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Commitment is Radical

From left to right, Jeffrey, Michael, and Ross, made a powerful commitment on Saturday. (Photo by Octavio Duran)

From left to right, Jeffrey, Michael, and Ross, made a powerful commitment on Saturday. (Photo by Octavio Duran)

Yesterday morning, I was a part of a beautiful, powerfully inspirational ceremony in New York in which three men committed themselves to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the way of St. Francis of Assisi. To the outsider, what they did was radical, countercultural, and strange. What would possess someone to choose a life “without anything of one’s own,” in celibate-chastity, obedient to both superior and equals? What would possess someone to devote their entire life to the welfare of others, often sacrificing one’s own livelihood in the process? What would possess someone to wear a brown dress and a rope in public?

As I thought about it all over the past week, I realized that what was truly countercultural about their lives was much deeper and yet so simple: at the heart of their life is commitment to something other than themselves.

What was once a problem seemingly exclusive to young men in relationships, I believe that a “fear of commitment” has become a cultural problem in our day. Everyone knows that divorce rates in this country are astronomically high (roughly 50% of first marriages ending in divorce), but what about the declining marriage rate, down 60% since 1974. (Those people sure aren’t all running to religious orders, I can tell you that!) And yet, the problem has nothing to do with the institution of marriage or people becoming less dependent on each other. No, the decline in marriage is one symptom among many of the growing fear of commitment we experience as a culture.

Last week at our sexuality workshop, one of the presenters asked the question, “What is the most difficult part of being celibate?” My response was, “Having to talk about celibacy so much.” And while in jest, there was great truth in it. People are enamored by what we do, not that we don’t have sex, but that we don’t have sex for the rest of our lives. One student pointed out, “For God’s sake, people are up in arms these days that they have to sign a year or two long contract to get a cell phone. How are they ever going to understand what we do?” How true. How very indicative of our culture. When I watch television, I notice more and more that it is not a product that I am being sold, it is a feeling of freedom, a no-strings-attached purchase that can be discarded or traded in for the next best thing whenever I want to. No matter what it is, we are told to follow our impulses, drop anything that gets in the way of our dreams, and to not let anything get in the way of what we want to do. With this way of thinking, there are no wrong choices because you never actually have to make one; without commitment to anything other than your own wants, you are free to drop the previous one on a whim for the next one.

When I look at my brothers having just taken their solemn vows, their final, life-long commitments, the voices of our generation echo in my head. “Think about all of the things they can’t do now.” “What if they want to leave?” “Don’t they want to live a little before settling down?” “Oh, I could never do that. I need my freedom.”

Commitment can be fun. Look at those faces!

Commitment can be fun. Look at those faces!

In each of these responses, there is a false sense of freedom, a false sense of superiority that being free from commitments allows one to do everything, a false sense of having it all. To commit oneself to is deny oneself possibilities. But how many possibilities does one actually have if one never makes a commitment? To stay single leaves open the possibility of marriage and religious life, but it never actualizes either; to switch jobs every two years leaves open the possibility of doing everything, but it never actualizes anything. To commit to something takes away some possibilities, for sure, but it also makes other ones real.

When I look at my newly professed brothers, I see men doing something completely radical, countercultural, and strange: they have committed their lives to finite actuality rather than remaining open to infinite possibility, men that have given up on everything for the sake of something. What they have done is not easy to do. “How do I know what to commit to?” That is the ultimate question, now, isn’t it? How we answer that will determine who we are and where we go, as well as who we aren’t and where we won’t go. The catch to this question is that it cannot go unanswered: to commit to nothing is still a commitment and it will still define you, but it will give back very little in the end.

And so I say, be radical. Be countercultural. Be strange. Make a commitment to something other than yourself. My Franciscan brothers just have, and I hope to do the same in three years time.

 
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Posted by on August 24, 2014 in Discernment

 

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The Irony of Being Celibate

Today I attended a three-hour sexuality workshop to fulfill requirements set by the Church and my province. It was the first of two sessions that we will attend this year, the second level of a four-year program. Prior to this, my classmates and I attended three workshops during Postulancy and Novitiate, each consisting of two or three sessions per day for more than three days each. If that’s not ironic, that is, celibate religious men devoting a tremendous amount of time talking about and developing their sexualities, I don’t know what is. But wait, there’s more!

