In anticipation of Brother James Koester’s visit to the diocese to host a workshop for the clergy this December, Faith Tides had the pleasure to interview him.
Br. James is the Superior of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE), a monastic community in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For more information about the SSJE please visit: www.ssje.org.
You were born and raised in Saskatchewan — what religious background are you from and was there a supportive community of faith that your family was part of? You mention playing with a blue dressing gown as a child and pretending to be a priest even at a very young age. Tell us about that.
I was born in Regina Saskatchewan in the late 1950’s and grew up in the same neighbourhood that my father had grown up in. We attended St Mary’s Anglican Church, which had been the family parish since the 1930s. My grandparents attended the 9:30 a.m. service and we went to the 11:00 a.m. service. That’s where the seed of my faith was planted, and where I learned to love both the 1959 Book of Common Prayer, much of which is still firmly planted in my memory, and Anglican tradition.
In many ways it was my father who was instrumental in the development of my faith. Some of my most cherished memories are kneeling beside him at church on Sundays. Later in life when my other siblings had grown up and gone from home, it would be my father and me who would go to church on Sundays, leaving Mum behind to have a quiet morning at home.
Our rector, who in the tradition of St Mary’s at the time, was known to us as Mr. Pasterfield, made a huge impression on me. I could not have been more than six or seven when I announced to my mother one day as she was doing the laundry, that I wanted to be like Mr. Pasterfield when I grew up. I don’t recall what it was that intrigued me about him, except that at the time I had a dark blue woolen dressing gown, which I would wear backwards like a cassock, and pretend to be him.
In high school, I attended boarding school in Winnipeg and about a mile or so from the school, was the local parish. Church going on Sundays was what I’d grown up doing, so I would take myself off to church on Sundays. At first that was a little embarrassing, as I would have to put on my school uniform on a Sunday, and then report to the teacher on duty. After a few Sundays, this just became accepted behaviour for me, and no one said anything. I certainly as not teased by the other boarders. It was while I was at school in Winnipeg that I discovered Anglo-Catholicism. St Michael and All Angels was nothing like St. Mary’s. I was used to cassock, surplice, stole, with holy communion and morning prayer alternating on Sundays. At St Michael’s, I was introduced to vestments, mass, incense, and calling the priest “Father”. In many ways St Michael and All Angels had as profound an effect on my faith development as did St Mary’s. I am still very much living out those two sides of my upbringing.
What was your calling to the priesthood like? Was it easy to enter into your vocation or were there some struggles/challenges along the way?
I don’t remember a time when I did not want to be a priest. It is not something I ever discussed with anyone, although I know my parents and siblings discussed it amongst themselves. We all simply understood that’s what I’d end up doing. In many ways it was simply a matter of time. The first person I ever spoke to about a vocation to the priesthood was Michael Peers. He had just moved to Regina to become the dean of the cathedral. At the time, the cathedral had a late afternoon eucharist one day a week. During the summer after graduating from high school, I go into the habit of attending that service on my way home from my summer job. Over the next few summers, I became friends with Michael (and later his wife Dorothy). One week I was on the afternoon shift so on my way to work I stopped in at the cathedral and spoke to Michael about ordination. Following university, I moved to Victoria for a job and began to attend St Barnabas. My first Sunday there, as I was leaving, Father Chassels, the rector at the time, asked me my name. When I told him my name he spelled it back for me, which was a great surprise. Hardly anyone knows how to spell “Koester!” It turned out he and my father had been in the navy together during the war. That put an end to my church shopping, and St Barnabas became my second home for the time I lived in Victoria. It as from there that I finally took the plunge, enrolled at Trinity College, Toronto, and told my parents I wanted to be a priest. Their reaction was, “what took you so long?”
At what parish did you serve in British Columbia? And how did you go from being a parish priest to being a Brother in the SSJE? What drew you to this particular – and especially in this day and age unconventional – way of life?
Following my ordination, I served first as the Assistant Curate in Parksville with Peter Parker. Shortly after my arrival, Peter celebrated the 10th anniversary of his ordination. I remember thinking that seemed like such a long time. A few years later, when I was rector of Salt Spring Island, the local Roman Catholic priest celebrated his 50th anniversary of ordination. At the time I remember saying to my warden, I could not imagine that. In April 2024, I celebrate my 40th anniversary. From this vantage point, 10 years seems like nothing, and 50 is just around the corner!
