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Posts by Br. James Koester

Praying At Night – Br. James Koester

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Genesis 32: 22 – 32
Psalm 17: 1 – 8
Matthew 9: 32 – 38

It was the winter term of Grade 9, and for gym class we were being taught some of the finer points of wrestling. As I am sure you can imagine, even though I had the weight, I didn’t have the strength, the aptitude, the dexterity, or more importantly the interest, to make a wrestler. But none the less, day after day, I would be assigned a partner, and within seconds, I would be flat on the mat with my opponent once again triumphant. I don’t think I ever lasted more than a few seconds, and I am sure that I never once prevailed.

With my dismal wrestling record, I can’t really imagine what it would be like to be so evenly matched, that you could actually wrestle all through the night, before one or other prevailed, yet this is exactly what happened that night with Jacob.

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.[1]

It was only as dawn was breaking, that Jacob’s hip joint was thrown out, and the night time contest came to an end.

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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.

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I Will Be With You – Br. James Koester

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Exodus 3:1-6
Psalm 27:1-11
Hebrews 3:1-6
John 14:15-27

Feast of St. Alban the Martyr

Profession of Initial Vows: Brother Lucas Hall SSJE

Today is one of those days when we have the opportunity to pull back the veil, if ever so slightly, and look within, in order to catch a glimpse of a wonderful mystery. This mystery is at work all around us. Mostly, however, it works in secret, away from prying eyes, for it is too precious, sometimes too fragile, often too personal. But today we are allowed a momentary glimpse, and what we behold causes us to stop, to step aside, to look, to see, to think, to ponder, to change our direction, even to offer our lives. It is only when we have stopped, and stepped aside to see, and ponder, does this mystery give us its name.

Today we see that mystery, and hear it speak its name. 

We see the mystery and hear its name, in the life of Moses, the Servant of the Lord. Touched by this hand of mystery at birth, and snatched from certain death in a watery grave, he encountered that same saving mystery once again in today’s lesson from Exodus. This time he is not a baby floating in a basket made of reeds, but a man, a shepherd, keeping watch over his father – in – law’s flock, in the wilderness. There at Horeb, near the mountain of God,the angel of the Lord appeared to [Moses] in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.[1]Such was the mystery that Moses encountered, that he could not but stop and look. ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’[2]It was only when Moses stopped and turned aside, that the mystery spoke. When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’[3]And in speaking, the mystery was revealed. ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.[4]

Having heard the voice of God, Moses can do no other, but hide his face. But this mystery, who is God, asks for more. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’[5]And having asked, God promises. ‘I will be with you.’[6]

Having stopped, to step aside, to look, to see, to think, to ponder, Moses’ life was changed, as he offered it to the service of the mystery who is God. And at this, the veil is lifted, and we glimpse, even just for a moment, the mystery of God at work in the soul of Moses. And there, in the heart of Moses, we see God making a home.[7]

We see the mystery, and hear its name in the story of Alban, whose feast we keep today. Alban was a Roman soldier stationed in Britain. One night a Christian priest, fleeing from persecution, appeared on Alban’s doorstep. For some reason, rather than handing him over to the authorities, Alban took him in, and hid him. Perhaps likes Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, Alban knew that in the presence of this priest, he was on holy ground. And like Moses, the mystery who is God was revealed to Alban, and having stopped, to step aside, to look, to see, to think, to ponder, Alban’s life was changed, as he offered it to the service of the mystery who is God. When the soldiers finally came to his door in search of the priest, Alban gave himself up, proclaiming his name to be Alban, and [that] I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things.[8]And at this, the veil is lifted, and we glimpse, even just for a moment, the mystery of God at work in the soul of Alban. And there, in the heart of Alban, we see God making a home.[9]

For some of us, once we have encountered this mystery who is God, like Moses, like Alban, we can do nothing except to stop, to step aside, to look, to see, to think, to ponder, and our lives are forever changed, as we offer them to the service of the mystery who is God. 

Both Moses and Alban could have acted differently. Both could have failed to see what was before them. Moses could have walked passed the burning bush, failing to see in it the mystery of God. Alban could have left that priest outside, alone, in the dark, to face his persecutors alone, failing to see the mystery of God in the one who stood before him. But neither did. In both bush and priest, Alban and Moses heard the voice of God speaking their name: Moses, Moses, Alban, Alban. And hearing that voice, their lives were changed.

