A Conversation about Vocation with Br. Tom Shaw
Q: How did it all begin? How did you come to SSJE?
My earliest memories are of the church. When I was about eight, I said to my parents that I wanted to be a priest. I was something of the odd one out in my family, and the church was the one place where I felt really appreciated. My father was very influential with me. Of course, football was also important to him, but I wasn’t interested in football; and business was important to him, but I wasn’t interested in that. So, the church felt like the one place that was right for me where I could connect with my father – and that proved to be true. As I was growing up, monks and nuns were never foreign to me. We lived about thirty miles from an Episcopal Benedictine community. My father, who worked in shoe manufacturing, used to give them all their shoes. They were guests in our house a lot, and we would go over to the Abbey. When I was ateenager, I started to go there periodi-cally on retreat. My mother and all my aunts on both sides of the family were educated by Episcopal nuns. So the whole language of monasticism was there throughout my childhood. It was in my DNA.
Q: When did this familiarity develop into a personal feeling of call?
When I was in seminary I began to feel attracted to the religious life. I had a professor who really encouraged me to pray and, with that, I started to become intrigued. Before then, I had basi¬cally thought that monks were losersprobably because they make this very counter-cultural decision to reject what we are always taught to value: They don’t get married, they don’t care about making money or climbing the ladder to success. When I was a child that differ¬ence seemed off-putting, but over time it became intriguing to me. In seminary there were several of us who became intrigued about living a common life, a simple life – not forever, but for a while. I suppose, in some ways, we also wanted to prolong seminary. So we talked a bishop into letting us share a house and salaries, and to be respon¬sible for five churches. By the end of the final year in seminary, I was basically the only one left: Somebody had gotten a good fellowship; somebody had gotten married; and, actually, somebody had decided to become a monk. I didn’t want to do this alone, so I went off to England, where I’d heard there was a house like the one we’d intended to start. In England, I lived for two years in a clergy house, where four of us shared one and a half salaries. We were parish priests who prayed together four times a day and shared meals. We took yearly promises to live a simple life. It was re¬ally wonderful training. Finally, I decided that it was time to come home. During the next two years, as assistant rector of a parish in the inner city in Milwaukee, I started to under¬standunder¬stand that I probably had a vocation to a more traditional kind of religious life. I started looking around. I knew all the religious communities in the United States except the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, which I knew of only from England, but I wasn’t ready to make a commitment to any of those communi¬ties. My spiritual director said to me, “You should do what people always do when they can’t decide what to do with the rest of their lives – apply to graduate school.” So I did. I went off to Catholic University that fall to do a Masters in Liturgical Theology. While I was there, I came up to Cambridge to visit the Monastery because SSJE was the one religious order that I hadn’t visited.
Q: How was that first visit to SSJE?
I walked in the door and, before I’d even talked to anybody, I said to myself – “This is it.” Later on, I had a conversation with Paul Wessinger, who was the Superior at the time. I told him, “I’m coming in the fall.” I think he was a little surprised at how forthright I was. He said, “Well we should probably get some references for you.” So I gave him some references. And then he said, “It would probably be a good idea if you came back again for another visit.” So I came back for a week to visit. Then I came back the following fall as a novice. I’ve been here ever since. As I look back on it now, I think I came here because I was looking for two things that were quite positive: I wanted to be able to pray more, to really learn how to pray. That desire was quite genu¬ine, I think, and of God. And secondly, while I liked parish life well enough, I wanted a much more intense experience of community. If those desires were positive and of God, I think there were also some that pushed me here that weren’t so great. Even as a little boy, when my grandfa¬ther, uncle, and father – who were all in business together – would sit together on Sunday afternoons before the family meal, having a drink and talking about business and making money, I knew that that was not a world I wanted to enter. Certain issues around money and relationships certainly influenced my curiosity about the religious life. I don’t think those issues are entirely gone, but I think they’re in the process of going on their way. And they helped to bring me here.
Q: How would you describe what happened in that moment when you walked through the door for the first time?
Grace. I’ve had a few other instances like that in my life, where it’s been clear to me – to my core – that I am supposed to do this thing. It’s grace. That’s the only way I can describe it. My experi¬ence wasn’t mediated by anything or anyone; it was just the experience of standing for the first time in that front hall and suddenly saying to myself, “Well, this is it.” I think that when you’re in the place you’re called to be, you know. Something in you just clicks. It clicks and makes sense. Standing there in the front hall, this made sense to me. It’s funny, because, once I got here, I didn’t really have the luxury of discern¬ing a vocation the way some people do, because I was given so much responsi¬bility almost from the very beginning. I was the Novice Guardian almost immediately after I made my first vows. And I was elected Superior the year after I made my life profession. So I didn’t have a lot of time to think about wheth¬er or not this was my vocation until after I finished being Superior. With all that was happening, I just didn’t question my vocation very much. There were certainly times when I was unhappy, times when I wanted to leave. There may even have been times when I threatened to leave. But I don’t think I ever questioned that this is what God wants me to do, that I am where God wants me to be.
Q: What’s the most rewarding thing about accepting that call?
Self-awareness. The self-awareness that comes from a life of prayer and from liv¬ing in community. It’s not about being a bishop; it’s not about being a priest; it’s not, ultimately, even about being a monk. It’s about the gift of self-aware¬ness. I never thought my life would be this wonderful
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