Swimming in Meaning, Rooted in God: A conversation about vocation with Br. Keith Nelson
Q: Take us back to the beginning. When did your monastic vocation begin?
I had no formal religious upbringing before the age of nine, when my family moved from a little suburb in southern New Jersey to a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. It was a huge cultural shift – and culture shock – for all of us, from minor things (like learning I had an accent) to one big thing: we began to go to church for the first time. I had grown up on a rich diet of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Greek and Roman mythology – great story traditions that informed my play as a child. When I encountered the Bible and the story of Jesus for the first time, I took to it like a fish to water, in part I think because of the groundwork that had already been laid in my heart and psyche by those stories. The difference, of course, was that this particular hero was God, who desired a relationship of love with me, personally, and that there was a whole community of people living out this great Story, capital S. Learning that was hugely horizon opening and ground shaking for me. I was baptized when I was ten.
As I got older, I continued to have a close relationship with Jesus, but I also began to have some questions. In my Southern Baptist context, there was very little experiential understanding of the Trinity, while, at the same time, there was a pronounced theology of atonement. This meant that I couldn’t really understand the relationship between God, the Father – who seemed frightening – and Jesus, with whom I had a great personal relationship. I couldn’t make much sense of that as I entered my teenage years. I also began to pick up on a current of pretty nominal Christianity around me: a lot of Christians who professed faith, but whose actual behavior seemed at a disconnect to their Sunday church belonging.
In high school I took a world religions class and was exposed to Buddhism. My young, spiritually thirsty mind found in Buddhism so much of what I was looking for and which I didn’t see in the Christianity around me: an emphasis on practices that transformed the human heart and mind; genuine compassion for all beings; an understanding of the interconnectedness of the created order. All of these things were really exciting to me. As a result, Jesus sort of went into hibernation for me.
When I got to college, I dove head-and-heart-first into Buddhist mediation practice with the zeal that only a college freshman can manage. I quickly figured out that I wanted to major in Religion. My knowledge of Christianity grew, but only from the neck up. I still had unfinished business with Jesus, but a robust meditation practice had replaced church. My junior year, I studied abroad in India, spending six months in a place called Bodh Gaya, a major Buddhist pilgrimage site, and five months with a Tibetan studies program in a place in Northern India called Dharamshala, the center of the Tibetan population in exile. The gentleness, compassion, and wisdom that I met in many Tibetans – especially in Tibetan monks and nuns – was really real and life-changing for me. It inspired me to undertake a project of interviewing around fifty Tibetan monks on their experience of monastic identity in contemporary (late twentieth-century) India.
When I came back to the U.S., I considered the possibility of a Buddhist monastic vocation. I ended up being steered in a different direction by one of my professors at Kenyon College, Royal Rhodes. He was probably the first person I’d ever met who really lived and breathed Christ. He was also close friends with a Benedictine monk named Columba Stewart, who lives at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Under Royal’s tutelage, I decided to make my senior thesis a comparative project, looking at Tibetan Buddhist monasticism and Benedictine monasticism.
As a result, I spent the Thanksgiving week of 2003 at St. John’s Abbey, talking to a dozen monks and joining them for their Thanksgiving meal. It was an incredibly eye-opening experience, one which proved disruptive to my – everything. Before this, I had met a few isolated individuals – like my college professor – who were openhearted Christians, clearly transformed by their faith. But I’d always thought that they were the exception – like exotic animals. Over the course of that week, and through those conversations, I discovered a community of people focused on Christian practice and who were, in fact, dedicating their whole lives to it. They were the real deal. They were following the way of Christ in a monastic setting. That week’s experience planted some important seeds for me. My heart was touched.
Q: How and when did those seeds begin to grow?
After college I taught for two years at a Roman Catholic boarding high school in a tiny county in northeastern Connecticut. I still identified as a Buddhist, but I’d been so intellectually immersed in Christian theology that they hired me to teach a couple of courses: “Mysticism and Meditation” and “The Mystery of Suffering and Death.” The experience of living in that full-time residential community planted further important seeds. Being required to attend Mass with the students was also pretty significant: seeing other people come together on a regular basis as the body of Christ, to participate in the ritual of the Mass together, awoke a little voice in me that said, “I think I want that.”
At the end of two years, I came to Cambridge to attend Harvard Divinity School, anticipating doing academic work mostly within Buddhist studies, with the possibility of some continued comparative work on Christian monasticism. Once I got to HDS, one of the really important missing pieces came alive for me. I met students who identified as Christians, who were really deeply engaged with the Christian tradition, and who practiced meditative prayer, but who were also unafraid to ask good, hard questions about their faith. Most of them were Episcopalians.
I also took a couple of courses with Professor Karen King, studying the New Testament and the non-canonical gospels, including the Gospel of Thomas. That was like entering the same living room, but with all the furniture arranged differently. It deepened my relationship to the canonical scriptures in surprising ways, and I just began devouring the Bible like I had in my childhood.
One night in that second year, working late on a term paper for a theology course on the Incarnation, I was reading Athanasius in the library. I read the phrase, “Christ came to center our senses in himself.” It’s a line that may not be particularly inspiring out of context, but in the context of my life, somehow, all the meanderings of my past up until that moment came together in that single phrase – and I suddenly knew that I needed Jesus, that I needed to experience the Eucharist on a personal level, that I needed to go to church. I called up my teaching assistant and said, “I think I need an extension on this paper. I seem to be having a reconversion experience!” She agreed that was a pretty good reason for an extension.
