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The Gift of Sacrifice

Jesus' gift is Himself, broken and shared. All that is ours to do is be thankful and receive.

Jesus’ gift is Himself, broken and shared. All that is ours to do is be thankful and receive.

In this time of Holy Week as we enter the Triduum (The Holy Thursday/Good Friday/Easter Vigil Liturgy), our focus as Christians is the on suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are reminded of the injustice done to Jesus, the spotless lamb, who was sacrificed for our sake. We are moved by the way He took our burdens away from us, removing the stain of sin. We transition from the deepest sorrow to the most exultant joy in a matter of days. All of this because of the gift that was given to us, Jesus’ passion.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that “gift” is a difficult concept to understand for many of us because I doubt many of us actually know how to give or receive a gift in the purest sense. That’s not to say that most people aren’t generous: we give and receive gifts for birthdays, going out of our way to do something nice on that special day, and for Christmas, most of us “exchange gifts” with people we love. This is a wonderful practice of building relationships.

At the same time, however, I have to wonder why “exchange gifts” is not seen for what it is, an oxymoron. The very essence of gift is that it is freely given love from one to another without any expectation of return. To “exchange” gifts or to have any expectation of a mutual return is not giving a gift, it is an economy of friendship; it is a transaction, albeit well-intentioned and often fruitful.

With birthdays and Christmas, special holidays and end-of-the-year celebrations, there is, like it or not, an expectation placed on each of us to engage in this exchange to some extent. And while it’s not necessarily bad because it shows people affection and is a great way to build relationships, I wonder if that can even be considered “gift” at all. If it is owed to them, that sounds more like justice than it does gift.

Jesus speaks to this in the Gospel of Luke:

When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Lk 14:12-14)

There is a sense here that a true gift is something given freely without any strings attached. It is an end in itself. The giver gives simply out of love and the receiver is not compelled to do anything but receive graciously. Is this the case when we give gifts? For me, I often receive a wonderful present and wonder, “How am I going to match this on so-and-so’s birthday?” Worse yet, I have been disappointed at the present someone has given me because I put so much more money and effort into their present than they did into mine. Such an attitude, I believe, completely undermines the whole purpose of gift in the first place.

Such is the case, returning to the Triduum, of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. It is gift in the truest sense, freely given love that requires absolutely nothing in return. I think that our often-distorted view of gift exchange detracts from the beauty of his sacrifice. When we enter this Holy Liturgy, we can sometimes feel overwhelmed with guilt because it is our sins that made Jesus do this and feel compelled to help Jesus carry the cross to take away His pain; we despair in the fact that we are unworthy to receive such a sacrifice or how incapable we are of returning it; sometimes, we futilely attempt to “make up” for our sins anyway. Our first response is to return the favor that Jesus has done for us in his sacrifice, but this is absurd. He did not do it because we deserved it or because He was looking for something in return. He did not do it only for those that would be thankful. Jesus’ sacrifice is a gift. It is freely given, unmerited favor, and it requires nothing from us in return because that is the very essence of gift.

And so, this evening as we enter into this most holy Triduum, all that is ours to do is to be thankful. Jesus is offering us a gift of great love. Graciously accept it knowing that there is nothing that we could possibly do to return the favor, and that we’re not expected to even try. What a joyous occasion it is! May you have a blessed Easter knowing this!

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2014 in Prayer

 

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A Missed Opportunity

After a particularly heady reflection on the Trinity in the spirituality of St. Bonaventure, I thought that I’d bring it back down to earth with St. Francis in this post. In contrast to Bonaventure’s inward journey, that of the soul and intellect being moved by the great mysteries of the transcendent God, Francis’ journey was of a poor traveller:

He wanted the attitude of traveller and stranger to characterize the friars minor. He envisioned them as pilgrims on the way to the heavenly kingdom. The historic Christ, after all, came to this world as a pilgrim. His starting point was heaven. Then He tarried, like the very poor, long enough to carry out the will of His heavenly Father, and, having atoned for sin and merited the grace of the Holy Spirit, He returned to His Father by an ascension. Francis knew that the whole meaning of the kerygma was to participate in this humiliation and exaltation of Christ.

