After Cleaning Churches, Robinette Finds God in Uncertainty

Brian Robinette is a lifelong music enthusiast. He can sing, he can play the drums, and for a large part of his life, he considered becoming a professional musician.

Aside from his passion for music, there is one thing that grants him an even deeper sense of joy—one thing that lights his spirit up in a way that no song or instrument ever has—and that is the simple beauty of inner silence.

Raised in the rural factory town of Anderson, Ind., Robinette grew up in a community of Pentecostal Christians, who hold a significantly more literalist interpretation of the Bible than one might find at Boston College. Robinette was expected to embrace his community’s beliefs, and failure to do so meant ostracization. As a teen, Robinette teetered between the faith he inherited from his parents and his own growing doubts about the nature of existence.

“Internally, I felt that there were a lot of questions I had to ask myself,” he said. “These were very significant questions, like who am I? What is this all about? Is there a God and if not, then now what?”

In tandem with his doubts about God’s existence, Robinette was also conflicted by his desire to lead an ordinary, collegiate life and his growing ambition to pursue a career based on music. He knew that no matter what path he took, he would ultimately need to earn a degree first and so, upon graduating high school, he applied and was accepted to Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

His freshman year courses in music business and music production weren’t enough to quell his fantasies of dropping out of school, moving to New York, and eventually going on tour.

“It really wasn’t until my sophomore year that the light turned on for me, and then intellectual endeavor became intrinsic, and my engagement in academics went through the roof,” he said.

That “light” was ignited by a survey of British literature class, which Robinette enrolled in just to fulfill his core requirement. Before he knew it, he fell in love with the works of great British poets and essayists from the Victorian era, like Thomas Hardy, Matthew Arnold, and Walter Pater.

“I was particularly interested in writing and reading about the Victorian sense of mourning over the lost enchanted world,” he said. “That is, the sense that it was no longer easy, nor possible, to believe in God and the sort of inner destitution that that can produce. So I was drawn to writers that were exploring what it was like to live in the twilight of the gods or of God, because that  was going on in myself as well.”

With this appreciation for the written word came a fondness for the philosophies that guided the pens of these immortalized souls. Books were mediums for testing ethical systems and exploring the dynamics of the human mind. Suddenly, he found himself staring at the same question he had tried to run from: Is there a God, and if not, what do we do?

“By the time that I graduated college, I was perfectly confused,” he said.

But something within him knew that the sun would rise.

For his sharp writing skills and fondness for the intricacies of the English language, Robinette was immediately hired after graduation to be a contributing editor for a large public relations agency, Chaz Taylor Inc, where he was grateful for the secure salary right out of college—but something was missing.

That radiant sensation of inner light he’d experienced while reading British literature his sophomore year of college, or while playing the drums his senior year of high school, had suddenly grow dim. By his third month at the agency, he was already dreaming of a way out. Nostalgic for the classroom setting, he mused about becoming a professor.

“I was in this in-between spot where lots of things interested me, but no one thing commanded me,” Robinette said. “I looked at my wife Krista and said, ‘How do I early retire?’ She looked back at me and said, ‘You’ve got a few things to figure out.’”

Robinette began researching and exploring the prospects of applying to graduate school more seriously. It became clear to him that he needed to find a resolute path, but that he could not hurry in doing so. But, in an unexpected moment, clarity struck.

“I was outside, chopping and moving wood behind my apartment,” he says. “And … It occurred to me: What better thing to do than to become a janitor at a church?”

When he first approached his high school sweetheart-turned wife with the idea, the conversation was intense. But, ultimately she came around and recognized the necessity of him leaving his job.

After that, Robinette began to call churches during his lunch break at the office to ask about work. About halfway down the list, he got to a church called St. Bartholomew’s in Indiana and was informed that it had lost its former janitor just the other day and was looking for someone to fill the position.  

When asked what work experience he had, Robinette’s confidence faded to a mumble. “I’m a contributing editor,” he said. Though the rector, Fr. Ian, was initially skeptical, Robinette was hired shortly after, put in his two-weeks notice, and was soon learning the ways of being a janitor.

“It was during that year that I cut my hair and wanted to just be unknown,” he said. “I was able to live out this desire that had always been with me, essentially to live the life of the monk. That year is when it became clear to me which direction in my life I would go. The religious questions came back. I started to warm up to the idea of God again after a real flushing out and a purgation of it.”

It seems that as Robinette tried to re-familiarize himself with the idea of a present God, God himself intervened and led Robinette to stumble across a collection of the sermons by the medieval German theologian, philosopher, and mystic, Meister Eckhart, that explored Christian mysticism.

“There was such a resonance with what he was saying,” Robinette said. “It was a language around God that was so alive and piercing—so direct and awakening. It changed my life.”

After becoming enchanted by the ideas of Eckhart, Robinette branched out to read more mystics like Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, and eventually more contemporary writers, like Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton.

“What was happening to me was a slow reenchantment with Christianity,” he said. “I realized there was this whole other dimension of Christianity that wasn’t just some esoteric side-show but something that was deeply radiating through me.”

Reading such intellectually stimulating Christian writing created a budding interest in Catholicism. Given his Pentecostal upbringing, however, there was still a lot that Robinette did not know about the Catholic faith. In his uncertainty, it occurred to him that if he was going to embark upon this path, he would need a spiritual mentor.

Once again, Robinette reached for the phone and began to call churches in the area. Eventually, he came across William Nolan, once a Trappist monk who lived in monastery, cloistered from society, then left the community and integrated back into society with a professorship at Vanderbilt University.

“He helped me to see how I could integrate these deep inner promptings into ordinary life,” Robinette said. “It was really a crucial, providential intervention.”

Ultimately, it was Nolan’s guidance, as well as his wife’s unwavering support, that gave launched Robinette onto the path to become a professor. After earning his masters at St. John’s University in Minnesota and his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame, he was offered his first position as a professor at Saint Louis University. It was during his time there that he became a father and gained tenure at the university.

Nearly a decade later, Robinette was offered a position to teach at BC. Initially, he and Krista were unsure—both of their families lived in Anderson, Ind. and they now had two young sons. But soon they packed their bags for Boston.

Today, Robinette has been teaching at BC for almost six years. He an associate professor of several senior courses, an administrator of the theology department, and the instructor of the beloved core pilot course Spiritual and Aesthetic Exercises. Robinette’s class allows students to explore religion in the context of everyday life and to engage in a profoundly transformative study of contemplative practice.

“I had always been taught traditions like, say, praying with the Rosary,”  Gabby Silverman, MCAS ’20, said. “But this was something completely different that was not about action at all, but simply about being.”

Robinette’s open-minded approach toward students in conversations on faith rises from a place of deep understanding and experience. The best way to address feelings of doubt or distance from God, he said, is to look inward and to kindly welcome the questions and emotions that arise.

“We are always looking outwards, but really the questions and answers flow from deep within our own capacity,” he said. “Mediation grants you permission to explore the fundamental mystery of who you are.”

We cannot make sense of the external world until we have had a true encounter with silence—until we have retreated into the quiet space that lies at the heart of who we are.

When we return to the noise and to the beautiful chaos that comprises reality, the music will be all the more powerful.

“There is a renewed intimacy with words, images, and manifestations if you give yourself totally to silence,” Robinette said. “Returning, it all feels so fresh—like the first day of creation, like the very first day you opened your eyes.”

Photo Courtesy of BC.edu

February 18, 2018

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