Blessed be the Lord! For he has shown me the wonders of his love in a besieged city

My dear friends,

The other day, as we were praying Morning Prayer, my attention was arrested by a line from the psalm: Blessed be the Lord! For he has shown me the wonders of his love in a besieged city (Psalm 31:21).

It has now been a year since we Brothers made the impossible decision to close both the Guesthouse and the Chapel. In these last twelve months, it has often felt we were living in a besieged city, as we all went into lockdown, emerging only briefly to accomplish necessary tasks. Many of us have seen family and friends only at a distance, or on Zoom. Some whom we have known and loved are counted among the 500,000 in this country alone, who have died because of the virus. Others have died, not from the virus, but alone and isolated none the less. Harvard Square, like many places around the world, now contains empty storefronts where there were once thriving businesses.

In twelve months, many things have changed, and it will take years for us to recover from the sense of loss and grief – not to mention the political, economic, and social fallout which the pandemic has caused. We have truly been living in a besieged city.

While some things have changed, and changed drastically, others have remained constant. One of those constants is that, throughout these twelve months, the promise of God’s abiding presence has not failed or faltered. We remind ourselves of this in our Rule where we read, we can learn to stay still in our experience of numbness … and trust that Christ is just as truly alive in our hearts in these times as in those in which we enjoy the sense of his presence.

As we prayed the psalm that morning, I was flooded with an awareness that despite all that has happened these last months, even on the darkest days, God has faithfully shown the wonders of his love.

Over these months, we Brothers have been upheld and supported by the prayerful love and friendship of so many. You have reached out to us, assuring us of your prayers, and sustaining us by your generosity. Our, at first halting, and then more confident, venture into livestreaming and digital ministry has been received with incredible patience, and tremendous enthusiasm. We have been cared for in ways both simple and profound.

It has been a year none of us will want to repeat, and which all of us will want behind us. But through it all, God’s wondrous love has been our companion, even on the darkest days.

In a few weeks, our Lenten fast will end, the New Fire will be kindled, and the Resurrection will be proclaimed once more. As you experience the joy of the Resurrection this year, I pray that you will know the wonders of God’s love, as it bursts out of the tomb. This wondrous love has been your constant companion for these last twelve months as well.

Faithfully in the wondrous Love of God, which is seeing us through,

James SSJE

This is a season of disfiguration. Yet it is also a time of hope.

My dear friends,

Recently, I have been recalling that it is almost a year since we closed the Guesthouse and Chapel. You will remember those days. We began hearing about this new virus and the reports of mounting deaths. Soon we were horrified to discover that it had reached this country. Today, nearly half a million people have died from Covid-19 in this country, and almost 2.3 million around the world.

In many ways, these last 11 months have been a time of disfiguration, as many have been disfigured by disease and death. Some who have recovered continue to feel the effects and are living with post-COVID-19 syndrome.

If this has been a time of disfiguration in terms for our bodies, it has also been a time of disfiguration for our body politic. Around us we see the effects of systemic racism, and the lingering consequences of slavery. We have seen our government literally assaulted, and what happens when civil discourse is replaced by lies, corruption, and self-interest; where compromise and negotiation are seen as signs of weakness; and schools, churches, and business shuttered, leaving behind economic and social problems that will require years to heal and repair.

As a monastic community, we too have been disfigured. In an instant, our life was turned upside down. The closing of the Guesthouse and Chapel has had a profound impact. Our community life has been radically altered. While we all remain healthy, we are discovering our need for human contact and the context of a larger community of friends, family, and sisters and brothers in Christ. We miss the company of women, which our Rule speaks of when it says, [we] value the gift of friendship with women, as Jesus did; without it we run the risk of spiritual and personal impoverishment.

This is a season of disfiguration. Yet it is also a time of hope.

Just a few weeks ago we celebrated Christmas and remembered God’s act of divine self-emptying when God broke all the limits of generosity in the incarnation of the Son for our sake, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

John’s gospel reminds us that the Word became flesh and lived among us. In this act divine self-emptying, God did much more than simply take on human flesh. God took on our limitations, our finitude, even our disfiguration, by submitting to death, disease, and loss; pain, grief, and sorrow; boredom, loneliness, and fatigue; worry, anxiety, and disquiet. God took all this on in the person of Jesus, and that is a thing full of wonder.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth-century bishop and theologian, reminds us that which God has assumed, God has healed; that which is united to God is also saved.

