by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism
Dr. Knight: Would you please share with us your early Catholic formation and how your choice to be a brother was determined.
Brother Spencer: My Catholic formation began when my immediate family, myself included, came into the Church through the RCIA process in 2003. In our home parish, there was a Benedictine Sister (Sr. Pierre) and her witness of faith planted the first seeds of my religious vocation. I found myself drawn to her zest for life and the joy which seemed to emanate from her at all times. I was also fortunate enough to have a Catholic education up through high school, and it was in my high school, one which happened to be run by Augustinian friars, where I began to consider the possibility of consecrated religious life more seriously. With that said, it was not until I graduated college and spent a year volunteering with a Catholic retreat missionary team called SPIRITUS Ministries, that I decided to enter into the Augustinian formation program.
Dr. Knight: Please tell us the significance of your high school years in formation.
Brother Spencer: As mentioned earlier, I attended an Augustinian high school for all four of my years—Cascia Hall Preparatory School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This had a tremendous impact on my vocational discernment as it exposed me to the possibility of religious life for men. During my time at Cascia, I developed close relationships with several of the friars who taught and worked in the school, and these relationships fostered an awareness of how one might live out their baptismal call to holiness through a life of intentioned community living, prayer, and mission.
Dr. Knight: You went to college and joined the Brotherhood. How did you make that decision?
Brother Spencer: By the Spring of my senior year in college, I was pretty sure that I was being called to a life of service within the Church, but I was not sure in exactly what capacity. Because of this, after my graduation, I decided to do a year of service with the SPIRITUS program so that I could more intentionally discern my next steps in life. It was through my year with this program that I became more convinced of the tugging of my heart leading me into the direction of religious life. While I had visited some other religious communities prior to that point, the Augustinians, in part because of my long relationship with them, felt like family and the best fit for me. I guess you could say that in the course of my discerning the next step in front of me, the path kept leading to the Augustinians. Sometimes I’m not so sure if I chose it or it chose me; either way, God brought me here.
Dr. Knight: You were called by God to be an Augustinian Brother. What is the significance of your call to be a follower of Christ in this community?
Brother Spencer: The significance of such a call really comes back to baptism. Through my baptism, every part of me, indeed the deepest essence of who I am, was grafted onto the body of Christ such that my life has been indelibly marked with a movement to holiness and wholeness. My vocation then is the soil in which that movement can best flourish. My journey of discernment has led me to determine that this community is the most fitting environment, the most fertile soil for me, where I can become the best and most authentic version of myself.
Dr. Knight: You spent formation finding out your abilities and gifts through discernment. How was your discernment helpful to you personally?
Brother Spencer: Through my discernment in religious life, which has taken place over my past six years in formation with the Augustinians, I have come to a better understanding of my areas of giftedness as well as my areas of limitation. St. Augustine once prayed, “Lord, let me know myself, let me know You”. The pearl of wisdom here is that the more we come to authentically know ourselves, the more we come to know God, who is more intimate than our inmost selves. An older friar once told me that community living is like a house of mirrors; everywhere you turn, you are confronted with the reflection of your broken and beautiful self. As in a mirror, community life has a way of tapping into and bringing out your gifts for the service of your brothers, and community life also has a way of reflecting back your areas of weakness and limitation.
Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that your life is somewhat a mosaic of your different gifts?
Brother Spencer: I think that all of our lives are as a rich mosaic of gifts. To me, one of the neat things about religious life is that every one has a unique mosaic of treasures and gifts to bring to the community. The gifts that I bring may be very different from the friar sitting next to me in the pews, and yet it is that dynamic of diversity which allows for a richer expression of the whole to emerge.
Dr. Knight: What do you want the readers to understand after reading this interview about being a Augustinian Brother? About living in community?
Brother Spencer: Being an Augustinian, indeed being a religious in general, in not like what you see in the movies or on prayer cards. Popular piety within the Church often portrays religious life in a way which can easily be overly romanticized. The image of the Sister or Brother on his or her knees in prayer before the crucifix, hands folded and face aglow in contemplative ecstasy illustrates holy cards and prayer books the world over. To be fair, there is nothing inherently wrong with such an image, and indeed there is definitely some truth to it, but there is also much more. Religious life, like any other life where two or more human beings are living together under one roof, brings with it the challenges of navigating conflict, growing through each other’s hard edges, and balancing the demands of ministry with that of community life. In our religious life, we are gifted with the opportunity and infrastructure to carry out an intentioned and Sacramental life of prayer and ministry with a fervor that is distinctly ours, but at the end of the day, friaries still need to be cleaned, groceries still need to be procured, and bills still need to be paid.
On the other hand, our secular society today often paints a drab picture of religious life as being one devoid of any excitement and fulfillment, with the image of the dour looking nun or monk mindlessly carrying out their prayers or some dull task being particularly prevalent. Indeed, this image is thoroughly baked into the fabric of popular culture, and yet this is simply not anyone who has ever spent much time around religious knows that they are more often than not men and women who exude a joy and zeal for life that is very much palpable. Lived well, religious life offers one a life of deep-seated satisfaction, purpose, and adventure.
With all of that said, for me, being an Augustinian has been one of the greatest privileges of my life, and while it is not without the aforementioned challenges, I can honestly say that my religious vocation has helped me to become a better version of myself. For those readers in the process of vocational discernment, be it marriage, committed single life, priesthood, or religious life, I’ll leave you with the last line of a poem which has been dear to me for many years now: “Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.” —David Whyte, Sweet Darkness.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the challenges of the future Church?
Brother Spencer: Speaking from the context of the U.S Church, one of the most significant challenges I see on the horizon will be that of disentangling itself from the increasingly toxic climate of civic and cultural political polarization brought on by identity politics and a bitter tone of public discourse. This is no small task and yet, in order for the Church’s voice to speak with volume and clarity, it must be a voice which transcends the trenches of party politics and connects to that universal hungering of the restless heart which is shared by all people.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the joys you’ve experienced as an Augustinian Brother follower of Christ?
Brother Spencer: The opportunity to share my life with brothers who, like me, are striving for holiness has been a significant joy and privilege for me in my life, one for which I am very much grateful. I am constantly inspired by the witness to the Gospel set before me by my brothers in Augustine, who enkindle within me a desire to grow in my discipleship with the Lord Jesus.
I have also received much joy in getting to encounter and walk with so many beautiful people in my various ministries over the past six years in the Order. Whether it was sharing in the raw experiences of faith from persons in prison, tutoring a single parent working towards a GED, accompanying teens through the rollercoasters of high school, or ministering to the sick and dying in a hospital, the gift of ministry as an Augustinian religious brother has blessed me with a litany of grace-filled experiences of joy which humbles me to this day.
Dr. Knight: As a Augustinian Brother what are some of the duties that you perform/pray?
Brother Spencer: As a religious brother within an active community, my duties revolve around the balance of community life, prayer, and apostolic ministry. In the friary where I am currently stationed, our community prayer is centered around the celebration of the Eucharist, as well as the Liturgy of the Hours, coming together every day for prayer and Mass in the morning, as well as prayer in the evening. Our community life has us taking most of our meals together, with the main meal being supper in the early afternoon. Moreover, we have times set aside for community days of prayer, retreat, social outings and times of recreation. This is all delicately balanced within the matrix of active ministry. For myself, my active ministry is split between chaplaincy at a nearby Catholic hospital, and healthcare ministry with our elder and infirmed friars that reside in assisted living or skilled care.
Dr. Knight: Thank you so much for offering us this interview and letting us see all the good works that the Augustinian Brothers do for us all.