At the moment, my life seems to be in a sort of liminal space, marked by an internal disquiet that promises either change or despair. What I can say about my experience of keeping a rule is this: the experience of keeping a rule, but more importantly the experience of knowing SSJE as they keep their rule, is serving as an anchor for me.
As I look to the future and as my life is being reshaped, I ask: What do I desire most? How will I orient my life in a way that is at least as compelling to me as the witness of SSJE? A part of me that feigns to be wise shouts that this standard is too unsparing, too absolute. And to these loud voices I respond: This is the way that I tether myself to life in unsteady times. My ability to reshape my life in the image of my fears is much too great to move through these days without an anchor.
“Anyone who tries self-sufficiency in the spiritual life falls prey to illusion.” This sentence in Chapter 30 of the SSJE Rule of Life both invited and guided me in the construction of my personal rule. I knew that I needed and wanted observations, perceptions, and self-awareness. Being a guest at the Monastery and having visits with Br. Eldridge Pendleton led me to conclude that a deeper relationship with SSJE would be an appropriate path. The act of being received into the Fellowship of Saint John came to me as a gift – worthy examples of prayer, study, contemplation, community, care, and thankfulness. Writing a personal rule, then, led me to the Fellowship of Saint John.
Saint John’s Day 2012 had so great a symbolic importance for me that I wanted to remember and recall every detail about it. The morning was damp and chilly; the light and flowers in the Chapel were lovely; there was a festive reception; but for me, the important perceptions included anticipation, a change in the air, some new practical sense, and an adventure in mystery. For my part, I had found the observations and perceptions I sorely needed. My name was called, and I was given a cross to wear as a “sign of the purity of heart with which you seek to abide in Christ as he abides in us.” I was wholeheartedly grateful for the experience. All of that day was something for the memory books.
Living a rule goes far beyond the sense of a beginning. A change of heart and quite a lot of hard work and concentration must follow. As a new and grateful member of the Fellowship of Saint John, I am thrilled to have the memory of a beginning and the excellent company of the surroundings. The essential truth of this experience has become moment-to-moment and day-to-day thanksgiving and hope. It is a joy to think of the future, living a rule, and returning to the monastery. I will honor the spirit of the opening moments, and I will always be encouraged by the prayers, good will, and gentleness that characterize the deepened relationship with the Fellowship of Saint John. The experience is treasured, ongoing, and it has the feeling of surpassing comfort, encouragement, and great luck.
At the Festival Eucharist of Saint John’s Day, on May 5, we welcomed five new members into the Fellowship of Saint John. Here those newest members share reflections on keeping a rule of life and being a member of the Fellowship.
In the fall of 2009 I came to a deepened experience of who the Brothers are and the gifts they have to offer the world. I am a part-time Master of Divinity student at Bangor Theological Seminary in Portland, ME and along with several other Episcopal students from the seminary, spent time in retreat at the Monastery – from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon. We joined the Brothers in worship – no fewer than ten times! – and for meals, for group reflection with our companion, Br. James Koester, and much time was available for silence – God’s first language. It was during the retreat I purchased a copy of the SSJE Rule of Life, and I must confess, prior to this year, I hadn’t given it much time or attention.
My wife Christine and I have been able to join the Brothers for several of their Saturday workshops. We always leave feeling renewed – eagerly anticipating a return visit. Early on in our time as a couple we desired a deepened relationship with the Brothers, and membership in FSJ seemed the natural path to follow. We read the Fellowship rule and saw ourselves already living into parts of it, so we applied as probationers.
As Lent approached this year, Christine and I learned of the Brothers’ video series, A Framework for Freedom. It has become part of our life together to pray Morning Prayer each day, and we chose to open our prayer time with the Brothers’ daily video offering. We quickly realized the value of a rule and how a rule does not have to be a burden, but rather can be something freeing and life-giving. At the same time, another dimension of our life during Lent is to choose a devotional book to companion us on our Lenten journey, so it seemed natural to use the SSJE Rule of Life and read a chapter near the end of each day. These two practices left us embraced by and wrapped in the hearts and words of the Brothers.
