The Rest of My Life: An Interview about Vocation

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

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

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

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

Real Talk – Br. Lain Wilson

John 21:15-19

“How’re you doing?”

How do you usually answer this question? “I’m fine,” perhaps, or “I’m okay.” In our daily interactions we get asked seemingly polite questions like this over and over, and we are conditioned to respond politely.

They don’t want to know your whole life story.

Unless they do. But we can’t know their intention—unless they persist, unless they make known their intention.

“How’re you doing?” “No, really, how’re you doing?”

How do you feel knowing that someone else truly cares to know something true about you?

“Peter felt hurt because [Jesus] said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’” (Jn 21:17).

The passage is clear here that Jesus’s repeated asking is the cause of Peter’s hurt. But I think there’s something else going on beneath the surface. It’s not just that Peter is hurt because he is being doubted, but rather that there may be some basis for this doubt.

I think Peter’s hurt at the questioning reveals something true about him: that he has been hurting, that he has been grieving, grieving this whole time—grieving his failure, his cowardice in denying Jesus. Perhaps, that he has been questioning his own love of Jesus—or, rather, his own worthiness for that love. Read More

Troubled into Life – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

John 12:20-33

The arrival of Jesus’s “hour” is a pivotal moment of transition in John’s gospel. Like road signs advertising a major attraction miles in advance, significant mention has been made of this hour throughout the gospel. In chapter 2, when the mother of Jesus urges him to change water into wine at a wedding, he initially demurs, saying, “My hour has not yet come.” In chapter 7 and again in chapter 8, Jesus is teaching in the temple and the Judean authorities try to arrest him, but “no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come.” In chapter ten, we encounter a different kind of foreshadowing. Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, declaring, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Here in chapter 12, with the arrival of Greek Gentiles who wish to see Jesus, the much-anticipated hour has indeed arrived. Every word, gesture, and action of Jesus from this moment on will be charged with new meaning in light of his coming death and glorification.

But even as Jesus moves with confident purpose toward this climactic event, we receive a precious detail about his innermost experience that belies his calm exterior: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” The word translated soul is important here. It is psyche, from which we get our English word psyche. But it is the same word translated “life” a few verses prior, when we heard Jesus say, “Those who love their life [psyche] lose it, and those who hate their life [psyche] in this world keep it for eternal life.” The life that is clung to and lost is psyche. The life that is held provisionally, offered up, and thus transformed into something greater is psyche. This psyche is individual; particular; dependent; fragile; and ultimately comes to nothing without God. The greater Life which touches and transfigures it is, in Greek, zoe. When Jesus says, “I am resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,” this is zoe. My point here is that Jesus is troubled in his psyche – his individual, particular, dependent, and fragile human life. In this, he shares so much of what is ours.  Though he knew himself to be held within the greater life, the zoe of the Father, Jesus knew as well what it was like to feel troubled –  at the core of his finite being. Read More

Magnificat – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum

Luke 1:46-56

Today’s gospel lection from Luke is known as the Magnificat, the first word of the Latin phrase Magnificat anima mea Dominum: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” In the monastic setting, including this monastery, it is the song that Mary, the mother of Jesus, sings at each Evensong through us and with us. It is a song of praise to God, a song of celebration, a song of joy, and a song of hope. Each time we chant this ancient hymn, we cannot help but feel warm and fuzzy, envisioning Mary singing her Magnificat in the presence of her cousin Elizabeth. These two women share with each other the wonder of what God is doing in their lives: one pregnant way past her prime and the other pregnant way too early.

If we take a closer look, beyond any cliché sentiments that might tempt us to get stuck, we can discern that it is also a song about revolution. In order for God to fulfill His promises conveyed through the prophets, and for all nations to be blessed through the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, the oppression imposed by institutional religion and the Empire had to be overthrown. Reflecting on this passage, theologian N.T. Wright suggests, “Nobody would normally thank God for blessing if they were poor, hungry, enslaved, and miserable. God would have to win a victory over the bullies, the powerbrokers, the forces of evil which people like Mary and Elisabeth knew all to well, living as they did in the dark days of Herod the Great, whose casual brutality was backed up with the threat of Rome.” Read More

Fearing a Risky Call – Br. Lain Wilson

Genesis 46:1-7, 28-30
Matthew 10:16-23

Almost exactly two years ago, a long period of uncertainty ended in clarity. Clarity that God was calling me here, to this community. And while that clarity was a relief, what I didn’t expect was that that would be the easy part. Leaving my job, packing up my apartment, saying goodbye to my friends—all these practicalities showed that responding to God’s call was definitive, transformative, and risky.

Our Gospel lesson today sits in the middle of what’s called the “Missionary Discourse.” Jesus’s disciples have answered his call, and Jesus has told them that they will share in his ministry of proclaiming the good news, healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, and casting out demons. But he also tells them that they will share in his sufferings: betrayed and arrested, hated and beaten. These disciples are risking all when they say yes to Jesus.

