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Light in the Darkness

 

 

This morning I had the opportunity to preach at our house mass. Here is a rough recollection of what I had to say, expanded a bit for the sake of the blog. The readings that this was based on can be found here.

Don't underestimate the power of even a candle in a dark place!

Don’t underestimate the power of even a candle in a dark place!

In light of the recent (and weak) allegations against the New England Patriots over the past week, I began thinking about some of the famous scandals I have witnessed in my life.

Mark Sanford “hiking in the Appalachian mountains”;

Lance Armstrong admitting doing steroids;

Enron going bankrupt and shredding all of its files.

In a way, stories like these are all the same: someone with a lot of power tries to abuse that power thinking that they will never get caught…until they get caught. It happens almost everyday in politics, sports, and entertainment. Clearly there are many in the world that have never heard our Gospel passage for today: “There is nothing hidden except to be made visible; nothing is secret except to come to light.” Sooner or later, it seems, justice is served. Someone is going to talk; evidence is going to leak; words are going to slip. One way or another, the secret gets out and the rest of us are left wondering, “Did he really think he was going to get away with that?” “What was she thinking?” In a way, there is a sense of comfort in reading this passage, in knowing that those who lie and cheat will always get caught; that in the end, you can’t hide from justice. Everyone gets what they deserve.

But our experience seems to show the opposite as well, doesn’t it? Crimes aren’t always solved and injustice continues. Sometimes the bad guy gets away and the truth is left hidden. I have two such examples from my life:

The first is high school Spanish class. I would sit there during daily quizzes and think, “How can I really be expected to memorize so many words each night?” It was just ridiculous for my little brain. So what did I do? Well, a little peak here… a little peak there… Maybe I’d be lucky enough to get an answer or two. One time, a student was caught cheating during a quiz, had his paper ripped in half, and was chastised for the rest of the class. Thank God it wasn’t me, I thought. But it could have been, maybe should have been. Maybe it was because I didn’t do it very often or because I wasn’t all that blatant about it, but the fact is, what he did was brought to light while what I did was kept secret.  He was labeled a cheater, and I was simply an average student. And unless you go tell my Spanish teacher, that will never change.

I faced a similar situation on my baseball team in high school. Playing for a man insistent on conditioning, we would regularly end practice by running a lap around the campus, stopping on the far side to run up and down the hill ten times. My first practice as a sophomore, I found that I was the only player that took this seriously. “What are you doing? Coach isn’t going to know. Just relax for 5 minutes and we’ll run back.” I couldn’t do it. Even if the other guys, including the senior captains, didn’t care about conditioning and working hard, I was going to do them anyway. Why? Because I wanted to get better; my success was in no way tied to what they, or coach, thought about me. Ultimately, nothing came of it. I never received an award, never gained the admiration of my teammates, and I’m sure to this day my coach still talks about how hard of a worker one of those seniors was (we heard about him for two more years after he graduated.)

And so, there are two things that I want to highlight today.

The first is that we are men called to integrity. There will come a day when, after spending our whole lives “longing to see his face,” we will stand before our God in hopes that He longs to see our face as well. No one else’s opinion matters at that point. But when we think about it, isn’t that always the case? As Francis writes in his Admonitions: “Blessed is the servant who does not consider himself any better when he is praised and exalted by people than when he is considered worthless, simple, and looked down upon, for what a person is before God, that he is and no more.” In this way, we are called to clear out the clutter from our lives, the distractions and facades we put before us, in order to know very clearly who we are before our God. It is in that moment that we are able to enter fully into the Eucharist, to receive the light and life of Christ to make all things known between us.

But it doesn’t stop there. For fear of over-spiritualizing the matter, thinking only of the life to come, it’s important to remember that our Eucharistic celebration demands that we take what Christ has given us and share it with the world. While all will eventually be revealed by God on our day of judgment, some things need to be revealed now. As God’s hands and feet, we are called to bring the light of Christ to the darkness, to challenge injustice, to stand up against the evil and corruption that dehumanizes our human family. As baptized Christians, we are all given many skills and charisms to be shared with the world: “Is a lamp brought to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed?” Absolutely not. Our gifts need to be used for the sake of the world, to bring the light of Christ to the places of darkness

Today, may we be able to see clearly, in our lives and in our world, what the light of Christ has revealed to us.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2015 in Formation, Justice, Scripture

