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Wake Up! – Br. James Koester

James Koester SSJEIt happened in an instant. I’d just walked into the building. It was packed with people, mostly children, but I knew even before I had made my way to the front, that I had to do this.

That’s what I tell people when they ask me how I started to keep bees at Emery House. Sure a friend of mine named Annie had been telling me for years that I had to keep bees. She’d been on about bees ever since I came to know her. In fact, just a few months before that fateful day at the Topsfield Fair I had been out visiting Ann and Ron and once again Ann started at me about keeping bees. To quiet her down, when I had gone to bed that night, I had taken a couple of her bee books with me to look at while I fell asleep. The next morning at breakfast I returned them, unread, but promised to do some reading about bees when I got home.

So that day I went off to the Topsfield Fair, more out of obligation to a promise than a commitment to do something. What happened was something quite different. I walked in obliged and slightly curious. I walked out committed. In that instant something inside me woke up.

I begin with two hives and within a week they were both dead. We’d had a nor’easter and the bee’s had no food reserves. The food I had given them was too far from the cluster and they both starved. Six weeks later I tried again. This time they survived.

But something else woke up in me that summer: a whole new way of being. Because of the bees I began to pay attention to what was around me. I wanted to know where they were finding the nectar which they turn into honey and the pollen they eat for protein. I began to see things, as if for the first time. It was as if I had woken up to the world and over time I came to identify over 130 different plants, flowers and trees that grow at Emery House and I now know roughly when they bloom. I know the difference between butter and eggs (which is a flower and not a breakfast!), and goldenrod. I know that the snowdrops first bloomed on 25 March 2008 and two weeks earlier in 2012.

But something else woke up in me that summer: a memory, a dream, a vision. I remembered what I wanted to be when I grew up. Ever since I can remember, and then I forgot, but then standing in the Emery House kitchen one evening with a basket of eggs from our chickens, I remembered again: I wanted to be a farmer. Long before I wanted to be a monk; long before I wanted to be a priest, I wanted to be a famer. And now I am. And it all began by waking up one day at the Topsfield Fair and knowing, as if my life depended on it, that I HAD to keep bees.

We are urged today by Jesus and Paul and in a sense, by Isaiah too, to wake up. To wake up to a new way of being, to a new world, to a new reality.

The world in which Isaiah lived was one in which wars and rumours of wars abounded: the armies of the king of Assyria where constantly on the move and the kingdoms of Judah and Israel under threat. But Isaiah was awake to a different reality. It was not the army of the Assyrians that he saw flocking to Jerusalem but the peoples of the earth for:

In days to come the mountain the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”[1]

Isaiah was awake to a different reality, a reality in which “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”[2]

There were those no doubt who regarded Isaiah as unplugged from reality, but many others, then and now, who long for Isaiah’s reality to be fulfilled. Who here does not long for the reality of Isaiah, rather than the one reported in the Boston Globe?

Sometimes in order to wake up to a new reality, to a new world, to a new way of being, we just have to go to the Topsfield Fair. Other times we have to risk building an ark. Noah knew that there was a different way of being in the world than the one in which his neighbours lived.[3] But in order to find that reality, he had to build an ark.

There were those no doubt who regarded Noah as unplugged from reality but to be faithful to God, Noah knew he had to do something crazy. In the end Noah trusted the reality of God’s promises and built the ark. Sometimes the reality of the world, and the winds and waves and storms of daily life dull our senses to the reality of God, but Noah stands before us today reminding us to keep awake to the reality of God’s promise as seen by Isaiah where “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Advent is a time when we are commanded to wake up, to keep awake, to stay awake. But to wake up from what? To keep awake for what?

Remember that first New Year’s Eve that your parents allowed you to stay up? Remember the excitement as you counted down the seconds between one year and the next? Remember the excitement as you passed from the reality of one year to the next? That is what we are urged to stay awake for. We are on the cusp of something. We are on the cusp of Isaiah’s reality. We are on the cusp of Noah’s reality. We are on the cusp of Paul’s reality. We are on the cusp of Jesus’ reality. We are on the cusp of God’s reality when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

All around us God’s reality is breaking in on us as we wake up to new ways of being. Some days it may not look like that. The armies of the king of Assyria may be laying siege to our lives. The floods of Noah may be pounding our foundations. But the vision of Isaiah, the trust of Noah and the life of Jesus stand before us as reminders that a different way of being is possible; a different world is possible; a different reality is possible.

Some days in order to find that new way of being, that new world, that new reality we just have to go to the Topsfield Fair. Other days we might need the vision of Isaiah, the trust of Noah and the life of Jesus to keep us awake, and to open our eyes that we may see, and know and believe that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.”[4]

This Advent we are on the cusp of something wonderful. All we have to do is stay awake and we will see the reality of God glimmering on the horizon because:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;[5]

All we have to do it is stay away, and with Isaiah, with Noah, with Paul, with Jesus, we will see it.


[1] Isaiah 2: 2, 3

[2] Isaiah 2: 4

[3] Genesis 6-9

[4] Romans 13: 11

[5] Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ: God’s Grandeur, 1877

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2 Comments

  1. Paula on January 6, 2014 at 02:09

    Br. James, you teach us that sometimes – often in my case – we have to get out of our own way to find God’s way. It is tempting to resign oneself to the notion that destructive power is reality. One can acknowledge “Assyrians” without losing a grounding in the creative power of God.

  2. Margo on December 19, 2013 at 05:58

    Yes Br. James. Your images of ‘awakening’ are just perfect. You bring what we can miss so easily to consciousness and it’s warm, inviting and life giving. Watching you cherish Emery Farm is as good a prophecy as Isaiah any day. Thank you Margo

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