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Posts by Br. James Koester

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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The Providence, Provision, and Protection of God – Br. James Koester

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Br. James Koester

Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10
Psalm 71: 1 – 6 1
Corinthians 13: 1 -1 3
Luke 4: 21 – 30

It all started out so well, Jesus, in the synagogue, in his hometown. No doubt, the benches were full that Sabbath morning, as would have been usual. Maybe people knew that Jesus, and some of his pals, had come home for a visit. They had perhaps heard that Jesus had seen, as perhaps they had, that crazed and crazy John the Baptist down the Jordan valley[1]. They might even have known that Jesus was just back from spending six weeks, alone, in the desert[2]. They might have heard that Jesus had taken up as a wandering teacher and preacher, and was developing quite a reputation[3]. They knew that something was going on out there, in the world beyond their little village on the top of a hill. But they may not have connected this kid, now the grown man sitting among them, with anything more than a wayward come home. As I said, it all started so well, and in fact, except for some mild curiosity, so routine.

But slowly things began to take a turn. It wasn’t that Jesus was asked to read the lesson from the prophets that day.[4]We do that, and no one gets excited! No, nothing unusual was happening. There was nothing to be excited about.

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And the Twelve Told Him All – Br. James Koester

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Br. James Koester1 John 4:7 – 12
Psalm 72: 1 – 8
Mark 6: 30 – 44

Those of you who have heard me preach before know that when reading Scripture, my attention is often caught, not by the soaring passages, or the amazing miracles, but the details that often creep in around the edge. Yes, the majesty of the Prologue of John, or the poignancy of the Foot Washing at the Last Supper, or the beauty of the Psalms are not to be missed. However, there is more to Scripture than majesty, poignancy and beauty. There is also the ordinary routine of daily living. It is there, in the ordinary routine of daily living, that God can be found as well. And that is why I am drawn, not to the miracle of the loaves and the fish, but to what comes before.

Chapter Six in the Gospel according to Mark is one of those breathless sections of Mark. A lot happens, and I mean a lot. It begins with Jesus’ rejection by his hometown and carries on to the sending out of the Twelve on their mission, the dance of Herodias and the death of John the Baptist, the return of the Twelve from their mission, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the calming of the sea, and there arrival at Gennesaret. As I mentioned, in 56 breathless verses, Mark crams in an awful lot of action, so much so, that if it were read all at once, our heads would be spinning!

As you may know, this kind of concentrated action is typical of Mark’s Gospel. It reminds me of an excited child coming home from a great adventure trying to condense a whole day’s activity into a few sentences: and then we did this! Then we did that! Then this other thing happened! Then, guess what happened???!!! Read More

Why Does This Story Never Wear Out? – Br. James Koester

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Br. James KoesterGrowing up, I shared a bedroom with my older brothers, Charlie and Chris. This wasn’t a problem, except when it was. On one occasion, they and their friends decided to play parachute, jumping from the top bunk, where Chris slept, down onto my bed. By the time my mother got home and discovered what we had been up to, my bed was a wreck, and my mother was furious. Needless to say, a new mattress and bedspring had to be purchased in order to make my bed usable again.

More problematic, at least for me, was the closet. As the youngest of the three boys, I went to bed earlier than Charlie and Chris. By the time they came to bed an hour or so later then I, it was usually much darker, and the darkest place of all was the closet directly opposite the foot of my bed. Now, I wasn’t afraid of the dark … well, not much at least. What I was certainly afraid of was the darkness of the closet. It seemed like a great gaping black hole, and I was terrified of it. I thought that I could get lost in that darkness forever. I would only be able to fall asleep again if the closet door was closed. And that was the problem. Either on purpose or accidentally Charlie and Chris would frequently leave the door open and I would have to timidly ask them to close it. By then they too were in bed with the lights out, and they would sometimes refuse to get up and do my bidding, so in fear and trepidation I would either whimper until they did so, or steel up my courage and do it myself, scurrying back to bed as quickly as I could, once the dreaded task was completed.

That was a long time ago, and by now, most of us are too old, or too sophisticated to be afraid of the dark. We no longer need big brothers to protect us from whatever is lurking in the back of the dark closet. We no longer dread falling asleep with the closet door open, with that great gaping darkness threatening to swallow us whole. We’re no longer afraid of the dark … well, not much at least. Read More

What is truth? – Br. James Koester

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Br. James KoesterDaniel 7: 9 – 10, 13 – 14
Psalm 93
Revelation 1: 4b – 8
John 18: 33 – 37

Several years ago, while I was still a parish priest, some parishioners came to me with a question. Robin and Anne were actually Baptists, but since we were the only church on the island where they lived, they attended the Church of the Good Shepherd. Some of the things that we as Anglicans took as a matter of course, were of concern to them, or else simply puzzled them. On this particular occasion, they had questions about the use of the lectionary.