 

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My Choice to March

The "Pro Life March" is by far the most actively attended and supported advocacy initiative for the American Catholic Church

The “March for Life” is by far the most actively attended and supported advocacy initiative for the American Catholic Church

Each year on the anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling of Roe v. Wade, Catholics gather on the National Mall to rally and march in protest of the decision that made abortion legal in the United States, uniting around a simple message: “All life is sacred.” But this is no ordinary march on Washington. While estimating crowds has become a controversial and somewhat unreliable task in recent years, it is clear that the number of protestors should be counted in the hundreds of thousands rather than tens of thousands. In this way, the March for Life is by far the most actively attended and supported advocacy initiative for the American Catholic Church.

And yet, it remains a highly contentious, dividing issue even within that same Church. For many theologians and writers within the Church, there is as much written about why one does/should not attend the March as there is material promoting it.Take the article by fellow Franciscan Fr. Dan Horan, ofm, “Why I Do Not Support the (so-called) March For Life.” Confessing wholeheartedly that his issue is with the March itself, not Catholic moral teaching about abortion, he writes:

Among the various reasons one might choose to omit him or herself from participation, I wish to highlight three: (a) the event’s moniker is incomplete at best and disingenuous at worst; (b) the mode of protest has proven ineffective; and, following the second point, (c) the ‘march’ and its related events are a self-serving exercise in self-righteousness, self-congratulatory grandstanding.

Admittedly, there is a lot of truth in this statement (and the article as a whole), and when I read it three years ago, it was very influential in my own opinion toward marching. The fact is, the name of the March is misleading; protestors do not gather each year to express anger towards war, gun violence, human trafficking, homelessness, ecological degradation, or any other “Life” issue as defined by the Church, they gather to repeal the legal status of abortion. The fact is, protests of this kind aren’t as effective as they once were; besides the fact that it is primarily a “wedge-issue” with little hope of ever changing legislation in either direction, protests that meet regularly become commonplace and lose their political effectiveness over the years (as seen with the “School of the Americas” march at Fort Benning, GA). The fact is, some do march for the wrong reasons; there are always opportunists, in both politics and Church, that use particular issues to solidify their own influence and to encourage their own agenda without having to do much in the process. It is because of these points that I found myself with many Catholics “protesting the protest” for many years.

10931365_10204928458843997_2601931720192534161_nAnd yet, yesterday I marched. Along with hundreds of thousands of Catholics from around the country, I stood on the National Mall and listened to political and ecclesial leaders rally people to the cause. I carried a Franciscan banner and walked down the crowded street for more than an hour. I engaged strangers with my faith and vocation, prayed in public, and even sang a song or two. Despite my strong reservations, I was there marching for life.

The thing is, my opinions have not drastically changed in regards to Fr. Dan’s article; the March, for me, is still a bit odd and I think it gives a disproportionate amount of energy to only one issue (albeit a good one.) What has changed is the recognition that this is where our Church is, this is where the flock is gathering, and as a minister in the Church, there is a lot of positive energy that needs to be supported and guided. Sure, I would personally wish that this much energy was directed towards the environment or ending wars, but how can I deny that hundreds of thousands of faithful Catholics were compelled to enter the streets and voice an aspect of their faith? This movement is big but it is more than just numbers: the movement has done something well enough to inspire enormous amounts of young people to become active despite dropping Church attendance among that generation (I met students that came all the way from Notre Dame, Auburn, and St. Bonaventure, NY, and there were thousands more.) Anyone who has ever tried to organize something and failed knows how difficult it can be to get a movement going, let along amass this much support. Something is going on here, and clearly the Spirit is working.

I’ve heard it said that real-life shepherds do not “lead” the sheep as much as they follow the flock and protect it from harm. As a Franciscan training for public ministry, I think that this is a great model for leadership: remain among the sheep, follow where the flock is going, and do my best to keep it from harm, whether that be self-inflicted or external. In the case of the “Pro-life” movement, there is little argument about the narrowness of its focus and that it would be better with a fuller understanding of the rich Catholic Tradition. But there is energy that needs to be followed and encouraged; to scoff at it or discourage involvement for the sake of other movements, for which there is little passion outside of its leader, would be inappropriate and ineffective. As a ministers, it is not our job to animate someone’s soul or to tell someone what to be passionate about. This is the job of the Spirt, and clearly the Spirit is working. As ministers, it is our duty to make sure that the faithful understand the stirring of the Spirit in them through the message of the Gospel and within the context of a Church of believers. Is there room for guidance and correction in this process? Absolutely. But as I have found through this experience, the guidance and correction go both ways: the sheep must be willing to expand or change their course at the direction of the shepherd, but the shepherd must also be willing to march with the sheep when they have their sights set on something that is good and true. This is why I chose to march yesterday, and I am glad that I did.

