When I was a young chorister in my parish, I became fascinated by the church’s history and very caught up in its worship. Although only half aware of it at the time, I do remember being very drawn to images of monastics as depicted in books or films. When my brothers and I would play together, they’d always want to be the knights, and me the friar! Also early on, growing up on Nantucket Island, I became aware of a contemplative component to my emerging personality. I spent much time on my own, in solitude and communing with God in nature. Often I had a sense that I was being called to a different kind of life. And hearing the gospels, I knew that Jesus invited people to a different way of being in the world, renouncing individualism and violence, and dedicated to community and mutual love.
It wasn’t until I was an undergraduate at the College of William & Mary that these indistinct feelings began to grow into anything like a sense of vocation. While I was there, I was called into a leadership position with the Canterbury Association, a fellowship group for Episcopal students. Over the next few years, our group grew to a sizeable community of students who spent most of their waking hours together: worshiping, studying, doing outreach service, and above all, living in community with one another as Christians, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
I went on to spend ten years after college living on my own, working in the interior design business, active in a Cape Cod parish in music and as a lay pastoral assistant. Yet I felt somehow incomplete, restless, and longing for more. I sought an elusive wholeness, and the draw to life in community which I had known with my fellow students never went completely away.
How did that sense of longing for community lead you to the Monastery?
At the time I graduated from William & Mary, I had begun the process of discerning a vocation to ordination in the Diocese of Southern Virginia. At that time, it seemed to me and others that a desire for vocation in the church could be fulfilled only through ordination. The diocesan bishop had been recommending that postulants for ordination do some time in the military as a kind of “roughing-up” experience before entering seminary. But it was 1973, and having engaged in protests against the Vietnam War, I chose instead to participate in the Diocese’s companion relationship with the Diocese of Alaska as a mission worker at Fort Yukon, eight miles above the Article Circle. It was at the local community center there that I had my first conscious encounter with the religious orders of the Episcopal Church. In Holy Cross magazine, I discovered the Order of the Holy Cross and the Order of St. Helena, and was amazed, fascinated, and a bit unsettled to learn that there were monks and nuns, Sisters and Brothers in the Episcopal Church. I began a cautious connection with Holy Cross, but kept my distance and never actually visited the community.
I came to know the SSJE only in the early 1980s when in Cambridge to visit the Episcopal Divinity School as a prospective student. When I was not accepted for the ordination process in the Diocese of Massachusetts, it became clear that the time had come to seek God’s vision for me, and then to make a life-commitment decision about my calling. Yes, I was connected to the life of the Church, had work which I enjoyed, my own home, and loving friends, yet I felt that something inside me was stillborn or dying. Outward appearances notwithstanding, something was missing – an integration of body, mind, and spirit, a sense of wholeness as God’s child. The more I sought to discern Christ’s call, the more apparent it became that I had to test a vocation to religious life. It just kept presenting itself to me in prayer: To seek a life in God’s service and in community seemed to be the only way forward. I came to realize that Christ had gently been calling me all my life, patiently waiting until I had exhausted the efforts and plans which I could not make happen on my own. The time had come to look around, see, and accept the invitation God had been making all along.
One morning in October 1983 I woke up and said, “This is the day. I’m not going into work today because I’m going to make inquiries about visiting SSJE.” I made a ten-day inquirer’s visit in November 1983, and was resident by January 24th of 1984.
So what seemed to be an instantaneous realization had actually been brewing over time?
I now see that the decision to which I came on that October morning was but a sudden moment of clarity in the ongoing process of life conversion. It was the product of having been drawn into relationship with Christ in prayer and in worship, through study and service, and in the keeping of a rule of life (though I didn’t know then to name it as such) – all elements I had inherited from my college days in the Canterbury Association fellowship. Gradually I was brought to see that, in community life, all the various elements of my passions and interests could be brought together, as well as being the place in which I could confront my need for healing and forgiveness, and be made whole. It became clearer and clearer to me that that transformation for which I longed could only take place in communion shared with others who were called to seek the same.
I heard Jesus’ words in John’s gospel as though spoken directly to me: “I can do nothing on my own…I seek to do not my own will but the will of the Father who sent me.” For me that meant that only through life in community could I know my heart’s desire and God’s. I arranged that first inquiry visit to SSJE knowing that the moment had come to begin testing a call to community life with particular Brothers in a particular place.
How was that first visit and the transition to testing monastic life?
I actually had two “first” visits to the Monastery. The first was a sort of stealth retreat to check things out without committing myself. That experience taught me sympathy for first-time retreatants and postulants who come to us now. My emotions moved between attraction and desire to come and see, and being scared to death that something would change in me or happen to me if I visited. I came in the door but kept my back to the wall the whole time. I knew I was drawn to this life, but I was also running scared because of what I perceived as giving away my freedom. But following conversations with novice guardian James Madden SSJE, my later ten-day inquirer’s visit was an experience at the opposite extreme. I found myself deeply touched by the gracious hospitality and kindness shown me, and greatly consoled by the promise of finding what I had always been seeking. Though still aware of the stretching and growth which monastic life would require of me, I found myself feeling at home in a way I’d never before known.
