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Telegrammes from God – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester

Feast of Saint Edward the Confessor and Requiem for Brother John Goldring SSJE

Wisdom 3: 1-6
Psalm 23
1 John 3: 1-2
John 20: 1-9

I first met John in the fall of 1981. I was at the Mission House in Bracebridge with a group of my fellow divinity students from Trinity College, Toronto for our annual fall retreat. I remember a number of things about that weekend. I remember that it was a wonderful fall weekend, much like the last several days have been here. Father Dalby, whom some of our will remember, was our retreat leader. And John preached at the Sunday Eucharist.

Now I don’t remember what John said in his homily, but I do remember that I, like my other classmates, was stunned by its simplicity, its brevity and its depth.Little did I know at the time, that John’s sermons would become a regular and important part of my spiritual life.  Nor would I have ever guessed on that Sunday in the chapel at Brace bridge, that I would be standing here, 35 years later, presiding at his funeral as his brother and Superior.

Those of you who heard John preach will no doubt remember his sermons. They were something which many of us in the community looked forward to week by week. Preaching never came easily to John. He would begin writing his sermons a day or two before he was to preach and spend hours staring at a blank computer screen. Finally, after much effort on his part, out would come a sermon. They were never long, often no more than a paragraph, occasionally two. They were always breathtakingly simple and incredibly profound. Like all of us who preach, he really only had one or two sermons in him, but his message was something that I at least needed to hear time and again. He spoke of how much God loves us and how God wants our love in return. He spoke of Jesus’ desire to be our friend, as only one who was already a friend of Jesus could. And he taught us how to know and return God’s love and to grow in our own friendship with Jesus through a life of pray and the gift of the Sacraments.

Another member of the community once referred to John’s sermons as telegrammes from God and that’s how they came across each time he preached. I love you. Stop. Do you love me? Stop. Please be my friend. Stop. Remember, I love you. Stop. In many ways, because John’s sermons were so simple and so direct, and yet so profound, I used to think that he was the best preacher in the community. Reading some of his sermons in the last couple of weeks since he died, confirms that for me. I often told him that, but I don’t think he ever believed me. My hunch is that John thought that I was teasing him. And that was very much who John was. He came across as incredibly shy, and I believe he was, but some of that shyness stemmed from a lack of self-confidence. He wasn’t aware, and probably disbelieved, that he of all people could have had a profound impact on countless people. Yet it is true. People saw in John, the real thing. He was, as I said in another context, the quintessential monk, and people knew that because they saw it. They heard in his sermons, they saw in his reserve, they could tell by the faithfulness of his prayer that he was a man who not only loved God, but was loved by God.

In John, we saw someone who was faithful to the name he bore. Like the Beloved Disciple, our John constantly pointed us to the love of God and our relationship to God as the children of God. And like John the Baptist, our John was constantly pointing away from himself and towards the One whom he loved. Over and again in his sermons he pointed us in the direction of Jesus. In one of his sermons on Psalm 18, John said: Jesus is the key to the Godhead. This is why we must develop a strong and intimate relationship with Jesus. Jesus desires to be close and intimate with each one of us. So we have to be open and desirous of Jesus. Just as the psalmist says, “I love you, O Lord my strength” so we must be able to pray “O Jesus, I love you, O Lord my strength.”

Because of his shyness, John had few real friends, yet when it came to his true friend, Jesus, he wasn’t shy at all. He wanted everyone to know the riches of that friendship and so in another sermon which he called Believe in Jesus he reminded us that: Jesus is a kind, patient, understanding, and sensitive man. He has great love for his disciples. How do we experience Jesus? Do we realize that Jesus has great love for us? Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. Jesus is not way out there. Jesus resides within each one of us. Jesus can be our constant companion if we allow him to. We have to get to know Jesus. Through prayer, the Eucharist, spiritual direction and bible study we gradually become intimate with Jesus. Oh what a friend is Jesus. Jesus is my heart’s desire.

To listen to John preach was to hear a word of truth spoken from someone who knew the truth of which he spoke for like any good preacher, John’s sermons were rooted in his own experience. When he spoke on one occasion about the Jesus Prayer you could tell that he had spent hours doing exactly what he was instructing us to do: You can pray this sitting or standing. You can do this in the privacy of your bedroom, sitting on a bus or train, washing the dishes or sitting on a park bench. Gradually this prayer will become second nature to you. You will become able to pray this prayer as you breathe. This prayer can accompany you throughout the day. This way of praying will gradually allow you to ignore intrusive thoughts and concentrate. It is a very simple method. And has been used for thousands of years by both monks and lay people. As you pray turn inward to your heart, your soul where Jesus resides. Jesus is your constant companion. He resides within you. Jesus is closer to you than you are to yourself. We were, in a sense, sitting at the feet of one who was speaking from his own experience, and that is the best kind of teacher.

But John was no saint, at least not the plaster kind. He could get angry, and be stubborn. He had very firm opinions on certain subjects. He was, what I would call, an old fashioned small ‘c’ conservative, so I can only imagine what he would be saying about the current political climate in this country. On one occasion he got so angry with the direction of a political conversation that was going on that he looked at us and sputtered: you, you, you Democrats! And stomped out of the room. For John, clearly calling someone a Democrat was the worst possible thing that could be said about them! But at the same time he believed that the wider society had a responsibility to care for the poor, the outcast, and the disenfranchised. He was a real paradox for he had a devotion to Saint Czar Nicolas II and would often pray for Third World peasant farmers!

As a Canadian he was proud to be a loyal subject of Her Majesty, The Queen. He believed not only in the principal of monarchy, but that monarchy (and for John that meant absolute monarchy, rooted in the Divine Right of Kings) was clearly the best form of government. After a visit to Russia a number of years ago with his sister Jane, he came home with an icon of the newly canonized Russian Royal Family and proudly displayed it in his room. I think it would delight him that his funeral is today of all days, when the Church is keeping the feast of Saint Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England!

But as attached as John was to The Queen and to Canada, he was first and foremost a community man, and so when the Canadian Congregation left Canada to come here, there was no question for John that he belonged here, where the community was. And it as here, where the Eucharist was celebrated, the Daily Office prayed, and the monastic life lived that John found a home and thrived and became that person God always wanted him to be, the quintessential monk.

And we who are his brothers, and you who are his friends, and you especially Jane, his beloved twin sister and best friend in this life, can give thanks: that John’s many years of faithful service continue to bear fruit both in this life and the next. As Father Benson wrote of Father Coggeshall, the first member of our community to die in 1876: It seems to give stability to our Society to have one thus permanently bound by death to the living Rock. May we have grace to follow him there, as he has followed us here.[1] John is now bound to that living Rock giving us here a sense of stability.

John is now with the One who was the desire of his heart. As sad as we are that he is no longer with us, we can take comfort that he is discovering the truth and reality of his own words: Oh what a friend is Jesus. Stop. Jesus is my heart’s desire. Stop. Would that be as true for us, as it was for him.


[1] Benson SSJE, Richard Meux, Further Letters, page 137

 

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2 Comments

  1. Ruth West on October 14, 2016 at 23:43

    Br. James, what an inspiring homily! Just as Paul advised his Christian followers to follow him as he followed Jesus, I think we can say the same for this good monk named John. His life was an example of the love of Jesus. No doubt, he shall be remembered with such love. Thank you, for telling us about him and his simple, yet powerful sermons.

  2. Margo on October 14, 2016 at 16:21

    Thank you Br. James that was lovely. I think you got him to a tee. Margo

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