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Three Calls: A Conversation About Vocation with Br. Mark Brown

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When did you first experience a call to the monastic life? 

My call to the monastic life was actually my third experience of being called to a vocation in the Christian life. It was preceded, first of all, in my mid-thirties, by a call to be a Christian. I’m an adult convert to Christianity, baptized at thirty-five. My second call was a vocation to the priesthood. Then a few years later came a sense of vocation to the monastic life here at SSJE.

Describing with a very broad brush: I was raised in a church-going family in a small Midwestern town, Coal City, Illinois, where we attended a Presbyterian church on a regular basis and were active in the congregation. By the time I reached my mid-teens, I felt like I needed to distance myself from the church. I wasn’t sure what I believed. Eventually, I stopped attending church or thinking of myself as a Christian.

After I left my hometown in 1967, to go to the University of Illinois to be a music student, I became very involved in studying music – in a sense, that was my religion for quite a while. Then, little by little, bit-by-bit, I began to feel a kind of magnetic attraction to something out there, though I wasn’t sure what that something was. So I began a kind of wild and crazy exploratory period during my college years. This period took me to some very strange (and sometimes wonderful) places: I dipped into Eastern religions and theosophy, tried out a whole range of things having to do with the occult and paranormal, attending séances, getting into astrology and numerology and all kinds of very exotic things on this spiritual quest.

In my early thirties, I made a trip to France for a vacation and was particularly attracted to the churches, as anyone would be in a country like France, where there are such wonderful old churches to visit. While in the city of Arles, in the South of France, I visited Saint Trophime, an ancient church, dating back in parts to the fourth or fifth century. I happened to be there just when a baptism was taking place.

As I watched this baptism, something came over me that felt tremendously powerful – so powerful I had to grab onto something to keep standing up straight! In that moment I knew that I needed to be baptized and join the Church.

What did you do with that urgent sense of call?

Back at home I began to raise my antennae to see what I could sense in the environment around me. I still wasn’t sure where I would land, because I didn’t feel at all drawn to the tradition in which I’d been raised. I felt somewhat drawn to Catholicism. Because my adult life had been spent in the study and teaching of music, I knew that wherever I landed would need to take the arts and beauty seriously. But I struggled with the top-down approach to authority in the Roman Catholic Church. To make a long story short, I found the Episcopal Church. On Christmas Eve, in Champaign, Illinois, it all came together in a very wonderful and marvellous way, and I instantly felt at home there. I knew that this was a place in which I could be a Christian. A few weeks later, in late February 1986, I was baptized and became a Christian – and a member of the Episcopal Church as well.

About the same time – actually a few weeks before I was even baptized! – I had begun the discipline of praying Morning Prayer using the Book of Common Prayer. One day, I remember, I was praying “The General Thanksgiving” that comes at the end of that service, meditating on the words about service: “that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service.” I was pondering what that might look like for me. And in a flash, in a moment, the thought, the words, the idea, came to mind that I should become a priest.

The first call, the call to be a Christian, was slow and incremental: a gradual increase of attraction through years of wandering and looking and searching, and then a realization that I needed to be baptized and to become a Christian.

My sense of vocation to the priesthood was very different because it was so instantaneous and unexpected. I didn’t have a conscious sense of building up to this. It seemed out-of-the-blue and unreasonable to want to be a priest without even being a baptized Christian. (Though even that is not unprecedented: St. Ambrose was not baptized when he was elected Bishop of Milan.) Yet in this second sense of vocation to the priesthood, there was something so clear, something suddenly so evident and so powerful, I never doubted its validity. I knew, as surely as I knew that the sun was shining, that this was my vocation, and that all I had to do was keep going through doors as they opened and I would become a priest. And that is what happened.

When I think back on the experience of that moment, I think of a piano string being tuned. If you’ve ever heard that happening, you’ll know what I mean. There’s a wrench that tightens the bolts that hold down the strings, and as the tuner turns the bolts, the string goes flat, goes sharp. The sound wobbles around the true pitch, and then suddenly the true pitch rings out in a very clear, bell-like way. And that’s it. You know that the note is now in tune. That’s how it felt to me, after so much wandering and searching and seeking and going this way and that way: It felt in that moment like I was perfectly in tune with what I was meant to do with my life.

So when did you experience your third call, the call to become a monk?

After seminary, I worked in a parish for a while as a priest. During that time, I was asked by a friend to preach at his wedding in New York. As I arranged to make a trip to New York I thought I might as well make a retreat at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. I loved going for retreats at a monastery in Michigan. But while I had a deep appreciation for the monastic life from that experience, I didn’t have a sense of vocation to that particular community.

