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Not Wed to the Idea

There is nothing appealing about this experience. And yet, in every marriage, there is an opportunity to bring people closer to God.

There is nothing appealing about this experience. And yet, in every marriage, there is an opportunity to bring people closer to God.

When I was discerning my call to the priesthood, you might remember that one of the things that drew me to the possibility of being ordained was the sacrament of reconciliation. I find it to be a very powerful experience and the thought of welcoming people back to the church was very appealing.

What I didn’t mention in my posts concerning discernment, however, was one of my major deterrents: the sacrament of marriage. My thought during postulancy, a thought that I continue to hold to some extent today, is that presiding at weddings is the worst part of being a priest. Don’t get me wrong, witnessing the love of two people is a wonderful thing and I’m happy to be a part of it. But I want to be a part of it in a sacramental way. The thought of being a “rent-a-priest” in some elaborate fairy tale that has nothing to do with Christ’s love for the Church or the ceremony being the obligatory hoop to jump through before the couple can have a reception and honeymoon is less than inspiring.

And yet, there is now a part of me that is excited about the prospect of presiding at weddings. What has changed? My education. The more I learn about the sacrament, the wedding rite, and married life, the more I see an opportunity to offer people a powerful and life-changing experience of God in their lives that is often lacking or misunderstood.

Preparation

One thing our Church is witnessing these days is that a lot people are very poorly prepared for the whole process. A little preparation goes a long way in forming healthy, lasting marriages. How do we communicate with one another? How do we resolve conflict? What role does God play in our marriage? What is the theology of the Church regarding our bodies and sex? These questions, especially the last one, are not always discussed in a meaningful way before couples get married and I think that is a great detriment to their love.

The major issue, I think, is helping people to build a marriage with God as their foundation. My professor put it pretty well yesterday: love for one another does not sustain the marriage bond, the marriage bond in God sustains the love. This is both critically important and really encouraging. Marriage is a sacrament in the Catholic Church, an experience of God in a visible, tangible way meaning that the act of marriage is both the experience of God’s grace and the source of grace to be able to accept it. Romantic love is a major part of marriage, but it is not what will sustain the couple in tough times and on bad days, those times when he tracks mud into the kitchen for the thousandth time or she snores all night long.

Breaking down “traditions” and false-signs

And so if this is the case, and God is the centerpiece of the marriage, we want to have the opportunity to say so in a liturgical way. How do we do this? Being that it is a sacrament, what is the “visible sign” that confers the invisible grace? It’s not the rings. It’s not the priest’s blessing. It’s not the priest “pronouncing” anything or anyone. Believe it or not, the liturgical act is nothing other than the consent of the couple. In a truly beautiful and powerful act of love, the couple administer the sacrament to each other in the words, “I take you (name) to be my husband/wife.” This is the centerpiece of the whole ceremony, the sacramental experience.

One of the difficulties about this, then, is breaking down “traditional” or misunderstood marriage practices that distract or distort this experience. For instance, how should the bride process into the church? “Traditionally” she comes in with her father with the groom waiting at the altar to receive her. Why? Because traditionally women were property that needed to be handed from one male authority to another! Is that what we want to say? Absolutely not! In contrast, the Catholic liturgical rite calls for the couple to process in together behind the priest (and even accompanied by both sets of parents) because they are the administers of the sacrament, even if celebrated in the context of marriage. This is fantastic symbolism! And yet not “traditional” as some would expect.

The same goes for “traditions” about the bride and groom not seeing each other before the ceremony (put in place during a time of arranged marriages so the groom could be fooled into marrying the wrong person), the bride wearing white (not a sign of purity but a convention for the bride to look like royalty after Queen Victoria did it), the wedding party wearing the same outfit (superstition to confuse demons… seriously), entering to “Here Comes the Bride” (a song from the opera Lohengrin, which is not exactly appropriate… It’s the equivalent of walking down the isle to something on the radio), and the priest “pronouncing them man and wife” (which is bad theology because they pronounce each other).

Marriage as an act of the community

Lastly and most importantly, marriage and the ceremony that initiates it should not be an insular experience that focuses on the couple in themselves, but rather the couple as now a new identity in relationship with God and neighbor. Karl Rahner, S.J. had this to say about it:

“Marriage is not the act in which two individuals come together to form a ‘we,’ a relationship in which they set themselves apart from the ‘all’ and close themselves against this. Rather it is the act in which a ‘we’ is constituted which opens itself lovingly precisely to all.”