Today we find ourselves in a time of disfiguration, and the message of the Gospel is that God has been here before us. God has transfigured what in us is disfigured.

Even now in a world gripped by pain, loss, and grief, the light of God’s glory is breaking through. As St. Paul reminds, all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another… (2 Corinthians 3:18)

We may be tempted to see only disfiguration as we look at the world, or our own lives, but that is not the whole truth. The whole truth is that which God has assumed, God has healed.

So, take heart. God in the person of Jesus has been here before us, and even now is transforming and transfiguring our disfigured world. In so doing, God in Christ is making all things new once more, and that includes even you.

Please know that all of you are constantly in our prayers. We wish you a holy beginning to this season of Lent.

Faithfully in the One who is making our world new,

James Koester SSJE

Truly I Will Come

My dear friends:

One of the joys of my life as a Brother is our annual cycle of antiphons, which we sing before and after the Magnificat each evening. After thirty years, they return each year, each season, each feast, like a visit from an old friend. I look forward to their arrival; to singing them; to the memories they elicit; to the hope, the longing, the anticipation they express; to the beauty, the complexity, the quirkiness of the music; to the story they tell; to the feelings they put into words. This is especially true of the antiphons we sing during the closing days of Advent. Known as the Great O Antiphons, they are some of my favourite.

I love the way they begin, with three notes drawing out the first word O. I love how they continue… Wisdom… Adonai… Root of Jesse… Key of David… Dayspring… King of the nations… Emmanuel…. Virgin of Virgins. I love how they end… Come and teach… redeem… deliver… bring … enlighten… save us.

In these hauntingly beautiful antiphons, a year – indeed a lifetime, if not an eternity – of longing is summed up in a few words.

And who among us has not longed for something over these past ten months. Who has not longed for the gift of wisdom and prudence, as decisions – often on the fly, sometimes at great emotional cost – have had to be made? Who, because of being wise and prudent, is spending Christmas alone, or not with those with whom we normally would gather? Who has not desired the outstretched arm of God to redeem and deliver those we love, or even just ourselves, from the agony of loneliness and despair? Who has not needed the gift of light, as we have sat amidst such darkness? Who, confronted with our own mortality, or that of another, has not needed to be reminded that God is always with us as savior, healer, redeemer, and friend?

All these longings, and more, are summed up as we sing Come and teach… redeem… deliver… bring … enlighten… save us.

We who sit in darkness are longing for light, healing, and wholeness, just as did our ancestors in the faith. Like us, they too knew days of isolation, darkness, and despair. Like ancient Israel, we too long for the coming day of the Lord, which will bring plenty, peace, and wholeness. Since time immemorial, that has been the hope of the faithful and the promise of God. Like women and men of faith for generations, we sing in these dark days, O come, teach, deliver, enlighten, and save us. And in the silence God sings to us in response, Truly I will come.

One of the things which I love about these Great O Antiphons is how they form an acrostic. As we sing O…come, the titles for God in Latin declare God’s eternal promise, the first letter of each title forming the phrase Vero Cras: Truly I will come. That promised coming of God is fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, which we celebrate at Christmas.

In Jesus, a year, a lifetime, an eternity of longing is fulfilled. At Christmas, we no longer sing O…come. No longer does God promise Truly I will come. Instead on Christmas Day we sing Today! Today the Christ is born: today has a savior appeared: today on earth Angels are singing, Archangels rejoicing: today the righteous exult and say, Glory to God in the highest, alleluia.[1]

This has been a year of longing like no other. We long for peace of mind and heart. We long for health and safety. We long to embrace those we love. We long for the promised day of God. In our longing we sing O come, teach, deliver, enlighten, and save us. And in the stillness of this dark night, God sings softly back Truly I will come.

Christmas will be very different this year. But believe me when I say Christmas has not been cancelled. God has heard our longing. God has heard our prayer. God has heard our song. O come, O come, O come. And God’s answer to a year, a lifetime, an eternity of longing can be heard in the cry of a tiny, helpless baby. Truly I will come.

In these Great O Antiphons, we have been singing O come, as all the longings of our hearts are put into a few words. But soon the promised day of the Lord will be upon us, and our longings will be turned to joy, and with angels and archangels we will shout and sing Glory to God in the highest. On that day, the Savior for whom we so long, will be in our very midst, indeed, in our very arms. On that day, we will know that God has heard our prayer, that God has truly come. On that day we will know God Emmanuel, God with us.

