The Best Fit: A Conversation About Vocation with Br. David Vryhof

A Conversation about Vocation
When did you first have a sense of your vocation?

My parents and family are devoted Christians. I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church, a predominantly Dutch, Calvinist denomination. My sister and brother and I attended Christian schools, and our family was very active in the church. From my early years I was formed towards a life of service. My whole sense of calling and my devotion to Christ grew out of my upbringing in that context.

Obviously monasticism wasn’t part of the religious culture in which I was raised (in fact, it’s still almost unheard of for someone from that tradition to end up living in a monastery). I first encountered the vowed religious life when I was teaching at the Rhode Island School for the Deaf, where I met a Dominican nun and a Franciscan friar who worked with the Roman Catholic students at the school. I was moved by their lives of service. I was also inspired by hearing the story of St. Francis of Assisi for the first time, and by reading about Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was in the news during those years.

When I look back on my life, I can remember a moment in seventh grade when I saw in a church history textbook a picture of a monk coming down the stairs from the dormitory to the chapel, candle in hand, to pray the night Office. I remember that picture to this day, and how I was mysteriously drawn to it. Many of us Brothers can recall moments like these, moments that pointed the way towards our future vocation. We didn’t think anything of them at the time, but they seem meaningful now, because they suggest that some part of us was drawn to this life even at an early age. Some part of me resonated with that image even before I knew what a monastery was.

How did that initial resonance develop into a sense of being called to be a monk?

The Dominican nun I knew from the Rhode Island School for the Deaf suggested that I go on a silent retreat. She took me to the La Salette Shrine in Attleboro, Massachusetts, a retreat center just north of Providence. During that retreat (my first silent retreat), I had a memorable spiritual experience: I remember standing in a field of tall grass on a sunny, cloudless afternoon, watching the wind move gently over the grass. As I watched the tall grass bow and bend gracefully before the wind, there came to mind a verse from Psalm 73, where the psalmist says to God: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you” (v. 25). In that moment, I felt touched by God. I felt that God had awakened in me a desire to love and serve God above all else.

Both of these experiences – seeing the picture of the monk and then this experience in the field – spoke to the part of me that wanted to give myself to God as completely as I could. Monastic life seemed to me one way in which someone could do that. Missionary life was another, which is part of the reason I ended up going to the MICO Teachers’ College in Kingston, Jamaica, where I trained teachers for the deaf for three years.

Around the time I was deciding to go to Jamaica, I came to realize that there were religious orders in the Anglican/Episcopal Church. I decided to become an Anglican. I joined St. Andrew’s Church, Half Way Tree in Kingston and was confirmed. The rector of that church, a wonderful priest named Herman Spence, was a member of the Fellowship of St. John in England. He is the one who actually introduced me to SSJE and its life and ministry. He also put me in touch with Bishop Alfred Reid, then the Bishop of Montego Bay, who served as my spiritual director for three years. Both of these godly men were extremely influential in shaping my religious vocation.

I had visited two other religious communities in the Episcopal Church before I learned about SSJE: the Franciscan community at Mt. Sinai on Long Island and the Benedictine community at Three Rivers, Michigan. Those two orders are about as far apart as you can get. The Franciscans are very active and mission-minded; they sometimes hold full-time jobs outside the community. The Benedictines at Three Rivers are very contemplative, and pray an expanded Daily Office that begins at 4:00 in the morning. I kept bouncing between these two alternatives, wondering, “Which of these is right for me?” Fr. Spence and Bishop Reid listened to me and told me about SSJE. They said SSJE was somewhere in the middle of that spectrum: more monastic and contemplative than the Franciscans but more active in ministry and outreach than the Benedictines. When I finally had a chance to visit SSJE, I saw that balance; it was a key factor in my being drawn to this community.

I think people come to our community for any number of reasons: some because they’re drawn to our mission, some because they want to live in community with others, some because of their commitment to prayer. I was drawn chiefly by the desire for prayer. I can remember, years earlier, going to the pastor of the evangelical church I belonged to in Rhode Island and asking, “How can I learn to pray? Is there somebody here that could teach me to pray?” (That was long before I learned about the ministry of spiritual direction.) I had a hunger for prayer and appreciated how clearly SSJE’s mission grew out of its life of prayer. That was very important to me.

How was that first visit to SSJE?

Finding a community is really like developing an attraction to another person. When you find someone that you like and that you feel comfortable with, you have a sense that you fit together. A lot of Brothers say that when they first came to the Monastery, they somehow felt at home or felt a sense of rightness – a good fit. I felt that, too. I was strongly attracted to this particular community. The building was beautiful, and the location was amazing, but it was really the people who were here – Tom Shaw and James Madden and Paul Wessinger, among others – who made the difference. On that first visit I was only in Boston for a day; I didn’t even stay overnight, but it was enough. I began a correspondence with James Madden (then the Novice Guardian) from Jamaica, and it just felt increasingly right. I knew that this was the Order in which I wanted to try my vocation. I felt free to make this kind of radical choice of my life. So I made up my mind to come.

