“So why do you think people find the choice you’ve made to be such a novelty, even a kind of scandal?”
“I think, it’s because this is a hidden life,” Brother John Braught says, “Many people don’t even know that monks still exist.” He continues, “People don’t know what it is, or what happens here. So there’s a kind of monk mystique behind the enclosure.” Tall and made more so by the length of his black habit, Br. John Braught is one of three Society of Saint John (SSJE) brothers who’ve agreed to speak with me for forty minutes each on this chilly Maundy Thursday of Holy Week.
As part of both the Episcopal Church of the United State and the Anglican Church of Canada, the order of SSJE was originally founded in the parish of Cowley in Oxford, England, by the Reverend Richard Meux Benson in 1866. The order came to Boston in 1870, and also has branches in Scotland, India, South Africa, Japan and Canada. Their mission is articulated in part on their website: “We aim above all to be ‘Men of the Moment,’ responsive to the call of God and the needs of our world in the present day […] We offer our monasteries as places of silence, sanctuary, and simple beauty, renewing them to meet changing needs (ssje.org).”
Barely a ten-minute walk from Harvard Square and directly across from the Charles River, the Society of Saint John’s monastery in Cambridge is a gray stone and concrete building enclosed by a cream colored wall that is punctuated with a single red door. During my tour of the building, Tom, the guesthouse receptionist tells me that the roof of the main chapel — sustained by a series of wooden arches — was once a bridge reaching across Mystic River.
While some perspective monks come to the monastery with previous training and ministry experience, it is not a prerequisite to have a college degree or a seminary education. SSJE seeks candidates with a willingness to learn and a strong personal interest in reading and studying. In addition to a structured lifestyle organized around communal prayer and worship five times a day, the brothers spend an hour alone each morning in their cells for individual prayer and reflection. Unlike parish priests, monastic priests rarely baptize children or conduct weddings and funerals because they do not run parishes. However, their encounters with the inner lives of the people who come to the monastery often have a unique depth and intense significance of their own. In this way, their role as monks is characterized by a strong emphasis on hospitality.
Accepting visitors for varying lengths of time—from locals attending individual services throughout the week in the main chapel, to corporate businessmen and college students who stay for several days—SSJE is open to anyone at all who desires to come. Their guesthouse hosts retreats for groups as well as for individuals seeking time and space for solitude, prayer and personal growth. During their stay, guests are asked to maintain an atmosphere of shared silence in communal areas. The monastery also offers workshops open to the public on topics such as “forgiveness” and most recently, “contemplation,” given by various brothers.
My conversations with the brothers are back to back, each one initiated by a brief introduction, and my attempts to inspire their confidence. In the weeks it took to organize the interviews, I became aware of how delicate publicity can be for a community of people seeking something much closer to anonymity than attention, much less notoriety. During an initial phone call, Friends of SSJE Director Jamie Coats respectfully informed me that my idea to write a story highlighting individual monks and their contribution to the larger community of Boston and beyond is, “entirely antithetical to everything we are trying to do here.” In the end, I agreed to focus the story on something much more interesting to me: the choice made by three young men to become monks.
Originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Br. John received his master’s in philosophy at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium. He sits back in his chair opposite me at first, arms crossed, inviting my opening questions with silence and the playful intensity of his gaze. I will also meet Br. Keith Nelson, who grew up outside of Birmingham Alabama, with a background in Buddhism and studies in comparative religion. Though he greets me with an energy of ready intelligence, Br. Keith is visibly relieved to find out that our interview was not assigned to me by a disinterested third party, nor is it aimed at the market of spiritual tourism, “though it’s true that we rely on those pieces to some degree,” he adds. Finally, Br. Luke Ditewig grew up in Orange Country California and finished a master’s of divinity from Princeton. He is a tall thin man with wire-rimmed glasses. I observe the evenness of his steps, which imbues them with the look of patience in motion. In charge of hospitality and other creative tasks such as flower arranging and napkin folding, Br. Luke’s cadence allows for long pauses between my questions and the thoughtful consideration of his answers.
