Fishing for the Fisher – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Matthew 4:12-23

Jesus said, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people.”

“Fishers of people” – in older translations of the Bible, “fishers of men” – is one of those phrases in the Gospels that I have noticed myself avoiding over the years in my meditation with scripture or when it surfaces in the lectionary. I don’t have much first-hand knowledge of fishing, but that’s not the source of the disconnect, because I don’t have first-hand knowledge of most activities and objects that were common in first century Palestine. When I hear the phrase “fishers of men,” I have mostly tended to think of a certain strategy of Christian mission legitimated by the imperative to “spread our nets” throughout the known world and “catch souls for Jesus” by any means possible. In other words, I think of mission malpractice, tightly interwoven with the history of British and American imperialism. So I have to sink deeper to hear these words from another angle, an angle that will yield the Life and Light I seek in these sacred pages. Thinking of myself or other people as fish is also challenging: fish out of water, hooked, confused, gasping for air and wondering how on earth they got from point A to point B.

But here I realize I’ve gotten ahead of myself. I do, in fact, have some personal acquaintance with fishing, lured up into my conscious mind by the words of today’s gospel reading. For your consideration, I offer you two brief stories from the “gospel of Keith.” Continue reading

Test the Spirits – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

1 John 3:18—4:6

“You don’t have to believe everything you think.”

It’s a phrase that seems to appear everywhere these days, from bumper stickers to headline articles in the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. It captures, in a brief and memorable phrase, some real wisdom about the nature of the mind. The mind is capable of being held hostage, by seemingly demanding and imperious thoughts and feelings, all day long. “What the hell is his problem?…I need to buy milk!…I love her so much I would die without her…That is the cutest puppy I’ve ever seen!… Why am I so worthless?” The mind is also capable of gentle, inner observation, quiet equipoise, and spacious non-judgment, capacities which can open a space of sanity and healthy detachment in our experience of self. Through the development of an inner, witnessing presence, we can begin to see the truth in that phrase: “I don’t have to believe everything I think.” We can forgive ourselves for the negative thoughts that arise and we can avoid the ego’s swift, smug self-congratulation for positive thoughts that all too quickly dissolve. We can actively engage our thoughts in prayer with a certain level of objectivity, as in the Ignatian spiritual practice called the examen of conscience – also sometimes called “examen of consciousness.” We can cultivate our inner muscle of release or self-emptying of thoughts through even older forms of contemplative prayer. We can begin to find in our thoughts essential clues to our integration and our salvation. We can lay claim to the thoughts that tell our true story. Continue reading

The Radical Practice of Contemplation – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Galatians 2:19-20
Matthew 6:5-6

Marina Abramovic has spent many hours of her life completely motionless, silent, and fasting. She has endured voluntary poverty and physical pain for the sake of her vocation. She is not a nun or a mountaintop hermit, but a performance artist – sometimes called the “grandmother of performance art.” Born in Yugoslavia in 1946, her childhood was shaped by the Eastern Orthodox spirituality of her grandmother and the intense, communist discipline of her distant parents. Her performance pieces, most of them ephemeral or time-based, explore the limits of the human body and the mind. All of them challenge our cherished definitions of art. In 2010, Abramovic performed a piece at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, entitled “The Artist is Present,” part of a retrospective of her forty years of work. For this, she sat motionless and silent in the center of the Museum’s atrium surrounded by four bright lights. An empty chair stood opposite the artist, in which anyone who cared to was invited to sit and engage in a silent, mutual gaze with her. Abramovic was present in this way for three months, six days a week, for 7.5 hours a day. While the curator of the museum advised her to be prepared to face a frequently empty chair, her simple offer to be unflinchingly present touched a collective nerve and awakened a widespread hunger. That chair would be occupied by a total of 1,545 people, many of whom lined up before the museum opened or slept on the pavement to get a spot in line. People smiled uncontrollably, laughed or silently wept. Each face was met with the same gentle, mysterious, steady gaze, in a physical environment that framed each encounter as a moment of art enfolding a moment of life. Of the piece, Abramovic said, “The hardest thing is to do something which is so close to nothing that it demands all of you, because there is no story anymore to tell, no object to hide behind. There’s nothing – just your own, pure presence.”  Continue reading

