Adventures in Seminary: Modern Monks, a Softcore Porn Joke, and the Art of Personal Prayer

The story of a connection remade.

“The food is sooooo good there!” Danielle said as she picked up her cards.

We were sitting around a table in Ginger’s apartment. Ginger, Peter, Danielle, and I were playing poker. Texas Hold ‘Em. We’d succumbed to the craze. I dream that some day I might be famous enough to play on Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown.

Danielle was talking about her recent experience visiting the monastery of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE), an Anglican monastic order for men. Ginger nodded as Danielle regaled us with the tale of her trip. Peter, meanwhile, was staring at his cards, plotting. He’s got some card shark poker skills that only I was aware of from a previous game. He’s pretty sneaky and crafty sometimes. I think it’s probably because he’s a Republican. That and he listens to the Four Tops.

“So you really enjoyed your time there?” I asked.

Danielle nodded yes.

“Good,” I said. “I’m glad to hear it. I’m scheduled to spend some time up there in a couple of weeks and I’m a little nervous about it.”

“Oh,” she said, “you’ll have a great time. And the food is so good! I mean, really, really good!”

Danielle was not the first person to tell me about the wonders of the food at the SSJE monastery. Various other classmates of mine had taken retreats there. All of them had reported positively about the food. It kind of made me wonder if there’s anything else to the place, or if it’s just a big theme restaurant where guys in funny robes serve you steak and freshly brewed ale at reasonable prices. I could almost picture the monks crowding around a table where someone is having a birthday and chanting “Happy Birthday” and clapping, the way the wait staff does at most bar and grill chain restaurants, only at the monastery they would do it in perfect Gregorian pitch.

As of the night of the poker game I’d only recently decided to take a retreat at the monastery. But my interaction with the SSJE brothers started a year and a half earlier, during my first year in seminary, when they came to visit with us at our Wednesday night community Eucharist.

I hadn’t known what to expect. Having been raised Roman Catholic, I’d always been peripherally aware of the existence of monks and nuns. I’d even seen one of them as a kid when my Boy Scout troop had taken a camping trip on the grounds of the local Franciscan Friary. I remembered him being a stout, bearded man who scolded us for not taking prayer seriously enough. He did this after knowing us for all of two minutes. I’d quickly written him off.

Then there was the nun who worked at my parish as a kid. I still can’t remember her name. She was a nice lady though. Kind, hard working, and very involved in social justice ministry. She was not like the nuns on television or in movies. She didn’t wear a habit. Just a plain blue dress and a white blouse. She didn’t sit around all day praying the rosary either. I don’t think I was even aware that she was a nun until I was a teenager.

I knew when I joined the Episcopal Church that there were Anglican orders of monks and nuns. It was a piece of general information I’d absorbed about the many similarities between the denomination I was leaving and the one I was joining. Anglicans have the Eucharist, bishops and priests and deacons, careful liturgy, prayers to saints, monks and nuns, all of that good stuff that Roman Catholics have, only no pope. I’d never really thought much else of it. When I heard that there were going to be monks presiding and preaching at our Wednesday night service, I got nervous. I hoped this didn’t mean an unwarranted lecture in our worldly lack of proper piety.

Brother David and Brother Geoffrey turned out to be neither as secular seeming as the nun I’d known as a child nor as pompous and holier-than-thou as the monk I’d encountered at the Franciscan Friary. They wore long black robes and sandals. They cracked jokes and made conversation easily. But there was something different about them. When they looked at me, it took a while for the feeling to pass. I felt different being in their presence.

Brother Geoffrey celebrated the Eucharist and Brother David preached. Brother David’s sermon was crafted for the congregation at hand, made up as it was mostly of seminarians who would be future pastors and other types of leaders in the Church. He spoke slowly but confidently.

“You have a great calling,” he said at one point. “You get to guide people to hear the voice of God in the midst of all the noise of our lives. It’s like teaching a child about music. You can play a flute for the child until the child learns to hear its intricacies and its beauty. Then you can allow the child to hear an entire symphony orchestra play and ask him to pick out the flute. The same can be done with the voice of God. God is always speaking to us, but there is so much noise in our lives. Prayer helps us to know God’s voice amidst the noise, and allows us the ability to make that voice known to others.”

