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).
Q: When did you first have a sense of your own vocation?
I grew up in the age of cheap gasoline. There was a gas station down the street from where I lived, and I have a distinct memory that the gas was twenty-nine cents a gallon. When gasoline was cheap, a favorite family pastime was to go for rides. Sometimes our rides took us to attend Vespers at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, which was about forty miles from where I grew up. This was still in the day when the Roman Catholic liturgy was in Latin, and there was an area in the chapel that was screened in with curtains, because the monks were still under strict cloister. I remember that, from the extern area, you had a view of the altar but couldn’t see the choir monks. I was fairly small; I could peer through the opening in the curtain.
When I had my first thought about being a monk, I was probably about seven years old. I remember looking through the curtain down the nave of the abbey church, which seemed huge to me, to where I could see the monks at the far end of the choir in their white robes. There probably were about seventy monks at the time, so there were a lot of these white bodies down at the end. And I just remember having the thought, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.”
When I was a young chorister in my parish, I became fascinated by the church’s history and very caught up in its worship. Although only half aware of it at the time, I do remember being very drawn to images of monastics as depicted in books or films. When my brothers and I would play together, they’d always want to be the knights, and me the friar! Also early on, growing up on Nantucket Island, I became aware of a contemplative component to my emerging personality. I spent much time on my own, in solitude and communing with God in nature. Often I had a sense that I was being called to a different kind of life. And hearing the gospels, I knew that Jesus invited people to a different way of being in the world, renouncing individualism and violence, and dedicated to community and mutual love.
My parents and family are devoted Christians. I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church, a predominantly Dutch, Calvinist denomination. My sister and brother and I attended Christian schools, and our family was very active in the church. From my early years I was formed towards a life of service. My whole sense of calling and my devotion to Christ grew out of my upbringing in that context.
Obviously monasticism wasn’t part of the religious culture in which I was raised (in fact, it’s still almost unheard of for someone from that tradition to end up living in a monastery). I first encountered the vowed religious life when I was teaching at the Rhode Island School for the Deaf, where I met a Dominican nun and a Franciscan friar who worked with the Roman Catholic students at the school. I was moved by their lives of service. I was also inspired by hearing the story of St. Francis of Assisi for the first time, and by reading about Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was in the news during those years.
When I look back on my life, I can remember a moment in seventh grade when I saw in a church history textbook a picture of a monk coming down the stairs from the dormitory to the chapel, candle in hand, to pray the night Office. I remember that picture to this day, and how I was mysteriously drawn to it. Many of us Brothers can recall moments like these, moments that pointed the way towards our future vocation. We didn’t think anything of them at the time, but they seem meaningful now, because they suggest that some part of us was drawn to this life even at an early age. Some part of me resonated with that image even before I knew what a monastery was.
How did that initial resonance develop into a sense of being called to be a monk?
The Dominican nun I knew from the Rhode Island School for the Deaf suggested that I go on a silent retreat. She took me to the La Salette Shrine in Attleboro, Massachusetts, a retreat center just north of Providence. During that retreat (my first silent retreat), I had a memorable spiritual experience: I remember standing in a field of tall grass on a sunny, cloudless afternoon, watching the wind move gently over the grass. As I watched the tall grass bow and bend gracefully before the wind, there came to mind a verse from Psalm 73, where the psalmist says to God: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you” (v. 25). In that moment, I felt touched by God. I felt that God had awakened in me a desire to love and serve God above all else.
Both of these experiences – seeing the picture of the monk and then this experience in the field – spoke to the part of me that wanted to give myself to God as completely as I could. Monastic life seemed to me one way in which someone could do that. Missionary life was another, which is part of the reason I ended up going to the MICO Teachers’ College in Kingston, Jamaica, where I trained teachers for the deaf for three years.