(Sergius Wroblewski, OFM, Bonaventure: Theology of Prayer)

As a poor traveller, the object of one’s contemplation is less of the transcendent forms of heaven and more of the immanent, mundane realities of the world.  As followers in the way of St. Francis, we Franciscans find great meaning in the dirty, the chaotic, and the less-than-ideal because that is the road traveled by Jesus. Basilicas are wonderful, but so are bus stops.

In this way, you will find with the Franciscans almost no attempt to present a false air of perfection, to hide our flaws (although it might be nice if some friars did sometimes!) There is a recognition in our spirituality that the only thing potentially “holier” about us than lay people is that we embrace the fact that we are not complete, recognize that we are in need of God, and seek to journey in the way of Christ. Despite what some may think about the “holy brothers in the monastery,” we do not spend every waking moment in pious practices or talking about Jesus; we watch television, talk about sports, and even fight. But that’s the beauty of it: even in, or should I say especially in, the mundane conversations, petty conflicts, dirty situations, and dry moments, we attempt to identify ourselves with the humble struggle of Jesus’ life.

I was reminded of this recently in the two areas of greatest conflict in friar communities: kitchens and bathrooms. (I’ve said before, no fights are had over theology, but there is a weekly conflict over dishes.) Needing a fork, I opened the drawer only to find that all of the silverware had been indiscriminately thrown every which way. Utter chaos. Infuriating laziness. “Really people??” There are only so many messes you can clean in one day, I told myself. I’ll give them the opportunity to fix it. If it’s not fixed by the time I’m done eating, I’ll fix it, but I’m not dealing with this now. Closing the drawer, another friar looks at me and says, “If you’re not a part of the solution you’re a part of the problem.” I nearly smacked him in the face. Why is it my responsibility to clean up everyone else’s mess, especially given the fact that I do so in almost every other case.

Fast forward a few weeks, and low and behold, we have a bathroom issue. Issue is not strong enough. We have a toilet atrocity. Let’s leave it at that. Nope. Not dealing with this (insert pun). Whoever did this can come back and clean it up later, I’ll find another bathroom. A few hours later, the mess was cleaned and nothing further was ever mentioned.

Do you know what my spiritual director had the audacity to say about these two events, particularly the toilet? “You really missed an opportunity to love.” Come again? His point was that, very simply, I was too focused on how I had been wronged to notice how a brother may have needed me.

I could have helped a brother that was likely sick (confirmed later that he was); I could have provided a clean bathroom for the next person so that they wouldn’t have to deal with the frustration of a dirty bathroom too; I could have experienced humility in swallowing my pride and doing something that “I shouldn’t have to do”. Instead, I chose to leave the mess, use the other bathroom, and leave a statement to whoever did this that I’m not your maid; doing things for people that can easily do them themselves but refuse to do so is not love, it’s enabling rude and inconsiderate behavior.

I wonder, though, if that’s the only message being sent. I wonder if my sick brother that day got that message, or if, after returning to the bathroom in his weakened state a few hours later he got a different one: “We’re all in this alone so don’t expect any help from me.” Ouch.

Obviously, I do not advocate a community based on submission or abuse of those willing to care for the others. If a problem was recurring and it was clear that the person was less needy than lazy, direct confrontation would probably have been the best way to love. That being said, we can never forget that we are in this together. I know that my brothers unjustly deal with the burdens I unknowingly place on them. Couldn’t I put up with their’s as well, doing what “I shouldn’t have to do” simply because I’m taking a burden away from them?

Ultimately, how can we say that we walk the journey with Christ if we are unwilling to participate in the burdens he faced? If we love only those who treat us well and do only what is ours to do, we miss a real opportunity to experience Christ in the way of St. Francis. God is found in basilicas, for sure, but don’t miss the opportunity to see him in the mundane situations all around us.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2014 in Fraternity, Prayer

 

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A Retreat With Saint Bonaventure

My little cabin in the "woods"

My little cabin in the “woods”

This past weekend I left the world for a while. Like hermitage retreats in the past (one during postulancy and two during novitiate) I disconnected from technology, quieted my life, and spent the weekend in prayer and reflection. Unlike previous hermitage weekends, I did this one entirely on my own. No one was there to find the location or pay for the cabin (although they would have); no one was there to tell me when to leave or when to get up for prayer; no one was there to cook for me or clean up when I was done. In reality, no one told me that I had to go on a personal retreat in the first place; this one was entirely on my own initiative. And what an experience that was.

