and how I hope to serve in ministry. When I was in seminary, I imagined I’d serve in a large church, with multiple priests on staff, where I could carve out my niche ministries of pastoral care, spiritual direction, and contemplative teaching. I never wanted to be a rector or priest-in-charge—an associate position would do just fine!
Instead, I’ve only served in small churches, and have always been the only priest on staff. And I’ve found that I love small churches—and truly couldn’t imagine ministry any other way. That said, small churches typically struggle to pay their priest a full-time salary (I serve at half-time) and have a hard time attracting younger clergy. Rivendell "seeks to provide competent and devoted leadership (priestly, diaconal, lay)" in these churches through alternative community models, much like the one I’m engaged in by living alongside Holy Cross Monastery. (Read about our “Rivendell Plan” if you’d like to learn more about what we’re attempting.) I find so much hope and humility in this model, as it seeks to subvert the corporate scripts our churches have so often unthinkingly adopted from the secular world.
Rivendell also uplifted some of my favorite saints and mystics for “Community Feast Days” (a clear statement about the spiritual waters the Community swims in)—relatively contemporary voices like Evelyn Underhill and Charles Williams, as well as figures like Nicholas Ferrar (of the Little Gidding community), Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Clare and Francis of Assisi. I simply felt at home in this world—this was my kind of Christianity. The sections in our Study Guide on prayer took the contemplative life seriously, laying out the essential practices that make for a complete Christian journey. Finding all of this emphasized so clearly and coherently in a single community vision was probably the biggest thing that initially drew me into Rivendell—again and again I thought "This is a whole Christianity."
And, of course, the spirituality and imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien holds a special place for the Community. If you hadn’t guessed it, we take our name from the Elven house in The Lord of the Rings, described as “the Last Homely House east of the Sea… a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or storytelling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.” The Rivendell Community first began as just such a house in Memphis, Tennessee in 1997, intended to be “an open house: open to God in prayer and radical availability, open to others in hospitality both material and spiritual; and it would stand against the powers of darkness.” What more do we need in the world than this?
That first house has come and gone, as well as other houses that have sprung up in the life of the Community over the last 20 years. But the spirit of the original vision has remained constant and steady, guiding and shaping an ongoing and growing group of Companions who strive to live eucharistically, celebrating each moment as a sacrament, as the Body of Christ, as bread for the journey. For such companionship along the Way, I am endlessly grateful.
I hope this gives you some insight into Rivendell, and what it's meant to me over the last few years. Feel free to reach out if you'd like to learn more. In my next post, I hope to share some of what's up with my Sufi connection these days (the love affair continues!). And if you'd like a little more taste of Rivendell, check out the homily I preached at our General Chapter. For now, I'll leave you with this, from the liturgy in which I professed first vows:
Officiant: Matthew, what do you desire?
The Novice to be professed reads the Prologue of the Rule:
In grateful response to the overwhelming love of God, I desire to give myself wholly, unreservedly, and continually to the One who gives himself to us. I seek to be conformed to God’s will, to share in Christ’s cross and resurrection, and to cooperate faithfully with the gifts of grace. Helpless as I am in myself, I pray and trust that God who has given me these desires will also bring them to fruition. By God's own invitation, I set my heart and will on God, joyfully declaring that nothing else and nothing less will content me. And trusting that nothing else will content God either, I cast myself into his arms.
I intend full and unqualified consent to God’s invitations, in general and in particular. My longing is that my whole life may pronounce a “yes” to God’s purposes for us and the world. My intention is to enflesh my response to the commandments to love God with my whole heart and mind and soul and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, through the way of life embraced in our Rule.
Though I recognize that I will constantly fall short of these intentions, I commit myself to persevere in hope, trust, and dependence on God’s grace.