Around the time I was deciding to go to Jamaica, I came to realize that there were religious orders in the Anglican/Episcopal Church. I decided to become an Anglican. I joined St. Andrew’s Church, Half Way Tree in Kingston and was confirmed. The rector of that church, a wonderful priest named Herman Spence, was a member of the Fellowship of St. John in England. He is the one who actually introduced me to SSJE and its life and ministry. He also put me in touch with Bishop Alfred Reid, then the Bishop of Montego Bay, who served as my spiritual director for three years. Both of these godly men were extremely influential in shaping my religious vocation.
I had visited two other religious communities in the Episcopal Church before I learned about SSJE: the Franciscan community at Mt. Sinai on Long Island and the Benedictine community at Three Rivers, Michigan. Those two orders are about as far apart as you can get. The Franciscans are very active and mission-minded; they sometimes hold full-time jobs outside the community. The Benedictines at Three Rivers are very contemplative, and pray an expanded Daily Office that begins at 4:00 in the morning. I kept bouncing between these two alternatives, wondering, “Which of these is right for me?” Fr. Spence and Bishop Reid listened to me and told me about SSJE. They said SSJE was somewhere in the middle of that spectrum: more monastic and contemplative than the Franciscans but more active in ministry and outreach than the Benedictines. When I finally had a chance to visit SSJE, I saw that balance; it was a key factor in my being drawn to this community.
I think people come to our community for any number of reasons: some because they’re drawn to our mission, some because they want to live in community with others, some because of their commitment to prayer. I was drawn chiefly by the desire for prayer. I can remember, years earlier, going to the pastor of the evangelical church I belonged to in Rhode Island and asking, “How can I learn to pray? Is there somebody here that could teach me to pray?” (That was long before I learned about the ministry of spiritual direction.) I had a hunger for prayer and appreciated how clearly SSJE’s mission grew out of its life of prayer. That was very important to me.
How was that first visit to SSJE?
Finding a community is really like developing an attraction to another person. When you find someone that you like and that you feel comfortable with, you have a sense that you fit together. A lot of Brothers say that when they first came to the Monastery, they somehow felt at home or felt a sense of rightness – a good fit. I felt that, too. I was strongly attracted to this particular community. The building was beautiful, and the location was amazing, but it was really the people who were here – Tom Shaw and James Madden and Paul Wessinger, among others – who made the difference. On that first visit I was only in Boston for a day; I didn’t even stay overnight, but it was enough. I began a correspondence with James Madden (then the Novice Guardian) from Jamaica, and it just felt increasingly right. I knew that this was the Order in which I wanted to try my vocation. I felt free to make this kind of radical choice of my life. So I made up my mind to come.
The moment you step across the threshold of a monastery – (and I think we Brothers experience it again when we make life vows) – you have a wonderful sense of freedom. You don’t have to wonder anymore about option A or option B or option C. You know that this is the option; you’re going with it. There’s a delightful sense of freedom and release that comes in making that decision. It doesn’t always last – sometimes you return to a place of uncertainly – but it’s there at the beginning.
Did you struggle along the way from your initial entry to your profession in life vows?
I struggled a lot, actually. I’m the only Brother here now who has left the order and returned again. From the start, my novitiate was quite rocky, in spite of the feeling of ‘rightness’ about the decision. My parents were opposed to this choice at first, which was difficult for me, because they knew me better than anyone else. I valued their opinion, and they felt this was wrong for me. I think they were disappointed that I was setting aside my training and experience teaching the deaf. Gradually, as they got to know the community over the first years that I was here, they became more and more supportive. But initially it was difficult for them, and it was difficult for me because of that. I wasn’t sure if this was the right path for me or not. The novitiate is a lot like trying something on: You think, “Well, it sort of fits. It’s not quite perfect, but is it good enough? Should I look for something else?” This life seemed like a good fit for me on so many levels, but there were also parts of it that didn’t seem to fit me very well. I struggled most with the desire to be closer to people who were materially poor. And I struggled with the issue of family. I wanted a family and children of my own and wasn’t sure I was ready to choose life-long celibacy. Those were the two main things I was struggling with as I went through the postulancy, the novitiate, and initial vows. I even extended my initial vows for an extra year. Finally I made the very difficult decision to leave the community because I just didn’t feel ready to take life vows. I didn’t feel a sense of freedom around that decision.
