A Lifetime of Change – A conversation about vocation with Br. Luke Ditewig
Q: When did you first begin to have a sense of a monastic vocation?
I went to seminary right after college because an internship made me think I wanted to be a hospital chaplain. After my first year I got a real taste of chaplaincy in Clinical Pastoral Education and found I did not want to be a hospital chaplain. It was quite a shock: everything I had expected – the very reason why I’d come to seminary – turned out to be not as I thought.
I continued my seminary studies and chose a full-time, year-long internship so that, like CPE, I could learn and discern further by doing ministry outside the classroom. I’m from California and studied near Boston and in Princeton. God sent me on a cross-cultural adventure of parish ministry immersion in western Nebraska. I returned for a second year after seminary alongside a different priest. Then I moved to a desert island. Campus by the Sea, a Christian camp on Catalina off the coast of Los Angeles, is a special home and thin place where I’ve encountered God all my life. I grew up frequenting it as my dad led collegian retreats, later volunteering as a teenager. Leaving Nebraska, I followed a long-held dream by returning to camp for a whole year on staff.
After I left camp, I could say that year was amazing, not simply for living at my favorite place, but because I learned I’m passionate about corporate hospitality and thrive on being caretaker of a sacred place where people come away to encounter God. I learned it’s good for me to live in community and that I desire more peers with whom to share spiritual leadership like the camp director. Daily devotions and evening Bible study with staff weren’t enough. I knew now that I needed the rhythms of traditional worship and the church year. When I said this to my dad, he replied, “What you want sounds monastic: a worshipping community with pastoral identity who offers hospitality in a sacred space.”
That was really an “Ah-ha” moment for me. I answered him, “Yes, that’s what I want.” Almost in the same sentence I said, “But that’s impossible.” It was outside of my reference and context. I went to Princeton Seminary. I was ready to be a Presbyterian pastor. Presbyterians don’t have monasteries. Though monasticism seemed to integrate my desires in a wonderful way, I assumed it couldn’t be true.
My one monastic experience offered a glimmer: I had attended a weekend retreat at Order of the Holy Cross in West Park, New York, with a group from Princeton Seminary. I don’t remember it, but that visit planted a seed that came to life later when my dad said, “What you want sounds monastic.” That there are Episcopal monks gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, this surprising idea might be possible.
I needed more convincing, and God gently wooed me. A colleague from Princeton went back to visit the Order of the Holy Cross. Afterward she called me and said, “You kept coming to mind while I was there, and I could imagine you as a Brother. Have you ever thought of that?” I said, “Well, actually, just in the last month. This is so bizarre!” I had to admit, “Okay, this is real. It’s beyond me. I have to explore this.”
Q: Were there challenges as you began to accept the idea of this vocation?
The biggest challenge I faced was that I thought my path was already clear and defined. I’d gone to Princeton, was looking for placement as a Presbyterian pastor – that’s what my friends were doing, that’s what I’d been preparing for. Even though I always had lingering questions about if I fit in parish ministry, I’d followed all the steps to pursue it. This seemed like a radical departure. It was hard to let go of my assumptions and imagine a broader picture.
As I kept letting go, I found more connections. I had led the camp staff in discussing a book on Benedictine hospitality. Living and working with the same twenty people in a remote camp has a lot of overlap with the Monastery. I had long been compelled and delighted to serve and encourage my peers in their leadership roles. At seminary I wondered how to care for and host pastors without being a therapist. Now I’m blessed to welcome and listen to many, including clergy. Guests often come hurting, bearing heavy burdens, seeking safety and healing. The Monastery has echoes of a hospital and, as in CPE, the caregivers are also being changed. I find a key challenge is acknowledging that my rational categories and expectations are so limited. God’s plans and perspective are bigger, broader, and better. My past does not hinder but rather prepares and keeps inviting who I can now become.
Thankfully, my parents were – and continue to be – incredibly supportive. My dad has served in Christian ministry his whole career, both para-church and parish-based. My mom is a spiritual director and trains new directors in a program alongside Catholic Sisters. Both of them had been on retreats to monasteries before. Their own journeys made it easier for them to support me and for me to explore this path.