In the Catholic Church, marriage is an act of the community for the community. It is public and it is inviting. It is an experience of grace with one another for the sake of sharing that grace with the world. What does this mean, practically? St. John Chrysostom advices couples to invite the poor to their gatherings and to have modest receptions centered in Christ. While I may struggle to convince couples not to have an open bar at the wedding, it is not uncommon for couples to choose a simpler ceremony or even add a charity or food shelter to their registry rather than spend thousands of dollars on the event. As a Franciscan, I can’t think of a greater first act of marriage than to have a couple choose modesty over excess or the poor over opulence.

But it gets better. As a way to liturgically express the theology that a couple’s love for each other is both supported by the community and helps build up said community, the Church actually encourages couples to get married on Sunday within the context of a normal Sunday mass. How awesome is that? Rather than “a princess’ special day” the wedding is clearly and explicitly more about the community than the couple, more about looking outwards than hiding inwards. Sure, it’s difficult to have a bridal party of ten and a guest list of 500, but the entire community gets the opportunity to take part in supporting the marriage and experiencing the fruit of its love.

***

Overall, I still think that weddings (and marriage in general) will be the most frustrating part of being a priest. For every couple that I can open up to Catholic ideal there will be plenty others that will jump through hoops rather than fully prepare, insist on writing their own marriage rite than following the Church’s, and mothers that will know more about weddings that I do. Such is life. But unlike how I felt a few months ago, I know that that is not all of life. Weddings are an extraordinary time for counsel, guidance, and even evangelization given the amount of non-Catholics that we be a part of the process. For many, they may be the only time they ever step foot inside of a church, and the experience they have may define what they think of the Church for the rest of their lives. I hope and pray that these experiences will be as grace filled as they are intended by God and that we as Church, and me as future minister, will be able to best express the love of Christ found for them here. Now that is something I could get wed to!

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2015 in Discernment, Ministry

 

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When Will This End?

This is more or less how I felt this afternoon

This is more or less how I felt this afternoon

Today was a rough day. Without going into great detail, I encountered difficulty with school, formation, all three vows, unavoidable situations and my bracket was seriously ruined in two games. (Seriously Iowa State??) In short, today was a day of penance.

In initial formation, days (or even months) like this can be plentiful. The fact of the matter is, and this doesn’t matter who one’s formator is or what the program is like, formation can be a very frustrating experience because it is but a reflection of the life we were inspired to live. Yes, we are “real” friars and this is “real” life, but in a lot of ways formation does not accurately reflect the day-to-day life that much of us will be living in a just a few short years. This is partly by design. As new friars, we need a little extra oversight, a few more restrictions, more direction and evaluation, and certainly a whole lot of school. There are simply things that have to be different about our life so that we can be ready to live the one we see lived around us.

And while I understand that, it is days like today that make it very hard to see the merit in “the now.” I want to get out of this house and do full time ministry. Why do I have to be stuck here taking stupid tests, writing meaningless evaluations? I want to be with the people of God away from all of this personal attention. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I find it very difficult sometimes to stay focused on the present, and even impossible at times to find the merit in the present when the future captures my attention. Why am I doing THIS when I could be doing THAT?

I think there is a temptation is all of us, not just religious in formation, to see the preparations of life as hoops to jump through. Whether it’s school, job training, internships, or even entire stages of our life (teenage years come to mind), what is ahead always looks more enjoyable than what is directly in front of us, and we count down the days until it is over so that we may begin the “real” task, whatever it may be. At the end of high school, I couldn’t wait for college; at the end of college, I couldn’t wait to enter the friars; even towards the end of that summer in college when I lived at the church, the summer that started my vocation journey and was arguably the greatest time of my entire life, I couldn’t wait to get back to school and move on to the next stage of my life.

In many cases, the preparation period actually is genuinely terrible and it is fitting to look forward to future possibilities. Days like today force my attention away from the present into a future that is much more desirable, frankly, as a way to inspire me to continue on my path forward.

But there is also a great danger in this. For in thinking about the future, I have spent time in the realm of what is truly not real, the possibility of reality, while what is truly real right in front of me has passed by unnoticed. Some go through their entire lives this way, waiting for what is next, having never actually experienced what is now. It is a constant cycle of moving back and forth from day dreaming to nostalgia, from one false reality to another.

The present reality may suck. Seriously. Late nights, difficult work, unfair treatment, bad luck, uncomfortable situations… the whole nine yards. The temptation will be to dwell on what is next and to ask, “When will this end?” Doing so will undoubtedly offer temporary comfort, as most forms of escapism do. But in the end, what fruit will dwelling on the future produce? What we should be asking, what should be asking on days like today, is not “when will this end?” but “what about this situation, in all of its imperfection and failed expectations, is God revealing himself to me?” Even in the worst of situations, there must be a sense in every moment of every day that God is actively engaging us with his love, breaking into our lives through the ordinary and mundane, to draw us closer to himself. This moment may seem terrible and we cannot wait for it to end, but God is in this moment and in no other. We could spend our entire lives wishing that we lived at a different time in a different situation, but in the end, we were given this moment, and this moment alone, for a reason: to encounter God in a unique way. When we realize this, when we realize the power of the present reality and the possibility that every moment has to be with God in a new and life-giving way, there seems no stranger question to ask than “When will this end?”

