O Give Me Grace to Follow – Br. James Koester

Bernard Mizeki, Catechist and Martyr, 1896
Life Profession of Lucas Hall SSJE

John 1: 1 – 18

Some of you will know that Lucas had a birthday a few weeks ago. The day of his birthday, I came up behind him and began to hum Happy Birthday. He turned, pulled out of his habit his small pocket diary, opened it, and showed me the page for his birthday. It had one word on it. Old.

I don’t know about you, but the day Lucas was born, I was about to turn 35. I am not even sure that I can remember turning 30! And if 30 is old, I am curious to know what Lucas, you will think of yourself when you turn 65. No doubt you will feel a proper Methuselah, who Genesis tells us was 969 years old when he died.[1]

While I don’t know this for a fact, my hunch is that you Lucas, will be at least for today, the youngest life professed member of a monastic community in the Anglican Communion. That alone is worthy to note, but it is not in fact, what sets this day apart, because the story of how we got here did not begin a mere 30 years ago (no matter how long ago youmight think that was). Rather the particular story of why we are here, began many, many years ago.

I am tempted to say that today’s events were set in motion before the beginning of time, when there was nothing but the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.[2] In that time before time, when there was nothing, save only Word and God, everything was set in motion that would bring us here today.

But rather than rooting today’s profession in this time before time, I want to turn to another time, to a time within time.

Cape Town
9 March 1886

Dear Father Benson:

We had a very happy day on Sunday. As … the Bishop gave us leave to baptize our … catechumens before the … chapel was formally opened and licensed.

 Accordingly, we got the building ready and held the service on Sunday Evening….

Our baptismal tank holds about 400 gallons of water….

Father Shepherd has been training a choir, and we came into the chapel in procession singing “As pants the hart for cooling streams.” … The Chapel was very full of people… The choir took their places on one side of the baptismal tank, and the seven catechumens in dark blue garments reaching to their feet … on the other side… Everyone was, I think, impressed by the great seriousness and earnestness of the catechumens.

I stood at one end of the tank with Father Shepherd on one side, and John James the catechist on the other.

Each catechumen renounced the devil looking westward and confessed his faith looking eastward. Four of them made their answers in English, [and for] the other three [John James acted] as interpreter. After the interrogations were finished, I gave an address… Then followed the baptisms. Each catechumen knelt in the water and was immersed three times. After each one had been baptized, I led him up the steps of the tank, and Father Shepherd covered him with a white mantle, and then John James led him into the dressing room to dry himself and change his garments. While the latter process was going on, we sang two baptismal hymns… just as the second hymn was finished, the seven neophytes came back to their places in clean white suits. Then followed the signing with the cross, which I emphasized by putting round the neck of each one a copper cross, as a remembrance of the day. At the end of the service we sang in procession, “O Jesus I have promised, to serve thee to the end.”

The day ended up with a tea for the newly baptized. One of them certainly deserved his tea. They had all been exhorted to fast on the Saturday, but through a misunderstanding this one continued his fast all through Sunday, so that he had been nearly 48 hours without food.

One feels very thankful and at the same time anxious over these first fruits. I feel morally certain that they are at present in real earnest; but one knows how anxious the devil will be to sow tares as soon as possible. I hope that … you will pray for their perseverance. The names given to them at baptism were: Thomas Masrai, John Ntinge, James Mpilele, Bernard Mizeki, Nicholas Kossana, Peter Paliso, Francis Maimbanini.[3]

This was no ordinary baptism, and as we Brothers know, the name Bernard Mizeki is engraved in the annuls of our community history, for the baptism took place in our church in Cape Town; Father Puller who wrote the letter, and Father Shepherd who is mentioned, were early members of the Society; Bernard himself would go on to be the first missionary in what is now Zimbabwe, where he would be martyred on this day in 1896. Looking at the calendar to find a day for Lucas’ profession, the choice was obvious.

There are many aspects of Bernard’s story that inspire, but there is one which has the power to shape the rest of your life Lucas, as a professed member of our community, and which can give you a purpose, and a mission.

Near the mission hut where Bernard lived, was a grove of trees, where lived, according to legend, evils spirits. Consequently, the locals were terrified, and would not enter the grove. As a way for them to discover the God who is light, whom the darkness cannot overtake[4], Bernard cut crosses into the trees. He beckoned them to enter and see for themselves there was nothing to fear. That scene is depicted in our icon of Bernard.