May God, who has heard the longings of your heart, be with you.

Please know that we Brothers hold you all in our prayers.

Faithfully in the One who is Emmanuel,

James Koester SSJE

[1] Antiphon for the Magnificat, Christmas Day: Hodie Christus natus est

Children of the Light

My dear friends:

There is a phrase we hear frequently during these days of Advent, especially when we read the prophet Isaiah. On that day[1] Isaiah declares, on that day…the deaf shall hear…the eyes of the blind shall see…the meek shall obtain joy…the neediest people shall exult.[2] It is this Advent vision of justice, wholeness, and truth that Isaiah holds up before not only a disheartened, discouraged, and oppressed people of Israel, but also before those of us who read his words today.

It is perhaps fair to ask then, on what day? What day will this come about, and by whom?

That was a question foremost in the minds of Jesus’ audience. Even John the Baptist asked it. We hear in Matthew’s gospel that John sent disciples to Jesus asking are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?[3] It is to this question that Jesus answers go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.[4]

Part of the hope of Advent is the longing for that day when justice, wholeness, and truth shall be restored, when God’s people will again live in peace and security. It is a day for which we too long, and it is a day which is already here.

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him…and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” Then he touched their eyes… and their eyes were opened.[5]

The healing of the blind in the gospels is not simply a cure, it is a sign. It is a sign that the day so longed for is here, when justice, wholeness, and truth is restored, and when God’s people again live in peace and security.

Father Benson reminds us that when Christ came into the world all was changed. Weakness became power; poverty became wealth; shame became glory; darkness became light.[6] It is by this light – the light that overcomes the darkness of the world[7] – that we see the One who is light, for Jesus is the light of the world.[8]

It is no ordinary healing that we see in the gospel, by which simple sight is restored. Rather it is a sign of that longed-for day when the eyes of the blind shall see. As a sign, it is also a gift. Father Benson reminds us that the vision of the light is a gift of God to the individual soul. “In His light we see light,” if we are the children of light. But the outward faculty sees not the light. God must fill us with Himself, in order that we may see Himself. We must believe in, or rather into, the light, that we may be the children of light.[9]

Like the people who first heard Isaiah’s words, we too long for that day when justice, wholeness, and truth shall be restored, and God’s people will again live in peace and security. We long for the peace and security of God’s rule, when death, disease, and pandemic are no more.

The paradox is that in Jesus, the day we long for is already here. For in Jesus, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them, if only we have the eyes of faith to see.

Father Benson reminds us that the vision of the light is a gift given to us in our Baptisms. These are dark days indeed, yet the promise of God is a promise of light that the darkness cannot overcome. May you receive the gift of sight this Advent, so that even in the darkness of the night, you can behold the light of God as it radiates from the face of the Holy Child of Bethlehem, giving light to our darkened world.

Know that we Brothers hold you in our prayers.

Faithfully in the One who is the light of the world,

James Koester SSJE

[1] Isaiah 29: 18
[2] Isaiah 29: 17 – 19
[3] Matthew 11: 3
[4] Matthew 11: 4 – 5
[5] Matthew 9: 27ff
[6] Benson, Richard Meux, Spiritual Readings, Advent, J. T. Hayes, London, 1885, page 49
[7] John 1: 5
[8] John 8: 12
[9] Benson, Advent, page 57 – 58

What in your life could use a fresh start?

Dear friends,
We all need chances to start over from time to time.  The beginning of a new liturgical year is one of these times for me, but really any day will do.  Every day has the potential of becoming the starting point for a new habit or practice, or for renewing a relationship that already exists but that has grown  stale or conflicted.  What in your life could use a fresh start?

We stand at the threshold of a new liturgical year.[i]  This season of Advent, of course, is a time of waiting and expectation and even longing, as we anticipate the celebration of our Lord’s birth at Christmas.  The practice of celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25th was initiated by Pope Julius I around the year 350.  Since the exact date of Jesus’ birth was unknown, the choice of December 25th was rather arbitrary, but not completely random.  A number of cultures in Europe already had festivals that marked the winter solstice (December 21).  The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a month-long holiday honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture; and it is commonly believed that the Church chose the 25th of December in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival.  Some Romans also marked the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25.  The Church’s feast was first call “the Feast of the Nativity” and the practice of observing it on the 25th of December spread to Egypt by 432, and to England by the end of the sixth century.

