Why I’m still a brother

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Image: BROTHER JAMES HAYES, F.I.C.P. ended his 2012 bicycle trip around France at Saint-Malo on the English Channel.

"What made you want
to become a brother? . . .” That is a question I have often been asked in one form or another. Depending on the situation, I have offered answers ranging from the enigmatically brief to full-blown dissertations. But another question perhaps should be asked at the same time, one that I need to address regularly: “. . . And why are you still a brother?”

A good friend and fellow prayer-group member once said to me, “It’s all right for you religious and priests . . . you’ve done your studies, you’ve taken your vows, you’ve made it. You know what you are meant to do with your lives.” But I told him that such an attitude is very dangerous for religious and priests—in fact for any Christian—to have because it can lead to complacency and the strong possibility that one’s life will end up heading down the wrong path. The vocation of any Christian requires daily commitment, generosity, selflessness, openness, and perseverance.

Before we start Morning Prayer each day as brothers in community, we say one of a number of different possible Morning Offerings renewing our commitment to follow God. One such prayer goes as follows: “Lord, you have given me the gift of a new day. Let it be a source of blessing for myself and for others. Let me fill it with love for you and for your children, with mercy and gentleness, with prayer, faith, and perseverance, according to your will and not my own. Help me to think more of others than of myself and to keep nothing for myself other than the joy that comes from having given all that I have and am. Amen.” I think it is a prayer that each of us can make our own no matter our circumstances or way of life.

Vocation at my doorstep
I became a brother because first and foremost I wanted—in that naive, hopeful, expectant way that teenagers have—to do what was right with my life, to follow God’s will for me, because I had a gut feeling that God knew best and that responding to God with a yes would lead me on the path to the greatest possible happiness and fulfilment and that if I struck out on my own I would just mess things up.

Brother James met his community as a student in a De La Mennais school. Now he is a teacher.
BROTHER JAMES met his community as a student in a De La Mennais school. Now he is a teacher.
My earliest thoughts about a vocation, from about age 14, were mostly an intuitive feeling that God was asking me to give my life to him in some way, though from the age of 16 I also felt certain that I was meant to become a musician. I didn’t know how to reconcile these two insights at that point.

A few “father figures” helped me have the courage to put into words these as yet rather vague feelings, offering words of advice, support, and friendship. My Uncle Pat in Ireland helped me to understand that I could be a religious and use music in some kind of ministry within the church. An Irish Holy Ghost Father who visited my parish and kept in contact with me when he left also gave me support and guidance. A teacher at my school also provided direction. Because of him I was able to make retreats at Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries over a three-year period, developing a deep attraction for monastic life and led me to actually want to become a monk.

It was only due to what I would call my first religious or “mystical” experience that I even considered the possibility of life as a teaching brother with the community that ran my school. It was the community that was on my own doorstep. From one precise moment on one precise day at the age of 17, I have been certain that God has wanted me to be a De La Mennais Brother, a teaching community of French origin, and a musician.

It happened toward the end of the summer before my final year in high school. I was listening to a song and my eyes fell on a photo on my wall of all the pupils and staff of my school, landing in particular on the face of a brother in the front row. I suddenly had the strangest feeling come over me, and I saw my face on the face of the brother in the photo. I heard myself thinking, “That’s going to be me one day!”

I was stunned. I instinctively knew that this idea didn’t come from my own mind, which really frightened me because I was experiencing for the first time the existence of “something” beyond the physical realm of the senses. Ten minutes later, after having briefly shared my experience with my mother, who was watching television in the next room, the phone rang. It was Brother John from school. He wanted to invite me around to the brothers’ community for a meal! That was the first time a brother had phoned us at home. What I didn’t know was that my teacher from school had suggested he make the invitation. The knowing, gentle smile that appeared on my mother’s face said it all. She knew that the phone call confirmed what had just happened to me. Deep down I knew, too.

God is in control
Something was being set in motion that was far beyond what I could even begin to understand at that point, but I no longer felt quite as frightened. God was in control. I simply had to say “yes” and everything would be OK—that teenage naiveté again! But it’s true. Everything has been OK. That’s not to say it has been smooth sailing; far from it. To quote one of my favorite songs, Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” “Nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be so hard . . . .”

Brother james plays (above) during the 2005 World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany.
BROTHER JAMES plays during the 2005 World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany.
Did I find happiness and fulfilment then? I most certainly did, but within the limits of my own and other people’s frailty, imperfection, and humanity. Perfect happiness and fulfilment awaits us in the life to come. My cup, however, has certainly overflowed during my life as a brother and I cannot imagine any other way of life that would have made me happier.

Here are just a few reasons why I’m still a brother and still recommitting myself to this life each day:

• The rich variety of experiences that I have had through working with and teaching young people, through taking groups to Africa, to brothers’ youth gatherings, to World Youth Day, and other activities.

• Prayer life in community, the Eucharist, prayerful reading and study of the Bible, my own personal prayer, the latter most often through music, and all these leading to an ever-richer awareness and appreciation of God’s love for me as I am and a strengthening of the fraternal bonds within the brothers’ community where I live.

Brother James plays with a school worship band. Even before he became a brother, music was a major part of his life.
BROTHER JAMES plays with a school worship band. Even before he became a brother, music was a major part of his life.
• The sense of belonging that comes from being a member of an extended family of De La Mennais Brothers around the world.

• Long-standing friendships within my congregation and outside of it.

• The joys of making and listening to music (I earned a music degree as part of my training to be a brother and have taught music for many years).

• The rewards of long-distance cycling and mountain hiking, both of which I began during my first year of training (the novitiate) in a community in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains in southwestern France.

All shall be well
I can honestly say that since about the age of 17 and my initial “yes” to God I have never doubted the fact that God has called—and is still calling—me to be a De La Mennais Brother. Any doubts have related to my ability to respond to the challenges that following God creates. But when things get tough I try to remember to hand everything over to God: “Look, you led me here. Lord, you’re going to have to get me through this because I can’t do it on my own!”

Much comfort and reassurance come from the knowledge that I am not the unique author of my life. By trusting in God through an active commitment to seek out and follow God’s will, “all will be well and all manner of things will be well,” to quote Julian of Norwich.

I now know that God’s call is not to a closed, one-to-one relationship with God. Rather, like God’s relationship with Jesus his Son, through the Spirit, it is an invitation to open my heart to others and share with them God’s wonderful, infinitely generous love. As a De La Mennais Brother I am called to fulfill that role especially in schools and in working with the young.

“What made you want to become a brother and why are you still a brother?” I can offer only an incomplete answer to these questions, but then I think it always will be so, as long as I live in this beautiful, fragile, God-filled world, waiting to see God face-to-face.
Brother James Hayes, F.I.C.P.Brother James Hayes, F.I.C.P. joined the Brothers of Christian Instruction (De La Mennais Brothers) in 1990 and is currently head of music and teacher of film studies at St. Mary’s College, Southampton, England. He is also involved in music, youth trips, and vocations work.




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