The friars have always been known for the great work they do. Through their direct assistance to the poor, world-renowned Franciscan scholarship, advocacy initiatives on the local and federal levels, thriving parishes and campus ministries, foreign missions, and rejuvenating contemplative centers, to name just a few, friars make a huge difference in the world.
For many, including myself at times, the Novitiate year ahead of me seems contrary to that notion of the friars. So let me get this straight. For an entire year, all you’re going to do is pray, study, clean and cook, and go on retreat? How can you justify not working for an entire year when there’s so much to be done in the world? Because our identity as Franciscans is so often linked to the work we do, the idea of not doing great work seems like a contradiction or a letdown of expectations. How is that Franciscan?
The truth is that being Franciscan has little to do with what one does, and everything to do with the way one lives. Francis did not set out to found an order with a particular task or expertise, no matter how useful it may be, he set out to live the Gospel as perfectly as he could, imitating Christ so as to grow closer to him. Sure, Francis swept and rebuilt churches, cleaned and fed lepers, and preached any chance he got. But for him, these were not ends in themselves as much as they were expressions of his commitment to a new life and identity, one that sought to be poor and humble, fraternal, and most of all, prayerful.
At first, I think it surprised me to find out how much Francis prayed. Given the fact that he observed each liturgical hour of the day, retreated to a cave at Mount La Verna, wrote his own Office of the Passion, and organized a Rule for Hermitages, there’s little chance that he did anything as much as he prayed. Seriously. Some friars even joke that Francis wouldn’t have earned a full month’s wage in his entire life because he was constantly running away to pray. Although this might be an exaggeration, there’s truth and inspiration in the way Francis lived: he was so in love with God and wished to always be closer to God than he was at any given moment.
This is the core of our life and charism. Prayer is our source of strength, inspiration, insight, wisdom, motivation, rejuvenation, and direction. Prayer is the very thing that makes effective ministry possible. Anyone can run a soup kitchen; teach at a university; hold a sign in front of the court house; be liked by parishioners and college students; go to a foreign country; offer quiet places. But without prayer, without a love for God and a desire to be closer to God as our starting point, what motivates us to engage in ministry at all? Altruism and a sense of the “greater good” only go so far. Prayer is at the core of any truly effective ministry.
Thus, the Novitiate year. Many have called it “Spiritual Boot Camp” and I have no reason to see it otherwise. The year will challenge and strengthen us spiritually so that we may lay a solid enough foundation for any experience we may face in life. One friar told me that it was a time in which he realized that Jesus alone was enough for him, that he needed nothing else in the whole world. This is the sort of foundation we as friars in training hope to lay.
Ultimately, yes, it’s going to be difficult to remove myself from the world and almost all forms of apostolic ministry for an entire year. There is a lot I could be doing that I will not be doing. But then I ask myself: How much more effectively could I show love to people if I, myself, understood the love God shows me? How much more effectively could I be the hands of God if I knew who God was and how God’s hands wished to be used? How much more effectively could I minister if prayer actually became the centerpiece of my life? It’s going to take nothing less that Spiritual Boot Camp to find out. I’m up for the challenge (and a challenge it will be!)