I ask each of them, “How did you get here?” And perhaps surprising to some, their responses to this are infused with the experiential language of childhood play, relationships and personal desire.
Brother Luke Ditewig
“When did life as a religious leader first enter your mind?” I ask Br. Luke, who describes a childhood filled with frequent guests, meaningful family Sabbath dinners on Saturday nights, and a father who spent his life ministering to, and counseling college students.
“Was the idea of becoming a monk always with you?” I ask.
“No. It was a surprise,” he says. “I think it was long with me before my awareness of it. Looking back I can now say, well this fits me. I had a strong interest in corporate hospitality, you know, in inviting people to have time away and feel refreshed. But it first consciously came to my mind after seminary. I hadn’t yet found a place as a parish priest, which is where I thought I was headed. During a conversation with my father, he said to me, ‘what you are looking for sounds monastic: a group of people that live together and invite others to spend time in their community.’ So it was my father who was able to hear my heart’s desires and give them a name.”
Brother Keith describes an early affinity for Sunday services at Hunter Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where he attended with his family starting at the age of nine.
“I remember really taking to it, kind of like a fish to water,” he says.
Of his early interest in spirituality, Br. Keith says, “My childhood was full of fantasy stories, ‘The Never Ending Story’ was a big movie in my childhood. I was also very intrigued by Greek and Roman mythology, by writers like C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. So even before I was exposed to the Bible, I had a sense of this great Story, with a capitol S, this grand narrative in which there are heroes and the life that we are living on earth is somehow connected with these other parallel worlds. So, much of my play as a child, was informed by these great books.”
Comparisons to married life and romantic love surface when Br. Keith speaks about his decision process, which involved ending his engagement with his fiancé at the time.
“There were times,” he says, “that I would just wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and hear God say, ‘I’ve laid claim to you in a particular way. You are a monk. It was a feeling of being hunted.” Then, speaking of God, he adds, “when you’re in love, you want your beloved to be the first person you wake up with and the last person you see at night.”
“So were you having all these realizations at the same time as being engaged?” I ask him.
“Yes. It made it all that much more inconvenient. […] There were some aspects about the relationship that were a struggle. But the heart of it was that I didn’t feel called to marriage. There was this one overwhelming love that had laid claim to me. So the relationship ended. I took some time, and then entered into a discernment conversation with Saint John’s. And that’s the story up until now.”
“When I first told people I wanted to be a monk,” Br. John says, “many of them expressed a lot of shock, saying you know, ‘oh my God, what a commitment.’ And I think celibacy has something to do with that. But for me, this is no lesser of a commitment than getting married. I think it’s equally binding and equally heavy.”
Many brothers say, ‘had I known what would be required of me, I never would have believed I had the fortitude.’”
When I ask Br. John where he is now in the trajectory of this life-long commitment, he says,
“There definitely are many days when I think this is the best fit for me, this is the life I am called to. Then there are other days when I think, ‘This is never going to be sustainable.’ Or I start projecting into the future and seeing the size of the community, the age of the brothers, the people I’ll be doing this with, all the responsibility, and fear gets the best of me. Many brothers say, ‘had I known what would be required of me, I never would have believed I had the fortitude.’”
The process of becoming a monk happens gradually (between five and a half to nine years), with every Brother moving through the stages of postulant, novice, initial vows and life vows. When I ask Br. Keith how he feels about taking his upcoming initial vows in July (a three year commitment), he says,
“It’s very much just one day at a time. But I feel a peace in my heart that I have not felt before in my life. What a joy to be here doing this, loving and serving God in this way, let’s do it again tomorrow.”
Speaking of the necessary stages leading up to life vows, Br. John says,
“Many people come here as a novice and say things like, ‘Oh I just want to do this forever. I would be life-professed tomorrow if I could.’ And guess what, before long, they are gone. Few are called,” he says, adding that, “religious life is dying out. Although many people would say that it has always existed on the brink, that there was never a time when people were beating down the doors of monasteries to get in.”