I remember looking up during that service and thanking God for the privilege to be called to a life of service in the Church. It was really the first time all year that I’d felt that way.

My first semester had been tough. Between problems with professors getting ill, an academic life that was more concerned with scholasticism than with spirituality, and an increasing sense that my generation would look at me as a freak for what I was doing, I’d begun to question my calling. Perhaps I’d heard God wrong. Perhaps when God had lead me to believe I was to be ordained a priest, what God had really meant was that I should be listening to Judas Priest. Maybe God was just an 80′s glam rock fanatic, and the whole seminary thing had just been the result of a terrible mix-up.

But the SSJE brothers helped to change that for me, without even knowing they were doing it. They showed me that there was another way to live into a Christian vocation, one that involved working out of a place of prayer rather than adding prayer to a growing list of goals and aspirations. Several months later, I ended up working with Brother Geoffrey as a spiritual director.

Spiritual direction is sort of a weird thing. It’s something that is all the rage in certain circles around the divinity school. You meet with someone, usually an ordained person although sometimes a lay person, for maybe an hour every month. You talk to them about your spiritual life, the way things are going spiritually. They pray for you and give you advice.

Early on in my first semester I’d tried to meet with a spiritual director who was recommended to me by the divinity school. The woman I met with was nice. She was encouraging. But I didn’t see a whole lot of point in having regular meetings with someone just for encouragement. Especially since it was costing the school a certain amount of money every time I saw her. If I was really in desperate need of encouragement I could always get it for free by calling my mother.

My experience with the SSJE brothers in the fall of 2003 had been so positive though. So when the opportunity came up late the following spring to try to see one of them for spiritual direction, I figured it was at least worth a shot.

Brother Geoffrey sat across from me in a small office on campus. Same black robes I’d remembered from before. A pair of glasses resting on his nose.

“How are your prayers going?” he asked me. Distinctly British accent. Hands folded in his lap as he waited patiently for my answer.

“I don’t really do a whole lot of private praying,” I said, “Other than at the dinner table.”

Brother Geoffrey seemed taken aback by this. “You mean, outside of corporate worship, you’ve never prayed?”

I thought about this. The first spiritual director I’d worked with had asked me about my prayer life. I’d told her I didn’t really have much of one. I said that I was a “cerebral Christian.” I wasn’t sure what I meant at the time any more than I am now. But that seemed to be enough to satisfy her. We’d moved on.

The same nonsense explanation was not going to work with Brother Geoffrey. I needed to speak honestly, or not speak at all.

I thought back, trying to remember private prayer experiences. I’d had very few since I’d come back into Christian faith at age 20. All of my positive, powerful prayer experiences were related to being in church, with other people, experiencing the sacraments. I’d sort of assumed that this was all that was needed. I’d say the occasional “Our Father” on my own, but it didn’t really seem to do much. I’d been listing towards a sort of humanistic understanding of Christianity anyway. I figured that a lack of fulfillment in private prayer was just one more sign of the truth of the humanist philosophy.

But sitting in that room, it occurred to me that I’d done a great deal of private prayer in my high school days. Just not the kind that people would expect. Certainly not Christian prayer. All through high school and early college I’d been something of a jack of all religions. I’d have self-identified as a Pagan if you’d asked me, but mostly that was because I had a strong sense of God as feminine. To a certain degree I still do, though not in the same way. Basically, though, I was a religious mutt. I’d read everything I could find on Buddhism, Islam, Hindu, Zoroastrianism, Native American spiritual practice, Unitarian Universalism, Sikhism, Jainism, Judaism, Wicca, ancient mythology, and anything else that dealt even remotely with the spiritual. I’d pick and choose from this salad bar of religion the parts that I liked best.