What is an acceptable risk? In my own answer to God’s call, I didn’t face betrayals, beatings, or hatred of all. But I did face the unknown—what if this doesn’t work out? What if friends or family don’t understand what I’m doing? Part of me—a lot of me—was afraid of the unknown, afraid of what the answer to these questions might be. Is the risk worth it?

Jesus calls us to risk all, but he also offers us a simple assurance: “have no fear.” “Have no fear.” This is the same assurance God gives to Jacob as he uproots his family and all his possessions to join his son Joseph in Egypt: “Jacob, Jacob . . : do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there” (Gen 46:3).

All this may strike us as strange or difficult to live into. Fear is a natural, human reaction to risk. But I think Jesus’s point is not that we should be fearless, but that that fear shouldn’t dominate our lives and thoughts. “Jacob, Jacob . . . I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again” (Gen 46:4). We can feel fear, but not let it dominate because, if we live into God’s call to us, God has promised to be with us. “Have no fear. . . . I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 10:26, 20:20)

What is God calling you to today? How does saying yes to God unsettle your life, your sense of security? What are you afraid to risk? Hear Jesus’s words—“have no fear”—and know that he will be with you, always.

Amen.

Living stones – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Br. Geoffrey Tristram

1 Peter 2:2-10

We are in the Easter season. And for me it is the most exciting and dynamic season of the Christian year. I love the stories we read during these first weeks of Easter, of the Risen Lord calling men and women to follow him. Gathered behind locked doors, walking on the road to Emmaus, having breakfast by the lake side, Jesus appears, and says, today, ‘Come, follow me.’ I am the way, the truth and the life. Come, follow me.’

But what I love is that Jesus chose each person to follow him in a different way. He seemed to delight in all the distinctive gifts which his disciples had, even though sometimes they must have infuriated him! They were a really mixed bunch. Each of them was very different, but Jesus loved every one of them, and loved them for their differences.  For Jesus had called them for a purpose. He was building something very great. After the resurrection, he was building a Kingdom. St Peter, in a wonderful image, compares that Kingdom which Jesus came to build, with the building of a great spiritual house. And, Peter tells us, Jesus chooses each one of us, with our very different gifts, to be like living stones to be made part of the very fabric of this house.

I love this image, and it came back to me this year during the Easter Vigil. The vigil began in darkness of course, but slowly, as the sun rose, and shafts of light lit up the chapel, I was struck again by the beauty of this spiritual house. In particular I looked at the stones; how each one is different, different sizes and shapes. but skillfully chosen by Ralph Adams Cram to form this beautiful church. But then later in the Vigil we had the joy of baptizing Eva. During the baptism, the words which stood out for me were those lovely words spoken as her forehead was marked with the sign of the cross: ‘Eva, you are sealed with the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever’. I remember thinking that Eva and I and you and all who have been baptized, have been marked by Christ and chosen by him, because of our distinctive gifts and shape, to be living stones in God’s spiritual house, God’s Kingdom. Read More

The Courage We Need Now – Br. Lain Wilson

2 Corinthians 6:1–10
John 13:12–17

I don’t often think of Jesus’s courage, but that’s what has come to mind during my prayer with today’s Gospel passage. Knowing that his end was near, Jesus shows his closest friends how unlike their world his kingdom will be. The Teacher and Lord humbles himself and performs the work of a servant or slave, overturning all expectations and proprieties.

This act takes courage—courage that we can look to; courage, no doubt, that our departed Brother David Campbell looked to in his challenges of leadership. Facing an English Congregation that was ageing and declining in numbers, Father Campbell managed the withdrawal from the longstanding missions in India and South Africa, closed the Mission House in Oxford, and dispersed the remaining Brothers to continue the Society’s ministries as long as possible. His actions took courage, as did the humility to accept that the Society in England’s end might be coming. Read More

Clothe Yourself with Christ – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester,
Superior

Colossians 3:1-11

It is perhaps no accident that I have been thinking a lot about clothing in the last few days. Yesterday at Evening Prayer we had the wonderful occasion to clothe our brother Lain in the habit of the Society. Some of you were here for that, and others perhaps joined us remotely.

As I have said before, a clothing ceremony is probably the most dramatic of all the rites of passage that a Brother of the Society undergoes in his time in the community, except perhaps for the last rite of passage, his funeral. Unlike a profession, we actually see a man change, literally, before our very eyes.