We talk about sexuality much more [intelligently] than before. 

The ironic thing about being a celibate in a religious order is not just that we talk about sexuality much more than we ever did before entering, it’s that we do it much more intelligently than in the outside world. Sure, guys would get together and talk about sex, but when did I ever have a conversation about sexuality? The thing is, sex and sexuality are related but not the same thing. Our schools were required to talk about the practical aspects of sex, but who ever talked to us about attraction, orientation, loneliness, friendships, non-genital expression, boundaries, or addictive behaviors? These topics are vastly underdeveloped in secular education and common knowledge, and were never the topic of my conversations prior to entering the friars. In religious life, these are common place.

Because of this I find myself to be more self-aware and self-accepting of who I am than I ever was when I had the possibility to date. Talking about these topics ad nauseum (and I do mean nauseum) and studying them in an intelligent context has given me the language and skills to identify not only important aspects of my own sexuality, but also to understand those around me much better and to enter into relationships in a much more meaningful way. Why everyone doesn’t take a full two years to understand oneself, how one relates to others, and social dynamics is beyond me. Going through the process of becoming a celibate religious prepared me for dating more than anything else in my life.

Clearer boundaries actually makes for freer relationships.

Because I am very comfortable with who I am and the vocational path I am following, I never enter a relationship confused or plagued by sexual tension. I am certainly still attracted to people and find myself wanting to be around certain people more than others (welcome to being human), but there is a clear boundary in every relationship that was never there before: I do not want to date you. Really. I don’t care who you are. (I still may be speechless or swept off my feet, but I don’t want to date you!) This, I have to say, is one of the greatest freedoms I have ever experienced in being with people.

When I stopped looking at everyone as a potential date, relationships opened up for me.

When I stopped looking at everyone as a potential date, relationships opened up for me.

Before becoming a friar, there was always the internal tension in every new relationship: “Do I find her attractive? Does she find me attractive? Could I date her? Should I try? Am I trying already? What could I do to make her like me? Dang, look at that body! I wonder what she thinks of me?” With clear boundaries, I know that the answer to any one of these questions now means absolutely nothing to me anymore and am free to completely disregard them for a less superficial relationship that before. Do I succeed at this? Not always. Vanity is a tough one to kill and we all want to feel important around attractive people. I will say this though: giving up the desire to date has helped me tremendously in looking beyond one’s attractiveness and has helped me treat attractive women with much more dignity and respect than I did before.

The ironic and somewhat tragic part of this is twofold: 1) Obviously, that it took stepping away from women for me to objectify them less, and 2) more tragically, that I would be so much better of a boyfriend/husband now having spent three years learning how to be in intimate relationships while having absolutely no intention of possession or objectification. Come on! I’m nowhere close to perfect now nor will I ever be, but I often wonder what a relationship would be like with this more mature and respectful approach.

As “men in uniform” and in positions of authority, we are more attractive than we were before.

The last part is a little bit of a joke but true nonetheless: people in leadership positions, especially for organizations of service or selflessness, are very attractive to people. Add a great looking uniform and be under fifty years old and people will come in droves. As friars, we know that we are “attractive” people. We’re friendly; we’re jovial; we’re virtuous (sometimes); we’re in charge of important things. Whether deserved or not, people tend to think highly of “the brothers” and naturally want to be around us. This is a natural attraction that none of us has ever experienced in our lives.

The difficult part of this for some friars is understanding the difference between being attracted to “Br. Casey” and “Casey”. We were told a story as postulants of a well-liked friar that was very attractive to the people he served, particularly the single women. Seeing other options, he left the friars to pursue a relationship in which the girl later realized that it was “Br. X” that she had been attracted to all along, not X, and they never ended up getting married. (If that’s not the most twisted irony you’ve heard today I don’t know what is!) Sometimes, it’s both “Br. X” and “X” that people are attracted to, but the point remains: being a public person in authority wearing a respectable uniform is going to attract more people than we’re used to and we need to be prepared for that.

