Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Aidan Owen, OHC
Feast of James Huntington - Thursday, November 25, 2021
Sixty-seven years ago today my mother’s parents married, having known one another for only six weeks. By the time my grandfather died in 2008, they had been married for fifty-four years. What may have begun in foolishness and fancy blossomed, through their commitment to one another and their life together, into a shelter from the proverbial storm, both for themselves and for countless others.
The image that returns to me whenever I think about my grandparents’ long marriage is their dining table. It was the life of their house and of our family. Every celebration, large and small, revolved around that table. Every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter found the table stretched with three leaves and an overflow card table in the living room. Everyone was welcome, and it often seemed as if everyone came and brought a guest, too—all the strays, as we came to call them, who had nowhere else to go.
In particular, I remember my aunt’s friend Sherry, so constant at our family celebrations that she was essentially an Owen. She wore these outlandish outfits that you only saw in places like Dallas—hot pink suits with wide brimmed hats. Her smile matched those hats, bright and gleaming. And she had this full-bodied laugh that warmed the air around her. Sherry had suffered a great deal of heartache and illness, and that laugh, those bright suits, and her cheerfulness belied a her physical and emotional pain. Perhaps more than any other single image, it is the icon of Sherry laughing through her pain, her open mouth half-smile half-grimace, that signifies the inheritance of that table of the marriage that sheltered it.
The table was just a few slats of wood held together with screws and varnish, but all of life was welcome there. Every little bit of who you were got something to eat. My grandparents’ marriage was an “I do” spoken once in foolishness and unknowing and hope, but it echoed again and again around their dining table.
Today we celebrate a similar commitment our Founder, James Otis Sargent Huntington, made 137 years ago. Today we remember the promise he made in foolishness and unknowing and hope—most of all in hope. We remember in wonder and gratitude his faithful response to God’s call to leave the familiarity of his rather comfortable surroundings, to set off, like Abraham, with only a promise. Today we also celebrate the shelter and the hospitality of his promise and his faithfulness, which continues to be our inheritance here over a century later.
Now, normally, we would celebrate a saint’s feast on the anniversary of their death. But the Founder’s anniversary of death was already taken by Saints Peter and Paul. It’s kind of hard to move those two. So, instead we observe his feast on the anniversary of his monastic profession. Sometimes, as it does this year, that celebration also coincides with Thanksgiving. That bit of temporal peculiarity strikes me as imminently appropriate. For of all the Founder’s many virtues, it is his persistence in the monastic life for which we celebrate him.
Father Huntington was not a great founder in the typical sense. The creation of our Order was not his work alone. Nor was he the first, or even the most enthusiastic to join himself to it. He was simply and profoundly the first to stay. Nor was Father Huntington a great mystic, a great theologian, or a great reformer. He was certainly all of those things, in part. But his genius and his holiness lie in the line of St. Joseph: quiet, persistent faithfulness to the commitment and witness to which God called him.
He was one of those rare people who, once he put his hand to the plow, did not turn back. I have to imagine he had his doubts. He was human, after all. He certainly knew turmoil. He lived through the Civil War, the First World War, and the beginning of the Great Depression—more than enough to shake anyone. And that’s not to mention conflicts internal to the Order in its early years, a well-documented hypochondria, suspected bouts of depression, and whatever other spiritual conflicts he almost faced. Still, he stayed.
It seems 9 out of every 10 people who learn I’m a monk ask why I joined the Order. I often tell them some version of what I remember feeling at the time. But I can’t help but feel they’re asking the wrong question. In just seven years as a monk, I’ve seen six people join and ten people leave. For those who aren’t good at math, that’s a net loss, not a net gain. As Br. Rafael once said to me, “they come and they go, but mostly they go.” The interesting question, I think, isn’t why do we come, it's why do we stay?
You’ve probably heard me tell this story before. When I was a novice, one of my fellow novices asked the then Superior why he stayed. He thought about the question for day. Then he came back to us and said, “I stay because I said I would.” All of us who stay, whether in monastic life or in marriage or in another kind of binding commitment, have some version of this answer. I’m sure my grandparents did, and I’m sure our Founder did, too. There are days, or weeks, or even years when we stay because we said we would, and because, by God’s grace, that commitment still binds and nourishes us. Sometimes that is what faithfulness and trust and, yes, even holiness, look like: waiting patiently in the darkness for the stars in God’s sky to appear once more.
Then, too, there is love. Our love for God, yes, but mostly God’s love for us. I recently asked our Br. Laurence, life-professed for fifty-five years now, whether he had considered leaving the Order. He said that he had, but that, whatever might have drawn him away, “I guess I loved God more.” What are great mystical visions or theological treatises in comparison with so simple and profound a love?
Picking up on this theme, some years before Br. Laurence, Fr. Whittemore wrote in an unpublished memoir that contrary to what many people think, “The religious life is a love affair.” He continues, “I have the feeling that most people think that monks or nuns were ‘disappointed in love.’ Perhaps some of them were. God has many means of drawing souls to Himself. All I can say is that, though I have known a great number of monks and nuns very intimately, I never have happened to strike one who came to the cloister because he or she had been disappointed in love. On the other hand, I have known very many—please God, it is true of all of them—who were successful in love beyond all dreams or imagining. For they have heard in their hearts the whispering of the perfect lover. And it has been their deepest passion and their joy to surrender themselves to Him unto death, even the death of the Cross.”
On Tuesday, November 25, 1884, Father James Otis Sargent Huntington bound himself to God with the three-fold vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience. He did it entirely by himself, setting off into the unknown land of religious profession. He could not know that anyone else would ever join him in that life. But filled with love, and probably not a little foolishness, like Abraham he trusted to God’s promise. And like Abraham, God has made his offspring more numerous than the stars in the sky, for here we all are today—sheltered still in the arms of his commitment and his promise.
It is because of that promise and the love that bound Father Huntington to it, that the icon of our Order, too, could be a table, laden with the body and blood of Christ, extending out through the generations, welcoming all of us strays with nowhere else to go. A table where we can wear a smile or a grimace, where every part of us can be fed and loved and known. A table of wood and nails and varnish, yes, but one where God’s love can take flesh and grow within and around us, where that love can save us and free us. And all because one man was foolish enough to say yes.