A Joy Most Ravishing – Br. James Koester

Life Profession of Jim Woodrum SSJE

Exodus 33: 7 – 1, Psalm 139: 1 – 12, 1 John 4: 7 – 12, John 15: 9 – 19

Well I am certainly impressed. Never in a million years did I imagine that so many people would show up today. I really only expected the brothers, the guests in the guesthouse and our regulars at the Saturday Eucharist. But look at you! You have come from near and far: Georgia, and South Carolina, from New York and parts in between. You have come from any number of places around Cambridge and Boston, and all to show your dedication, your devotion, your loyalty, your faithfulness, your friendship to someone whom we are told, was of remarkable life and learning.[1] And you are all dressed up to boot! That’s all pretty impressive, and we are honoured by your presence at this celebration today. The one person that I don’t see here though, surprises me by his absence. I don’t see the Mayor of Boston here. And that surprises me. Of all the people who should be here, he’s at the top of the list. Why isn’t he here with us today as we celebrate the feast of St. Botolph, the Patron Saint of Boston? Continue reading

What’s the Next Right Thing? – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum

John 14:6-14

When a man first comes to the monastery to test his vocation, you may be surprised to know that he does not get a large ‘how to’ manual on being a monk.  Nor does he receive a week-long orientation in the essentials of monastic living.  Much of what a postulant and novice learns is by observation, trial and error, and asking questions when they arise.  When he sings the Offices with the Community, (regardless of his proficiency in music fundamentals) he learns a strange musical script with a four-line staff and peculiar square notes that when stacked on top of each other means they ascend and when written in progression means they descend.  He learns that the bell rings ten minutes prior to each service although he may find himself sitting in chapel alone and confused for fifteen to twenty minutes when the Angelus bell rings at noon and no one shows up.  There is often that awkward moment when learning to acolyte that he lights the candles on the altar at noonday prayer only to have them extinguished with an explanation that candles are not lit at the noon office.  I sometimes joke that I’ve been here over five years and I’m still learning new things each week, although now they are more often epiphanies that dawn on me mysteriously, out of the blue.  For me, our lesson this evening from John’s gospel illustrates how the experience of novice monks is not dissimilar from that of Jesus’ disciples. Continue reading

The Best Is Yet To Come – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Profession of Life Vows by Brother Luke Ditewig, SSJE

Now I can’t claim to be the list king in this community. There is another brother, who will remain nameless, who is the king of lists, charts and calendars in this community. But what I can claim to be is the brother obituariest (the brother’s call me something else, but it’s a little rude so I won’t repeat it!). Anyway, I am the one responsible for writing the obituaries which we read at Compline, on the anniversary of a brother’s death. It’s a job that I take great delight in. One thing I have done is to make lists of all the brothers who have died in the community since our founding in 1866 beginning with Father Coggeshall, who was the first in our community to die in 1876, up to and including Brother Bernie whose death earlier this year was the most recent. By my count there have been 153 deaths in the community. But while I was making that list, I became curious about another list. I began to wonder how many men have made their life profession in our community, and when. So I began to dig, and it has taken quite a lot of digging, because our records are somewhat incomplete. But according to my count Luke, you are at least the 201st person since Father Benson to make his life profession in the Society of Saint John the Evangelist and the 47thto make his life profession here in this Chapel since Father Lockyer, who was the first to be professed here, on 21 July 1938. Continue reading

We Need God Together – A Conversation about Vocation with Br. John Braught

John Braught, SSJEHow did your journey to the Monastery begin?

I’m a cradle Episcopalian. I grew up going to church and was an acolyte, a crucifer, a torchbearer, and a server. I enjoyed the church youth group and socializing with kids my age in the fun activities they put on, but I found church boring. Like many people, I stopped going at the first opportunity. I don’t think I ever made the connection between being a church-going Episcopalian and having a relationship with Jesus. Certainly it was the receiver, not the message, that was broken, but that element wasn’t really communicated to me. So I left the church and became wayward (in my own way). Continue reading

Love was His Meaning – Br. James Koester

Whenever a man expresses an interest in our life, David, who is the novice guardian, invites him to make a few visits to us here to the monastery. Over these visits he gets to know us, and we him. During those visits, he has a brief experience of our life. He joins us for the Offices and the Eucharist, shares in some of the household chores that need to be done to keep this place running, and is invited for countless walks along the river or endless cups of tea, so that individual brothers can have a conversation with him.