My monastic vocation began, almost as a joke. Just before the Easter holiday one year, my grade 9 math teacher wanted to kill time, rather than teach a class, so he went around the room asking what we planned to do after high school. He got the typical answers you would expect from 13-year-old boys, that is until he came to me. I was too embarrassed to say I wanted to be a priest, so I told him I wanted to be a monk. This story obviously went around the staff common room several times for the next few years. On day in grade 11, Barry Valentine, who was then Bishop of Rupert’s Land, and who came into the school once a week to teach a class on great religions, asked me to stay behind for a moment. When everyone else had left he turned to me and said, “James, I understand you want to become a monk.” We talked for a few minutes and then the two of us when off to lunch. Years later, Barry, who by then was no longer Bishop of Rupert’s Land, was working in Washington DC and was looking to return to Canada. He phoned Ron Shepherd, then the Bishop of British Columbia, and asked if there was an opening in the diocese. Ron responded that as a matter of fact there was as one of his priests had just announced his resignation so that he could test his monastic vocation, to which Barry responded, “So Koester is finally going is he?”
I was 29 when I was appointed Rector of Salt Spring. Unbeknownst to me, Ron Shepherd had told the parish that he did not know if I would be there for two years or 20, because he thought I’d eventually try my vocation as a monk. In the end they asked him to appoint me anyway, and he was right, I stayed for two years.
I first came into contact with SSJE while I was an undergraduate student. At the time there was a monastery in Bracebridge, Ontario, and I visited there a couple of times during reading weeks. I immediately fell in love with the routine and rhythm of the life. My love of the Prayer Book planted so many years before at St Mary’s, found an outlet in the daily office, and my love of the eucharist and ritual I discovered at St Michael’s found an outlet in the worship of the monastic community. Having spent so many years living, first in a large family of seven people, and then in a boarding school, I found community life to be second nature. My pattern of visiting the community in Bracebridge continued while I was at Trinity. One evening as I sat in the chapel before compline, I remember saying to God that if I was still interested in testing a monastic vocation when I was 30, I would come. As things unfolded, that wasn’t too far off. I joined the community here in Cambridge just before my 32nd birthday.
One of the sticking points that kept me from coming to the community sooner, was that 1984, the Canadian house closed, and the Canadian members of the Society moved to the monastery in Massachusetts. While I had visited the Cambridge house several times after that, I had a really difficult time imagining myself living in the United States. Over 30 years later I still do! When I die they will find a maple leaf tattooed onto my heart! I have not taken out US citizenship, and remain proud to be both a Canadian and a member of the Anglican Church of Canada.
Having said that, the things that attracted me then are the same things that hold me here today. A monastic vocation is almost exactly like falling in love. One doesn’t fall in love with an idea. One falls in love with a person. I have fallen in love with a community, a rhythm, a routine, a life, a ministry. As much as some days I wish it were otherwise, I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life. In the same way, couples can’t imagine spending the rest of their life with anyone else.
In your question you used the word “unconventional.” In many ways the vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience are unconventional. So much of contemporary tells us that we can have it all, take it all, and be it all. Monastic vows remind us of the important of limitations, and living within those limitations. We see all around us the damage caused by the belief that there are no limits to what, or who we can have, or become. We see that principally these days in the environmental crisis so evident all around us; in what is described as toxic masculinity; and in the inability to really listen to one another. The monastic vows are not about living an impoverished life, which regards sex and sexuality as evil, and doing what we are told to do, simply because we are told to do it. In the vow of poverty, we are invited to remember that creation is good, and is meant to be shared and is not there for my sole use. By celibacy we mean we are to respect one another’s boundaries, and that human relationships are not simply for my individual gratification. The vow of obedience is not really about “obey,” but listening to one another, not with the intent of changing the other person, but to be changed yourself.
I’d also say two other things. In our Rule of Life, we say that people are hungry for good news that life is full of meaning in union with God. So many look for meaning through their possessions, their work, their ability to consume. We live in stark contrast to that kind of personal meaning making by living a life focused on God, who through Jesus came not to be served but to serve. It is by living in union with a “servant God” that we find life’s meaning, and we try to draw others into that same kind of life.
The other person I love to quote is our founder, Father Richard Meux Benson, who writes that “none came come to Christ and go away as they came. Our coming to Christ changes everything.” He goes on to say that we are to live as people “who have been with Jesus.” For Father Benson and for us, our primary relationship is with Jesus, and so our whole life is shaped around allowing that to happen. Anyone who has been in a relationship with another person knows that being in a relationship radically changes you. As a life lived in relationship with Jesus was a changed and challenged each day to our core by Him. At the end of any given day, I am a different person when I go to bed, than the one I was when I woke up, simply by encountering Jesus in word, sacrament, prayer and my Brothers.
I’m sure many Anglicans/Episcopalians are surprised to know that there are nuns and monks within the faith. How aware — or not — were you?
