Inquirers, Millennials, and Angels
A conversation with Br. Jim Woodrum about SSJE's new vocations website, catchthelife.org
We’re talking about SSJE’s new vocations website, called “Catch the Life.” What is “Catch the Life” and why did SSJE decide to launch this new site?
The phrase “Catch the Life” comes from our founder Richard Meux Benson, who wrote: “If we only let people see that we are living upon a truth, and loving it, they will soon catch the life.” That line has come to mean a lot to our community, because it captures how and why we love to share our life with others. Like all evangelists, we don’t want to keep the truth we’ve discovered to ourselves; we want to pass it on to guests and retreatants, friends and visitors – and that’s why we are a community who actively welcomes others to share our life. Our charism is to be the Society of Saint John the Evangelist: spreading good news. In the last few years, the phrase “catch the life” has come especially to symbolize and express our desire to share with other men the deeply satisfying and counter-cultural possibility of living the religious life today.
Many of us Brothers can point to the exact moment when we first learned that monastic life exists in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition and is a viable and accessible vocation. If you’re anything like me, that awareness hits you as a joyful revelation. Suddenly you realize that there is an answer to this yearning you’ve felt and that perhaps has evaded you until now– a desire for another way to live, for a different way to express your vocation as a Christian man.
Discussing this together as a community, we began to realize that we wanted to start being more open in talking about this life of ours – about how we love it and why we love it. The religious life is actually a very bold, adventurous life. It’s a risky life. It’s fulfilling and abundant in every way. As we began talking about this life of ours and our identity, we also began talking more broadly about masculinity and about what it means to be Christian men in the church today. We realized that we wanted more men to know that this life is out there, that it’s an option.
Catch the Life is our campaign to spread the word about the monastic life: this bold, risky, fulfilling path. To help get the word out, we’ve built a website, catchthelife.org, which is full of images, video, audio, and text we’ve drawn together to express how we are “living upon a truth, and loving it,” and that we want to help others “catch the life.”
How has the response been to “Catch the Life” so far?
It’s been really inspiring! Before Catch the Life was launched, we had three men who were actively exploring our life – “inquirers” we call them – two of whom had been at that stage with us for a long time. Nobody was biting. (And we were not alone in this. Religious life seems to be declining, not only among Anglican religious communities, but across the wider Church.)
Yet after launching Catch the Life, all of a sudden we had a steady stream of inquirers knocking on our door, reaching out to us and wanting to chat, asking to look a bit further into the life. In less than a year, I’d say a good twenty or more solid candidates have been in touch with me. We’ve gone from having three inquirers to having a dozen men actively inquiring into our life.
I now spend three, maybe four nights each week having conversations with interested men, talking with them about the religious life and our community, answering their questions. Listening to these men – hearing about their desires and needs, what excites them and what gifts they have – has been an incredible process. I feel like, along the way, I’ve been gifted with the opportunity to forge relationships with men who are seeking something that resonates with them and to see the multidimensional aspects of so many men who bear God’s image, each in their own way.
What are the desires and needs you’re hearing? What is drawing men to consider the monastic life today?
Society tries to sell us this one model for a wonderful life: you have to go to school, you have to get a degree, you have to get a job and make this much money, you have to get married and have kids, you have to buy this kind of house and live in this neighborhood and have this kind of car, and accumulate this much stuff, so that eventually people will say, “Oh you must be very successful and happy.” But that’s a myth.
Younger men are seeing this. I hear them saying, “I don’t subscribe to this worldview – of dominance, of power, of toxic masculinity.” They’re sitting there going, “You know, I don’t want to give my life to something like that. But I do want to give my life intentionally and prayerfully. I do want adventure, abundance, and to live boldly. I do want to give myself to something bigger.” So many people assume that millennials are afraid of commitment. From these recent conversations, I’d say that’s not true. They aren’t afraid of living bold lives, or of giving themselves to something bigger. What they’re really afraid of is conforming to an inauthentic life that serves no one but themselves.
There are millions of ways that you can be happy and live an abundant life; the trick is finding one that is actually tailored to you and your gifts. You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. These men are seeing this – especially younger men – and they’re knocking on our door, to see if maybe this life would be a good fit for them, their talents, and the kind of life they want to lead.
How do you help men through the next step in the discernment process?
The first thing I do is encourage them to really explore this life, without any expectations or pressure. There’s another line from Richard Meux Benson that resonates for me, which I often share with them: “We cannot bound into the depths of God at one spring; if we could, we should be shattered, not filled. God draws us on.” Whatever God calls us to next is not the resting place, it’s only a step on our pilgrimage. That’s true for us monks, as much as for the men inquiring into our life. God is always calling us onward, and therefore we keep discerning the next thing. For us monks, that next thing will happen within the context of this community! But even though we remain in this place, we can never think we’re done growing and changing.
I encourage inquirers to soak up everything that this experience of discovery can teach them about themselves – whether or not they end up deciding to look further into having a monastic vocation. And I ask them to be okay with dwelling in not knowing for a time. I had a priest tell me once, “If you know where you’re going, God is probably not in it. If you have no idea where you are, or what’s going on, God is all over that! That is the fertile soil of an adventure with God.”
I think some men carry this baggage about being afraid to inquire, or to test whether they might have a monastic vocation, because they hate the idea of having been “wrong” or having “failed,” if it turns out not to be the life for them. But that’s not how we think about it at all. There’s no such thing as a “failed” vocation that has been well-tested. The experience of engaging vocational discernment – looking at this life, asking questions, learning about the monastic life of intention, prayer, and ministry: this will give you food for the next stage of your journey, wherever God is leading you.
How can friends of the community support and take part in Catch the Life?
Be an evangelist – better yet, be an angel! We get the word angel from the world euangelion, meaning “bearer of good news.” Share your knowledge of this community with those who are looking and seeking, who are perhaps unable to articulate the desire they’re experiencing.
There are men out there who are looking for something that the world can’t give them. I know because I was that square peg trying to get into the round hole; I know how it feels. And I know there are other men out there, who are wandering, who are adrift, and who are searching for happiness, but always coming up a little bit short. We need people who know us to be evangelists, to let people know, “Hey, there’s more than one way to live. There are more adventures out there than you could possibly shake a stick at. Here’s one of them; why don’t you think about this?” Keep your eyes open for men who might fit into this life.
We need angels. We need people who can say, “You know, I know this place, and this group of men, who are looking for someone like you, and you just might fit. Visit this website, and see what you think.”
Br. Jim Woodrum