The Rest of My Life: An Interview about Vocation

Q: Take us back to the beginning: when did you first start to have a sense of a monastic vocation, and what was it that was drawing you?

I first started going to an Episcopal church in college. I was very eager to learn more and go deeper, so I met with the priest there regularly, usually at least once a month, to ask him a bunch of questions (and leave with a bunch of books). Eventually, I approached him and said that I was interested in talking about – well, I didn’t call it this, but – vocational discernment. He was the one who suggested a monastic vocation to me, based on some of the things he’d been hearing from me and seeing in me over the previous months. And while it didn’t immediately click, something about it planted its roots in my brain.

I was thinking about it every day. Finally, after a few months, I sent that priest an email and said, “I think I need to meet with you again, because – to my surprise – this idea is just not leaving. I think about this every day now.”

I will also say that I remember even being a kid and not having much of a religious context, yet being fascinated by monks or monk-like figures that I encountered in pop culture. I loved the Jedi in Star Wars. I loved the book series, Redwall, about woodland creatures living in Redwall Abbey, a monastic setting in a forest in England. I remember I really loved watching the Disney film, the animated Robin Hood and seeing Friar Tuck. So as a child, I had these Jedi warrior monks and these monastic woodland creatures whom I just loved. I found them so fascinating, even though I had no broader context for it. But, it’s interesting that even though this vocation certainly started explicitly when I was in college, there was also just something attractive about it for me, in the ways I encountered it, from an early age.

Q: Was there any resistance or reluctance, or was your sense of being called to this more an experience of eagerness?

Oh, there was fear. I visited a few different communities, and there was definitely some fear and trembling each time. When I came on visits here, to SSJE, I very purposefully asked each Brother I met with, “How did you get here?” I was trying to wrap my head around how a real person ends up in this situation. Trying to see the people here as real people was a major part of being able to see myself here.

I came to the Monastery when I was twenty-four, which was pretty young. I was asking, “Am I too young? Maybe this could be right in the future, but maybe not now?” I was raised with the expectation that you’re not going to stay in the same career all your life. You’re not going to live in the same place all of your life. And so there was some real fear for me around the awareness that I could be starting a path that ends up with me moving here and doing this for the rest of my life. That was scary. Yet as I considered my options, I did a lot of thinking about whether I was attracted to those options as they were, in themselves, or whether I was attracted to the idea of having options. And ultimately it was the latter. I realized that question of “options” was more of an impediment to me choosing something I wanted, rather than the actual freedom it seemed like. I realized that what I really wanted was this.

Q: Once you arrived, was it different than you’d anticipated?

I think everyone goes through some disillusionment when they first come here. That sounds bad, but the removal of illusion is a good thing (it’s just a painful thing). It might be disillusionment about the community; it could be disillusionment about specific individuals; it could be disillusionment about yourself. I certainly had all three.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has written several books about the spirituality of Benedictine monasticism. In one of the introductory chapters of The Benedictine Way he talks about how monastic asceticism is directed to an end: to teach people to rely on God. Being troubled or disillusioned is kind of a necessary part of that. And that includes being disillusioned with yourself.

You know, I didn’t magically become an expert at the contemplative life or something. Some days I still struggle with very basic things that I think I should have moved on from by now. But that’s also led to changes in me; there’s real growth. Those very challenges that push against the romantic image you might have in your head are directed, in the end, to growth in love of God and love of neighbor. It’s pretty basic stuff – not just for the monk, but for the Christian – but it’s what’s most important.

Q: What advice would you give to someone at the beginning stages of discerning a possible vocation to monastic life?

Ask God! Involve God in your decision-making. Don’t just try and guess at God’s will, but actually pray about it.

Discernment also involves talking with people who know you – whether that’s on a personal level, with your friends and family, or in a pastoral way, as when I talked with my priest. One of the most important conversations I had when I was inquiring into this life took place with a friend of mine who was raised as a Muslim and who was basically non-religious in his day-to-day life. I had no deep spiritual common ground with him, and he had no context for this way of life, but when I told him, “I’m thinking of becoming a monk,”  he said, “Yeah, I can see that.” He knew me. Listening to the input of others, both the people around you and of course, God, can be a very good way of testing what you feel might be a call.

Q: How has life changed on the other side of life vows?

In monastic life, there are these very tangible stages, where you know that in a few months or in a few years, there’s a new decision to make. But after life vows, there isn’t a next stage. That feels a little weird initially, because it’s sort of like, “Okay, now what? Now what do I look forward to?” But quickly, that feeling was replaced with sense of a lot of freedom to act. I’ve chosen a solid foundation, and I can act from that foundation now. I feel a lot of freedom to do that because it’s now secure in a way it wasn’t before.

After life vows, you’re on a lifelong timespan, and there’s a lot more freedom in the imagining of what could be real in your life here. I’ve come more and more to realize that my desire to have other options actually can be an impediment to me freely making the choices I want to make. And so I have found – in actually making that choice and locking it down – a real sense of freedom. I have the rest of my life to figure out the structure or structures that make my prayer happen, and facilitate my relationship with God, and facilitate my ability to love others – all of those things I feel so deeply called to do. Now I have the time and space, the community and the place, in which to do that life’s work. “Now what?” I ask myself. And, you know, that’s, that’s an exciting question for me, because there are lots of possibilities, and I have the rest of my life to find my different answers.

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