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2015 in Formation, Post-Novitiate

 

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Spring Break!

Spring break just ain't what it used to be

The view from the deck of the house we rented in Key Largo, FL, senior year. Spring break just ain’t what it used to be!

It’s that time of year again! Midterms are finished and spring break is here! Is there any sweeter time for a college student than this? A full week with no classes, no assignments, and no worries at all. Pack the bags and head to the beach!

Or so I wish. Turns out that graduate students don’t have quite the same experience of spring break as undergraduates. Midterm exams are finished, but term papers are looming, assignments are piling up even as I type this, and as a friar, I still have ministry and house responsibilities to take care of. Vacation isn’t exactly in the cards… Ugh. This real world stuff isn’t all it’s cracked up to be!

So what does a friar in formation do with no school and slightly fewer assignments? If you’re Dennis Bennett, ofm and myself, you spend a long weekend at a parish staffed by the friars to gain ministerial experience and to get away from the house (it is important that everyone know my reasoning is absolutely in that order…) And what an experience it was.

Spring break this year started in a less-than-desirable way...

Spring break this year started in a less-than-desirable way…

Given the weather in D.C. this winter, I knew that our destination was going to be south but would have been happy with any of our parishes. Eventually, we settled on Immaculate Conception Church in Durham, NC. Located in a traditionally poor part of the area, the influx of professionals into the Research Triangle and to well-renowned universities such as Duke and UNC, coupled with the large growth in Latino population all over North Carolina, has developed the city and parish into a vibrant, diverse place to minister. The church has six masses on the weekend (four English, two Spanish), runs an elementary school, is involved in many social justice initiatives in the area, and cares for the needs of a couple thousand families in two languages.

So what could two theology students do in just a weekend? Our main duty was to preach at all of the masses. Dennis preached in English on Saturday night and both Spanish masses on Sunday, and I preached at the three Sunday morning masses. Besides the valuable experience of preaching in a parish setting to hundreds of people (Dennis preached to over 1000 at the 1:30 Spanish mass!), I absolutely loved the opportunity to speak with parishioners before and after mass. That said, Sunday was a tiring day. With the exception of 30 minutes for lunch and an hour break in the afternoon, we were at the church greeting, smiling, standing, celebrating and preaching from 7:15am until 6:30pm. But what a joy! (I would choose that every day over writing theology papers!)

Western-NC style BBQ, hush puppies, and Mac n Cheese. Mmm obesity!

Western-NC style BBQ, hush puppies, and Mac n Cheese. Mmm obesity!

On Monday, Dennis and I took the opportunity to get to know the area a little, taking in the sites, sounds, and especially tastes of the area. We started with a tour of Duke University, a gorgeous wooded campus with Gothic buildings throughout. The chapel was incredible, to say the least. By then, it was time for lunch, and being in North Carolina, that meant finding a place to get BBQ. For anyone who has spent time in the south, you know that this can be a contentious issue. Vinegar-based, tomato-based, or mustard-based? All I have to say is mustard is objectively disgusting and vinegar is used for cleaning. But whether or not you accept that Western-NC BBQ is the real BBQ, you’ll accept that Dennis and I needed to walk a bit more to burn off some calories. It only seemed fitting to us, having seen Duke, that we should also see UNC to compare. Dennis was no convinced, but I liked UNC better. Sure, the gothic buildings are nice, but the diversity of styles and overall higher energy of UNC was much more appealing. There was more to see, more to do, and I didn’t feel like I was stuck in the 19th century.

There's just something so comfortable about a rocking chair on the porch!

There’s just something so comfortable about a rocking chair on the porch!

And having spent over an hour walking around a very hilly campus, we felt that we needed to eat some more food. Again seeking something particular to the area, we found ourselves at a dairy farm twenty minutes into the country eating fresh, antibiotic and hormone free ice cream, sitting in a rocking chair overlooking miles of farmland. When in Rome, right? By this time we had eaten our weight in unhealthy (but delicious) food and walked a marathon, and it was time for us to head back to the house for a bit of rest. (I would like to remind you that it is our spring break, so keep your judgments to yourself!) But not for long! For soon it was dinner time and it was off to meet a high school friend of mine in downtown Durham at a hole-in-the wall burger place. Burger, onion loaf, french fries, and a beer, and we were now on heart attack watch, but man did it taste good! Good friends and good food are two things that keep friars going!

