How did your journey to the Monastery begin?
I’m a cradle Episcopalian. I grew up going to church and was an acolyte, a crucifer, a torchbearer, and a server. I enjoyed the church youth group and socializing with kids my age in the fun activities they put on, but I found church boring. Like many people, I stopped going at the first opportunity. I don’t think I ever made the connection between being a church-going Episcopalian and having a relationship with Jesus. Certainly it was the receiver, not the message, that was broken, but that element wasn’t really communicated to me. So I left the church and became wayward (in my own way).
It wasn’t until I was in my mid- to late-twenties that I started getting curious about spirituality. I often say that, at that time, Jesus was after me. It seemed like everywhere I went, I was confronted by Christians who began asking me questions. I really had a profound sense of Jesus trying to get to me. Eventually, I capitulated.
During that time, retreat became an important part of my spiritual seeking. I used to go on retreats on nearly a quarterly basis and spent many weekends in convents or monasteries. When I would see the monks or the nuns, I would always think that it seemed like a really fine life, but not for me, because I had to work and was interested in sex and having fun. Monastic life was good for a weekend, nice for them, very attractive, but not for me.
When I returned from four years of graduate school in Belgium, studying philosophy, I felt that I had a lot of options and could do any number of different things. I’d just finished working for a little over a year as a marketing consultant for an independent organization. We did coaching with entrepreneurial types – accountants and lawyers and other consultants – people who live by their expertise but don’t necessarily know how to market themselves. I didn’t like the job. At the end of the day, I just didn’t care if I could help somebody make another $5,000 that month; it didn’t mean anything to me. What’s always been important to me is to believe in what I’m doing, to know that it is actually contributing to something.
So when I came back to the States, I began applying for all kinds of different jobs. I was working in an all-male treatment facility for drug and alcohol addiction while looking for more long-term, full-time employment. I was really thinking big, asking, “If I could do anything, what would I want to do?” I applied for a lot of jobs working for schools, having always been attracted to institutions – particularly academic institutions. I applied for a job with the CIA and amazingly got quite a number of steps into the process, which was a surreal experience that I won’t get into. But no matter what I applied for, and no matter how exciting the opportunity or how interesting the work, I always saw it all as a means to an end – an end that I never was really convinced that I wanted, namely owning a home or having a family. I think that, for most of my life, I was trying to convince myself that I should want those things and that I should do the things that would enable me to have them. Yet at the end of the day, that life never really spoke to me. So no matter what I ended up doing – no matter how good I was at it or how interesting it was or how much I was learning – it just became a means to an end that I didn’t really want. My heart really wasn’t in any of it.
Around the same time, the idea of monasticism kept recurring to me. I went on a retreat and ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen in six years. He took my picture and posted it on Facebook saying, “You never know who you might run into at a monastery.” I don’t know if there was something about that, but at the same time I decided, “This year, I’m going to look into this and see what happens.”
Now I didn’t even know that there were Episcopal monks, despite growing up in the church. All the retreats I had been on had been at Catholic monasteries. Just out of curiosity, I went online and googled “Episcopal monks.” Up came a list of the convents and monasteries in the Episcopal Church. The first one listed was SSJE. I clicked through to the site and quickly fell upon SSJE’s Rule. I started reading it and felt like, “Oh my God, this is exactly what I believe about the spiritual life.”
So I filled out the preliminary questionnaire; David Vryhof called me, and we set up a time for an interview on the phone over the July 4th weekend. I ended up coming to SSJE for a visit that August while the Monastery was still under renovation. I got to Emery House on Tuesday; Thursday the Brothers packed up and drove down to the Monastery to move back in; Friday I joined them for my first visit. It certainly was an odd first exposure. There were no retreatants, so I was the first person to stay in the Guesthouse. The kitchen wasn’t stocked, and there was no one to cook, so we went out to a Mexican restaurant for supper. It was bizarre. I remember there was a guy dressed in Mariachi garb, playing “I Did It My Way” by Frank Sinatra. And every time he sang that line, Jonathan would point to the Heavens and sing, “I did it His way.” It was just absurd enough for me. After I had been at SSJE as a postulant for some months, Robert made the connection that I was the guy who had visited that weekend. He admitted, “All I remember thinking was, ‘Oh this guy is never coming back.’”