Lucas, in that time before time, when there was nothing save Word and God, you were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love [and] destined … for adoption as his [son] through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.[5] In that moment you were endowed with a life, and a vocation, and a purpose, and a mission.

Lucas, today Bernard points to, and you are grasping that life, that vocation, that purpose, and that mission which is nothing less than beckoning people into an encounter and union with the living God.

Our Rule tells us that [our] mission is to bring men, women, and children into closer union with God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit that he breathes into us.  Christ is already present in the life of everyone as the light of the world.  It is our joy to serve all those to whom we are sent by helping them to embrace that presence in faith.[6] At the same time, Father Benson reminds us that the object of our association in a Religious Community is [not] to equip us to go out as missionaries. We do not come into our Community primarily in order to convert others, but rather with the desire, first of all, to be converted ourselves. Then, if by God’s grace, we are converted to Him, He may use us in missionary work, or in any other way that He pleases.[7]

Lucas, in the offering of your life to God today, as a witness to Jesus who is Light, and Life, and Word of God, you are, in a sense, standing in the baptismal tank at St. Philip’s with Bernard. Like Bernard, you don’t know where you will be led, but with him you are saying, O give me grace to follow. This life you are choosing may lead you to places of darkness, and fear, but with Bernard you are saying, O give me grace to follow. Wherever this life does lead you, like Bernard, take with you the cross of Christ, and as you cut it into those places of darkness you find along the way, pray with Bernard, O give me grace to follow.

Nearly 140 years ago Bernard, sang O Jesus, I have promised.[8] It is a hymn we often sing here are the monastery, for our life, and after today your life Lucas, is rooted and grounded in a promise to serve [God] to the end. It is a promise filled with grace and challenge. Like Bernard that promise may cost you your life, literally. But my prayer Lucas, is that this life for you, as it has been for many others, will be one of light, and life, and love. But when it isn’t, and there will be days when it won’t, and the darkness and demons seem to be everywhere, carve the cross of Christ into the nearest tree, and like Bernard, step into the darkness praying O give me grace to follow. Then you will find the light and the One who is the Light of God leading you on, and if you follow, others may too, and discover for themselves that life is full of meaning in union with God.[9]

For Bernard, carving those crosses into those trees was an act of faith and trust. He had found the Light of God for himself, and beckoned others to find that same light in the person of Jesus. Making your life profession in our community Lucas, is also an act of faith and trust, especially in one so young, and it inspires us [all] with awe and joy; [and] we wonder at the risk of such a decisive choice.[10] But by this free act of self-offering, God is carving anew the cross of Christ in your life. That cross, first carved on you at your baptism, beckons you, and all of us as well, into those places where we will find again the light, and life, and love of God.

The mission and purpose for your life which you are here accepting today Lucas, is to be like Bernard, and beckon us all to follow, and in following embrace the One who has called us all, from before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love, even as we pray, O give us grace to follow, [our] Master and [our] friend.

Lucas, may you find the grace to follow Christ as your Master and your Friend all the days of your life as a member of this community, and in following, remember to look back and beckon us to follow too.


[1] Genesis 5: 21 – 27

[2] John 1: 1 – 3a

[3] Parish Magazine, Cowley St. John, May 1886, page 2 – 3

[4] John 1: 4 – 5

[5] Ephesians 1: 4 – 5

[6] SSJE, Rule of Life, Mission and Service, chapter 31, page 62

[7] Woodgate, M.V., Father Congreve of Cowley, SPCK, London, 1956, page 20

[8] Hymnal 1982, hymn 655, words by John Ernest Bode (1816 – 1874)

[9] SSJE, Rule of Life, The Word of God in Preaching, chapter 19, page 39

[10] Ibid, Life Profession, page 79

Basil of Caesarea: Zealous Man of the Spirit – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Basil of Caesarea, Bishop & Theologian