Having put on, and taken off my own habit, thousands of times, over the last 30 years, it is this putting on of the habit for the first time, that I find so moving. It is especially moving watching him as he fumbles and searches the fabric for various hidden buttons, and snaps, and tries to wind and knot the cord with as much dignity as possible. Getting dressed, in a strange outfit, in public, with everyone watching, is actually much more difficult than you might think! In that moment, it is just an awkward and cumbersome suit of clothes. But the habit is much more than a suit of clothes. As we say in our Rule, [the habit] is dense with meaning, [and] a source of joy.[1]

As many of you saw, at one point in the service another Brother gives the habit to the postulant saying let the habit remind you of the baptismal gift of your union with Christ. You have put him on; he clothes you with his own self.[2] Read More

O Give Me Grace to Follow – Br. James Koester

Bernard Mizeki, Catechist and Martyr, 1896
Life Profession of Lucas Hall SSJE

John 1: 1 – 18

Some of you will know that Lucas had a birthday a few weeks ago. The day of his birthday, I came up behind him and began to hum Happy Birthday. He turned, pulled out of his habit his small pocket diary, opened it, and showed me the page for his birthday. It had one word on it. Old.

I don’t know about you, but the day Lucas was born, I was about to turn 35. I am not even sure that I can remember turning 30! And if 30 is old, I am curious to know what Lucas, you will think of yourself when you turn 65. No doubt you will feel a proper Methuselah, who Genesis tells us was 969 years old when he died.[1]

While I don’t know this for a fact, my hunch is that you Lucas, will be at least for today, the youngest life professed member of a monastic community in the Anglican Communion. That alone is worthy to note, but it is not in fact, what sets this day apart, because the story of how we got here did not begin a mere 30 years ago (no matter how long ago youmight think that was). Rather the particular story of why we are here, began many, many years ago.

I am tempted to say that today’s events were set in motion before the beginning of time, when there was nothing but the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.[2] In that time before time, when there was nothing, save only Word and God, everything was set in motion that would bring us here today.

But rather than rooting today’s profession in this time before time, I want to turn to another time, to a time within time.

Cape Town
9 March 1886

Dear Father Benson:

We had a very happy day on Sunday. As … the Bishop gave us leave to baptize our … catechumens before the … chapel was formally opened and licensed.

 Accordingly, we got the building ready and held the service on Sunday Evening….

Our baptismal tank holds about 400 gallons of water….

Father Shepherd has been training a choir, and we came into the chapel in procession singing “As pants the hart for cooling streams.” … The Chapel was very full of people… The choir took their places on one side of the baptismal tank, and the seven catechumens in dark blue garments reaching to their feet … on the other side… Everyone was, I think, impressed by the great seriousness and earnestness of the catechumens.

I stood at one end of the tank with Father Shepherd on one side, and John James the catechist on the other.

Each catechumen renounced the devil looking westward and confessed his faith looking eastward. Four of them made their answers in English, [and for] the other three [John James acted] as interpreter. After the interrogations were finished, I gave an address… Then followed the baptisms. Each catechumen knelt in the water and was immersed three times. After each one had been baptized, I led him up the steps of the tank, and Father Shepherd covered him with a white mantle, and then John James led him into the dressing room to dry himself and change his garments. While the latter process was going on, we sang two baptismal hymns… just as the second hymn was finished, the seven neophytes came back to their places in clean white suits. Then followed the signing with the cross, which I emphasized by putting round the neck of each one a copper cross, as a remembrance of the day. At the end of the service we sang in procession, “O Jesus I have promised, to serve thee to the end.”

The day ended up with a tea for the newly baptized. One of them certainly deserved his tea. They had all been exhorted to fast on the Saturday, but through a misunderstanding this one continued his fast all through Sunday, so that he had been nearly 48 hours without food.

One feels very thankful and at the same time anxious over these first fruits. I feel morally certain that they are at present in real earnest; but one knows how anxious the devil will be to sow tares as soon as possible. I hope that … you will pray for their perseverance. The names given to them at baptism were: Thomas Masrai, John Ntinge, James Mpilele, Bernard Mizeki, Nicholas Kossana, Peter Paliso, Francis Maimbanini.[3]

This was no ordinary baptism, and as we Brothers know, the name Bernard Mizeki is engraved in the annuls of our community history, for the baptism took place in our church in Cape Town; Father Puller who wrote the letter, and Father Shepherd who is mentioned, were early members of the Society; Bernard himself would go on to be the first missionary in what is now Zimbabwe, where he would be martyred on this day in 1896. Looking at the calendar to find a day for Lucas’ profession, the choice was obvious.

There are many aspects of Bernard’s story that inspire, but there is one which has the power to shape the rest of your life Lucas, as a professed member of our community, and which can give you a purpose, and a mission.

Near the mission hut where Bernard lived, was a grove of trees, where lived, according to legend, evils spirits. Consequently, the locals were terrified, and would not enter the grove. As a way for them to discover the God who is light, whom the darkness cannot overtake[4], Bernard cut crosses into the trees. He beckoned them to enter and see for themselves there was nothing to fear. That scene is depicted in our icon of Bernard.