How did you end up returning to the Monastery?
After I left, I completed my seminary training at Duke Divinity School and at the General Seminary in New York and then took a position as a deacon in the Diocese of Michigan, working in a small parish on the eastside of Detroit, in a very poor neighborhood. These were very rich years for me as I grew into the new identity of being a deacon and priest. When my contract came to an end there, I had to discern what was next. The draw to SSJE and monastic life was still there. I felt that, given my temperament and my particular gifts, this was the best fit for me. I believed that I would be more effective at SSJE than I would be as an inner-city parish priest.
So I asked the community if I could come back. At first they said no. I had been gone for almost four years. I wrote a letter to the Superior and explained why I thought that my experience coming back would be different from my earlier experience. I explained that I’d sorted through a lot of the things I was struggling with, and I now felt ready to make the commitment to life vows. He wrote back, saying that the community had read my letter and agreed to let me come for a visit. I visited in September 1994, and rejoined the community in January of 1995. Three years later, I was allowed to make life vows. I’ve been here ever since.
Do you think that everyone has a vocation to which they are called?
Definitely. And I don’t think there’s just one path for each of us; I think there are many possible paths. There were any number of paths I could have taken. I could have remained a teacher for the deaf. I also think back on those days in Detroit: I did some useful things in that parish and contributed in good ways; I could have gone on doing something like that. I could also have been a priest for a congregation of the deaf. I’m aware that I’m one of the few Episcopal priests who is fluent in sign language and is familiar with deaf culture. I think I could have been a good husband and father. I think I could have been happy and could have been used by God in any of those paths. Discernment is a matter of figuring out who we are and what’s important to us, as well as what’s important to God. In discernment we identify our likes and dislikes, our talents and gifts, what gives us a sense of purpose and meaning in life, what is most life-giving for us, and what taps into the passion in our heart. In terms of those questions, I think this life fits me as well or better than other possible paths I could have chosen.
Can you offer any words of encouragement to those struggling to discern which path to take?
I always tell people in the discernment process: God can work with us in so many ways; don’t let yourself be paralyzed by anxiety or fear that you might make a wrong choice. Weigh your options and go ahead and make the best choices you can, trusting that whatever choice you make, God will be able to work with you, in you, and through you in that setting and context. Don’t be afraid about having to get it right. Whatever you choose, God will work with your choices. God will never forsake you.
As you look back now, what stands out among the greatest blessings of the path you have chosen?
It is a privilege to live this life. It’s a privilege to gather with a community of Brothers who are committed to one another and the Gospel, to pray together several times a day. It’s a privilege to be able to celebrate the Eucharist as frequently as we do, six days a week. It’s a privilege to hear sermons from so many different voices in the community – I’ve grown so much from listening to different preachers here. It’s a privilege to welcome all kinds of guests, a wide spectrum of people, to our Guesthouse and Chapel. It’s a privilege to be able to teach and to preach about Christian faith and to draw others to God. It’s a privilege to be supported by this community, to feel known and loved, and to enjoy a sense of belonging. It’s a privilege to have space and time in the day that’s reserved for growing in intimacy with God. It’s a privilege to go out from this community on mission and to go to different parishes and dioceses and countries and seminaries. I’ve traveled so much and met so many different people in so many different contexts that have enriched my life. I love the rhythm of our day; I love the order of the life; and I love the community’s flexibility and openness to the Spirit. There are so many things that I love about this community and about this life. It’s a very good fit for me in terms of who I am. It’s been a very good life for me. I am very grateful for it.
When did you first experience a call to the monastic life?