As to the actual transition as a postulant, I found myself upon my arrival over-reaching the grace which had been given to me. Almost immediately I turned to thinking, “Okay, now I know what the rest of my life will be like; in five-and-a-half years I’ll be life-professed and will have arrived.” This mindset made it difficult for me to “stay in the moment” – a very necessary element in monastic living. It took quite some time and much good counsel for me to come to understand something which I now find myself telling prospective members of the community: When we are drawn to test a vocation, we tend to feel that, for the moment at least, nothing else will do for us, nothing else will satisfy or present a hope for abundant life. That’s why we come to try a vocation. For some people, that testing of a vocation is the whole gift. Even though they leave us after initial testing, the grace of that time will remain with them. So I’d now say it’s best to come to community with openness of heart and mind. It’s best to come, thinking, “Well, Lord, I’ll follow where you’re leading me in the company of those who have already experienced this. Beyond that, we’ll see.”
How did the process of discernment unfold for you? Were there struggles along the way to life vows?
Absolutely. I had many trials along the way. Much of my novitiate was straightforward, but I also contended with all of the various challenges that we speak about in the chapters of our Rule on the vows. As much as I was drawn to community life, I still found it surprisingly difficult to actually be living in community with others again. I remembered only slowly that community had been challenging even in my halcyon college days. It was difficult relearning how to be a respectful friend to others and to live in a community of interdependence and accountability. At each of the stages along the way toward final vows, I had crisis moments. But Christ’s care and the desire to remain overcame them.
On the day of my initial profession, I was at prayer alone, kneeling before the icon of the Beloved Disciple in the Holy Spirit Chapel. Suddenly, I opened my mouth and spoke aloud this prayer: “Well, Jesus, you’ve ruined me for anything else, you know. So, here I am.” I said it with a smile. And, by God’s grace, that fact remains as true now as I knew it in that moment.
Do you think that everyone has a vocation?
Yes, I do believe that every person has a vocation to life in Christ. Everyone is called to the fullness of life which Jesus promised, whether they name it as such or not: That is what vocation is. Now there are a variety of occupations and lifestyles, infinite ways of being in God’s world, which can provide a possible context for life to be lived to the full. Vocation to life takes many forms.
“Vocation” can be narrowly defined as being connected to the institutional church, but that’s an inadequate apprehension of God’s gift and intention. One’s vocation to abundant life might be to be married or to be religious or to be a single person or to do a particular kind of work that may seem only tangentially related to church life. I believe that there are as many vocations as there are individual souls. Accepting the uniqueness of one’s vocation is linked to that wonderful and mysterious realization that each uniquely created being – who in one sense stands alone before God – only becomes fully who God envisioned each to be in relationship with Other and others. Vocation is about living out our unique passions and possibilities for fullness of life within the community or communities to which God draws us.
What has been the most rewarding thing for you about living this vocation?
I’ve been given the gift of being able to be present with and to hear the experiences of other people who are passionate about their life in God. That gift of listening is sacramentalized in the ministry of spiritual direction, in which I’ve been blessed to take part. But at its most basic, this ministry has also given me the gift of learning obedience in its truest sense: listening to the voice of the One who’s completely, utterly committed to me, and whose only desire is that I come to the vision which God had for me when I was brought into being. This obedience is manifested in relationships within our community of Brothers, as well as with our friends, volunteers, and employees. I find myself again and again humbled, honored, and blessed by the willingness of people to speak of their experiences of God. I realize now very clearly that though never ordained as deacon or priest, I exercise gifts of those ministries in a unique way that could not have come about in any other fashion. That has been a great gift.
From welcoming everyone who comes to us, retreatants and inquirers, I fully believe that we all have within us the yearning – no matter how much we’ve resisted it or had it socialized out of us – to be in union with God. Some people actively respond to this call, others run away from it for a time, yet the yearning for God enlivens every human being. One might even call it the inner monastic within us all. When people say to me, “What a special blessing to be called to the monastic life!” I’m quick to remind them that every vocation is a special blessing for a particular person, the grace to fully become the beloved creature whom God has envisioned each of us to be from before creation.
I see a wonderful, paradoxical mystery in my experience of vocation. That which God desires me to be, I could never have brought to fruition by my own efforts. Yet, drawn by Love into a mutual and ordered “company of Christ’s friends,” I, along with my Brothers, have been given the privilege and joy to model for others and to awaken in them the longing for God.