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To summarize, I know myself much better, I would make a much more mature and respectful partner, and I find myself with more opportunities than I had before. And this is preparing me for a life alone? Yes and no. While ironic in the sense that it has potentially prepared me for its opposite, celibacy is a gift that has truly prepared me to be a man for everyone, not just a man for someone. In this life, I know myself better, I am a more mature and respectful partner (to all) and I am given more opportunities to love than I would ever have been offered in an exclusive romantic relationship. I guess you could say the real irony of it all is that celibacy deters people from religious life because they are afraid that they will not find the love that they need. In reality, celibacy is a life learning how to love as many people as possible as well as one can possibly love. Wouldn’t you give up something too if you could do that?

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2014 in Discernment, Vows

 

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Perception and Reality

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Sometimes, perception and reality are not the same

Perception and reality are two things that do not always match up. Sometimes, what we see is not exactly what is actually there but rather the projection of our own experience: when we encounter something that is unfamiliar to us, we tap our memory for information that could fill in the blanks to make sense of what we’re seeing. And who can blame us? Given our limited worldview, we simply cannot know everything, and our mind makes great inferences, projections, and connections between what we see and what we know to help us navigate the unknown world.

Because of this, even though what we are perceiving is not the exact objective reality outside of our minds, it is in a very real sense reality. What we perceive, although potentially factually or perceptually incorrect, is a very real experience to us and our worldview. What we experience is what we will think of the world, what we will bring to new situations, and how we will engage new situations. In a very real sense, then, no matter what the actual, objective, outside-the-mind experience really is, our perception is our reality.

I say all of this as a background to the real questions of discernment we face every day as Franciscan Friars: as a radically countercultural and commonly misunderstood people, should we care about the way we are perceived, and, if those perceptions are negative, should we change how we act so as to not create scandal among the misinformed? In other words, if people aren’t going to naturally understand what we’re trying to say, should we give up and change our message, or should we struggle through ignorance to teach them?

The most obvious example of this is our attire. While wearing my habit I have been confused as a monk, a Jedi, a Moses impersonator, and an actor in a medieval play, while others have been confused as being Muslim, working for UPS, or someone early for Halloween. While there are some that immediately recognize me as a friar, many more are confused (and one can only imagine the conclusions that have not been expressed to us.) Do I avoid wearing my habit because perception is reality and I am promoting an incorrect reality for some, or do I use it as a chance to educate people that their perception is not in fact reality?

Another situation that comes up for me a lot, and admittedly is the inspiration for this post, is golfing as a friar. On more than one occasion I have been looked on with judgmental eyes and given some comment about my lack of poverty when I say that I golf. For me, there is no disconnect between being a friar and a golfer: I have discount clubs, I play on cheap public courses during off hours usually running me about 15-25 dollars to play, and I play only once or twice a month. For me, it is exercise in a beautiful environment, and when I’m not swearing at my ball, it is generally a relaxing, social, prayerful experience. Knowing this, and also knowing how others with a “vow of poverty” spend their money, I pushed one of my brothers on it one day. Turns out, his perception of golf was a country club atmosphere in which women and minorities weren’t really welcomed, where caddies carried the golfers’ clubs, and it cost $50 or more to play. His perception was not the actual reality in which I lived, and yet, until properly explained, his perception would have been a very difficult reality for him to reconcile with being a friar. Given his perception, I completely understand his judgment. So, because situations like this that go unexplained, do I give up golf because of the scandal it could bring to the misinformed believing perception to be reality, or do I go on defending myself on a person-to-person basis because perception is not in fact reality?

To muddy the discussion even further, I have one last case of misconception. Let’s say that there is a child all alone walking down a street at night in, let’s say, a neighborhood that you would expect to find friars. Upon seeing this, the “right” thing to do would be to approach the child, ask where his/her parents are, and offer to give the child a ride home for the sake of safety. Clearly a child should not be walking the streets at night and as a religious person, it is good to protect our children. No foul play is even thought of in the situation. What happens, then, when an outsider witnesses the child getting into Brother X’s car, alone, late at night? “What is that child doing all alone with that priest? Where is he taking him/her?” Because perception is a form of reality, assumptions and accusations will inevitably ensue despite an actual reality contrary to the observer’s perception. This is a very, very bad situation that, despite it’s complete disconnect from reality, is something that needs to be avoided at all costs.

And so I ask again: as a radically countercultural and commonly misunderstood people, should we care about the way we are perceived, and, if those perceptions are negative, should we change how we act so as to not create scandal among the misinformed?

