What Are You Living For? A Conversation about Vocation with Br. Jim Woodrum

How did you first become interested in the monastic life?

One day back in October 2003, I started exploring the “links” section of the website for the church I was then attending, and I found there a list of monastic communities’ sites. I already knew that there were monastic communities, but for some reason, on this day, the fact that they had websites intrigued me. I wondered, “What the heck do they put on them?”  So I started clicking through – the Franciscans, the Benedictines – and, you know, there weren’t really any surprises; it was just monks and nuns. But the last website I visited was SSJE’s. And it had this line on the front page: “We’re men living traditional vows in a non-traditional setting of Harvard Square. We’re learning to pray our lives.” And for some reason that is what struck me: Tradition in a non-traditional place and praying our lives. 

So I clicked around and started reading the sermons online. There too, I was intrigued – in this case because the sermons didn’t tell me what to believe. Instead of preaching a clear doctrine or a straightforward interpretation of scripture, the sermons would throw the ball in an unexpected direction, inviting me to run after it and figure out what I believed. I read around for a long time that night, getting more and more interested, and then I came to my senses. “What the heck am I thinking?” I asked myself. I quickly turned the computer off, insisting, “This is just another of your hair-brained ideas. You becoming a monk is not even a possibility.” But the very next day I was back, reading more sermons and going through the same thing again – turning the computer off, only to turn it back on the next day – until I’d read through all the sermons and was waiting for new ones to be posted.

Then one day, right before Christmas, I was listening to NPR on my way home from work, and they did a report about a Christmas CD recorded by some monks … at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist! Well, I just about drove off the road. I could not believe it. Out of all the monasteries, the chances of it being this one, the chances of this Boston radio program being broadcast in South Carolina where I was living, and the chances of me happening to hear it, were downright incredible. Yet here I was, listening to the voices of the men whose sermons I had been reading, and reading, and reading! I looked up at God and said, “Okay. Okay. Okay.”

I went home and wrote my first email to Br. Geoffrey, who was the novice guardian at that time. I said, “I don’t know why I’m writing. I think this is crazy, it’s scary, it’s exciting and I don’t know what to make of it, but I’m writing you. So here I am.” I ended up making my first visit to SSJE in June of 2004, just six months later.

Did you struggle with pursuing this interest in a monastic vocation?

At that time, I was searching and swimming in the sea of life, so to speak, but not really landing anywhere. I wasn’t sure what I wanted in life, but I knew there were certain things that were foundational: I’d loved my fraternity in college; I loved the Episcopal Church where I’d found my home after growing up Southern Baptist; I was not in a relationship and had never gotten married; I was a musician. Well, suddenly it seemed to me that if you took all of that and mixed it together, you’d get something like the monastic life. Discovering SSJE was like finding a place where I fit in, where all these unique little threads that were me – which didn’t quite fit into any of the other different lives I’d tried – suddenly fit together and made sense. It resonated instantly.

Yet I kept pushing the idea of this vocation away because I still felt that I needed to do what I was “supposed” to do: I needed to have a family, to have a career, and to make money, because that’s what is seen as successful in our society. We’re constantly bombarded with this ideal of the American dream, the way life is supposed to be. But here I am: I’ve found a vocation that doesn’t fit that ideal at all.

You know, people always ask each other, “What do you do for a living?” I feel uncomfortable answering that question now. Because a vocation is different than a job. The monastic life is definitely a vocation, and vocation is not what you “do for a living,” rather a vocation is what you’re living for.

So how did you finally commit to testing this vocation?

Well, it took some time. Ultimately it took me eight-and-a-half years after that initial visit before I actually came to test my vocation. During that time, I visited SSJE nearly every year. I came for a “Monks in Blue Jeans” retreat, for a couple of Christmases, and for an Easter. Every time I visited, it was always the same as I’d remembered: from seeing the Brothers to what it smelled like inside the guesthouse, to the rhythm of the life, I just slipped into the groove. Each time I came back, I needed less and less of a primer. I knew that the bell was going to ring ten minutes before services. And as soon as I walked through the door – even though a year had passed – it would seem like it was just the very next day. And that felt wonderful.

Yet while the life kept tugging me back, I also could not make myself take the step to commit to testing my vocation. There were too many other things – like going back to school, or pursuing music – that I felt I had to do before I could do this. After a while, I was starting to think it would never happen. One day my mom out of the blue said to me, “You know, you don’t talk about SSJE anymore.” Literally two days later, I got a phone call from Br. David Vryhof, asking me “Where are you at? Why don’t you come back for a visit and we’ll talk.” I knew then that God was prompting me once again. I couldn’t resist that.

Why do you think you struggled so long to make that decision?

I think we all struggle, to a certain degree, with letting go of our previous lives and giving control over to God. When you walk through that door, you have to say, “Okay, I’m here. Do with me what you’re going to do, God.”

That process reminds me a little bit of when you’re a kid and you have a loose tooth. I for one hated pulling my teeth. My dad would say, “Why do you prolong this? Get it over with. It’s going to happen. Just pull the tooth.”  But I wouldn’t. I would wiggle it and wiggle it, until at last it just fell out. Making this decision felt kind of like that: there was this prodding within me to “get on with it,” but I just kept wiggling the tooth until finally it just happened. At last. There was no pain, there was no surprise; it just kind of came out, and I put it under my pillow waiting for a quarter. Coming to SSJE has felt like that for me – something I hesitated a long time to do, and which has ultimately been a wonderful gift that was just waiting for me.

Now that you’re here, what are the rewards of living this life?

I feel healthy now; I feel grounded; I feel like I’m getting acquainted with the person God created me to be.

When I first came to the Monastery, for instance, I was very overweight and pre-diabetic. Over the past two years, I’ve lost eighty pounds. It’s not that there was any pressure from the Brothers for me to change, but rather that by living this balanced life, I could finally do what was good for me all along. I could exercise and eat right and get the proper amount of sleep.

When I see people who knew me before I came to SSJE, the first thing they say is, “You look really happy.” I am! In this vocation, I’m so incredibly happy. I feel wanted, I have a purpose, my talents are used and nothing is wasted. This life feels like a gift that God has given me, a life that is a unique adventure, because it’s entirely mine, right for me. I’m not living the life of someone else but living the life God has intentionally called me to.

Now when I look in the mirror, I see me, authentically. I think this is what our relationship with God does. God calls us to be more authentically the person God has created, and if we turn our lives over and allow that change to happen, then we can look in the mirror and see the person God sees, the person who was always waiting inside.