And “going” we did. After dinner, it was back to the Church for an event we were putting on: “What’s it like to be a friar in the 21st century?” Hosted by Dennis and I, we attracted twenty men and women from the parish (not bad on just one day’s notice!) to join us in prayer and story-telling for an hour and a half. While there were only two men potentially interested in a vocation, the whole group was excited to hear about our lives and could not ask us questions quickly enough. At an hour and a half, thirty minutes after we were scheduled to finish, we finally had to cut off the questions. With a little bit more notice and a larger room, we could have found ourselves speaking for three hours, they were so interested! But after everyone had left for home, our night wasn’t quite finished. No, in keeping with the running theme, Dennis and I headed out once more to meet a friend from college, this time for a local beer and a night of laughs. The following morning, we woke for prayers with the friars, went to the school mass at Immaculata, and headed on our way back to D.C.

All in all, the weekend had everything one could ask for: God, the people of God, good food, friends, time to rest, and an opportunity to share this wonderful life with others. There were no palm trees or sandy beaches to be had on this spring break, but I have to say, there was a lot more of what truly satisfies on this trip than in years past, and I wouldn’t trade it for a second.

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2015 in Trips

 

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The Reason For The Rules

Greetings from Durham, NC! As it is spring break for Catholic University, I’m here at Immaculate Conception Church with my classmate Dennis Bennett, learning about one of our friars’ ministries and enjoying the southern weather! When we get back to D.C. in a few days, I would like to offer a post on the trip itself, but for now, here is the reflection I gave at the masses this morning. As usual, this is based on the readings for the day found here.

This morning I have the pleasure of talking to you about what I’m sure is everyone’s favorite topic: rules. We all have them. Don’t do this! Don’t do that! No ice cream until you finish your vegetables. Only one hour of television a day. No juggling chainsaws in the house. (There’s always that one person that ruins the fun for everyone, am I right?) Rules are everywhere: at home, at work, at school, even here at church. But like it or not, rules are very important in our lives because they remind us of what matters most; when we identify a value that is close to our hearts (safety, equality, health, justice) rules keep us on the right path to honoring them. If we want to grow up big and strong, we make a rule to eat our vegetables; if we don’t want to be couch potatoes, we make a rule to limit how much we watch t.v.; if we want to keep all of our limbs and fingers we make a rule not to throw and catch dangerous things. In this way, the rules we make and the ones we continue to follow say a lot about who we are.

So what do the ten commandments say about God? For the Israelites, it reminded them that they were special in God’s eyes, the “chosen people,” rescued from slavery in Egypt, given a land all to themselves, and entrusted with something given to no other nation on earth: the law of God. By giving them the law, God was calling them to a special relationship with himself. Essentially, he told them the way he wanted to be loved. If they wanted to be close to God, all they had to do was obey to what made him happy. It’s like that person that not-so-subtly hints at what they want for Christmas: “If only someone would buy me that watch… what a good friend.” In a less superficial way, it’s how all of our relationships work. When we want to show someone our love, we go out of our way to do what makes them happy; we set up rules in our lives to enable relationships: no cell phones at the table so we can talk with another; Wednesday night is family night so we can spend time together; on Sunday, we go to mass so we can give glory to God.

But sometimes, rules make no sense. Sometimes we forget why the rule is there in the first place and we end up following them for no good reason. “You can’t change that”— “Why not?”— “Because that’s the rule.”— “Why is that the rule?”— “No, that’s the way it’s always been done!” Have you ever experience this in your life?

Unfortunately, that is where the people of Israel have found themselves in our Gospel today. At some point along the way, many of them forgot why God gave them the law in the first place; they forgot that what God really wanted was to be in relationship with them. Sure, they kept the Sabbath and went to temple, but they turned it [from a place of worship for all people] to a place for making money. Sure, they said prayers to God and gave him reverence, but when he walked right before them, preaching, teaching, and performing miracles, they ridiculed him and kicked him out. Sure, they didn’t carve any false idols, but they became so attached to the temple building that they weren’t able to see the temple of Jesus’ body that God was going to raise up on the third day. Jesus, God himself, the reason for the law in the first place was in their presence… looking them in the eye…touching them…offering them eternity in heaven. A relationship with God was right in front of them, but they preferred to cling to a hallow shell of misunderstood rules than to follow him.

What I find so interesting about this situation is that, like us, these were generally good people. Like us, they wanted what was best for their families, went to a religious gathering every week, and really just tried to do what they thought was right. The law was what was right, and they had grown comfortable with it over the years, even if it didn’t make much sense or bring them joy or fulfillment. They did it because they knew they were supposed to. Like many of us, they had grown so comfortable in “the ways things have always been done,” that they forgot that God was calling them to an intimate relationship with himself; God wants more than rules and obligations, he wants love, worship, joy.