Our Prayer becomes “We” – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Luke 20:27-38

In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie –
A dignified and commodious sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Which betokeneth concorde.[i]

The poet T. S. Eliot once paid a visit to the little English village of East Coker, the home of his distant ancestors. It was a kind of pilgrimage, and in an open field with the remains of an ancient stone circle, he imagined a simple, peasant wedding, and a bride and groom long since dead dancing around a fire,

Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.[ii] Continue reading

Strive! – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Luke 13:22-30

 I have been captivated recently by the icons of Maxim Sheshukov, a Russian iconographer who works in a traditional style but whose icons often depict themes or events from Scripture rarely depicted in icons – Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree, or Judas accepting the bag of silver, or the slaying of Abel by Cain, for instance. One icon that has been much fodder for my prayer depicts Christ, his figure almost whimsically tall and slender and slightly bent at the shoulders, standing before an equally tall, dark, and very narrow door. The wooden panel on which the icon is painted is tall and narrow, and is itself highly suggestive of a door. The background is a simple, quiet yellow ochre, the color of sand or wheat. Christ’s right hand – or more precisely, his outstretched, right pointer finger, seems to rest on the face of the door, pointing toward it, perhaps giving it the gentlest tap imaginable. His left hand holds a thin, narrow scroll, its words concealed from view.[i] Continue reading

Interrupted on the Road Home – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Feast of St. Philip, Deacon and Evangelist
Acts 8:26-40

It was a dark, cold, and snowy night in March of 2009.I had missed the highly erratic number 86 Bus by 5 minutes. The walk from the Sullivan Square train station in Somerville to my apartment was about 1.5 miles, a twenty minute schlep in my snow boots. Though I didn’t relish the prospect of a poorly lit walk through a fairly unpleasant neighborhood at that hour, my feet seemed to make the decision for me. My hand groped in my coat pocket for my prayer rope, as my mind groped for the familiar repetition, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

It was a difficult period in my life. There were many moments when the anxiety of daily existence felt overwhelming. I was only partially employed; a number of friends had recently moved away; my apartment was cold and dilapidated; I was searching for direction and purpose. Beneath the surface of it all, in my quiet moments, the anxiety of existence itself stared back at me, sharp and real. Most days, prayer preserved my sanity. But on days like this one, brow furrowed, teeth clenched, heels pounding the frosty pavement, prayer felt like firing a nail gun into an empty sky. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Three-hundred nails, on average, from the train station to my doorstep. Continue reading

Inalienable Worthiness – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

“We are useless slaves; we have done no more than our duty.”
“Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds awake when he comes.”
“Well done, good and trustworthy slave. Enter into the joy of your master.”
“Anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave.”

Slavery is impossible to avoid in the pages of the New Testament, as we see from a small sampling of well-known passages. Continue reading

Glory To God for All Things – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Feast of St. John Chrysostom

Luke 21:10-15

In 1940, Fr. Gregory Petrov, a Russian Orthodox priest, died in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia. Among his possessions was found a copy of a hymn entitled “Glory to God for All Things.” It is uncertain whether Petrov composed the hymn, but it is clear that it was written during the period of intense, coordinated persecution of the Church in Russia begun under Lenin. The systematic attempt to annihilate religious identity in Russia continued in waves of varying intensity until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The hymn so cherished by Petrov was copied and distributed secretly, sung and recited in clandestine gatherings of the faithful during those years, as Christians in the millions were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, sent to mental hospitals, barred from worshipping, praying, training new clergy or building churches. The hymn is now easy to find in English translation. I discovered it a few years ago, and my gratitude to God is always kindled anew when I return to its litanies of undaunted thanksgiving: Continue reading

Let Them Grow Together – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Jeremiah 7:1-11
Matthew 13:24-30