I learned in an article by Richard Rohr that most people who go to monasteries don’t stay. That’s been true down through history. Monasteries are really communities of intensive formation, for becoming more fully oneself and becoming more like Jesus. Most stay for six months to two years, and all are changed by the experience. This fact encouraged me to risk coming. Many opportunities are not for the long-term, but trying them out and being present to the moment can be transformative. Seminary, CPE, the parish in Nebraska, and the island camp all shaped me and prepared me for monastic life.
Q: So how was the transition when you finally arrived at SSJE?
My first six months – and really the first two and a half years – were quite easy. Well, maybe easy isn’t the best word for it, but enjoyable, without much challenge. I was the only new man as a postulant. For most of my novitiate, I was alone with the life-professed Brothers. Practically, this made sense as it was amid the Cambridge renovation. While learning our worship and routines, I did what I already enjoyed: cooking, housekeeping, and caring for guests. Later, getting ready for initial vows, I returned to Cambridge from Emery House, received more responsibility, and had the blessing and challenge of a peer group, in other newcomers who provoked and encouraged me as I had not known before. Engaging life together with them was the more significant and transforming transition.
Q: How do you understand vocation? What is it?
I resonate with Frederick Buechner’s definition: “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” Our own desires and joys fit within the larger call and context of what God is doing in the world. Our common call as Christians varies in how it is expressed by our own diversities of desires and deep gladness and how we change as well. There are certainly other things I could have done, which God would have used for good and glory. Part of the challenge and limitation of being here at the Monastery is to let go of those other possibilities and just be here, now. The longer I’m here, the more possibility there is in this context. So while my vocation could perhaps have developed somewhere else, I find myself here.
Saint Irenaeus wrote: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Paying attention to what brings us to life, what delights us, what we’re most thankful for, leads us to becoming more fully human. We may be called to go somewhere else, but I think we’re usually called into more wherever we are. God uses bits and pieces, weaves tapestries from many colors, places, relationships, experiences, using our diverse backgrounds and indeed what we have lost and lack, our wounds. To my surprise, I found the Monastery is not only or primarily a place to apply my gifts and interests but rather a school and clinic for my healing and conversion, as it is for each guest. Vocation is how God calls to heal us, and then through us to heal others. First, vocation is for our own conversion.
I am privileged to listen to many people seeking and being found by God here. I’m learning about vocation from listening to guests on retreat, walking with Interns in their immersion alongside us, and in friendship with a former Brother. Each seeks companionship in listening for what God invites and noticing what God is doing. What we need to know is often only revealed at the moment when it can be received, when God chooses. Companions help us ask, wait and listen for answers to: “Who am I becoming?”
Q: What’s been your greatest joy in finding yourself here?
It’s a joy to share this pilgrimage circle with so many guests. I love our ministry. We gather around two tables, in the Chapel and in the Refectory, and find Jesus in breaking bread together. But the greatest joy is experiencing God’s radical hospitality myself, being welcomed, known, and loved. I have changed in ways I never imagined. I am more aware of my shadows, and I am more alive and free. My Brothers have patiently loved life into me through the blessing and challenge of sharing life together. I am becoming more, and so are they. That’s the joy: witnessing conversion and potential. As I look at my older Brothers, I anticipate a lifetime of change, of becoming.
As much as I appreciate reading of your journey, and of all the readings sent out over the internet, I am also interested in the accompanying photos, especially one here with nuns. I believe they are members of the Sisters of St Anne, based in Arlington, Mass. The nun down on the right looks like Sr Maria Dolorosa. I hope I am right. many years ago, I was a student in their school, and lived there for 4 years, graduating in 1964.
Perhaps someone can let me know of this.
We had Fathers from SSJE come to lead Sunday services and other services in our lovely, and historical, chapel. The one I remember best was Fr Wessinger.
Luke I reread your comments and received more out of them. It is good to hear you have the support of your parents. It will be good to see you again when I come over for Holy Week. Thanks a lot for your comments. Jane