My dear Friends,

It all began quite simply: with a letter mailed in Boston on 7 October, which arrived in Oxford sometime after. The letter caused quite a stir, because in a matter of days the recipient was on his way halfway around the world. The effect of that one letter is still felt here 150 years later.

The letter came from the parish of the Church of the Advent in Boston, inviting Richard Meux Benson to supply a priest to assist the Advent’s Rector for a period of some months. Father Benson set sail on All Saints’ Day 1870, and arrived in Boston twelve days later to explore the possibilities the letter opened to him. This Allhallowtide, then, marks the 150th anniversary of our Society’s arrival here in North America, and it all started quite simply, with a letter. Before leaving Oxford, Father Benson wrote to members of the parish of Cowley St. John, of which he was the Rector, and encouraged them in his absence to be diligent … in your prayers.

Since March 2020, our own worlds have become quite small. For many, travel even on the subway is no longer possible. We are confined to our homes, our neighborhoods, our immediate surroundings. Even an outing to do a few errands, or take a walk, requires planning and preparation that, a few months ago, we would never have imagined. Visits with family and friends – if they are not part of our bubble – are confined to Zoom, or outdoor meetings on park benches. Medical appointments and visits to the Emergency Room are incredibly complicated. Kitchen tables have become offices and children’s classroom, as some juggle the responsibilities of work and parenting at the same time.

As small as our worlds have become, this story of Father Benson and the initial days of the Society in Boston has resonance for me right now. It all began quite simply, with a letter. That letter transformed lives not just in 1870, but since 1870. I believe that the same can be true in our own day. Since becoming Superior, one of my joys has been the opportunity to write notes and letters to countless people. Many who have received a handwritten note from me have told me what a delight it was to receive an actual piece of mail. I don’t pretend that my ministry of letter writing will change the history of the world, or even the Church, as did that letter of 1870, but I do know that for a moment, someone’s day was brightened. I invite you to join me, and to reach across time and space, and make someone’s day a little brighter with an email, or better still, a phone call or a handwritten note. You never know what a difference you will make in someone’s life through such a simple act.

The other piece of this story that resonates with me is Father Benson’s encouragement to his parishioners to be diligent … in your prayers. For the Christian, prayer is not telling God what to do, rather it is an expression of love. As Father Benson teaches us, in prayer we learn to love whatever we take with us into the very being of the One who is eternal Love. Many, including the Brothers, ache because we are unable to gather in person for worship. Yet in spite of our physical separation we are united to one another in prayer through the God whom Jesus calls our Father. At a time when we are physically separated it is perhaps especially important to be diligent … in your prayers, so that we may all be united, one to another, in God’s unwavering love for each of us.

Each time the Brothers gather for worship, I am aware of all those who cannot be physically present, and I hold you in my heart before the Throne of Grace.

Sending or receiving a letter, praying or being prayed for, may not dramatically change the history of the world, but these simple acts are acts of love, and so they are acts of God. It seems to me that this is what the world needs now: many more simple acts of God.

Know that each time the Brothers gather for worship, you are being held before the Throne of Grace.

Faithfully in the One who acts through simple deeds of love,

James SSJE

James Koester SSJE


  1. Carole Fielding on November 1, 2020 at 10:05

    Thank you Brother James for reminding us of the simple, yet so important, act of prayer. Here in our corner of Perth Australia our lives are almost back to normal, having had no community spread for a few months now. However our news is covering the events in USA and we watch with increasing concern for you all. So I will pray for you all during these trying times. Blessings to you all.

    • L.T. on November 2, 2020 at 10:23

      To Carol Fielding. Thank you for prayers for the brothers and USA. Read my comments below at my previous post as I am in USA. Morale is not good at such a trying time. No support. People are not caring in my location. Some are afraid and not having needs met. Lack of resources and resources are piecemeal. People losing income. USA infrastructure is broken in some areas. A town near me has not had city water since July, Schlater, Mississippi. They just got a government grant to repair city pipes. Not sure when construction will happen ownwhen they will actually get running water. People are donating bottled water to the citizens for drinking, cooking, bathing. Places that did not have jobs before corona were broken before the crisis. The media spreads political bias which hurts people more. The battle of the mind and spirit is the hardest part. It depends where a person lives. Some places doing better than others. The brothers letters help.

  2. Sheri Anderson on October 31, 2020 at 08:37

    Dear Brother James,
    Your letters DO make such a difference. Receiving your note “out of the blue” was such a kind present in these days of uncertainty and isolation from family. We were very touched, as I am sure others are, too. This post has inspired me to spend a little time today sending some short notes to people I miss seeing now. We miss being at the Monastery and sharing worship with the Brothers. You are all in our prayers, too.

    Blessings and gratitude,

  3. Tambria Lee on October 31, 2020 at 05:06

    Brother James:
    As a recipient of one of your letters I can attest to the power of being seen. The fact that you took the time to pen a note did indeed make my day and remind me of the importance of doing that for my flock. As a priest I consider SSJE my parish of the heart and to be held in prayer mattered. Thank you.

  4. Christopher Kurth on October 30, 2020 at 21:09

    Brother James’ depiction of the impact of the virus on our everyday modern lives is spot on. And advocating intentional prayers and letter writing (Benedictine “pray-and-work”) is a holy response that will help us continue community in spite of a worldwide pandemic. Thank you Brother James and the SSJE.
    Blessings to you all, Christopher Kurth

  5. L.T. on October 30, 2020 at 20:39

    I am always appreciative of emails and encouragement sent to my inbox from the Brothers. Current times are so hard on people. I have indeed sent cards, letters, phone calls, emails to encourage others. No one returns the favor. Silence. Some of the times when I call people they are so in despair that they respond in hate. But they aren’t really mad at me. They are mad at their terrible hardships and I am the only human to let their animosity out on. I was a regular attendant of church without fail before corona. I don’t hear from the church at all. I really don’t understand the nature of people right now. I’m afraid at times and have worries but I still care about other people. I don’t know what has happened to everyone. I understand we must self isolate physically but I don’t understand why people do not want to encourage others and be encouraged. I don’t know why people are isolating emotionally and spiritually. It seems people should be just the opposite at a time like this.

    • Susan Letendre on November 5, 2020 at 08:04

      This great divide in our country (USA) today demonstrates, I believe, the essential need to love, listen, share especially with those who are caught up in hatred, fear, and, yes, even greed. A democracy, or a republic like ours, can only work if most people agree to certain basic principles. I believe the prayer and work continues, whomever is elected. I love the concept of simple acts. I believe they open the door for Spirit, no matter what response I witness. In love, Susan Letendre

  6. Mary Spence on October 30, 2020 at 15:36

    Thank you, Brother James, for this letter on Simple Acts. It is encouraging and very meaningful to me, especially at this time.

    SSJE brings so many ways to draw us closer to God, adding more all the time. I delight (and soak) in it. And trust it helps in my becoming “more fully the person God created me to be.”

    With great appreciation and love to you all,

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