It’s easy for us to sit here two thousand years later and criticize them for failing to see God among

them. “Brother, if Jesus were standing here right now, I would worship him and do anything he said. How could they have been so blind?” May-be. But here’s the thing: Jesus is here. His presence is as alive as it ever has been. He is here, right now, holding all of creation together and animating all to life. Can you see him in your life? Can you feel his presence here, in each other? Can you hear him calling you by name? 

For much of my life, I couldn’t. Maybe you struggle with this too. I always believed in God, I went to Church, fasted during lent, said my prayers, you know, all the “rules” we follow, but I always wondered, “Why doesn’t God speak to the world today like he does in the Bible? Why doesn’t Jesus reveal himself to me?” Like many people, I went to mass but didn’t get much out of it. Maybe it was the music, maybe the homily could have been a little better, or at least shorter. These things could have certainly helped, but for me, the problem was much deeper. I went to church to experience God. Isn’t that why we go to church, you ask? The problem was that it was the only place I experienced Gpd. You see, my experience of God, like the Jews, was entirely tied up in a building, in a ritual, in a set of rules. This did not work for me. If we do not have an experience of Jesus outside of these walls, if we don’t really know who Jesus is, personally, we cannot bring anything to this worship. And if we can’t bring anything from our lives, any lived experience, how are we anything but a people following rules we don’t understand? St. John Chrysostom once said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.” Since I struggled to see God in my everyday life, I struggled to understand what I was doing when I came to mass.

This began to change in college when I spent the summer in Philadelphia at the soup kitchen run by the friars. There I was, twenty years old, living in a row home without air conditioning in the inner city, eating whatever the kitchen was making that day, and spending my entire time with the poor, I was far from home. Where am I? What am I doing here? Like the tables in the temple flipped over by Jesus, my world was completely upside down. I was uncomfortable, I was vulnerable. It was there that I experienced God truly in my life. On the inside door of the soup kitchen there is a sign that says, “Smile, Jesus is at the door.” And on the other side is a homeless person, broken, desperate, and probably wreaking to high heaven. At first, I thought, “That’s good to remember. Treat everyone with respect like you would treat Jesus.” But it was more than that. What I came to realize was that Jesus was at the door. In those men and women, I experienced Jesus’ weakness, his pain on the cross, his humiliation before us. In those men and women, I felt Jesus himself in my presence: speaking, touching, performing miracles before my eyes. I felt him calling me to a different life, a life in him.

In our life in this church, we have many rules. Stand here. Sit there. Pray this. These rules are important. They unite us in prayer and give us a way to glory to God together in a beautiful way and enable us to show what is important in our lives, a relationship with God. Because ultimately, that’s what really matters. Without that encounter, without the eyes to see and the ears to hear the presence of our Lord among us, we are simply a people going through the motions, following rules we don’t understand because “that’s what we’ve always done.” Instead, may we be a people that loves our God so much that we see him in everything we do and every person we meet; that this Eucharist we celebrate may not be yet another rule we follow, but a celebration of the God who is truly present in our lives, and wants nothing more than to love us. Today, may you know this with all your heart, that God truly loves you and wants to be in relationship with you.

 

 
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Posted by on March 8, 2015 in Scripture

 

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An Old Path Made New

I was so impressed by these men, from left to right: Br. Basil, Fr. Frank, Ben, Todd, Crawford, Gilbert, Ken, Jim, Nick, and Deacon

I was so impressed by these men, from left to right: Br. Basil, Fr. Frank, Ben, Todd, Crawford, Gilbert, Ken, Jim, Nick, and Dn Alan

This weekend I was offered a tremendous opportunity. While Washington, D.C. was recording its coldest temperature in over 100 years and amassing over 6.5 inches of snow, I was asked to travel to sunny Florida to bask in he spring-like weather. For what? Who cares! I was going to say yes to anything! Luckily for me it was for a great event: a vocation discernment retreat for new candidates.

Taking place at our retirement home in St. Petersburg, some, including myself, had some reservations with the concept. Is this really the image we want to use to introduce men to the order? Are a bunch of old guys really the best sell for a group of excited candidates?

Turns out it was the perfect place to be. These men, both young and old, could not have been more impressive, and the rapport they shared could not have been better. The weekend was an unforgettable experience of bridging the future and “past” of the Order, mutually inspiring each other with new life. The accomplishments of the retirees grounded the candidates’ idealism and the energy of the new men brought life and joy to an otherwise quiet house.

The weekend started Friday night with us doing what we do best: eating and socializing. To my great enjoyment, the candidates and retired friars had no problem hitting it off. The new men were eager to hear about the friars and the friars were overjoyed at the opportunity to entertain visitors. Following dinner, the group was formally introduced as we prayed Evening Prayer together.

