Vocation Is the Journey – A Conversation about Vocation with Br. Robert L’Esperance

Q: When did you first have a sense of your own vocation?

I grew up in the age of cheap gasoline. There was a gas station down the street from where I lived, and I have a distinct memory that the gas was twenty-nine cents a gallon. When gasoline was cheap, a favorite family pastime was to go for rides. Sometimes our rides took us to attend Vespers at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, which was about forty miles from where I grew up. This was still in the day when the Roman Catholic liturgy was in Latin, and there was an area in the chapel that was screened in with curtains, because the monks were still under strict cloister. I remember that, from the extern area, you had a view of the altar but couldn’t see the choir monks. I was fairly small; I could peer through the opening in the curtain.

When I had my first thought about being a monk, I was probably about seven years old. I remember looking through the curtain down the nave of the abbey church, which seemed huge to me, to where I could see the monks at the far end of the choir in their white robes. There probably were about seventy monks at the time, so there were a lot of these white bodies down at the end. And I just remember having the thought, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.”

Q: What drew you to that scene?

I have no idea where that thought came from, or why it occurred to me, but I just remember being fascinated by the church and the sound that they were making – the sound of the chanting. I can also remember that the day was ending, so the church was in semi-darkness. It seemed very beautiful to me. Because I went to Catholic schools, there was heavy influence from my teachers that, of course, like all good Catholic boys, I should want to be a priest. I held onto that belief until I went to college, when things began to change for me.

In the course of my twenties, I began to drift away from the Catholic Church toward the Episcopal Church. I’d go to the Episcopal Church for a time, and then I’d feel guilty about it, so I’d go to confession and start going to the Catholic Church, but then I’d start to slip away. Finally, when I was about thirty years old, I decided that I was going to become an Episcopalian. At that point, I dropped the idea of religious life. It seemed like an impossibility to me. I had no idea that the religious life was really even available in the Episcopal Church.

In the 1990s, when I was living in San Diego and attending the Cathedral, I saw advertised a retreat for men at the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Santa Barbara. I went back into the coffee hour and said to the dean in a joking kind of way, “Why are you advertising retreats for Catholics here?” I meant it as a joke. And he said, “They’re not Catholic they’re Episcopalians.” I had completely missed that information. I still can’t quite wrap my head around that. Anyway, I went to the retreat, and the weekend I was there, I sought out the Brothers there and started having conversations with them.

Around the same time, I moved back to Charleston and went back to my old church, Grace Church. The rector there was Donald McPhail. I told Donald that I was having conversations with the Order of the Holy Cross. Donald asked if I had ever considered the Cowley Fathers. He said, “I don’t want to discourage you on the Order of the Holy Cross. But I think you should look at SSJE before you commit yourself.” He was something of a spiritual director for me and he was certainly encouraging me to pursue this, so I made arrangements to visit the Monastery.

Q: How was that visit to SSJE for the first time?

I arrived on a Monday afternoon, and the Guesthouse was still closed, so I found my way into the Chapel and sat there, just overwhelmed by the space. I was really drawn to the place, not in a way that I can really articulate – I just felt drawn. I had some initial conversations at that time with Curtis, who was the novice guardian then. And I got an application – this was in 1997 – but it took me three years to really move on the application.

There was something else that happened at this time that is important to my coming here. In 1998, my mother became very ill. She was hospitalized and in a coma. My siblings and I really were preparing ourselves psychologically for our mother dying. I remember sitting in the hospital room alone with her, and the thought occurred to me – the impulse occurred to me – in a question that sounded like, “Robert, are you going to be lying where your mother is lying now someday and have missed the boat in your life? Has your life gone by you? Have you not taken hold of your life and grasped your life?” That was a big impetus to get moving and test my vocation.

I was actually two years beyond the statutory age when I applied to come to the community. After going through the entire screening process, I received a letter from Curtis that said that they weren’t going to take me. I took the letter to Donald McPhail, who had been walking with me through this process. And he said, “Leave the letter with me and let me see what I can do.” A couple of days later I got a phone call from Curtis inviting me to come. This was at the end of 1998. I came on April 1st.

Q: Do you recall what especially drew you to SSJE?

I was attracted to the Rule. It seemed very grounded in reality to me. It wasn’t pious; it wasn’t sanctimonious. I think it’s a pretty authentic, albeit idealized, version of what this life is: because that’s what the Rule is, the ideal. But I thought the Rule was very, very honest, and I appreciated that. It didn’t try to paper over or whitewash the reality of this life. It said that the life was demanding and difficult, and it recognized the fact that there would be good days and that there would be bad days; that there would be periods of light and there would be periods of darkness. The fact that the Rule is willing to acknowledge those realties, I found attractive. And the food was great, too, so that certainly had its advantages.

Q: How was it when you finally arrived?

I found myself in shock, asking myself what I had gotten into. Everybody who comes here talks about this: Time slows to a crawl. I remember waiting from one Sunday to the next Sunday, and I just could not believe that only a week had gone by. It seemed like a year.

I remember printing out the daily schedule and posting it on the back of my door in my cell, because I just could not remember where I was supposed to be and when I was supposed to be there. It was a complete sense of disorientation.