Father Benson, the founder of our community, puts it this way: It is a most blessed thing to [hear God’s] call. [When God] opens the ear of the soul to hear His voice calling, directing us by His providence, impelling us by His constraining grace to be wholly His, then we must continue in this life by a reliance on the Divine strength. The vow does not remove the uncertainties of the will, the fluctuations of feeling, the tendencies to depression, the uprisings of passion. It does not shut out the visions of the world or quench the fires within, or benumb the lower human will. But it brings down the pledged blessing in giving to the soul the unchanging assistance of God. The life-giving hand of the Eternal is given to the soul [that] is bound to Himself, enabling it to rise triumphant over all the temptations of the world. The soul becomes dead, not with the death of apathy, but dead to the world because alive to God.[10]

Lucas, like Moses and Alban, you have heard the voice of God speaking your name, and as Father Benson reminds us, that is a most blessed thing. It is a most blessed thing to hear the voice of God speaking deep within a heart that it eternally aflame with love, aflame with the love of God, aflame with the love of all whom God has made.

For the last three years we have watched, Lucas, as your heart has burned, but not been consumed, with God’s love. And with Father Benson we can say, looking at you, that [it] is a most blessed thing to [hear God’s] call. [For when God] opens the ear of the soul to hear His voice calling, directing us by His providence, impelling us by His constraining grace to be wholly His, then we must continue in this life by a reliance on the Divine strength.

Today Lucas, the veil is once again lifted, if even for a moment, and all of us who love you, are privileged to see, if only just for a moment, that which is precious, and fragile, and deeply personal. And what we behold causes us to stop, to step aside, to look, to see, to think, to ponder, for we see that the God of Moses, and the God of Alban, has made a home in your heart, inviting you to [spend] your … life abiding in him and giving [yourself] up to the attraction of his glory.[11]

But Lucas, there is more that we see, for having given yourself to God, as you do this day, God gives to you, as he gave to Moses. I will be with you,God promised Moses. I will not leave you orphaned, I am coming to you,[12]Jesus promises us.

Again as Father Benson reminds us, [in] the vow of a Religious, there is to be the real trusting of the soul to the love of God, I believed, and therefore will I speak. God has promised all we can desire; we need not fresh promises. We trust ourselves to Him who cannot deny himself. We give ourselves up in perfect confidence to His love, and He will give more than human words can make known. Give up all to God, and God will give up His holy Being to us. All for all, the all of earth for the all of heaven, the all of man for the all of God.[13]

Today, as you trust your life and soul to God, God in Christ gives himself to you. I will be with you, God promises you this day. I will not leave you orphaned, Jesus promises you this day.

As our Rule of Lifereminds us, it is a great privilege to be called to the religious life.[14]And for us who love you Lucas, it is a great privilege to be with you this day, and behold with awe and wonder the fire of God’s love burning deep within you. Like Moses we cannot but stop and turn aside. And having turned aside, we too see a great mystery, and know that in your presence, we stand on holy ground. As you give yourself up to the mystery who is God today, we know also the promise God makes to you today, I will be with you. That promise comes again to you today from the lips of the Lord Jesus,I will not leave you orphaned.

Lucas, as you make your vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience today, we who love you are on holy ground, for in you we see a great sight: we see nothing less than the power, and the glory, and the majesty of God, burning within you, as the eternal mystery who is God, Father, Son, and Spirit comes and makes a home in your heart.


[1]Exodus 3: 2

[2]Exodus 3: 3

[3]Exodus 3: 4

[4]Exodus 3: 5, 6

[5]Exodus 3: 10

[6]Exodus 3: 12

[7]John 14: 23

[8]A Great Cloud of Witnesses, Church Publishing, 2016, June 22

[9]John 14: 23

[10]Benson, Richard Meux, Instructions on the Religious Life, First Series, 1927, page 14 – 15 

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

[12]John 14: 18

[13]Benson, Richard Meux, Instructions on the Religious Life, First Series, 1927, page 13

[14]SSJE, Rule of Life, Prayer and Life, chapter 22, page 44

Thyself Unmoved, All Motion’s Source – Br. James Koester

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Proverbs 8: 14, 22 – 31
Psalm 8
Romans 5: 1 – 5
John 16: 12 – 15 

One of the great lines from Father Benson, which is among my favourites, is something he said about the Holy Trinity. Writing to Father Rivington in 1875, he says: 

I quite feel that the practical neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity has been the great cause of the decay of Christendom. The Church – the Sacraments – Hagilogy, I had almost said Mythology – have filled the minds of devout people, partly for good partly for evil. ‘Thyself unmoved, all motion’s source’ this mystery of the circulating life of the eternal Godhead, has been almost lost to sight, spoken of as a mystery, and not felt as a power or loved as a reality.[1]

It seems like a bit of an outrageous claim, that the decay of Christendom is because of the practical neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity. Any school child, after all, can tell you that three does not equal one, and nor does one equal three. For many however, the Trinity is just that: a mathematical impossibility. So how is it then, that the neglect of this mathematical formula, and a nonsensical one at that, is the cause of the decay of Christendom?

