Interview With Br. Sean SSJE, STH ’13

Br. Sean Glenn SSJE is a monk of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Episcopal monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He earned an MTS from the Boston University School of Theology in 2013, after having received an MA in music from Queens College in 2011 and a BM in cello performance from Cornish College of the Arts in 2009. The Prophet sat down with him to ask him about how BU had an impact on his vocational discernment and what advice he would give to a current student seeking their path.

The Prophet: How did you come to be at the School of Theology?

Br. Sean: All my undergraduate studies were in music, and I was sort of being groomed to be an orchestral conductor. So I was really sort of being formed for a career in music primarily. And then, in my second year of undergrad I discovered that I love church music. I got a position at the cathedral in Seattle in the choir. It was mostly just to improve my sight reading. I knew I wasn’t going to be a cellist, that was the instrument that I was specializing in, and I wanted some other skills.

Long story short, you participate in liturgy enough, it’s going to change the way you see the world, and what I found is that what I was doing with my body, you know the Episcopal tradition is very sacramental, lots of movements of the body, a lot of participation, sort of incarnationally. And so I found that that was changing what I believed.

So I sort of changed tracks a bit, and decided I wanted to do a degree in sacred music. I knew that my organ skills weren’t quite up to snuff, and so I decided to do my first masters. I did it in composition, so that I can spend some time getting at music from the inside as it were.

I had applied to BU for the MSM program, and I applied to a couple of other places and got auditions, but I didn’t get into any of the conducting studios, and BU was the last place to get back to me. And it was like April of 2,011. I didn’t know where I was going in the fall. Should I pack up and go home to Seattle? So I called Anastasia, and said I haven’t heard back, what’s the deal? 

And she said “Well, you didn’t get into the conducting studio, but we looked at your writing and your interests, we think you’d be a great candidate for the MTS.”

And I thought… a degree in theology. Well, why not?

I’m not ready to pay my loans back like, let’s just keep going, I like being a student. It felt kind of providential. I wouldn’t have used that word then. So that’s sort of what took me there. 

I was already on the conversion fence. I was raised in a very secular family, and while my parents weren’t atheists, Christianity was sort of a four letter word in my house. I wasn’t quite understanding what this change in me, in my belief structures was, and so the School of Theology was the first place I ever encountered this sophisticated exposition of the faith. All these things made sense to me all of a sudden. You know, a lot of people go to seminary and have crises of faith. And I did have a crisis of faith, but it was faith in my old world view, and the deepening realization that the Gospel is true.

The Prophet: Was there anything in particular at STH, specific classes, a specific topic, papers you had to write, churches you attended, chapel services, whatever, that you feel especially led you toward faith or really made you think more deeply about what you believed in?

Br. Sean: Well, firstly, half the Episcopal chaplaincy was invaluable. I know Cameron Partridge isn’t the chaplain anymore, but his availability to me both as a queer man, and as someone trying to make sense of the faith was just amazing, and the fact that he was highly intellectual didn’t hurt. And as far as coursework goes. I don’t know if the school still does the Reading the World curriculum. It was a mandatory yearlong seminar that was paired with a course called Practices of Faith. The MTS Students didn’t have to take Practices of Faith, but we had to take the Reading the World course.  

A lot of people complained about it, too much at once.  

I really took a lot away from it, especially when I paired it with my Hebrew Bible course, and then the New Testament course.

I think I learned more about what I assume in that class than I had ever thought about in my life. It forced me to really think about why I believe what I believe, and where that comes from philosophically, historically. And it gave me a really good sort of, you know, rough overview of the really complicated, UN monolithic nature of church history, and it showed me that Christianity isn’t one thing necessarily: even at its most creedal, it’s still very diverse.

And some of the ways that the Gospel intersects with the political was mind blowing to me. We read one book by William Cavanaugh called Torture in the Eucharist, about the Roman Catholic Church’s response to the Pinochet regime in Chile. It blew my mind wide open when he talked about torture as the anti-liturgy to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist being the thing that brings things together, and torture the thing that divides people apart. I ended up reading a bunch of his books as a result, because I had never encountered him before.

It really also blew apart all of my assumptions about the Church’s history. I sort of believed that common received narrative of the Western modernity, there was all this dark time, and the Church was so repressive. And then the Enlightenment came, and everything was better. 

Then I realized that that wasn’t true, and that the way we use the word religion doesn’t always mean what I thought it meant, or what it colloquially means, and that was really world changing. If I had any crisis of faith, it’s around the systems that I had believed in around the State, and all of that.

What else, Theologies of Church Music was a great course, with Karen Westerfield Tucker. It really helped me as a musician, get beyond an appeal to the aesthetic, when

trying to both establish music in looking for a new setting, and defend it – there’s some contexts where you have to defend music in church for various reasons, and you can’t just make an aesthetic appeal there. It helped me to really ground my choices in text and orthodox considerations.