Festivals on or near the winter solstice were celebrations that anticipated the coming of longer days and the return of light.  For Christians, celebrating the birth of the Savior at this time of the year was a way of adapting and transforming popular pagan beliefs and practices and infusing them with new meaning.  Jesus, the “Light of the World,” had come, and was coming, to banish our darkness and illumine our lives with his radiant presence.

As we enter this particular season of Advent, we recognize that we all have been living through a period of intense darkness associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.  While we had hoped that this season of sickness would be short-lived, in reality it has continued to plague us for months beyond the medical community’s initial projections, and though the prospect of a vaccine has shed some light of hope on the road ahead, we have been warned that there is more sickness and death in our immediate future.  So we continue to hold on, doing what we can to curb the spread of the disease, taking care not only of the sufferers but of their caregivers, and of one another, enduring the darkness until the light shines once more.

Perhaps these circumstances will deepen our experience of Advent this year, as we persevere, waiting for the light’s return to banish the temporary rule of darkness.

God bless you all in this holy season.  We pray for you, we encourage you, we love you.  Stand fast.

On behalf of the SSJE Brothers,
David Vryhof, SSJE

Lamps of a heavenly wisdom

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”[1]

Dear Friends,
This past Sunday morning we heard Jesus speak another of his enigmatic parables of the Kingdom, this one from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. My mother is a tailor, specializing in wedding gowns, so Jesus’ use of wedding imagery always reminds me of the humanity on display around marriages. Growing up, I crossed paths with many wedding parties. Brides, grooms, groomsmen, parents, and yes, bridesmaids. While I am sure very few of us have ever needed to take oil lamps to an evening vigil as the groom made his way to the home of the bride, we nonetheless know something about weddings and marriages in our own time and place.

As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’”[2]

Friends, I don’t think it is a stretch to say that we know this feeling of delay. In the midst of social division, pandemic, and so much more, it really does look like the bridegroom is delayed. It is easy to feel like the Kingdom is impossibly far off. We may fear that we have, like the foolish bridesmaids, forgotten to bring enough oil. The sun set hours ago, but the bridegroom still isn’t here. Do we have enough oil to keep our lamps burning much longer? With the psalmist we pray, “How long, O Lord?”[3]

Yet the searching, patient wisdom of God that became flesh in Jesus waits at the gate of our hearts to teach us, oil flask in hand, in times precisely like this one. I warmly invite you to pray with this this parable from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew as you move through the rest of your week. The imagery is mundane and domestic, like a drowsy delay and a panicked errand for overlooked supplies. At the same time, it is textured and multifaceted, like the fine embroidery of a hand-stitched wedding gown or the warm glow and fragrant aroma of a lit oil lamp. Much like Jesus himself, the words he shares participate in both the richness of heaven and the dysfunction and messiness of human life, welcoming us to still ourselves and let both realities mingle with each other in unexpected ways.

Consider the readiness the wise bridesmaids. They don’t show any nervousness about the bridegroom’s arrival—they fall asleep like the foolish bridesmaids. They don’t read the horizon for signs of his coming, abandon their lamps, or make speculations about his progress and their predicament. They instead rest in the knowledge of their duty, ready to perform it no matter the hour. Yet they aren’t cynical or pessimistic as a result. The virtue of their readiness is hope. They trust that the bridegroom will arrive. But their wisdom allows for the fact that the desired event may not happen as expected or at their convenience. Unlike the five foolish bridesmaids, they don’t anticipate that things will necessarily go their way. Jesus tells us they wait, prepared to light their lamps whenever the moment comes.

It may feel difficult or impossible to live in a wise anticipation of the Kingdom, especially when the Kingdom seems delayed. But Jesus speaks to each of us at this time, inviting us to learn a hopeful anticipation, fragrant with the oil of our baptism, mysteriously domestic and familiar, yet aglow with the lights of hope, love, and charity.

As this season of trial and difficulty continues, I pray with gratitude for you, our friends and colleagues. Like a sweet-smelling oil, your witness and fellowship have helped keep the lamp of hope burning within me. The wisdom of God is at work, friends. And she works to make us bright with a wise anticipation.