My call to the monastic life was actually my third experience of being called to a vocation in the Christian life. It was preceded, first of all, in my mid-thirties, by a call to be a Christian. I’m an adult convert to Christianity, baptized at thirty-five. My second call was a vocation to the priesthood. Then a few years later came a sense of vocation to the monastic life here at SSJE.
Describing with a very broad brush: I was raised in a church-going family in a small Midwestern town, Coal City, Illinois, where we attended a Presbyterian church on a regular basis and were active in the congregation. By the time I reached my mid-teens, I felt like I needed to distance myself from the church. I wasn’t sure what I believed. Eventually, I stopped attending church or thinking of myself as a Christian.
After I left my hometown in 1967, to go to the University of Illinois to be a music student, I became very involved in studying music – in a sense, that was my religion for quite a while. Then, little by little, bit-by-bit, I began to feel a kind of magnetic attraction to something out there, though I wasn’t sure what that something was. So I began a kind of wild and crazy exploratory period during my college years. This period took me to some very strange (and sometimes wonderful) places: I dipped into Eastern religions and theosophy, tried out a whole range of things having to do with the occult and paranormal, attending séances, getting into astrology and numerology and all kinds of very exotic things on this spiritual quest.
In my early thirties, I made a trip to France for a vacation and was particularly attracted to the churches, as anyone would be in a country like France, where there are such wonderful old churches to visit. While in the city of Arles, in the South of France, I visited Saint Trophime, an ancient church, dating back in parts to the fourth or fifth century. I happened to be there just when a baptism was taking place.
As I watched this baptism, something came over me that felt tremendously powerful – so powerful I had to grab onto something to keep standing up straight! In that moment I knew that I needed to be baptized and join the Church.
What did you do with that urgent sense of call?
Back at home I began to raise my antennae to see what I could sense in the environment around me. I still wasn’t sure where I would land, because I didn’t feel at all drawn to the tradition in which I’d been raised. I felt somewhat drawn to Catholicism. Because my adult life had been spent in the study and teaching of music, I knew that wherever I landed would need to take the arts and beauty seriously. But I struggled with the top-down approach to authority in the Roman Catholic Church. To make a long story short, I found the Episcopal Church. On Christmas Eve, in Champaign, Illinois, it all came together in a very wonderful and marvellous way, and I instantly felt at home there. I knew that this was a place in which I could be a Christian. A few weeks later, in late February 1986, I was baptized and became a Christian – and a member of the Episcopal Church as well.
About the same time – actually a few weeks before I was even baptized! – I had begun the discipline of praying Morning Prayer using the Book of Common Prayer. One day, I remember, I was praying “The General Thanksgiving” that comes at the end of that service, meditating on the words about service: “that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service.” I was pondering what that might look like for me. And in a flash, in a moment, the thought, the words, the idea, came to mind that I should become a priest.
The first call, the call to be a Christian, was slow and incremental: a gradual increase of attraction through years of wandering and looking and searching, and then a realization that I needed to be baptized and to become a Christian.
My sense of vocation to the priesthood was very different because it was so instantaneous and unexpected. I didn’t have a conscious sense of building up to this. It seemed out-of-the-blue and unreasonable to want to be a priest without even being a baptized Christian. (Though even that is not unprecedented: St. Ambrose was not baptized when he was elected Bishop of Milan.) Yet in this second sense of vocation to the priesthood, there was something so clear, something suddenly so evident and so powerful, I never doubted its validity. I knew, as surely as I knew that the sun was shining, that this was my vocation, and that all I had to do was keep going through doors as they opened and I would become a priest. And that is what happened.
When I think back on the experience of that moment, I think of a piano string being tuned. If you’ve ever heard that happening, you’ll know what I mean. There’s a wrench that tightens the bolts that hold down the strings, and as the tuner turns the bolts, the string goes flat, goes sharp. The sound wobbles around the true pitch, and then suddenly the true pitch rings out in a very clear, bell-like way. And that’s it. You know that the note is now in tune. That’s how it felt to me, after so much wandering and searching and seeking and going this way and that way: It felt in that moment like I was perfectly in tune with what I was meant to do with my life.
