“Taken at the Flood” A conversation about vocation with Br. Geoffrey Tristram
Q: How old were you when you first started to have a sense of your vocation?
When I was about fifteen, somebody I knew mentioned that they wanted to be a monk, and I remember how – though I didn’t even go to church at that time – something about that struck me very deeply. Something inside me said, “That’s what I want to be.” I didn’t really even know what a monk was, but I had this extraordinary sensation that that is what I wanted to be.
I’ve come to realize that vocation is not something God suddenly presents you with, or ‘zaps’ you with, but is rather that which lies at the deepest core of your identity. And there are moments in life when something touches that core, and it resonates. It can happen almost unconsciously. When I heard that person say they wanted to be a monk, I didn’t know much about monks, but something told me, “Oh, that’s what I want to be.”
Q: What did you do with that impulse?
Nothing. After the impulse came, I forgot all about it. The time wasn’t right then; it was just an intimation of something that would bear fruit much later in my life. I didn’t even remember the experience until much later.
As I got older, I had a profound experience of religious awakening, and soon after that a very strong sense of vocation to be a priest. I remember spending an entire night in prayer, as it were, wrestling with God, and saying “I don’t want to be a priest, this is ridiculous.” But by the morning I had said “Yes” to God, and I went to talk that same day to a vocations director about ordination.
As all of this was going on, I started reading Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, and Saint Augustine’s Confessions, and I slowly became aware that my deepest desire in life was to deepen my relationship with God. As that relationship deepened, and as I began to read monastic literature, this core of my being was touched again, in a profound way, and I sensed a real thirst to become a monk. I tried to put it out of my mind, and I remember telling God, “No, I’m not going to do that, but I will be a priest.” Yet I began to visit monasteries, particularly in France and Belgium, and I felt drawn to one Benedictine monastery in Belgium, called Chevetogne. A few years after I was ordained a priest, I went there to test my vocation and spent a year as a novice.
Q: So how did you end up coming to the Monastery?
After I left Chevetogne, I spent many years working as a parish priest. When I thought about the religious life, I told myself that I had tried it and it hadn’t worked. In fact, I remember saying to God. “Well, can you leave me alone now?” In many ways, I thought that it was over, that I must not in fact have a vocation to be a monk. While I still occasionally went on retreats, for many years I really tried not to think about the monastic life, because it was unsettling to me.
Then, in 1997, I decided to visit a friend in Washington D.C. and to make a trip down the East Coast. Someone said to me, “Why don’t you stay at the Monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge – it would be an interesting place to visit.” So I went on this trip to America, and came to the Monastery. I went into the Chapel on the day of my arrival, for Evening Prayer, and to my amazement I had a powerful experience of ‘coming home.’ I just knew that this was it. The deepest part of my being had been touched again, but in a really important and decisive way. But I remember thinking to myself, “How can I be home? I’m thousand of miles from home, in a strange country.” And yet it was absolutely clear to me that, somehow, this Monastery was the place I had been looking for. I’d never known it existed and now I was in it, and I thought to myself: “I have come home.”
There’s a real particularity to being called to the monastic life: You’re never just called to be a monk, but you’re called to be a monk in a particular monastic family. So while I’d visited many monastic communities, in England and Europe, some really lovely communities, I didn’t feel that I was called to any of them. Then when I came to SSJE, I knew that this was the family that I was called to join.
Q: What was the time like between that moment of clarity and coming to the Monastery as a postulant?
I went back to England and began to think that all of this was impossible. How could I leave my country, my family, my job, to go and live thousands of miles away? Moreover, I was actually very happy as a parish priest. I was enjoying my life. In retrospect I think that it’s much better to test a monastic vocation from a place where you have a genuine choice, a place where you’re choosing to test this vocation even though you are happy in your life and work. I think God honors that sort of choice. So while I loved my life as a parish priest, I also knew that, at the Monastery, my deepest core had been touched. And the time was right; I was mature enough to make this step.
Timing is very important in vocation. I often tell people who are interested in the monastic life that vocation is like a fruit on the tree. You don’t want to pluck it too soon, but you don’t want to leave it too late. You need to know the time to pluck it. Knowing the right time is a matter of prayerful discernment, of patiently and slowly developing your relationship with God, so that you can hear God prompting you when the time is right. And sometimes that takes a long time, since it happens in God’s time. We often can be very impatient, but God has lots of time.
Q: Once you got to the Monastery, did you ever struggle in accepting your vocation?
Some of my early challenges had to do with living in a foreign country. I had assumed that because English is spoken here and in England, it would be easy to adapt. But it was quite challenging really, and I got very, very homesick.
And then, the experience of monastic formation itself is very challenging. It asks you, in many ways, to lay down your life. While there’s the promise of receiving it back in a new way from God, it is a painful challenge. As a novice, I struggled every day. It was very difficult, and I often wanted to leave, to be honest. But that struggle taught me to live day-by-day, to take each day at a time, and to say “Yes” to God for that single day. It’s not helpful to be constantly asking yourself, “Can I do this for the rest of my life?” During the time of formation, you learn that you’re only called to say “Yes” to God for today.
Q: Do you think everyone has a deep purpose, something that they were made to do?
I think each of us is unique and created by God for a particular purpose. Each of us has a vocation in life, and we so often know that we’ve discovered it when we experience that feeling of ‘coming alive.’ As Thomas Merton describes it, there are these embers of vocation inside each of us. Occasionally, when we brush up against that purpose for which we were created, those embers are fanned and burst into flame. We have the experience of being fully alive. When I got to this Monastery, I felt an incredible sense that this is what I was made to do in life; that this is who God made me to be; that this is where God was calling me to be. I couldn’t think of anything more wonderful than to spend all my days worshipping and deepening my relationship with God in this place.
Q: What advice you would give to someone who was trying to discover his or her vocation?
Don’t be anxious: God never stops calling us. Stick to your prayers and stick to your ideals. God never gives up on us and God never stops loving us, really.
Sometimes we experience vocation as disturbing us. You know, my experience of coming here to SSJE was like an experience of falling in love, and like falling in love, vocation is not always very convenient! I had to uproot everything. But God loves us too much not to disturb us. God wants us to dive down deeply into life, so that we experience life profoundly and abundantly.
God loves us too much to allow us to live our lives in the shallows. In fact, there are some words about this which are very precious to me, and which actually made me come here to the Monastery when I’d all but given up on becoming a monk. The words were given to me by a wonderful nun I used to visit in Oxford. I was telling her about my struggles, and she sent me a card with these lines from Julius Caesar:
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows . . . .
The lines are about the importance of catching the tide. You have to go now, because if not, you’ll miss the chance and risk spending the rest of your life in the shallows. That’s what propelled me here: I read those lines and thought to myself, “If I don’t do it now, then I’m never going to do it.” My fear of coming here was very real; I was quite frightened. But I was more frightened of not coming, of missing my life, of living the rest of my life in the shallows. I really did have this sense that if I didn’t do this now I was going to miss living my life to the full. It felt like a real question of life and death, a divine imperative: “I must go. I have to do this. This is my vocation. It is most deeply who I am.”