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2015 in Justice

 

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Can You Keep A Secret?

Part of being a good minister is knowing how to keep a secret

Part of being a good minister is knowing how to keep a secret

Over the past three and half years, I have been the recipient of more than a few conversations regarding sensitive material. With increasing occurrence, I find people “wanting to talk,” telling me very private information. Close friends and complete strangers alike have apparently felt comfortable enough to tell me their tragedies, embarrassing stories, questions of faith, and confounding moral dilemmas, without any intrusion on my part.

Why is this, I wonder?

In one sense, I see it as a sign of the speaker’s trust in me, his/her recognition of my character and maturity, and an attempt to be more vulnerable for the sake of fostering our relationship. I see myself as someone willing and able to have an intimate conversation, and people feel comfortable engaging me in a safe environment.

But that’s clearly only one, small part of the story. While I have obviously matured to some degree since entering the friars, I am generally the same person as I was before. Rather, I feel that it is much less who I am as a person as it is what I am as a person. I am a friar minor. I am a seminarian. I am someone who has devoted his life to God and serving God’s people. Most of all, I am someone who is expected to be trained in dealing with difficult matters and required to keep much of what I hear to myself. It is this, the title/position that I bear, that compels people to share their lives with me. Who I am as a person may account for the conversations I have had with close friends, but it certainly doesn’t account for the (non-immediate) family members and complete strangers that have all of the sudden begun offering intimate details about themselves in recent years. There is something much more than me here.

For the most part I welcome it all. It is a great privilege, and frankly, one of the main reasons I became a friar, to have the opportunity to enter into people’s lives so deeply. Being a friar, wearing my habit, gives people a very public and openly accessible opportunity to speak in ways that they would not normally feel comfortable. While some may find it exhausting to engage in these conversations in public, I actively welcome them.

For me, the thing that is much more exhausting is processing and holding onto what I have been told after the fact. While my experience has been nothing compared with someone hearing confessions on a regular basis, I have still heard some tough stuff to handle, situations that shake my sensibilities, shatter my preconceived notions about a person, or just leave me feeling very upset. In my very limited experience, I find that there are two issues to remain aware of.

The first is related to my post Growing in Solidarity. As one becomes awakened to a situation and person, one either chooses to remain distant or is moved towards a state of empathy, even solidarity. A major challenge for me is realizing that the latter is not necessarily the better option. If doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, counselors, police officers, and case workers took on the emotion and status of everyone they served, they would be overwhelmed and useless in a week. One simply cannot emotionally invest him/herself in every person and situation they meet. The toughest thing I think young people in each of these professions face, myself as a seminarian included, is knowing how to keep clear boundaries; we must balance our desire to be deeply invested in the lives we serve while remembering that the problems we hear are not our own. Some of them may be. Like I said in that post, some people or issues will inevitably move us, and as Christians, we are compelled to be converted by them. But not everything can have this effect. At times, being a good minister means being fully present in the moment but with a short memory.

For those moments that absolutely rock us, those situations that move us to the core or upset the way we once viewed the world, this presents another problem: processing the issue with another. For situations with complete strangers outside of the context of confession, the fraternity is an excellent outlet for advice. It’s the whole reason we choose to live in fraternity in the first place. We are in this together and we look to those who have lived this life to guide the new brothers along the way. But what if the situation relates to a well-known parishioner? What if it is a highly sensitive matter to the fraternity? What if it is about another brother? The reason that people invite us into their lives so willingly is that they trust us not to make their story open knowledge. To share a story with a wise brother, even if it is solely for professional advice, still spreads information that was held in confidence. However helpful, it is not always appropriate to go to our brothers for help.