For a number of years now, when it is my turn to have a conversation with a prospective member of the community, I ask him the usual questions. Where is he from? What does he do? How did he find us? What is he looking for? I wait for him to ask me questions. Eventually I ask him the one question, indeed really the only question that I am interested in. I ask him if he has ever fallen in love before. For whatever reason, most men, when I ask that question are completely taken aback. It is not a question they are expecting. But for me the question, or in truth the answer, is essential.

Now, just to be clear, I am not interested in the ins and outs of his love life. I don’t want to know the gory details of his romances. I just want to know if he has ever fallen in love and what that experience was like for him.

Continue reading

Fall 2014 Cowley

Click on the links below to read selected articles from the Fall 2014 Cowley Magazine.

In the Monastic Wisdom insert on “Time,” Br. Geoffrey Tristram proposes that much of our stress and anxiety derives from our pollution of Time, and reveals how  ordering our relationship to Time can help us to experience the joy of the present moment. Download a PDF here.

  1. In his piece “Our Human Vocation,” Br. James Koester reveals the community’s hopes for the Monastic Intern Program at Emery House and the Brothers’ recently acquired Grafton House.
  2. Life is busy inside and outside a monastery, and we all need to practice stopping. Br. Luke Ditewig offers concrete suggestions on how to stop, rest, period.
  3. In 2015, the Brothers will celebrate SSJE’s founder, Richard Meux Benson. In the article “Look to the Glory!” four men in the novitiate select a favorite quote from Father Benson and comment upon its meaning for them.
  4. Br. Robert L’Esperance reflects on his journey to vowed life at the Monastery.

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Tell us what you think of this Cowley Magazine in the comments below.
We welcome your comments, letters, or ideas for future articles.

Vocation Is the Journey – A Conversation about Vocation with Br. Robert L’Esperance

Q: When did you first have a sense of your own vocation?

I grew up in the age of cheap gasoline. There was a gas station down the street from where I lived, and I have a distinct memory that the gas was twenty-nine cents a gallon. When gasoline was cheap, a favorite family pastime was to go for rides. Sometimes our rides took us to attend Vespers at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, which was about forty miles from where I grew up. This was still in the day when the Roman Catholic liturgy was in Latin, and there was an area in the chapel that was screened in with curtains, because the monks were still under strict cloister. I remember that, from the extern area, you had a view of the altar but couldn’t see the choir monks. I was fairly small; I could peer through the opening in the curtain.

When I had my first thought about being a monk, I was probably about seven years old. I remember looking through the curtain down the nave of the abbey church, which seemed huge to me, to where I could see the monks at the far end of the choir in their white robes. There probably were about seventy monks at the time, so there were a lot of these white bodies down at the end. And I just remember having the thought, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.” Continue reading

Called to Wholeness of Living: A Conversation about Vocation with Br. Jonathan Maury

 6280240268_e764818121_oWhen did you first have a sense of your vocation? 

When I was a young chorister in my parish, I became fascinated by the church’s history and very caught up in its worship. Although only half aware of it at the time, I do remember being very drawn to images of monastics as depicted in books or films. When my brothers and I would play together, they’d always want to be the knights, and me the friar! Also early on, growing up on Nantucket Island, I became aware of a contemplative component to my emerging personality. I spent much time on my own, in solitude and communing with God in nature. Often I had a sense that I was being called to a different kind of life. And hearing the gospels, I knew that Jesus invited people to a different way of being in the world, renouncing individualism and violence, and dedicated to community and mutual love.  Continue reading

Vocation – Br. Jim Woodrum

Read by Br. Jim WoodrumAfter I first arrived at the monastery almost two years ago, I remember taking a bus out of South Station up to Emery House to spend a Sabbath.  As we were pulling out of the station, I looked out of the window at the surrounding city scene and time seemed to freeze for a moment and a question popped into my mind:  How did a music teacher from East Tennessee, who has lived his whole life in the south, and who had ambitions of travelling and performing end up in the greater Boston area testing a vocation as a monk?  How in the world did I get from there to here?  Have you ever had one of those moments….when life became so large, so incredibly vivid that you had to ask, “Is this real?”  And then life’s “play” button is pressed and you forge ahead as you were, perhaps a little overwhelmed at the notion of actually retracing your steps to that moment, and it fades unresolved.  Yet you know that you just had a glimpse of something larger than life and you have to settle with the idea that time will bring clarity and you’ll eventually understand. Continue reading

