Back with the brethren
I WAS back in Boston in May to spend some time with the members of the Society of St John the Evangelist at their monastery in Cambridge, and to continue work on the Cowley Project. Since my last visit, a new Superior has been elected, and now Brother James Koester SSJE leads community life on the banks of the Charles River.
As part of my visit, I spent a couple of days at Emery House, the SSJE’s country retreat at West Newbury. It is about an hour’s drive north of Cambridge; and what a contrast from life in the busy bustle of Boston. The property includes a large and comfortably appointed 18th-century farmhouse, and was left to the Society by four pious unmarried sisters more than 60 years ago.
I spent almost a whole morning with a pair of binoculars in one hand and a guide to the birds of New England in the other. I counted scarlet Northern Cardinals, bright yellow American Goldfinches, Blue Jays, Downy and Redheaded Woodpeckers, and delightful little Nuthatches; but also squirrels — red and grey — and, best of all, chipmunks.
In the middle distance were three beehives: the community has animals to provide food for the refectory table, as well as an extensive vegetable garden. One afternoon, some geese ran out to meet me as I walked in the grounds. When I asked the senior Brother about the extent of the brethren’s husbandry, he rattled off the list: “Bees, ducks, geese, and chickens. . . Oh, and pigs, too. But they’re in the freezer.”
ON THE afternoon of Whit Sunday, I headed to Yale. I was walking along the platform at Boston South Station when I bumped into the Very Revd Dr Garegin Hambardzumyan, an Armenian Orthodox priest who was a contemporary of mine when I was at St Stephen’s House first time around. He is now Dean of the magnificently titled Gevorkian Theological Seminary of the Holy Mother See of Etchmiadzin at Vagharshapat, and was on a tour of some of the many Armenian communities on the East Coast. He was on his way to New York, and we caught up on each other’s news as the glorious coastal views on that stretch of track whizzed by (Diary, 26 June 2015).
You might think that meeting Fr Garegin would have been coincidence enough for one trip; but a few days later I was sitting in the monastery church quietly waiting for the morning mass to begin, when the door creaked open, and in came the Revd James Robinson, Assistant Curate of St Wulfram’s, Grantham, with his family. Jim was one of the original members of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s XI in 2014 — only later did it occur to me how apt it was that, 3000 miles away from home, we had run into each other on the feast of St Dunstan.
Among the ruins
ON WHIT MONDAY, I was in New York to have lunch with another friend from St Stephen’s House, who seceded to Eastern Orthodoxy a few years ago. Unlike the Armenians, he and his co-religionists were not keeping Pentecost; so I donned my best Western Rite, octave-observing, Filioque-affirming red trousers, to do my bit for Team Constantinople.
We headed first to see the fresh ruins of St Sava’s Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, on West 25th Street; it was destroyed by fire during the night after this year’s Easter liturgy — probably caused by the heat of many candles. It was sad to see, of course. We had brunch in a café opposite the Episcopal Moravian Church on Lexington Avenue. I didn’t even know that such a Church existed: apparently, the American Moravians entered into full communion with the Episcopal Church in 2011.
Down the Avenue
I THEN visited St Thomas’s, Fifth Avenue. The exterior was boarded up, as part of the church’s ongoing restoration work; but inside it was as magnificent as ever, with the added ornament of what I think is a new set of “big six” candlesticks on the altar. Someone was practising on the organ, and a uniformed security guard sat at the back.
I was perturbed, however, to see that a building opposite the north side of the church has “666” marked prominently above its door. I hope that it is actually 666 West 53rd Street, and not some coven of wickedness seeking to subvert the work of the Rector, the Revd Carl Turner.
St Mary the Virgin, on West 46th Street — “Smoky Mary’s”, as it is known — is just around the corner from Times Square. Many years ago, the church was served by the Cowley Fathers. When I visited it, seemed to be full of sleeping homeless people: a refuge from the noisy streets outside. They were laid out in the pews with their rucksacks and sleeping bags, while the enormous sanctuary lamp burned white above the tabernacle, and a verger quietly made his way round the side chapels with a duster.
Dr Serenhedd James is a member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford, and an Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House.