What do we do then? For me, as in all cases of gossip, the first place I have to take anything is prayer. Throughout our lives, ministerial or personal, each of us hears things that we “just have to tell someone.” A lot of times, it is better that we don’t. Taking this to prayer has been an excellent way to release the burden of knowing something I cannot tell and a great way to come to peace with whatever it may be. As I develop my relationship with the triune God, I find that I can bring whatever it may be, trashy or deathly serious, and process it with someone who will not be scandalized by the information or in any way changed in relationship with the person about which I speak. And do you know what? God understands. God understands more than anyone I could possibly speak with, and, if I am right to listen, will help me process the situation and my own feelings better as well.

Ultimately, strictly “offering it up to God” as they say may not be the final solution every time, as serious situations require serious measures. But that doesn’t negate the importance of prayer nor does it diminish the expectation of secrecy many have when they open up. In fact, it is for these very reasons that people open up to us in the first place: they know that we will take their lives with us to prayer and that we will not share their story unless it is in their best interest. Thus, when I look at it this way, it’s very easy to answer the title question: a good minister never has to be the sole possessor of precious information, carrying the burden alone, but knows that God and God’s people are always there to guide along the way.

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2015 in Ministry, Prayer

 

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Quick Catch-up

Despite having the whole weekend free (other than cleaning up Christmas decorations and prepare for school today), I somehow managed to not write a single word on two different posts I’ve been thinking about. “Eh, I’ll have time tomorrow,” I said. Unfortunately, tomorrow ran out today: school’s back in session and there goes my free time once again! It’s back to fifteen credits of theology, weekly meetings, books, papers, assignments, and everything else that goes with being a student friar.

With that said, it would be a shame to completely skip over the happenings of the last few weeks, and so I present you the Reader’s Digest version of my life:

Intersession

As in years past, all of the friars in formation (minus the novices in Wisconsin) get together in January for a week-long workshop and fraternal time together. This year we were privileged to have Dr. Pauline Albert for a presentation entitled “21st Century Leadership: Making Better Social Worlds through Learning from Francis and Clare of Assisi.” A former executive at Intel for many years, Dr. Albert brought a wonderful mix of successful worldly leadership with a deep love for the Franciscan charism. Over four days, she helped us lay a Franciscan foundation for our own leadership, identifying values and leadership models in the way of Francis and Clare. It’s safe to say that the workshop could have lasted twice the time and that I will be processing much of her material for quite a while.

And yet, as profession and useful as the programming of the workshop was, the fraternal time together is something that I will remember for a very long time. Given that the workshop took place away from the house, guys were not able to hide in their rooms or sit in front of the t.v. If we wanted to do something, we had to look to our brothers for entertainment. And we did. After the first night of sitting around and talking (casual time together), we had a pizza party with the provincial council (a night that began with four pizzas, only to have one friar run our an hour later to get four more… friar appetites should not be underestimated), played the card game “Mafia” for over an hour with about thirteen people the next night, and as a last resort, broke into three teams to play pictionary the final night. Wow. I was in absolute stitches each and every night, that feeling where it starts to hurt in your face and stomach because you’ve been laughing so hard. I don’t think I’ve said this yet on the blog, and if I ever get around to it it will be a post of its own, but I truly believe that the way we laugh together as a fraternity is inseparable from our Franciscan charism. More on this in a bit I’m sure…

Getting out of the house

I guess I understand why, but I get a lot of questions from friends and family about the “rules” of our life. “Are you allowed to…” A lot of times they’re pretty minor, even humorous things: drink beer, go on the internet, leave the house, go on vacation, etc. For the most part, much of my life in those mundane respects are exactly the same as they were before I entered and so I forget to write about them. With that said, a major highlight of the past few weeks was going out with three of the guys in the house to watch the recent Ravens/Patriots playoff game. A Patriots fan myself and my classmate from New England decided it would be more fun to go to Buffalo Wild Wings, in the Baltimore (Ravens) area, to watch the game, and invited two of our mostly ambivalent postulants (first years) along with us. What an experience! Besides the usual delights of wings and beer, it was such an entertaining night to see the Baltimore crowd cheer, boo, and eventually cry and to spend a couple of hours out with some guys that actually like football (not a common quality among friars in our house). Go Pats! Go Fraternity!

