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The Song of the Sea – Br. James Koester

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Br. James Koester

Feast of St Basil the Great

1 Corinthians 2: 6-13
Psalm 139: 1-9
Luke 10: 21-24

Those of you who have worshipped with us for any length of time will no doubt have spent some time gazing at our windows. Made by the Connick Studios here in Boston in the late 1940’s they are quite distinctive in their use of colours, especially reds, blues and greens. Having lived with these windows for nearly 30 years, I now notice Connick windows whenever I go into a church that has them.

The windows here in the chapel follow a number of themes. In the Lady Chapel the five lancet windows depict the rosary. Read horizontally each of the bottom, middle and upper sections show the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary. The back Rose Window shows in the bottom section images of the Nativity and in the upper section the Twelve Ranks of Angels and in the centre medallion, the Coronation of the Virgin. Over by the door that leads out into the cloister is a window depicting St. Jean Vianney, Patron Saint of Parish Priests and Confessors. That window is located there, because in the days when confessions were heard here in a confessional, that was located near that door. The windows in the St. John’s Chapel show the vision of St. John from the book Revelation. The two windows by the High Altar are of the Virgin and the Beloved Disciple standing at the foot of the cross. The windows of St. Luke and St. Joseph here by the door to the Guest House were given by the workmen who built the chapel and are known as the Workmen’s Windows. If you haven’t looked at them before do so, as you’ll find the various tradesmen shown, including my favourite, a plumber trying to fix a leaky tap.

But it is the windows above us, in the clerestory, the ones most difficult to see, that are the defining windows in this chapel, at least for me. Installed in the late 1940’s they show, beginning with Antony of Egypt and ending with Father Benson, the significant founders of monasticism from the third to the nineteenth century. Each window shows a particular monastic founder, and then in the bottom section of the panel there is a small image of the individual, and part of their story. So with Antony we have him in conversation with St. Paul, the first hermit, thereby bringing together the two strands of monasticism, the hermit life and the communal life. In the last window we have Father Benson praying the midday Office of None at the Taj Mahal reminding us, not just of his journey to India in 1891, but his cherished dream of being a missionary there. He wrote of that visit I walked to the Taj. It has been called a dream in marble. Indeed, it was once the dream of [my] life to see it. Sometimes dreams are realized more easily than realities.[1]

But the window that attracts our attention tonight is the third one, the window of Saint Basil the Great. Basil was born in the year 330 in what is now central Turkey. While he lived, at least by our standards, a relatively short life, dying at the age of 50, his influence on the church has been profound. He was born into a Christian family of wealth and distinction and amazingly his grandfather is regarded as a martyr, and his grandmother, mother, father, sisters and two brothers are all celebrated as saints of the Church. That’s an entire family who are saints! We celebrate the feast of his sister Macrina, who had a profound influence on Basil’s life and theology, on 19 July.

Basil was first educated in law and rhetoric but at the age of about 26 had a spiritual awakening. He wrote that I had wasted much of my life on follies and spent nearly all of my youth in vain labours, and devotion to the teachings of a wisdom that God had made foolish. Suddenly, I awoke as out of a deep sleep. I beheld the wonderful light of the Gospel truth, and I recognized the nothingness of the wisdom of the princes of this world.[2] For the rest of his life Basil was consumed by a search for that which no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor human heart conceived, [but] what God has prepared for those who love him.[3]

This search for the truth which only God can reveal lead Basil, first to baptism, and then to ordination and finally to becoming Bishop of Caesarea where his quest for God’s truth brought him into direct conflict with the emperor. But it also brought him a profound understanding of the work of God the Holy Spirit.

Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians reminds us that no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.[4]

Basil’s quest to understand the things of God resulted ultimately in what we repeat Sunday by Sunday in the words of the Nicene Creed: We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life. Who proceeds from the Father …. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets. In his treatise On the Holy Spirit Basil maintained that it was appropriate to give glory to the Father with the Son together with the Holy Spirit.[5] In this way Basil articulated a Trinitarian faith that the Church continues to profess over 1500 years later.

But it is not as a theologian or as a bishop that we here at the monastery primarily remember him, although he was both a theologian and a bishop. We remember him as a monastic founder, and here the influence of his sister Macrina is most deeply felt.

At some point Macrina and her mother Emmelia had renounced their family’s wealth and established a monastic community on their estate. It was Macrina who gave her brothers theological and spiritual counsel and it was Macrina who encouraged her brothers to follower her example and become monks. As a monastic Basil renounced his possessions and with his brother Peter wrote a Rule for community life, thereby encoding many of their sister’s ideas for Christian community.

Like the Rule of St. Benedict in the West, Basil’s Rule greatly influenced Eastern monasticism because of its moderation and balance. Indeed Basil’s Rule which predates Benedict’s Rule, was a notable influence on St. Benedict who encouraged his disciples to read the rule of our holy father Basil.[6] His influence, and that of his sister Macrina and their siblings is felt today in the numerous monastic communities of the Eastern Church.

But as we keep this feast today, I cannot help but wonder what Basil would say today just days after the horrors of Orlando.

While he was a profound theologian and a committed monastic he was not isolated from the lives of those around him. The small image at the bottom of the window recalls Basil’s poetic comparison of the various aspects and thousands of sounds of the sea with those of the human multitude which he served so well. Basil writes:

But if the sea is beautiful before [people], and before God, how much more beautiful is that multitude, that human sea, which has its sounds and murmurs, voices of men, of women, and of children, resounding and rising up to the throne of God.[7]

Today the sounds and murmurs, the voices of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and Latino women and men and their friends are rising up to the throne of God,and God hears their cry like the song of the sea.

It is hard to know what Basil would say about the horrors of Orlando, but one thing we can say is that God is listening to the sounds and murmurs and voices of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and Latino women and men of Orlando and their friends resounding and rising up to the throne of God like the song of the sea, and like them God is weeping.

We give thanks today for a theologian and teacher and monastic, but we also give thanks for a man so filled with the Spirit of God that he invites us to discover for ourselves the mystery of God as Trinity who hears the cry of his people, and weeps with them.


[1] Benson, Richard Meux, Letters of Richard Meux Benson, A. R. Mowbray, 1916, page 60

[2] Wikipedia, Basil of Caesarea, retrieved 14 June 2016

[3] 1 Corinthians 2: 9

[4] 1 Corinthians 2: 11b-13

[5]Holy Women Holy Men, Church Publishing Incorporated, 2010, page 426

[6]Rule of St. Benedict, Timothy Fry OSB, editor, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN, 1981, page 297

[7]Cowley, volume XX, number 79, Autumn 1947, page 79

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