Given my examples, I think that it’s clear that there is no easy way to answer this question. In one sense, we are public people in charge of caring for many; to not care about how we are being perceived would make us very ineffective at what we do. On the other hand, what we do is very countercultural and largely misunderstood by those we serve; to serve them in a way that they expect or feel comfortable with would be to do them a great disservice because it is the very things that they do not understand that we have to offer them.

At this point in my friar life, my answer is that there is always room for more transparency and evangelization, but that not every situation is it likely to yield positive changes in perceptions. People may not understand us now, and there’s a good chance that there will always be a large portion of the population that remains in ignorance, but think about all the people that could be enlightened if we wear our habit almost everywhere, if we talk about our fraternities in our homilies, if we invite people over to our house for prayer and dinner, if we open ourselves up to be transparent, public people, willing to share our lives with the world. Maybe we don’t go as Br. Casey to the liquor store or golf course; maybe there are times when it is much more pastoral to blend in than it is to stand apart; maybe there are times we act more like the expectation of our congregation than the way we do in our friaries because people are not ready to see 25 year old, real-human-being Casey, they want pious, well-behaved Br. Casey. Point taken: even though there is nothing wrong with any of these things, there is a time and a place for effective evangelization.That being said, without talking early and often about our lives, people will misunderstand the habit, will misunderstand our fraternities, will misunderstand our hobbies, and will misunderstand why we do what we do.

But it’s worse than that. If our concern for how we are perceived or really, our fear of being misperceived, becomes so great that it discourages us from public action, there is a great possibility that we will not be perceived at all. This, I say, is an actual reality we cannot ignore.

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2014 in Discernment

 

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What I Will Take From Camden

Eleven weeks and a seven-and-a-half hour drive later, I find myself back in North Carolina for a much-appreciated week vacation before heading back to school. It’s been a great summer and a great first assignment in Camden, NJ, and there is a lot to take with me to my studies. Here are just a few things that I will take with me as I continue to be formed into a Franciscan Friar:

Adult Education

Of the many highlights of the summer, one of my favorite experiences was teaching a Bible class on Wednesday evenings. Let me be clear: this was not a “Bible study” as is common at churches. What I wanted with this class was to give the average parishioner an academic overview of the Bible so to empower him/her to be able to read, study, and pray with the text appropriately. Over eight weeks, I spanned a couple thousand years of biblical history in order to set the historical context out of which each text was written, highlighting the social and political events that greatly influenced the people of God. My bold guarantee when advertising the class was that, once completed, one would be able to open the Bible to any page and have at least the basic tools to know the context of the passage, and thus, an appropriate interpretation.

While the content of the material was something I personally understood, I had never taught it let alone organized the material into eight comprehensible sections. Could I even fill up an hour of material for eight weeks? Did I have enough knowledge of the Bible to synthesize it or field questions beyond the text? Turns out I could and I did, and I had a great experience doing it. The material will obviously need to be refined and updated as I take more courses in Scripture and theology, but it was very encouraging. My hope is to build on this experience with other adult education courses: church history, liturgy/sacraments, Catholic Social Teaching, and Franciscan history/studies.

Confidence to Preach

This photo is in no way staged.

This photo is in no way staged.

In a similar vein, I was given the opportunity to preach regularly this summer: twice a week at daily mass and two Sundays (the texts of which can be found here and here). While I had had a little experience preaching before this summer, this was actually my first time preaching at a daily mass, something surprisingly different, and more difficult, from a Sunday homily. For starters, it has to be very short and to the point. In a daily mass homily, there isn’t enough time to develop more than one point, and even with that point, not a lot of time to do it. What can I say in 3-5 minutes, that isn’t just fluff or sentiment, to really draw people into prayerful reflection today? 

Another difficult aspect of daily masses is that they happen, by definition, every day. Unlike Sunday homilies that take all week to develop, these reflections must be churned out each and every day. The plus side for seasoned priests is that the shortened length, casual nature of mass, and repetition of readings makes this very easy to be done quickly and mostly off-the-cuff. For me, having never had this experience, I found the experience to be a bit laborious at times, especially the Monday after preaching Sunday. Ugh… what am I going to say?

