I Become Peace: A Conversation About Vocation with Br. Nicholas Bartoli
Where did your monastic vocation begin?
My vocation didn’t start with a particular interest in monasticism, because when I was young I didn’t know what a monk was, or that monasticism was even a thing. But I do remember, as a little boy, being intensely spiritual and interested in God. A seed of sorts was planted really, really early in me. I felt a sense that walking in the light of God’s presence was my calling, that it was my vocation first and foremost, regardless of whether I became a plumber, or a computer programmer, or whatever.
When I was about six or seven, I remember my mom asking me, “Are you looking forward to getting married one day?” And I said, “I don’t think I want to love just one person; I want to love everybody.” I have no idea where that came from, but I remember the conversation. Amazingly, it has carried forward to today.
Now the sad part of the story – I suppose there’s always a sad part to any true story – is that my temperament, my personality, the gift from God of my being open to God’s presence, also left me open to some bad teasing and bullying. In fact, it was so horrific that I was traumatized from an early age. As a result, I basically shut down, my heart closed down completely, in an effort to protect myself.
That severe contraction and closing off of my heart ruined the beautiful relationship I had with myself, with God, and with the world. I also divorced myself from anything that even hinted at spirituality or religion. I was a self-proclaimed atheist.
I feel like that seed – the desire for God which God planted in me – never left. But because the sense of God’s presence had retreated, it wasn’t available to me any longer. Eventually I went into a really severe depression, which lasted for most of my life – from about second or third grade until 2010. As I understand it in retrospect, I think that my depression was less of a disease in itself and more of a symptom: a symptom of my denial of self, denial of God, denial of who I was meant to be.
So what changed to crack your heart back open?
It’s actually a very long story. Here’s the short version.
The first movement toward any kind of resolution – which I only recognized in retrospect – came when I discovered dance in 1997. At the time, I was living in Washington, D.C., I had an internship with the Environmental Protection Agency, and I basically couldn’t function. I was walking around in a fog. I was just so horribly depressed that I was numb. And yet, somehow – and I think this was maybe God putting his finger lightly, gently, somewhere – this idea came to me out of nowhere, “Hey, maybe I should try something physical, an exercise class or something.” The thought was like a foreign object that had entered my brain.
Then I was walking along near where I lived and saw a poster in a window: “Dance workout.” Where the energy for this came from, given where I was at, I have no idea, but I dragged myself to the class one day. And it was amazing. The people were lovely and welcoming. So I went back. I wound up totally, totally falling in love with modern dance, and in the process, discovering a way of re-inhabiting my body and learning to express myself in movement. And it was a renaissance. My brain started working a little differently, my body started responding differently. I credit the discovery of modern dance as being the initial crack.
There was a lot more to come. Dance led me to yoga, which led to yoga philosophy, which brought me back around to things spiritual and religious. From yoga I got into Buddhism, and I ended up actively practicing Buddhism for quite a while. So I had a good Yoga practice, a dedicated Buddhist practice, I was meditating and learning things from that, and I started to see a therapist. Eventually, I ended up leaving my job and moving to Boulder, Colorado, where I started the Somatic Counseling Psychology program at Naropa University. Soon after I started that program, I also started another independent program on the side, called Hakomi, which is a very particular form of psychotherapy and therapeutic approach based on mindfulness and the body.
It was in 2010, during a four-day Hakomi intensive training on “the inner child,” that I had a spiritual experience which has radically shaped me and my entire life since then. I can’t go into it in detail here, but during one of the exercises, on June 25, 2010, I experienced a profound reintegration of all those parts of myself and my heart that had been closed off and contracted so many years back when I was a small boy. The experience broke me open. I might even describe it as a kind of mystical experience. And the next two weeks after that event were very strange; I don’t know how else to explain it, except to say that I was living in this kind of thinly-veiled reality, having a lot of mystical experiences. It was very, very powerful, and beautiful, and wonderful, and also terrifying. I was crying almost every day for huge chunks of the day – out of delight, out of gratitude.
To share one instance: I go to the gym and I’m on the treadmill, running. And then all of a sudden, I look out from the treadmill and everybody in the gym, every single person – the old lady in the corner, the bodybuilder guy, everyone in between, everybody – they are glowing like a sun. Just glowing. I can’t even say it without crying. Each person was infinitely beautiful, just glowing with this light. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. And somehow just by witnessing it, I felt like I was burning up. Now, mind you, the subject of God had not yet come up in my brain. But I said my first spontaneous prayer on the treadmill that day. I said, “God, I can’t take it. It’s very beautiful but I can’t take it. I’m human.” And as soon as I said that, it started to fade. Mind you, I’m this atheist, Buddhist guy. So that left me a little, well – as you can imagine – off-balance, wondering what was going on.
Shortly after that, I found a book of poetry from the Sufi mystical tradition. I had encountered this stuff before, but it didn’t register. Now I began reading at random one of these poems, and a spark of recognition came into me. I realized, “Okay, either he was crazy in the same way that I’m crazy, or neither one of us is crazy, and am I falling in love with God? Is this what’s happening?” I started to read more Sufi poetry and other mystical poets, and realized that they were totally describing what was happening to me – everything I was experiencing. And that gave me a lot of comfort because it helped to solidify for me that, yes, apparently this is what God feels like. It brought God into the picture.