It strengthens and sustains us to know we are now part of the Brothers’ prayers, and our daily prayer now includes the Brothers. Each day we ask “that by their prayer and service they may enrich your Church, and by their life and worship may glorify your Name . . . ”
In the final reflection from A Framework for Freedom, Br. Curtis asked us to say “yes” to our lives and reminded us that God is most present in the here and now. I whole-heartedly believe that my “yes” to relationship with the Brothers and to the wider Fellowship will be a source of joy and gladness for the rest of my days.
The SSJE Monastery has long been a part of my landscape – mysterious, intriguing, and intimidating. As a teenage spiritual-seeker, I passed by on my way to Harvard Square to listen to the chanting Hare Krishnas, sign petitions for social justice, give to the homeless, and buy books on Buddhism and Beatniks. The Monastery only got a passing glance and from what I knew about Christianity, it did not seem like an option for me.
Years later my husband, Charlie, introduced me to the Episcopal Church and the Christian faith. Now I find that much of my spiritual life and faith formation happens at that same Monastery that I so often passed by. When I first entered the Chapel it was with a new view of Christianity, far from what society had presented. My mind was eager to learn and my heart was ready to be wrenched open and filled with the love of God. Charlie and I have attended many workshops and worship services at SSJE. We listen to sermons on the website, read the daily “Brother, Give Us a Word”, and made the Lenten video series on creating a rule of life part of our daily prayer.
In the presence of the Brothers my sand settles, and my water becomes clear. Their offerings transform me daily, opening my eyes to a new way of being in the world, often turning my picture completely upside down, revealing the image as God actually painted it, a much more beautiful composition! Their hospitality has brought me a greater comfort than I have ever felt before.
By joining the FSJ I hope to deepen my relationship with the Brothers and other Fellowship members. Becoming intentional about following a rule of life is a natural next step for me on my spiritual journey. With so many choices of paths, the Fellowship is for me a way to make a decision on a direction so that I don’t stand bewildered at the crossroads, but move along, the boundaries allowing me the freedom to take in the scenery and the adventure ahead.
This issue of Cowley Magazine takes up the topic of Prayer in addition to a MonasticWisdom for Everyday Living insert by Br. Geoffrey Tristram explores how Intercession brings us, and those for whom we pray, close to the heart of God.
Selected Articles from the Fall 2012 Cowley Magazine
- Do you pray every day? Br. Jonathan Maury outlines the wide variety of ways we might pray daily.
- Br. David Allen shares some favorite short prayers, with and without words.
- Br. James Koester explains how and why we might want to pray with icons.
- Recent SSJE intern, Rob Coulston, offers a historical and personal glimpse into the Daily Office.
- How do you find your vocation? In an interview, Br. Curtis Almquist shares the story of his experience of discerning his call to SSJE.
- Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Living: Intercession, Carried Close to the Heart of God.
- Letters from the Fellowship: Charlie Nichols, Christine Niles, Gerone Lockhart, and Henry Courtney.
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Cover photo: The hymn board in the Monastery Chapel, ready to guide the congregation in each of the day’s five prayer offices.
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”
– 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
The Acts of the Apostles tells us that soon after the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, three thousand persons were baptized and added to the Church. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:41-42). Thus from the earliest days of Christianity, following the pattern already set by devout Jews, the practice of daily prayer was established. Later, when the Apostles began to go out on missionary journeys accompanied by believers, the gathering for “the breaking of bread” (The Holy Eucharist) came to be observed primarily on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. However there are indications that the practice of daily prayers continued on all days of the week. Paul’s words of encouragement near the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians, quoted above, give us an indication of the importance of daily prayer in those early times. Those same words have continued to be a rallying cry to Christians of all generations to persevere in daily prayer.
There are many ways of praying daily, including repetitive prayer using the Rosary or Scripture or one’s own words, spontaneous prayer, intercessory prayer, the Daily Office, as well as the monastic form of meditative prayer called Lectio Divina, which is an unhurried reading of a passage from scripture, or from some other spiritual book, in which we let the words speak to us. Whatever approach you use, a sentence from the SSJE Rule of Life might be helpful: “Without silence words become empty” (SSJE Rule, Ch. 27).