It is that tiny little bit of pressure, the regularity of preaching no matter the readings or context, that really helped my confidence in the long run. At first, I was very nervous and tried to memorize every word of the “perfect homily” I had written; by the end, I had a few notes jotted down and was able to speak a bit more extemporaneously. The other factor in all of this was that I preached bilingually each mass (and I don’t speak Spanish!) Although I was only reading a translation in Spanish, being able to stand in front of people and speak in a different language made preaching in my own that much easier.

Boundaries Between Work and Home

One of the potential drawbacks of living in Camden is that the friary is attached to the parish offices: 1st and 3rd floors are friars only, 2nd floor is parish offices. This creates a difficult boundary issue to navigate. Are people allowed into the friary portions, and if so, at what times? How do I “get away” from work if it’s only a few feet away? Do I have an obligation to be present ALWAYS? These are difficult questions for sure.

Here’s one example of an uncomfortable situation I faced this summer. I had been working really hard without a full “day off” in a week or so and was pretty tired. I decided I was going to take the day to just relax, prayer, and watch a movie. Nothing special, no vacation or excursion, just a recharge day. I didn’t want to go anywhere, just relax. Naturally, I get a call 20 minutes into the movie, “Hey Brother Casey, sorry to bother you, but one of our volunteers never showed and we have a student here and I’m the only adult. I can’t be here with him alone. Would you mind coming with me and we can drop him off at his house?” Was I really going to say no? Of course not. Well, there goes 45 minutes of desperately needed recharge time.

As someone devoting my life to the service of others, there is never an opportune time to take off. There will always be someone to help, and I will inevitably feel guilty for taking time for myself. I think the key is to set clear boundaries for doing so. Set a designated time or day off and publicize it to the ones being served: “If you want me to be my best to serve you at all other times, please respect this time for myself.” The other thing is to keep clear physical boundaries between work and home. At school this is tremendously difficult because my bedroom is my study room. In Camden, I can only imagine how difficult it is for the pastor to sleep in the same place where hundreds of people need him daily. As best we can, we need to set boundaries.

Take a Walk
While there are probably fifty more things I could reflect on, I’ll end with the one that I will most clearly take with me as I go back to Washington, D.C.: a walk. What I mean by this is not exercise, not a way to calm down, not breaks in study. What I take from Camden is their walks of subtle evangelization.

More than two years ago, the church was a part of a peace walk to end violence. At 6:20 that Wednesday, two parishioners left the church to catch up to the marchers and were mugged. That’s right, on the way to the peace march. In response, the friars have made it a point to walk the streets of their neighborhood every Wednesday at 6:20 for more than two years, missing only Christmas and Fourth of July.

They do not carry signs, nor do they pray the Rosary. Nothing about them is calling attention to violence or injustice. All they do is walk up and down the main street in their neighborhood, in habits, each and every Wednesday at 6:20. What I love about it is that they are a regular, vision presence in Camden. People recognize them and look for them, and for those that do not know them, they strike up conversations about who they are and what they’re doing. It is the story of Francis and a young brother: walking through the city one day, they went through the marketplace, side streets, and fields, not saying anything about Jesus. The young brother, disappointed, said, “I thought that we were going to preach today.” Francis replied, “My son, we have preached. We were preaching while we were walking. We were seen by many and our behavior was closely watched. It is of no use to walk anywhere to preach unless we preach everywhere as we walk!” It is my hope to do this always, of course, but to also make it a regular practice back in our neighborhood in D.C.

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2014 in Formation, Ministry

 

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Lord, Save Me From Chaos

In my last week here in Camden, NJ, I have been given an opportunity to offer a reflection on the readings at two of the masses this weekend. My hope is that you will read this for what it is, a short reflection on our readings, and not what it could be, a comprehensive theology of theodicy (For that, please see my posts from two years ago, Why Do We Suffer Pts 1, 2, and 3). There are things that I omit and things that I gloss over because, well, it’s a ten minute reflection. Enjoy!

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A couple weeks ago, I helped the Student Leaders here at St. Anthony’s plan a trip to Washington, D.C. The plan was for the students to go to the Capitol building for a tour, go next door to meet their Senator, spend a few hours site-seeing, and then head up to one of the friars’ parishes in Maryland for a presentation. A fool-proof plan with every detail accounted for! What could go wrong? Well, let me tell you: we couldn’t find parking so the students were almost late, one of the volunteers lost the keys to the van on the grass of the Capitol, we got caught in some rain walking down the mall, and then on our way to the parish, we got lost, stuck in traffic because of the power lines down everywhere, and one of our drivers was pulled over by the cops. We eventually showed up to the parish so late that the students had no time to practice before their presentation. So much for our fool-proof plan!

