A Welcomed Downsize

Even simple outing likes getting ice cream are near impossible for a large house.

Even simple outings likes getting ice cream are nearly impossible for larger houses.

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!

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8 Comments on “A Welcomed Downsize

  1. I have lived in small friaries (with two other friars in Camiri, Bolivia, and with one other friar in Lima, Peru), large houses (such as Boston, now, with 30 friars) and friaries in between. I have found small friaries (those with two or three friars) to be problematic, as it is difficult to form community. Both medium and large friaries, though, have their strengths and their weaknesses. I prefer medium-sized, but have had a great time in Boston.

    • Hi Jim,

      Thanks for reading and sharing your experience. There is no doubt that smaller communities come with their own problems, just as large communities do. What I have shared is simply my preference for smaller communities as it is very easy for me to get lost and disconnected in larger ones. I hope you didn’t take it as an attack against large communities!

      Casey

  2. I find your post disturbing and want to make a few comments that might be helpful. Some years ago I lived in a small community and thought that nothing would be able to compare with the wonderful experience I had there for close to twenty years. We lived simply, prayed well, and made our community life central to all that we did. When the time came to move, it was difficult. Little did I know, however, that each move I made in the Province thereafter was not only a physical move but it was a spiritual move as well. I was growing up and learning how to live in a variety of circumstances with a variety of committed men. Disturbing are your thoughts on how guardians make all the community’s decisions. That does not happen in my present community where there are 30 friars. Every major decision is brought to the House Chapter. The choice of preferred cereals is a bad example because sometimes the buck has to stop somewhere. We are not “marginally” happy in our large community. It is a joyful, prayerful group of men. We certainly have our problems, but even small houses deal with big issues. We do not come and go as we please as we have a house schedule of prayer, community, and meals that is important to us. I have lived in small houses that had such a schedule. We do not live “independent” lifestyles as we are committed to the vows we have made to be brothers together. We are careful about the amounts of food we use and try as best we can not to waste that which we receive. As you grow into the Franciscan way of life, you will learn that community always has its challenges, whether you find yourself in a small or large house, and that all that really matters is that you daily recommit yourself to your brothers and the fraternity wherever you are.

    • Hi Bob,

      Thanks for the comment. I’m sorry to hear that you are disturbed by the post and I was wondering if you may have misinterpreted a few things. I’d ask you to go back and read the post again with the understanding that I’m not criticizing large communities nor am I saying that small ones are necessarily better. Unlike your comments, I did not speak in absolutes, but rather highlighted some of the possible pros and cons of each community.

      I hope, most of all, that you will reread the final two paragraphs of post as it is the lens through which I wrote: friar life is not one size fits all, and I do not mean to judge one type of house as better than another. What I have shared is my own preference.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your concern,

      Casey

  3. Casey, as you mature in your religious life, I am sure that your comments regarding small community living verses large community living will morph. Given that, I would like to say that living in a small community doesn’t necessarily offer all that you say it does. Having lived in both types of communities, I have come to realize that it really depends upon those who make up the community that counts. You can have what you ask for in both situations. One example would be living in Butler’s retirement “community.” Although it is by necessity somewhat institutional, we do our best to create an atmosphere of home for each friar. I have also learned from my own family situation of nine children plus two parents that living in a large group can work quite well, even, in many cases, better than families of 3 or 4 members. I appreciate your reflection but felt that since you made it so public, I have the right to also publicly question your comments. Thank you for the discussion, and my hope is that you find much happiness in the Franciscan way of life.

    • Hi Richard,

      Thanks for reading the post and sharing your concerns. First off, I’d just like to say that it’s mildly offensive to start off a comment by saying that my ideas will change once I’m more mature. I by no means have as much experience as you do, and I welcome your fraternal wisdom, but that does not negate my experience or preference, nor does it necessitate being called immature.

      As far as your comments, I completely agree: the friars make the community. I don’t believe that this contradicts anything in my post, as the purpose of the post was simply to share my experience of living in both situations. No two communities are alike, but that does not mean that there aren’t underlying concerns in each type. There’s no denying that house chapters are more difficult in larger communities and that friars are much more dependent on each other for prayer and meals in smaller communities. That’s not to say that house chapters aren’t difficult for everyone or to say that larger communities don’t rely on each other. I’d ask that you read the post again, particularly the last two paragraphs, knowing that everything I shared was preference towards tendencies, not absolutes. My experience can still be my experience without negating yours.

      I hope this helps, and I wish you luck on your upcoming transition.

      Casey

  4. Casey,
    First of all, I did not say you were immature. What I did say was that your ideas will morph as you mature in the Franciscan life. I think there is a great difference there. You are not, as they say, seasoned yet and your ideas will most likely change as you mature in the religious life. Secondly, I WILL vigorously deny that House Chapters are more difficult in larger communities. They can be equally difficult in both large and small houses which has been my experience during my forty one years in the Order. Also, you cannot say that friars living in a smaller community are more dependent upon each other for prayers and meals. If community responsibility is essential to our fraternal life in any friary then the absence of one affects the whole. Frankly, your last two paragraphs seemed to negate everything you had said in the previous paragraphs. Perhaps it is you who needs to read your last two paragraphs over yourself. Your experience is your experience now, and that is valid and respected. This is why I said that as you mature in Franciscan life your opinions most likely will morph.
    Richard

  5. Casey,
    So sorry that others have seen your post as an opportunity to argue. Perhaps their time would be better spent thanking God that you have found a place that brings you happiness in serving others. Keep up the great work.

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