But I loved it and felt very comfortable. I think it was good for me that I got ‘up close and personal’ right away. I saw the realness of everyone. The Brothers were very upfront and frank about the realities of this life, and I got to know them as people. I think it was exactly what I needed. That Sunday, we had a service in the Chapel for the first time – just me and the monks, very informal. I mean, I was still completely overwhelmed, of course. I don’t think I slept the whole time I was here. I was just so over-stimulated, my mind was going a million miles a minute. But I also felt very encouraged by that first visit. I ended up coming back three more times between August and January. Then on January 10, 2012, I arrived as a postulant.
Did you struggle at all with the decision to test your vocation?
I can recall taking a walk one night after a second shift at the treatment center – I walked to wind down because it was a rather intense job – and saying to God, “What price is too high for knowing you better?” I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for everything that God has done for me. In my own experience, as I have placed a priority on seeking God and wanting to relate to God more, my life has just taken off in extraordinary and exciting ways that I never would have come up with myself. It might sound clichéd to say that, but it’s the absolute truth. So while I was struggling with the decision – especially with the question of celibacy and not being able to have a relationship – when I thought about the cost, it was not an obstacle. The question I was asking was, “Are my hesitations substantial enough to keep me from trying it?”
How about your entry into the Monastery? What surprised you?
Like a lot of the Brothers, I did not find what I was expecting here – and thank God for that. I think I had a fairly stereotypical idea of what a monk was, from my own impressions that I had seen from the outside. I imagined a very solitary, silent life, with minimal interaction with the public and the world at large. I don’t think I imagined a very fun life. The biggest surprise is how busy I am. There is time for everything, but everything has a time. That’s how I experience this life: I have time to do everything, but everything has its time, so I’m always going onto the next thing before I finish one thing, which I might or might not return to later.
In the beginning, when you’re a postulant getting into the stream of worship, your perception of time is so weird, very surreal. Time stands still. I would have the experience of suddenly thinking, “I haven’t talked to my parents in months,” though we’d talked the week prior. In the course of any given day, any given week, any given month, everything happened – and nothing happened. What happened when I was a postulant? Well, gosh, everything, and yet I have nothing to tell you about what happened.
What appeals to you about this life?
I love praying the Office everyday and inviting other people into that stream of ongoing prayer. For me, to be a part of creating a space for other people to connect with God, with themselves, and to collect their lives – that’s the greatest thing. I love being part of creating that kind of space for other people.
Having the opportunity to preach is also very meaningful to me. Because I’m a new preacher, I do quite a bit of book-work to prepare a sermon and I enjoy that work, fortunately. Seeing people for spiritual direction is also very formative. I experience God in the vulnerability and intimacy that is created in that space of coming together with somebody and sharing in our humanness. We both need God and don’t have all the answers, and life is hard: my spirituality is very much about connecting with other people at that level. We need God together. None of us know what we’re doing, and so we need each other to guide us through this.
You’re initially professed now; was that an easy decision for you?
When I was first eligible to become initially professed, I asked for an extension. I didn’t want to be professed simply because the time had come around in the calendar. I needed to allow my desire to arise spontaneously out of myself. My philosophy is, “When in doubt, do nothing.” Every time God has called me to something, it’s been crystal clear for me. So I took an extension in June of 2014. Within a couple of weeks of our return to business as usual that September, after our annual Community retreat, I realized that this is what I like doing. I like my life like this. I’m engaged, I’m interested, and I’m doing meaningful work; it’s everything that I want. I went to Geoffrey and said, “I want to get professed.”
Since coming to that conclusion, I’ve had absolutely zero second-guessing of my decision. I don’t know what lies beyond that. But I feel very confident and comfortable with my decision to make initial profession. I was looking for answers – but then instead the questions just disappeared. We’ll see what comes next.
What would you say to someone else who was considering this life?
Don’t be afraid to look. God won’t drag us through any doors. In my experience, God’s will is easy: it doesn’t require a lot of work or twisting ourselves into pretzels. So there’s no harm in looking, because if the door is open, it will be open; and if it’s closed, well, then you don’t have anything to worry about.
People often ask me, “Why are you doing this, when you could do other things?” It’s true that I could do other things. I have done other things, but this life speaks to more of me – intellectually, emotionally, physically. More parts of me are engaged, fired, and utilized in this life than in any other life that I can imagine. My life can go from the mundane to the profound within any given hour. Life is of a piece here: cleaning the bathroom is as important as preparing a sermon. I like that my whole life happens under one roof and that I’m not doing anything toward some other end. Everything here is just the thing that I do, and that is what I’ve always wanted.
It’s an extraordinarily privileged life – and yet people aren’t beating down the door to get in, because it’s also a demanding life. If it’s right, it’s right – which is what all the Brothers say. I’ve had that experience as well. For now, it’s right.