The fact of the matter is that our world is chaotic. No matter how hard we try, there will always be things around us that we cannot control. This is certainly the case in our readings today. For an ancient person, there was nothing more chaotic than nature: crushing winds, fire, earthquakes, and the roaring sea. Not having the scientific knowledge that we have, no smartphone to tell them the weather or where to go, the natural forces of the world were unpredictable, uncontrollable, and completely chaotic. While our chaos may be a little more domestic, it is overwhelming just the same. There are bills to pay, kids to take care of, shopping, cooking and cleaning, things to fix, people to deal with, microphones that don’t work, and emergencies to take care of. And if your life is anything like mine, every single one of these things will happen on the same day. Our lives are chaotic. How could we ever find time for ourselves, let alone prayer?

Our natural tendency is to run away from chaos: we deny anything that we can’t control and try to escape the world of disruption and unpredictability. Do you ever say to yourself, “If only I had more time…if things weren’t so crazy… I’d be able to pray better, I could take care of myself more. There’s just too much in the way right now.” This is how I felt my first year with the friars. Living in Wilmington, DE, I was in a house a block away from the noise of I-95, in a neighborhood that is known for violence, at a church that routinely had quinceañeras that would go until one in the morning. Let’s just say that it was a chaotic experience. You can imagine my excitement, then, when I found out that we would be going on an 8-day silent retreat in the middle of nowhere New York. Silence. Serenity. No chaos at all. I was amazed when I got there that I could hear the wind gently blowing in the trees. How peaceful. Finally, I could pray like I wanted to.

Do you know what I found out almost immediately? There was still chaos around me. I was sitting in the chapel trying to pray one day, and one of the monks upstairs kept slamming the door. BANG! BANG! Another kept walking in and out of the chapel looking for something *STOMP* *STOMP* STOMP*. And one of the lights flickered on and off, on and off, on and off, every few minutes. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I couldn’t believe it. In a place as quiet and peaceful as you can imagine, there were still things out of my control distracting me from God.

I realized in that moment that you can never escape chaos. No matter where you go or how in control you think that you are, there will always be things you cannot change. While at first this depressed me, I realized something quite spectacular: God was there with me experiencing everything I was. I thought to myself, “I bet God is annoyed by that slamming door, the annoying monk, and the flickering light too.” I realized that God was not some manipulative judge causing these distractions to test me or some passive observer watching his creation from a distance, God was right there with me sharing in my chaos.

This is an important distinction we must always remember: While God is always present, God is not the chaos nor does he cause the chaos. When we look at our first reading, we hear Elijah speak of a terrifying situation: wind, fire, earthquake. The passage says, “But the Lord was not in the wind…but the Lord was not in the fire… but the Lord was not in the earthquake.” These things were all happening around Elijah, thing beyond his control, and God was not the one causing them, but God was there. God was in the whisper, the comforting voice. The same is true for the disciples. Out in the middle of the sea during a storm, in the darkness of night, they were absolutely doomed. Was God the storm that was about to crush them or the darkness that gave them fear? No, of course not. But God was still there. Jesus came, not running, not shouting, not calling great attention to himself, but walking calmly on the water to meet his followers. God was their comfort, their calm within the storm.

When we look at our lives and at our world today, it is so easy to only see the storm. With tragedy around every corner we find ourselves asking, “Where is God?” Where is God when violence in our city robs us of our sons and daughters? Where is God when all we hear from Gaza, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan is terrible news: houses being demolished, children fleeing from their homes, and Christians being killed? Where is God when our whole world is crashing down around us? In the chaos of our lives, it can be difficult to see him, but he is there.

God is not in the violence, but he is there suffering with us.

God is not in the destruction but he is there fleeing with us.

God is not in the tragedies all around us that make life seem impossible sometimes but he is the one walking with us, comforting us with his love.