Don’t get me wrong: I love community life and have no desire to live the life of a hermit. But given the nature of formation so far, being “encouraged” to try this and that, being carted off on one trip after another, being thrown into classes, workshops, discussions, and faith sharing sessions on a regular basis, there is something positively fulfilling and extraordinarily liberating about taking control of my own formation. There was a sense of ownership in this retreat, having spent my own money; a sense of intentionality in choosing to go do something beyond requirements; a sense of confirmation in my own vocation after such a personal, intimate experience.

What, then, does one temporary professed Franciscan friar do with such liberation? I spent the weekend with one of the great doctors of the Church, St. Bonaventure. Living shortly after the time of Francis, Bonaventure acted for as the Minister General (world leader) of the Franciscans before becoming a Cardinal, and represents the beginning of the vast Franciscan intellectual tradition that largely shaped the high middle ages. Despite all of this, I knew very little about him or his theology prior to this weekend, and decided that he could be my guide.

In some ways, it definitely felt a lot like studying for my philosophy and theology courses at Catholic University given the difficulty of some of his works and the incredible intellect that he packs into each page. The difference was, unlike studying for school, I was able to spend as much time as I needed with each concept because I had no overall “objective” to complete other than to pray in the way of someone gone before me. When something troubled me, I took time to pray about it, to think deeply about its implications before moving on. When something appeared not to produce spiritual fruit, I moved on to something else, not worrying that I was missing something that might be on a test.

Space certainly does not allow for me to explain all of these concepts that tied my brain in a knot, nor do I feel like I even have a good enough grasp of his spirituality to even try, but I would like to offer two points of particular importance. (I realize that this is not for a general audience, but there is an aspect of my nurturing my own understanding in attempting to express it. I completely understand if you choose to stop reading at this point. In some ways I actually recommend it!)

The first is the way in which Bonaventure viewed the Trinity. One of the great detriments I’m finding with common spirituality is that we often talk about and pray to “God,” a homogenous, single-faceted being. In our Christian tradition, however, God consists of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Unlike many others in the west that wondered how one God could be three persons, Bonaventure focused on the individuality of the three persons and asked how they could be one. These are two sides of the same coin for sure, but the nuance here is significant. That difference, as I understand it, is twofold: it emphasizes union over division (how to come together rather than split apart) and it calls the believer to a particular focus on each facet of God’s greatest, even a particular relationship with each person. God is at once father, brother, and spouse; each a different person, each requiring a different response. (This is something worth taking to prayer.)

There is quite obviously a flaw to this analogy, as in the case of all analogies: God is not male and so cannot be “Father,” “brother,” or “Son,” in the complete sense that we understand these terms. The point is the relationship, one of begetting or giving birth to another, followed by emanation. In less human terms, Bonaventure uses the analogy of speech: one is the speaker, one is the word being spoken, and one is the diffusion of that speech or the rhetoric. Which is first? Which is most important? Which actually creates, redeems, or sanctifies? Well, all of them, really. Clearly one cannot be speaking without the word spoken, which naturally diffuses, and the word cannot be spoken or diffused without a speaker. They are all simultaneous and yet distinct, individually incomplete and yet each containing the fullness of God.

If you think you’re still with me, here’s an excerpt from “The Journey of the Mind to God” in which he contemplates the mystery of the Trinity, the conundrums of the relationship:

You wonder how communicability can be found together with self-containment, consubstantiality with plurality, alikeness with distinct personality, coequality with sequence, coeternity with begetting, mutual indwelling with emission… For in Christ there is personal union together with trinity of substance and duality of nature; there is full accord coexisting with plurality of wills, joint predication of God and man with plurality of properties, joint adoration with plurality of rank, joint exaltation with plurality of eminence, and joint dominion with plurality of powers. (Chapter 6)

This presents itself with a very interesting question: if Jesus is “begotten” of the Father, the Word spoken of the first, uncreated, unmoved, always existing speaker, when did this happen (keep in mind that the Church believes Jesus to be coeternal with the Father)? The only possible answer to this question is that it has always been happening. The very nature of the first person of the Trinity is to create, to beget from itself; for this to be true, the first person must have always been begetting the second person, forever being disseminated in the third person. There can never be a moment in which God the Father is not creating through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, past, present, or future.