For Father Benson, the Trinity had nothing to do with mathematics. It’s not about trying to convince people that something which makes no sense, actually does. The Trinity isn’t about math. It is about God, and it has to do with the reality of God who can be known, felt, and loved, in practice. And that’s what Father Benson is getting at here. He’s not speaking of the almost or nearly neglect, as in saying about something well that’s practically impossible, as in it’s unlikely to happen. Instead Father Benson is speaking of the practice, the experience, the experiential. What he is saying, is that people are no longer experiencing the Trinity and that the circulating life of the eternal Godhead is no longer a felt power or a loved reality. Because that circulating life of the eternal Godhead is no longer a felt power, or loved reality, it is rejected as a nonsensical mathematical formula, and one more thing to discredit, an already largely discredited, and irrelevant Church.

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The Gift of Pentecost – Br. James Koester

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Preached at Order of the Holy Cross, West Park NY

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Romans 8:14-17
John 14:8-17 (25-27)

I know that not many of you know me, but those of you who do, will perhaps remember that my undergraduate degree is in history. All my life I have been interested in history. There was even a time long ago when asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, my response was more likely to be a pioneer, than anything else. I remain fascinated by history and especially, for obvious reasons, by the history of the revival of monasticism within the Anglican tradition.

Reading the history of the monastic movement within Anglicanism is lots of fun, because you come across all kinds of people, some of them inspirational, like Father Huntington or Father Benson, and some of them just plain nuts, like Father Ignatius of Llanthony.

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It’s Glory O’clock – Br. James Koester

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Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 11: 1 – 18 
Psalm 148
Revelation 21: 1 – 6 
John 13: 31 – 35

There’s that word. I wonder if you noticed it this time. It’s not a very big word. In fact, it’s just three letters long. It’s a pretty common word. We use it a lot. But, John doesn’t. At least not in this context. And when he does, it’s huge! Cosmic events are unleashed when Jesus utters one, tiny, common word. Now. Now. Now.

When [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.[1]

Jesus has used this word in John’s gospel once before. He used it in the previous chapter, just after his encounter with the Greeks.

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ [2]

In response to their request we wish to see Jesus, he says much the same as he does in today’s gospel.

‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’[3]

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What Love Reveals – Br. James Koester

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Isaiah 43: 16 – 21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3: 4b – 14
John 12: 1 – 8

Some of you will remember that in the old daysthis Sunday in Lent went by the title of Passion Sunday. It was on this day that the liturgical colour changed from purple, or Lenten array, to red, but not the fiery red of Pentecost, rather the deep, dark, blood red of Passiontide. At the same time, the focus in the readings changed and they began to point, not to what Jesus was doing, and the miracles he was performing, but what would happen during that last week of his life.

In many ways, while the liturgical colour has not yet changed, and today is no longer called Passion Sunday, the same shift has happened, and the readings invite us to ponder the way of his suffering[1]They do that by pointing us to the day of [his] burial.[2]

The gospel for today is for me, one of the most tender of passages. It puts us back in the home of Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus. It is this family, you will remember, whom John tells us that Jesus loved.[3]It’s important to remember when thinking about this family in Bethany, that it is about this family that we hear for the first time, in John’s gospel, that Jesus loved someone. Yes, we hear in other places in the gospel of the love of the Father for the Son, and the Son for the Father. And we will hear about the disciple whom Jesus loved. But it is only when we arrive in this home at Bethany, on the occasion of the raising of Lazarus in the previous chapter, do we first hear that Jesus loved another person.

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Letter from the Superior

Dear Members of the Fellowship of Saint John and other Friends,

When people first come to know our community, they are often surprised to discover that we Brothers – who gather to pray five times a day, every day – also go on retreat! “Don’t you already pray all day?” they ask. Of course it’s more complicated than that, which is one of the reasons that even monks need to set aside times for retreat. As a community, we take a yearly retreat every summer, as well as a retreat day each month. And individual Brothers have further times of retreat throughout the year.

Now I’ll confess that, depending on how I feel, I tend to use our annual retreat time for a number of different purposes. Sometimes it’s an occasion simply to catch up on my sleep or my reading. Other years I’ll use the retreat to spend significant periods of time in the garden. Yet what sustains me in the weeks or months that follow our retreat is not what I have accomplished, but who I have come to know.

I remember one evening after supper sitting in the Chapel. We had gathered to spend some time in prayer before the Sacrament and in the midst of our silence we could hear the chorus of birds singing as dusk fell. I remember being in awe as the song of the birds gave voice to the song of creation as it joined with us in praising the Creator.

