July 2015

A remarkable passion for God

Monica Brown is well known in Australia and internationally as a Christian composer, teacher, facilitator and community animator. Through Emmaus Productions, now 30 years old, Monica and her collaborators continue their quest to offer creative approaches to spirituality.

BY Stephanie Thomas

Monica Brown’s passion for God began at an early age. She “vividly” remembers the moment when, as an eight-year-old sitting on her grandparent’s front lawn in the Sydney suburb of Thornleigh, she said to God, “I know my life is about you”.

“I knew that as clear as anything,” says Monica.

At the time, Monica also “somehow knew” that she “couldn’t marry” because she “had to be available to God”. She’d witnessed what it was like for her own mother to be “pulled between” family, a husband and her ministry. “I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t be divided,” she says.

Monica’s passion for God stems from her family. “I only knew God because I was surrounded by God. We’d say the Rosary every night, but it wasn’t just in pious acts and prayers; it was enfleshed in my parents, in my ancestors, in my aunts and uncles,” she explains.

Born and raised in Thornleigh, Monica was surrounded and shaped by her immediate and extended family. One of six children, she is also an identical twin. Living next door to the Browns were Monica’s mother’s parents – who migrated from Lebanon to Australia in the 1920s – and one of her aunts. Their lives were deeply interconnected.

“They were just the most inspiring, most loving people,” says Monica.

She recognises that her Lebanese heritage has had a “massive” influence on her faith, but believes her father’s ethnic heritage has been significant, too. “I was blessed on both sides.”

“My father had incredible faith – Irish faith. His ancestry is Irish, English, Welsh. He married his complete opposite. Mum was larger than life; Dad was a quiet little introvert… whose faith was internalised. His prayer was always inner and quiet. Mum’s faith was out there – embodied and enfleshed in the needs of people and in suffering and injustice.”

Mary Brown was well known and highly respected in the community for her unflagging generosity and commitment to others, especially those in need. With her sister she opened a clothing factory in Thornleigh. “She never made any money from the factory. It really was a ministry of service,” says Monica.

“Mum was an extraordinary woman. You mention Mary Brown anywhere around here and they almost bow down and touch the ground in veneration of her. She made those Gospel values of the kingdom come to life and she walked the extra mile and gave the food from her plate and the cloak from her back.”

While Monica’s mother “engaged people in this whole big picture of compassion and mercy and justice and love”, her father and extended family quietly provided the support and stability needed on the home front.

Monica admits her mother’s community work sometimes took its toll on the family. “There were times when it was really hard and we just wished that we had a mother who stayed at home and did normal things… It was hard because it stretched us beyond our comfort zone.

“But it’s made us really value what life is most about, and that is about family and love and networking. Faith is at the heart of our lives.”

Music has also been an integral part of Monica’s life. One of her aunts was a concert pianist, another was an opera singer. But Monica believes it was through her father that she learnt to appreciate music. While he wasn’t a trained musician, he loved music and movies, and had “the most amazing collection of records”.

“Every Sunday after Mass we’d come home – it was just a beautiful ritual – Mum would put the baked dinner on, and it would often be interrupted by someone in need; but Dad would put his records on, and I used to lie beside the record player and press my ear [against it], almost wanting to get inside!” says Monica.

While she was “surrounded by music” in those formative years, Monica never had formal music lessons. She was supposed to have piano lessons from her concert pianist aunt who lived next door, but Monica wasn’t interested. “I’d be off hiding down the back paddock somewhere. I used to hear her calling me – ‘Monica come for piano!’ – and never went”.

Fortuitously, one of Monica’s other aunts gave the twins a guitar for their 14th birthday. “I picked it up, I taught myself and I started playing the guitar, and I never put it down. I loved it,” says Monica. “But I regret now very much that I didn’t learn piano when I had the opportunity.”

Despite the countless times Monica has sung at events or for recordings over the years (she has composed and recorded 16 collections of songs for children, youth and adults), she has never considered herself a singer.

“Isn’t that funny?” she quips. “I just think that I’m an average singer – that sometimes I’ll hold a tune, sometimes I don’t – in the sense that I’m not trained… I only sing because of liturgy and music”.

God, family and music have been significant companions in Monica’s life. So, too, have the Good Samaritan Sisters. Monica was educated by them, as were many in her family.

After completing primary school at St Agatha’s, Pennant Hills, Monica began Year 7 in 1967 at the newly-established Mount St Benedict College. She describes high school as “a fantastic experience” and “some of the best years of my life”. For the first four years, however, Monica went through a rebellious phase.

“I was an absolute brat from first year to fourth year and should have been expelled, I think – not that I was malicious, but I was a mischief,” Monica confesses.

Having been “such a quiet, good kid at primary school”, she isn’t sure what prompted this ‘difficult’ period. “I just broke loose.” Monica admits she had a big influence on other students and was “the leader-of-the-gang-kind-of-thing”, all of which meant she visited the principal’s office often. The principal at the time, Sister Christopher Burrows, proved to be a godsend for Monica.