The key to this whole discussion is that Bonaventure believes God’s very nature to be creative and diffusive Love. Pure, perfect love cannot help but to beget of itself something to be loved, and can only be perfected if it has someone to share it with. To say that God is love is not just some hallmark catchphrase but a highly Trinitarian theology: God is by God’s very nature self-contained overflowing love (sit with that one for a little while).

Thus, Creation is but an outpouring of that very nature, a model for the Trinity itself. Isaiah provides the perfect image of this Franciscan understanding:

Yet just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me, achieving the end for which I sent it. (55:10-11)

The Creation of the world was an act of God the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit, and outpouring of God’s very nature to create, diffuse, and return. Self-contained overflowing love. As created being ourselves, we are taking part in this outpouring of God, this emanation of Love; we ourselves are an outpouring of this Love that must return to God one day.

If you made it this far, I thank and commend you, and hope that it may be inspiration for your own prayer as it has been for mine. I do not suggest quoting anything I have said as it is a humble friar’s first encounter with Bonaventure and no doubt lacks precision in language.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2014 in Prayer, Theology

 

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Our Lady of Superstition

I present to you a situation shared with one of my classes this week:

A professor of mine was in a small town in France some years ago and visited a church with a beautiful image of Mary on the outside wall. It was apparently a great pilgrimage site for the locals, and many people stopped and prayed daily, including the town prostitutes. The fact that they were prostitutes at the church was not a problem. The problem was that these prostitutes prayed to “Mary” each day, knowing her to be a good example on earth, close to God, and believing to have some power here on earth, for the purpose of getting more customers. I kid you not. Prostitutes were praying to the virgin Mary for more customers.

This story is ironic, a bit funny, and quite sad all at the same time. Most of all, it epitomizes an interesting situation we find in many of our churches, one of severely misguided faith, but faith nonetheless. Like the person that comes to mass to pray the rosary, receives the Eucharist (holy communion) as a purely private act between “me and God,” goes to confession but refuses to stop doing what they confess, or spreads the Gospel with violent tactics or divisive rhetoric, there is a clear disconnect from what the larger Church is doing and what the individual is doing. Particularly in the Catholic Church, we find many people more concerned with rules than they are with the Gospel. In a very clear sense, these extreme examples represent a faith that is so misguided and self-perpetuated that it is hard to label it as anything but wrong. 

And yet, there is an obvious sense that these individuals have at their core something guiding them, something pointing them to the transcendent. With all of the things we could fill our lives with, there is something to be said about the person that continues to come to church, continues to pray to a saint, continues to ask for forgiveness, or continues to share what they find important, even if what they are holding onto is in fact the product of their own mind or situation.

What does a pastor do in such a situation then? To be honest, I’m not sure. There are clearly at least two answers to this dilemma. The first is to realize that the “faith” on which their actions are built are nothing more than superstition, that the recognition of the transcendent is nothing more than carrying a rabbit’s foot or wishing upon a star, and it is best to squash this “faith” in an attempt to rebuild something a little more in touch with reality. There is a great danger in this, quite obviously, in that there is a great possibility that no new faith will be rebuilt. This is the problem with arguing with fundamentalist Christians: to tell them that they are wrong in believing the world is only 6,000 years old will not bring them to the light, but in fact, will cause them to question everything about their faith, and most likely drop everything as a result. “If that’s not true, what can I believe in?”

The other solution, one that I do not necessarily pose as the correct answer, is the “Good, Better, Best” model. In this way, we look at the fact that someone is at church, no matter the reason, as a good thing. Even if severely misguided, there is still a recognition that there is something outside of the individual that is greater than the individual, even if that is simply luck, superstition, or Santa Claus. From there, we can gradually call the individual to a better faith, and ultimately, to the best faith, the ideal. This solution requires much more patience in meeting people where they are, a tremendous amount of frustration because of lack of progress, and even the crippling realization that you are supporting some people that will never change. Even worse, we run the risk in the larger Church of letting these people be our ambassadors to the outside world, negatively evangelizing the world about a Church that does not actually exist.

