For many years I’ve wanted to visit the brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, (SSJE) an Anglican (Episcopal) religious community in Boston, Massachusetts. Finally, this happened in early October of 2023.
The society was founded in 1866, in Cowley, Oxford, England but established a house in Boston in 1870; their present building dates from the 1920’s and was completed in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression. The brothers also have a rural retreat in West Newbury, New Hampshire where several of the brothers reside.
We arrived during a heat wave, so I was glad to have packed some shorts! Like other religious communities, SSJE’s life is based around prayer, the Eucharist, hospitality and silence. And for five days we kept this rhythm. Morning Prayer was at 6am, so it did not feature on my ‘to do’ list. Rather, my day started with the Eucharist with the brothers, other guests and local residents at 8am. Each service was accompanied by a full, well-crafted sermon by one of the brothers. At midday there were noon prayers followed by lunch eaten without talking, however there was music to break the silence. There was 6pm Evensong and 8.30pm Compline. Each of the liturgies included hymns, plainsong and the reciting of psalms. There was a great sense of listening and responding to one another in all the worship. The rooms were very comfortable, mine with a view of the Charles River with each day seeing rowers going up and down as well as joggers on the sidewalk.
SSJE, is in Cambridge (across the river from Boston) where Harvard has its home. One is struck by the architecture, particularly the bricks that face the sidewalks as well as the community’s buildings. During my time there, I had ample opportunity to visit the Art Gallery and explore a house once used by George Washington (during the siege of Boston) and where Henry Longfellow (American poet) lived for many years.
For me this provided a much-needed spiritual retreat, but also provided access to plenty of information about the history and culture of this place. In Boston we visited the JFK Presidential Library, walked the Freedom Trial, and enjoyed the waterfront of the Boston harbour. My own knowledge of the history of America’s independence from Britain, as well as the origins of the ending of slavery in the States, were greatly increased by the visit.
We were blessed with extraordinary weather and enjoyed many of the sights, churches and historical centres of Boston’s past juxtaposed with a modern business city centre.
Without doubt the spiritual and religious aspects of the trip were key. A chance to rest and reset from the challenges of ministry in this post-pandemic time. The brothers of SSJE are most assuredly ‘in the world’ but ‘not of the world’ and it is a great joy to have shared their generous hospitality for the time we were there. The beauty and energy of their corporate life will long remain with me and I hope it will not be too long before I get to go again.
If you are looking for a retreat, I can highly recommend SSJE, both houses are easily accessible by public transport and based on our experience will provide a restful and spiritual experience in the context of excellent, thoughtful hospitality.
Photos Stephen Rowe