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The Mystery/Gift of Brotherhood

n the pre-Vatican II days the role of the Brother was easily understood, respected and appreciated. The great Mission Houses, printing presses, plantations and in houses ministries were of huge importance to the support and mission of our Society. In contemporary times, the question of “what Brothers do” is not so easily handled. Vatican II inspired quite a bit of change for Brothers with regard to the plethora of activities in which we find Brothers engaged. The down side of such apostolic availability is an ambiguity in the definition of Brothers based on “what Brothers do”. This situation sometimes corners us into negative definitions of what Brothers do: “do not say Mass,” “Do not hear confessions.” This approach is most unacceptable!

So what’s a Brother to do, short of delivering an ontological treatise? If he wants to answer a serious question about his life, his identity, his call? I suggest we try to deflect the query with a few rhetorical questions of his own: What do Brothers bring to our individual professions? How does our training and commitment to Brotherhood inform the ministry we do in our professional choices? How does my lived reality of being a Brother affect what I do? These kinds of questions, pondered, reflected upon in prayer, gradually taking on deeper meaning, may lead us to a clearer realization of the gift of our own vocation in life and our call of service to God’s people. Such a realization may help us explain, if not more clearly at least more confidently, the mystery and gift that Brotherhood is.

Brothers live “on the edge”, we tend to resent definition. We freely choose to eschew the facile groundedness of official function, status, or place in the church. By doing so, we keep company with prophets and live an intuitive experience that defies easy codification. Living the freeing, creative prophetic experience of being a Brother renders our lives liable to more than one interpretation. Yet that is an ambiguity that we revere, ‘blessed ambiguity’ for it captures the reality we experience in the church.

Basically, all life is a mystery of grace and call. It seems, though, that brother’s lives are rendered even more a mystery than most consecrated lives in the church. Why is this so? Perhaps it is because there are relatively few of us. But there are relatively few bishops, too. Yet bishops, having a recognized office in the hierarchical configuration of the presbyterate and a public function, are not at all unknown despite their unknown numbers.

Perhaps it is a priest-thing. Catholics have cultural awe for the sacramental priesthood because of the centrality of the Eucharist to our lives and our communities of faith and worship. Any consecrated, religious celibate male who does not function as a presbyter is suspect. The suspicion is not so much a lack of credentials (not smart enough? Couldn’t learn the Latin? Etc), but rather questions why a talented man would chose celibacy and religious life and not the adulation of priesthood? The theology of call frames a good explanation, most people’s eyes glaze over at the telling.

Perhaps it is a reticence on the part of brothers to speak of that which is most meaningful to us because the mystery of our call, by its very mystery, is ultimately unexplainable. Such situations are certainly not unknown to the human condition. Consider trying to explain the phenomenon of “falling in love”. One usually fumbles around for expressions that attempt to relate the experience. Confronted with the inadequacy of words and concepts, inevitably one is forced to use metaphor, simile or poetry in the explanation. This often results in the aforementioned eye glaze of the listener. Experiences of great depth like love, vocation, inner peace, mysticism, brotherhood, may be more fruitfully described by their effects. This could be a key to unlocking our mystery, and a glimpse at a blessed ambiguity.

For thirty plus years I have embraced this mystery, this gift called Brother. I can not imagine living authentically in any other way. I have grown into the culture of this vocation so fully, my life choices have been shaped so definitively, God’s grace has guided me so gradually and the communities I have been blessed to live in have nurtured this vocation.

We Divine Word Missionaries need to continue to articulate, to verbalize, this mystery, this gift of Brotherhood. For it is sharing, experiencing and expressing brother that we enflesh the mystery, the gift of our vocation. Sociologists claim that different cultures are but different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence. The language, the rituals, the traditions, the myths, the stories we share in common are a culture of brotherhood that binds us together in our common quest to follow Jesus, the ultimate meaning of our personal existence.

USC, 29 January 2007.
Br. Bernie Spitzley, svd.