I still held some esteem for Christ even in my Pagan days. I never stopped believing that Jesus was God but I began to see him as only one manifestation of God. There could be hundreds, thousands, even millions of other manifestations. That’s what I’d come up with when I thought about Christ. For the most part, though, I simply didn’t address Christianity in either my study or my piety. Jesus was one fine but Christianity was oppressive and nonsensical. It also seemed to me to be boring and lifeless. Christianity was a mess of meaningless regulations and empty symbols, prejudices and holy wars. Where it wasn’t hateful and ignorant it was drab. Other traditions were full of mystery and wonder. That’s where the good stuff was to be found.

I set up a small altar in my room, loaded with various religious symbols, chants, prayers, and candles. I would create private rituals, based on things I read, trying to invoke God. Often I’d find myself overcome by a sense of the Spirit being within me and around me. I wouldn’t try to talk or to make rational sense of those moments. I’d simply dwell in them, giving myself over to the experience of God and allowing myself to be transformed by it.

When I started wandering back into Christianity, the frequency with which I spent time privately with God began to lessen. By the time I became an Episcopalian, that time spent alone with God was virtually non-existent. As a Pagan I’d found that I could have a rich personal spirituality but no sense of community, no group experience of the divine, and no cohesive theology. I was limited by my own sense of truth as the only real determining rod. In returning to Christianity, I rediscovered the wonder of being able to address God in a community, through ancient ritual. Likewise, I felt that my theological exploration, my quest for a way of understanding God, was now grounded in a clear, comprehensive tradition. I guess I had just figured that it was a trade off. I couldn’t do the private, Pagan rituals anymore if I was going to be a Christian. I had to make a choice.

But it was a false choice.

“Use what you learned,” Brother Geoffrey told me. “You remember the experience of being with God, even if you wouldn’t use the same methods now. Learn to pray again.”

I spent the whole summer learning to pray again. It came back quickly and easily. My prayer life became deep, more so than it had been in high school. I wasn’t just picking and choosing images anymore, making up a concept of God that suited me and then praying to it. I was engaging the God who I’d come to know in Jesus Christ, the God that was personal and prophetic, the God that cared about me but also asked a lot of me, the God that doesn’t make things easy. I’ve wrestled with that God like Jacob does in the book of Genesis. I’ve celebrated with that God. I’ve also been angry at times with that God. But the point is that I’ve known God through prayer. At its best, prayer grounds me in my connection with God. It destroys my hate by building my love. And in retrospect, I cannot imagine how I ever got along without private prayer, except to note that at times I seemed to operate on an unconscious level. God pulls us along sometimes, in spite of ourselves.

I met with Brother Geoffrey regularly throughout 2004 and the first half of 2005. Now, when he would ask how my prayers were going, I actually had an answer. He helped to guide me in seeking more out of prayer, going deeper with it. The concept of spiritual direction makes sense to me now, although I still admit to feeling kind of hokey about saying the words “spiritual director.” There’s got to be a term that sounds more respectable and less like a camp counselor.

At any rate, as my second year in seminary was coming to a close, I figured the time was right to take my private devotional life to the next level. I decided to take a retreat at the SSJE monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. I reserved a room in the monastery’s guesthouse for three and a half days in June. I bought train tickets. I cleared my schedule. Then, for the next few weeks leading up to the retreat, I proceeded to panic.

“What was I thinking?” I said out loud to anyone who would listen. “I mean, the brothers are cool and all. But I’m no monk. What am I going to do cooped up in a monastery for the better part of a week? I’m an extrovert for crying out loud! I’m going to go bonkers.”

Friends like Danielle who’d been to the monastery assured me that there was nothing to worry about, that I’d be fine. But they didn’t offer much in the way of explanations for why it was a good place to be, other than that it was quiet and had good food. I planned on being well fed and very bored. I was sure that I would spend some time praying. But one can only spend so much of a day in prayer.

The morning I was to leave I packed my bag full to the brim with books. I figured that at least I’d get in a lot of reading. I did end up doing a good amount of reading, although little of it was what I’d actually brought with me. Between the monastery library and the scripture I was drawn to, I found there was little time for anything else.