I was in no way prepared for what it would be like to live in community. When I had thought about what was going to be hard about this life, I had thought the lack of my own possessions and not having sex: I thought those were going to be the two things that would drive me crazy. What turned out to be most difficult was living with a group of people that I did not choose.

Furthermore, I had been independent, I’d had my own home, I’d been used to running my own life. And now I was in an environment where everything that happened during the course of my day was netted out. It was a total shock to my system, and the postulancy just seemed like it lasted for years.

Q: Did it get easier the further you went?

Once I was clothed, well, I had a very difficult time with the whole thing. I was lonely, and there were times when I thought I would walk out. I thought: “I’m not going to do this, I can’t do this.” I’d say that the reason I’m here, the reason I stayed, is largely due to one individual who had a great influence on my life here and who really convinced me to stay: Br. Paul Wessinger. He was my mentor. He took me under his wing and steadied me when I needed to be steadied. He kept me from bolting. Back in the late 1940s, Paul left the community and became a Roman Catholic, and then a couple of years after that discovered that he had made a mistake and came back. So he had had a lot of questioning and a lot of doubts; and I had a lot of questioning and a lot of doubts. By sharing his experience with me, and by helping me to realize that part of the monastic vocation is being able to hold on for the ride and not let go when things start to fall apart, Paul helped me to stay. It is a spiritual rollercoaster; or in spiritual language, it’s consolation and it’s desolation. It’s like life.

Q: How did you finally decide to take your vows?

I just barely did! It took me seven years. After I had completed my five-and-a-half years of novitiate and initial profession, I thought I was ready. I went and I did a thirty-day Ignatian retreat in Wernersville and told the community I was ready, but the community said “No.” So I wasn’t professed the first time around. Then at that the end of that year, Curtis came to me and said, “Well, the community is now ready to profess you. Are you ready to be professed?” And I said, “No, I’m not.” So I extended another year. After that additional year, I was ready to make the decision.

Now, I have to tell you this story because it is true, and it’s just another moment of craziness. So, it’s my life profession day, and we come to the place in the Eucharist where the profession is going to take place. And the Brothers make this semi-circle with the Superior in the center. I come to the center of the semi-circle, and Curtis begins to read his script. And I’m standing there thinking to myself, “What am I doing?”  Really, truly, I’m having this debate with myself – and of course my family is there, you know, everyone is there – and I’m thinking, “What, am I nuts? Am I really going to do this? This is crazy! This is crazy. What am I doing here? Okay, I’ve got to leave. I’m just going to walk out. I’m just going to walk off.” And this is going on and on.

And Curtis is droning on, and I’m sure I’m not listening to anything he’s saying to me, because I’m going around and around and around. And he goes up to the altar and he takes the book in which I’ve written my profession. And he comes back to me and puts the book in my hand. I look at the book and see my handwriting there, and I just look at it. I’m just kneeling there looking at it – and I’m supposed to be reading the vows – but I’m not reading the vows. I looked at him, and he’s kind of looking at me with this quizzical look on his face like, “What are you doing?” or “What is going on?”  And I’m thinking, “Am I really going to do this?” I’m still debating this. I’m still having this conversation.

I look down at the book again and I start speaking the words of the vow. I mean, I’m not trying to be dramatic – this is really what happened! So I finish reading the vow, and then he says something and he extends his hands out to me, and I stand up. And when I stood up, everything – all the doubts that I was wrestling with up to that moment – evaporated. In that moment, they just all went away and I have never, ever had the slightest doubt that I did what God was calling me to do.

Q: Do you believe that everyone has one clear vocation?

You know, before I came here I had a vocation. My life was not empty; it was not without shape; it was not without God. But those things were expressed in a different way and in a different form. I think everything in my life has been vocational. Everything that has happened in my life, all the good things and all the not-so-good things, both things that I have done and things that have been done to me, they’re all part of something that moved me in this direction to bring me to the moment that I’m at right now. That’s a major shift in my spirituality from where it was at one time, before I came here. I remember coming here with a deep sense of having missed the boat and having wasted my life. I wondered then, “Why did I do all that other stuff when I always knew that this is where and what I should be doing,” but I don’t think that any more. I think that’s a false view of reality. Everything, good and bad, comes together to bring us to this moment, here and now.

Vocation is the journey. It really is. I never thought I’d be able to say that authentically. But it really is about the walk. It’s like a pilgrimage.

Q: What has been your greatest reward in following this path?

The greatest reward is a growing awareness of oneness with God. I always thought that God was out there and that I had to reach Him, or He had to reach me. But there seemed to be a wide gulf between myself and the divinity. The realization that the divine union is real and is present to me now, that is the greatest realization of this life: the discovery of God within; the knowing of the presence of God within. I think the essence of Jesus’ message is that union is possible in the here and now, and that’s what the reality of the Kingdom is. That gap is a figment of our imagining.

This realization is at the heart of our message as Brothers. This is your reality, too. All you have to do is discover it for yourself. It’s certainly not the preserve of monks. It’s what it means to be human. We Brothers devote our time to making other people aware that this is their reality and helping them to discover that for themselves.