The other course of hers, that she partner-taught with Carl Daw, was called Song of Faith. It was advertised as a course on hymns, and you know, discussions of the faith in hymnic texts. But it was really a course on the Trinity, sort of covertly without saying it. It was a real defense of the Trinity as more than this sort of, you know, kitschy, out of date, overly intellectualizing thing I thought it was. It brought home the reality of the Trinity as an experience more than a way of naming, and how important the way we name God actually is.

Because the language we use often, you know, can be very limiting. To my surprise, the more doctrinally orthodox language is a lot more expansive, than some of the newer ways we try to fix our uncomfortable bits. They really close down what we can say about God and what we can believe about God. The strange thing is that the orthodox position is the most open-ended one, that lets God be God more often than not. 

And Carl’s hymnology course was amazing, but he’s not there anymore, so I don’t know anyone’s teaching that. 

Even to this day I’m still unpacking a lot of the gifts that were sort of the seeds that were planted when I was there. And it’s amazing how much an education in theology is relevant to more than just ministry, more than just academic preoccupations, or ecclesiological. I think everyone, whether they’re believers or not, needs to take a serious dive into theology, because it undergirds everything.

The Prophet: So were you confirmed Episcopalian back in Seattle or in Boston, or?

Br. Sean: I got confirmed in Boston the day I graduated from BU actually. It was a big day.

The Prophet: So were you attending a parish in Boston, or where did you go? 

Br Sean: For the first couple of weeks, I was in the choir at Christ Church, Cambridge, where I eventually ended up working after I graduated, but I found that the commute from Allston to Cambridge was a little unruly, and Wednesday rehearsals didn’t work out so well. So I ended up joining the Marsh Chapel choir, which was fantastic. Working with Scott Jarrett was just an incomparable gift.

It’s a beautiful liturgy, the musical elements are just incomparably beautiful. 

So for most of my time that was my worship community, the Sunday congregation at Marsh Chapel. January 2013, I ended up getting a job at St. John’s Bowdoin Street,

as one of the choristers there. There were four of us. St. John’s Bowdoin Street actually is a church that this community used to run. I didn’t know that at the time.

It was a breath of fresh air, going in there with the incense and the really high Anglican sacramentality, with the community that was totally casual, and you know, straight and gay and whatever and it reminded me that high is not dry. That was really lovely. 

It was sad to leave the Marsh Chapel community, but I needed a job, and I think I was really missing the kind of thing that I got a lot at Saint Mark’s in Seattle, and at St. John the Divine in New York City, the two places I had worked before. They spoiled me for everything else.

I did occasionally go to the Wednesday STH chapel service, but it needs to be consistent. I think regardless of your denomination, having a consistent liturgical practice is really important. 

I’ll tell you this, I didn’t really start praying on my own until two years after I left BU. I prayed, you know, in corporate settings a lot, but I’d never sat down by myself and said an Office. And oh, my God, it changed my life. I mean God was real all of a sudden, it wasn’t just theoretical. And Scripture spoke to me in ways that weren’t just of academic interest. I think it’s sort of strange I was able to get through an entire degree in theology, and not have an experience like that until afterwards. 

Part of that’s on me, I own up to that. But the fact that there wasn’t attention to daily prayer in a specific way, I think there’s room for the school to grow a bit. 

Seminary is very good at taking your faith apart into many pieces, and then not putting it back together. And they send you out in the world and go, “Okay, here you go put it back together.” 

The Prophet: So you’re at STH, and you’re being in the chapel choir and taking classes, and then you graduate, and get a job in Cambridge?

Br Sean: Yeah, I worked at Christ Church, Cambridge as the music program assistant. I think a more honest job description would have been coordinator for liturgy and music or something like that, because the job was really multifaceted. I had to deal with the youth choir, keep the library up, distribute music to the choir, do the bulletins. Which we printed every word and every image of every hymn for every liturgy, huge waste of paper. But I guess, pastorally, people didn’t want to juggle books.

I came to church to juggle books, thank you very much. That was one of the things that appealed to me about the church, all these books. And if people aren’t regularly holding the prayer book, they won’t know what’s in it.

I worked there for about five or six years, I think. It was a great job. It was only ostensibly part time. I usually worked like 30 hours, though, because the job couldn’t be done in fewer. It wasn’t a career level job, but I enjoyed it a lot. I loved working for the organist. He and I are still close friends. It was a great sort of dry run of the practical skills that I thought I needed.

And aside from that, there were a couple of jobs I applied for. There was one basically an analogous position to the one at Christ Church, but in San Francisco. And I thought, oh I want this, but I didn’t get it. Which was probably good, because San Francisco is very expensive. 