One very famous repetitive prayer with which you might be familiar is the well-known “Jesus Prayer”: Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me. This prayer has an interesting history relating to our Order. In the mid 1960s, Fr. John Sakurai, of the Japanese Province of the SSJE, made a translation of the popular 19th century devotional manual, The Pilgrim’s Way, which he titled using the words from 1st Thessalonians in Japanese “Taezu Inorinasai,” that is “Pray without ceasing.” The devotional manual tells of a Russian pilgrim who took those same words as his inspiration to practice the repetition of the Jesus Prayer as the foundation for his daily prayers. Over the years the manual has been published in Russian, English, Japanese, and many other languages. Thus the Jesus Prayer has been used as one form of daily prayer by many people. Repeated over and over, it takes on its own life subconsciously. If we pray the Jesus Prayer faithfully over time it takes on the rhythm of our breathing and heartbeat. Yet in The Pilgrim’s Way the reader is also warned to avoid repeating it in a strained way, as well as advised to have a spiritual director as a guide. I find, in my own practice, that I only use that prayer periodically, for example during quiet waiting times or as part of my prayer on a retreat day. When I was living in Japan some years ago, and since then, on subsequent visits, I found that riding on a train for some distance, if I had a seat that was relatively quiet, the Jesus Prayer would come to me with the rhythmic sound of the wheels of the train.
Even very short prayers can be helpful in our daily prayer. In his book Toward God, Michael Casey, an Australian Cistercian monk, offers the 4th century monk, John Cassian, and the anonymous 14th century author of the Cloud of Unknowing, as proponents of the importance of short prayers. One of the reasons Cassian favored short prayers was the belief (still held in those early days) that short prayers didn’t give demons time to get into one’s soul. With longer prayers, they might sneak in during the pauses. So too, The Cloud of Unknowing advocates the use of short words, preferably only one syllable, such as God or love, because the intent of prayer put into that word could the more easily penetrate the cloud separating us from God.
In my own experience, I’ve found that shorter prayers prayed frequently can be much more effective than longer prayers. As a small boy, from the age of about three or four, until twelve, I was exposed every Sunday to the long pastoral prayers that were part of Presbyterian worship in those days. Those long prayers were to me just times for drawing pictures in the margins of the bulletin. I was occasionally taken to Sunday Evensong at the Cathedral in Spokane, which was my mother’s parish. From those days forward, I came to appreciate the shorter prayers of the Episcopal Church. To this day, I find that when I offer prayer to God – the concerns that are on my heart, my contrition, my penitence, as well as the offering of praise and glory – shorter prayers of just a few words help me to concentrate and focus my prayer. I wonder what short prayer might focus your life with God today?
You might also focus your daily prayer around the patterns of the day. From the earliest times, the daily prayers used by Christians probably have included some form of greeting the new day in the early morning, asking God’s blessing on whatever is to be done in that new day. For noonday prayer, they perhaps included some form of thanksgiving for food at meals, before or after the noon meal. And finally, there was likely a form of evening prayers: at the end of the day, a final prayer of confession of sins, thanksgiving for the day’s blessings, and a commendation to God’s mercy before sleep. Throughout these set times, there might be prayers of intercession and petition for the sick and the needy. Some form of this daily pattern has undoubtedly been used by all devout Christians down through the ages of history.
Of course, while words can be useful in prayer, words are not necessary to prayer, nor do words alone make prayer. True prayer is opening oneself to God with love as a response to God’s love for us. Our Rule explains that prayer is not just saying words: “Our prayer is not merely communication with God; it is coming to know God by participation in [God’s] divine life” (SSJE Rule, Ch. 21). This is important to remember in regard to repetitive prayers like the Jesus Prayer and the Rosary. If we pray with the intention of offering our words to God in love, and in union with the prayers of many other people throughout the world, and perhaps in other languages (when I say the Jesus Prayer, and many other private prayers, I do so in Japanese), then we are participating in God’s divine life. And so we continue our prayer without ceasing to this day.
