Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control – A Conversation About Vocation with Br. James Koester

When did you first begin to have a sense of your vocation?

Even as a little kid, I somehow or other knew that I wanted to be a priest. I used to have a very dark blue wool dressing gown, which I would wear backwards as I wandered around the house pretending to be Mr. Pasterfield, the rector of our parish. I couldn’t have been more than maybe six or seven years old. I remember saying to my mum, down in the laundry room, “When I grow up I want to be like Mr. Pasterfield.” So, from childhood, I always felt attracted to the priesthood, and that attraction never really went away.

My awareness of the religious life came a bit later. While I knew that there were nuns in the Anglican Church – in fact I’d been taught nursery school by a sister of the Sisterhood of Saint John the Divine (SSJD) – it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned that there are monks in the Church as well. I learned that through an advertisement in our church newspaper for a summer vocations program at SSJE’s Mission House in Bracebridge. Though I ended up not being able to attend that program, I finally made it to Bracebridge for a reading week when I was at university. During that initial visit, I was really drawn by the silence, the prayer, and the worship. I came away from that first experience thinking, “I could do this.” 

How did that interest develop?

After that first encounter, I visited Bracebridge several more times while I was an undergraduate. Once I was in seminary I returned when my class made its annual visit to Bracebridge. From those experiences, I knew that if I were to be a monk, it would have to be with SSJE. There weren’t any other communities that attracted me the way SSJE did – partly because SSJE had a Canadian connection, but also because of its history. As I read about the history of the revival of the religious life, SSJE kept on coming up. Reading about the history of other communities, I would always think, “If that’s the religious life, then it’s not for me.” But when I read the history of SSJE, I thought the opposite: “That sounds heroic and interesting; I could really be drawn to that.” The thing that intrigues me about this partiality now is how the history of many other religious communities is not actually all that different from ours. But at that time, there was something uniquely compelling about the history of SSJE to me. When I read about SSJE, something clicked.

As the area around Bracebridge became quite gentrified, there was no longer a need for the sort of work that the Brothers had been doing when it was still a very hard-scrabble farming and lumbering area, so the Bracebridge house eventually was closed down. After that, I made several visits to the Monastery in Cambridge, first with a friend of mine in May 1984, just after I was ordained deacon. I borrowed my mum’s car, and we drove down. I remember walking into the Guesthouse and thinking that it felt like home. There was a really homey feeling about the place to me. After three days here and after meeting the Brothers, I just kept on thinking, “You know, I could do this.” During that visit, I asked to talk with Tom, who was then the community’s Superior, about a possible vocation.

Did you struggle as you decided whether or not to test this vocation? What decided you? 

The only thing that really snagged me was the question of immigration: I could get my mind around joining a Monastery; but I could not get my mind around moving to the United States. Even after I came to SSJE for a second inquirer’s visit – in 1986 – after I’d been ordained a priest, I still couldn’t cope with the idea of moving out of Canada. Despite a really positive second visit, it took me another two years before I could psychologically move myself across the border.

In the end, though, I realized that I had to try this life out for myself. I just couldn’t get it out of my system. I was thirty-one and had spent two and a half years as assistant in a parish and another two and a half years as rector of a parish, so I knew that I could live the parish life. But the monastic life kept calling to me. I could not let go of this desire for an experience of living with real intensity – the desire for an intense experience of the Christian life that I just wasn’t getting in the parish. This is not to say, by any means, that it isn’t possible to experience that intensity in a parish; it just wasn’t happening for me. I was looking for something more.

I think this is one reason why we still need monasteries today. I have this theory that England was converted to Christianity through the missionary model of monasteries. Monks would live in community and then go out from the monastery on missionary journeys, returning afterward back to the monastery. Monasteries were, and still are, hubs of prayer, worship, hospitality, healing, ministry, and mission. Coming to a monastery is like being drawn to a blazing fire and getting warm, then being sent out. People need that exposure to intensity, to a real passionate experience of the life of faith in order for them to go out in mission and service in the name of Christ.

I think that we’re coming into a time now where the world is going to need to be reconverted, and that can happen only through places that are vibrant centers of prayer, worship, hospitality, healing, ministry, and mission. And again, it’s not that a parish can’t be – or parishes aren’t – that sort of blazing fire. They can be and are. But for me, it was the desire for more intensity that drew me to test my vocation at SSJE. And it’s what continues to draw people to places like SSJE; it’s what makes monasteries – and vibrant parishes – essential to the life of the church today.

What’s been the most rewarding thing for you about living this vocation?

God always surprises me. I’m constantly being surprised by God in what I’m asked to do, what I learn I can do, and the opportunities I have. Take an opportunity like the one I had a few years back, to be the Holy Week speaker at Canterbury Cathedral, where I preached on Good Friday to the Archbishop. That is something I never could have imagined doing as rector of a parish, and probably would never have been asked to do if I’d stayed in that role. But in this life, I find I’m constantly surprised by the things I have the privilege of doing, and all the things that I discover I can do. While perhaps I may not be the very best treasurer, I filled that role in the community, and we didn’t go bankrupt. I never in my whole life dreamed that one day I’d be driving a tractor, and yet that’s now the highlight of many of my days at Emery House. Monastic life has a lot of routine to it, just like the church year does, and yet I also experience this life as constantly full of surprises.

What would you say to someone still struggling to find his or her vocation? 

There’s a passage I’ve been going back to over and over again this last little while, Galatians 5:22-23: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” This for me is the definition of a vocation. I would say that when you find love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, then you’ve found your vocation. If you’re always angry, frustrated, or bitter at work or in your relationship, then you’re obviously not in the right place. But I do believe that everybody has a place, or a person, or a community where they can find “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Everybody has a vocation to some work, some relationship, some place.

And to someone still wondering about his or her vocation, I would say: take the chance to check it out. I remember, just after I announced that I would be coming to the Monastery, a friend of mine said to me, “Oh James. I once thought I had a vocation to the religious life.” But he never did anything about it, and he always wondered if he should have given it a try. I knew that I didn’t want to look at myself in the mirror in fifty years and say, “I should have tried.” You may discover your answer after a weekend, or a week, or after six months, or even two years. But I think that if you’re curious and you think there’s a vocation toward which God is leading you, nudging you, encouraging you and pushing you, then a weekend or a week, or even a year out of your life, is worth it to check it out. Because that could be the place of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control for you.