In my first three years in formation with the friars, I have not experienced what many would consider “normal” friar life. Let me qualify: while there are many different types of friar communities and by no means a suggested or preferred arrangement for living together, in the 21st century, communities of 3-5 are much more common than ones with more than five guys. (Of the 31 main friaries in our province, only 12 have more than five friars, including two formation houses, two retirement homes, and a nursing home.)
In three years, I have lived in communities of 10, 21, and 27. By nature of its size, houses like these are not simply larger versions of small houses: they have a completely different culture. With 27 guys, it only makes sense to have a cook, to buy everything in colossal Costco-sized quantities, to develop a house schedule and stick to it rigidly, to rely on the guardian to make many executive decisions rather than have a discussion (more on this in a second), and to live in a place that looks more like an office building than a house.
With a lot more guys, it is necessary, and even cheaper, to have a lot more at one’s disposal. For instance, our house in Silver Spring, MD, is complete with more than 13 bathrooms, an exercise room, three TV areas, a conference room, a library, and a courtyard; we have at any given time five different types of snack food, ten different drink options, and enough food to fill up a dump truck (which, of course, lasts us only about a week.) While this is a great attempt to make everyone marginally happy, the problem with this for me is that I completely lose touch with the things that I consume, where they come from, how much they cost, and what it means to want something. There’s just so much of everything!
Needless to say, this summer is a much-welcomed downsize. When I discerned becoming a Franciscan, I always imagined living in a small community of guys like this in an old, normal-sized house, simply and flexibly. This summer, I love the fact that we take turns cooking and going to the grocery store (buying only what we know we’ll eat that week), have only one common living space to share with one another, and that we don’t have an industrial-sized oven, dishwasher, walk-in refrigerator, or bathroom. Everything is “normal” size. The best part, though, is how flexible the dynamic of the house can be: with so few people, prayer and meals can be adjusted to fit the day’s needs, each friar intentionally commits himself to the community knowing that his absence hinders the community (not the same for a house of 27 in which people can come and go as they please) and most of all, decisions can be collectively and informally made in a matter of minutes. This is a big one.
There’s one story I like to tell people about what I don’t like about large houses. During our novitiate, I went to the guardian with a modest request: “Do you mind if we get a different type of cereal? We get the same six cereals every week.” His response: “Sure! Not a problem. How about you bring that up at our house chapter this Friday and we can all discuss and vote for new cereals.” Aaaaaand pass on that idea. Can you imagine 21 people all “sharing their feelings” about the cereal situation in the house? Now, obviously, this is a ridiculous example, and items like this need not be addressed by every member of the community, but what about changing the prayer schedule? Deciding what to do as a house for Lent? How to celebrate Christmas? These were all things that we discussed as a house, and these were all things that took a very, very long time to decide.
Ultimately, there is no “right” way to live in a friar house. By the looks of how many friars transferred to our large houses in New York, Boston, and Siena College this year, it shows that many actually prefer this style of living. Larger houses offer more opportunities for personal relationships, allow for more profound liturgical and social experiences, and afford a greater flexibility for those preferring a more independent lifestyle. These are all good things! Even though I prefer the intimacy of the small house and the intentionality of a small community, I will look forward to these positive aspects of friar life when I go back to Silver Spring in the fall.
All in all, the fact that I feel more genuine to the vocation I discerned and more responsible to the brothers with which I live when I can count my housemates on one hand, while others feel the same when in houses of 30, is the true beauty of our life. Our Franciscan charism is wide and diverse, open to each brother to follow the way Jesus has called him to Himself. There’s no “right” way to live as a friar. What’s important is not how many friars live together, it’s that they live together, doing so as faithfully and simply as they are able. A downsize in housemates is something that I welcome with open arms, but I recognize that there are as many ways to encounter Jesus as there are ways to live. That is, if we’re open to that encounter!