School’s Back

So as I said to start, school is back, like it or not. I’m in five theology classes again and am looking forward to most of them. This semester I have Christology, The Gospel of John, Pastoral Theology, Patristic Theology (2nd-5th centuries of the Church), and Marriage and the Family. It’s a good blend of courses and course work, some classes have long papers and no tests while others have no papers and a few tests. Not sure what to say beyond that. Back to the books!

Hopefully with the long weekend coming up I’ll be able to reflect a little deeper and more coherently a few other topics, but until then, peace!

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2015 in Formation, Fraternity

 

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Life From a Suitcase

That's six stops and nearly 1500 miles in ten days time!

That’s six stops and nearly 1500 miles in ten days!

Well happy New Year to all! It has been a great break from responsibilities for me, including the blog, but I’m back and ready to start the new year with some more writing!

Where to start? How about where I’ve been. Everywhere! With just ten days free out of the house, I had a lot of people to see and places to go, and let me tell you, I got the most out of my vacation. (Certainly the most miles for sure!)

Starting at 6am December 26th, not wanting to waste a single minute of vacation, I hit the road for my parents house in eastern North Carolina. For five days I played cards, watched football games, golfed in 39*F rain and ate much more than I should have (thanks Mom for the cookies and popcorn tin…) Also, just because I didn’t think the trip would include enough driving, my parents and I also decided to take a day trip to Raleigh to see my sisters (two hours each way) for dinner and a night playing pool.

From there it was off to Chappells, SC where I spent two days on a lake with nine friends from college. What a blast! Having all met Freshman year as all ten of us lived on the same hall (including the two girls from our “sister hall”), it’s been more than seven years together with no reason to grow apart. Now in it’s second year, the “Annual Furman Reunion” brings us together from all over (New York, Charlotte, Kentucky, Greenville, SC, London, Atlanta, and D.C.) and from so many diverse paths (med school students, working in politics in the US, UK, and now Saudi Arabia, certified dietician, accountant, Apple “genius” and hospital administrator). Words cannot explain the joy of getting everyone back together and hearing about how everyones’ lives are taking off. While none of these friends are Catholic, it’s also been a great experience to field the usual questions (wait… chastity??) and to see them become more comfortable (although always respectful and interested) with what I’m doing. Good times. Oh, and more than $100 worth of fireworks. Boom.

At this point, I was more than five hours away from my parents house with only a day and a half left of vacation. Was it worth it to go back just for a day, then drive another five hours north? I decided to push on. Having a special place in my heart for Greenville, SC, as it is the place where I went to college and more importantly where my vocation was born, I spent the night on Friday at our parish, catching up with friends and friars in the area. If you have never been to Greenville or to St. Anthony’s, I recommend you go. Immediately. It’s a place with the most amazing, generous people you will ever meet, in a city used as a model around the country for growth and urban renewal, at the food of the Blue Ridge mountains. God, community, entertainment, and nature, all in one. If it were up to me I would move the whole dang province to Greenville and the I-85 corridor.

This was our view for two nights. Isn't brother sun amazing?

This was our view for two nights. Isn’t brother sun amazing?

Unfortunately, though, I do not have that power and my journey was forced to move on. To shorten my trip back and to see some more friars, I spent Saturday night in Durham, NC at Immaculate Conception parish. Quick and simple, yet so wonderful. The brothers welcomed me without question, served me dinner, stayed up and talked with me for a while, and gave me a warm bed to sleep in. They introduced me at the masses and I was able to get a small taste of what their parish life is like (almost meeting coach K, although he walked right in front of me without saying hello…) This is truly an underrated part of being in a worldwide fraternity. All up and down the east coast, as well as across the world, there are brothers willing to welcome each other into their homes and into their lives, sharing time together in meal and prayer. When I travel, I don’t look for hotels because I have welcoming homes all around. Whether strangers or close friends, I have always found great hospitality with the brothers.

And so, despite 1500 miles and six different places to sleep in 10 days, I loved every minute of it and felt completely energized by being on the road, living out of my suitcase. I don’t know if I could make a life of it, but I would so love to live a few years on the road, visiting the friars across the country and seeing the many expressions of Church throughout this land. Going alone was definitely a drawback and I found myself a little tired and bored in the car, but give me another friar or two and I would be on the road in a heartbeat. Or maybe five months. Let’s just say that I had this conversation with a classmate last night and something might be in the works… Cliff hanger!