Prayer, like love, is deeply personal because, like love, prayer is primarily about a relationship. We don’t fall in love with an idea but rather a person. In the same way, we don’t fall in prayer with an idea but rather God. As such, the modes of prayer into which people are drawn are different and varied. For some the way in which they can best experience and express their love of God is through their imagination and so they turn to Scripture and use their imagination to enter into the story through Ignatian Prayer. Others find a more contemplative approach, such as Lectio Divina, the way to feed their soul and nurture their relationship with the One whom they love. Some like to experience the grandeur of God in nature, and still others are drawn to the use of poetry or music as the way to kindle their affections and come to “feed on [God] in their hearts by faith with thanksgiving.” One of the ways in which I have come to express my love and desire for God and to know God’s love for me is through art, color, and imagines. For a number of years I would pray with a photo book of quilts on my lap. I loved to gaze at the colors, the patterns and the designs of these magnificent examples of handwork and ponder the mystery of creativity and through the creator of these quilts come to know the Creator of all. In the same way, the language of icons has lped me to know and express God’s love for me and my love for God.
Now while a quilt or a flower, an article from nature or a candle can be iconographic, helping us to focus our attention and draw us into a world beyond the item itself, an icon does something a little different because an icon makes present that which it represents.
When I was a schoolboy, growing up in Canada in the 1960’s every classroom had certain fixed features. Hanging somewhere in the room, and usually at the front over the blackboard, was a picture of Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh. These pictures were not interesting pieces of artwork. They weren’t there to brighten the room or instill in us a sense of history although to a certain extent they did both. They were there to represent something, something beyond themselves.
On another wall, usually opposite the pictures of the Queen and the Duke was a large map of the world. The dominant feature of this map was the color pink for every country that belonged to what was once the British Empire, and which had by the 1960’s become the Commonwealth of Nations. So large swaths of Africa, parts of North, Central, and South America, many Pacific nations, bits of Asia, and many of the islands of the Caribbean were pink.
These two things – pictures of the monarch and her husband and the map of the world – were there to make present what they represented: a sense of identity and history, a sense of belonging to something much larger, and a notion of law or, as the Canadian Constitution puts it: “peace, order and good government,” which, the map showed us, we shared with other “pink” nations around the world.
In the same way, an icon makes present that which it represents. It is not simply a picture but rather a sign, indeed a “sacrament” of what it represents. This understanding of icons borrows from the realm of sacramental theology. Some might say, looking to the elements of the Eucharist, “That’s just bread and wine on the altar.” But as Anglicans we also know that’s not the whole story. Yes, it is bread and wine, but it’s not just bread and wine. The Catechism defines the sacraments as “an outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.” In much the same way an icon is sacramental because an icon is an outward and visible sign of something inward and spiritual. It’s not just a picture or paint on a board. Rather, like those classroom pictures of The Queen, an icon makes present the figure it represents. This is not to say that Christ (or the saint) was not there before we brought the bread or the icon into the room, but now, suddenly, there is also a physical, tangible reality to that presence.
This sacramental reality is what makes an icon fundamentally different from other forms of religious art. Think, for example, of that sketch of Jesus that was so popular a few decades ago, The Laughing Christ. In the drawing, we see Jesus with his head thrown back in laughter. It’s a wonderful image from somebody’s imagination. Now, I’m not saying that Jesus never laughed; I’m not saying that Jesus didn’t look like that when he laughed; I’m simply saying that the purpose of that picture what to show what someone thought Jesus might have looked like laughing. An icon, on the other hand, is not an exercise of the imagination, but an exercise in re-presentation: making present for us the person represented. Because of this subtle but important difference, an icon does not emerge from an artist’s imagination, but from their prayer. The iconographer is also attempting to express what the tradition of the Church says about Jesus and so an icon is an expression of Truth. For these reasons icons are not imaginative works.