I have been told on more than one occasion that I must be mistaken when I describe myself as an Anglican monk. Since Anglicans don’t have monks and nuns, I must be Roman Catholic. I showed up in a church once in my habit, and was politely told the Roman Catholic church was down the street. I grew up however being aware of the existence of, at least nuns. Growing up in Regina, I attended the Qu’Appelle Diocesan School (QDS) for nursery school, where my teacher was Sr. Audrey, SSJD. I am convinced that Sr. Audrey’s on-going prayers for me are one of the factors that led me to SSJE. On one of my first visits to Bracebridge, I met Fr. Frith, SSJE. It was only years after his death that I discovered Sr Audrey and Fr. Frith were brother and sister!
Some may have the impression that being a cloistered religious implies a total withdrawal from the secular world — do you think this is correct? Or can one still be engaged in what goes on outside the monastery’s walls?
I’d challenge your use of the word “secular,” because of course all creation has been touched by grandeur of God, and in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “it will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” One of our roles as monastics is to help people see the grandeur of God about them, even in routine and common tasks. For the person of faith, there is nothing secular. You hear that day by day in our intercessions as we pray for the end to gun violence in this country, ask for healing on behalf of someone who has sent in the name of someone for whom they would like us to pray, give thanks for a particular Brother, or pray for a guest who is present.
Even when no words are spoken aloud, I know that the people of the Holy Land, Ukraine and Russia, are being prayed for. Sometimes I come away from church and I wonder where this feeling that I have been carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders comes from. Then I realize, I have been carrying the weight of the world, because I been holding the cares and concerns of so many in prayer before God. Anyone who really prays and believes in God cannot withdraw from the world.
Describe a typical day for you at the SSJE.
I wish! While our day is rooted in rounds of prayer, worship, silence, hospitality and ministry, there is no “typical” day. Except for Mondays, our Sabbath Day, we celebrate the Eucharist and pray morning prayer, the mid-day office, evening prayer and compline, as well as keep the greater silence from 9 p.m. until 9 a.m. each day. Every Brother has an hour of private prayer each morning.
After that, other than meals at set times, we all have various jobs and responsibilities which fill the rest of the day. As Superior, that might involve speaking with a member of staff, or a Brother; meeting someone via Zoom; greeting guests; writing letters or a sermon; doing desk work; or getting ready to travel for ministry.
While I have professional assistance, I am also responsible for meeting our Annual Fund goals, which this year stands at $1.5 million. I am the community archivist, so I work in the archives and respond to questions from people doing research that touches on our history. I like to walk, and read mystery novels or history books. I am also working on a couple of fun archival projects. One is creating a list of every man who has ever come through our doors to test a vocation, whether or not he stayed. The other is researching SSJE’s role in introducing the liturgies of holy week in English to Anglicans and Episcopalians in North America.
Somewhere in the mix I am responsible for some of the housework, to keep the monastery clean, and I take my turn doing the dishes. People think we simply spend our time singing and praying, but in between the singing a praying a great deal of other stuff goes on. One thing that preparation, or parish ministry did not prepare me to do was to run a multi-million-dollar, international corporation, but that really is my job as Superior.
What advice would you give someone who is curious or interested in a contemplative religious life? Admittedly, monasticism isn’t for everyone, but clearly some are attracted to it, as you were. What would be considered “right” reasons – and “wrong” ones – in wanting to join a brotherhood (or sisterhood)?
One of the questions I always ask a man who comes to inquire about a monastic vocation, is to tell me about their experience of falling in love. I am not interested in the private details of a man’s love life, but this life is about falling in love. We come because we have fallen in love with God, and we come to this community because we have fallen in love with this particular group of men. We also come because we have discovered that God has fallen in love with us, and also to see if these particular men can fall in love with us. Saying that someone has a monastic vocation is like saying you have a vocation to marriage. You may want to be married, but until you find that particular person, you are only attracted to the idea of marriage.
I also like to remind people that this life will kill you, and that’s the whole point. Unless a grain falls into the earth and died, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Someone who comes to this life, needs to be prepared to die. Learning to die is the work of a lifetime. Some of the signs of a willingness to die are seen by those who demonstrate a love for the gospel, an attraction to ministry, a desire for prayer, and signs of personal adaptability and flexibility. If you are looking for a place where you can fall in love every day, and where the process of falling in love will kill you, you might want to consider a monastic vocation.
For an institution to be sustainable, it needs to be relevant to new younger generations. What efforts has the SSJE made to ensure that it will still be a vibrant community of faith in the years to come? Has there been outreach to millennials, for example?