This parable of weeds and wheat, a parable unique to Matthew’s gospel, has a long history of interpretation from the pulpit in American religion. Much of it is overtly self-congratulatory, encouraging faith leaders and congregations to uncritically self-identify as faithful stalks of wheat – to say, in the words of Jeremiah, “We are safe!” The course of action in the Christian life then becomes simply to wait for the harvest, but in a way that presumes to know how the story will end. In the meantime, presuming to identify all the weeds in the neighborhood seems to become a common pastime. In this country, it is hard to overestimate the damage such interpretation of the Gospel is causing between Christians and atheists in particular. Indeed, many people my age or younger who identify with no faith tradition and who know little about Christianity are unlikely to take an interest if they perceive Christians to be self-righteously, obsessively concerned with the behavior of others. If you’ve already been identified as a weed – or have close friends who are weeds – is joining the “wheat” really all that appealing? Continue reading

The Gentleness of God – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Matthew 11:28-30

There is a kind of gentleness that is intuitive to us, or is called forth naturally from us, in certain situations. You may recall the first time you held a baby: the way your body responded to one tinier and less durable than yours with a gentle, protecting strength. Or the first time you threaded a kneedle, or placed something under a microscope, or gave someone a kiss. I remember my first childhood pet, a chameleon with skin that changed colors and eyes that swiveled in all directions. Though I gave him the rather ungentle name Thunder, I knew instinctively how gentle I needed to be as his tiny toes and delicate tail gripped my outstretched fingers. Although my heart raced, my breath became slower, my attention focused, and my senses became attuned,for the first time, to the fragile life of another. Continue reading

The Eye is the Lamp of the Body – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Luke 11.33-36

The short story writer Flannery O’Connor enjoyed a loyal but circumscribed following of readers during her lifetime.  The life and career of this brilliant young woman, a devout Roman Catholic who spent much of her life in Milledgeville, Georgia, ended in 1964 when she was just 39 years old. Since then, her work has increasingly gained the literary recognition it deserves.  Her stories weave together penetrating insight, acerbic humor, irony, and subtle allegory. Unlikely prophets abound and God’s grace lurks in absurd encounters.They are stories that deliver a visceral shock of self-knowledge for the reader with “eyes to see and ears to hear.” All of this of course, should sound like familiar terrain to us followers of a certain story-teller from ancient Galilee. In a talk given to a group of young writers, O’Connor offered the following words about the art of short story writing:

When you write, your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see, and they will not be a substitute for seeing. For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it. It involves judgment. Judgment is something that begins in the act of vision, and when it does not, or when it becomes separated from vision, then a confusion exists in the mind which transfers itself to the story.[i] Continue reading

God’s Glorification: Our Praying Presence – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

John 17:1-11a

Driving from Boston to any location on the North Shore of Massachusetts via Route One is a unique experience with which we Brothers, and many of you, will be quite familiar. Route One is the most direct way to get back and forth between our monastery here in Cambridge and Emery House in West Newbury. Most of us – especially those living at Emery House for any length of time – have driven this route dozens, if not hundreds of times. Though I do have a soft-spot for some of Route One’s distinctively kitschy landmarks – a fiberglass orange dinosaur, a replica of the leaning tower of Pisa, a steakhouse sign in the shape of a gigantic cactus – I confess that on many days I find the barrage of retail chains and languishing motels tedious and vaguely depressing. A New England tourism website describes the Route One experience with appropriately mixed emotion: “Years have passed and Route One is still one of America’s hideous, tacky gems –with its odd charm still shining at us in its neon, kitschy glory.” Continue reading

Marks of Love (Where Nails Have Been): Reflecting on the Third Mark of Mission – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

John 13:31-35

Throughout Lent and Easter tide this year, I’ve been praying with literature devoted to the Five Wounds of Christ. The meditative remembrance of Christ’s Passion was a profoundly meaningful practice in the spiritual lives of Medieval Christians, especially in England, and by the fourteenth century the visions and writings of saints steeped in such meditation concentrated with special intensity on the Five Wounds inflicted upon Christ’s Body: the nail holes in his right and left wrists, both of his feet, and the spear-wound in his side. These holy men and women saw the wounds of Jesus not as repugnant scars but as precious insignia testifying to the depths of God’s Love,as floodgates of Christ’s healing lifeblood, and as portals into the mysteries of Heaven. The seeds of such imagery are found in the Resurrection appearances in the gospels of Luke and John. When Jesus appears in the upper room, the disciple’s natural response is shock and fear, confusion and disbelief. Amid this rush of complex emotions, these distinctive marks clarify their vision and melt their hearts as they recognize the impossible: this is their Teacher, Friend, and Lord, crucified-and-risen. Continue reading