I remember Sister Rosemary SLG inviting us one year to experiment with praying in the middle of the night. I got up at 2 am and made myself some hot chocolate. I wrapped myself in a blanket and sat in the rocker. I then had an incredible hour of prayer as I held before God all those who were in any danger at that very moment. I had the physical and emotional experience of literally standing between people and danger, of being their intercessor in the fullest meaning of that word.

I remember gathering one morning in the Chapel for the Eucharist and being overwhelmed by an awareness of the presence of Jesus in the gathered community; for “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18:20). As I sat in my Brothers’ presence, I was deeply aware of the presence of Jesus, not simply in our midst, but embodied in my Brothers. 

Retreat times sustain me for weeks and months – and sometimes even years afterwards – because of the memory of the One I encountered. Our founder, Richard Meux Benson puts it this way: “in the retreat you want the real surrender of your soul with all the affections of the heart to God” (Instructions on the Religious Life, 2). Surrender to God rekindles our love for God and renews our experience of God’s love for us. This surrender is the heart of retreat. “We have meditated well if in our meditation we have loved much” (3). 

Retreat is a time to become lost in love with God. We hope this issue of Cowley will invite you to consider how God might be calling you to explore a time of retreat. Throughout these pages, Brothers share different approaches to retreat, as well as ideas for ways to weave retreat into our lives and daily routines. Whether we come away with God for a week or an hour, we know that when we truly look and listen for God, God will indeed reveal himself to us, for “none ever come unto God and are sent away empty. None come to God ever without receiving far more than they spend. Only come to Him, wait upon Him, look to Him, listen for Him, rejoice in Him. Put away everything else which can stand in the way of His being the simple joy of your heart” (9).

Br. James Koester

Yours in Christ,

Br. James Koester SSJE
Superior

I Coloured It! – Br. James Koester

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Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2
Luke 9:28-36

One doesn’t hear this often these days, but like some of you, I grew up in the church. Indeed, like a few of you, I grew up as an Anglican. When Sunday rolled around in our household, there was never any question about what we would be doing when we got up, or what clothes we should put on, it was simply part of our routine. The Koester family got up, put on our church clothes, and went to church. As kids, this meant that we weren’t available to play with our friends on Sunday, until after lunch. At times, such a routine was a great imposition on our social life, but we also knew that the only way to get out of church was to be sick, but all that meant is that Mum or Dad stayed behind with you, and everyone else headed out the door. Not even our ploys to break free of the routine were worth trying very often. Even as sick (and especially if it was only one of those mysterious childhood illnesses, which lasted only as long as Church did) we had to stay in bed all day. Even church wasn’t as boring as being forced to stay in bed, when bed was in fact the last place you really wanted to be.

Such a childhood had a great many advantages, but it has meant that, unlike some others of you here, I never made a conscience decision to be an Anglican, much less a Christian: that’s just the way things worked out. At times, I have missed what sounds to have been an important moment in a life as the decision is made as an adult, to become an Anglican or accept the truth of Christianity. At times I have missed that opportunity to make a mature adult decision, because every once in a while I think that my faith hasn’t progressed much past the stage it was in when I sat at those little tables in Sunday school colouring various Bible stories.

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Heart Speaks to Heart – Br. James Koester

Life Profession of Nicholas Bartoli SSJE

Br. James Koester

Exodus 33: 7 – 11
Psalm 139: 1 – 12 
1 John 4: 7 – 12
John 15: 9 – 19

If truth be told, I am more than a little surprised to be here today. Indeed, I am more than a little surprised that any of us are here today. I am actually most surprised that Nicholas is here today!

There was a time, not all that long ago in the scheme of things, that I was convinced that this life profession of our Brother Nicholas, would never happen. And I am not the only one. I think Nicholas was even more convinced that it would never happen! He was so convinced in fact, that he went around telling Brothers individually, that he was leaving the community!

In the midst of all of this, I tried to convince Nicholas that leaving, at least leaving when he was thinking about doing so, was not a good idea. But in case you didn’t know, Nicholas has a stubborn streak in him as wide at the Brooklyn Bridge! What saved the day was a conversation he had with a good friend of ours. In the course of that brief conversation, our friend put a couple of questions to Nicholas. In less than an hour Nicholas’ mind was changed as whole new possibilities opened up. A little more than a year later, here we are. Here we are to witness, and support, and encourage Nicholas as he makes his life profession in our Society, promising to God and before the whole company of heaven and in the presence of this congregation … that [he] will live in life-long observance of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, according to the Rule of this Society.

So friend, if you are out there, we owe you our profound thanks, because if it weren’t for your intervention, today’s profession would not be happening! (Although, there may be days in the future we blame you that it has happened!)

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