I felt like I was rolling down a hill, like I really didn’t have control over anything. At some point, I felt pushed – I felt an impulse – toward bringing other people on board to help me out with this. I don’t know how else to say it, but I felt myself called to go to a church. It was very powerful and it was that simple: “Find a church.” I was really shocked that God was pushing me in this direction. Honestly, I was pretty resistant, because at the time I thought that all Christians were basically conservative homophobes. I was wishing that it would have been a push to go to a Buddhist temple or an Ashram, or anything else. I might have even considered a synagogue. But the command was strong.
So, because that was the only thing I had to go on, I did some church shopping. I made the rounds of five or six churches, including Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, a Baptist church, the Latter Day Saints. I was just randomly trying places. But nothing seemed to really fit.
Eventually, one Sunday, I happened across a United Church of Christ and went in. The whole experience was just amazing. The sermon and the pastor touched on so many points that reflected this new reality I was experiencing. I was like, “Wow! Really? They talk like that here? In church?” And so I stuck around. After the service, I went and talked to a couple people. The Assistant Pastor, Jason, invited me out to lunch with him and had a wonderfully, grounding, normalizing conversation with me. I was boiling over with all these crazy, mystical experiences, and a new way dealing with morality, and this light coming from everywhere, and this joy like God was going to consume me at any minute, just bursting with it. And Jason had the perfectly appropriate response to help me: he was totally nonplussed. And he started throwing out these theological phrases: “the Christ within,” “mystical experience,” “sharing the resurrection,” and “born again.” All of a sudden, my random experiences felt like they had an anchor in reality and could be a part of my journey.
So Jason did a lot to normalize my experiences. And then finding a home in a church, and committing to it, really helped me grow. Christianity gave me a way to relate to all the stuff that was happening in my heart. It gave me a way to talk about God.
So how did this faith develop into a sense of a monastic vocation?
Ever since my June 25th experience, I only knew what God wanted for me – and it was very clear and felt like a tall order, all at the same time: it was clear that God just wanted me to be present in the world, in a particular way, for God, and out of love, sharing that love with everyone. That was my mission. As I grew in faith, God kept tapping me on the shoulder to point me toward ways I could realize that vocation. For instance, I felt called to more and more radical simplicity. I felt drawn toward celibacy. It was like God had flipped a switch in me. I remember sitting at my computer, literally about to go on match.com, and thinking, “What am I doing?” Whenever I had thought about celibacy before, it had worried me to feel like I was giving something up. Suddenly it occurred to me that celibacy is actually about choosing something: choosing to take all my sexual, emotional, intellectual energy, and direct it in one direction, toward God.
As I was figuring this all out, Jason and my spiritual director, David Frenette, both suggested that I needed the support of a community. At that time, I was so ignorant about monasticism, I didn’t realize that they meant a monastic community. And then Jason was more explicit. He said, “You need to try a monastic vocation.”
After that, things snowballed really quickly. Jason suggested SSJE to me because he had once expressed interest in a vocation with SSJE, so he knew the community quite well. Once Jason actually verbalized it and started talking about SSJE, the idea felt like it had its own life.
I was rolling down the hill.
Did you struggle with the decision at all?
The only really scary thing for me was the question of whether or not this was my life calling. I kept wondering, “Is this where I’m going to end up?” I feel like I was asking God for assurances, because I wanted to stop moving around. I didn’t want to just try it. I wanted to know for sure that this was going to be it. But God never gave me that assurance. My clear sense was basically that God was saying, “I can only tell you what’s right to do now.” So then I just took a deep breath, and here I am.
Even once I arrived, I had to surrender to testing my vocation, and just trusting whatever happens next. Once I was able to surrender to that, life settled into a rhythm and time began to move pretty quickly. Now I’m just living here, living as a monk, doing monk stuff.
What surprises you about living as a monk?
I was surprised at first at how involved the wider congregation is in the life of the community. All the people who worship at SSJE on a regular basis, and repeat guests who come on retreat, make for a larger community. That was a little surprising, because my primary sense of vocation felt like a call to the desert. When I first came here, I was expecting more silence and less connection with people. Even now, I would say that this life has a real tension between a call to the desert and a call to sharing the fruits of the desert with others. I’ve discovered that the more I feel centered in the desert within my heart, the less I feel like I need exterior desert around me. Sometimes I feel like I can bring the desert with me in all situations: washing the dishes, playing video games, offering spiritual direction.
What’s one of the greatest joys that you have in this life right now?
My greatest joy is the feeling of walking in the light of God’s presence. There’s a lot of talk in the Bible and especially the Psalms about peace and joy. In my experience, the greatest joy comes wrapped up in peace – “the peace that passeth understanding.” In this life, I have a sense of really profound stillness and resting, like Nicholas is letting himself totally rest in the stillness that is in the center point, his heart, where Christ’s light is. That’s who I truly am; it’s my real identity. Not a monk or even Nicholas. Just this I-in-Christ, who I truly am. And when I’m resting in that place, my identity becomes alive and it feels real. And it’s not even a question of feeling joy or peace. In a way, I feel like I become joy and I become peace, and that’s the greatest joy that I feel.