The first session was led by Paul Santoro, OFM, and myself, and was entitled, “What does it mean to be a friar today?” All we could say is that there is simply no blueprint for who and what a friar should be. Even though there are specific aspects of our charism that guide us (prayer, fraternity, minority, and mission) and we spent some time sharing our experience of each, the fact of the matter is that there is no “correct” way to live them out. “it’s what you bring to this life that makes it what it is.” As the other friars began to chime in with their own diverse experiences, hopes, and visions, we found ourselves building a beautiful mosaic right before our eyes; though varied and seemingly fragmented as individuals, together we made something coherent and full of tremendous meaning.

The following morning built upon this diversity with a discussion about the mission of the friars led by two very different men: Jerome Massimino, OFM, and Kevin Mackin, OFM. While Jerome had spent most of his life in pastoral settings, staffing parishes and campus ministries, Kevin spent most of his life in academia, teaching and administrating at a high level. In almost no way did their ministries overlap; the people they served, the tasks they carried out, and the problems they faced were completely different. And yet, both men are Franciscan through and through. The juxtaposition of their lives was a wonderful witness to see.

A few of the guys with Fr. Kevin Mackin

A few of the guys with Fr. Kevin Mackin, OFM

The final talk of the weekend came after lunch Saturday and could probably have been named (and I kid you not) “Dying with Dignity as a Friar.” Given by Francis Souci, OFM, the man instrumental in building and running a skilled nursing facility for aged and infirm friars for more than 20 years, it was a powerful talk about how we are fraternity until the end. Refusing to call it “the infirmary,” he insisted that it be called and treated like any other friar, a place where men could pray and socialize with one another, affording them the dignity at the end of their lives that they had given so many others throughout their life of ministry. One might not expect a talk such as this on a discernment retreat, but I can’t tell you how important a similar experience was for me when I was discerning, to know that I would be loved and cared for even in my old age.

And really, I think that was the surprise “sell” of the weekend. Obviously, I think it was great for someone like myself to be there, to be able to field their questions from the perspective of someone currently going through the process; and it was obviously great to have the head vocation director and regional guys in full-time ministry to share from their more seasoned life with the friars. But those sorts of things are to be expected and are commonplace at our retreats. What was different about this one was being around our highly decorated brothers. These men are the ones who blazed the trail before us, made the path open for the rest of us to follow. And this did not go unnoticed by our candidates, men who are trying to find their own path to walk in this life. I know that I was touched and inspired by their life and witness.

All in all, I leave Florida elated and surprised by the happenings of the weekend. What I witnessed was life-giving. There are men before me that made my life in this Order possible, and there are men, truly fantastic men, that appear to be coming after me. Again, I find myself so affirmed in this life, and overjoyed that others feel the same way. The path of a friar is laid out before us, old and true, but there are always new ways to walk it.

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2015 in Discernment, Fraternity

 

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Doing Lent Together

As Church, we follow the path of those gone before us. As Fraternity, we follow that path together.

As Church, we follow the path of those gone before us. As Fraternity, we help each other along the way.

It’s that time of year again. Lent is upon us. Put away the green vestments, get the ashes ready, and hide the chocolate, it’s time for some penance and conversion!

Lent is always an especially fruitful time of year for me, a season of intentionality and clarity. More than any other time, I am forced to look deep within myself, call to mind the ways that I have wavered from the right path, and do what I have to do to be ready for our Lord’s resurrection. It is a time of knowing deeply who I am in all of my gifts and failings, and remembering all that Jesus did/does for me (and you!)

That being said, I don’t think I have to tell you that it is also a time of great struggle, proving the adage “no pain, no gain” to be right. Fasting is the worst. Rearranging my schedule is inconvenient. Realizing that I’m not perfect, that there are times in which I am actually bad, is the last thing I want to spend time thinking about. Although I can look back and clearly see how much I have benefited from acts of penance and conversion throughout the years (from somewhat trivial things like not eating candy and refraining from “That’s what she said” jokes to praying more and developing a habit of using my resources for others) they were dreadfully painful at the beginning. Nobody likes change. It’s even harder when what’s bad for us is easy, comfortable, and feels so so good.

So why do we so often do it alone? Why do we go down the path of conversion without a guide or partner every step of the way? When you ask the majority of people what they’re doing for Lent, you’re likely to get, “Oh, I’m going to pray more,” “I’m going to donate more to charity,” “I’m going to fast on Fridays.” I’m going to do something. For most people, including myself before entering religious life, Lent was a private devotion and a personal conversion. Others at times knew what I was doing, but it was ultimately my cross to bear, no one else’s.

There are two things I want to say about this.

