May 1 is the feast of Saint Joseph the Worker and since 2017 it is also recognized as Religious Brothers Day. “Through the gift of Brotherhood given, he (the Religious Brother) becomes a bridge between God and his brothers, anointed and sent by the Spirit to bring the Good News of love and mercy of God.” (Identity and Mission of the Religious Brother in the Church.)
As a Friar preparing to profess my Solemn Vows this summer and live my life as a Religious Brother (non-ordained Friar) I have been pondering the gift of this vocation. Instead of just thinking about what it was and what it could be I turned to three sources of Religious Brother wisdom. These three Franciscan Religious Brothers who have lived their years by rooting their life in God and the vows made, provided me with a deeper appreciation for this vocation.
Brother Gerry Clyne, who this October will celebrate twenty-five years as a Religious Brother, when asked what it means to be a Religious Brother said, “Being a Religious Brother means living a life that I came to desire passionately even before I became a Catholic. It is a life of concentrated prayer and ministry in a Christ-centred community.”
One only needs to spend a few moments with Br. Gerry to appreciate his deep prayer life. He carves purposefully early moments each day to pray, to listen and to go deeper with God. It is out of these moments that he approaches the day and is present to so many whether it is for spiritual direction, presenting a retreat talk or listening during a fifth-step for those in recovery. I am always in awe of Br. Gerry’s peacefulness; it is a gift which reminds me to “be still and know God.”
In reflecting more on his vocation, he thinks back to a pivotal moment in his journey, “During Methodist Bible College I became enamored with the first Christians in Acts. I became intrigued with the notion that Religious Life in the Catholic Church preserved their ideal way of life. Although I would have become a Catholic regardless, to me, becoming a Catholic and a Religious were always closely connected.”
Br. Jean-Louis Brusset, who has been a religious Brother for nearly as many years as I am alive, shared, “being a non-ordained friar as a Franciscan means that I take on in a specific way a vocation living in and for Christ through the lens and lives of St. Francis and St. Clare. Not that I try to mimic these two saints but try to absorb their contemplative approach to Christ in the process of attempting to let myself be transformed by God’s good grace.”
One can see a life of prayer is key to the life of a Religious Brother. Prayer is obviously important to all people however within the life of a Religious Brother it is central to how we function and how we become prayer for those who have limited time or struggle to pray. Br. Jean-Louis is mindful of this gift as he often voices prayers of petition during our communal prayers.
In our Friary I share a hallway with Br. Jean-Louis and often as I leave my room, I notice him in his “prayer chair” reflecting on scripture or Franciscan texts or meditating. As I glimpse him in prayer, I think of something he shared, “I have been led in a wonderful variety of ways for which I am most grateful. And living without property, in obedience and in chastity allows the journey possible in following Christ more closely. Nevertheless, they remain formidable and challenging vows.” The context of our vows are life-giving sources for us to truly be brother.
The third source of Religious Brother wisdom I sought out is Br. Bert Manthey. In 2004 he made his Solemn Vows as a Religious Brother and he, like Br. Gerry and Br. Jean-Louis has lived in various friaries. He ponders his vocation, ““and the Lord gave me brothers” My prospective follows on the heels of this historical statement…given by our founder St. Francis of Assisi. In the humbleness of spirit and operating in God’s gift of freedom, a lay brother offers himself to the many faceted works allowed him in the course of his religious life, in and out of his fraternity. Perhaps bridging the gap between the known priestly form of religious life, and that of the lay church community.”
Br. Bert speaks of humbleness and freedom and bridging a gap. This can only come from a life of prayer and an awareness that as Brothers we must be about relationship with God, each other and creation. Br. Bert always has a quick smile and quick remark and he is often in service of his brothers, caring for them and their needs. He reminds me to make my prayer into lived action not just words that cross my lips. “As a religious brother, the opportunity to work without pre-conditioned expectations, as a friend and co-worker in caring for the needs of society, whether it be spiritual, physical or societal. The openness to expression and the allowance to minister in freedom within the framework of Christian morals and ethics. ln short, to be a fellow citizen in the world,” Br. Bert said.
While reflecting on service in the brotherhood, Br. Jean-Louis reminded me of the universal nature of the Friars and how service is a call to be a brother no matter where we are and especially with our poorest brothers and sisters. “I am especially grateful for having received the grace to live among other cultures apart from my own and, oddly enough, have received more than I ever gave; a reverse evangelization so to speak.”
Being able to serve one another in love is part of embracing the greatest of commandments that Jesus entrusted to his followers. Br. Gerry gives perspective to this, “being a Religious Brother calls me, therefore, beyond my tendency to be self-absorbed to serving others after the example and inspiration of Jesus. Being a Religious Brother, I am able to have a prayer life that is deeper than would be possible for me as a secular, given who I am. I am also more able to use my talents and gifts in ministry.”
Prayer and service are central characteristics of a Religious Brother and clearly emerged in the wisdom of these three Brothers. I am once again reassured of my own discernment and desire to profess as a Religious Brother in the world today. The wisdom of these three Religious Brothers is a gift that you would find in Religious Brothers the world over. The vocation of being a Religious Brother is one that I am both humbled and awed that I have been called to profess and in twenty-five years I too hope to be able to say with Br. Gerry, “I love being a Religious Brother!”