Growing up on the Pacific Coast, in Sausalito, California, Brother Isaiah Hofmann, CFR, says the ocean inspired a longing for God.
As the waves lapped the beach, the surfer says they inspired a mysterious yearning in him. “The ocean was a pretty constant part of my childhood, something of the backdrop and landscape of my upbringing. I enjoyed surfing and every other opportunity that brought me to the water. I realize now that God sowed a real longing for the infinite in my heart just by growing up so close to something so immense and so beautiful. God continues to meet me there.”
If he sounds like a California dreaming musician, that’s because that’s what he has become. Were you to dress him in beach clothes instead of a Capuchin habit, you might see him as just another dude saying “no worries” as someone knocks over his guitar at a late-night beach party. He punctuates his conversation with a lot of chuckles and laughs, and his accent belies the casual speech patterns so many West Coast musicians have.
But Brother Isaiah is no mere dreamy hipster. He’s studying for the priesthood, and has become a serious musician since he gave his life to God. In the past few years, the 33-year-old Franciscan friar has carved a niche for himself in the Christian music scene with folkish tunes like “The Struggler” and “Jacob’s Song.” A homeless man named Jacob inspired the latter song, Brother Isaiah says.
“I had a guitar with me and when I passed by, he asked if I could play him a song,” Brother Isaiah said. “I played it for him and he said he loved it. He then told me a beautiful story about how he saw so many people walk by Central Park each day and miss the beauty and wonder of the flowers and trees there. He said he felt like he needed to make up for the lack of awareness of all the wonder there by simply wondering at it all gratefully himself — he said he would occasionally hug the trees as well. I was totally moved by him — his joy, his gratitude, and his ability to perceive the beauty and wonder around him. I named the song after him in thanksgiving for the gift.”
Brother Isaiah’s easygoing baritone-tenor voice and rhythmic guitar style brings to mind such secular artists as Everlast, Sublime, and Jack Johnson.
“I wanted to write music before I could play any music,” he said during a phone interview from his home at St. Leopold Friary in Yonkers, NY, where he has lived for a year. Since he joined his order in 2008, Brother Isaiah has served in Harlem, Newark, the South Bronx, Fort Worth, and Albuquerque.
In addition to being inspired by singer-songwriters, he also credits Bob Marley’s reggae music, and punk bands like The Ramones for making him pick up a guitar and start playing.
“Marley's ‘Stir It Up’ was practically the theme song on the soundtrack to my life around the high school years,” he said. “When I encountered God’s love for me a bit more intimately and personally some years down the line, I realized he was the Lover and the Love ultimately behind that song in my own heart. It’s his Holy Spirit that stirs the heart, that awakens the awareness of the deeply tender and intimate love God has for us, an intimacy in which every other form of authentic human intimacy finds its source and fulfillment.”
Brother Isaiah is positively rhapsodic when talking about music. “I think, in some ways, I learned about the love of God through music,” he said. “Music is one of those ‘God languages.’ And I’ve always loved singer-songwriters because they try to tell us what we’re all about.”
What Brother Isaiah is all about is serving the least of us, to paraphrase Matthew 25, in those who are poor. His congregation deliberately lives in low-income neighborhoods, and that’s the way Brother Isaiah likes it. He calls working among the poor “a classroom of the heart.” The friars operate soup kitchens, men’s shelters and youth centers, and make home visits, he said, noting he particularly enjoys working with young people.
“Youth go right to the core,” he said of their pointed questions. “I was reminded of this just recently while working with our youth group in the Bronx. We had some time in the chapel and were talking about ‘being real with God’ in prayer. Some of them shared what was pressing most on their hearts and how they were bringing that to God. The questions and cares were real, deep, and mature beyond their ages. They were able to name the different movements, thoughts, and feelings going on in their heart and were also able to bring them to God in a very real and radically honest and straightforward way, as a friend speaks to a friend face to face.”
He added that he enjoys ministering to people facing difficulties in life.
“I get to meet some incredible people with incredible faith who have an incredible witness to life,” Brother Isaiah said. “Life is a beautiful struggle. I’m finding more and more that life is a rehab to fullness.”
One way Brother Isaiah meets struggling folks is through his congregation’s monthly free musical performance at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Manhattan. Each event starts with a 7:30 p.m. Holy Hour followed by a 9 p.m. musical performance. The next one is set for Saturday, Sept. 7.
“The encounters abound every month at Catholic Underground,” Brother Isaiah said. “The most edifying experiences I have had so far though have been connecting with individuals after the concert who share very courageously, vulnerably, and beautifully the daily struggles of their lives and how the music has at different moments been some help along the way. I am in awe of these hearts — hidden in our midst daily — who are living testimonies of God's presence in the midst of hardship and His providence mysteriously working through our pains.”
He added that his playing and singing will continue to inform his vocation.
“Music is where I wrestle with God — and where I find God.”
To learn more about Brother Isaiah’s music, visit renewalinmotion.com. You can also find videos of his music on the YouTube channels for Ascension Presents as well as Renewal in Motion.
To learn more about the friars, visit their Instagram @cfr_franciscans, or visit franciscanfriars.com.
Rob Cullivan is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for Catholic News Service and other religious and secular publications.
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