So when did you experience your third call, the call to become a monk?
After seminary, I worked in a parish for a while as a priest. During that time, I was asked by a friend to preach at his wedding in New York. As I arranged to make a trip to New York I thought I might as well make a retreat at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. I loved going for retreats at a monastery in Michigan. But while I had a deep appreciation for the monastic life from that experience, I didn’t have a sense of vocation to that particular community.
After a few days on retreat at SSJE, I thought, “Maybe there’s something here for me. This might be a possibility.” I knew already that I had a strong attraction to the monastic life, and now I could see how I might live out my baptismal vows and my priestly identity in this place, with this community. So I began a correspondence with Br. Curtis, who was the novice guardian at the time. Following my retreat in July of 1996, I came for an inquirer’s visit that October and then came as a postulant in June of 1997.
This has been a different experience of vocation from the previous two because it’s been a kind of ongoing wrestling match with God. Looking back now, I have no doubt that I’ve made the right choice. I do have a vocation as a member of this community. But with this call I haven’t always had the clarity I did with my previous senses of vocation to be a Christian and a priest. I’ve had to struggle with this call much more. Once I was beyond the initial stages of wonderment about being here, once the realities of daily existence began to sink in, there certainly were times when I began to wonder, “Have I made the right decision?” Of course, I’m still here and I have the sense of this being right.
The point I’m making is that when we talk about having a sense of vocation, we can be talking about very different experiences. I, for one, have experienced a variety of calls: first the gradually increasing gravitational attraction experience, then the sudden insight experience, and finally the Jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel kind of experience.
It’s important for people to know that vocation can be played out in many different ways. There’s no wrong way or right way; it happens as it happens, and it can happen in any number of different ways.
What’s been the most rewarding thing for you about accepting the call to be a monk?
The single most gratifying thing is probably living a life rooted and grounded in a regular practice of corporate prayer. This is a wonderful place in which to be a priest, partly because of the care and skill that goes into our liturgical life. We put a tremendous amount of thought and energy into liturgy because we love it. So it’s a very gratifying place to celebrate the Eucharist. I find this an especially wonderful place to be a preacher. In a parish, a preacher has to be all things to everyone and try to meet a very wide range of needs, to speak to a wide range of people. Since we have many Brothers preaching, each one can develop his own unique voice, without feeling the need to be all things to all people. So I’ve found tremendous freedom in this context to develop my own voice as a preacher without being anxious about whether it’s speaking to everyone all the time. One of my Brothers affectionately has called my preaching eccentric, and I take that as a great compliment. I’m glad to be able to be in a place where I can be an eccentric preacher.
Do you think that everyone has a vocation?
It depends on how we understand “vocation.” If we’re talking about a spectacularly dramatic moment when we experience God calling us, a kind of Damascus Road experience, I’d say that’s comparatively rare. I suspect that the most common sense of vocation is one that develops over time, which may also involve a certain amount of struggling. In retrospect, even my sudden sense of vocation to the priesthood, which in the moment seemed unexpected and unprecedented, may have been a more organic movement in the trajectory of my life. A sense of vocation forms around what we might call “the heart’s desire”: what we truly desire for ourselves in God, for those around us, and for the world. I suspect that our own deepest desires are most often the strongest indication of vocation. We need not wait for or expect a call that seems to come from outside of us, but rather be attuned to that which is becoming alive within us.
When did you first begin to have a sense of your vocation?
Even as a little kid, I somehow or other knew that I wanted to be a priest. I used to have a very dark blue wool dressing gown, which I would wear backwards as I wandered around the house pretending to be Mr. Pasterfield, the rector of our parish. I couldn’t have been more than maybe six or seven years old. I remember saying to my mum, down in the laundry room, “When I grow up I want to be like Mr. Pasterfield.” So, from childhood, I always felt attracted to the priesthood, and that attraction never really went away.
