Our Human Vocation – Br. James Koester

One thing that attracts people to SSJE is the experience of community. It is one of our core values, expressed in our Rule: “In an era of fragmentation and the breakdown of family and community, our Society, though small, can be a beacon drawing others to live in communion.”  For a day, a week, or even a lifetime, people can experience what it means to be in community with others and thus come to know something true, both about themselves and about God.

Our human vocation to live in communion and mutuality is rooted in our creation in God’s image and likeness. The very being of God is community; the Father, Son, and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love. The mystery of God as Trinity is one that only those living in personal communion can understand by experience. Through our common life we can begin to grasp that there is a transcendent unity that allows mutual affirmation of our distinctness as persons. Through prayer we can see that this flows from the triune life of God. If we are true to our calling as a community, our Society will be a revelation of God.

Several years ago, prompted by the Spirit, we took a leap of faith. Off and on for many years, we had invited people to live with us as long-term guests. Some of these long-term guests were employees, others were students at nearby colleges and universities. Some came to work on a degree, or to volunteer to help us care for guests, or our properties. Others were members of other monastic communities on sabbatical. Each of them lived in the Guesthouse and, except for doing an agreed-upon number of hours of labor in return for lodging, lived independent lives. What we did four years ago was to invite people, not simply to live with us, but to share our life in an intentional way, and the Monastic Internship was born.

The purpose of the Monastic Internship has been to invite three or four women and men – having recently completed an undergraduate or graduate program – to share our life and discover for themselves what it is like to live in communion and mutuality.

This fall, thanks to the Sisterhood of the Holy Nativity, who are partnering with us in this project, we are expanding the Monastic Internship Program to Emery House. The Sisters have helped us purchase an adjacent property where the Interns will live. The house will be called Grafton House, after Charles Chapman Grafton, who was both one of the original members of SSJE (along with Father Benson and Simeon Wilberforce O’Neill) and later the founder of the Sisterhood of the Holy Nativity and the Bishop of the Diocese of Fond du Lac.

The focus of the Internship Program at Grafton House will be somewhat different than that at the Monastery. In addition to living alongside the Brothers and assisting us in our ministry to guests, the Interns will help us to explore the ecological and environmental reality that is the Emery House property. They will take an active part in helping us care for the land, as well as the animals with which we share it. By helping to produce some of the food we eat, they will explore models of sustainable living.

Our hope is that the Interns will discover the same deep sense of satisfaction that we Brothers experience as we minister to guests and care for the property. My hunch is that they will also find the same frustrations: There are too few of us; not enough time; too much to do and we don’t always get to choose what we get to do or with whom we get to live. But increasingly, for me, these frustrations are outweighed by two monastic principles: trust and stability.

In the last several years we have come to understand that the Emerys did not give us something; they entrusted us with something. This property is a tremendous gift that we delight to use and to share, but it is also something which we must pass on to the future in better condition than we received it. This idea that we have been entrusted with this property has become a guiding principle as to how we use it, and more importantly, how we care for it. We cannot simply take from it what we want, without being prepared to put back what it needs. This principle that the property has been entrusted to us is helping us make decisions today about how we garden, and tomorrow, about what kinds of buildings we need. It is also giving us the “long view.” What is it that we want to pass on to future Brothers and guests?

My hunch is that the Emerys lived like this as well. They arrived on this property in the 1640s and finally entrusted it to us in 1954. For over three-hundred years they cared for this property with not just an eye to what they needed, but to what their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren might need. While the Emerys did not take a monastic vow of stability, they certainly lived as if they did. While we Brothers do not take a vow of stability, we live as if we do. Neither the Emerys nor we Brothers are mendicant friars, moving from place to place. We and they have set down roots, both at the Monastery and here at Emery House. We renovated the Monastery, not just for us, but for all those guests and Brothers who will come after us.

One of the things which monastic communities can offer the church – especially young people as they seek their place in the church and world – is a deeper understanding of these ancient monastic principles of trust and stability. Our hope is that after looking at life for eleven months through these two lenses, trust and stability, the Emery House Interns will have discovered the tools to look at the whole of life not as a right, but as a gift with which they have been entrusted, and that they will have the tools to set down roots in a place, a relationship, a life.

We all know how easy it is to take what we want without putting anything back, and to move on as soon as things get difficult. But those values are not the values of the Reign of God. It is the values of the Kingdom, such as trust and stability, that we hope pass on to those who share our life at Grafton House.

grafton house

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