If you’ve followed anything I’ve written or said in the past six years, you know that fraternity is a pretty important part of being a Franciscan and one of the main reasons why I chose this life. While our public lives may look the same as diocesan priests or dedicated lay volunteers, there is just something different about our internal lives that makes this whole thing meaningful to me.
At least, ideally there is.
The problem, sometimes, is that we conflate “living together” with “fraternity.” While the former is pretty essential to developing the latter, it does not guarantee it. Sometimes, even when a Franciscan house has all the right elements—communal prayer, meals, recreation, shared work—it is not truly a fraternity. Sometimes, it is just a group of guys that share a common domicile and peacefully interact with one another on a daily basis. In other words, sometimes we’re just roommates to one another. In such cases, the life of the fraternity is left up to the personalities of the inhabitants: if they get along it’s “good fraternity” and they enjoy each others’ company, and if they don’t get along it’s “bad fraternity,” and they live largely anonymous lives under the same roof.
I didn’t join this life for a roommate. I don’t think I’ll survive in this life if it’s completely dependent on personalities.
No, for me, fraternity means much more than casual encounters. Fraternity, at its best, is the act of giving one’s life to another to create something more than oneself; of being vulnerable and interdependent with a group of people, in making sacrifices on behalf of the group, to become a part of someone else’s life and to let them be a part of yours. It’s not enough to be in the same place at the same time doing the same thing. At its best, fraternity requires a genuine desire to know and support one another as a brother, someone whom we care about and want to walk with.
I can’t tell you, though, how many guys I have lived with over the past six years and had no idea what they were going through or who they really were. Or who didn’t know me. Especially when living in a big house with busy people, it can be almost impossible to get to know everyone in a meaningful way. We go about our lives, praying the scripted Liturgy of the Hours and exchanging small-talk at dinner, without ever knowing what is going on in someone’s life.
And really, that’s not a knock on any person or house, that’s just the reality of the situation: dinner is not the usually the best time to share about one’s struggles in prayer or relationships, and most of our communal prayers are pre-written without room for additions. Unless a problem (or joy) is extraordinary, it’s probably going to be kept private or shared only on a personal basis, never reaching the life of the fraternity as a whole. In many cases, I have seen a group of men yearning for an opportunity to be more intimate with one another without an outlet to do so. The large group becomes very formal and business life, stuck in small-talk and superficiality, with intimacy and friendship reserved for later in the one-on-one encounters with those personalities that best fit us. In essence, there really isn’t a fraternity but a house of potential friendships.
For me, as forced or artificial as it sounds, I think you just have to schedule time for fraternity. We schedule time for food, prayer, work, meetings, and so on. Why don’t we schedule time to simply be one another?
One of my favorite examples of this, something that many in our house this year have begun to do, is faith sharing. Each Thursday night after dinner, a group of us meets in the living room for Lectio Divina and community time. Over the course of an hour, we listen to and silently reflect on the Gospel for the upcoming Sunday, share with one another what the reading means in our lives, and conclude by checking in with one another, offering to the group what’s going on in our lives and what we might need prayers for.
It is truly one of the best parts of my week.
Built around a basic structure, the act itself is not what’s important and we’re flexible each week to do something different. What makes the time meaningful is that we have decided to be with one another, for something, and come knowing that it is a space to share our lives with one another. Sometimes, the conversation is light and relaxing. Other times, guys share deep personal struggles and fears. Either way, I leave better knowing my brothers (and they knowing me), having taken the time to build a relationship.
Naturally, there are any number of ways to do this in a fraternity and the need for intentionality is not limited to a group of religious. Families need this. Spouses need this. Friends need this. Churches need this. As connected as we may feel in one sense through social media, we are a tragically disconnected world today, many people going through life feeling alone and yearning for greater intimacy. You don’t need to be in a religious community to find intimacy and joining a religious community will not guarantee it. What you truly need—what I truly need—is to simply find the time with the people that matter to me so that we can share our lives with one another.