“Christopher Burrows was and has been a huge influence in my life. She saw my potential for leadership and saw, I think, what was at the heart of me, and stayed with me, persevered with me,” Monica explains.

She pays tribute to other Good Sams at the College who “took me under their wing”. Ultimately, their patient mentoring paid off, and in Year 10, Monica had her “big conversion”. Later she became school captain.

Sister Sonia Wagner first met Monica in 1969 and it’s her strong leadership qualities that she remembers: “She held a significant leadership role in the school and generously volunteered in myriad ways to build community and reach out to those on the edge”.

About a year after her “big conversion”, Monica was “pretty sure” she wanted to join the Good Samaritan Sisters. “In sixth form, I was certain… [but] my twin sister wanted me around for another year and so did Dad.”

In 1972 Monica finished school and spent a year at North Sydney Catholic Teachers’ College, before beginning the Good Samaritan Sisters’ novitiate in 1974.

“I loved novitiate,” she says. “I just loved everything about it: loved the spiritual formation and I loved the spirit of it. I was just as happy as a pig in mud.”

After the novitiate Monica resumed teacher training. Eager to teach secondary students, she was advised to study primary. “I wasn’t happy at first, but then I grew to like it. But I was always hankering to get into youth ministry,” she explains.

It was while teaching in the late 1970s and early ‘80s that Monica began exploring creative approaches to religious education, using music, story-telling and drama. She says this came from “a necessity” to make religious education “more real” for students.

“You can’t proclaim God from a text book… You can’t teach God. God can only be known through experience,” says Monica. “So I started writing songs that spoke more to the kids’ experience.”

Lina Bertolini, Principal of Majella Catholic Primary School in Western Australia, remembers as a young teacher phoning Monica in 1982 to ask if her school could use one of Monica’s songs as part of their First Eucharist celebrations.

“Her response was an enthusiastic ‘yes’!” says Lina. “Her joy was in sharing her music as widely as she could reach.”

These years in the classroom, striving to make her students’ faith formation a grounded and meaningful experience, provided the foundation for Monica’s later work with Emmaus Productions.

In 1984, having spent ten years with the Good Samaritan Sisters, Monica left religious life. It’s an understatement to say it was a difficult time for her.

“As in Jeremiah 29, God had a plan for me and it truly felt like disaster, but over the years it has led me in ways I would never have chosen and I have found my peace,” Monica says.

“It was out of this journey that I began to compose songs such as ‘My Plans For You’ and ‘A Remembering Heart’. It wasn’t something I decided to do but rather the songs just came as a gift to me by way of making sense and giving expression to my faith journey. The fact that others relate to them and find meaning in them is always a surprise to me.

“My ‘yes’ to God that led me to religious life continues to be the fundamental stance and focus in my life and this is where my music comes from.”

Monica was supported through that difficult period by many Good Sams, but in particular by former Congregational Leader, Sister Mary Ronayne, who encouraged Monica to begin her Emmaus Productions ministry in 1985.

Monica says the Benedictine tradition she embraced during her time with the Good Sams continues to enrich and guide her life through her commitment as a Good Samaritan Oblate. “Benedictine spirituality just feeds my soul. It has from day one. Chris Burrows embodied that for me. I caught it from her and it’s what drew me to the Good Sams. It’s in my blood.”

Benedictine values also influence the way Monica leads Emmaus Productions. Since its birth 30 years ago Emmaus has grown significantly, but its mandate remains the same: “to provide creative resources and programs for spiritual enrichment”.

In the early years, Emmaus focussed on the needs of schools, but over time it has expanded to include a broader audience, offering a range of programs and resources in Australia and overseas. Today it has offices in Sydney, Ireland-UK, USA and Canada.

While Monica collaborates with a team of people, her workload is gruelling. It includes facilitating workshops, retreats and various programs and concerts for children, youth and adults, in faith formation, spirituality and ritual.

In recent years Monica has also led the development of the websites www.liturgyplanning.com and www.liturgyplanningimages.com which provide resources for schools, parishes and communities. But much of her work now is with religious congregations, supporting them in their chapters with ritual and creative process.

Monica recognises that her ministry is demanding, mostly due to travel commitments in Australia and overseas.

“There’s something in me that longs for space to be,” she says. “And I’m not in a position where I can just pack up everything and go off and… live the contemplative life. I’m not saying I want to shut myself off, but I want greater balance in my life.”

To help create a “greater balance”, Monica and her team have been working to redirect the focus of Emmaus Productions to a digital environment. This year they launched a series of online video prayer and meditation rituals for children, youth and adults.

Monica Brown’s passion for God is remarkable. So, too, is her desire to share that passion with others. Long-time colleague and friend, Lina Bertolini, believes Monica has “influenced the spirituality of many across the world.

“She is a woman who speaks from her truth and has a gift in calling others to name their own. Monica is deeply rooted in her relationship with God and uses this to reach out and respond to others.

“In my eyes, she epitomises what it is to make God present and real.”

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