Thanksgiving for the Ministry of Women – Br. David Allen

DavidA_2008_031 We heard in today’s Gospel that Jesus was setting out on one of his preaching tours. At first thought today’s Gospel may appear to be just another narrative about one of Jesus’ walkabout tours for ministry. The purpose of those tours was to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and to bring that message to the towns and villages of the region of Galilee. Continue reading

Three Calls: A Conversation About Vocation with Br. Mark Brown

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When did you first experience a call to the monastic life? 

My call to the monastic life was actually my third experience of being called to a vocation in the Christian life. It was preceded, first of all, in my mid-thirties, by a call to be a Christian. I’m an adult convert to Christianity, baptized at thirty-five. My second call was a vocation to the priesthood. Then a few years later came a sense of vocation to the monastic life here at SSJE.

Describing with a very broad brush: I was raised in a church-going family in a small Midwestern town, Coal City, Illinois, where we attended a Presbyterian church on a regular basis and were active in the congregation. By the time I reached my mid-teens, I felt like I needed to distance myself from the church. I wasn’t sure what I believed. Eventually, I stopped attending church or thinking of myself as a Christian.

After I left my hometown in 1967, to go to the University of Illinois to be a music student, I became very involved in studying music – in a sense, that was my religion for quite a while. Then, little by little, bit-by-bit, I began to feel a kind of magnetic attraction to something out there, though I wasn’t sure what that something was. So I began a kind of wild and crazy exploratory period during my college years. This period took me to some very strange (and sometimes wonderful) places: I dipped into Eastern religions and theosophy, tried out a whole range of things having to do with the occult and paranormal, attending séances, getting into astrology and numerology and all kinds of very exotic things on this spiritual quest.

In my early thirties, I made a trip to France for a vacation and was particularly attracted to the churches, as anyone would be in a country like France, where there are such wonderful old churches to visit. While in the city of Arles, in the South of France, I visited Saint Trophime, an ancient church, dating back in parts to the fourth or fifth century. I happened to be there just when a baptism was taking place.

As I watched this baptism, something came over me that felt tremendously powerful – so powerful I had to grab onto something to keep standing up straight! In that moment I knew that I needed to be baptized and join the Church.

What did you do with that urgent sense of call?

Back at home I began to raise my antennae to see what I could sense in the environment around me. I still wasn’t sure where I would land, because I didn’t feel at all drawn to the tradition in which I’d been raised. I felt somewhat drawn to Catholicism. Because my adult life had been spent in the study and teaching of music, I knew that wherever I landed would need to take the arts and beauty seriously. But I struggled with the top-down approach to authority in the Roman Catholic Church. To make a long story short, I found the Episcopal Church. On Christmas Eve, in Champaign, Illinois, it all came together in a very wonderful and marvellous way, and I instantly felt at home there. I knew that this was a place in which I could be a Christian. A few weeks later, in late February 1986, I was baptized and became a Christian – and a member of the Episcopal Church as well.

About the same time – actually a few weeks before I was even baptized! – I had begun the discipline of praying Morning Prayer using the Book of Common Prayer. One day, I remember, I was praying “The General Thanksgiving” that comes at the end of that service, meditating on the words about service: “that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service.” I was pondering what that might look like for me. And in a flash, in a moment, the thought, the words, the idea, came to mind that I should become a priest.

The first call, the call to be a Christian, was slow and incremental: a gradual increase of attraction through years of wandering and looking and searching, and then a realization that I needed to be baptized and to become a Christian.