Like praying with Scripture, while we absorb the text or the image through the eye, the primary experience of praying with an icon is through the heart. While we gaze at an icon with our eyes, we absorb its significance with our hearts and so the experience of praying with an icon will yield varied gifts for different individuals. When I lead retreat groups, I often use Rublev’s icon of the Trinity as a focus for prayer. I’ll start by pointing out several features of the icon, and then we’ll spend about twenty minutes in silence. It always turns out that each person has focused on different elements of the icon, and thus has experienced different prayer. Some focus on the empty place at the table, feeling themselves pulled into that empty place and finding a place in the community of the Trinity. Others will focus on the little house in the background and end up meditating on the hospitality of God and being welcomed into the home of God. Other people look at the three angelic figures and ponder what angels of the Lord have come into their lives and what messages they have brought. Just as any icon is an expression of the iconographer’s prayer, articulated within the confines of the Tradition, so too will prayer with an icon be an expression of the gazer’s own prayer and their relationship with God.
As in any relationship, there is always more to experience in an icon. Icons don’t “run out” or become so familiar that we have “used them up.” After all, we don’t look to icons for a factual picture of Jesus’ face or a realistic depiction of the Jordan River; if we did, we could move on once we’d gained the information we came seeking. Rather, we come to icons to encounter the Presence which they represent. And there is always more to experience in that relationship. There is always more to learn. There is always more to share.
Eyes: The first place to look in an icon is at the eyes. As you sit down with a particular icon, ask yourself the question, “Where is the icon’s gaze drawing me?” What’s the focus of the eyes in the icon? Are the eyes looking straight out at you? What do they ask you to consider? Are they looking beyond you? Might there be something outside of you or in your past that you need to consider through the eyes of the figure in the icon? What is the expression within them? What emotion does the gaze raise in you? In some icons, you’re invited simply to share a gaze with the icon just as two lovers would: Each looks at the other. Gazing and being gazed at in return can be an experience of being loved.
Hands: The other place that I suggest people begin is to look at the hands, because the hands also will lead you. Are the hands pointing to something? Often it appears in icons of the Virgin that she is pointing to or offering her Son to you. In icons of Jesus he is sometimes pointing to a text of Scripture or his hand is raised in blessing or teaching. If his hand is raised in blessing, receive the blessing. If his hand is raised to teach ask what he might want or need to teach you.
Dialogue: Remember, you’re not praying to an icon. Rather, you’re praying with and through an icon. Say, for example, that you sit down to pray with an icon of the Beloved Disciple. You’re not praying to the Beloved Disciple, you are entering into a conversation with the Beloved Disciple and asking him, “What can you tell me? What can you teach me about being a Disciple of Jesus? What can you tell me about being beloved by Jesus? What was it like to be leaning on the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper? How can that be for me? How can I become a beloved disciple?” The icon becomes a chance for contact and conversation; it invites us into relationship. The icon of the Beloved Disciple isn’t simply a picture of John leaning on Jesus’ shoulder. It’s a representation of the real love that these two people had for each other. So praying with an icon of the Beloved Disciple is really praying about that kind of love, using it to help us pray for that kind of relationship with the Lord.
The Daily Office holds a special place in the Anglican and Episcopal tradition. From our founding in the religious and political upheaval of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Europe, daily prayer in the form of Morning and Evening Prayer has been one of our tradition’s main structural supports.
The first Book of Common Prayer was a revolution at the time it was published. By that time in the Church’s history, the number of books it took to celebrate the Offices had expanded dramatically. You needed a book with the prayers, a book with all the commemorations of the Saints for reference, a book with the listed readings, a Bible, and so on. To add to the weight of the books, they were expensive and in Latin. This was a time when there was not a lot of disposable money, and most people were not literate in their first language, much less in Latin. It was at least highly technical, and at worst exasperating, trying to celebrate the Offices liturgically. Then came the Book of Common Prayer. All of the materials one needed to liturgically mark the day with prayer were now in one volume. Add a Bible and you were ready for the Daily Office. Since 1549, the Daily Office has endured as a beloved piece of the Anglican ethos. That love and reverence was passed down from the Church of England to the Episcopal Church.