The first is that, as Church, we need to support one another in our conversions. As Christians, we walk together, not alone, following the path of those who have gone before us and benefiting from two thousand years of faithful living. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel; the Church has shown what is spiritually life-giving. Prayer. Fasting. Almsgiving. But these things are not to be done solely in private devotion and personal conversion. No, penance and conversion are public and communal acts that build up the community through mutual support, and evangelize others to follow the path with us. Think about how powerful of a witness it is to see someone vulnerable enough to share the ways in which s/he needs to be converted and asking the community for help, and how encouraging it must look to an outsider to see the whole community answer the call for one another.

Putting ashes on our forehead is not a private devotion but a public sign of our need for conversion.

Putting ashes on our forehead is not a private devotion but a public sign of our need for conversion.

And yet, being Church is more than simply joining an support group, as important as support may be. It is uniting in word and deed with other people of faith around a common mission. When this happens, when we truly become Church, we begin to adopt a communal identity, a “we” in belief and action. This is a tremendous step. When it happens, we no longer look simply at the ways in which “I” have sinned, but now in the ways that “we” have sinned. We begin to realize that the Church is in need of conversion and that we are all a part of that.

What does this look like? Well, there are at least three levels to look at. The first and most important is the family, the principle building block of the Church. Coming together as a household, the family must look at its life together and determine the ways in which the culture of the house could better promote the coming our Lord. Maybe there is a weekly prayer night. Maybe money is saved by not going out to eat as much and donated to a charity. From there, one looks to the worshiping community. Is there something special the community can do together throughout the season, an additional prayer service or community service day? Lastly, one looks to the Church/society as a whole. Have we, directly or indirectly, supported injustice in our world? Maybe there is something we need to change in the way we treat certain people or issues, in the way we act and are perceived publicly.

What about me, you ask? What I am doing that I need support from the community and how am I doing Lent together with others?

Personally, I hope to do three things that will touch on a few of my biggest struggles. The first is to read scripture for 15-20 minutes each day, in additional to the thirty minutes of silent prayer I have [mostly] kept since Advent. The Word of God is always right there to be proclaimed and heard, but I don’t sit with it enough. The second is to give of myself more freely to the poor and to continue to grow in my comfort with and respect for those who are homeless. The third is my fast, but it doesn’t have anything to do with food. As I have mentioned before, taking myself off the dating scene has helped me to focus less on attractiveness when entering into a relationship, shaking off the natural tendency to see women as objects. This is by no means a completed process, however, and I want to take this time to be intentional about how seriously I take the vow of chastity.

Communally, it is much more difficult to find specific things that apply to each member of the house, especially when there are twenty guys living together, but we also agreed on three things: 1) On Wednesdays and Fridays we will have soup and bread for dinner, no dessert, 2) At Evening Prayer on those days, we will read one station of the cross and reflect on it together, and 3) The house will match any donations we make out of our stipends for the CRS rice bowl. For me, these things are critically important to the life of the house. Sure, they may not cause the greatest conversion in any one of us, but there is just something so important about recognizing that we are in this together and making an effort to show it. We’re all busy people and we all have our own preferences when it comes to lifestyle, but it speaks volumes to me that we can do something with and for each other.

In this way, I think religious life is a powerful witness to the rest of the Church and the rest of the world, that we are something greater than our individual identity, that there is something life-giving about giving up personal autonomy for the sake of the group. And in a way, isn’t that what Lent is all about? Giving up what we don’t need to build up the Kingdom of God. That sounds good to me. Would you like to do it together?

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2015 in Fraternity, Prayer

 

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Restoring Our Relationships

In Christ, we recover what was once perfect: true love in our relationships

In Christ, we recover what was once perfect: true love in our relationships

On Thursday, women took center stage in our readings mass, from the story of woman being created from the rib of man to the Syrophoenician woman convincing Jesus to heal her daughter. I’ve seen homilists go a number of directions with these readings: “God works through unexpected people” (a little condescending), “Jesus changed his mind,” (a little problematic), and “This is the way marriage should be, man and woman loving one another with man as the head” (very complicated). Having studied both readings in my scripture classes this year, I wanted to offer a slightly different perspective.

Let’s start with the often-misunderstood Genesis reading. Unlike the first creation story (Gn 1:1-2:3) in which “male and female he created them,” humanity is created in procession in the second creation story (Gn 2:4-25): God created man from the earth, and then from the man’s rib, he created woman. Many have interpreted this as a sign of subordination, including the Apostle Paul, arguing that woman came from man, not man from woman, so woman is subject to man (See 1 Cor 11:8; 1 Tim 2:13).