1 Corinthians 2:6-13
Luke 10:21-24

By the mid-fourth century, a distinct Christian vocation had developed in the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern church that was both strange and increasingly common. Its adherents were known by many names: the servants of God, the single ones, the true philosophers, the ascetics, the zealous. Their ways of living, even at this early stage, were astonishingly diverse. They included men and women, peasants and the educated. Following in the footsteps of the holy virgins and widows of the apostolic age; galvanized by the committed sacrifice of the martyrs, they sought singleness of heart and the “peace which the world cannot give.” The core motivation that united them was a sense of urgent longing to cross over a frontier from nominal belonging onto a path of transformational belonging within the body of Christ. Today, we who are called monks represent one branch of this zealous family: as ordinary Christians who follow an ordered rule of life and prayer, under vows, in community. One of the first to follow this particular pattern was named Basil of Caesarea, whom we remember today. Read More

A Heavenly Treasure In A Concrete Life – Br. Sean Glenn

St. Elizabeth of Hungary
Luke 12:32-34

“The call of God,” observed our visionary founder, Richard Meux Benson, “is continuous, abiding, and progressive. Continuous, because […] the voice of the Spirit never ceases to call us into deeper union. Abiding, because the wisdom of God […] is absorbed into our hearts never to perish. Progressive, because God’s voice will come to us in the future ever new, […] bringing us gifts beyond what we know now.”[1]

While he uses this language to address the earliest members of the SSJE concerning their monastic vocation, I believe his observation holds true for all Christians—indeed, all people—whether called to the monastic life or any other vocation. I also believe, however, that in some instances (if not many instances), the continuous, abiding, and progressive character of God’s call is a person’s life may not necessarily conform to the content of their individual desire.

Whatever the reason—be it the necessity of context or the lack of apparent opportunity—some of us may feel a deep tension between what we have always imagined our vocation to be and the actual shape of our vocational unfolding expressed in the concrete realities of life. I know this has been true for me at several junctures of my life; moments when my own longing did not seem to bear a resemblance to the facts of the life I was living. I’m reminded, particularly, of my rejection from doctoral study, or that “dream job” I thought I wanted at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, which was never offered to me. This incongruity even marked the first months of my postulancy here at SSJE, for I had not yet begun to shed the romantic associations I had with the life into which God had drawn me.

For this reason, Elizabeth of Hungary, thirteenth century princess of Hungary, whom the church remembers today, stands out to me as more than an example of the saintly life for which she came to be known. Yes, all of these aspects of her memory—her deep love of and daily service to the poor and sick, her alms giving, her patronage of hospitals and the Third Order Franciscans—are worthy of our admiration and praise. She was, indeed, as Fr. Kevin Estabrook[2] describes her, “a holy woman, more concerned about the nobility of her soul, than her noble status in the world—more concerned with clothing her soul with virtue, than with the fine garments of a queen—a holy, virtuous woman, industrious in doing good works.”[3] Here was a woman whose “treasure” was where her heart had been drawn—into union with God.

Yet, behind all of this great and heavenly treasure, stood a woman whose vocation did not seem to conform to her deeper desires. Necessity and custom had seen her betrothed from age 3, and while she and her husband enjoyed an unusually happy marriage before his untimely death, she nonetheless yearned to live a life given over to prayer and service in a community, such as the (then novel) Franciscans.

God comes to us where we are. God’s call meets us in the concrete realities of life. Not where we think we should be; but where we actually are. And if we hold our vocational aspirations lightly, I believe that, like Blessed Elizabeth of Hungary, our treasure too will be where our heart is.


[1] Richard Meux Benson, SSJE, Chapter 4, The Religious Vocation (London and Oxford: A. R. Mowbray and Co., 1939), 69—78.

[2] Note: the preacher mistakenly attributes this to a different author during the oral delivery of this homily.

[3] https://fatherkevinestabrook.blogspot.com/2014/11/homily-november-17-st-elizabeth-of.html

It is the Lord – Br. James Koester

On the Profession of Jack Crowley in Initial Vows

John 21: 1-14

It’s not difficult for me to imagine this scene. I have stood on a beach on the shore of the Sea of Galilee four or five times. It may not be THE beach where our gospel scene took place, but it is certainly A beach, and that’s all I need for my imagination to go to work.