Fresh-Squeezed – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

John 6:60-69

I was raised as a Baptist in Alabama, and spent my late childhood and early teens falling in love with Jesus and his Gospel. Years later, during my studies at Harvard Divinity School, I would discover a call to follow Jesus as an Episcopalian. The eight years or so in between I found myself on a prolonged hiatus from Church and from Christianity, zealously studying and practicing Buddhist meditation. I think my exposure to these practices was a providential preparation for my later encounter with Christian contemplative prayer, and the compassionate, joyful presence of the Buddhist monks who befriended and taught me may have planted the first seeds of the Christian monastic vocation I am living into today. Continue reading

Our Relationship with Creation – Br. Keith Nelson

This sermon is part of a Lenten preaching series on “Growing a Rule of Life.

Preaching SeriesSQRules of Life & the Rhythms of Nature – Br. James Koester
Our Relationship with God – Br. Geoffrey Tristram
Our Relationship with Self – Br. Mark Brown
Our Relationship with Others – Br. David Vryhof
Our Relationship with Creation – Br. Keith Nelson
Living in Rhythm and Balance – Br. Luke Ditewig

Growing a Rule of Life: To subscribe to a daily morning email with a short video and download a PDF of the accompanying workbook enter your name and email.
More information here: SSJE.org/growrule


Br. Keith NelsonGenesis 2:4b-8; 15-19; Psalm 8; Mark 1:9-13

In a small wooden box in my cell here at the monastery, I keep a few simple mementos: physical objects I can hold in my hand, objects that anchor or center me in the remembrance that I am beloved of God. The simplest and most treasured of all is a cow bone from the desert near Moab, Utah. My best friend and I went camping in Utah a few months before I came to the monastery as a postulant. The trip was a pilgrimage into a landscape wonderfully strange to us both.  In the desert, we hoped to taste something of God’s vast, untamed power, just as Jesus did, and just as generations of saints have done from the ancient Israelites to the desert fathers and mothers of Egypt. Perhaps because our eyes and ears were opened by this intention, this expectation to meet this desert God and to travel as fellow pilgrims into our own inner wilderness, God came to meet us everywhere we turned. Every horizon held our gaze and enlarged it, beckoning us beyond that vanishing point where endless blue sky and rippling red stone merged. As we hiked about this desert paradise we wept or fell silent or laughed in wonder, as unselfconsciously as the shooting stars or lightning that flashed in the night sky or the rainbows that shimmered in the rare desert rain. Each moment, we could have echoed the sentiment of author Annie Dillard as she wrote from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains: “I see something, some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell.” [i] Continue reading

God’s Bathroom Mirrors – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Matthew 5:20-26

Before I came to the monastery I worked for a number of years as a Parish Administrator at a large Episcopal Church in downtown Boston, situated on a bustling street filled with high-end fashion boutiques and office buildings. The church kept its doors open throughout the work day and served as a hub for all sorts of programming, from Twelve Step meetings to homeless ministries, lunches for the elderly and concert series. On any given day I could be found coordinating a harpsichord delivery, scheduling a repair for our broken elevator, or trying to assist a young woman who periodically slept on our front steps – often simultaneously.

Dennis was our custodian. He greeted me daily when I arrived at 7 am with a huge smile and would yell one of his nicknames for me: “Special K!” or “K Dog!” or often just “Brother!” Short, thin, and feisty, Dennis had lived a very hard life but had an indefatigable spirit of joy and a deep, inspiring love for Jesus. He sang hymns at the top of his lungs over the sound of his vacuum cleaner, and accurately understood his work as a ministry. Dennis lived his emotional life extremely close to the surface and was frequently overwhelmed by it. He often needed to visit my office on the third floor to vent his feelings. Continue reading

Charcoal and Ash – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Cor. 5:20 b-6:10
Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21