And I think I applied for a similar position at Trinity, but also didn’t get that. Wasn’t meant to be.

And then in 2016, when the world sort of decided it wanted to have a tantrum, I had a crisis internally like, How do I live? What’s the right way to live? How do I live my faith in a way that’s not just performing it on Sundays?

In a world that won’t make room for a vow of poverty. You know, I had all these people say, “Well, you should get a job that pays you more,”  and it’s like, I shouldn’t need to earn more.  I don’t think I need to earn more than I was making. 

A lot of what sort of propelled me into SSJE was kind of self-righteous, now that I look back on it. I had my reasons. God had God’s reasons. God’s reasons were better.

But I really needed to know if there was another way to inhabit the world, no pun intended.

And I ended up reading the Rule of Life. I was sitting at Grendel’s Den after work one day having a French 75, back when my body could handle alcohol, and I read the Rule of Life in one sitting, and thought, this is it. This is what I’ve been looking for.

The Prophet: How had you encountered SSJE?

Br. Sean: I first encountered SSJE in Holy Week of 2011, because Cameron, the chaplain, brought us here for the Triduum, which was amazing. I’d never been here, and the moment I walked in I thought this is great. And he brought us, I think, also, for a couple of days of retreat as well.

I got painfully sick the first time I was in silence. It was not good.

And so I knew it was here.  And I found that working at Christ Church was great, but I couldn’t worship where I worked, and so I was hungry for a place where I could go in and not be on, as it were. And so I would come down here on Tuesday nights after work.

And I remember very distinctly it was one night in the middle of the election campaign season and I was sitting in the ante chapel, and I thought to myself, as the Scripture was being read and the sermon was being preached, I was like, ‘I feel like it’s a war zone out there, and we’re the resistance here in this cave, talking about love, you know.’ And it really just descended on me like oh, my God, this is the resistance, you know.

I think that’s what I first thought what if? What if monasticism?

The Prophet: So you said that while you were at STH you really only prayed in the context of corporate liturgy, and then you didn’t start to pray by yourself until after graduation. Can you talk about how you came to that?

Br. Sean: I can’t remember what propelled me into it. One of my nerdier facets is that I have a thing for calendars and tables and things like that. So I think one day I really got into the lectionary, the Daily Office lectionary. Let’s try this. 

It may have coincided with the whole ‘This is the resistance’ thing.

But I remember I woke up one morning, very early in the morning. And it was in the summer, and I snuck out into the backyard to pray Morning Prayer, so that my boyfriend wouldn’t hear me. Then I crawled back into bed afterwards, feeling like I had cheated on him. 

It was partly an exercise in, can I do this? And sort of a curiosity of what does daily prayer even do? I sort of approached it empirically like, what is this? What does this do? 

A lot more than I ever imagined. 

I started experimenting with silence, started buying books on prayer. My 17 year old self went “What’s wrong with you, buying books on prayer?”  And then I read Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain.  I think I was just doomed, from then on. 

The Prophet: So you’re at Grendel’s Den Reading the Rule of Life, and you have this epiphany, and then…?

Br. Sean: I inquired. I met with Brother Jim, who at the time was the vocations brother. I think it was August of 2016, I submitted my formal inquiry form.

It was at that time that Brother Jim said, “Well, your student debt’s pretty astronomically high, and that’s a challenge. We have to think about that.” And I should have resigned myself then and there like oh, this isn’t going to happen, like capitalism screws me over yet again, and this big, you know, $100,000 $160,000 loan is just going to follow me for the rest of my life.

And then it was December, the second Tuesday in Advent. Jim came to me and said “You should come, start for an inquirer’s visit,” and I said, “Is that you can get me in for a retreat without having to pay?” And he said, “No, we want you to come for an inquirer’s visit.”

And I said, “What do you mean?”

He said “We’ve come to the conclusion that every man that comes to us is going to have some sort of academic debt, and if we can’t rise to meet that need, we have no business doing what we’re doing.And so the Superior started this next generation fund, and they’re setting aside significant amounts of money to help pay off the debt of men who come.”

So I ended up coming on an inquirer’s visit, and then I came on another one, about 4 months later, and then the conversation kept going, and I was on the fence. I was really terrified of changing anything. I was scared of leaving my boyfriend, because I really loved him. He hasn’t spoken to me in years, because I guess if you leave someone for Jesus…

And you know, mea culpa there, I was not the most gracious person to be committed to at that time.

And basically, Brother Jim said to me, “what do you got to lose?” 

And I thought: “Okay. I don’t know I don’t know. I can do this. Let’s just do this.” So in September 2017 I moved in, and thought I wasn’t going to make it through the first two weeks, I almost left like four times. I was like: I can’t do this. I can’t do this.