I guess the answer I give at this moment is that we are called to love each person on an individual basis and to remember that love is not necessarily supporting and encouraging. Sometimes we are called to tough love, sometimes we are called to patience. Regardless, we are at all times to engage the people with the most authentic faith we can live, to evangelize not by what we say but how we say it and how we welcome people, leading people to “true” faith by example. While many people may be devoting themselves more to “Our Lady of Superstition” than to the actual Mary, spending more times with rules than they are with the Gospel message, I think that this ultimately makes our job a bit easier. Sure they may be running in the wrong direction, but at least they’re running; I think it’s much easier to change someone’s direction than it is to get someone moving who doesn’t want to run.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2014 in Ministry

 

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Redefining Freedom

What do we actually mean when we say "freedom"?

What do we actually mean when we say “freedom”?

Freedom is a word that is thrown around a lot in this country, used to justify a political agenda or distract from the true issues at hand. “Fight for freedom,” “let freedom ring,” and “don’t take away my freedom” are phrases heard on a daily basis in politics and general conversations. What does it actually mean to be free?

The reason I pose this question is because I believe that the “American” concept of freedom, founded on thinkers such as John Locke, is an entirely different concept from the freedom we find in the Church. Though it is the same word, there is a wide discrepancy when it comes to defining it. Whenever I hear people using the word “freedom,” I feel like Inigo Montoya in the Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do no think it means what you think it means.”

For the political philosophers like John Locke, freedom is the complete separation of the individual from any social structures or institutions that would inhibit one’s ability to act entirely in one’s own self-interest. The only guiding principle of the individual and government, what keeps society from utter chaos, is the principle that one can do anything one wants as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others. It is a concept of freedom defined by radical individualism and subjectivity, and often uses the word “from”: freedom from government, from oppression, from responsibility. Thus, it is not the role of society to provide quality options nor is it anyone’s right to make any choice, while helpful, on behalf of another person; it is simply the role of society to not interfere with one’s own choices, allowing for the most possible choices. Simply put, someone with five choices is more free than someone with three choices, and no matter what those choices are, both should be free to continue looking for more.

What is entirely lacking from this conversation is the quality of choices made available. If one thirsty person is given five options to drink (crude oil, Clorox bleach, mouth wash, salt water, and rotten milk) while another person is given only one option (water) which person is more free? Clearly the second person is more free because none of the first five choices would quench thirst. What if, in the same situation, the government mandated that crude oil, Clorox bleach, mouth wash, salt water, and rotten milk were illegal to drink, and that one could drink water? It would be entirely non-sensical to be enraged by such a mandate, for the former options are poisonous to the human person and the latter is good for one, and yet, I suspect that there would be those protesting on principle: “You can’t tell me what I can and cannot drink!” This, I say, is a distorted view of a freedom and a very misguided way to relate to others.

Freedom as a Christian concept is one defined by relationship with God, self, and neighbor, and often uses the word “to”: freedom to flourish, to worship, to live peaceably with others. Unlike the radical individualism and subjectivity above, it is a recognition that there are things that are objectively good and bad, and that the only choice one needs is the choice of the good. In this way, we as Christians have recognized for two thousand years that we are on this journey together, as one Pilgrim Church, not in competition with one another for rights and resources, but in cooperation with one another for the building of God’s Kingdom.

A Christian conception of freedom must also look at one’s ability to choose within oneself, namely, one’s Free Will. While God has given each human the Free Will to choose to act free from God, this does not mean that we are absolutely free: in many ways, our freedom of choice is limited. The greatest culprit of this limitation is not the will of other individuals. It is sin. Through sin, our choices and encounters contrary to God’s will, we are left less able to choose what is good. It’s easy for us to look at others, particularly those with addictions, and say, “Why can’t they just have the will power to stop doing that.” As I mentioned in Sin, A Social Problem, original sin and social sin are very real and very destructive because they strip people this ability: children who are abused, addicts of every kind, and individuals born into violence must deal with tremendous burdens inhibiting their free choice. They are not free in an ultimate sense because the psychological, physical, social, and economic factors are often too heavy to bear.  When we sin, the effect is the same for us: we cloud our judgment and confuse our conscience with what is wrong, making it easier and easier to sin until we are in fact less free to do what is right than we were before. At no point are we without the freedom will entirely, but we must always recognize, in ourselves and in others, the ways in which our choices are very limited at times (think about how we act when we are hungry, angry, lonely, and tired… are we truly free to act perfect in those situations??) and to treat everyone with mercy and forgiveness.

