A part from why do you wear a brown dress and what do you wear underneath the commonest question I am often asked is why did you become a brother. This question came up in part in a conversation I had this afternoon, but more in relation to the context of my forthcoming attendance at a Diocesan discernment day (for those exploring ordained ministry in the Diocese of Brisbane).

It is usually at that point, but why…, that I have come to stop people and respond by saying I don’t want to… but…. I don’t think it is a case of want, that is, when people say why did (do) you want to… I want to stop them and explain that it is not like I want to be a brother or a priest. There are many things I want in life; travel, money, a great job with good benefits, a relationship, a home of my own, control over decisions about my life. There are some things I don’t want in my life; having to consider other people when it comes to making decisions (good or bad) about my life, yet more study, yet more ‘formation’.

However, there is a reality of which I must face. That is, the consistent and often persistent plague of thoughts that I am to live a different life than the one I want.

When I was a young lad my family lived below what people call the poverty line (which when defined or quantified is already far below the poverty line). It got even worse when my father passed away and my mother had to raise four kids on her own, with the grateful help of the department of social security. Going out was a big deal, even if that was to have lunch at the Woolworths’ cafeteria in Town Hall with my uncle during the Christmas school holidays. We (us kids) would be given a small amount of money to get lunch. One Christmas holidays we had our annual outing. Standing waiting for my uncle to arrive to meet us at Town Hall a lady, dirty, in ragged clothing, pushing a cart, passed us and proceeded to go through a garbage bin to find something to eat. I remember watching in horror that someone had to do this. I recall telling my uncle, who’d arrived, that she could have my lunch. I was fobbed off with some meaningless statement. But all I could think of was what if that was my mother, I’d want someone to help her and give her something better to eat and not have to be so degraded as to have to eat left overs out of a bin.

I also had a very itinerant childhood. I think I attended more schools than I’d had hot Sunday roasts in the same years. As often the ‘new boy’ I experienced all too often what it was like to feel left aside. On some occasions, I’d never worked out exactly why, sometimes being ‘on the outside’ meant being targeted for systematic terrorising by those ‘on the inside’. I was perplexed as to why people would exclude others and treat them in an appalling uncompassionate manner. I never understood the logic of that kind of treatment. Thankfully there were other moments when I found people who could rise above the apparent social ‘rules and customs’ and act in a fair, just and compassionate manner.

When I discovered church at the age of 11 I began learning about people who set aside their lives for the sake of others. They would forgo their lives, money, cars, houses, jobs, careers etc to enter the ‘missions’. They felt so strongly about the needs of others being greater than their needs that they were prepared to give up their lives for the sake of others. I was so inspired by the stories our ‘missionaries’ would tell, of how they had been in some developing country teaching, nursing, spreading the gospel that I wanted to be just like them. It made perfect sense. Surely being there for another in their time of need was exactly what I had learned from all those countless sermons and Sunday school lessons.

The feeling to be ‘just like them’ has been a constant dichotomy between the life I want to live and the life I feel called to live. As I got older there were times the voice was still and if I was lucky – silent. But then in the faces of the lonely, the hungry, the sick, the dispossed, the excluded it would raise its voice into a full symphony; using the lives of people like Damien of Molokai, Francis of Assisi, Theresa of Calcutta, to name a few, to be the instruments.

Out of curiosity, perhaps exhaustion, what ever it was I had to find an answer; to find if the symphony of voices could be silenced. So I decided I could do nothing else but to submit to the voices and see what happened. I gave up the life I had (I wanted) and entered into the life I felt the voices calling me into. I still don’t know if I belong in this world. I’m still not sure if I want to be in this world. I certainly battle to fend off temptation to go back to the life I want.

So when people ask me why did (do) you want to be… my first reply now is I don’t. But the Catch 22 is that the voices have not silenced, and while they continue their Opus in my heart and soul I cannot listen to the ones in my head which tell me I should return to my old life, the life I want.

 So when a student says to me why do you want to be a brother or the examining chaplain says why do you want to be a priest I simply now say  I don’t but I need to at least explore if I should.

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