Sacred Geometry – Br. James Koester

Initial Profession of Brother Sean Robert Glenn SSJE
John 4: 5 – 30, 39 – 42

Some of you will remember that for a number of years, I spent ten days each summer in Oregon, at an icon writing school. These weeks were enormously rewarding. But before they were rewarding, they were incredibly frustrating.

Each year I began with a sense of excitement and anticipation, but within a day or so that would dissolve into frustration that would put me on the edge of tears for much of the day. I just couldn’t get it, and what I couldn’t get was the geometry.

Before we were allowed to pick up a brush, we first had to analyze the icon; discover it’s geometry, indeed it’s sacred geometry, and then, on overlaid sheets of tracing paper, lay down the geometrical shapes we found in our analysis. Once we had found and placed the lines, the triangles, the semi-circles, the circles, we could then set about drawing, not tracing, but drawing the figure in the icon we were to paint.

That is where, invariably, I would be close to tears. As a school student, I was never good at math, much less geometry, and I was even worse at drawing. I would describe myself as someone who drew stick people badly. Any line I put down, never seemed right. It was always in the wrong place, or too short, or too long, or too this, or too that. Sheet after sheet of tracing paper was torn off, and tossed away, … until something happened. The line was right. It was in the right place. It was the right length. It was at the right angle. It was the most beautiful line I had ever seen, and I had drawn it. And then another. And another. And another.

In a couple of days, I would go from tears of frustration, to tears of intense satisfaction, and all because of a simple line. But more than that, because I had discovered the geometrical shape upon which my simple line found its meaning.

Since those summers, I have been especially aware of shapes and lines: the curve of an arch, the squared cut of a piece of marble, the fall of drapery. But I also now see the shapes and patterns, indeed the geometry, upon which these other lines find their meaning.

We say a number of things about the community in our Rule of Life, which I believe, gives us a shape. We speak of a company of friends,[i] and a great cloud of witnesses.[ii] We remind ourselves that human beings bear the image of the triune God and are not meant to be separate and isolated.[iii] We describe ourselves as a nucleus,[iv] and speak of our friends, neighbours, volunteers, and employees as our partners in ministry.[v] We specifically say that a brother must never be left feeling isolated in his ministry[vi] and that no Brother is to be left friendless.[vii] We tell ourselves that we are to minister to one another generously as equals.[viii]

Like an iconographer, over and over in our Rule, we lay down the lines which give shape to our community, and underlying those lines, is the sacred geometry which gives meaning to our life. Just as in an icon where there is a primary geometrical shape underlying the image, and giving meaning to the lines, so too in our community there is an underlying geometrical shape that gives meaning to our life together.

Andrei Rublev[ix], the great Russian iconographer knew the shape, and based his icon of the Holy Trinity around it. That shape, which we don’t see in the icon, but which we all experience as we are drawn into the image to take our place at the table with the Divine Beings, is the circle. It is that same circle, which I believe, is the primary geometric shape of our community. That same sacred circle, though unseen, underlies our community, and gives meaning to everything we do as a company of friends, living in the image of the Triune God, where none are meant to be separate, isolated, friendless, or alone, working with partners, and treated as equals. This is the sacred circle of our life.

If the circle is the primary geometric shape of  our life together as a monastic community, is it any wonder that we live in a circle (or at least we would, had Cram’s design for the monastery been completed), that we eat, meet, and worship together, in a circle? Woven into the very texture and fabric, indeed the very meaning of our life, is a circle, where none stand alone, isolated, or friendless.

And isn’t that the point of the story of the Samaritan woman, whom tradition names Photine,[x] the Light Bearer (for that is what her name means), and whom the Orthodox honour as Equal to the Apostles?

Here was a woman who was not part of any circle. Alone, isolated, friendless, without partners, or equals, certainly, for whatever reason, excluded from the circle of community, probably family, and even faith, she makes her way alone to the village well at noon, in the heat of the day, when no one else would be out. Perhaps craving kindness, goodness, sympathy, or at least understanding, she goes in search of what? Water? Belonging? A sense of place? The gift of being known? In her search she finds Jesus, patiently waiting.

Sean, when you told me the other day that you wanted the account of the Samaritan woman as the gospel for today, I must confess, I was not surprised. Like her, you have been on a search for something, for perhaps all your life. Like her, that search has sent you out into the heat of the day, often alone, perhaps isolated, no doubt craving, what? Meaning? Purpose? The academy, professional music, parish music, ordination, Seattle, New York, Boston, even just a place to belong, your search for water which will quench, has sent you across the continent, and in a variety of directions, sometimes all at once. And in your search, like Photine, you found, what? A circle of men, patiently waiting.

For Photine, that encounter with Jesus changed her life. Suddenly, like the disciples who left all, family, nets, companions, occupations, she abandoned her water jug in her haste to proclaim ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’[xi] The least likely person in the world, became a herald, an evangelist, an apostle, one who was sent, drawing others towards the One whom she had found.

I think it is safe to say Sean, that some of those who have known you, would be surprised to see you here today. The least likely person in the world, has become a herald, an evangelist, an apostle, one who is sent, to draw others to the One of whom you say, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’

Going to the well to draw water that day, Photine found something else. In Jesus, she found at last a circle where she could belong. There, patiently waiting, ignoring her doubts, her past, her arguments, her objections, was One who simply held open for her a place in the circle of God’s love. All she had to do was walk into the circle of that love, and the One who is Love, for God is love,[xii] and take her place.

Sean, the circle of your Brothers here has been waiting patiently for you for a long time, ignoring your doubts, your past, your arguments, your objections, we have been holding open for you a place in the circle of this community. All you need to do is walk into it and take your place.

When Photine walked into the circle of Christ’s love, she found belonging, inclusion, friendship, equality, partnership. May you, Sean, like Photine the Light Bearer, and Equal to the Apostles, find the same, and in turn bear the light of God’s love to others as you proclaim, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’

[i] SSJE, Rule of Life, The Call of the Society, chapter 1, page 2

[ii] Ibid., Our Founders and the Grace of Tradition, chapter 3, page 6

[iii] Ibid., The Witness of Life in Community, chapter 4, page 8

[iv] Ibid., page 8

[v] Ibid., page 8, and Employees, chapter 35, page 70

[vi] Ibid., Ministry in Practice, chapter 33, page 66

[vii] Ibid., The Graces of Friendship, chapter 42, page 84

[viii] Ibid., The Challenges of Life in Community, chapter 5, page 11

[ix] Andrei Rublev (c.1360 – c.1430)


[xi] John 4: 29

[xii] 1 John 4: 8

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  1. Tudy Hill on October 1, 2020 at 22:06

    This message was inspired…thank you, Br James. What a beautiful way to welcome Sean into your community!

  2. David Searle on September 24, 2020 at 21:20

    What a wonderful sermon, thank you for sharing. May we all find as loving and welcoming community, and be light bearers in our homes. God bless

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