Peace to you,
Br. Sean SSJE

[1] Matthew 25:1—4
[2] Matthew 25:5—8
[3] Psalm 13

And he answered me

Dear friends,

It has been such a comfort, in these unsettled and tense days, for us Brothers to maintain our practice of praying the Daily Office. The Psalms poetically reflect the fullness of the human experience: from praise, exultation, and celebration (126:1-2) to anger, disdain, and vengeance (59:12-14) to utter desperation, resignation, and helplessness (22:1-2), and everything in between. Because of this range of expression, the Psalms have an incredible ability to allow us to express whatever we are feeling in the moment, while also lifting us out of our current circumstances to listen for the eternally-speaking voice of God.

When I first arrived at the Monastery, chanting the Psalms – dressed in the full array of Sarum tones – delighted me. However, I noticed that I had a better comprehension of what I was praying (at first anyway) at Morning Prayer, when the practice is to recite the Psalms.  I am not a morning person by nature, so often I pray these Psalms in the midst of a drowsy fog. But often, I’ll notice that a particular phrase or verse will jump out at me, gently nudge me out of my fog and beckon me to follow. Usually what is going on in my life at the time will determine how God will engage with me in the Psalms.  I remember one week feeling particularly down and suffering from poor self-esteem when Psalm 26:8 presented itself for the subject of my prayer that day: Lord, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides. I felt as if God was telling me, “Jim, think better of yourself. I dwell in you and therefore the fullness of my glory is present within your heart and soul.”

This year has been more difficult than any I ever remember. We live in a world where people are polarized and moving further away from each other in isolation. The pandemic, the spotlighting of systematic-racism, an election year in a deeply divided country have all exposed a wave of fear fueling our anxiety. We Brothers recognize that we are lucky to live in community together. Yet while we have not been cut off from the sacramental life of the church due to the pandemic, we have been cut off from family, friends, our congregation, and the many guests who seek us out for spiritual direction, silence, prayer, worship, and who yearn for a deeper relationship with Jesus. This has left us with a sense of disorientation and loss.

Out of this loss, we have felt convicted to do old things in new ways: live-stream our services, offer teaching online, broadcast our election night vigil before the Sacrament, and host online gatherings with the Fellowship of Saint John on Zoom. We even hosted a virtual “Come and See” retreat with six men who are actively discerning a vocation with SSJE! Our lives have been greatly enriched by seeing you online and hearing from you through letters and e-mails. Indeed, God is at work in the midst of creation, beckoning us all to follow in new ways and encouraging us in these difficult times.

As we Brothers were praying Morning Prayer the other day, Psalm 34 was the vehicle in which God chose to speak to me: I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me out of all my terror. Look upon him and be radiant, and let not your faces be ashamed. I called in my affliction and the Lord heard me and saved me from all my troubles. The angel of the Lord encompasses those who fear him, and he will deliver them. Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him! (vv. 4-8).

These verses have buoyed me up for days now and have made me realize that we who claim the faith of Jesus are not alone in our solitude. We cannot be cut off from the sacramental life of the Church because God has made us tabernacles and we are where his glory abides. Fr. Congreve SSJE once wrote:
At times, when we have to wait and have nothing to do to occupy ourselves with – Oh! Then it is not wasted time if we have thought of God in it, if we have looked into the face of Jesus. Then anything that we do at the end of such waiting times we do with a glory and a power to witness to Jesus which is, indeed, a precious result. Everything should become by degrees an act of communion with God

God is indeed with us, in our hearts and souls, softly speaking to us and saying: “I am here with you.  Look upon me and be radiant. Taste and see!”
We Brothers continue to look forward to the day when we can all be together again. In the meantime, join us for online worship, and know that we continue to lift all of you, this nation, and this world up in our prayers.

God bless you,
Br. Jim Woodrum SSJE

Simple Acts

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

For all that has been – Thanks

Dear Friends,

In these trying times, physically separated from one another, unable to participate in common worship, it is very tempting to lose heart and hope. Yet for the sake of our unity in Christ, we must resist this temptation.
I am lately reminded of an incredible prayer by Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swedish diplomat and the second Secretary General of the United Nations, who died at the age of 56 in an airplane crash as he travelled to a warring region of Africa. These stirring words were discovered after his death in his journals (later published under the English title Markings): “For all that has been, THANKS, for all that is to be, YES!”

