I blame Thomas Merton for my monastic vocation.
It was 1992 and I was a corporate cash manager at a large bank in Dallas when I read Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. I began playing cassette tapes of plainchant in my Honda Civic during my commutes. Daily attendance at Morning Prayer and mass at a nearby Cistercian monastery soon followed. I wanted to do the Merton thing.
I sold my Honda, all my possessions, and was in a novice’s habit at the monastery within a year.
I had idealized a life of prayer. My motivation was to get away from corporate life and sing plainchant instead. I wanted to find the beauty that Merton had written about. Devotion to Roman Catholicism and all it entailed was a secondary thought. In retrospect, I’d done much too fast. Although the entire application process took a year, there was still a lot of impulsivity to it on my part.
I loved monastic life in the beginning. The monks I lived with were absolutely wonderful and I’ll always be indebted to them for the formation I received.
However, three years later found me bored with the routine. I’d been placed on the track for priestly ordination and was completing studies in philosophy and theology at a very conservative university – One where Vatican II “was just a vicious rumor.” When my idealism of monastic life had faded, disillusionment took its place.
Again, impulsivity and selfish desires led me to seek a different religious order – This time, the Franciscans in New York where I applied and was accepted. Again, my motivation wasn’t genuine. This would have incredibly deleterious effects down the road.
A second postulancy, novitiate, and temporary vows were completed along with two more years of graduate work toward a Master of Divinity. But the house of studies where I’d been placed was so incredibly dysfunctional (Not to say I didn’t have a role in that!) I found myself severely, clinically depressed and with a huge addiction to sleeping pills. To be honest, I’m lucky to be alive.
Seven years after my religious life had begun, it all came crashing down. The loss was devastating and I cannot begin to describe the level of pain that ensued.
I moved to Chicago in 2001 to lick my wounds – and, thankfully, to get my butt to a good psychiatrist for depression and addiction treatment. My experience in pastoral counseling and social work led me to employment in the non-profit service sector. However, I didn’t set foot in a church again. It was much too painful. For the next eight years, I stayed away.
Music had always been a large part of my life. (Undergraduate studies in piano, employment as a church organist, and as a member of several choirs.) I missed music. I knew The Episcopal church would offer great music (and no guitar masses!) so I auditioned for, and joined the cathedral choir at St. James Cathedral in Chicago.
The music was sublime. I knew I’d find it there. What surprised me was that I found my soul nurtured. Over the next six years, I happily became an Episcopalian and later learned of religious orders within the Anglican Communion.
I thought religious life for me would always be a distant and painful memory. I learned of the Community of the Mother of Jesus and their charism of serving those in need.
A postulancy, novitiate, and temporary vows – third time’s the charm!
This time, my motivation is different. For the past four years, I’ve provided job-training services and nutrition counseling to homeless mothers at an in-patient treatment facility, as well as supervising the food services at a center for children. Experiencing the pain and loss I went through twenty years ago has definitely helped me be more empathetic with those experiencing the same.
This time, it isn’t about me. And I’ve learned the hard way that religious life is not about personal fulfillment. I think this insight has definitely helped my work as the vocation director for our community. That insight has definitely shaped my life as a religious.
It’s not about personal fulfillment.
It isn’t about me.
Peace and love,
Br. Jonathan, CMJ