Thursday, December 5, 2013

My Life as a Religious

By Brother Michael O’Neill McGrath, OSFS

There is a saying in our community, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, that it takes forty years to make a good Oblate. It didn’t mean anything to me in my youth, when projecting forty years into the future seemed inconsequential, but it has taken on meaning now that those forty years represent my past. I have come a long way: I have done interesting things and have always loved what I do. I have been blessed to travel the country and a good bit of the world and have made many friends. I suppose I have evolved into a passably good Oblate, but as an eternal novice, I admit that I see room for improvement.

Why I entered religious life is not anywhere near as important as why I have stayed. I am not that same young man with the same dreams and motivations. When I entered, I thought I wanted to be a priest, but changed my mind during the novitiate when I realized that priesthood could totally interfere with my vocation as an artist, shifting it to secondary importance, or worse. I cherish my role as a brother and the freedom it affords me to soar and explore.

Next year, 2014, will mark the fortieth anniversary of my entrance into the community right out of high school from a family of seven in Philadelphia. If I hadn’t chosen the Oblates, I would likely have gone to art school. From the start, the Oblates have helped me find ways to nurture the gift of art and express it. After I received my Master of Fine Arts degree in painting, I taught studio art and art history for 11 years at De Sales University, but left that world twenty years ago to pursue full time the ministry of art.

Here is how it works for me: first and foremost, I paint. I paint holy pictures of Jesus, Mary, and whatever saint grabs my attention. Then, I share those paintings and the stories behind them in retreat talks and presentations. Next, often, I publish them as books or prints. Whatever the format or medium, my message is the same: that beauty heals us and helps us find God in our hearts. It is a form of prayer without words and brings us inner peace. Who could ask for more than that?

Forty years ago, when I entered the Oblates, I just wanted to learn how to paint and pray, in that order. I never dreamed that one day I would find myself living and working in Camden, New Jersey, doing what I love more than anything else, surrounded by dear and encouraging confreres. When you open your heart and soul to the workings of the Spirit, when you discover the spirituality that works for you and helps you define your life and set your limits, then it doesn’t get any better than that.

As St. Francis De Sales used to say, “Be who you are and be that perfectly well.” And that, my friends, is why after forty years I am still, happily, a religious brother.


Brother Mickey McGrath, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, is an award-winning artist, author and speaker whose work explores the connections between art and religious faith. His eleventh book, SAVED BY BEAUTY: A Spiritual Journey with Dorothy Day, (World Library Publications) was honored in 2013 with two first place awards: one from the Catholic Press Association and one from the Association of Catholic Publishers.

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