Brother James BSG: Vocation Story

The Brotherhood of Saint Gregory is a Christian Community of The Episcopal Church, its Communion Partners, and the worldwide Anglican Communion, whose members follow a common rule and serve the church on parochial, diocesan, and national levels. Members — clergy and lay, without regard to marital status — live individually, in small groups, or with their families. They support themselves and the community through their secular or church-related work, making use of their God-given talents in the world while not being of the world. The trust that all labor and life can be sanctified is summed up in the community’s motto: Soli Deo Gloria, To God Alone the Glory.

Martin Luther is recorded as extolling these words of the Patron of his order, Saint Augustine of Hippo: “He who sings, prays twice!” While I will never be remembered for the beauty of my singing voice, I will probably be remembered by its volume, if nothing else, and the spiritual value in “praying twice” has not missed my attention. Recently my order — the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory — held its Golden Jubilee, celebrating fifty years of vocational challenge and response, change and development since the founding of our community on September 14, 1969. I wasn’t present for the founding of my order — I came along eight years later — but I am so proud to have been a part of this group of Gregorian Friars for the last 42 years of my life. 

As I think back, the commitment to a regular prayer regimen was what sold me on making the choice to become a Gregorian Friar. I had met our Founder socially and we had become friends, and over time he responded positively to my endless questions about this “order” and this “Rule of Life” that he had written, and he illustrated those responses with descriptions of what his own prayer life and observances were like, and those descriptions began to make sense to me. Our Founder is a real-life person, a man who worked for a living and had likes and dislikes and a number of life’s experiences to draw upon and which formed his vision of how the religious life could work to the good of God and of real people, as well. Yes, this made sense to me. 

To be effective, a Rule of Life needs to take the Holy Scripture and the church’s teachings and distill them into a realistic and workable pattern for living one’s life while in the world, over the span of time, hour by hour and day by day. At the heart of our Rule of Life is the development of a relationship with God in Jesus Christ and with his people, the church, and that relationship is nourished by prayer, every minute, every hour, every day. In short, it is the realization that God is a part of each person’s essence in life, from life’s beginning to end, whether one acknowledges that presence or not. For most people, and certainly for me, this is quite a realization! Acknowledging the constant presence of God in the minutes and the hours of my day is not something which I came to easily, but it was something that I came to naturally, as I see it in hindsight. And once you recognize God’s presence in your daily life, it is not something which you will forget or dismiss again. 

As I often say, I cannot conceive of my life without the Rule of the Brotherhood as the roadmap for all of those years — the majority of my lifetime. I come from a family which regularly attended the local Presbyterian Church, and I don’t think I’m unique when I say that, except for that hour and a half on Sunday mornings, there was little to no reference to God, to Jesus or to the church throughout the rest of the week. I had an uncle who was an elder and a deacon in our Presbyterian congregation, so as you might imagine, whenever Uncle Paul came to visit, he always led the Grace before family meals together…but this was the only time anyone in my family ever said Grace. 

My mother also taught me to say my prayers at bedtime; the standard “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep” was the constant format, and since my mom was always present to make sure that I said my prayers, she would usually add specific intentions for her own aches and pains, which I would copy verbatim. 

My grandfather – a formal and reserved man in his late 70s when I was a boy – also went to church every Sunday, though for him it was Sunday School that drew him there. My Presbyterian congregation held a Sunday School class each Sunday for adults, though the men were taught separately from the women. My grandpa attended the John Knox Sunday School Class and occasionally he would take me with him. Here is where I met some wonderful “old-timers” — venerable old gentlemen who enjoyed recounting their experiences in The Great War, World War I, and some of them had the battle wounds to prove their participation. This camaraderie was really what my grandpa liked about belonging to the John Knox Class — that and the fact that Sunday School was over before the main church service began and he didn’t have to stay for the sermon and the chatting with church ladies! I see portions of his life playing through my own life today! But grandpa was on his own on Sundays and could leave when he pleased, as grandma was older and failing; I, on the other hand, had to wait for the rest of my family to arrive and then sit with them in a hot and dusty old church nave, struggling to stay awake as the preacher droned on and on. Perhaps you know this scenario, too? And other than my bedtime verse or the occasional Grace when in my uncle’s presence, God and faith played no part in my early life. At least, no part that I identified with at that time… 

Many years later I happened to attend a liturgy in an Episcopal parish with a friend of mine. I hadn’t been to a church service other than an occasional wedding or funeral in many years, though some of what I heard rang a familiar note, especially in some of the hymns. Hymns have a funny way of getting my attention, they always have, and some of the Episcopal hymns brought back to me a time of family, for Presbyterians revere many of the same hymns…though then, in my early 30s, those old hymns brought back memories of times of a simple faith surrounded by love. But the words to those old hymns jumped out at me in a way that song lyrics had never done. For now I learned that hymns are actually much more than nice little stories told in time with a tune. Now I understood that those hymns were really prayers to God and they recounted a life in history and in yearning for God’s love in one’s own time. 

Saint Gregory the First, The Great, was an early church leader at the end of the sixth century following the life of Christ, and one of the many attributes he is credited with is the invention of Gregorian Chant in the holy liturgy. He served God’s church at the dawn of the Middle Ages, yet his life can be appreciated in so many ways through the lens of history, culture and the worship of God. Saint Gregory was a monk and, while the content of his Rule of Life has been lost to the ages, it is assumed that he was either a Benedictine or a member of an order that followed a monastic lifestyle similar to Saint Benedict’s Rule. Gregory so admired Benedict’s model of religious life that he wrote the life of Benedict as his Second Book of Dialogues, wherein he captured the lives and the legends of many of the great saints and religious known in his time. 

I have gone far afield in trying to capture the story of my own vocation! The examples and the memories I have presented in this piece have each influenced my life’s journey, bringing me to where I am today, approaching the 42nd year of my Profession of Vows. I began with Saint Augustine’s attributed quote: “He who sings, prays twice” and I close with reference to two hymns which illustrate prayer as it has effected my own spiritual journey and were utilized in the recent Annual Convocation of the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory on July 6, 2019. The entrance hymn of the liturgy of the Golden Jubilee Celebration was Hymn 370 in The Hymnal 1982, which begins: “I bind unto myself today the strong Name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same, the Three in One, and One in Three.” Those words of joyously sung prayer undergird my own place in religious life. And at the Mission Service which concludes every Annual Convocation of the Brotherhood, we pray Hymn 618 as our Minister General sends us back into the world as missionaries of the religious life: “Ye watchers and ye holy ones, bright seraphs, cherubim, and thrones, raise the glad strain, Alleluia! Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers, virtues, archangels, angels’ choirs, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!” To God alone the glory!


To discover more go to the Gregorian website:

https://gregorians.org/

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