Historically, Morning and Evening Prayer were the primary acts of worship for Anglicans. Until the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century, Morning Prayer was the principle service in almost all Churches in the Episcopal Church, and it was not until the liturgical revival of the early twentieth century that weekly Eucharists almost completely replaced Sunday Morning Prayer. Choral evensong –especially as practiced in the Cathedral choir system of men and boys, later joined by women and girls, – was, and in many places still is, a mainstay of devotion. The Daily Office was the foundation for generations of Episcopalians.
Yet, the importance of the Daily Office is not just historical. In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer 1979, the high standing of daily prayer is made clear by its position in the book: on page 13, in a section titled “Concerning the Service of the Church,” we read that the Eucharist is the principle act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day (that is, Sunday) and, together with Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, these services are the “regular services appointed” for worship in this Church. Our Episcopal community proclaims that daily, liturgical prayer is of the same value as regular Eucharist. We consider the Daily Office so valuable that they are the first services set forth in the BCP. Before Baptism, the Eucharist, Reconciliation, before anything, there is the Office. Rite One begins on page 37 and Rite Two on page 75. Our placement of the Daily Office shows that our commitment to a relationship with God in prayer is paramount.
We set daily prayer at the beginning of our relationship with God because we know relationships take work, and that includes our relationship with God. As a community gathered by God, through the person of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we set the Offices first as a way of commending to each other the practice of taking some time out of every day to be with God, to meet God, and to see God at work in the world around us.
We meet God in many ways in prayer, but there are three ways in which I see God most clearly during the Daily Office. The first two were brought to my attention in a book called Liturgy for Living from the Church Teaching Series, written by Charles Price and Louis Weil. The first way we meet God in the Office is face-to-face. By taking some time out of every day, and out of the every-day, I make room in a busy and crowded life to look for God. I become habituated to looking for the face of Christ in my neighbors, to finding ways I can serve a world in deep need with the hands of Christ, and I begin to love with the heart of Christ. I see the light of God in others, and the Psalmist reminds us that in God’s light we see light.
The second way I meet God in the Office is through the reading of Scripture. Through regular reading of the Word of God, I begin to become obedient to the voice of God. I become obedient, not by simply doing what I’m told, but by getting to the root of the word obedient. It means “to listen deeply.” I stop hearing words and begin hearing God’s loving intention for my life. Even in the parts of Scripture that make me nervous or uncomfortable I can hear God calling me to be sensitive and discerning to the things that make me nervous and uncomfortable in my life. We begin to incarnate the Word of God to others.
The third place I see God most clearly in the Office is in those with whom I am celebrating the Offices. In my time at the Monastery as an intern, it became very clear to me that God joins us wherever we are in our day and in whoever is with us. At first I found encouragement in seeing the faces of the Brothers and the assembly that gathered to pray, but as I’ve prayed the Office alone on the Sabbath, on retreat, and since I left, I’ve found that I am still strengthened and encouraged even when I pray alone. I carry the community with me. I am in solidarity with others praying at the same time in different places. I am always joining my voice to that of the Communion of Saints, past, present, and yet to come. And they are always witnessing to me the Presence of God, active in my life and in our communal life. We are always together.
So I invite you to join in the practice of the Daily Office. Take some time out of the every-day. Take a little time to meet God where you are. Take a little time to bring God into the world and to bring the world into God. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore.
A conversation about vocation with Br. Curtis Almquist
Q: When did you first have a sense of your vocation?
I was twelve and I had a dream—a dream about monks. After all these years, I can still picture what I saw in my mind’s eye. I have no recollection, at that point, of ever having met a monk, nor having been to a monastery; I wasn’t raised in a church tradition that would have brought me into contact with either. But I remember thinking, at age twelve, “I want to be a monk.”