The moment you step across the threshold of a monastery – (and I think we Brothers experience it again when we make life vows) – you have a wonderful sense of freedom. You don’t have to wonder anymore about option A or option B or option C. You know that this is the option; you’re going with it. There’s a delightful sense of freedom and release that comes in making that decision. It doesn’t always last – sometimes you return to a place of uncertainly – but it’s there at the beginning.

Did you struggle along the way from your initial entry to your profession in life vows?

I struggled a lot, actually. I’m the only Brother here now who has left the order and returned again. From the start, my novitiate was quite rocky, in spite of the feeling of ‘rightness’ about the decision. My parents were opposed to this choice at first, which was difficult for me, because they knew me better than anyone else. I valued their opinion, and they felt this was wrong for me. I think they were disappointed that I was setting aside my training and experience teaching the deaf. Gradually, as they got to know the community over the first years that I was here, they became more and more supportive. But initially it was difficult for them, and it was difficult for me because of that. I wasn’t sure if this was the right path for me or not. The novitiate is a lot like trying something on: You think, “Well, it sort of fits. It’s not quite perfect, but is it good enough? Should I look for something else?” This life seemed like a good fit for me on so many levels, but there were also parts of it that didn’t seem to fit me very well. I struggled most with the desire to be closer to people who were materially poor. And I struggled with the issue of family. I wanted a family and children of my own and wasn’t sure I was ready to choose life-long celibacy. Those were the two main things I was struggling with as I went through the postulancy, the novitiate, and initial vows. I even extended my initial vows for an extra year. Finally I made the very difficult decision to leave the community because I just didn’t feel ready to take life vows. I didn’t feel a sense of freedom around that decision.

How did you end up returning to the Monastery?

After I left, I completed my seminary training at Duke Divinity School and at the General Seminary in New York and then took a position as a deacon in the Diocese of Michigan, working in a small parish on the eastside of Detroit, in a very poor neighborhood. These were very rich years for me as I grew into the new identity of being a deacon and priest. When my contract came to an end there, I had to discern what was next. The draw to SSJE and monastic life was still there. I felt that, given my temperament and my particular gifts, this was the best fit for me. I believed that I would be more effective at SSJE than I would be as an inner-city parish priest.

So I asked the community if I could come back. At first they said no. I had been gone for almost four years. I wrote a letter to the Superior and explained why I thought that my experience coming back would be different from my earlier experience. I explained that I’d sorted through a lot of the things I was struggling with, and I now felt ready to make the commitment to life vows. He wrote back, saying that the community had read my letter and agreed to let me come for a visit. I visited in September 1994, and rejoined the community in January of 1995. Three years later, I was allowed to make life vows. I’ve been here ever since.

Do you think that everyone has a vocation to which they are called?

Definitely. And I don’t think there’s just one path for each of us; I think there are many possible paths. There were any number of paths I could have taken. I could have remained a teacher for the deaf. I also think back on those days in Detroit: I did some useful things in that parish and contributed in good ways; I could have gone on doing something like that. I could also have been a priest for a congregation of the deaf. I’m aware that I’m one of the few Episcopal priests who is fluent in sign language and is familiar with deaf culture. I think I could have been a good husband and father. I think I could have been happy and could have been used by God in any of those paths. Discernment is a matter of figuring out who we are and what’s important to us, as well as what’s important to God. In discernment we identify our likes and dislikes, our talents and gifts, what gives us a sense of purpose and meaning in life, what is most life-giving for us, and what taps into the passion in our heart. In terms of those questions, I think this life fits me as well or better than other possible paths I could have chosen.

Can you offer any words of encouragement to those struggling to discern which path to take?

I always tell people in the discernment process: God can work with us in so many ways; don’t let yourself be paralyzed by anxiety or fear that you might make a wrong choice. Weigh your options and go ahead and make the best choices you can, trusting that whatever choice you make, God will be able to work with you, in you, and through you in that setting and context. Don’t be afraid about having to get it right. Whatever you choose, God will work with your choices. God will never forsake you.

As you look back now, what stands out among the greatest blessings of the path you have chosen?

It is a privilege to live this life. It’s a privilege to gather with a community of Brothers who are committed to one another and the Gospel, to pray together several times a day. It’s a privilege to be able to celebrate the Eucharist as frequently as we do, six days a week. It’s a privilege to hear sermons from so many different voices in the community – I’ve grown so much from listening to different preachers here. It’s a privilege to welcome all kinds of guests, a wide spectrum of people, to our Guesthouse and Chapel. It’s a privilege to be able to teach and to preach about Christian faith and to draw others to God. It’s a privilege to be supported by this community, to feel known and loved, and to enjoy a sense of belonging. It’s a privilege to have space and time in the day that’s reserved for growing in intimacy with God. It’s a privilege to go out from this community on mission and to go to different parishes and dioceses and countries and seminaries. I’ve traveled so much and met so many different people in so many different contexts that have enriched my life. I love the rhythm of our day; I love the order of the life; and I love the community’s flexibility and openness to the Spirit. There are so many things that I love about this community and about this life. It’s a very good fit for me in terms of who I am. It’s been a very good life for me. I am very grateful for it.