Since the lectionary was, they felt, simply a human construct, what would happen if I believed God desired me to proclaim a certain message that in no way related to the appointed texts on that particular day. Would I, they wondered, be free to choose other readings? I don’t remember my answer. I think it was pretty wishy-washy. What I do remember, after nearly forty years, is the question. It still haunts me.

Were Robin and Anne to appear today and ask me the same question, I would have a very different answer. The real question is not, what if God wants me to address something outside the scope of the readings on any particular day. The real question is what to do if the lectionary forces you to look at something you would rather not! Read More

Letter from the Superior

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

This spring, as we once again read our way through the book of Exodus at Morning Prayer, I couldn’t help but reflect on how the story of God’s people in Exodus has been imprinted, not only in our hearts and minds, but also on the soles of our feet. Like the ancient people of Israel, we are a people on the move. We may not cover much distance in our lives, at least physically, but as God’s pilgrim people, we are always on the move, slowly but surely making our way through the wilderness of this life, to the land of promise in the next. This pilgrim journey of ours is marked not so much by miles traveled, but by hearts melted. As Ezekiel reminds us: A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 

If this journey from stony hearts to hearts of flesh is the story of God’s people throughout time, then it is our community’s story, not simply as God’s people, the Church; nor just as individuals, as Christians; but as a monastic community as well. We Brothers often speak, as Father Benson did, of being men of the moment, but I would also say that we are men of movement. Like all of God’s people, we too are called to be pilgrims. 

Last summer, we Brothers were able to embark together on an incredible pilgrimage to England, celebrating the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of our founding, by getting in touch with the deep roots of our tradition and visiting sites sacred to our community. We stood in the place of the Society’s founding, prayed in Father Benson’s parish church, and took a week’s retreat on Iona, where members of our Society once ministered. We laughed, we cried, and we were transformed by our experiences. As so many pilgrims do, we returned home with hearts aflame.

You can see some glimpses of our journey throughout this issue of Cowley, which takes up the theme of pilgrimage. In the Monastic Wisdom reflection, Br. Geoffrey explores the inner dimensions of spiritual pilgrimage. In his article, “Like a Beaten Bell,” Br. Keith reflects on experiences of thin places. You can also read about the recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, through reflections by a former SSJE intern, Amy Nizolek, and Br. David Vryhof. These stories of diverse experiences in diverse lands testify to how, in amazing ways, any pilgrimage takes us out of our everyday life only to return us to it more energized and ready to follow God’s call. Our community’s time overseas galvanized our passion for this life of ours, here in Cambridge and West Newbury. For more on that, check out Br. Jim’s interview about our new vocations website “Catch the Life” (p. 16-19). We hope that these stories of pilgrimage will strengthen and inspire you, wherever you find yourself along your path. 

It’s easy to read Exodus as an account of something which happened long ago, to a people far away. It’s easy to think of Saints Columba and Aiden and Cuthbert, whom we encountered in Britain, as dusty relics of a bygone time. But these are living stories. Their power comes when we allow them to be a lens through which we can examine our life as God’s pilgrim people today. To read Exodus simply as history is, perhaps, interesting. To read it as a pilgrim journey of risk and renewal – in which God’s people discover for themselves the meaning of their life with God – invites us to discover for ourselves the story of our own pilgrim journey, as we journey ever deeper into life in union with God.

BrJames

Thank you for being our companions on this journey.

Br. James Koester SSJE
Superior

The Promise of Divine Fulfillment – Br. James Koester

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Br. James KoesterToday at both Morning Prayer and the Eucharist we are confronted with a scandal. In both places the original audiences would have been shocked by what Jesus was saying. They may have been listening as Jesus spoke, thinking yes, yes, I quite see that. Suddenly, they would have been startled by what they heard. Perhaps they turned to their neighbour with a quizzical look. Maybe they asked someone near them to repeat what they thought they had just heard. Perhaps they tried to clean out their ears, thinking they had misheard the Teacher. But if we read the gospels carefully, what we heard this morning is not new. Jesus repeats it over, and over. Indeed, Jesus lives it. We could even say that Jesus dies it.

Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.[1]

‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured…’[2]

The world isn’t supposed to operate this way! Masters are not supposed to serve slaves; guests are meant to be honoured, not sent down to a lower place. Read More