Ever since I was elected Superior in 2016, I have been focused on raising up a new generation of leaders in the community. It’s not just that we have run out of older monks to fill the various roles, but it is because we are in the midst of a sea change. The community, the church, the world is different than it was 50 years ago, never mind just 10 years ago. When I retire from being Superior in March 2025, I will have been Superior for nine years and it will be time for a new generation to take over. It is not simply because it is time for me to move on. It’s because everything is different. It is not that there is no longer any room for tradition, or the Christian tradition, but how tradition is lived, embodied, and passed on in the next 10 to 50 years will not be the same as it has been for the last 50 years. And I don’t know what that will look like, and in many ways, as someone approaching his 70s, that’s not my job. That’s the job of someone in their 30s and 40s. What I do know is that the next Superior will be very different than any for the last 50 years, and certainly different than me.
As a Canadian living in the United States, do you think your perspectives on current American affairs (political, sociological, etc.) is somewhat different, having grown up and lived in a different country?
This is the question that kept me from trying my vocation earlier. I simply could not get myself mentally across the border. I finally talked myself into by telling myself that Americans and Canadians weren’t all that different, after all we watched (mostly) the same TV shows and movies, listened to the same music, had the same plumbing. How different could we be? So, I came to try my vocation and within weeks discovered Americans and Canadians are very different.
Even 30 years ago, the United States was a much more religious country, and Canada far more secular. Religion (and by this, I mean conservative evangelical Christianity) plays a huge role in the public discourse in the U.S., in ways that are inconceivable in Canada. The gun culture continues to shock me, as did (does) the resistance to universal medical insurance. In many ways the Civil War continues to be fought, and racism runs deep here. The list could go on. The one thing that brought these differences home to me shortly after my arrival was a discussion about the lottery. I knew about lotteries — you buy a ticket and hope to win. In this conversation it was clear you did not want to win. It took me awhile to realize the conversation was about the Viet Nam draft. That war continues to scar the national psyche. In fact, there was a conversation last Sunday at dinner about it.
At the same time, I experience Americans as incredibly generous, and amazingly proud of their country and its traditions.
It has been said that Anglicanism is in decline in Canada. Our own Bishop Anna has talked about how the diocese here is one of the most secular. How, do you think, do we address this situation? How do you imagine the role of the Anglican Church in Canada in the decades to come? How can it stay relevant?
That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Everyone is asking that. I don’t know if this is the answer, but it’s the answer for me. Anglicans are theologically rooted in the mystery of the Incarnation. Our worship, theology, and practice centres on the mystery of God taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus, and dwelling among us. The home of God is among mortals. As Anglicans I think it is first of all our challenge to remind ourselves of that, and then to demonstrate that we actually believe it.
I know by living in the US, the world is watching as Canada comes to grips as a nation with our history of First Nations – settlers relations. As the Episcopal Church begins to explore its own role in residential schools, I know too that it is looking to the Anglican Church. How we come to both see and show that truth of the Incarnation has been our vocation from the beginning, and it is chief strength.
Anglicans are also discovering that we are a people on a journey. One of my favourite gospel lines is go and tell my disciples that I go before them to Galilee, and there they will see me. It comes from the resurrection story. I have no idea what the future holds for us. What I do know is that Jesus promises to meet us there. I don’t think we need to be afraid, for the simple reason that as we walk boldly into the future, we will discover Jesus already there.
In one of your sermons, you wrote about how “it’s easy to be overwhelmed… to give up hope. To live in fear.” With so much going on right now – armed conflicts around the globe, political unrest, acts of violence and aggression in the news, the damaging effect of climate change on our planet, and so forth – how do we remain positive, you think?
My hope is rooted and grounded in the resurrection. I cannot imagine the fear and terror that gripped Mary Magdalene and the other women that first Easter Day, as they headed to the tomb. They were however prepared to face their fears, and look death firmly in the face. What they saw however was not death, but life. Curiously, it was not death that shocked them. What shocked them was life. But they could not see life unless they were prepared to look into the bleakness of death.
As you say, there is so much going on right now that is pretty terrible, and which I have a really difficult time looking at, or even considering. What gives me hope is that the Risen Lord is standing in the midst of some much death, and calling my name, and sending me off to proclaim, I have seen the Lord. I think it is pretty unbelievable for most people that we can come to know hope, not by gazing a sunny sky, but by looking into the blackness of death and the chaos of the world and hearing the Risen Lord saying, go and tell my disciples that I go before them to Galilee, and there they will see me. It’s the promise of God that we will see the risen Lord, and one thing I know, is that God is faithful and that promise will be fulfilled, so that like Mary we can say I have seen the Lord. That’s where I find hope.