I did not get bored during my stay at the monastery. Not even for a second. The location alone made this almost impossible. I was in Harvard Square, next to JFK Park and a whole city that’s alive with culture and buzz. I spent part of one day walking through Boston, examining the relics of our nation’s history. I stood by the graves of Paul Revere, Crispus Attucks, Samuel Adams (who did more than brew beer, I might add), and John Hancock. I walked through Boston Commons and sat by statues and absorbed the sun as its rays spread across my forehead.

Mostly, though, I stayed around the monastery, in the gardens, in the library, and especially in the chapel. I prayed with the brothers as they worked through the Daily Office, an ancient Christian rite of prayer that orders an entire day. I ate with them. And yes, the food was good, but the atmosphere was even better. During most meals a brother would read from a book of stories, feeding both the body and the imagination.

I enjoyed chatting with the brothers as well. They are very down-to-earth guys. At one meal, a brother made a joke I can’t now remember that involved a comparison between the Food Network and soft-core pornography.

“That’s not the kind of thing I’d ever have expected to hear from a monk,” I said, laughing.

“Stick around,” he said. “You’ll get a lot of those from me.”

I also met with a brother for spiritual direction. Brother Geoffrey was out town, so I met with Brother Paul, a man who turned 90 in January of this year. He entered the monastery in 1939. He has many of the difficulties that one expects to find in a man of advanced years. He uses a walker. His hearing is going. He has trouble breathing sometimes. But his mind is still present. He’s very aware of his suffering, aware of the part that it plays in his living. He sees a special call for himself at this point in his life to hold the suffering of all people together with his own and to pray that God may permeate it and give it meaning. Watching Brother Paul was inspirational. Living is difficult for him at this point. But he is truly living. In many ways he’s living more fully and honestly today than some people a third of his age.

My time in private prayer was my most useful time. I prayed in the garden, out on walks along the river, and in the chapel. The monastery was a vital place, full of energy. I got the same feeling being there that I had first gotten when I met Brother Geoffrey and Brother David, the feeling that there was something more there, something different. It was a feeling of awe, of joy and courage mixed with fear, very much like C.S. Lewis’ description of what it was like for people to come into the presence of Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia. I wanted to be filled with that feeling. I wanted to live inside of it.

Not that the SSJE brothers are perfect. I don’t idealize them. They are men, sinners like all of us. The awe I felt in the monastery, that I recognized from my experiences with them, was not coming from them specifically. It was coming from the presence of God. 

In their prayer lives, the brothers have learned to operate out of a place spiritually that most people only ever reach tangentially. Most of my life I’ve spent my time running myself ragged in the world, using retreats and prayers as a way of dipping into a spiritual reservoir for a quick recharge so that I could go back out into the world and chase my windmills. These men live in the reservoir. When they go out into the world, the reservoir goes with them. Everything they do is connected with their prayer lives, with their spiritual connection to the God who created us and loves us all. They don’t pray so that they can live better. They live their prayers.

A few days after I got back from the monastery, I made a trip to a local diner with Peter. This is something we do regularly. It generally involves debating theology and politics over plates of cheap, greasy food. It’s something that helps me to keep my intellectual batteries charged during the long summer months between classes, when it seems easier to pay attention to Tom Cruise’s love life than to engage the world.

“So how was your retreat?” asked Peter.

I bristled a bit. “I hate the word ‘retreat,’ ” I said. “It makes it sound like you’re running away from something. I didn’t go there to escape. I went there to connect.”

Peter nodded. But I wasn’t sure I’d made sense. So I went on. I tried to explain the prayer experience I’d had, how it connected with other parts of my life. I tried to explain the personal experience of God that I’d felt, especially in relation to certain images and themes. But everything I said just sounded hollow when it came out of my mouth. The task of explaining what I’d experienced with words seemed impossible. It was like trying to bottle light.

Some things you can’t explain. Some things you just have to experience.

“The food was great,” I said finally. “Really, really good.”

Article © 2005 by Jonathan Ratican