Coming Up For Air: What Does Time Off Mean as a Friar?

I’ve been here at my summer assignment in Triangle, VA for about a month now, and what a summer it’s been so far! Apparently, when I first met with the parish staff back in early May, I said the words, “I don’t want to be bored this summer” four different times. The parish has been happy to oblige my request!

So besides making videos and being a rockstar at an elementary school, the only two things I’ve shared thus far, what else am I doing to stay busy? Let’s see…

  • Twice a week I teach a class for an hour an a half. The first class is “How to Read the Bible,” a class I taught last summer in Camden but have almost completely rebooted given the amount I learned in seminary this past year. It is not a Bible “study” in the sense that we are not focusing on specific passages but rather a class to give people the tools to understand how Catholics approach the text with regard to its genre, historical significance, place in salvation history, and life of prayer. The second class, a completely new idea for me, is called “Catholic Bootcamp.” Over seven weeks, I hope to cover “all” of Catholicism in a sort of remedial RCIA framework that really challenges even the most faithful Catholics. So far we’ve covered Scripture, history, and theology, and will finish with moral theology, social teaching, and worship. It’s a bit ambitious, to say the least, and I am learning a lot about myself (and my own faith) in the process.
  • Twice now I have preached, alternating weekends, and will plan to do that two more times this summer.
  • With the help of the director of religious education, I’m organizing a summer young adult group (ages 18-25) that meets once a week. So far it’s been casual, focusing almost exclusively on building community. We’ve played ultimate frisbee, had a cookout, and tonight, we’ll be watching Wall-E in the gym. I’m amazed at how the group, which otherwise had never met one another, has been so enthusiastic about organizing these events and how well they’ve gotten along with one another. A separate post is sure to follow.
  • One of the big reasons I chose St. Francis in Triangle for my summer assignment was the Franciscan Action and Advocacy group. Among the most active social justice parishes in the province (if not the most active given the amount it has done to effect actual legislation), I’ve had a good opportunity to learn from the director and see how much a parish is capable of. Although the summer is a bit slow, I’ve sat in on meetings for two different groups, plan to attend the USCCB’s Anti-Human Trafficking Conference next week (for which the parish’s director will be a key speaker on a panel) and in a few weeks, will lead a discussion on Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the care of our common home.
  • Miscellaneous tasks include giving the announcements and greeting parishioners at all of the masses, serving at a Eucharistic minister, cooking dinner a few times per week in the house, attending staff meetings, volunteering once a week at the parish-run food pantry, meeting with parishioners on request, and periodically attending weddings, baptisms, or special events at the parish for the experience.

I mention all of these things, not to brag about all I’m doing (I mean, it’s a lot of work, but come on… I know so many people reading this post work so much harder than I do!) but to set up what this reflection is really about: how much should a friar “work”?

Here’s the issue: as a professed religious, we are called to serve the Church in one capacity or another. Because this is the life we live and not a job we fulfill, the idea of being “off” and “on” is not quite as clear as it is for someone who works a 9-5 job and clocks out at the end of the day. Being at a parish, and being someone who wants to work as hard as possible, I’ve found that there are things that can fill every minute of the day if I let them. (There have been more than a few days this summer that I have focused on ministry, in one way or another, from 9am until 10pm.)

At the one extreme, this can be suffocating and deadly. If a friar overextends himself, constantly giving what he has not replenished through prayer, or if he separates the external ministry from what is essential to the charism, namely minority and fraternity, such work will eventually lose purpose and the friar will burnout. This is not good, and as a result, there are many friars that are very sensitive to the amount of work we do, calling others to learn to say no more often, to work less and spend more time in fraternity.

At the other extreme, an extreme I find equally as deadly, is to put so much emphasis on “self-care” and fraternity that barely any ministry gets done. The irony of this situation, constantly focused on avoiding the burnout of work, can actually lead to a burnout of a different kind: isolated and inward-looking, this friar runs the risk of falling into a rut, losing passion, and becoming numb to the comforts around him. This is obviously not good either, and as a result, there are many friars that a very sensitive to the amount of time they take off and call others to spend less time in the friary and more time in the world.

Obviously, the amount of work that one does is going to be based on that person’s ability and we can’t expect more from a friar than he is able to give or judge him for how much or little he works. What I can say, though, is that there can be a healthier, more balanced approach to work for friars (including myself!) Here are just a few reflections at the moment:

  • We can’t give what we don’t have. If we spend little or no time in prayer, do not interact with the brothers enough to let them know we love them (and let them do the same for us!), and are so busy that we lose touch with the outside world, we will eventually have nothing to give no matter how many hours we work.
  • We are a “fraternity in mission,” not a “fraternity and mission”; these two aspects of our life should not be compartmentalized. For those who complain about “workaholic” friars, we need to remember that working together is a vital part of fraternity; for those who complain about “lazy” friars, we need to remember that recreating is a vital part of our mission.
  • Our work is not like other people’s work: while others work to make a living, we live to work for others. Yes, some days are incredibly difficult, depressing, and downright deflating. And yet, everyone needs time off, including vacations, to recharge. But work for us is who we are. Francis made it very clear in his writings that we are to work before we beg, that work (particularly manual work) is essential to be a Franciscan. It’s my hope for all friars, and what is driving me this summer, that we be so overjoyed with the Gospel that we would want to fill every moment of our day living and sharing it, not counting it as “work” to be completed so we can go on vacation or have some “real fun” but something we can’t get enough of.
  • Finally, I need to remember that people in the “real world” work just as hard, but also have to take care of kids, spend time with their spouse and worry about paying bills, without not having the amazing support that we have from our parishes and donors.

My summer here in Triangle is more than halfway over and I’m truly devastated by that fact. I have loved every minute of the work I’m doing here and would do even more if there was more time in a day. And it’s because of that, it is because I love doing what I’m doing so much and want to be able to do so for the rest of my time here, that I’m taking almost the entire day off: relax in my room, grab some lunch in town, play a round of golf, and come back for prayer and dinner with the friars. I know that I could be reading Laudato Si, planning class tomorrow, or taking care of any number of people at the parish today. And a part of me feels really guilty about not doing these things today. But part of my formation as a friar is learning to pace myself, that I want to sprint when it’s really a marathon, that all I want to do is to continue diving deeper, but I can’t do that without coming up for some air every once in a while.

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2 Comments on “Coming Up For Air: What Does Time Off Mean as a Friar?

  1. Well said, Casey! May you continue to find your Franciscan life a “seamless garment” for all occasions 😉

  2. Time is going by quickly for you! I hope that you are enjoying your time here at
    St. Francis. We are enjoying having you here…..you will be missed.

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