For now, I don’t have to wait very long to start my next trip, although it’s not exactly cross country. In about an hour (after I finish my laundry and repack), it’s back to the suitcase and on the road for our annual “Intersession” workshop with all the men in formation, meeting in Aston, PA. It is usually a great time for informative lectures and casual fraternity, and I can’t wait to see everyone after this long break! I hope their journeys were as great as mine, and hopefully we can get another one going soon!

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2015 in Formation

 

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Christmas With The Brothers

Although we can't always make it home to our families, there is always something happening in the fraternity! Here is our Christmas tree decorating party two weeks ago.

Although we can’t always make it home to our families, there is always something happening in the fraternity! Here is our Christmas tree/ugly sweater decorating party two weeks ago.

Being a friar is in some ways like being a waiter at a restaurant: we’re busiest in the evenings, on weekends, and during the holidays, those times when everyone else is off and with family. For most friars, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to celebrate major holidays with our families, at least on the actual date.

As men in formation, however, this is quite the opposite for us: attending class during the day, in the middle of the week, and getting every holiday off, it would not be a problem at all if we went home for every weekend and holiday. And yet, leisurely trips on weekends are generally not allowed, and almost every major holiday is celebrated here in the friary. “If your scholastic and ministerial responsibilities are over,” one might ask, “Why can’t you go home? Why aren’t you allowed to leave?”

While this is a common and understandable question for sure, it doesn’t really make sense from our perspective. I’ll put it another way. Let’s say I was married with three kids and I got a week off from my job for Christmas. “I don’t have any occupational responsibilities all week. Why do I have to stay around the house? Couldn’t I take off as soon as work is over, leave my family behind, and go to visit my friends or parents by myself?” Maybe… But its just a bit odd, isn’t it? Just because someone doesn’t have work doesn’t mean they’re free to leave their family. Such is the case with our life. While not blood related, we friars are more than a group of bachelors who live together, we are a fraternity, men who care for and are responsible for each other as brothers. To leave every weekend or to celebrate major holidays with others just wouldn’t seem fitting. This is my family and I want to be with them.

So how did we celebrate this Christmas together?

Pizza in the Rec Room

Christmas Eve began the festivities with a major break in the schedule. With less than ten guys around (due to the parish obligations of our priests), we ordered pizza and ate in the living room rather than sitting down for a formal dinner. It was casual and spontaneous, and a great time to just relax with the guys.

Lessons and Carols

About an hour after dinner, the night got even more interesting. Instead of the usual Evening prayer from the breviary, one of the student friars organized a wonderful “lessons and carols” evening prayer. Gathering in the softly lit chapel, we alternated between Christmas hymns and scripture readings, offering a prayer before moving to the next carol. As Buddy, my favorite Elf, is known to say, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” That was certainly the case for me. Singing Christmas carols and coming together in prayer really got me into a prayerful spirit and ready to welcome our Lord.

“Midnight” Mass

This is page one of the twelve page music program. It's quite a parish to say the least!

This is page one of the twelve page music program. It’s quite a parish to say the least!

From there, the friars were ready for midnight mass. That is, we were all ready for 10:30 mass. And let me say: Wow. Some will remember my experience at Easter vigil last year (The Joy of Salvation); this was just like that (except without 30 baptisms and lasting almost three hours.) Spanish, Swahili, French, Bangla, English and Latin. And that was just the first song! Include the Kyrie and we sung in Greek as well.  Diverse cultures, languages, liturgical customs, musical styles all in one. Even in English, there were traditional songs, gospel spirituals, and new medleys (at least to me) to keep the congregation alive and engaged. There was a homily in Spanish, English and French, and the mass parts included parts from each language group After communion, the choir absolutely brought down the house. Think about the most powerful rendition of “O Holy Night” you’ve ever heard, change it to French, and add a talented choir and an “on fire” congregation, and you have a communion hymn that almost moved everyone to tears. And I don’t speak a word of French. When you get a group of people together that understand what’s going on–the infinite, invisible God has entered the world in a physical way in order to be with and know us–it doesn’t matter what language you’re speaking or whose customs you’re following: it’s going to move you. I left full of life, inspired by the coming of our Lord, and ready to bring that love to the whole world.

Festive Dinner

John, Tony, and I hard at work in the kitchen!

John, Tony, and I hard at work in the kitchen!