For some, this may be difficult to accept. “If God really loved us, why wouldn’t he put a stop to evil in our world. If he were really in control, why wouldn’t he do something.” Many times, we want a powerful God that crushes the bad guys and prevents bad things from happening. But that’s not how our God works. He loves us so much that he gave us free will, he made us co-creators in this world, and is unwilling to take that away from us just to make things perfect. Because of that, Jesus came to earth not as a king or wealthy business person to rule over the world, but as a simple carpenter to be ruled by it. He wanted to experience the pain of sin and invite us to create a better world, one with justice and love. His message was not of a perfect earthly world, and so we should not expect him to makes us rich and powerful or to take away our earthly pain; his message is of the heavenly kingdom, the reign of God through justice and mercy. Jesus was like us in everything but sin, and loved us so much that he endured torture and death to share in in our humanity; He gave up his body and blood so that we could share in his divinity. That, the sharing of this communion meal, is our eternal calm within every storm.

And so, we’re given a choice: we can try to run from the chaos, never venturing out of our comfort zones for fear that something might surprise us or go wrong, or we can embrace the chaos all around us, giving up our fear and our need to be in control, to be where our God is. There’s a chance we might get hurt by the crushing winds; there’s a chance that we might sink in the roaring sea. But if we stay hiding in the safety of the cave or are afraid to have faith to walk out onto the water, how will God ever be given the opportunity to save us from the chaos?

 
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Posted by on August 9, 2014 in Ministry, Prayer, Scripture

 

One Down. . .

Here is presumably the last moment of my life not under vows.

Here is presumably the last moment of my life not under vows.

. . . the rest of my life to go! Exactly one year ago, August 2, 2013, I was officially incorporated into the Order of Friars Minor by professing temporary vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the way of St. Francis of Assisi. The date marked the end of our novitiate year, the year of formation devoted to intense prayer and discernment, and the beginning of my vowed life as a friar.

Today, less officially, also marks the halfway point in my initial formation process in becoming a Franciscan Friar for life. With three years of formation behind me (Postulancy, Novitiate, and the first year of temporary profession) I now have three years of temporary profession to go before I am able to take my solemn vows, that is, my life-long intention to live as a friar in poverty, chastity and obedience.

I would be absolutely lying through my teeth if I said that it has been nothing but smooth sailing and steps forward, surrounded only by good examples. The fact of the matter is that the past three years have been the most frustrating and challenging of my life: I’ve had my values questioned, my vulnerabilities analyzed, my worldview challenged, my sense of self redefined, my expectations broken down, and my faults exposed. So much of what I have experienced in the last three years has been what most people go their entire lives trying to avoid.

And yet, what a gift it’s been. What a gift it’s been to be around people that care enough about me to want me to be better. What a gift it’s been to be opened up to a wider perspective of myself and the world, even if I didn’t want to see it. What a gift it’s been to go through all of this with great men doing the same.

When I look back three years–heck, when I look back one year–I can see the slow and steady work of God in my life, forming the stubborn clay that I am into his creation. When I look back, I can see what I didn’t see at the time, and I am grateful for the experiences that didn’t seem meaningful when they were happening. As the next three years of my formation unfold into the rest of my life, I thank God for the opportunities I’ve been given and pray for the patience and wisdom to appreciate the new ones ahead.

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2014 in Formation

 

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The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth

Do you find this picture provocative or offensive? Why?

God is, was, and will be a part of every step of creation.

Given the amount of quality material out there and the fact that this is a somewhat tired and irrelevant topic for most Catholics, I’m a bit apprehensive about devoting a post to “the religion and science debate.” What more can I say that hasn’t been said better by others? On the other hand, the fact that it continues to surface unintelligently in pop culture and even in our churches tells me that it can’t hurt to try a new medium.

So here we go. Science and religion. The great debate of our time. Some say that science is the only real truth, that religion is mere superstition that propagates fairy tales and manipulates people into violence. Others say that the only real truth is religion, that science is unreliable and that it denies the existence of God. Clearly, I would say, both of these opinions lack an understanding of the other and should be dismissed: even if one is the perfect option, neither lacks truth in some sense. So where does that leave us?

In between the two poles you will find many saying that science confirms religion and that religion guides science. Among Christians, I would say that this opinion is the most common. What they are trying to do, it would seem, is to reconcile the differences in the two in order to create one cohesive worldview from two different disciplines. This, as nice as it may sound, is yet another misunderstanding of the nature of religion and science.

