Father Paul Wessinger, SSJE

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

One of the things that the monks of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist do which might (but shouldn’t) seem strange to the average Protestant is that they live a life which is formed around prayer, worship, and the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Their normal worship-day looks something like this:

6 am Morning Prayer
7:45 am Holy Communion
12:30 Noonday Prayer
6 pm Evening Prayer
9 pm Compline

Between these times of worship they read, write, teach, work in hospitals, pastor churches, run a publishing house etc., and do the many things that one must do to live from day to day. Gardening, cleaning, and other forms of physical labor are also important for the monks of this dear Monastic Community. As I've shared elsewhere in these articles, these men of faith have long been important for my own spiritual life and growth.

While on retreat at the Monastery I will join the monks in their daily cycle of worship and prayer. I rise at about 5 am and go to the chapel to begin the day with morning prayer. It is wonderful to be able to take part in a worship service without having to lead, preach, or even read the Bible. It was wonderful to receive Holy Communion every day, sing the psalms, and pray without having to worry about anything. It is, truly, a peaceful, prayerful experience. I will also engage in long periods of directed study, directed prayer and meditation, and even physical labor … I spent one afternoon helping a dear monk friend weed the garden … something I never do while at home, but enjoyed doing while there. While on retreat I will also spend some time in spiritual direction with Father Paul Wessinger.

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Father Paul is now around 90 years of age*, but he is by no means in retirement. I met him at St. John’s House, their Monastery in Durham, North Carolina, and within a year he had become my spiritual director and Father Confessor (the priest with whom, each year, I make my formal confession of sin to God). He was also the monk who helped me in my discernment process regarding my call to the monastic life. Paul is a brilliant, internationally known Spiritual Director, ecumenist, and theologian; he is also a wonderful preacher, teacher, and friend. His years as the Superior of the American Congregation of the Society gave him a voice which is still respected throughout the United States and, indeed, around the world. His insights on the deep spiritual intricacies of the Christian life are founded in a powerful love of the Holy Scriptures, a personal devotion to the pastoral ministry, and a deep and abiding love for all humanity. Especially touching and noteworthy is his personal ministry of witness, direction, and care for those who are suffering from AIDS. His proclamation of Christ’s love and peace for those who struggle with HIV, and for those who care for them, was particularly meaningful for me during my time in the Hospital Chaplaincy program. The impact he has made upon my personal, spiritual, and professional life life is beyond calculation, and I thank God for the presence of Father Paul during my seminary years. When I am in Boston, I take the opportunity to talk with him about the many difficulties and demoralizing aspects of the pastoral ministry—and about how these problems impact my personal, spiritual walk. Every ordained minister of the Gospel really should have a Spiritual Director like Father Paul, and I have been wonderfully blessed by knowing him.

Father Paul has always been able to point me to the Bible when I have been in need of a word from God. An excellent example of this are his parting words to me the last time I was ever blessed to be in his presence: “Read Psalm 16 . . . for yourself, and for your people.” I did, and what struck me the most were the following verses:

O LORD, you are my portion and my cup;
it is you who uphold my lot.
My boundaries enclose a pleasant land;
indeed, I have a goodly heritage.

I believe that God was saying, through Father Paul, that we do, indeed, “have a goodly heritage,” and for me its name is The United Methodist Church. Sure, there are problems in my denomination, but the simple truth is that we are where God has called us to be. Truly, even with all of our problems, this is a pleasant land.

© 2000 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

The portrait of Father Paul is courtesy Ruth Lieberherr.

Father Paul passed away in 2009. May light perpetual shine upon him. +
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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.