SSJE has been a beacon of prayer, hope, and joy for me for more than thirty years. In my first days in seminary, it was a place of solitude and respite amid the storms of learning. Serving the church as a young priest, I awaited the Cowley Publications catalog like gardeners look for the spring seed catalogs. A decade in New England reconnected me to the community through spiritual direction and retreat. Now, while a little farther away, the digital world keeps me connected and I count the days until my next trip to Emery House or the Monastery. Good worship, good counsel, good hope; I have received them all from the Brothers.
I have been a lay reader at my church for fourteen years. I also do pastoral visiting at seniors’ residences and nursing homes as well as with shut-ins. I am still on call to the Hospice of Windsor and Essex County, where I have volunteered for twenty-five years. Sometimes people ask me, “How do you do it?” I reply “with prayer and with God’s help.” As I have aged I have valued prayer more, and it is good to be connected with people who have a discipline of prayer. The Brothers’ words convey that. As a cradle Anglican from Canterbury Kent UK, I like that connection and I like the depth of thought in what I have read from the Brothers. The Brothers’ online teachings keep that connection for me.
At the suggestion of my parish priest, prior to my marriage, I attended the “first retreat in silence” at Emery House. My five-day experience changed my life in many ways, but most importantly put it in correct perspective. Learning to “be” was a huge risk in my mind. Being with myself, at peace, became comfortable as I discovered Christ within. Through prayer with the Brothers and some private counseling while on retreat, I realized that I am loved by God through Christ and that is the most important aspect of my existence. I am not alone! My prayer life was revitalized and following the Fellowship Rule has become a routine, a passion. My singing in my parish choir, vestry involvement, eucharistic ministering and my marriage took on new meaning. I now love my church and feel fully at home both here and with the Brothers and look forward to and long for my next visit.
I’ve known SSJE for over forty years and, in that time, I don’t think the community has essentially changed at all. The community has always been doing its utmost for its mission to witness to Christ for everyone who comes by, or who is invited, or happens in. It’s a wonderful thing that SSJE is so steady – so steadily aware of itself and its mission to be an inspiration, a guide, a sort of spiritual home for the laity.
And yet, at the same time, I’ve also always appreciated how SSJE is forward-looking. A document like their Rule of Life is an inspiration to those who want Christianity to be imaginative, innovative, and always looking for signs that God’s will might be different from what it has been heretofore. I’ve always felt well, if SSJE is doing it, it’s okay. I had a spiritual director elsewhere for about ten years, but when that ended, I did not succeed in finding another one. Instead, now I test things against what the monks are doing, or saying, or preaching. I have a number of sermons printed out from what the Brothers make available online. There are some that I return to on a regular basis because they seem to be so clear and so applicable to what I’m experiencing. In a way, SSJE has filled in as my spiritual director. Now with Brother, Give Us a Word, I look forward to contacting my “gurus” every morning when I start my prayer session.
When I wrote my will, I decided that I wanted to leave a specific percentage of my estate to charity. In addition to my local Episcopal church and school, I wanted to give to a select few national Christian communities that not only have had a profound impact upon my life but which also have a vision for the future of Christianity that comes closest to my understanding of what the Kingdom of God should look like here on earth. SSJE is one of those communities. First, it is a shining example of the both-and holy paradoxes of our Anglican faith: contemplation & action, traditional & progressive, liturgically rich yet simple, high tech & personal, and monastic & radically hospitable. Second, the Brothers’ outreach to individuals and communities across the Episcopal world through their on-site retreat offerings as well as their weekend retreats which they lead in faith communities is a uniquely powerful ministry that is essential to the long term health of The Episcopal Church. I was recently reminded of the Brothers when I read Eugene Peterson’s final paragraph to his commentary on Jesus’ Final Discourse, “The pattern holds: Whatever we do in Jesus’ name, we begin on our knees before our friends and neighbors and conclude looking ‘up to heaven’ praying to our Father. Washing dirty feet and praying to the Holy Father bookend our lives” (Conversations, p. 1672).
- Br. Geoffrey Tristram peers into the mystery of the Trinity to find a dance of love that involves us all.
- New and Abiding Friends of SSJE—Christina McKerrow, Constance Holmes, Alexis Kruza, Carol Petty, Michael Zahniser, Ross Bliss, and Nancy Barnard Starr—share their experiences of the Monastery and Emery House.
- Br. David Vryhof wonders “Is God Deaf?”
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For the past several years, I have had the privilege of working closely with Dick Mahaffy, a profoundly Deaf man who is studying for the priesthood at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. Dick and his life partner, Doug Woodworth, who is also Deaf, are members of the Fellowship of Saint John. This year Dick and I have done two independent studies together: during the fall semester, we studied “Deaf Theology,” and in the spring, “The Pastoral Care of Deaf People.” As is so often the case, I’ve received as much as I’ve given in this relationship, and learned as much as I’ve taught.
In the fourth chapter of the Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, we express how and why we understand that all human beings are called to live in community: “In community we bear witness to the social nature of human life as willed by our Creator. Human beings bear the image of the triune God and are not meant to be separate and isolated.” All of us, as human beings, are called to share in communities of one kind or another, because we have all been made in the image and likeness of God. And God is community: “The very being of God is community; the Father, Son and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love.”
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.