My awareness of the religious life came a bit later. While I knew that there were nuns in the Anglican Church – in fact I’d been taught nursery school by a sister of the Sisterhood of Saint John the Divine (SSJD) – it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned that there are monks in the Church as well. I learned that through an advertisement in our church newspaper for a summer vocations program at SSJE’s Mission House in Bracebridge. Though I ended up not being able to attend that program, I finally made it to Bracebridge for a reading week when I was at university. During that initial visit, I was really drawn by the silence, the prayer, and the worship. I came away from that first experience thinking, “I could do this.”
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.
When I was about fifteen, somebody I knew mentioned that they wanted to be a monk, and I remember how – though I didn’t even go to church at that time – something about that struck me very deeply. Something inside me said, “That’s what I want to be.” I didn’t really even know what a monk was, but I had this extraordinary sensation that that is what I wanted to be.
I’ve come to realize that vocation is not something God suddenly presents you with, or ‘zaps’ you with, but is rather that which lies at the deepest core of your identity. And there are moments in life when something touches that core, and it resonates. It can happen almost unconsciously. When I heard that person say they wanted to be a monk, I didn’t know much about monks, but something told me, “Oh, that’s what I want to be.”
Q: What did you do with that impulse?
Nothing. After the impulse came, I forgot all about it. The time wasn’t right then; it was just an intimation of something that would bear fruit much later in my life. I didn’t even remember the experience until much later.
As I got older, I had a profound experience of religious awakening, and soon after that a very strong sense of vocation to be a priest. I remember spending an entire night in prayer, as it were, wrestling with God, and saying “I don’t want to be a priest, this is ridiculous.” But by the morning I had said “Yes” to God, and I went to talk that same day to a vocations director about ordination.
As all of this was going on, I started reading Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, and Saint Augustine’s Confessions, and I slowly became aware that my deepest desire in life was to deepen my relationship with God. As that relationship deepened, and as I began to read monastic literature, this core of my being was touched again, in a profound way, and I sensed a real thirst to become a monk. I tried to put it out of my mind, and I remember telling God, “No, I’m not going to do that, but I will be a priest.” Yet I began to visit monasteries, particularly in France and Belgium, and I felt drawn to one Benedictine monastery in Belgium, called Chevetogne. A few years after I was ordained a priest, I went there to test my vocation and spent a year as a novice.
Q: So how did you end up coming to the Monastery?
After I left Chevetogne, I spent many years working as a parish priest. When I thought about the religious life, I told myself that I had tried it and it hadn’t worked. In fact, I remember saying to God. “Well, can you leave me alone now?” In many ways, I thought that it was over, that I must not in fact have a vocation to be a monk. While I still occasionally went on retreats, for many years I really tried not to think about the monastic life, because it was unsettling to me.
Then, in 1997, I decided to visit a friend in Washington D.C. and to make a trip down the East Coast. Someone said to me, “Why don’t you stay at the Monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge – it would be an interesting place to visit.” So I went on this trip to America, and came to the Monastery. I went into the Chapel on the day of my arrival, for Evening Prayer, and to my amazement I had a powerful experience of ‘coming home.’ I just knew that this was it. The deepest part of my being had been touched again, but in a really important and decisive way. But I remember thinking to myself, “How can I be home? I’m thousand of miles from home, in a strange country.” And yet it was absolutely clear to me that, somehow, this Monastery was the place I had been looking for. I’d never known it existed and now I was in it, and I thought to myself: “I have come home.”
There’s a real particularity to being called to the monastic life: You’re never just called to be a monk, but you’re called to be a monk in a particular monastic family. So while I’d visited many monastic communities, in England and Europe, some really lovely communities, I didn’t feel that I was called to any of them. Then when I came to SSJE, I knew that this was the family that I was called to join.
