Editor’s Note: It is our pleasure to share with readers this first of a series of posts chronicling the conversion and calling of Fr. Bonfice Hicks, OSB, one of our Avila Summit Speakers this past summer, and his explanation and exploration of Benedictine spirituality. Stay tuned for future installments!
A principal theme in my own faith journey is that God writes straight with crooked lines. A more eloquent way to say it would be that every calling is as unique as each individual. Another important interpretive tool is knowing that life is lived forward and understood backward. With these points in mind, I can say that I believe whole-heartedly that my life as a Benedictine monk is exactly where God wants me to be. At the same time, I can say that the more I live out this vocation the more I understand why this is where He wants me.
I was raised in a very loving and moral home but without any religious practice. The influences of society and public education steadily led me to a scientific atheist mindset that was fortunately not well fortified. It was slowly whittled down by the witness of friends in college who were in the honors program and scientific disciplines but also attended Mass regularly. Then the real journey began for me when an evangelical man came up to me on my college campus and invited me to study the Bible with him one-on-one. He was a total stranger to me and to be honest, I was quite disinterested and dismissive of him in my thoughts, but when he finally asked me, after a lengthy introduction, whether I would meet with him for a Bible study, I agreed. He was a real believer and the humble, authentic witness of his relationship with God delivered the Truth through my defenses. After nine months of meetings, we covered the book of Genesis through the story of Abraham before moving to the Gospel of John. After I read the Prologue of John I became a Christian. I believed that God was real and the Bible was true and I started going to Mass on Sundays.
Six months later I went to Germany for a study abroad. By that time I was meeting daily for Bible study and my life was slowly transformed as I took in the Word of God and that Word brought deeper peace to my heart. Our daily Bible study was structured like a shared Lectio Divina with a short reading from a passage, time for personal reflection, which we wrote down and then read to each other, and then a time of spontaneous, vocal prayer. I was receiving a lot from the Word and from these wholesome, upbuilding times of shared prayer. There was still some resistance in me, however, that emerged as I planned my trip to Germany. I thought of taking a break from all the Christian stuff I was doing, growing my hair out again, and taking advantage of the lower legal age for alcohol consumption. The man I was studying the Bible with was praying for me, however, and with some divine inspiration, he said to me one morning that he wanted to send me to Germany as a missionary. I was concerned and a little afraid of that idea, but I surrendered, trusted and prayed about it. My experience in Germany was life-changing and set the stage for my vocation.
I still had some resistance when I got on the plane and formulated the thought that if God wanted me to be a missionary He could let me know. When I landed on a Saturday morning, I was met by some evangelicals from the same Bible study movement as I had been part of. I understood that they were going to take me to the train so I could continue on my way to the University in Marburg. Instead, they took me to their home, fed me and visited with me. When I finally intervened and asked about getting to the train, they decided to call the University first to make sure someone would be there to meet me, but no one answered. They urged me to stay with them for the weekend lest I be stuck in a hotel in Marburg. After reluctantly agreeing, they asked if I would be willing to give my life testimony at their worship service the next day. Again I agreed reluctantly and so my second day in Germany I gave witness to God’s work in my life, in German, at a worship service. After the initial shock wore off from the unexpected change in plans, I had a beautiful weekend. God had averted my plans to drift from my Christian faith.
The real breakthrough came a few weeks later, however. After an initial language course that was easy for me, I began taking German graduate-level classes in Math and Computer Science. I was overwhelmed by school for the first time in my life. For the first time in my life, I turned to God out of my weakness. I prayed for help. He intervened in miraculous ways and provided for my needs. In the wake of that, something happened one morning during my prayer time. I suddenly felt that He was close to me. A felt peace and a presence and the rest of the world became very distant. I realized that I could talk to Him and also listen for Him in my heart. The thoughts that came to me had a strangely different quality as they emerged from an interior quiet that was tangibly different from my normal experience. I felt profound love and reassurance. I was also challenged as I asked Him if there was anything in my life I needed to change. Even then, however, I knew I could tell Him that I wouldn’t be able to change that on my own and I would need His help. After that experience, I started turning to God for the smallest things—from asking which way to walk to class that day to asking which meat I should buy for dinner.
Immediately after this initial encounter with God in prayer, I realized how amazing it was that I could have such a personal relationship with Him and I spontaneously thought that it would be worth dedicating my life to sharing this gift with others. That was the kernel of my vocation—the desire to share the gift of prayer.
The Growth of a Vocation
The kernel of my vocation was in my initial experience of a personal encounter with God in prayer. In retrospect, I can apply the teaching of St. Ignatius of Loyola to that experience and say that it was my first experience of spiritual consolation. In the experience of inner quiet and the presence of God that lifted me above every created thing, I was able to hear truth in my heart that I trusted and followed. In the weeks that followed that initial experience, I explored the contours of my inner experience of God, trying to understand what was necessary to be sure it was God speaking to me through the veil of faith. When I finally discovered the teaching of St. Ignatius many years later, it perfectly described what I had been trying to grasp in those initial weeks of my experience of God in prayer while I was studying in Germany.
During that grace-filled time of my life, I developed a real desire to dedicate my life to sharing the gift of prayer. So early in my Christian journey, I did not have adequate categories or concepts to work with, however. After all, I was not even baptized yet. My initial thought was to become a priest because I knew priests dedicated their lives to sharing prayer. To demonstrate how strong my conviction was, I was not deterred in the least by the sacrifices that would entail. That felt very secondary to me at that point.
When I returned from Germany, however, my prayer life diminished. Combined with some moral lapses and the busyness of my last year of college pushed my vocation farther from my mind. In retrospect, when I look at that period in my life I feel the ache of the words of Jesus in the Book of Revelation, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first” (Rev 2:4-5). The good news is that I started RCIA at that time and began my formal journey into the Catholic Church. I had also continued with Bible study and was becoming more involved in the evangelical group that promoted those one-on-one Bible studies.
Fortunately, various factors led to a renewal of my vocation. One of those factors was when the two paths I had been walking in parallel finally turned into a crossroads. My Christian journey had begun and developed through a Bible study with an evangelical group at Penn State. My religious practice had developed through attending Catholic Mass and preparing to receive the Sacraments of initiation. On the morning of Holy Thursday, after several attempts to help me see that I could not continue on these two paths in parallel indefinitely, the man I was studying the Bible with helped me to see that if I was planning to be baptized Catholic, I needed to commit myself to ministry in the Catholic Church. Otherwise, I could continue with ministry in the Bible fellowship.
I did not want to break from either path. I was driven to my knees and spent the day in prayer. At one point, while I was praying before the Lord in the Tabernacle, I asked Him what I should do and I saw the flame of the sanctuary lamp flare up slightly. The words that came with it were, “I want you to fan the flame of my Church.” From that point, things fell into place as I started to discover that attending Mass for two years without receiving Communion had developed quite a hunger in me for the Sacraments. So, on Holy Thursday, two days before receiving the Sacraments of initiation, I made a decision in my heart to give my life to God for service in the Catholic Church, whatever that might look like.
The campus minister, who was a Benedictine priest from Saint Vincent Archabbey, invited me to join him and some other students on the weekend after Easter for a vocation retreat at the Archabbey. I had no idea what a monk was, but the stereotype in my mind made me dismiss the idea of a monastic vocation because I felt so drawn to share faith with people, not just to hide away and pray. At the same time, I thought a weekend retreat would be fulfilling and I am always open to learning. In fact, it turned out to be a profound experience.
( To be continued…)