The Rev. Justin Lanier before the altar at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
The Rev. Justin Lanier before the altar at St. Peter's Episcopal Church.
BENNINGTON - The Rev. Justin Lanier brings an eclectic background, a passion for prayer and love of liturgy to his new post as rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church. His past explorations into spirituality include time as a Tr a ppist monk in Colorado and time as a Zen monk in Japan.

He is the first rector of the church since the Rev. Anita Schell-Lambert left to take a post in Newport, R.I., in April, 2010. In the interim, the Rev. L. Paul Gratz has held the position of transition minister.

Lanier, who is in his 30s, was in a two-year diocesan residency program for new priests, stationed at St. Patrick's Church in Lebanon, Ohio, before he came to Bennington.

When his residency was winding down, he started searching for a new position, looking at a national website of the Episcopal Church that links profiles of jobseekers with profiles of churches seeking clergy.

"When I did my search I came across St. Peter's, and immediately I was attracted to it, not just because I think Vermont is an awesome place, but also because St. Peter's is both progressive and traditional," he said. "So there's that mixture that fits right into my own vocation ... a place that has this rich liturgical, sacramental tradition and also is very forwardthinking about women's roles and gay/lesbian inclusion."

The next attraction was when he actually spoke to the people on the search committee. "When I met them on the phone, one of the signs that I thought this was a good fit was I found when I was talking with them I was saying new things, having new insights that I never had before," he said. "A n d to me that was a good sign." When he met them in person, the same thing happened. "So I really felt the Holy Spirit was really pointing in this direction," he said.

Lanier was born in Louisiana, and he grew up in Seaford, Del. He also lived in Baltimore for a time. In Seaford he went to the Methodist or the Episcopal church, some of his family being Episcopalians. "My parents were Methodists but my folks were from Baltimore, which of course is a real Roman Catholic city, and so when we were in Baltimore I went to Sacred Heart, which was Roman Catholic," he said.

He was for a while Roman Catholic. "But when I was Roman Catholic, I did not have a real sectarian view. So, some of my family are Roman Catholics, some are Anglicans/Episcopalians, some are Methodists, a lot of them are just nominally Christian," he said. "But even when I was Roman Catholic, I often went to the Episcopal Church, mostly because they had a quiet Mass on Sunday night, and that's what I was looking for."

In his late teens, Lanier went to school in London for a while and backpacked through Europe. At the University of Delaware as an undergraduate, he studied philosophy, religion, and East Asian studies, including the Japanese language. In philosophy he concentrated on Christian mysticism and Byhalia Buddhism. During his senior year, Lanier entered a monastery run by the Roman Catholic Trappist religious order in Snowmass, Colo.

The contemplative search for God has long been a priority for Lanier. Once in high school, when he had just been on retreat and was reading Christian mystical authors, he suffered a fractured skull and broken leg from a collision during a soccer match. It was an encounter with his own mortality.

"I was like: 'That is not a worthy death. ... I'm not willing to die in a soccer game. What am I willing to die in the pursuit of?'" he asked himself. "And it just became clear: Union with God. And it was clear as day - that was my vocation in life."

He calls this his second conversion.

In addition to about two years as a Trappist monk, Lanier also spent less than a year as a Renzi Zen Buddhist monk in Japan.

How did he end up as an Episcopal priest? "When I left the Tr a p p i s t monastery, my spiritual director introduced me to an Episcopal priest who was on retreat there," he said. "I had had a long-time attraction to the priesthood, thinking monastic priesthood. And so I still wanted to explore the possibility of the priesthood, but I knew I didn't want to be a secular Roman priest (diocesan priest), and so when I spoke with the Episcopal priest while I was in the monastery it really was a good thing."

Moreover, Christianity in the British Isles is heavily influenced by Benedictine monasticism, which is closely related to Tr a p p i s t monasticism, and this made it a natural fit for him.

"The other thing, too, is for me the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition had both the kind of ancient quality and sacraments and also was very open minded and progressive," Lanier said.

He explained that when he would go to so-called "high church" Episcopal congregations - that is, churches with elaborate ritual and ceremony - "they were also very progressive, were very forward-thinking about women. Not all high-church places, but that was my experience. So what I found was a high-church liturgy and sacramental practice with a very affirming ecclesiology (church practice)."

He added, "I was born in the late '70s, women as priests was never a question for me. It was kind of a given. With that in mind, the Episcopal Church was just much more a closer fit to really where I was."

Lanier met his future wife, Heather, when he was in his first year as an undergraduate at the University of Delaware. "We were in the same dorm, but the timing was never right between the two of us. I was either headed towards the monastery or in the monastery or we weren't synchronized yet."

When he left the monastery after his first long stay, he met her again with some friends. "And I fell in love with her kind of on the spot, which was really difficult for me because my whole vision of myself was that I was going back to the monastery."

He wrote to his Trappist abbot that he was falling in love; the abbot encouraged him to stay where he was and figure out with her what he should do. "My superiors were always more interested in my own spiritual development than they were trying to add members to their house."

After some delays in their plans, the couple got married later on, when he was studying to be an Episcopal priest.

This training included earning a master's of divinity degree at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., a consortium of nine independent theological schools, and eleven centers and affiliates. His particular school was the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

Lanier and his wife have a 16month-daughter, Fiona, and the family was moving into a home not far from the church last week. Since the birth of his daughter, he has refrained from one of his hobbies, playing the bagpipes, particularly "pibroch" - ancient bagpipe music that is specific to Gaelic, which the Highland Scots were know for. "And it's the kind of music that if you hear it and listen to it it takes you into a thin place," he said.

Regularly working out with weights, while not exactly a hobby, is a regular part of his routine. He meditates and does daily prayer in the sanctuary of the church, morning and evening. "One of the engines of transformation for me in my own life and probably at St. Peter's will be the sanctuary as an engine of prayer and transformation, not just beauty and not just history and tradition but a real heartbeat and prayer."

Lanier described himself as open and easy-going and quietly very serious about the interior life. "And so I think the two of those together are helpful because I'm pretty flexible and I'm creative, so that when I look at the liturgy, we don't have to do it like it's always been done, because the ground rules are really the interior aspects of the liturgy, what does this do to the person, what is happening?"

He used the example of giving Last Rites to fit the circumstances and the needs of the person.

Asked about goals, Lanier said that St. Peter's has amazing potential: "People that I've been working with have such a sincere sense of the spiritual life, and they already have a very real practice of social justice and works of mercy." When he spoke with members of the St. Peter's search committee, they were interested in a creative approach to spirituality and liturgy at the church. "And out of that, of course, also to be able to connect with younger generations."

Most mainline places, especially the Episcopal Church, have for a time "not really thought creatively about spiritual life and liturgy in a way that is true to its roots and also changing things and connecting with new people. And so that's also where I'd like to go." The future of course is off on the horizon. "First I'll get to know this place, and then from there also get to know the wider community," he said.