The Patron Saint of Spiritual Seekers
Convert, mystic, evangelist, American
George Ripley, a scholarly and idealistic Unitarian minister, had founded the farm in the spring of 1841 to organize a community of intelligent and cultivated people dedicated to an uncompromising search for truth. An impressive array of scholars, writers, artists, intellectuals, farmers, tradesman and preachers lived, worked, studied, meditated, and recreated at the Farm.
Isaac took up residence there and continued his philosophical studies as well as his study of classical and modern languages, literature and music. The six-foot, blonde-haired Isaac with his clear blue eyes and oval face studded with pockmarks made a winsome figure, “Isaac,” a female member of the Brook Farm community remembered, “was not handsome, but earnest, high-minded, truthful.” The community dubbed him ‘Earnest, the Seeker.’ Vivacious and marriageable Brook Farm females were anxious to assist Ernest find whatever it was he was seeking.
A Mrs. Almira Barlow, separated from her husband and twelve years Isaac’s senior, launched a determined campaign to marry him. She told the naive and innocent Isaac of her love for him. “Almira,” he wrote in his diary, “has come nearer to my heart than any other human being.” All of her charms, wiles and affections, however, could not woo the young New Yorker from the angelic lady of his mystic visions and dreams.
Despite Brook Farm’s idyllic surroundings, Isaac made little progress toward the goal of establishing the reality of his inner mystical life. In June 1843, after six months at the Farm, he wrote in his diary, “Living is madness.” Then, in the manner of the German philosophers he studied so assiduously, he added: “I am, I am not, are correlative!” Convinced work in the New York bakery was not God’s work, he wrote in his diary “I want God’s living work to do.” Everything else he did, he judged, was “the work of the devil.”
In July 1843, Hecker joined Fruitlands, another scholarly community near Harvard, Massachusetts. Here he began to accept his mystical life as real and beyond his ability to control. He gave up the struggle to find the work God wished for him and accepted his inability to discern the Spirit moving within him. “What the Spirit may be is a question I cannot answer; what it leads me to do will be the only evidence of its character. I feel as impersonal as a stranger to it. I ask, ‘Who are you?’ ‘Where are you going to take me?’”
For the first time since the beginning of his mystical experiences, Isaac achieved a measure of peace. “It is useless for me to speculate on my future,” he wrote in his diary. “Put dependence on the Spirit which leads me,” he commanded himself. “Be faithful to it and work. Leave results to God.”
In August 1843, Isaac returned to his anxious family in New York City. His brothers, sympathetic to his needs, agreed that, if he worked all morning, he could spend the rest of the working day in study and prayer. Isaac devoted his scholarly efforts to English, German, Latin grammar and philosophy. He grew confident that the unnamed Spirit that moved within him was the Holy Spirit of God, the same Spirit who animated Christ. His prayers took a clear focus. “O, Lord, I ask in Jesus’ Name,” he pleaded, “give unto me more and more of they loving Spirit.”
As assurance that his mystical experiences were rooted in God increased, his fear of madness decreased. Yet, he suffered a cruel loneliness. At Brook Farm he had written, “I feel as if life is too much for me. It is inconceivably painful to live. I am totally alone.”
In desperation, he threw himself into politics and causes for the working class to satisfy his hunger to serve his fellow man. His external activity failed, however, to satisfy the needs of his spirit.
In Boston, Orestes Brownson, combating fellow scholars who rejected organized religion, was writing and lecturing on its role in future society. He called institutional religion the only effective means for generating society and bringing about the social reforms so sorely needed in America. Brownson, who recognized that all spiritual growth arose from the individual’s communion with God, also taught that man must share his experience of God with his fellow man.
Back in New York
A few months after his return to New York, Isaac wrote Brownson: “The necessity for a medium through which the Spirit can act, that man as man can be no reformer, and that the church is the only institution which has for its object the bettering of men’s souls, are clear and important to me.”
Accepting that God acts through the church and determining to serve the church as a minister, Isaac felt his long quest to find out what God wished of him was coming to an end. As a minister, he would spend all his energies in the service of souls. Thus he would harmonize his need to serve God with his need to serve his fellow man. “Such a peace, calmness and deep-seated strength and confidence,” he wrote after making this decision, “I have never before experienced.”
He informed his brothers of his plan. John and George were not surprised. Isaac’s heart was never in the business world.
Brownson approved his plan to study Greek and Latin at Concord, Massachusetts, under the famous Harvard classical scholar George Bradford. During the spring of 1844, before leaving for Concord, Isaac tried to discern which church he should join as a minister. He made an appointment with New York Roman Catholic Bishop John Hughes. During their conversation, Bishop Hughes told Hecker, “You have inborn Protestant notions of the Church,” and lectured him severely on Roman Catholic authority and discipline. Bishop Hughes had squelched Isaac’s interest, at least temporarily, in Roman Catholicism.
By May 1844, Hecker had settled in Concord and had rented a room at 75 cents a week in Henry Thoreau’s home. He divided his time between study and prayer. He experienced such deep peace and joy during prayer that he resented the time required for study. Brownson strongly urged Hecker to continue his studies. “Your cross,” he counseled, “is to resist the tendency to mysticism, to sentimental luxury which is really enfeebling your soul and preventing it from attaining to true spiritual blessedness.” Then Brownson dropped a bombshell. “I have made up my mind. I will enter the Roman Catholic Church.”
Brownson’s letter forced Hecker to re-examine his own thinking on Catholicism. Eventually he decided to follow his friend and become a Catholic as well. Hecker later commented that it was “a serious, sacred, sincere, solemn step” that gave him deep peace and “unreachable quietness.”
Soon after converting Hecker decided to become a Redemptorist priest and after four years of study in both London and the Netherlands he was ordained in 1849.