Steadfast, Enduring, Abiding: The Initial Profession of Todd Blackham – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester,

Genesis 28:10-22

Philippians 3:7-11

John 19:25b-30

Your novitiate Todd, will, I think, go down as one of the longest in the history of the Society. Sure, Father Arthur Hall[1] spent 8 years as a novice, but I am pretty sure yours was longer. At least it felt that way. Father Edwyn Gardner[2] was a novice for 15 years. But I think yours was longer. At least it felt that way. Brother William Buckingham[3] spent 23 years as a novice, but yours was definitely longer than that! At least it felt that way.

When you arrived in September 2019, no one foresaw what the future held in terms of pandemic, lockdown, and the closing of the guesthouse and chapel two years ago this week. We had never heard of COVID-19, worn masks (except perhaps at Hallowe’en), or imagined that millions of people around the world, including people we knew and loved, would become sick, and die in a matter of months. No one dreamed that in the matter of just a couple of days, 11 of us would test positive for the virus, and I would spend several sleepless nights wondering if this in fact was the way the Society would end. None of us, least of all the Luddite[4] that I am, could have fathomed that cameras or livestreaming would become a welcome fact of life here in the chapel.

No, none of that was foreseen, imagined, dreamt, or fathomed. But except for a few glorious weeks this summer when we were able to reopen the chapel, all of that has been a fact of life for us, and especially for you, and it has shaped and marked your time as a novice. No wonder then your novitiate has lasted an eternity! Brother William and Father Gardner or Father Hall have nothing on you!

But through all of that Todd, you have stuck it out. There were many days when I wondered if you could (or I admit, even should), but you did, and here we are.

Is it any wonder then, that you have chosen these lessons for this day? Jacob’s dream, and his profound sense of God’s presence in a particular place, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’[5] Or Paul’s overwhelming desire to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection of the dead.[6] And Mary and John standing together at the foot of the cross. As you know, our Rule points to that scene, when we say, [the] beloved disciple did not hide from the suffering of Christ at Golgotha but took his stand there with Mary. By being steadfast together at the cross, enduring all that others found unbearable, they remained in Jesus’ love. If we abide in that perfect love shown on the cross we will receive the grace to face together all that we are tempted to run from in fear. Christ’s gift of enduring love will be the heart of our life as a community, as it was in the new family which he called into being from the cross when he gave Mary and John to one another as mother and son.[7]

If COVID, and all that has gone with it, Todd, have shaped your experience of our life together in these last two years, then these lessons have somehow been imprinted on your soul for a very long time. Without them, we may not be gathered here today doing what we are doing.

In coming here, to this particular place, you have found not only a community in which to be a member, you have found with Jacob, a place you know to be the house of God, and the gate of heaven, and how awesome is that place.

In coming here, you have found that place with Paul where you can share, not only in the sufferings of Christ, and become like him in his death, but know him in the power of his resurrection.

In coming here, you have found a place to be steadfast, and to endure, so that you may abide, until it is finished.[8]

Our monastic predecessors recognized that their monastic vocation was not an escape from the sufferings of the world. If that were the case, life in community would be so much easier. For them, the monastery was a place of death, a place of crucifixion, a place of the cross, because it is a place of suffering, and place of dying to self. Todd, you will die here, and your Brothers will kill you, if you and we have not already done so by now. That is a promise I can make. That is a promise I can keep. There is no escape. And you know that. You know that from the last two years.

When you came, none of us foresaw, imagined, dreamt, or fathomed what the future would hold, especially for you. You and we did not choose how you would spend your novitiate, nor how you would suffer, nor how you would die, if even just a little. And is not that what the cross is like?