In this prayer of affirmation and hope, Hammarskjöld points to the essence of our common life in Christ: the offering of gratitude and thanks. We read in the Letter to the Colossians, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” The Apostle Paul writes in the First Letter to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Even though tried by the world’s misunderstanding, by hardship, persecution, and martyrdom, our ancestors in faith sought to live in continual thanksgiving to God—in everything! Their firm conviction did not seek to deny the troubles and sorrows of their present suffering. Rather, by the continual offering of thanks, they learned that they could undergo and pass through trials, even blessing the “goodness and loving-kindness” of the God who created and preserved them with the gift of life and being. These faithful men and women humbly affirmed their gratitude for, in the words of the Prayer Book’s “General Thanksgiving,” God’s “immeasurable love in the redemption of the world,” and “for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory” which were theirs in Christ. Their lives of prayer and action were thoroughly “eucharistic” (to use the Greek word for “thanksgiving”): characterized by mutual support and encouragement in their offering of gratitude to God. A eucharistic people, they were ready to say “THANKS” for all that had been, and empowered to say “YES” for all that was to be, in God’s providence.

Like those before us, we now live in a world of individual and corporate pain and loss. And we God’s children are also called – even from in the midst of pandemic and death, economic uncertainty and inequality, social and racial injustice, and destructive climate change – to be a eucharistic people. United in our intense longing to be together, we are joined in one Body by baptism into Christ’s salvific dying and rising. Our prayer and actions of gratitude, even offered in isolation, bring us together as a living sacrament of Christ for the sake of one another and of the world. Through giving thanks in all things, we together partake of Jesus Christ, the Bread of Heaven, at his table set in our hearts. Giving thanks in all things, we are becoming ever more and more a eucharistic people, together.

This week, even in these very trying times, we invite you to lift up your hearts in prayer, giving thanks to God: “For all that has been, THANKS, for all that is to be, YES!”

With gratitude,
Br. Jonathan Maury

The Hope of Unknowing

Dear friends,

Being a person today naturally means having hopes for tomorrow. We might hope for healing and comfort for ourselves or others. We might hope for an end to injustice, violence, and suffering. We might hope that tomorrow is a little better than today. Especially when today is a time of crisis and anxiety, hoping for a better tomorrow seems perfectly reasonable. As Christians, though, our hope is in something more, or, looking at it in a different way, less.

Our contemplative tradition teaches us that the purest way of knowing God is through “unknowing.” Unknowing means letting go of our attachment to thoughts and feelings, as well as attachment to memories of the past and anticipations of the future. When we “unknow” all things, we rely only on God, coming to rest in the Divine Nothingness of God’s eternal Presence where we find God’s Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.

Saint John of the Cross was referring to this contemplative unknowing when he wrote of living in perfect and pure hope. He suggested that we should learn to turn from our worries, distractions, and preoccupations, and, in the emptiness of everything rememberable, turn toward God’s love. Unlike our other hopes for particular outcomes and for a better tomorrow, this hope is pure because it rests only on the mystery of God present in each moment, right now.

John Sanford in his book The Kingdom Within writes that “This hope is not that this world will one day be a perfect world, but that there is a reality, a Divine Order, beyond what is immediately visible to us in this world.” The ancient desert monastics spoke of a “spiritual intellect” by which we sense this Divine Reality, God’s Presence within and among us. They described a path by which we know God’s Presence with a combination of radical acceptance of God’s will and a confident expectation of God’s love.

This pure hope may sound too good to be true, but that’s only when we measure hope by human standards. This pure hope may sound naïve, but in truth it’s the second naiveté of unknowing. The pure hope of resting in the eternal Nothingness of God’s Presence doesn’t imply that “worldly” hope, like hoping for an end to injustice, ceases to have relative importance. Instead, the pure hope of resting in God’s Presence provides the foundation from which we see ourselves and the world as God sees us, and from which we allow God’s will be done.

Our hope is in this pure hope of abiding in God’s Presence, and so recognizing the Beauty, Truth and Goodness all around us. We might pray, then, that if someone were to ask us “What do you hope for tomorrow?” we can answer from that place of pure hope, “That tomorrow be as beautiful as today.”

Peace and Be Well,

Br. Nicholas Bartoli