This is how Jesus, our great liberator treats us and how we hope to treat others. But what Jesus does is much greater: He frees us from our sins, our situations, our inhibitions so that we may love more truly. Jesus forgives us of our shortcomings, recognizing that we are only able to do so much without his help, but also makes us more able to do better the next time. True freedom is a life in Jesus. To be free, thus, is to be able to love the good, the objective truth that is God.

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2014 in Theology

 

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Sunday Reflection: Drink From Living Waters

This weekend I will be traveling to the University of Georgia to visit with the students at the Catholic Center and to give a reflection at each of the masses. My reflection is based on the readings for the day, found here.

While there are few things more exhilarating than a ride like this, we need something more in our life to remain fulfilled.

While there are few things more exhilarating than a ride like this, we need something more in our life to remain fulfilled.

They say that money can’t buy happiness. But then again, money can buy wave runners, and I dare you to find a sad person riding a wave runner. Am I right? Probably not the opening line you expected from a Franciscan, but I stand by it. The reason I say this is that there are a lot of good, physical/temporal things in this life that make us happy and keep us going. While riding a wave runner might be a bit of an exaggerated example, our lives are often focused on fulfilling these physical/temporal needs, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. For those of us in school, getting good grades is among our highest priority, and it’s good to do so. For those of us in the working world, earning a good paycheck helps us to eat, pay the bills, and provide the general necessities of life, which are all good things. Eating is good. Having fun with friends is good. Looking nice is good. Going to college football games is good. In a lot of ways, these physical/temporal needs, eating/drinking, work/play, accomplishments and status, are not only good to have, but also necessary to our survival.

In my life before becoming a friar, I was filled with more blessings that I can count. Like the Israelites wandering in the desert, I was often unable to see all that God had done for me and was often ungrateful. Although I never had an abundance, God continued to bless me and stand by me, to keep me safe and well-nourished. I was blessed with great parents that supported me. I played baseball for our club team in college and even had a chance to go to the Club Baseball World Series; I had a beautiful girlfriend that made me happy; I got good grades in most of my classes; and I had friends that made me laugh and joined me in never missing a party. For all intents and purposes, I was living it up, and very happy with the life I had. 

That is, until the summer after my sophomore year when I was invited to live and work at the church run by the friars in Greenville with three other students. What started out as simply an opportunity for free room and board turned into the most life-changing experience of my life. The four of us prayed together twice a day, ate meals together, and really, grew together. We spent each day serving the church and community, and then each night sharing our lives, talking about faith, and becoming amazing friends. It was an intimacy of friendship that I had never experienced, and an intimacy that was life-giving. It was because of that powerful experience in community that I found myself able to be poured out day after day for others and yet never tired of what I was doing.

The following year, I realized something had changed in me. For spring break, sixteen friends and I found a house in Key Largo on a private beach; the weather was perfect sunshine and 85 all week; we had no cares in the world except to grab a drink and sit in the sun. For most of us, that’s paradise: we could do that all day, every day. What could be a better life than to sit on the beach all day? To this day I’ll never be able to explain it, but by the third or fourth day of the week, I found myself a little restless. There was something unfulfilling about it, and I started looking forward to going back to school. I know, it sounds absolutely crazy. It was a tremendously fun time, and don’t get me wrong, I’d kill to be back there, but there was something about it, and something about the majority of my life, that was completely unsustainable. I longed to be back at church, living in community, serving people who needed help.  There was a thirst in me that couldn’t be quenched by a day on the beach, no matter how fun. I longed to be doing what truly fulfilled me: serving others.