My sense of vocation to the priesthood was very different because it was so instantaneous and unexpected. I didn’t have a conscious sense of building up to this. It seemed out-of-the-blue and unreasonable to want to be a priest without even being a baptized Christian. (Though even that is not unprecedented: St. Ambrose was not baptized when he was elected Bishop of Milan.) Yet in this second sense of vocation to the priesthood, there was something so clear, something suddenly so evident and so powerful, I never doubted its validity. I knew, as surely as I knew that the sun was shining, that this was my vocation, and that all I had to do was keep going through doors as they opened and I would become a priest. And that is what happened.

When I think back on the experience of that moment, I think of a piano string being tuned. If you’ve ever heard that happening, you’ll know what I mean. There’s a wrench that tightens the bolts that hold down the strings, and as the tuner turns the bolts, the string goes flat, goes sharp. The sound wobbles around the true pitch, and then suddenly the true pitch rings out in a very clear, bell-like way. And that’s it. You know that the note is now in tune. That’s how it felt to me, after so much wandering and searching and seeking and going this way and that way: It felt in that moment like I was perfectly in tune with what I was meant to do with my life.

So when did you experience your third call, the call to become a monk?

After seminary, I worked in a parish for a while as a priest. During that time, I was asked by a friend to preach at his wedding in New York. As I arranged to make a trip to New York I thought I might as well make a retreat at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. I loved going for retreats at a monastery in Michigan. But while I had a deep appreciation for the monastic life from that experience, I didn’t have a sense of vocation to that particular community.

After a few days on retreat at SSJE, I thought, “Maybe there’s something here for me. This might be a possibility.” I knew already that I had a strong attraction to the monastic life, and now I could see how I might live out my baptismal vows and my priestly identity in this place, with this community. So I began a correspondence with Br. Curtis, who was the novice guardian at the time. Following my retreat in July of 1996, I came for an inquirer’s visit that October and then came as a postulant in June of 1997.

This has been a different experience of vocation from the previous two because it’s been a kind of ongoing wrestling match with God. Looking back now, I have no doubt that I’ve made the right choice. I do have a vocation as a member of this community. But with this call I haven’t always had the clarity I did with my previous senses of vocation to be a Christian and a priest. I’ve had to struggle with this call much more. Once I was beyond the initial stages of wonderment about being here, once the realities of daily existence began to sink in, there certainly were times when I began to wonder, “Have I made the right decision?” Of course, I’m still here and I have the sense of this being right.

The point I’m making is that when we talk about having a sense of vocation, we can be talking about very different experiences. I, for one, have experienced a variety of calls: first the gradually increasing gravitational attraction experience, then the sudden insight experience, and finally the Jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel kind of experience.

It’s important for people to know that vocation can be played out in many different ways. There’s no wrong way or right way; it happens as it happens, and it can happen in any number of different ways.

What’s been the most rewarding thing for you about accepting the call to be a monk?

The single most gratifying thing is probably living a life rooted and grounded in a regular practice of corporate prayer. This is a wonderful place in which to be a priest, partly because of the care and skill that goes into our liturgical life. We put a tremendous amount of thought and energy into liturgy because we love it. So it’s a very gratifying place to celebrate the Eucharist. I find this an especially wonderful place to be a preacher. In a parish, a preacher has to be all things to everyone and try to meet a very wide range of needs, to speak to a wide range of people. Since we have many Brothers preaching, each one can develop his own unique voice, without feeling the need to be all things to all people. So I’ve found tremendous freedom in this context to develop my own voice as a preacher without being anxious about whether it’s speaking to everyone all the time. One of my Brothers affectionately has called my preaching eccentric, and I take that as a great compliment. I’m glad to be able to be in a place where I can be an eccentric preacher.

Do you think that everyone has a vocation?

It depends on how we understand “vocation.” If we’re talking about a spectacularly dramatic moment when we experience God calling us, a kind of Damascus Road experience, I’d say that’s comparatively rare. I suspect that the most common sense of vocation is one that develops over time, which may also involve a certain amount of struggling. In retrospect, even my sudden sense of vocation to the priesthood, which in the moment seemed unexpected and unprecedented, may have been a more organic movement in the trajectory of my life. A sense of vocation forms around what we might call “the heart’s desire”: what we truly desire for ourselves in God, for those around us, and for the world. I suspect that our own deepest desires are most often the strongest indication of vocation. We need not wait for or expect a call that seems to come from outside of us, but rather be attuned to that which is becoming alive within us.