Now, I also wanted to be a professional baseball player; a missionary surgeon; I was fascinated with garbage collection; I wanted to work for the FBI; I presumed I would be married, simply because that was the culture in which I grew up. My experience in this is not particularly unique, since it’s not unusual for people to try on ideas of who they want to be, what they want to do. But most people probably don’t have monk on their short list. Yet that thought about being a monk never left me.
But becoming a monk is not unlike becoming married: you don’t just open up the phone book, close your eyes, let your finger fall on a name, and say, “Okay, here’s the one.” There’s chemistry involved between an individual and a monastery, just as there is in dating, or in contemplating a life partnership with another person. So coming to a monastery is a very specific relationship. And I had never met “the one.” That is to say, I had never met the Monastery. I visited lots of monasteries for retreats—and there was always a kind of homecoming for me in that experience—but because I hadn’t as yet met the one, since the right fit had never come my way, I assumed that it wasn’t going to. I had come to the conclusion that this deep interest in monasticism was not a vocation; it was an avocation—an informing part of my life, and a very important one at that, but not my life’s calling.
Q: What changed that belief?
I met up with SSJE. I’d determined that if monasticism was ever to come my way, it couldn’t be in a cloistered monastery, where I was tucked away without an active ministry. I knew that I have enough energy and extroversion in my mix, my soul would suffocate in such an environment. But likewise, I knew that I couldn’t be something like a Franciscan, where I would be praying on my feet. I would burn out; I’d have a shelf life of about eighteen months. I knew I’d need something in the middle of those poles, but I’d never found it. When I met up with a Brothers from SSJE while I was in seminary, for the very first time I thought, “Maybe this could be it,” because SSJE has a quite traditional, contemplative side—we pray the hours, we live under traditional monastic vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience—and we also have a very active ministry apostolate. Amazingly enough, SSJE’s balance was the very thing I was looking. I hadn’t known it existed.
Q: So how did you follow-up on that spark of interest?
I made a visit to SSJE—a secretive visit. I didn’t tell the novice guardian that I had interest in the community or in a vocation. I didn’t want to put the spotlight on myself. That would feel like pressure. I just wanted to do some sniffing around on my own terms, to get a sense of who these Brothers were.
During that visit, I remember that the first service I attended was Evensong. I sat in the Chapel increasingly dazed. After Evensong, rather than going with the other guests to the Refectory for the evening meal, I went back to my room in the Guesthouse and closed the door. And I sat at the edge of my bed and wept. I wept because I thought, “After all of these years…” I was thirty-four, and I’d had that dream when I was twelve. Now I thought, “After all this time, maybe this is it.” I was crying because I was full of awe at what I’d just experienced, but also out of fear and dread, because I didn’t know if I’d have the courage and inner resolve to carry through with this exploration, or to speak with my family and other friends, whom I thought would greet this interest in a very discouraging way. I didn’t know if anyone else in my entire life would understand this. So there I sat on the edge of my bed.
To be honest, I was half-hoping I would still be able to get this out of my system. I knew I needed to go home and take stock, which is exactly what I did. I was serving then in a parish in the diocese of Chicago, and quite happily, but there was something missing—a sense of belonging and a context in which to belong. God has created us all with this need to belong. We see a beautiful picture of belonging in the Trinity: this interrelatedness of the Godhead, the community of God. I knew I had quite a deep need—in some ways an almost desperate need—to belong, the whole of me. Yet what was increasingly clear to me was that this need to belong was a real paradox: as much as I needed to belong to someone, I also knew that marriage wouldn’t be enough, that one other person couldn’t be enough. Somehow or another, I knew this. And I suspect that there is some awareness of what I’ve just described in the common genes of the religious down through the centuries.
Q: So after that first visit, how did you finally make the decision to come to SSJE? Was it a struggle for you?
I just woke up to it. It was like waking up with a kind of clarity: “This is it.” It wasn’t as if I had a piece of paper with a line drawn down the middle, with Xs on each side for the advantages and disadvantages of coming. It was more like waking up to the rightness of this—the rightness of coming to test this desire out further. That’s the operative verb that’s used, down through the centuries, in the religious life: to test a vocation. The metaphor comes out of metallurgy. Testing is when metal is put into the fire to burn away the dross. The metal will either completely consume, because it is all dross—which can be painful and embarrassing, but clarifying—or conversely, the metal will be put into the fire, the dross will be burned away, and what is left is a truer form of what there was before. For me it was the latter.
