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Why Monks Matter – Br. James Koester

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Life Profession of Keith Robert Nelson SSJE

2 Chronicles 6: 12 – 15, 41 – 42 – 7: 4
Psalm 116
1 Peter 1: 3 – 9
John 15: 1 – 11

I don’t know if this was your experience, Keith. It certainly was mine. When I announced to my friends that I was coming here to test my vocation, a number of them responded, what a waste. Some thought that I had suffered a setback, a disappointment, in life, and that I was going off to the monastery to lick my wounds, to heal, to hide. Others thought that I was throwing away my life as a parish priest, in exchange for a life they could not understand, much less comprehend. A few thought that I was turning to a life that was too heavenly minded, to be any earthly good. There were one or two, who thought that I was disappearing behind the monastery wall, and would never be heard of, or seen again, and they grieved my coming here, as if I had died. A few assumed that I was simply running away from something. It was impossible to explain in ways they could understand, what I was doing, and why I was doing it. It took a huge amount of determination, and persistence to come, because in this day and age, our life does seem to many, to be a waste. It appears to them that we are running away. It looks to them that we are hiding from the real world. Why on earth would a talented, young man, with enormous potential, choose such a life that is so foreign, so alien, so strange, to the world around us?

Looked at one way, our life is unfathomable. It makes no sense. It is a waste, because the one thing at the core of our life is so, so incomprehensible, to so, so many people. That incomprehensible thing of course, is God.

This life makes absolutely no sense unless, and until, God makes sense. As Father Benson reminds us, [we] must seek to realize increasingly the purposes for which our Society is called together – to live for God….[1] It is this single-minded living for God that is at the core of our life, which sets us apart from the prevailing culture around us, and which to some, makes no sense at all.

By living for God, and for God alone, we say something profound. We say that life only makes sense when lived for the capital O, Other. By living for God we proclaim that we are not the source and centre of our world. We acknowledge that there is something much bigger beyond us. We recognize that life is a mystery, that it is not an accident of nature, or fluke of happenstance, or a ghastly mistake. By living for God we remind others that life does have a purpose, and that the source of that purpose, is the goodness and love of God.

It is that to which our life points, reminding all that life is [indeed] full of meaning in union with God.[2] This is the one source and true joy of our life, and it throws us to our knees, as it did Solomon.

Then [Solomon] knelt on his knees in the presence of the whole assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands towards heaven. He said, ‘O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you, in heaven or on earth, keeping covenant in steadfast love with your servants who walk before you with all their heart— you who have kept for your servant, my father David, what you promised to him. Indeed, you promised with your mouth and this day have fulfilled with your hand.[3]

Keith, in a world where so many live for themselves, your vows today are a challenge to all who see themselves as the centre of their own universe. By declaring your intention to live for God, you remind us that the meaning of life is discovered in union with God, and that the way of God, the way of Jesus, the way of sacrificial, redemptive love is the way of happiness. Such love is the only thing that will change this old world. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, [we] must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make [people] better. Love is the only way.[4]

Keith, you are making this old world new today, by kneeling before the whole assembly and declaring that God’s way of sacrificial and redemptive love, is the only way for you to live.

As you do that, you are going to promise something. You are going to make a promise that you will live in the life-long observance of poverty, celibacy, and obedience. And that’s crazy. That’s insane. What right thinking, intelligent, young man would do that? It goes against everything the world around us tells us. It is a waste.

All around us we are told that you can have it all, be it all, get it all. There is never enough. The sky is the limit. It is this which drives much of the world, and it is killing us, literally. The monastic vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, rooted as they are in the Baptismal Covenant, are vows of limitation. They are not a rejection of the goodness of creation, the wonders and delights of intimacy, or the satisfaction of fulfillment. Rather they remind us all that there is freedom in limitation.

There are limits to what we can have, or be, or get and while this is true for everyone in general, it is especially true for Christians, who believe in the interconnectedness of all, our connection with creation as a whole, our interdependence with other people, and our dependence on God the giver of all good gifts, who is the source and centre of our lives. Unless we learn to live with limitations, the destruction we will cause to creation, and the inequality we will establish between people, will cause irreparable harm to the environment, perpetuate cycles of destitution and violence among nations, and abuse between people.

The monastic virtue of poverty is not simply to teach monastics to hold all things in common, it is meant to teach all of us to regard limitations, not as confining, but as a liberating act of God’s justice for all, so that everyone, and not just the rich and privileged can have enough, and receive their just share of power and the bounty of God.[5]

Like the vow of poverty, the vow of celibacy is about limitations. Narrowly speaking, celibacy is about limiting one’s sexual expression. More broadly speaking, the vow is about living temperately. Just as living within our limitations reminds us that you can’t have it all, living temperately reminds us that you can’t have everyone.  Sexuality is about more than sex, and celibacy reminds us that there are more ways to be generative, to be creative, to procreate, than through the sexual act alone. Celibacy reminds us that there are ways to intimacy that do not take us through the bedroom door. Celibacy and temperance, are not simply about sexual abstinence, they are about recognizing the inherent dignity of both yourself, and the other person.

We know that we live in a sexed up culture. One only has to look at magazine and billboard to understand that. But I would argue, culture has been sexed up since Eden. When haven’t we been preoccupied with sex? Just read a Jane Austin novel, or the Song and Songs, or wander through the MFA, to answer that question. 