The key to understanding the “debate” is that it is not a debate at all: religion and science are concerned with two completely different, mutually exclusive forms of knowledge. In the same way that art and engineering are two completely different, yet important, ways to understand a new bathroom project, science and religion have completely different goals. Science, using only empirical data (data that can be measured objectively with the senses), is concerned with the facts, that is, statements that can be proven without a doubt. Religion on the other hand, using divine revelation and human reason, is concerned with truths about our existence, that is, statements that give our life meaning. Which is better?

Scientists like Richard Dawkins or Neil Degrasse Tyson want to argue that this makes science better (although I would like to note that I do like much of what Degrasse has to say.) They say, and rightly so, that the great thing about science is that if something is a fact, it is so no matter what we believe. One can not simply “believe” that gravity does not exist because one doesn’t want to. Because of this, though, they look down on religion because of its lack of proof: “How can you believe in a God that you can’t prove exists?” they ask. What they want is a scientific answer to a religious question, facts where people are searching for meaning. To me, this is like asking an artist why they paint even though it cannot provide electricity for the house. It’s ridiculous because that is not the concern of art. As far as religion is concerned, there is no proof for what we believe because proof of God would actually collapse our free will. Proof does not allow for choice; it does not allow for faith. Surely this is not what God wants. Instead, the purpose of religion is to use the evidence we have, both from revelation and reason, to find meaning in our life about God to help us assent to him.

Because of this, it is a grave mistake for us as Christians to view science as anything other than an incredible resource. When we look to the world, we want to be as informed as possible as to how it works, don’t we?! It is a tragic reality that many Christians view science with skepticism, or worse yet, that they see it as a threat to their religious beliefs. Quoting Leo XIII’s encyclical Providentissimus Deus, John Paul II addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences with this remark in 1996: “Truth cannot contradict truth.” In other words, if something is scientifically true then it cannot be against the truth of God.

This statement must be the basis of any interaction between science and religion; it must be the lens through which we understand any new information, no matter the medium. To dismiss new truths from science (or any hermeneutical device for that matter, e.g. art) is to limit our ability to properly interpret the evidence of our existence. To dismiss them on the basis of a particular interpretation of scripture is utterly foolish. As far back as the 4th century, St. Augustine recognized that an ignorant faith only repelled people from the church:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world. . . and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics. . . The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? (citation here)

It doesn’t matter what the topic is. Creation. Evolution. Reproduction. Homosexuality. Genetics. Astronomy. Thermodynamics. Fracking. Stem cells. If we begin from a religious statement that contradicts or disregards truth from other disciplines, namely scientific fact, because we are afraid to incorporate new information into a broader interpretation or as an attempt to pass off a statement of faith as a statement of scientific proof, we will look foolish and unattractive to non-believers. This is what we unfortunately see from Christians wishing to use the Bible as a science textbook, emphatically declaring that the earth is only 6,000 years old. It is a response that exhibits fear and a lack of faith. Why couldn’t God have created the world out of nothing AND continue to create it anew each day through the process of evolution? (For a truly fantastic article that deals with this specifically, I strongly encourage that you read “Creationism is Materialism’s Creation“.)

Using every possible form of knowledge does not make us atheists, it makes us grateful that God gave us the ability to reason!

Using every possible form of knowledge does not make us atheists, it makes us grateful that God gave us the ability to reason!

While his theology may need a little work, I find Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. to be a fascinating example of someone able to incorporate the latest in scientific research into a Christocentric Universe. Essentially (and briefly because this post is already too long and going down a rabbit hole we might get stuck in!) Chardin took Charles Darwin’s principles of evolution that all organisms have a natural, material propensity to grow more complex and to reproduce, and added a theological element to it: all of creation has a “driving force” within it so that evolutionary steps are not random, they are a specie’s yearning to converge on one point, Christ, the connection between the creator and created. In this way God is in not some distant creator that walked away after putting his creation into motion. He is ever creating as it continues to unfold.

Ultimately, I will close by quoting a man most brilliant in his field, Albert Einstein: “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” As Christians, we want the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, wherever God is willing to reveal it to us. Let us do as the Apostle Paul tells us: “Test everything; keep what is good.”

 
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Posted by on July 29, 2014 in Theology

 

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