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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

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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Family Saints – Br. Luke Ditewig

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Br. Luke Ditewig2 Corinthians 6:1-10
John 13:12-17

Today we remember the Saints of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, the Brothers who have gone before us. We remember them one by one reading aloud their obituaries at Compline.

They came from various backgrounds with a range of interests. Writers, poets, architects, artists, book-binders, and insect enthusiasts who served in England, Scotland, India, South Africa, Japan, Canada, and across the United States.

They were pastors, preachers, spiritual directors, teachers, retreat leaders and more. Sometimes much at once. I like the story of John Hawkes who during the Great Depression presided at a marriage, baked and iced the wedding cake, and supplied the rings. Read More

A Living Lineage – Br. Keith Nelson

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Br. Keith NelsonFeast of the Saints of the Society of St. John the Evangelist
John 13:12-17

In a monastery, the past is inescapable. Formal, stately portraits of departed SSJE brethren hang on the walls of our refectory, placidly gazing upon daily breakfasts and Easter dinners alike. The names of others are inscribed on the bottoms of communion chalices or on memorial plaques, hanging in both obvious and out of the way places. Names and dates in elegant cursive script grace the inside covers of some of the older books on our library shelves. Occasionally, I stumble across prayers copied out on title pages or notes penciled in the yellowing margins, and I’m unexpectedly moved; I feel as if I am entering a conversation that began long before me. Finally, and most significantly, there is our practice of reading the obituary of a departed brother on the anniversary of his death. This moment at Compline is not simply a gentle reminder of our mortality. It is also a loving gaze at a portrait in the family photo album. And that probably points to the heart of the matter. When I say that the past is inescapable here, I do not mean that in an antiquarian or anachronistic way, as if living in a monastery were like living in a museum or an antique gallery. Nor do I mean that we are haunted by ghosts. In the phrasing of Donald Allchin, former Canon of Canterbury Cathedral and a friend of this community long before I came along, it is the “living presence of the past” that makes itself so mysteriously and palpably felt in a monastery.[i] Before I came to monastic life, my personal relationship with the past felt both very passionate and very piecemeal. Confined to favorite authors and artists and a handful of saints, I found it difficult to describe why these figures exerted such a persistent, gravitational tug upon my heart – and what meanings that tug signified for my life in the present. But as I come more and more to take my place in a lineage, and to discover my individual story knit into a fabric whose folds extend beyond my imagining, I begin to grasp in my daily experience the words from our Rule of Life: “As we explore the spiritual legacy of our forebears we remember that they are not dead figures from the past. Risen in Christ, they belong to the great cloud of witnesses who spur us on by their prayers to change and mature in response to the Holy Spirit who makes all things new.”[ii] Read More

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