When I ask about the philosophical event of God’s death described so vividly by Nietzsche, and the common assumption of God’s irrelevant, if also mythical remnants in our society now, Br. John steers the conversation again in a more personal direction:
“For me, the fundamental foundation of religion and spirituality is born out of the need for a God. In moments of crises and desperation it’s a very human response to cry out to God. And that act of desperation gives birth to the belief in God. I live more meaningfully and fully with God than I did before, without Him. This is the only way to speak about God, really. My telling you what I believe about God will tell you nothing about Him. But it may encourage you to go and seek your own experience,” he says.
Monasteries as symbols
“This is your home, a real place, with floors that need mopping and guests to welcome,” I say, during my conversation with Br. Luke, “Yet there is also the archetypal significance of monasteries as places of solitude and peace, of shelter and confinement. How do you see your life here?”
“Ah, depends on the day,” he says. “The essence of monastic hospitality is that we are all travelers, we are all looking for a safe place. And the monastery is both for the guests who come to us and for the brothers who are also guests in God’s home. We are guests because this is where God is healing us. This is a place of healing. And a few of us, because of our particular brokenness need to be here for life. Going back to the root of hospitality, it’s both a hostel and a hospital. So I come back to the healing that happens here. I tell the staff and the interns, ‘Remember to be gentle, because the people here are carrying heavy burdens and that’s probably why they are here.”
I ask Br. John about the lived experience and broader significance of monastic life.
“The most surprising thing to me was number one how public the life is, not just in terms of conversations like these but also the ministry of hospitality means that I’m eating with strangers every day of the week. Many times I come down for chapel and think, ‘why are these strangers in my living room?”
I ask him, “do you think that in our society, with so much stimulation and noise, that people crave the possibility of peace that is fabled to exist in a space like this?
“I don’t know if I can say that monasteries are any more important than they’ve ever been,” Br. John says. “But [technology] is a challenge. I mean we have wifi coursing through this building and you’re sitting here with a phone on the desk and the laptop. I’m not sure people take full advantage when they come of the chance to unplug and take space. But maybe there is something to our life here that has to do with being a beacon of an alternative. And yet, you can find space and silence in your own home if you desire it and seek it.”
Then, he adds, “There’s also something very different about well prayed places. When you step into the chapel, you are enveloped by that. I think sometimes people leave here and think about what they can take with them from the experience, you know they think, ‘I can have a prayer corner and I can make a sanctuary.’”
Questions and the journey
I ask Br. Keith, “Why are so many turned off by the Christian Church?”
Brother Keith Nelson
“I think many assume that faith and a life of the mind with integrity are irreconcilable,” he says, “and so you have to make a choice between the two. Our community tries to draw from the best of Anglican and Episcopal traditions to keep these two things in conversation, since we believe that God has given us both. So even when they are wrestling with each other, God wants us to engage all the facets of our selfhood. I see a similar perceived divide between the life of the senses (what we see and experience around us) and the life of spirituality (a community with this invisible world).”
“Many of us conceive of religious leaders as people who think they have all their ideas ironed out,” I say to Br. Luke, “that you possess a certainty of what you believe and why. Is that true?” I ask.
“When we give a brother a habit,” Br. Luke says, “we say in that ceremony, ‘May you be open as God comes to you in surprising ways.’ And I think that’s a big part of life here, life inside the monastery as well as outside the monastery. I’ve been surprised in my life by things that I thought I was very sure about. Later I think, ‘Well maybe that’s not so clear anymore—things I was more black and white about and now I see gray, both about God and about people.”
“Is it a challenge,” I ask him then, “to remain surprised by the people that come here, and perhaps ask you many of the same questions about your life and what it means to live in this community?”
“Cynicism is part of the human experience and it can always creep in,” Br. Luke says, “but I wouldn’t say that that is the primary experience. Many things people share relate to questions about their future, anxieties and the whole range of the human experience of grief, loss and pain. And it’s hard, for myself as well, to know who can I risk sharing those things with, who can I risk telling that this is my experience of life, and this is what hurts? A lot of what I, and other people are looking for is a place to name hurt and also to name mystery. It’s not seeking answers per say, but seeking compassion and one who is willing to listen. Whether people come to the monastery knowing that this is what they are seeking or not, I think all of us are looking for a companion on the journey.”