After a few days on retreat at SSJE, I thought, “Maybe there’s something here for me. This might be a possibility.” I knew already that I had a strong attraction to the monastic life, and now I could see how I might live out my baptismal vows and my priestly identity in this place, with this community. So I began a correspondence with Br. Curtis, who was the novice guardian at the time. Following my retreat in July of 1996, I came for an inquirer’s visit that October and then came as a postulant in June of 1997.

This has been a different experience of vocation from the previous two because it’s been a kind of ongoing wrestling match with God. Looking back now, I have no doubt that I’ve made the right choice. I do have a vocation as a member of this community. But with this call I haven’t always had the clarity I did with my previous senses of vocation to be a Christian and a priest. I’ve had to struggle with this call much more. Once I was beyond the initial stages of wonderment about being here, once the realities of daily existence began to sink in, there certainly were times when I began to wonder, “Have I made the right decision?” Of course, I’m still here and I have the sense of this being right.

The point I’m making is that when we talk about having a sense of vocation, we can be talking about very different experiences. I, for one, have experienced a variety of calls: first the gradually increasing gravitational attraction experience, then the sudden insight experience, and finally the Jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel kind of experience.

It’s important for people to know that vocation can be played out in many different ways. There’s no wrong way or right way; it happens as it happens, and it can happen in any number of different ways.

What’s been the most rewarding thing for you about accepting the call to be a monk?

The single most gratifying thing is probably living a life rooted and grounded in a regular practice of corporate prayer. This is a wonderful place in which to be a priest, partly because of the care and skill that goes into our liturgical life. We put a tremendous amount of thought and energy into liturgy because we love it. So it’s a very gratifying place to celebrate the Eucharist. I find this an especially wonderful place to be a preacher. In a parish, a preacher has to be all things to everyone and try to meet a very wide range of needs, to speak to a wide range of people. Since we have many Brothers preaching, each one can develop his own unique voice, without feeling the need to be all things to all people. So I’ve found tremendous freedom in this context to develop my own voice as a preacher without being anxious about whether it’s speaking to everyone all the time. One of my Brothers affectionately has called my preaching eccentric, and I take that as a great compliment. I’m glad to be able to be in a place where I can be an eccentric preacher.

Do you think that everyone has a vocation?

It depends on how we understand “vocation.” If we’re talking about a spectacularly dramatic moment when we experience God calling us, a kind of Damascus Road experience, I’d say that’s comparatively rare. I suspect that the most common sense of vocation is one that develops over time, which may also involve a certain amount of struggling. In retrospect, even my sudden sense of vocation to the priesthood, which in the moment seemed unexpected and unprecedented, may have been a more organic movement in the trajectory of my life. A sense of vocation forms around what we might call “the heart’s desire”: what we truly desire for ourselves in God, for those around us, and for the world. I suspect that our own deepest desires are most often the strongest indication of vocation. We need not wait for or expect a call that seems to come from outside of us, but rather be attuned to that which is becoming alive within us.

 

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5 Comments

  1. Gwedhen Nicholas on May 10, 2013 at 19:51

    Thank you so much Fr Brown. I have been struggling with my vocation to the religous life. Now I have pretty much decided what I must do, but I keep being afraid that it is what I want, but not what God wants for me. Your message has really given me courage to trust God that my hearts desire to enter SSJD is from Him.
    Thanks
    Gwedhen

  2. elizabeth d hoffman on May 8, 2013 at 20:09

    Fr Brown, thank you for sharing part of your story. I have been feeling a bit like Dorothy when she comes to the point in the yellow brick road where in forks off into different directions. Sometimes I forget how sometimes God talks to us loudly and clearly, and at other times in an almost inaudible whisper. I am trying in these days of uncertainty, to keep putting one foot ahead of another and listen to my heart –while not feeling like I need to change everything all at once– i.e. trying to honor my need for comfort as well as change at my stage of life. Yours in Christ, elizabeth

  3. Merrill Ann Gonzales on May 8, 2013 at 15:54

    Conside the flowers of the field and the birds of the air. I know I have a “vocation” …I’m in the struggling part of it. It’s not an overtly “religious” calling, but one that calls me to simplicity … just being. The flowers this time of year keep reminding me…that decades have gone by and I have yet to get to the point where I can devote the time to just praise GOD in my paintings of birds and flowers. I may never get there wholely…life demands so much … but slowly and day by day I’m inching closer. There isn’t much time left. Thank you for this article… it helps me not feel so selfish for following where I know I must go. Solo Deo Gloria!

  4. barbara frazer lowe on April 19, 2013 at 14:30

    Fabulous, Br. Brown. So hugely real, and plain honest, clear; makes one exclaim out loud; in love, and so human.

  5. Ruth West on April 19, 2013 at 00:16

    Br. Mark, I so enjoyed reading your testimony re: your callings. It was not wishy-washy, but a clear declaration of facts. To God be the glory for your life in Christ, an inspiration to all of us who hear you. THANKS!

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