Why did I become a Brother? This is a question that I have often been asked in one form or another.
I would like to get the person asking such a question to think for themselves about the reasons behind such a life choice, so I could perhaps begin my reply with a question of my own: “Why not?” Apart from being slightly annoying, this would perhaps provoke a reaction dwelling on the more “negative” aspects of life in a religious order, eg. what you have to give up when you take the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. An understandable reaction, but one that hopefully would lead (with a little prompting) to the realisation that religious life must be offering me something in my life that makes the sacrifices worthwhile – especially as they would hopefully see that I am a generally contented, joyous person and am very happy being a Brother.
If I think back to my earliest thoughts about a vocation (from about the age of 15) they were very much along the lines of an intuitive feeling that God was asking me to give my life to him in some way. I didn’t know how at that point; whether it would lead me to the priesthood or the religious life. I wouldn’t say that it was something I wanted to do at that stage; more that it was what I should do.
I have to mention here the importance of a few “father figures” who were very important in helping me have the courage to put into words these as yet rather vague feelings, offering words of advice and friendship (my Uncle Pat in Ireland, an Irish Holy Ghost Father who visited my parish and who I kept in contact with when he left, a teacher at school…). It’s very important to find such people to accompany us on our pilgrim road. I was (and still am) immensely lucky to have such friends. That list has grown significantly over the years.
My intuitive feelings only started to point me towards life as a teaching Brother and, in particular, the De La Mennais Brothers (who ran my school in Southampton) a couple of years later (6th Form, aged 17). This was mainly due to what I would call my first religious or “mystical” experience.
I was listening to a song by The Icicle Works (“Hollow Horse” – my favourite song at the time) and my eyes fell on a photo of all the pupils and staff of my school which I had on my bedroom wall, in particular on the face of a Brother on the front row. I suddenly had the strangest feeling, saw my face on the face of the Brother in the photo and heard myself thinking (or someone thinking for me!), “That’s going to be me one day!” Wow!…. I was knocked for six. I knew that these ideas didn’t come from my own mind. This frightened me, because for the first time I had experienced directly the existence of “something” beyond the physical realm of what we can experience with our mind and senses. But more was to come…. 10 minutes later (after I had shared my experience with my mother) the phone rang… It was Bro. John from school. He wanted to invite my round to the Brothers’ community for a meal. This was the first time a Brother had phoned us at home. The knowing but gentle smile on my mother’s face said it all… she knew that the phone call was a confirmation of what I had just experienced, and deep down I knew too. Something was happening that was far beyond what I could understand at that point, but I no longer felt quite as frightened. God was in control. I simply had to say “Yes” to him and trust that he would guide me on the path ahead, because I had no idea where this was going to lead me. But I can honestly say that since that day I have never doubted the fact that God has called (and is still calling) me to be a De La Mennais Brother.
However, it was only gradually, over the next 7 or 8 years, that my initial “Yes” transformed itself into a personal relationship with God. Experiences such as a HCPT pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1986 were important landmarks for me. I gradually became more sensitive to his presence in my life to the point of being able to say that I felt (and still feel) God’s love for me (and for the whole of humanity) very strongly and in a variety of ways.
I was not sensitive to this love when I decided to take the plunge and say yes to God’s call to become a Brother, but nevertheless most definitely felt an invitation inside of me to enter into a relationship with God. One that I felt I should not say no to, even though I did not know where it would lead me. I now know that the invitation was not just to a closed, one-to-one relationship with God, but that like in his relationship with Jesus, it was an invitation to open my heart out to others and share with them God’s wonderful, limitless, infinitely generous love. All Christians are sent into the world to be God’s ambassadors, to help other people come closer to God through letting his love radiate from us to all. As a Teaching Brother, I am called to fulfil that role especially in schools and in working with young people in general.
Through having initially put my trust in God, despite a certain amount of fear and astonishment at the thought of what I was being invited to do with my life – rather like Mary at the Annunciation, a model for all Christians in her generosity, faith and willingness to reflect on her experience of God – I have received infinitely more than I could have imagined. In this way I feel that the “positive” in my life far outweighs the “negative”, though that is not to say that it is not without its difficulties and its sufferings. But then, if it wasn’t, it would not be a truly human life.
This is as yet an incomplete answer, but then, I think it always will be, as long as I live in this beautiful, fragile, God-filled world, waiting to see him face to face.
Watch this short video in which Br James talks about his lifestyle as a De La Mennais brother.