A lot of us keep scrapbooks and photo albums
to capture our memories of people and events. When I was asked to write a follow-up to a VISION article I wrote over two years ago, it felt like going back to an old scrapbook. Reading what was on my mind then, with the words of my first vows still ringing in my ears, made me laugh—like looking at myself at age 6, wearing Superman pajamas and “flying” around the living room. It isn’t that my previous article was naïve, but I took myself a little more seriously then—like when I was 6 and could be totally serious about making “whoosh” sounds as I ran around with a blanket tucked into the back of my collar.
Instead of Superman, a Gen X superhero reflects well my own sense of vocation. In the movie The Matrix, one character tells Neo, the protagonist, “I suppose you feel a bit like Alice right now . . . tumbling down the rabbit hole.” He was disconcerted because his world was being shaken, but he was exhilarated for the same reason, because he was taking off the blinders and seeing reality. I feel much the same way. I ended my last article saying I was even more in love with my vocation than when I started. I can say now that I love this vocation even more than two years ago. It’s more intimidating because I see the challenging self-emptying that it calls forth from me, but it’s also more exciting because I see more clearly the possibilities for cool stuff in this life. What does it mean to be a brother today?
Neo took the red pill; he willingly jumped down the rabbit hole and into uncertainty. In Christian language, this is John the Baptist’s, “He must increase and I must decrease”; this is Saint Paul’s, “I live, but no longer I; Christ lives in me.” For me, the questions are, “What does it mean to be a brother today, and especially to be one of the very few young brothers today?” “What difference can I make as a brother in a world that seems so full of suffering and injustice?” I am a brother now, two years later, not because I have any clue just how deep the rabbit hole of this vocation goes, but because I believe that I have to find out. To be a brother is to strive to be our most authentic selves within the context of community.
The goal of our communal lifestyle is to “share the bread of our lives,” that is, to enjoy simply being together, talking about our day. The Brothers of the Sacred Heart are incredible school administrators, missionaries, teachers, and counselors; and the brothers are also men who go fishing, watch movies, cook, and work on cars. Put another way, we get to do some great stuff, in this country and all around the world, but the “flashiness” or importance of our work is not what makes us important. I remember well being 21 and getting a letter on the day of my first vows from our superior general, the “big boss” in Rome. Congratulations, he said, and so on, and he finished simply, “Your brother, Bernie.” Not “The Reverend Brother,” not “The Superior General,” none of that, just Bernie.
All the brothers are like that; it doesn’t matter if we are school administrators, 30-year veterans of the African missions, or the guys who cut the grass, we all share a vision of working on behalf of young people and offering our lives in service to Christian education. The ordinariness of the brothers is what has attracted me to them since high school; sometimes I almost forget the cool stuff these guys have done, because they are just so low-key. Just regular guys
In high school I was drawn to the brothers because of their integrity and commitment to us as students, but they drew me in even more by how down-to-earth they were. Now that I’m teaching in a high school it’s interesting to be on the other side, as a brother with students of my own. I hope that they both respect my vocation and get the idea that being a brother can be a pretty good gig. Sometimes I’ll hang out after school with my students, shooting the bull, getting teased about being a vegetarian, and lugging boxes for the recycling program I help coordinate. Hanging out is fun, but much of my time right now is spent in mundane pursuits like trying to stay on top of my schoolwork and keep some balance in my life, especially as a first-year teacher with so much to do. It’s always a balancing act for me to be a good teacher, get enough rest and exercise, have at least a minimal social life, and still have time to spend in prayer.
It’s a nice reward to see a movie, ride my bicycle for a few hours, or hang out with friends. I’ve had to come up with a few strategies to keep adequate time for prayer, such as walking home to the chapel during my lunch hour, because prayer is the absolute heart of what I claim to be about. My prayer life still needs more regularity, but even now, it is a real blessing to have time set aside in my day to worship together with my brothers, to reflect on what we’re doing together to educate our students to a vision of the reign of God. It’s just as gratifying to have a half hour to simply be by myself and be still, to express my own frustration and excitement in my prayer journal and to experience God in silence.
Our culture sees silence and inactivity as absurd, pointless, even lazy, so to stop work on purpose to “just sit there” is tough when there is so much to do, but prayer reminds me that the universe (somehow) carries on despite my brief inactivity. There is something larger than my tiny efforts keeping all of creation going, and that something is large and beneficent enough to let me trust even my freefall down the rabbit hole of this vocation. Move toward freedom
A freefall means letting go, and I’m getting better at it. My community has set before me the endless path of freedom from self-centeredness, which basically means taking myself less seriously. For example, I know myself well enough to know that if I were not a brother, teaching in high school would not have been my first choice. I likely would have proceeded straight on to earn a doctoral degree and gotten a job in a university. For me the movement toward freedom is that I’ve been pushed to do something that I didn’t think I could do. Being pushed out of my zone of comfort (down the rabbit hole!) has been part of an endless letting-go of self-centeredness.
I still think about teaching in a university in the future, and that may still come to pass, but if it does, it will be for the right reasons. In the meantime my community has helped me discover that I enjoy working in a high school and that I actually can make a difference here. One of the things I love about being a Sacred Heart brother is being available to serve in any of our ministries around the world. When I lived for five months in Zimbabwe, I gladly immersed myself in the local culture, learning as much as possible of the language and eating the caterpillars, the termites, and whatever else they put in front of me. I hope to be able to return to such ministry within a few years, but being assigned to teach well-off Americans has helped me to see how important it is to form young people in this country toward compassion, just as the brothers formed me.
In Africa I walked waist-deep in poverty every day, but it felt great to be helping my students toward better futures. Now, it’s exciting when students come in after reading an article on sweatshop labor, mass species extinction, or international debt, and say, “Brother, why hasn’t anyone told us about this before?!” Their impatient enthusiasm gives me hope that they will have both the ability and the desire to place the needs of the poor ahead of their own luxury or desires. The coolest thing I really do love my vocation more now than I did two years ago. I see in much clearer detail the possibility of living a life of simple joy and genuine relationship with other people and with God. I’m excited about what I’m doing and overwhelmed with the possibilities for the future of religious life. The coolest thing about being a young religious right now is that I get to help dream the future of religious life and participate in bringing it to fruition.
We have new possibilities for collaboration among religious communities and with laypeople, and to be in dialogue and work for peace and justice across the world religions. So where am I two years after my last article? Freefalling down the rabbit hole, I suppose. I don’t have any less enthusiasm now, but I hope I take my vocation more seriously and myself less seriously. Maybe, just maybe, I can even have questions but not need everything answered. I feel like I belong, I’m sharing in our work, and I’m excited that there is still more for me to see in this wondrous rabbit hole.