But a thing I said once when I was still a postulant, I said, “Well, you know I can’t tell if I want to be here for the rest of my life. But I want to see what God has in store for tomorrow.”

And so it’s just sort of, “Okay, I’ll stay till tomorrow, Lord.” And some brothers have been doing that 30 years.

The Prophet:  What has been challenging about living in a community? 

Br. Sean: We often say when we’re asked, you know what’s the best part and what’s the worst part about being at the monastery, the best part is the brothers and the worst part is the brothers. I mean community life is really deadly, and I mean that in a sort of multifaceted way. It’s sort of Gospel deadly, meaning it helps you die to yourself.

It’s not because it’s bad people. Not that at all. It’s just because we’re so close, and that we work and live and pray right on top of one another, and there’s no break. And so that that crucible is sort of really what fires conversion in a big way.

We’re all broken. We’re sinners in need of God’s grace, and every day it’s a learning experience to live into that grace, to live into that forbearing love and to really realize that Christ is the sole arbiter of the call, not me, or that my brother, or that brother, and that given that we can’t reform one another on our own terms.

It’s very tempting to try to reform someone according to our own preconception, without letting Christ do it, on Christ’s terms. Which are a lot less strict, I think, than all of ours.

The Prophet: Is there any advice you would give to a young person, any gender, any sexual orientation where they’re considering celibacy or a monastic vocation, but maybe they also have a significant other or they’re not sure?

Br. Sean: I would say, in a monastic setting or not, try to find community. And if you can find community you can live with, even better, not just for the security that it provides, not just for the emotional benefits it provides, but because conversion doesn’t happen when you’re alone. Conversion isn’t a solitary act.

And while a lot of the Desert Fathers went out to be alone they quickly learned they had to come back together, even in sort of quasi-cenobitic communities to make it work. Probably for protection from animals and bandits, but also to work through the challenges of the life of prayer. Prayer isn’t solitary. Even when we’re alone in our cells praying, we’re aware the whole Communion of Saints is praying too.

This was a helpful thing that someone said to me when I first met with my confessor, he said celibacy is something you have to grow into, it’s not something that you can just walk in, put it on and be celibate. 

I think celibacy as a vow is less about the sexual act and more about singleness and availability to God. 

I’m still learning how to inhabit that vow in a way that’s faithful in a way that isn’t just running away from intimacy. In a way that isn’t running away from my own latent homophobia, which I didn’t realize was a thing until I tried this out and went, oh, I have some really problematic views about being gay, and I didn’t realize it. 

And in that way I think God uses this time here for more than we think. You know we all have our designs. God uses the vows to do things. 

I mean the most significant part of a vow for me isn’t demonstrating one’s faithfulness and fortitude, but demonstrating one’s dependence when one falls and fails and breaks that vow.  And I think a lot of straight married couples could learn a thing or two about what it means to hold someone in a vow, knowing they’re a fragile human who’s probably going to break it at some point, and looking at how God responds in those moments and trying to live into that kind of love, that kind of abiding love. 

If anyone’s thinking about looking into religious life more broadly, I say, do it! You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

And I’m absolutely serious. It’ll be a wild ride, but the Holy Spirit takes us into the wild places.

The Prophet: Is there anything else you would say to current STH students thinking about their vocation, or thinking about what they want to do?

Br. Sean: Pray together. Make space to pray together. Make space to pray together regularly, with some structure, even if it’s ten minutes, you know. I think it would blow some fresh spiritual wind into the studies, into one’s faith, into the one’s connection to the community, and to their own ongoing discernment as to what God’s call for their life is. 

Because it’s looking more and more like the sort of parish model isn’t all that viable in certain parts of the world. And so where would God, with these skills you’re learning, where do you think God could use you, in a way that might not be all that traditional?

The Prophet: Are there any new ministries that you would like to be able to start or participate in?

Br. Sean: One of the things I’ve focused on in my writing is using chronic illness as a window into faith. I’ve lived with HIV since I was 24, and that’s provided a really significant window into ways that God uses things that we don’t think are good to really do powerful things. So one of the ministries I hope to keep engaging in is is working with people who are chronically sick, and helping them to see what God is doing through that kind of affliction, and to make it not affliction anymore, not punishment, to see it as a kind of intimacy

with the eternally risen but ever wounded, Lord.

And of course I always try to get people singing.

I want to work with queer people. I really want to work with people who don’t think God loves them.

When I’m out, when I don’t have to be here, sometimes I end up meeting people. I listen and I listen, and I hear queer people who don’t realize just how much God is working through them, with them, in them. And yet I hear them talking about how well God must hate me because I’m blah blah blah. I feel like the Church has done so much harm. I want to be there to say no, You are beloved. You are fabulously made, by a God who blows apart all these concepts of gay, straight male, female. In Christ, there’s none of it.


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