In my first semester in college I took a drawing class. Though I had been drawing for most of my life, the course refined my ability to see the world afresh. Toward the end of the course, we did some intensive exercises and an assigned piece using charcoal – and in charcoal, I discovered my nemesis! Fine lines executed with slow precision or tiny details requiring the sharpest of pencils– these were the challenges I relished, because these were my skills. Faced with thick chunks or brittle wands of soft, smudgy, ill-behaved charcoal, I felt dismay and fear. During a timed charcoal drawing exercise, we were asked to draw a rapid series of abstract shapes without repeating the same shape twice. Each time my professor passed my drawing desk, his arm slowly reached across the entire width of my paper, and his thick hand obliterated my work. By the ninth or tenth time, my face now sweating and fingers black, I blurted, “Can you tell me what I’m doing that’s wrong or what I’m not doing that’s right?”  He replied, firmly but gently, “It’s not so much about wrong or right, Keith, but about seeing afresh. You’re not seeing.” In truth, I had been repeating minor variations on the same shapes and forms I had mastered previously using sharp, precise graphite. I was humbled to realize I had missed the point of the exercise. I began to learn that the habit of art requires the humility to create ugly work for the sake of clearer vision. Continue reading

One Matthias for Another – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

The Martyrs of Japan

Galatians 2:19-20
Mark 8:34-38

A large, distinctive, and inviting piece of art hangs in our refectory at Emery House, an image of the Last Supper in which the figures wear kimonos and dine on saké and sushi. It is a Japanese print in the mingei, or folk-art style, by the twentieth century Christian artist Sadao Watanabe. Watanabe used a technique called katazome, utilizing traditional mineral pigments in a medium of soybean milk printed on mulberry paper.  Of his works, Watanabe once remarked, “I would most like to see them hanging where people ordinarily gather, because Jesus brought the gospel for the people.” Having lost his father at the age of ten, he began attending Church when a local Christian woman in his neighborhood took him under her wing. He was baptized at age seventeen. Continue reading

Our Bodies, Our Blessings – Br. Keith Nelson

adventword_start“Mary has many titles and roles,” Br. Keith Nelson reflects, “many of them rich with meaning in our tradition and many of them meaningful to me personally. But I sometimes imagine her laying aside these brocade mantles, embroidered with the words “Virgin,” “Mother,” and “Queen,” as I offer her a chair and prepare to listen to her.” Might you join him in befriending Mary throughout the remainder of this Advent season?

Luke 11:27-28

Since childhood I have loved visiting art museums and I have loved hiking in the woods.  Though as an adult I have done both of these activities alone, I find them more rewarding experiences with a friend.  In the company of a true friend, a painting or a mountain become whole sentences in God’s language of Love for the universe. And in the midst of that sacred conversation between friend, painting, God, and me, the most mundane observation or the silliest non sequitur, the tiniest spark of an insight or the warmth of living silence all find their place.

On my journey of faith, Mary has become that kind of Friend, and our shared experience of Jesus has become that sacred communion. He invites me into her presence with contagious joy. She points me to him with fresh insight and renewed simplicity. The Holy Spirit awakens interconnections between my life and hers, my life and her Son’s life, my life and the life of every child of God. Continue reading

A Brief and Beautiful Life – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Feast of St. Elizabeth of Hungary

Tobit 12:6b-9
Luke 6:35-38

The spinning wheel is, for us, a cultural artifact from a time before the Industrial Revolution. But for much of history in many parts of the world, spinning wheels were not only necessary household tools but carried significant symbolic meaning. In Grimm’s Fairy Tales, heroines are commanded to spin straw into gold or unwittingly prick their fingers on enchanted spindles. In India, Gandhi mobilized the already rich cultural associations between the spinning wheel and the manufacture of homespun cloth, transforming spinning into a spiritual practice and an act of Indian resistance to British rule. And in Byzantine icons of the Annunciation, the blessed Virgin Mary is often depicted holding a spindle and distaff – the ancient equivalent of the spinning wheel. Legend holds that she was one of the young women privileged with the task of spinning the yarn that would be woven into the great veil of the Temple in Jerusalem. Continue reading