Law and grace

2013-04-08 00:00

HEAVY overnight snow blankets Cambridge, Massachusetts. It continues sporadically during the day. My walk to the library where I am doing research takes me from my little hotel through a transformed Harvard Yard to my workplace.

After lunch I must return to the hotel to collect my luggage and move to different accommodation. As I step into the freezing air, wet, driving snow returns. It is impossible to get to the hotel on foot without getting soaked. I take a taxi to my destination, collect my luggage and call for another taxi. The driver drops me off into the freezing wind and snow flurries outside my new accommodation at 980 Memorial Drive, which flanks the Charles River that separates Cambridge from Boston.

I am outside the monastery of the brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, an Episcopalian monastic order, with its stone chapel and guest house. I am also shivering with cold and head for the guest house, scarf wound around my neck and coat collar turned up.

A heavy wooden door faces me. I try the handle but it is locked. Then I see a door bell and push it. Almost at once it opens and I see the smiling face of the Guest Master.

“You must be Martin,” he says.

I nod, gratefully aware of how warm it is inside, and reply: “And you are Tom”.

He nods, closing the door behind me and taking my suitcase. I have stepped from the secular world outside into quite a different world.

Then follows a most memorable and moving time. Speaking very softly, for the rule is silence, Tom shows me the little kitchen where tea, coffee, muffins, bagels and toast are always available, and the adjacent dining room where guests help themselves to breakfast. Other meals are shared with the brothers in their refectory, also in silence. Then Tom takes my case up two flights of stairs to my room, or rather suite, which far exceeds what I paid much more for at my modest little hotel.

The warmth continues, for the days that follow introduce me to some of the brothers and their world. Their friendly smiles of silent welcome and their prayer life are not to be taken for granted. I enter the chapel and am struck by its beauty. High, vaulted church roofs, candles and stained glass appeal to me, like the music of this kind of worship.

So I join other guests and the brothers when I can for the services. I am offered hymn books and prayer books by the brothers, but do not use them for I find myself just wanting to listen to their lovely plainsong chanting, with eyes closed. I hear phrases from the meditations like “Love for the loveless, that they may lovely be”. And I find myself pondering the two worlds of my Cambridge accommodation experience.

There is the secular world of commercial accommodation. The best there is getting what you pay for. At my modest little hotel, breakfast is a self-service affair and all the food vanishes after 10 in the morning, but I got what I paid for. This world has its own ethic, governed by law. The ideal is justice for all. What you pay must match what you get.

Then there is a world inside that monastery. It respects justice and good laws, of course, but moves beyond it into an ethic of gracious acceptance, generosity and service. The brothers suggest a fee for your stay, but leave it to you to raise or even lower it. I certainly received far more than I paid, and not just in terms of food and lodging.

As I sit in the dim light of the chapel after supper one evening listening to the brothers chanting the gentle words of Compline, I find myself pondering the true source of such an ethic, pondering also whether it can flourish outside places like 980 Memorial Drive, or in loving families. The world outside, even when it is not snowbound and icy, certainly needs it. And I find myself wondering if there is a secular faith of warmth and grace waiting to be born.

• Martin Prozesky is an ethics consultant, researcher and emeritus professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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