With most of our solemnly professed friars busy with ministry today, our Christmas began very casually: we prayed at 9:00am and were free to spend the day as we chose. Some decorated the dining room, some did some last minute gift wrapping and some of us, the lucky ones, slaved in the kitchen all day. It was fantastic. The two of us began preparing the food around 11 o’clock this morning (although I think he started by baking a cake at 10:00), and worked non-stop until our 4:30 dinner. First there were the appetizers: pigs in a blanket, mini quiches, and spinach croissants (all frozen), crab and shrimp meat, cheese platters, and hummus with pita chips. (Seriously, those were just the appetizers. Does it make it better that we had 18 people for dinner?) Then came the main course: stuffed pork loin, homemade pasta sauce with rigatoni, green beans tossed with almonds and caramelized onions, caprese salad and some homemade bread. But wait! For dessert there was an incredible chocolate cake with peppermint icing and gingerbread cookies, just in case dinner wasn’t enough. Combined with wine and a room full of great people, the dinner was a huge success and lasted more than an hour and a half.

White Elephant

So there was prayer, food, and fraternity. What more could we ask for? Presents, of course! Told to find something in our room we didn’t want or buy a gift worth about $10, we each brought something to exchange. Gathering around the tree, we picked numbers randomly and began the picking, stealing, and tremendous laughing. Some of the gifts were pretty nice: an assorted bag of Ghiradelli chocolates (stolen once), a scarf (stolen twice), and a $25 gift card (surprisingly not stolen!) Some gifts were mediocre: a watch no one wanted, a few old books, and some Franciscan knick-knacks. But then there were some atrociously awesome gifts: a painting of a man drunk at a bar with tiny Franciscans dancing on his head, a cell phone holder in the shape of mini red stilettos (seriously), a bird feeder carved out of a coconut, a CD of religious chants dedicated to St. Ursula entitled “11,000 Virgins” (seriously!), and for some unknown reason, four different gifts that included toothpaste or toothbrushes (a subtle hint perhaps?) The whole thing was a riot! No one was tied to any one gift or heartbroken to see it go, so everyone had a great time laughing and eventually went home with something. I got (another) reusable water bottle and a copy of Death Comes for the Archbishop, a book by Willa Cather that, ironically enough, I wrote a paper about in 11th grade but never actually read! Too funny, and a great book actually (upon seeing it one friar called out, “No way! That’s my favorite book!”)

***

All in all, my Christmas with the brothers was fantastic. Although I didn’t get a chance to be with my family over the past few days, I did get to video message them twice and check in, and now that Christmas is over ,I’ll see them in person tomorrow as the student friars are free to leave on vacation. Free until January 4, I’ll spend a few days with my parents in North Carolina, followed by a few more days visiting friends and friars in South Carolina, before returning to D.C. for a workshop with the other students.

I pray that each of you had a wonderful Christmas, and now that we have celebrated the coming our of Lord, may he live through you in all that you do! Peace and all good!

 
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Posted by on December 25, 2014 in Fraternity

 

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Finding Some Quiet

Words words words

Out here, all I could hear was the wind and my own breathing

After a long semester of school, ministry, and fraternal gatherings, it was time for some reflection, some peace, and most of all, some quiet. Do you ever stop to think about how much noise is in our lives? It’s everywhere. From the sounds of the city, to the television or music that is constantly playing, to our phones that allow (and demand) constant contact. We are constantly being bombarded with sound, moving from one distraction to another.

Last week, I got away from it all. Traveling with another student friar, I spent the week at Mt. Irenaeus, the secluded spiritual center of the friars in western New York. Miles from the closest town, set on 387 acres of woods on a hillside, I spend five days in a cabin with nothing to do but relax and pray.

Wow.

Words cannot describe the peacefulness of the week. Snow fell lightly but constantly for two days, muffling any sort of sound there might have been. A walk in the woods rendered nothing to the ear but the wind through the trees and my own breathing; even the sounds of chirping birds were nowhere to be found. There were no cars. No televisions. No radios. For much of the week, it was just me and nature.

And oh how relaxing compared to the daily grind. Although I spent a couple hours with the friars each night for dinner, prayer, and fraternity around the fire, I was free to do whatever I wanted for much of the day. Part of my focus, I’ll admit, was simply not having a focus at all: I woke up when my body woke up, I read what I wanted to read, and prayed when and how I felt compelled to pray. Much of the semester was so full of structure and deadlines that it was a true joy to simply unwind and relax in a prayerful way.