While the monastic vow of celibacy isn’t (and shouldn’t be) for everyone, the virtue of temperance can be. Celibacy and temperance are not anti-sex, or even anti-sexuality, so much as they are about limitations that allow us to discover the dignity with which all are vested, simply because we have been created in the image and likeness of God. Temperance, like celibacy is a way for us to take the time to discover the gift of God that is the other, and to learn that creativity, and generativity, and intimacy, are divine gifts, not dependent on the sexual bond alone.

If the monastic vow of celibacy and the virtue of temperance are about discovering the inherent dignity of each person, then the vow of obedience and the virtue of wisdom that comes from listening, is about paying attention to that dignity. We know that obedience isn’t simply doing what you are told to do, because you have been told to do it, it is about listening, and the wisdom that comes from listening. Those who are engaged in any form of ministry often have the experience of saying or doing something, and then wondering where did that come from? or how did I know to do that?That kind of wisdom comes only from listening. 

The discovery of your own inner wisdom is about paying attention to your own dignity. As the bumper sticker says: God doesn’t make junk. We are human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore are vested with an inherent dignity. It is that dignity that the vow of obedience, and the virtue of wisdom that comes from listening, invites us to pay attention to. 

At times it is our own inner dignity that we are called to listen to. Other times it is the dignity that comes from another’s listening heart that we must respond to. In this impatient world, neither are easy, for listening takes time. But listening also demands humility. We need humility and not arrogance, when we listen to our own inner wisdom. Equally important is the humility called forth from us, when we must listen to the wisdom of others, especially in this independent, me first age. 

The monastic vow of obedience and the virtue of wisdom that comes from listening, teaches all of us that we are vested with dignity. In an age when people are simply regarded as consumers and tax-payers, rather than as citizens and saints, human dignity is often expendable. The vow of obedience, and the virtue of wisdom, remind us that this is not true. God doesn’t make junk.

Keith, today you are doing something profoundly important, not for your sake, but for the sake of the world. What some see as a waste, as running away, as hiding, even as a death, is actually the way of Jesus. It is the way of self-spending, redemptive love. It is the way God has chosen you to change this old world.

By declaring to the world that God is the centre of your life, you call all of us to look up, to look out, and see that we are not the centre of the world, but a single part of one great whole, that began when God first said, let there be…, and there was, and it was good. By kneeling here today with Solomon, dedicating yourself to the service of God, as Solomon dedicated that temple in Jerusalem, you dedicate yourself as God’s temple, where the glory of the Lord will abide, and thus, as Father Benson invites us, to live for God.

Keith, by taking the vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience for life, you are doing something profoundly important, not for your sake, but for the sake of the world. What some see as a waste, as running away, as hiding, even as a death, is actually the way of Jesus. It is the way of self-spending, redemptive love. It is the way God has chosen you to change this old world.

By making these vows you remind us that we can’t have it all, be it all, get it all. The vows are not a rejection of the goodness of creation, the wonders and delights of intimacy, or the satisfaction of fulfilment. Rather they remind us that there is freedom in limitation.

Keith, what you are doing today matters. It matters not just to you, or to your Brothers, and family, and friends who love you. What you are doing today matters to the world, because what you are doing today is rooted in love, your love for God, and God’s love for you. 

Keith, Mary Oliver once asked, tell me, what is it that you plan to do with your one wild, and precious life?[6] Though you may not know it, your answer today, is making this old world new, through the power of love, and the grace of limitations, and for that, we who love you, are truly thankful.


[1]Benson, Richard Meux, The Religious Vocation: Of the Objects of the Society, Chapter 1, page 37

[2]SSJE, Rule of Life, The Word of God in Preaching, chapter 19, page 39

[3]2 Chronicles 6: 13b – 15 

[4]https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King,_Jr., downloaded 6 July 2019

[5]SSJE, Rule of Life, Poverty and Stewardship in Practice, chapter 7, page 15

[6]Oliver, Mary, The Summer Day

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3 Comments

  1. Margo Fletcher on July 20, 2019 at 08:41

    Congratulations Br. Keith may yours be ties that bind forever.
    Thank you Br. James for these words: ” Unless we learn to live with limitations, the destruction we will cause to creation, and the inequality we will establish between people, will cause irreparable harm to the environment, perpetuate cycles of destitution and violence among nations, and abuse between people.” May we all take them in and live by them Margo

  2. Josephine Gibson on July 19, 2019 at 16:51

    I like the bit about you making the old world New, Keith. You made my old world New when a video you made led me to SSJE, and all the riches it offers. God go with you always, till the end of time. Greetings from England!

  3. Eben Carsey on July 13, 2019 at 13:20

    Dear Brother Keith, congratulations. I thank God for your vocation and for your response of profession and for the blessings that your preaching, other acts, and presence are bringing to your monastic community and to those of us in and not in the Fellowship of St. John. It can certainly be said of any of our lives, “This life makes absolutely no sense unless, and until, God makes sense.” It is also true for all of us that freedom and blessing can be discovered in our limitations, whether or not they are imposed by our own decisions. For those of us who have not made such a commitment as yours, it is easier for the way we live our lives to mislead ourselves and others to the contrary. However, your profession helps all of us to “disabuse ourselves of the delusion and the burden that we possess our lives,” as I have heard Brother Curtis say more than once. Thank you.

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