The Community of the Transfiguration

Several weeks ago, Alison and I and a group from our church headed to Cincinnati’s north side to visit the Community of the Transfiguration, a convent of Episcopalian nuns, for a spiritual retreat and continuing education related to Stephen Ministry. Until recently, I had no idea there were monastic orders in the Episcopal Church.  The trip to Cincinnati, coupled with the spiritual journey of a good friend of mine who last year took monastic vows and became a brother of the Community of the Gospel, has brought monastic life to the forefront of my mind.  This post is just some musings that have been swimming around for a while.

In speaking with the nuns, it became clear the the greatest problem they, as a community, face is publicity – very few people, including Episcopalians, know they exist. (For me, when I think of monastic communities, I think Roman Catholic, European and a long time ago; I suppose if pressed, I would drop European and a long time ago, but I imagine most of us associate monasticism with the Catholic Church. Of course, as one of the sisters pointed out, ‘”We’re all catholic; we say so in the Creed.”)  Anyway, the relative obscurity of the Community of the Transfiguration and of monastic communities generally is a shame, because the sisters of the Community of the Transfiguration, as a traditional, institutional community and orders like the Community of the Gospel, a non-cloistered, less institutional order, offer a valuable and important perspective for the Church and the world. Indeed, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself noted the importance of monastic life within the larger life of the Church, and encouraged Christians to support such vocations in his 2009 Easter sermon. So, with all that in mind, I’d like to highlight some of the notable practices and concepts that struck me as important during my visit to Cincinnati, in conversation with my friend, Brother Daniel-Chad, and in some reading I’ve recently done.

Hospitality – Though there is still a private school attached to the convent, and some nuns do teach there, the sisters’ primary ministry is hospitality.  Steve Carlsen, the dean of Christ Church Cathedral, recently spoke about the centrality of hospitality to Christian living and the mission of the Church. [Link to the audio file of this sermon is forthcoming.] As he noted, hospitality is not a new, liberal fad, but rather a serious, sometimes dangerous and always Christ-like orientation for our actions. After all, a shared meal around a Table is the central act of Christian worship.

SimplicityThis article, highlighted by Rod Dreher, is well taken, and I suppose like anything, simplicity itself can become (has become?) stylized and even commercialized. Nevertheless, the fundamental value of living a life of moderation – maybe that’s a better word to use – is increasingly important for a society such as ours that demands (and takes for granted) instant and endless access to lots of food, lots of energy, lots of sex, lots of information, lots of stuff….

Fixed Hour Prayer – The nuns at the Community of the Transfiguration pray at fixed hours or offices. Every morning, noon, evening and night, the sisters gather for 15 or 20 minutes and pray the Psalter, offer thanksgivings and intercessions and sing a hymn before continuing in their daily activities. Referring to prayer as ‘office’ often confuses modern people (myself included when I first began attending Episcopal liturgies), but monastics have been keeping this office (and calling it that) long before the word ‘office’ came to be associated with a florescent lit cubicle. ‘Office’ means ‘job’ and from the earliest days of Christian monasticism, prayer was seen the primary vocation for those called to such a life. When Daniel-Chad talks about his vocation as a monastic, prayer is usually the first thing he mentions.

Even though most traditional ‘institutional’ monastic communities are currently in decline, monasticism is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. All across the country, small groups, many unaffiliated or only loosely affiliated with a denomination – some calling themselves neo-monastics are flourishing. (See, for example, this group of neomonastics in Boston.) Like St. Francis’ monastic movement nearly a thousand years ago, I wonder if this neo-monastic movement will revitalize and reorient the Church? Something to ponder as Episcopalians (and indeed, Christians in many demoninations) theorize about the future of the Church and how to bring the life of the Church into better comformity with the life of God’s Kingdom.

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4 thoughts on “The Community of the Transfiguration

  1. Matthew, thank you so much for this thoughtful and insightful posting on the Community of the Transfiguration, monastic life and spiritual renewal in the church. You articulate so clearly concerns of the orders and communities and you point to them as agents or vehicles of renewal in the life of the church. Often people don’t “get” what monastics are about but they have always been agents of depth and renewal, calling the church back to its core values and practices.

    I want to share your posting with other members of the Community of the Gospel and some of the non-residential monastics here in Indianapolis.

    For me, this one posting made the whole weekend worthwhile!

  2. Dear Matthew,
    Thanks for your insights and writings on The Community of the Transfiguration and on those new expressions of the vowed life taking place both in the Episcopal Church and in the Roman Church and some Evangelical circles such as Taize.

    Nonresidential communities, oblates of various monasteries, third orders and Solitary Monks and Nuns (Hermits) are making small but steady headway in the modern Church, especially the liturgical ones. The Roman Church has revived the ancient Vowed Life of Christian Widows and Virgins (male and female). The Book of Occasional Services has the outline of the liturgies regarding the Setting Apart for a Special Vocation or a person under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience that is held by the local Bishop.

    We too are in a time of rapid change, uncertanty and loss of even a civil understanding of faith or religion as were the times of the Desert Father, St Benedict and St Francis. These times became the catalest for new expressions of monastic life. Christians are increasingly seeking ways of being and acting in their faith that is at once contemporary and ancient. The vow, praying the Office, community life, study, and ministry can be found in depth in these expressions.

    A friend of mine, John Michael Talbot, BSC, begin in the early 1980’s one of these new expressions of monasticism, it is both active and contemplative, fixed and itinerant, celibate and with married folks at the monastery and with “domestic members” all over the USA. They are the only Association of the Faithful in the Roman Church in the USA and one of only 7 in the world like this. They are thriving.

    There are those among us in the Church that want a “basket” to hold our dearest spiritual aspirations and this is often found in the basics found in monasticism. Life by Rule and a life of prayer are found in the monastic practices ever ancient, ever new.

  3. Matthew, you really captured the weekend well. Dan got me interested in The Community of the Gosple and I am praying that I take my final vows in July. I think we are living in a time where pwople are searching for meaning and in need of a community, be it the church, a monastary, or a small group of people meeting together regularly. I know I am. Stephen Ministry is blesed having you and Allison woth us. God’s Blessings upon you. Peg

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