But is this really what the story is saying? In fact, quite the opposite: God has set up a radically egalitarian, perfect relationship between man and woman. In her very purpose for being created, woman was intended to be a “partner” of the man, a “helper” in the same way that God is Israel’s helper throughout the Old Testament (the Hebrew word is the same). Is God subordinate to Israel because he is its helper? Of course not! Look, then, at how the woman is made: man had nothing to do with it. He was asleep! (Typical…) Just as God created man, so God created woman. The man declares, “This one is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” In other words, they are the same, of one essence, perfectly equal in their intended creation. Because of this, man has no claim over the woman, and so unlike the animals (for which he gave names to signify his authority over them), he does not “name” woman as much as he describes their relationship to one another: “for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken.” He understands who she is in light of him and who he is in light of her. (It is not until chapter 3, after they sin, that the man names her Eve, marking the distortion of their relationship.) The passage concludes that they live naked with one another with no shame, signifying their perfect respect for one another, having nothing to hide, no distortions, and no manipulations. This is what God created.

But this is not the world we live in, is it? We live in a world of human trafficking, pornography, and sexual exploitation. We live in a very “sexist” world in which women are harassed, paid less than men, and subordinated to second class. Just this week Sports Illustrated sent me their annual Swimsuit edition. Today, “50 Shades of Grey” hits theatres. How can we look at these things as say that we are respecting each other as equals? How would we feel if it was our mother, our best friend, our sister, in these situations? We would never treat our loved ones this way, but we subordinate others all of the time, intentionally or unintentionally. We live in a world of distorted relationships, a world that has lost sense of the “partnership” God created, the perfect relationship the he intended.

Now within this distorted world, we jump to the Gospel (Mk 7:24-30), and are confronted with an odd interaction between Jesus and a Syrophoenician woman. Falling to Jesus’ feet in worship for him to save her daughter, Jesus initially refuses to help her, and then worse yet, he calls her a dog! Not politically correct Jesus! He does end up curing the woman’s daughter because of her great faith, but the reader is left a little baffled. Was Jesus serious in calling her that? If so, does that mean that Jesus’ mind was changed?

My own reflection on the passage is that Jesus’ mind was not changed. Look at what precedes it: He has already cured non-Jews, he has cured and interacted with women, and in this case, specifically went out of his way to go to Gentile territory. From the start of his ministry, Jesus understood his mission. He came to proclaim the Kingdom of God to all people. In light of the first story, Jesus came to restore the relationship God had intended between all of humanity.

So why did he call her a dog then? Was he serious? This question is a bit more complicated, but certainly understandable in a human sense. While fully divine, Jesus was also fully human. He came into the world like us, was formed as a child by cultural structures, norms related to interaction with women, and a way of speaking. If Jesus truly took on our humanity, its foolish to think that he would not be unaffected by it, at least externally. What he said, although not what we would hope for, is indicative of the subordination of women in their culture (if not ours as well.) We live in a broken world, and Jesus became a part of that.

But he didn’t come to simply experience it, he came to transform it. He came to restore relationships. Like all of us, (and forgive me if this begins to project my own experience onto Jesus), it is entirely possible that Jesus knew exactly what he was to do, restore humanity to its intended perfect relationship, and simply got caught off guard, letting his human weakness revert to the way he had seen men treat woman his entire life. I have an example. This year, I’ve started going downtown DC in my habit looking for homeless people to talk to, to find out what they need, and to offer them little things like hand-warmers and protein bars. It is clear that I know my mission: I am here to serve and respect the poor and marginalized of society. Sometimes I do it well. And yet, a few weekends ago, I was downtown with some people going to a restaurant and a homeless man reached out a cup asking for help as we walked by. Did I treat him with respect as I know I am here to do? No. I walked by, ignored him, and hoped he wouldn’t notice me. In essence, I called him a dog. I realized that my “relationships” with the ones I served were nowhere close to the type of relationship God intended. I had subordinated him to a person in need of my help, and since I had nothing that day to offer (or was too disinterested to try), I did not interact with him. In my mind, it was a one-way relationship, one in which he could not offer me anything, and so I didn’t stop. I knew my mission, I knew who I was, and yet reverted to the way I had see others treat homeless people my entire life.

While women take center stage in Thursday’s readings, I think the focus is really on how we relate to all of humanity. Do we treat each other with respect or do we degrade? Do we lift each other up to see each others as equals or do we subordinate? Do we attempt to return to what God intended or do we further the distortion, manipulation, and condescension of this world? On this Valentine’s Day, on this day that the Lord has made, I think that our only answer is Jesus, the God who came down from heaven to be equal to us and to restore us to that perfect union we once knew. It is only in relationship to him, in becoming one flesh with the one who gave of himself, that we are able to enter into relationship with those around us in the way it was always intended.

 

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2015 in Justice, Scripture

 

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