As I continued on my journey, I spent a summer with the friars in Philadelphia where we have a soup kitchen. There, I met a friar with a similar story. Owning his own business with an office in New York and Atlanta, making incredible amounts of money, and working with celebrities like as Elton John and Bon Jovi, he says that his life was like the most expensive, rich and creamy dessert you can imagine: decadent, extravagant, and eventually unfulfilling. Eating a twelve layer chocolate cake is delicious for dessert, and there are times when it is exactly what we’re looking for; but what if we ate 12 layer chocolate cake every day? I imagine that even the most delicious cake in the world would get old after a while. That was how his life was: he had all the money and prestige he could ever want, but it wasn’t until he gave those things up and devoted his life to the poor that he felt truly fulfilled. There are few people I know that are happier in what they do than him.

In this time of Lent, God is calling all of us to this sort of life-changing experience. Rather than continuing to drink from wells that cannot quench, seeking happiness in things that do not last, we are called to drink of the water of eternal life. We are called to the Word, to the Eucharist, to a life in Christ. We are called to replace a life of fear, emptiness, and futile pursuits for a life of love, fulfillment, and building up of God’s kingdom.

A life like this truly is a calling, and it is a calling Christ has for each of us, each of you. Like the woman at the well, Jesus is calling you, because he knows you intimately. Just as he knew that she had had five husbands, he knows who you are and where you’ve been. He knows what you’ve done well, and where you’ve fallen. He knows this because he was walked this road with you, standing by you as you drank the water of earthly life, while always offering the water of eternal life.

What would happen if you answered this call, took in living water, and let it spring up in you throughout the whole world? Where do you think it would take you?

In the life of the Church, it has taken people to serve the lowest and most forgotten people of society, people who would otherwise never be loved or cared for; it has built schools and universities all around the world, spreading not only knowledge, but wisdom to people who need it most; it has inspired doctors, lawyers, politicians, and business leaders to put their tremendous skills toward the common good, even working for free in order to bring life to those without hope.

For some, it has moved people like me to do even wilder things: to vow ourselves to the Church in poverty, chastity and obedience. Let me tell you, it was the most freeing thing I ever did. Don’t believe me? All I have to worry about in life from now on is how I’m going to best love God’s people for him. Because I have given up the ambition to be rich, or even comfortable, the desire to have a family, and the need to be in control or have a successful career, I am free to move where I’m needed, to love without restraint. I live a life centered in prayer, poverty, and humility, and the best part about it is that we don’t have to do it alone: we do it together, living in community. Through these things, God has given us friars so much life-giving water that we can’t help but share it with the world. We work in parishes, universities, schools, retreat centers, and soup kitchens; we act as priests, teachers, artists, musicians, writers, and social workers; we have brought the gifts God has given us to serve the people of God, and we do it together, as Church and fraternity. 

In all of these ways, the seeds of living water have been planted. Jesus has used men like Father David and Father Tom, along with thousands of other men and woman, to bring living water to the world for two thousand years. Jesus tells us that the fields are “ripe for the harvest.” In this time we live, there is an incredible harvest to be had and so few laborers. The churches they’ve built, the schools they’ve founded, the soup kitchens they’ve established, and the movements they’ve sparked, all need strong men and women to keep them going. People often ask, “Why are there so few priests, brothers, and nuns today?”  I wonder: “Do you think that Jesus has called fewer people to serve or are fewer people willing to answer that call?” He says in today’s Gospel: “I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work.” Jesus is calling you to this harvest. With Jesus as the life-giving water, and others having done so much of the work before us, what is ours to do but to say, “Yes” and continue what they’ve started? It doesn’t matter how old you are or what skills God has given you, the world needs what you can offer.

There is nothing wrong with things of this earth. Much of the physical/temporal things we seek are good. But are they ends in themselves? Can they satisfy us forever? The wave runner eventually runs out of gas, beauty fades, money runs out, jobs end, power weakens, and no one cares about your grades after your first job. In this Lenten season, I ask you to look at your life and ask yourself this question: am I drinking from waters that leave me thirsty, seeking happiness in things that do not last? If this is the case, now is the time to turn your hearts, to say yes to the Lord, and drink of living waters. Just one sip and you can’t help but spring up for the world; you’ll realize that it’s in pouring yourself out that God continues to fill you up. And so, Jesus is calling, “The hour is coming and is now here.” Will you answer? “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2014 in Discernment, Ministry, Trips

 

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An Itinerant Vacation

Long trip with a lot of great stops along the way!