With memories of standing in bare feet, ankle deep in the water, gazing out across the lake at the surrounding hills, I can easily imagine this scene: the inky black water revealing nothing below the surface in the predawn darkness; the first inkling of dawn as the eastern sky begins to brighten with the rising sun; the calling back and forth from shore to boat and back, one voice strong and confident, the other voices tired, perhaps frustrated, certainly sad and grief stricken; the uncertainty of who, or maybe even what this stranger on the shore is, raising caution, perhaps even fear, among the men in the boat.

Some of what I see is right there in text. Some is what my imagination fills in. It’s those details, the ones I see and hear in my imagination, which fascinate me today.

For several years, I lived at Emery House. In the nice weather I would sleep with my windows open, and the blinds up, so I could see the night sky and hear the night noises. There was a moment in the night, that I absolutely loved. In the summer comes around 4:30 AM, just as I was waking up. On a moonless night the sky would be black as pitch. Often, I could see nothing out the window. It would also be completely silent. If I lay quietly in my bed, I could eventually hear, somewhere out my window, the very first bird begin to sing. Over the next few moments others would join in. Soon there would be a whole chorus of birds singing, chirping, and tweeting. Only then would the sky begin to brighten, as the sun slowly rose. Somehow in those predawn minutes, the birds knew what was about to happen. That 5 or 10 minutes between night and day became my favourite part of the day. In many ways it was no longer night, yet nor was it, in that moment day. It seemed to be both, and neither at the same time. Read More

Good Evening, Bede – Br. Lucas Hall

The Feast of St. Bede the Venerable

Today is the feast day of St. Bede the Venerable, an Anglo-Saxon monk of the 7th century. He did lots of stuff. He was a monk, a historian, a theologian, and a preacher, to name a few. I won’t recount here everything about him. What I’d like to talk about is why his work, his life, has affected me, even to the point of my standing here today.

About two years ago, now, I was a novice brother in this community, in the midst of two weeks of retreat preceding my initial vows, at a rural monastery in another part of Massachusetts.

It was slightly bizarre to see this other monastic community. At once, it was easy to recognize much of their life. Certain features, from architecture to liturgy to dress, though not exactly the same as ours, were instantly familiar. But something very much stuck out to me about one difference in particular: the setting. The abbey is out in a quite rural area, and there’s not much in the immediate vicinity.

This bothered me. One man’s peaceful seclusion is another man’s lonely isolation, and for me, it was difficult not to see all our other similarities and immediately imagine myself in that community. And I wasn’t happy in those imaginings. The relative isolation felt claustrophobic. I was reminded of being a college student in a small town, where everything that exists seems dependent on a single institution, and the thought of my life happening in that context felt smothering. Read More

The Healing of George Herbert – Br. Curtis Almquist

Commemoration of George Herbert

Psalm 23

Our God and King, you called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls, a poet, and a priest in your temple: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do, knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

In the calendar of the church, we commemorate today a 17th-century Church of England country parson named George Herbert.[i] Down through the centuries, he is most remembered for his arresting, revealing, passionate poetry.

How Herbert’s life ended is not how it began. The combination of his family’s tremendous wealth and privilege, his keen mind, his excellent education, his charismatic oratorical skills, his internal drive to be fabulous, and who knows what else, had brought him to the top of the heap. By age 30, he was counselor to two kings and a member of Parliament. He had gained the whole world but never found his soul.[ii]  Two things happened, two breakdowns. Read More

Come follow me – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Jonah 3: 1-5; Mark 1: 14-20

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying, “Arise, go to Ninevah, that great city, and cry against it.”

Now the word of the Lord came to Simon and Andrew, and James and John, as they were casting and mending nets, saying, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

When Jonah heard the Lord’s voice calling him he immediately got up and hightailed off in the opposite direction!  When Simon and Andrew, James and John heard the Lord’s voice, they immediately left their nets and followed Jesus. Two very different responses to the call of God. And as I was reading the two stories set in today’s Scripture readings, I was reflecting on the mystery of vocation, of how God is always calling us to larger life – and our very mixed and not always very impressive or heroic responses!