Q: What was the time like between that moment of clarity and coming to the Monastery as a postulant?
I went back to England and began to think that all of this was impossible. How could I leave my country, my family, my job, to go and live thousands of miles away? Moreover, I was actually very happy as a parish priest. I was enjoying my life. In retrospect I think that it’s much better to test a monastic vocation from a place where you have a genuine choice, a place where you’re choosing to test this vocation even though you are happy in your life and work. I think God honors that sort of choice. So while I loved my life as a parish priest, I also knew that, at the Monastery, my deepest core had been touched. And the time was right; I was mature enough to make this step.
Timing is very important in voca vocation. I often tell people who are interested in the monastic life that vocation is like a fruit on the tree. You don’t want to pluck it too soon, but you don’t want to leave it too late. You need to know the time to pluck it. Knowing the right time is a matter of prayerful discernment, of patiently and slowly developing your relationship with God, so that you can hear God prompting you when the time is right. And sometimes that takes a long time, since it happens in God’s time. We often can be very impatient, but God has lots of time.
Q: Once you got to the Monastery, did you ever struggle in accepting your vocation?
Some of my early challenges had to do with living in a foreign country. I had assumed that because English is spoken here and in England, it would be easy to adapt. But it was quite challenging really, and I got very, very homesick.
And then, the experience of monastic formation itself is very challenging. It asks you, in many ways, to lay down your life. While there’s the promise of receiving it back in a new way from God, it is a painful challenge. As a novice, I struggled every day. It was very difficult, and I often wanted to leave, to be honest. But that struggle taught me to live day-by-day, to take each day at a time, and to say “Yes” to God for that single day. It’s not helpful to be constantly asking yourself, “Can I do this for the rest of my life?” During the time of formation, you learn that you’re only called to say “Yes” to God for today.
Q: Do you think everyone has a deep purpose, something that they were made to do?
I think each of us is unique and created by God for a particular purpose. Each of us has a vocation in life, and we so often know that we’ve discovered it when we experience that feeling of ‘coming alive.’ As Thomas Merton describes it, there are these embers of vocation inside each of us. Occasionally, when we brush up against that purpose for which we were created, those embers are fanned and burst into flame. We have the experience of being fully alive. When I got to this Monastery, I felt an incredible sense that this is what I was made to do in life; that this is who God made me to be; that this is where God was calling me to be. I couldn’t think of anything more wonderful than to spend all my days worshipping and deepening my relationship with God in this place.
Q: What advice you would give to someone who was trying to discover his or her vocation?
Don’t be anxious: God never stops calling us. Stick to your prayers and stick to your ideals. God never gives up on us and God never stops loving us, really.
Sometimes we experience vocation as disturbing us. You know, my experience of coming here to SSJE was like an experience of falling in love, and like falling in love, vocation is not always very convenient! I had to uproot everything. But God loves us too much not to disturb us. God wants us to dive down deeply into life, so that we experience life profoundly and abundantly.
God loves us too much to allow us to live our lives in the shallows. In fact, there are some words about this which are very precious to me, and which actually made me come here to the Monastery when I’d all but given up on becoming a monk. The words were given to me by a wonderful nun I used to visit in Oxford. I was telling her about my struggles, and she sent me a card with these lines from Julius Caesar:
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows . . . .
The lines are about the importance of catching the tide. You have to go now, because if not, you’ll miss the chance and risk spending the rest of your life in the shallows. That’s what propelled me here: I read those lines and thought to myself, “If I don’t do it now, then I’m never going to do it.” My fear of coming here was very real; I was quite frightened. But I was more frightened of not coming, of missing my life, of living the rest of my life in the shallows. I really did have this sense that if I didn’t do this now I was going to miss living my life to the full. It felt like a real question of life and death, a divine imperative: “I must go. I have to do this. This is my vocation. It is most deeply who I am.”