Our founder, Father Benson says this of the cross:

We must submit ourselves to the law of the passion, to come to Christ, to go along the way of this world by which he went, and that way is the way of sorrow. To submit to Christ in his heavenly glory is very little good, but to submit to Christ and take up our cross and follow him – this is what we must seek. So then we must submit to the cross in whatever form it comes. That form will so likely be just the one we had not looked for. We had pictured to ourselves so many forms of suffering in which we might bear witness to the glory of Christ. We had pictured to ourselves various things that Christ would call us to do for him. But our hopes and anticipations are altogether overthrown. The cross which is given to us does not seem helpful to our spiritual course; it does not seem helpful to our life in the world. The cross which Jesus gives is not that which commends itself to our judgment; for, if it were, it would not be a cross; not to our taste; for if it did that it would not be a cross.[9]

I know Todd, that the last two years have not been to your taste, to put it mildly. But as Father Benson says, is not that the point of the cross? Choosing how, and when we die; choosing how, and how much we suffer; choosing our cross, is in fact not the cross. Your Brothers, Todd will choose for you, and be that to you. We will choose how you are to die, how you are to suffer, what your cross will be. Just ask any of us. We will tell you exactly how true that is. None of us choose these things. They are all given to us, sometimes by God, certainly by others.

Because we cannot choose how we will suffer and die (for if we did, it would not truly be suffering, or death), we cannot choose our own resurrection (for if we did, it would not truly be resurrection).

What you can do, what we all can do, is choose to be steadfast and to endure, in the face of everything, so that we may abide, until we can at last say with Jesus, it is finished.

Paul wanted to know the power of the resurrection. We cannot know the full power of anything, much less the resurrection, if somehow, we are able to determine resurrection from what. By choosing how I will suffer, I am in fact choosing my own resurrection, and thereby limit its power, to merely overcoming the suffering I have chosen. If that is the case, we have not chosen resurrection power, we have simply chosen a way out.

Mary and John did not choose how they would suffer that day on Golgotha. Instead, they chose to be steadfast, and to endure. In doing so they chose to abide to the end. Only by abiding to the end, could they comprehend what happened on the third day. Only by abiding to the end, could they comprehend the meaning of the Empty Tomb. Only by abiding to the end, could John see and believe.[10]

Todd, like Jacob, you have come to this place, which is the house of God and the gate of heaven, but it is not paradise, at least not yet. It is the place of your crucifixion, the place of your suffering, the place of your cross. And while you have chosen this place, you cannot choose what will happen here. What you can do is choose to be steadfast, to endure, to abide, until it is finished. Only then can you know Christ and the power of his resurrection.

I made a promise to you a few moments ago Todd. I promised that you would die here. I promised that I will, we will, kill you. I’ll now promise something else. Todd, I promise that though we will kill you, we will also uphold [you] with compassion and love, [and support you] with [our] prayer[11] at the same time, so that when you say, it is finished you may truly know Christ and the power of his resurrection. That is my, that is our, promise to you today.

Todd, welcome to the place of your crucifixion, and to the place of your resurrection. In Jacob’s words, this is truly an awesome place, and I know you would not want it any other way.


[1] Father Arthur Hall SSJE was made a novice on 6 June 1870 and professed on 28 July 1877, shortly after his 30th birthday. At the time our Statutes prevented men under 30 making their profession.

[2] Father Edwyn Gardner SSJE was made a novice on 28 October 1870. He was ordained in 1884 and professed on 17 August 1885. Because our Statutes prevented laymen from having a seat or voice in Chapter, and the Lay Brothers observed a different Rule of Life, there was little difference between a layman who was a novice or professed, as a result there was little reason to profess Lay Brothers.

[3] Brother William Buckingham SSJE was received as a postulant on 6 May 1871 and remained a novice until his profession on 4 August 1894.

[4] The Luddites were bands of English workers who between 1811 and 1816 destroyed factory machinery which they believed were threatening their jobs. Today the term is used to describe people who are opposed to new technology or new ways of doing things.

[5] Genesis 28: 17

[6] Philippians 3: 11

[7] SSJE, Rule of Life, Our Dedication to the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved, chapter 2, page 5

[8] John 19: 30

[9] Benson, Richard Meux, Instructions on the Religious Life, Third Series, 1951, page 78 – 79

[10] John 20: 8

[11] SSJE, Rule of Life, Holy Death, chapter 48, page 97

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