And certainly, in Scripture, it seems that most people whom God calls, don’t immediately leave their ‘nets’ and follow. Most of them, like me, are more like Jonah.  Or like Moses. He tries to wriggle out of it when God calls him to confront Pharaoh: ‘O Lord, I’ve never been eloquent: I’m slow of speech and tongue.’  Or poor Jeremiah. ‘O Lord, truly I don’t know how to speak, for I’m only a boy.’  Or poor Isaiah, in the midst of a stunning vision of heaven – ‘O Lord, woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.’ But after the Lord cleanses him he does manage to say, ‘Here am I Lord, send me.’ We used to joke that he was probably feeling more, ‘Here am I – send HIM!’ Read More

Progress to God – Br. James Koester

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Ordination of Luke Ditewig SSJE to the priesthood
John 10:11-18

I want first to begin by acknowledging those of you who have joined us today online. We Brothers are delighted to share this important day in the life of our community with you. We are of course, sorry that you cannot be with us here in person. It should go without saying, but I will say it anyway because it is important, we long for the day when it will be possible for you to be here in this chapel with us. Please know that we pray for you often. Your physical absence from our life of worship is a tremendous loss for us. We pray that the day when we can once again open our chapel doors to you, will come soon.

There are two people whom I particularly want to say how sorry we are that you cannot be with us today, and on Tuesday when Luke presides at the Eucharist for the first time, and that’s Luke’s Mum and Dad, Sandy, and Bill. After having watched Luke come to this point in his life, not to be here with him, is I am sure a great sadness. I hope that being here, if only virtually, is some consolation.

I also want to extend our gratitude to you Bishop Alan, for the care you have taken to enable this ordination to take place. Those watching online will note that we are all taking care to keep our distance from one another. That is not an indication of our regard for you. Rather the opposite! Please know how grateful we are, for the steps you have taken this past week to assure our mutual safety. Read More

Sacred Geometry – Br. James Koester

Initial Profession of Brother Sean Robert Glenn SSJE
John 4: 5 – 30, 39 – 42

Some of you will remember that for a number of years, I spent ten days each summer in Oregon, at an icon writing school. These weeks were enormously rewarding. But before they were rewarding, they were incredibly frustrating.

Each year I began with a sense of excitement and anticipation, but within a day or so that would dissolve into frustration that would put me on the edge of tears for much of the day. I just couldn’t get it, and what I couldn’t get was the geometry.

Before we were allowed to pick up a brush, we first had to analyze the icon; discover it’s geometry, indeed it’s sacred geometry, and then, on overlaid sheets of tracing paper, lay down the geometrical shapes we found in our analysis. Once we had found and placed the lines, the triangles, the semi-circles, the circles, we could then set about drawing, not tracing, but drawing the figure in the icon we were to paint.

That is where, invariably, I would be close to tears. As a school student, I was never good at math, much less geometry, and I was even worse at drawing. I would describe myself as someone who drew stick people badly. Any line I put down, never seemed right. It was always in the wrong place, or too short, or too long, or too this, or too that. Sheet after sheet of tracing paper was torn off, and tossed away, … until something happened. The line was right. It was in the right place. It was the right length. It was at the right angle. It was the most beautiful line I had ever seen, and I had drawn it. And then another. And another. And another. Read More

Chosen by God – Br. James Koester

Genesis 3:9-15, 20
Psalm 98
Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12
Luke 1:26-38

Those of you who have joined us at one point or another for one of our meals, will know that most of the time, on most days, we listen to the reading of a book during the meal. It’s only on Sundays, Tuesdays and some feast days that we share in conversation. A number of years ago, our book of choice was a little denser than we normally read at meals, as we read Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary by Miri Rubin. Mother of God was a heavy read, and as we joked at the time, in the end we knew more about Mary than she knew about herself! One of the underlying themes of the book was that before she became known as the Mother of God, before she became known as the Queen of Heaven, she was simply Mary of Nazareth, the Mother of Jesus. In essence, underlying all the titles, and the various devotions, that is who she was, and that is who she remains, Mary of Nazareth, the Mother of Jesus.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that young girl of Nazareth. It is a feast not spoken of in scripture but one deeply rooted in the tradition of the Church from ancient times, and one which says as much about us, and our life in God, as it does about Mary herself, and her life in God. So while the focus today is on Mary, we see in her the source, and ground, of our own life of faith. In looking at Mary we gaze not outwardly, or even upwardly, but inwardly to our own adoption as children of God[1] because it is there that we find Mary’s true vocation, and ours as well, to be the adopted daughters and sons of God.

Read More