Long trip with a lot of great stops along the way!

Home at last and back to normal. For now! My hiatus from posting last week was less than desired but not without excuse: five midterms in a week and a half kept me very busy and very tired. Such work is not without reward though, as I’ve spent the last five days on spring break. How does a friar spend spring break, you ask? Itinerantly.

Spending five nights in five different places, I made my rounds in what ended up being a great blend of business and pleasure. Starting in Lancaster, PA (the place where I grew up), I gave two talks at my cousin’s confirmation retreat, sharing about my life in the Church and how the Holy Spirit has guided me in my vocation. From there is was off to the Philadelphia suburbs to spend three nights in three different homes, catching up with family members I have otherwise been unable to see since starting formation. Finally, I finished the trip with a quick visit to our soup kitchen in Philadelphia and the night at our parish in Camden, New Jersey.

Besides being utterly exhausted (so much so that the first thing I did when I made it back to DC was to take a nap), I have to say that it was a great trip with a surprising amount of reflection to be had.

The first point of reflection is about itinerancy. Spending five nights in five beds is both a challenge and a joy. Living out of a suitcase requires one to live much more simply than normal, going without anything that isn’t a necessity. Entering into another’s home, even when treated extraordinarily well, is still an invasion of another’s space: you’re never 100% comfortable because it’s not your fridge, bathroom, bed, television, etc. that you’re using. It requires a lot of flexibility, and with such little time at each place, a lot of energy for each individual person and always feeling like you’re “on”.

For some of us as friars, itinerancy in this form will be a way of life. The Ministry of the Word, as mentioned a few years ago, is a form of ministry in which friars go from parish to parish, preaching at the masses and holding parish missions during the week. Some of our friars can do upwards of twenty or thirty of these per year, spending a lot of time on the road with new people. There are many aspects of this that are appealing to me.

For the rest of the friars, even though we don’t move from house to house that often, there is still a sense with the way we live that we are using, not owning, the things around us. When we know that we will be transferred in 3, 6, or 9 years, we are reminded that someone will be using the things we have shortly after we’re done with them, and that while we have something today, it may not be ours tomorrow.

The second point of reflection I had on this trip, and arguably the more important one, was the experiences I had speaking with relatives and friends about the Church. I come from a very large Catholic family, and like many in the northeast (and western world), many of them have encountered their fair share of struggles within and outside of the church. Having now spent two and a half years in the friars, and spending much of my day in class or indirectly focused on the theological issues of the times, it was a critical opportunity for my own ministerial development to spend time with regular people with varying degrees of affiliation with the Church.

Don’t get me wrong: I have plenty of opportunities to talk about the Church and to be with regular people throughout the day. What I find sometimes, however, is that much of our time is spent with the extraordinary cases, the ones with the best or worst situations who feel a need to seek someone out. They say the squeaky wheel gets the oil, and in this life, its mainly because we have no idea what the other wheels are thinking until they squeak! Being with family and friends this week was an awesome experience to hear where I presume a lot of Catholics are today: not particularly pleased or angered by the Church, simply unsure of a number of things and either unable or unwilling to find someone to ask. The common problem I found this week was that the Church has a twofold problem: education and public relations. The majority of people in the pews simply don’t know what they don’t know. As I think about my future in the Church, this is a big issue that I feel called to work with.

That being said, there’s no use “waiting until I’m older” to get started. In a sort of “But wait, there’s more!” sort of gimmick, my travels are just beginning: next weekend I’ll be in Athens, Georgia at the University of Georgia speaking to the Catholic Student Center about living a vocation in the Church (not just being a friar, but I’ll make sure to emphasize that option!) and in early May I’ll be going down to Raleigh to St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church to speak at all the masses about supporting the friars (and again, maybe even becoming one!)

For me, there’s just too much out there to do to sit around. There’s a great message to be shared, and while some people will come to hear it, it may require us to be a bit more itinerant, meeting people where they are. That’s my mission for now! Off I go again!

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2014 in Post-Novitiate

 

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