In Franciscan life, there is not one way to live together. When we look at factors like size of the community, ministerial focus, liturgical preference, community engagement, recreation, and even house governance, there is almost nothing that unites the friars universally. In our own province now in the 21st century, we have houses with more than 25 guys in which meals are prepared by a staff and ministerial duties are individual to each friar, while we also have houses of 3 guys in which they share both domestic and ministerial responsibilities.
While both are legitimate expressions of Franciscan life and both provide their own set of benefits and challenges, I have made clear before that I have a strong preference in the matter: small houses are the way to go for me. Even though I’ve had good experiences in houses of 10, 21, 30, 25, and 19, have been able to accomplish great feats, throw great parties, and make great friends, the experiences that inspired me to be a friar in the first place and keep me here after five years have almost always come in the houses of 5, 3, and now 4. With fewer guys, there are fewer opportunities to find community and fewer people to share the load, meaning that there is a greater opportunity for interdependence, active responsibility, and flexibility.
What does all that mean in real life? Among other things, it means that I get to cook again. For four of out my five years as a friar I have lived in houses with cooks. With 25 people in the house, it just makes more sense to have a full-time staff person manage the workings of a kitchen rather than having a host of different people all buying, cooking, cleaning, fixing, breaking, and wasting all at the same time. I get that.
But there’s also something intangible lost in that, something that doesn’t show up on a budget report. At the most base level, there’s just more control: choosing the types of foods and brands, getting to pick what we eat and don’t, being flexible when a craving hits. On another level, there’s something very satisfying about taking responsibility for the domestic duties of the house—buying, organizing, cooking, serving, and cleaning—rather than having someone else do it for you.
But even more important than those, for me at least, is the intentionality that meals can have for a community when done together. Eating together is not simply a practical activity for the sake of nutritional nourishment, it’s a time to bond, to share, to laugh, to plan, and to let loose after (or in the midst of) a long day. Not that there’s anything against guests in the house or meals prepared for us, there’s just something about congregating in the kitchen while someone is cooking, helping to set the table, and working together to clean up, with just us present, that makes the whole experience more meaningful to me. It’s a time to remember, each and every day, that we’re in this life together.
Is it without it’s difficulties? Of course not. Not all meals are winners, having to stop to cook and clean up when there’s a lot of work to do can be a pain, and sometimes it can just be difficult with the same four people gathering together every day. Sometimes you just get bored of each other! For me, though, that’s where the fraternity has meaning and where this life gets its purpose. In fraternal life, as in cooking, the most satisfying experiences are not the one’s given to us through someone else’s labors, they’re the ones that we have to make with our own hands.