It happened that, directly across from the room where I was living at the time, there was a poster for SSJE with all the service times. I had actually never seen it before – my eyes had seen it, but I hadn’t computed what was in front of me – until I came home late that Friday night from the library. Suddenly I saw it, and I was completely taken aback: “What’s this? An Episcopal monastery?” A few days later, I went to the Monastery for the first time. I took communion. And it felt pretty inexpressible – like an electric shock went through my body. It was this very real, embodied confirmation that this is what I was looking for.
Long story short: I began an impassioned conversation with SSJE about monastic vocation, and ended up coming as a postulant. This was in 2008. I was twenty-six. In truth, I just wasn’t ready. I had too many questions about other possible ways of serving the church, as well as about having a vocation to teach. And so, after six months, I left.
Q: How was the experience of leaving?
It was really hard. There were so many things that, on a deep, intuitive level said, “This is the right place for me.” Yet at the same time, those other questions felt like they weren’t going to go away unless I got the answers I needed. So, with some considerable difficulty, I left.
I did a bunch of things after that: I fell in love. I started teaching English to adult Chinese immigrants. I started doing some part-time church administration. And I became a part of a church community called The Crossing, which was incredibly formative for me.
Those were also years in which many of my friends started stepping into forms of professional leadership. I had a really close college friend who became a rabbi. A few friends entered the ordination process or started down the path to becoming seminary professors. Watching these friends step into their vocations was for me an experience of mutual joy, as well as a slightly bittersweet recognition that each of these didn’t seem to be my vocation. I continued to long for something more that I couldn’t quite pinpoint in my own daily life and work. There would be moments where God would very gently whisper, “Maybe monastic vocation.” But I would tell myself, “Oh, I tried that, remember? It didn’t work out. Now I’m trying this different path, so just stick with it.” There was, maybe, a little lingering narrative of failure attached to leaving the Monastery. I wasn’t able to hear that whispering voice for a while. But then I finally did. I felt ready to turn my thoughts and questions back in that direction.
I reached out to Br. David Vryhof and asked, “Could we take a second look at monastic vocation for me?” At the same time I was beginning that conversation with the community, I was also living in an intentional community house associated with my church. That was really good practice for returning to life in community. I came back to SSJE as a postulant in February of 2014.
Q: How was the return?
I went through the same sorts of things that all postulants go through. I tried to approach the experience with “beginner’s mind” and beginner’s heart, even though I had done it before, because I recognized that I was doing this at a really different stage in my life. I was twenty-six the first time; I was thirty-one when I came back. A lot had happened for me in those years.
The second time around was much less of a roller coaster ride. The dramatic inner experiences, shifts, and dramas I felt from day-to-day were not nearly as intense as the first time around. I received a lot of gentle, daily confirmation: “Yes, I made the right choice. This is where I want to be.”
I also felt a willingness to take things day-by-day. The first time around, I was pulling the radish out of the ground every day, to check and see if it was growing. “Are you growing? Are you going to be a radish?!” The second time around, I was able to take things more slowly: “I had a really wonderful day with God in this community yesterday; let’s do it again today.” I felt the freedom just to be present to each day as it unfolded until it was time to make the decision whether or not to become a novice.
In the first year of my novitiate I spent nine months living at Emery House and had some trials with loneliness – a not uncommon experience as men grow into celibate life. But the gift on the other side was a deeper self-knowledge, and a capacity for solitude with God. Then, beneath that, a desire to give myself to God in that way, which was affirming.
Q: In July of 2019, you made your Life Profession. How was that decision?
Momentous, naturally. And incredibly joyful. I made my pre-profession retreat in England, with a community of Anglican Benedictines, Mucknell Abbey. At the beginning I just strolled through their flowering meadows with a dazed grin – like it was my honeymoon with Jesus. Then for almost nine days it was overcast and drizzly. One afternoon my melancholy started to get the best of me. An irrational foreboding insinuated itself: would vowed life be an endless succession of flat, overcast days in my heart? But I was jarred awake – spiritually – by a line from our Rule in the chapter on Life Profession: “Only by depending on God for the grace of perseverance, fixing ourselves by faith in God’s unwavering commitment to us, can we risk taking vows which bind us forever.” Christ was my joy, and that joy did not depend on the weather – outer or inner. As if in reply, the sun rose full and bright the next day. I was ready – as ready as one ever really is – to embrace a life “full of meaning in union with God.”
During the rite of Life Profession, when I put on the silver ring that is a sign of our espousal to God, I repeated the words we all say: “Christ is my life and my joy.” It was then that everything came full circle. I had arrived home.
There was a time – before I came back to the community – when I was unsure if that would actually come together for me. I didn’t know if I would be able to make the choices to enable me to live a life that was saturated in meaning in the way I thirsted for. I knew I needed to live a life swimming in meaning, rooted in God. Yet I also discerned that it was impossible for me to do so in my own strength, on my own. I needed community, a place to call home.
There are, of course, “cloudy days,” outer and inner. Unhappiness visits this life, as it visits every child of God. But in the midst of that, I know in my heart that I am living a life that is full of meaning. That is the hidden sunlight that gives me strength when my heart is overcast.
Q: What’s the greatest joy of this life for you right now?
I know myself to be loved. I am beloved by my God and I am loved by my Brothers, who reflect God’s love to me. I think of 1 John, “We love because he first loved us.” I feel strengthened to love those who are hungry for meaning, and to pass on the meaning the Spirit has given me, by the love streaming into me from God and from this community.
Thank you, Brother Keith, for sharing your personal story, full of so much breathing of the Spirit.