I think of the process of discerning a vocation as God dropping these breadcrumbs on the path ahead, to lure us into places. I came freely and full of desire to be here. I very much came knocking at the door. Once inside the door, there’s an awakening of all the reasons—perhaps the real reasons—why God called us here. I had arrived at the Monastery with a few pairs of clothes and only a satchel of books—I’d traveled very lightly—but my soul was clogged with such an awful weight that I’d never imagined. I had a lot more stuff, especially around my identity and how I wanted myself to be perceived, than I’d ever realized. I was talking with a Brother some years later, about discovering that I had so much baggage. He said to me, “Curtis, that’s not baggage, that’s freight!” I become aware of this freight early into my time at SSJE. I was called into this monastic community in part to do that work of detachment and letting go. I couldn’t have known that before I came here (and if I had known, I probably wouldn’t have come). Yet I was called here because this is the place where I could be most real. Here I could become who I truly am. My calling here was about being really present to life—which is where God will be most present.
I can’t imagine any other way, any other context, in which my life could have unfolded. In that way I’m myopic. And we all are: we only know what we know. My experience is that nothing else would have been possible for me; yet I am also aware that I have made many mistakes in life; and I witness that other people have made mistakes in life. I would never want to imply that there is only one right way for each of us, and that if we don’t find it then we’re screwed. There is also the reality of redemption. Discerning a vocation is just a beautiful manifestation of God’s waiting on us—waiting, in the sense of readiness, waiting for the fullness of time; but also waiting in the context of a waiter, stooping to meet us where we are. That’s how God meets us: where we are. Discerning a vocation is the reality of life being able to be retrieved, or restored, or recovered from all the mixed bag that is life. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes not. For me, this was the right way. But God waits on us to help us find that right way where we are, every moment.
Q: What would you say to someone who did not know what was the right way for them?
This is a burning question for many people: How do I find the right way? And how do I know if I’ve found it? Here are several things:
First, God has created us out of love and God is well apprised of what we are, who we are, how we are. While every relationship with God is intimately personal, it’s not private. In the Christian tradition, there has always been an understanding that the context in which we live and breathe and have our being, is community. So don’t assume that you can do this alone. We need help when it comes to finding our way, hearing our calling and claiming it. Ask those who know you to help you in discovering your calling.
Secondly, there’s an insight from Dom Sebastian Moore, an English Benedictine who taught at Boston College. He says: “Desire is not an emptiness longing to be filled; desire is a fullness longing to be in relationship. Desire is love trying to happen.” I believe that God lurks behind all of our desires for what we want to be and become. Our desires are the breadcrumbs: God’s way of luring us. So take your interests and desires—whatever you find compelling, intriguing—quite seriously. There is something going on in our interests and desires that needs to be unwrapped, probably with some help. But no matter how disconnected or crazy our thoughts or interests may seem, if we go deep enough to the ground of our being, we will find God as the initiator of that desire.
Finally, how do you know when you’ve found the right fit? There’s an old monastic insight, “Freedom is found in the context of limitation.” I think that, however good and right the fit may be, it’s never going to be so perfect that it will keep us off our knees. This life is proleptic: a taste of what’s to come. It’s a real experience, but it’s never the whole deal. By God’s grace, there will always be things that are not perfect, not complete, which keep our hearts broken open and our souls on our knees, lest we confuse this life with eternity. So no matter how right the fit is—and this life at SSJE has been just a huge grace for me—it’s never going to be completely complete. And there’s something graceful about that kind of inner vacuum. We are a reflection of God, made in God’s image, and we are longing after, thirsting for, desiring, hungering for God. That desire will never be completely sated in this life—however good our various fits are; however good our belonging is. There will always be the longing for something more. And God is behind that longing, too. God is always More.