It’s easy to imagine a six-foot, tanned, 32-year-old Peter Hannah on the golf greens of Monterey, California, in textbook form, languidly driving balls 300 yards.
But instead of an Izod shirt and khaki pants, he’s wearing the long, white habit of a medieval Dominican friar — and he’s heading into winter in Alaska. He arrived in August from St. Albert’s Priory in Oakland for a year’s work at Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage, Alaska, as part of seminary training.
“My first reaction to being assigned to Anchorage was, ‘Wow, that’s a long ways away from California,” Brother Peter Junipero Hannah told the Catholic Anchor.
But the would-be professional golfer, former college fraternity brother and convert to Catholicism already has traveled a long distance — through even the spiritual “desert” of the so-called “good life” — on the surprising path to freedom.
The American Dream
By most accounts, Brother Hannah was living the American Dream.
Born in Temple, Texas at 10 pounds, 13 ounces, he looked like a nascent Texas Cowboys linebacker. But a family move to the West Coast and a “generally slender frame,” he said, turned hopes of football stardom into a chance at PGA fame. Like his up-and-coming school-mate Tiger Woods, as a teen, Brother Hannah was perfecting his strokes on California’s sunny golf courses.
Still, life was well-rounded.
Brother Hannah’s parents weren’t “PhDs or anything,” he said, but they instilled in him and his sister a “love for learning.”
And they owned a set of World Book of Encyclopedias, whose volumes six-year-old Brother Hannah would pick up on his own and “just start reading.” That intellectual curiosity continues to this day. “I’m interested in everything!” exclaimed the religious brother.
Growing up, his Presbyterian family attended church every Sunday. But by high school – and though he never “explicitly” disbelieved or rebelled against God – Brother Hannah was “so interested in golf, I didn’t really want to do anything else.”
In 1995, the “naturally ambitious” and determined Brother Hannah entered the University of California at San Diego, where he majored in American history and played on the golf team – aiming for a lucrative, professional sports career.
“I wanted to have a good life, I wanted to be successful,” Brother Hannah said.
A gnawing angst
At college, he joined a fraternity – which meant camaraderie, leadership and philanthropy projects.
But frat life had a dark side. There were drugs, alcohol and denigrating attitudes toward women.
By junior year, the “pagan pastimes” were gnawing on his conscience — as was the impermanence of his academic, social and athletic accomplishments.
His goals were “not bad things in themselves,” Brother Hannah said. “But when perfect performance did not emerge, and was made less and less perfect by the increasing mental haze attending fraternity life, a deep sense of anxiety developed within me.”
“I knew deep within my soul that things were not quite right,” he observed.
In quiet moments, he acknowledged, “‘There’s something really wrong about the messages I’m getting. There’s an emptiness in my soul that needs to be answered, filled somehow.’”
Then, the summer before senior year, his father encouraged him to become an official member of their hometown Presbyterian church — a step he had not yet taken.
“Like a lot of young people today,” he told his father that he wanted to “study other religions first.” For Christianity, his dad recommended the book, “Mere Christianity.”
So after a round of golf, Brother Hannah went to Barnes & Noble and walked out with a copy of C. S. Lewis’s classic and the autobiography of Jack Nicklaus.
'Water in the desert'
Lewis’s book turned out “like water in the desert for me,” Brother Hannah recalled.
“It was like, ‘Wow, Christianity does have some things to say!’” and those things, he observed, “protect order in society, protect human dignity” in “wonderful ways.”
Although he had “never tried to live intentionally in a non-Christian way,” Brother Hannah said he hadn’t thought much about what living in a Christian way looked like.
He began to realize that, however unwittingly, he had been acquiring “a lot of the habits that many people in the world acquire.”
He listed a few: the portrayal of women as sexual objects, the pursuit of wealth “to the neglect of the poorest of the poor or as kind of an end unto itself” and the pursuit of power and ambition apart from other concerns.
Finally, Brother Hannah acknowledged that he shouldn’t be embarrassed or ashamed by a conscience that was bothered by such attitudes and behaviors.
Soon, he began to question all his sacrifice just for a lower score on the links. By graduation, he had left his “religion” of golf.
Freedom in Christ
In graduate school in Maryland, Brother Hannah discovered Jesus in the Eucharist at a nearby Catholic parish. “I was overcome,” he recalled when considering that Christ himself would manifest himself in “his very flesh and blood.”
In a short time, he formally joined the Catholic Church and soon discerned a religious vocation.
He then entered the Order of Preachers or Dominicans as a brother and began the road to the priesthood.
In 2007, Brother Hannah made his first religious vow – obedience. As one who was accustomed to making his own way, he considers it the hardest.
“The vow of obedience goes straight to our free will and our desire to have certain situations the way we want them,” he said.
Obedience is the answer to the “mistake of pride of taking my own desires, will, wants, needs and not being willing to see them in a wider context of other peoples’ needs and of the needs of the world and the needs of my neighbor,” he explained.
Paradoxically, “the thing I’ve gained is freedom of heart,” he observed. “There is an almost indescribable freedom in giving yourself to Christ alone, in a single-minded way.”
As a religious, “all of my energy is going into helping people discover the life of Christ, helping people discover the grace and the freedom that is in Christ.”
For instance, in Anchorage, Brother Hannah is running the catechetical programs at Holy Family Cathedral, assisting with the youth and young adult groups there and teaching a church history class at Holy Rosary Academy.
Having been through the “desert,” Brother Hannah wants to show young people, in particular, “that there are other ways to live and to give them hope,” he explained.
Referencing Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the now casual golfer and motivated religious brother observed: “We Christians are called to run the race to obtain a crown that doesn’t perish which is eternal life.”
Printed with permission from CatholicAnchor.org.