That being said… I knew I needed some order in my life; no focus at all would have killed me after 12 hours! I decided that the retreat would have a loose theme to it: “How have I done so far at being a friar, and in what ways might I still need to convert myself to the way of St. Francis?” In other words, where have I been, and where do I need to go. As a Franciscan, the task was simple: bringing a Bible, the Rule of St. Francis, the General Constitutions of the Order, and the Ratio for formation (basically the plan for training friars), I reflected on my own life and either “checked” things that I do well or circled things that I needed to try better. I know what some of you are thinking. “That’s incredibly juridical and boring!” In a sense, maybe. There is always a fear that we will turn into Pharisees, conscious only of the letter of the law and becoming proud of our ability to fulfill it. Point taken. But at the same time, these documents are not simply a list of narrow laws, they are spiritual documents to guide us in the way of St. Francis. Written very generically, they speak of values and ideals, encouraging us to live and act in a way that best fits our time and place. “Law” in this sense is fundamentally important to being Franciscan and Christian.

What more does one need?

What more does one need?

I’ll leave the details of the evaluation up to my formators, but I’ll just say that it was a really fruitful experience. Not only did I find that much of what was written was already fully integrated into my person, an encouraging step in my formation, I was able to spend a lot of time reflecting on those aspects of my Franciscan life that were left wanting and to come up with ways in which I could make my life more “authentically Franciscan.” While I think there will always be a discomfort within me when comparing my ideals to my lived reality, this experience grounded me in who I am, and inspired me to continue becoming who God has called me to be. In the quiet of the forest, the Holy Spirit spoke and I listened. It was a wonderful experience.

But the Holy Spirit wasn’t done speaking when I turned the final page and felt that my “life plan” was all in order. No, the Holy Spirit is funny like that: s/he can’t be contained by my silly plans. Having nothing more to “do” by the end of day three, I picked up a book by the prolific Christian writer Henri Nouwen to fill the time. Here’s what he wrote in the first few pages:

If you can’t find God in the middle of your work–where your concerns, worries, pains, and joys are–it does not make sense to try to find Him in the hours set free at the periphery of life. If your spiritual life cannot grow and deepen in the midst of your ministry, how will it grow on the edges?

Prayer is not a preparation for work or an indispensable condition for effective ministry. Prayer is life; prayer and ministry are the same and can never be divorced. If they are, the minister becomes a handyman and the priest nothing more than another way to soften the many pains of daily life. (Introduction of Creative Ministry by Henri Nouwen)

I found myself indicted by his words. In a sense, wasn’t that exactly why I was here on this retreat, to escape the burdensome school, ministry, and fraternal life in order to find God? Wasn’t I here to recharge so that I had something to bring back to those parts of my life?  While it is never a bad thing to seek God in the context of a silent retreat and recharging is an essential part of anyone’s life, I wondered at that moment why I hadn’t heard God speaking as clearly in my busy life as I did in my quiet retreat. Surely, God was equally as present and speaking in both situations. Right?

What I realized on the mountain was that it was me who had changed: I was quiet enough to hear Him speak. You see, what I realized when I left the noise of the world and entered the quiet of the mountain was that I became quieter, too. I turned off my phone. I gave intentional time for prayer. I was content with the present moment to simply be with God. The way I sought God was entirely different on the mountain than it was in the city. And I wonder: why? Sure, the snow was beautiful and the woods were quiet, but why must my external surroundings be quiet in order for me to be quiet on the inside? It doesn’t. It just requires me to be a bit more Franciscan.

When I read this quote from Nouwen, it immediately reminded me was my own Franciscan charism. For Francis, one did not need to flee the world to find God for God was so clearly in and through the “concerns, worries, pains, and joys,” even the most mundane experiences of life. God could be experienced anywhere at anytime if he was quiet enough to hear: “The world is my cloister, my body is my cell, and my soul is the hermit within.” Whether he actually said these words or not, the essence of the quote is purely Franciscan: Francis was someone who brought an inner quiet to every place he went, a peacefulness in the midst of chaos, and saw God no matter where he was. This is what I will take away from my retreat at Mt. Irenaeus. It was there that I truly found some quiet; funny thing is, it was there inside me all along.

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2014 in Formation, Prayer

 

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