Lucas, in that time before time, when there was nothing save Word and God, you were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love [and] destined … for adoption as his [son] through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.[5] In that moment you were endowed with a life, and a vocation, and a purpose, and a mission.

Lucas, today Bernard points to, and you are grasping that life, that vocation, that purpose, and that mission which is nothing less than beckoning people into an encounter and union with the living God.

Our Rule tells us that [our] mission is to bring men, women, and children into closer union with God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit that he breathes into us.  Christ is already present in the life of everyone as the light of the world.  It is our joy to serve all those to whom we are sent by helping them to embrace that presence in faith.[6] At the same time, Father Benson reminds us that the object of our association in a Religious Community is [not] to equip us to go out as missionaries. We do not come into our Community primarily in order to convert others, but rather with the desire, first of all, to be converted ourselves. Then, if by God’s grace, we are converted to Him, He may use us in missionary work, or in any other way that He pleases.[7]

Lucas, in the offering of your life to God today, as a witness to Jesus who is Light, and Life, and Word of God, you are, in a sense, standing in the baptismal tank at St. Philip’s with Bernard. Like Bernard, you don’t know where you will be led, but with him you are saying, O give me grace to follow. This life you are choosing may lead you to places of darkness, and fear, but with Bernard you are saying, O give me grace to follow. Wherever this life does lead you, like Bernard, take with you the cross of Christ, and as you cut it into those places of darkness you find along the way, pray with Bernard, O give me grace to follow.

Nearly 140 years ago Bernard, sang O Jesus, I have promised.[8] It is a hymn we often sing here are the monastery, for our life, and after today your life Lucas, is rooted and grounded in a promise to serve [God] to the end. It is a promise filled with grace and challenge. Like Bernard that promise may cost you your life, literally. But my prayer Lucas, is that this life for you, as it has been for many others, will be one of light, and life, and love. But when it isn’t, and there will be days when it won’t, and the darkness and demons seem to be everywhere, carve the cross of Christ into the nearest tree, and like Bernard, step into the darkness praying O give me grace to follow. Then you will find the light and the One who is the Light of God leading you on, and if you follow, others may too, and discover for themselves that life is full of meaning in union with God.[9]

For Bernard, carving those crosses into those trees was an act of faith and trust. He had found the Light of God for himself, and beckoned others to find that same light in the person of Jesus. Making your life profession in our community Lucas, is also an act of faith and trust, especially in one so young, and it inspires us [all] with awe and joy; [and] we wonder at the risk of such a decisive choice.[10] But by this free act of self-offering, God is carving anew the cross of Christ in your life. That cross, first carved on you at your baptism, beckons you, and all of us as well, into those places where we will find again the light, and life, and love of God.

The mission and purpose for your life which you are here accepting today Lucas, is to be like Bernard, and beckon us all to follow, and in following embrace the One who has called us all, from before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love, even as we pray, O give us grace to follow, [our] Master and [our] friend.

Lucas, may you find the grace to follow Christ as your Master and your Friend all the days of your life as a member of this community, and in following, remember to look back and beckon us to follow too.


[1] Genesis 5: 21 – 27

[2] John 1: 1 – 3a

[3] Parish Magazine, Cowley St. John, May 1886, page 2 – 3

[4] John 1: 4 – 5

[5] Ephesians 1: 4 – 5

[6] SSJE, Rule of Life, Mission and Service, chapter 31, page 62

[7] Woodgate, M.V., Father Congreve of Cowley, SPCK, London, 1956, page 20

[8] Hymnal 1982, hymn 655, words by John Ernest Bode (1816 – 1874)

[9] SSJE, Rule of Life, The Word of God in Preaching, chapter 19, page 39

[10] Ibid, Life Profession, page 79

Basil of Caesarea: Zealous Man of the Spirit – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Basil of Caesarea, Bishop & Theologian

1 Corinthians 2:6-13
Luke 10:21-24

By the mid-fourth century, a distinct Christian vocation had developed in the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern church that was both strange and increasingly common. Its adherents were known by many names: the servants of God, the single ones, the true philosophers, the ascetics, the zealous. Their ways of living, even at this early stage, were astonishingly diverse. They included men and women, peasants and the educated. Following in the footsteps of the holy virgins and widows of the apostolic age; galvanized by the committed sacrifice of the martyrs, they sought singleness of heart and the “peace which the world cannot give.” The core motivation that united them was a sense of urgent longing to cross over a frontier from nominal belonging onto a path of transformational belonging within the body of Christ. Today, we who are called monks represent one branch of this zealous family: as ordinary Christians who follow an ordered rule of life and prayer, under vows, in community. One of the first to follow this particular pattern was named Basil of Caesarea, whom we remember today. Read More