One of the core values of Western Culture, particularly in America, is that of upward mobility in the form of constant progress. It’s almost implicit in the way we approach generational differences that each one will achieve greater success and push society forward more than the previous one. Though there is certainly some truth in a statement such as this (western culture has continued to make advances in every field of study), it runs the risk of forgetting the shoulders on which each new generation stands: without the advances of yesterday, we could never achieve what we do today.
Why do I bring this up? Well, after an interesting history lesson by Dominic Monti, OFM, about the history of our Order and Province, the postulants had an opportunity for some real “field research.” Spending last weekend traveling around northern New Jersey and New York City, we visited one of Holy Name Province’s three homes for retired friars, the Infirmary for aged and sick friars, and The Cloisters, a museum devoted to medieval religious life. This supplement to our classroom time gave us a more holistic experience of the province because we could actually interact with our past, forcing us to come face-to-face with the fact that everything we achieve in the future will be a direct result of what they did in the past (Originally, I had planned on titling this post, “The New, Old, and Ancient,” for that reason, but decided it might be misinterpreted by some…)
Starting at the chronological beginning, The Cloisters was quite an extraordinary experience. Built in the 1930s by John D. Rockefeller Jr., the museum is a full scale construction of a medieval monastery. The reason I don’t say “replica” is because major structural pieces of the building, including pillars, stone arches, windows, and entire walls, are authentic pieces of medieval European monasteries, dating between 500-1100 years old! Instead of simply having pieces of art viewable from behind a piece of glass, like most museums, this one worked the art into it’s original settings, giving the viewer both context and heightened sensory awareness of the world that once was. Though not particularly “Franciscan,” it was enlightening to see what the predominant expression of religious life looked like during that time because it would have been the only thing on which they could based their own new lives. The whole place was truly fascinating.
Jumping ahead about 750 years we find the most immediate shoulders on which to stand: Holy Name Province “retirees.” Located in Butler, NJ, Boston, MA, and St. Petersburg, FL, our province houses the friars that brought us into the modern age of Catholicism. Because there’s no official age to retire, and because even if there was these guys wouldn’t do it, the majority of these men still engage in active ministry at local parishes and hospitals. We had dinner with the friars in Butler one evening, and had a great time talking about their adventures in religious life. In one sense, it was incredible to see men continuing to spread the Gospel and bringing people to faith well into their 80s (even a few 90s); on the other hand, it made us all realize that we weren’t going to “retire” any time soon, and that it’s time for us to get to work writing our own history!
As a last stop on the trip, we payed a visit to the friars at Holy Name Friary, a nursing home/hospital run by our province in Ringwood, NJ. It’s by far the least active of our houses, with most of the men suffering from a number of mental or physical ailments. For me, it was difficult to see the once influential men of our province in such a frail state, having stepped aside to let others lead the way many years ago. But at the same time, I find it to be a humbling reminder of the finitude of our lives in the grand scope of God’s infinite work; we may play a small role, but it can be a profound one if we let it be.
As I reflect and pray about the experience of this weekend, about what it means to stand on the shoulders of those before me so that I may lift up those after, I’m drawn to the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero in his poem, “A Future Not Our Own,” because it offers great perspective on our lives and our work. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do:
It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.