JP’s Punk Rock Friar

January 6, 2012
By

(Gazette Photo by John Ruch) Brother Charles Sammons.

A Catholic friar and priest who can quote scripture—no surprise.

But one who also quotes punk rock and heavy metal lyrics? Meet Brother Charles Sammons, a Jamaica Plain-based Capuchin Franciscan friar who says that rebel music was his first conversion experience on the way to the ultimate punker: Jesus Christ.

“If you’re going to worship as God an executed criminal, you have already involved yourself in a critique of everyone who sets themselves up as an authority and power in this world,” Sammons noted in a recent interview at the Gazette office.

Sammons, who often traverses the neighborhood dressed in his brown cloth habit tied with a cord, writes about the religious life in a blog called “A Minor Friar” (friarminor.blogspot.com). His posts range from scholarly commentary on Catholic theology to the perils of walking across the Arborway.

Mixed in are plentiful references to the likes of horror-punkers the Misfits and diabolical thrashers Slayer. The music may seem surprising—and certainly is to some of Sammons’ peers. But the metal and punk subcultures brought Sammons a key realization: “the given thing, the given taste, is not what you really want.”

“I think God was calling me through all of that,” Sammons said. He joked that the underground music scenes also made it perfectly natural for him to “wander around in a bizarre costume” as he does today. Passers-by, he said, sometimes ask, “What are you—a monk? A ninja? A Mormon?”

Sammons is actually a friar, living with his fellows at Brookside’s Our Lady of Lourdes (OLOL) Church complex. He has taken vows of obedience, chastity and poverty. But unlike a monk, he lives an “itinerant, homeless” lifestyle and is studying at Boston College.

He lived at OLOL in 2002-2007, served as a parish priest in New York, then returned to JP in 2010. He has been called to an assignment in Rome this spring. Meanwhile, he performs the Mass at various locations, including JP’s Saint Clare monastery in Jamaica Hills.

Born 40 years ago in New Haven, Conn., Sammons had no religious upbringing. His first revelation came at age 15, when he discovered heavy metal in its 1980s golden age. His first album was Slayer’s ferocious classic “Reign in Blood.” The music had a “nakedness and a rawness…It just woke up the heart in some kind of way,” he said.

“It [was] a conversion,” he said.

“Even the geography of the metal world” spoke to a secret, better world, he said. The college metal station was on the far end of the radio dial; the metal record store was tucked away on a second floor; concerts were held in basements.

Sammons next discovered punk rock and was drawn to the criticisms of society and politics made by such bands as the Subhumans and Crass.

But as he entered college, “I needed something more durable than being alternative…something stronger than punk rock, ‘smash the state,’” he said. Quoting one of punk’s secular scriptures, Crass’s “Punk Is Dead,” he said, “Punk became a fashion just like hippy used to be.”

Sammons had been studying “higher realities” in math and philosophy. One summer night in 1991, he read the New Testament and realized he wanted to be a Christian.

He had also just learned in a history class about St. Francis of Assisi, the medieval founder of the Franciscan order, who was “the most punk person I’d ever heard of in history.” A former rich merchant and solider, St. Francis dropped out to live with lepers and refused to even touch money.

That struck a chord because Sammons knew a punk rock artist in Connecticut who lived similarly, painting designs on leather jackets for a living. “He had this thing about not touching money. And he tried to live on barter,” Sammons recalled.

Sammons’ religious conversion led him first to Quaker meetings, then to Catholicism and eventually St. Francis’s historic, “anti-power” order.

Punk and metal may have led Sammons to religion, but they often also criticize religion.

“I don’t think I noticed it that much because [religion is] not something I had growing up,” he said. “I hear it now, though. Sometimes I’ll think, ‘Hmm, that’s really not what it’s about.’”

Today, when listening to favorite albums, he will skip anti-religious songs. Yet, “I never erase them” from the iPod, he said. “I believe in the integrity of records. It’s their song, not mine.”

Yes, he is a friar with an iPod. A small recreational allowance lets him buy some new music. His latest was an album from Massachusetts metal band Black Pyramid.

And he remains aware of music’s power to wake people up—metaphorically and literally. Just ask the fellow friar who Sammons once accidentally treated to a 6:45 a.m. blast of Black Sabbath’s “Master of Reality.”