Follow the Path of Br. Stephen Isley: His discernment and life before the Order.
In the Directory of Midwest Augustinian friars in 2010, the youngest listed member was 40 years old, born in 1970. Set to be added to the directory’s next installment was Stephen Isley, born in 1987: “I remember looking at the directory and thinking, ‘Oh my God! I’m going to be the youngest guy here by 17 years!’”
It would be hard to imagine for Br. Stephen that just six years later the Augustinians would have 40 men in formation across North America with 11 newly professed friars in 2016 alone. Young men looking today will have a very different image of the Order than the one had by Br. Stephen. What led a young man, just out of college, to make the leap to join a religious community that had not witnessed the solemn profession of a younger vocation in over a generation? Why the Augustinians of all Orders? On the occasion of his Diaconate Ordination, we wish to explore what led Br. Stephen into the Augustinian formation program in 2009.
BEFORE HEARING THE CALL
Br. Stephen grew up in the vibrant Catholic community of Wichita, Kansas, attending his local parochial school of Saint Francis of Assisi. “It was a world where everyone and their dog was Catholic, and everyone I saw at school during the week I saw at Mass on Sunday.” Br. Stephen went on to Bishop Carroll Catholic High School of the Diocese of Wichita, a school known for producing many vocations. While there were many good model priests and seminarians, and his name surfaced a few times among classmates as someone who should consider a priestly vocation, the diocesan priesthood never held much attraction for Br. Stephen and men’s religious life was as yet unknown to him.
Meanwhile, he continued to be attracted to experiences of community through the cross-country and track teams and the local youth group. When he entered the University of Tulsa as a philosophy major, he continued participated regularly in the life of the university’s Newman Center. He began to deepen his spirituality, attending adoration, daily masses, and began to pray the liturgy of the hours. Again, he would be asked from time to time whether he had thought about becoming a priest. “I’d tell people, ‘Woah! You can study philosophy, go to Mass, and grow a beard without becoming a priest.’” At this point, the idea of a vocation to religious life was still unknown.
READING SAINT AUGUSTINE
This would change during Br. Stephen’s second semester at the University of tulsa with a course on Medieval Culture. Early readings included the Life of Anthony of the Desert and Saint Benedict. “Growing up where it was so easy to be Catholic, I was stunned by how radically these men lived out the Gospel. I wondered, ‘Where can I see this in the Church today?’” Still, he felt more admiration than attraction. The accounts of these men made them seem otherworldly, figures more of awe than of imitation. In Augustine’s Confessions, written by that saint’s own hand, Br. Stephen found something much closer to home. “It was like looking in a mirror. His questions to himself about himself were the same questions I was asking myself. Eventually his journey became my journey and his prayer became my prayer.“
“O LORD, YOU KNOW ALL MY LONGINGS”
Br. Stephen’s prayer did begin to change, marked more by question than answer and more by silence than by speech. The path he had envisioned for himself began to look less clear. He had a loving romantic relationship of more than two years but found that a different longing was building up: a longing for prayer and community, a longing for poverty, chastity, and obedience.
“It was like looking in a mirror. [St. Augustine’s] questions to himself about himself were the same questions I was asking myself. Eventually his journey became my journey and his prayer became my prayer.
— Br. Stephen, on Reading The Confessions for the first time
As the semester went on, the shape of this longing became more clear. Br. Stephen discovered the important vocation of religious brotherhood and that religious life was not just a different way of being a priest but was its own vocation. He became enamored, too, of the mendicant movement that mixed the prayer and community of the monasteries with ministry in the world.
AN AUGUSTINIAN ENCOUNTER
That summer after his first year, he felt it time to confess his restless heart to his girlfriend and end the relationship. Strengthened by her support and God’s peace, he journeyed to a discernment retreat he had heard of to find some direction. The first presenter was an Augustinian friar, Br. Paul Koscielniak, O.S.A. Struck by his enthusiasm, Br. Stephen searched him out to visit one-on-one. He was struck by the connections between his recent discoveries of Augustinian spirituality, religious brotherhood, and the mendicant movement with what he was hearing from Br. Paul.
Delighted to hear that there was a community just a few miles from the University, Br. Stephen began to spend time with the Augustinians at nearby Cascia Hall, joining with them for shared prayer and meals as well as seeking spiritual direction. The friars were warm and inviting, and the monastery itself very homey. “More than anything, it felt like entering my grandpa’s house, where we had celebrated all the major holidays as kids. The feeling caught me off-guard, but it was a welcome one.”
There were, however, plenty of ups and downs over this period, during which he was also finishing college. The age disparity was striking after the narrow age range of campus life. The hospitality and welcome of the community, surprisingly, was its own obstacle. “You have to realize, at 20 years old, you want grand gestures. Anthony going to the desert or Francis stripping out of his clothes before the bishop. At that time, I thought a religious vocation meant renouncing who you were rather than consecrating who you are.”
Despite some lingering hesitations, Br. Stephen continued to feel convicted by his call and decided to apply to enter the Order. “People would ask me, ‘Why did you join the Augustinians?’ At that time, I didn’t know why? I just knew that God was calling me. But the reasons for that call would be revealed in time.”
ONE MIND AND ONE HEART
It was not until entering the pre-novitiate that Br. Stephen discovered the Rule of Saint Augustine and the reason for God’s call to this community. As he had once read himself and the longings of his heart in Augustine’s Confessions, the same happened now in those early words of the Rule: The primary purpose for you having coming together is to live harmoniously in your house, with one mind and one heart on the way to God. “Reading these words that may as well have been my own, I realized that I had already been living Augustinian life. Perhaps I had always been living Augustinian life. The journey of Augustinian formation, then, has been a journey of self-discovery in the loving presence of God and my brothers.”
We are incredibly blessed as a community for the example Br. Stephen has set for the young men who have entered into formation behind him. Please continue your prayers for Br. Stephen as he prepares for his priestly ordination this summer.