Every year in formation, the Franciscans of my province host an event called “Intersession,” a meeting of all levels of formation between the sessions of school for a workshop and time for fellowship (hence intersession and not intercession). Without school or ministry on our minds and removed from our normal routines and comforts, it’s usually a welcomed time of intentional fraternity, prayer, and good ol’ fashioned doing nothing.

In that respect, this year was no different. From Thursday until Sunday, I spent time with the postulants, novices, and simply professed friars, catching up on how their year was going, playing games, staying up too late, and eating more than I would normally like. Basically, what you do on intersession. And it was great.

And yet in another respect, although I had attended it three times previously, this week seemed completely unrecognizable to me.

For starters, it was the first ever interprovincial intersession (gotta love religious jargon…) Instead of hosting it at a retreat center somewhere in Maryland or Pennsylvania like usual, everyone flew out to the tundra of Chicago’s Mundelein  Seminary, and instead of consisting solely of formation students from Holy Name Province, we invited all formation students from all US provinces to attend. Yeah, this was going to be different. Even though some of the provinces were not able to send all of their guys because of the distance, our group of normally 10-15 swelled to 31, not including formators and directors. That’s a significant group.

And a young one at that. For the first time in my friar life—I repeat, for the first time—I attended a gathering of friars and I was not the youngest person. Eight people were younger than me, making me not only “not the youngest,” but in fact outside the youngest 25%! How did that happen?? I was pleasantly surprised at this enormous breath of fresh air, and felt a clear difference in the dynamic of the group. Instead of simply sitting around and talking or watching a movie each night (like normal, and not bad at all), guys played animated board and card games, made a heck of a lot of noise, and even (and no, this is not a mistake), organized a four-on-four basketball game in the on-campus gym. First time for everything, I suppose!

But beyond all that—and those things were certainly significant—the thing that struck me the hardest was looking around and realizing that I was the most senior class in attendance. Like my words in I’m On Deck last year, I realized that “there is no one in front of me.” As young as I am, as unprepared as may feel at times, in this gathering, there was no one with more experience in formation than me. With a small handful of others, I was an upperclassman, someone now 4-5 years removed from the experiences of the new guys and the one answering all the formation questions rather than asking them. I was attending my last intersession.

Like so many moments throughout this year so far, it was a moment of pause . . . of reflection . . . of anxiety . . . of comfort . . . of joy. While my regular day-to-day life of being a friar is not considerably different now, nor will they be much different after I profess my vows, these moments remind me how far I’ve come so far and how far I plan to go in the future.

The view from the top is always the clearest, and only makes sense after the long journey to get there.

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Five years ago Saturday, as a newly received postulant, I attended the solemn vow ceremony of two of our brothers. Having just entered a few days earlier and being at the very beginning of my six-year journey of formation, I was deeply moved by that experience:

“It’s hard to imagine that six years ago, these two men were in my position, postulants, young and new to the order, attending some other friars’ solemn profession. It’s kind of cool that one of the first things we do is attend this ceremony because it gives us a glimpse of the ‘finish line,’ so to speak.”

From day one (or four) I was looking to the future at what would one day come: myself in their place, lying on the floor during the litany of the saints preparing to permanently vow my life to God in the way of St. Francis of Assisi. At that time, being as new and far off as one could be, the experience was powerful yet safe, a distant vision that was little more real than a dream.

This Saturday, I found myself sitting in the exact same pew for the exact same ceremony… with a very different reaction. What I was witnessing was not some far off goal, a “finish line” from the view of someone on lap one, it was an imminent reality just before me, the finish line from the perspective of someone who has run the race and knows that they are almost there. The men before me were not just “some friars” years ahead acting as a generic example for my future; having lived with each of them for two years, they were my classmates, my housemates, and my friends. I knew what they were going through and I knew what had gotten them to where there were, but maybe most significantly to me, I knew that I was next.

It was at the moment, sitting in the very pew that had given me the image of running a race to the finish, that I was struck with a new image: I’m now on deck. All at once it became real to me that there is no one in front of me. With no one on and no one out, I better get my helmet and bat because I’m going to be hitting next. Just as I had watched them last year go out on internship year, be evaluated and voted on, sign formal documents with more weight than any documents they had ever signed in their lives, and finish their discernment with a final one-month long retreat, I knew that all of that was upon me now.

How did this make me feel? Exactly like being on deck in baseball, actually: a little nervous, but wanting nothing more than to be at the plate. When you’re sixth in the order, you know that you’re going to get up eventually but there’s no pressing need to be ready. When you’re on deck, things are very real. Nerve-racking, but also so very exciting. No one wants to be sixth in the lineup, they want to be hitting. I knew a year before I even entered that this life was for me and have not doubted that feeling for a minute, and I can’t wait to make that decision official, with family, friends, and friars present. For five years it has been a far-off goal. Now, I’m ready to hit.

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Congratulations to George, John, and Egdardo

Shortly after the end of the school year in May, a fellow seminarian at Catholic University posted a picture on his Facebook of a large pile of books, evidently his reading list for the summer. Piled more than ten high, the ambitious stack had some great books about the liturgy, history of the Church, and popular expressions of Catholicism in today’s world. Objectively speaking, it was a great collection and I’m sure he benefited greatly from it.

And yet, I couldn’t help but shiver when I saw it.

Despite the wide variety of topics and perspectives, his stack was all the same: academic, theological, non-fiction. They could have just as easily been his textbooks for the following year of seminary, all packed with information for study, meant to fill the mind with thoughts and facts and ideas.

At face value, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. As Catholics, we know that God gave us the ability to reason and understand Godself and the world, and so are not afraid of intellectualism or study in faith. Thoughts and facts and ideas are incredibly important to our faith, and I plan on attending two more years of seminary to engage them more deeply.

But there is a reason that I shivered when I saw this picture (and, no, it’s not just because my brain is fried after three years of full-time graduate study.) While God certainly gave us a mind to reason and understand, God also gave us a heart to feel and a spirit to imagine. After three years of seminary training in which I’ve read dense books on philosophy, theology, Church history, and pastoral care, I’ve realized that there is something desperately missing from my life and formation: fiction. Where are the novels? Where are the short stories, plays, poems?

For some, such things are often seen as more leisurely, “softer” activities one does in one’s free time or when one needs a break from “real” studying. For others, fiction is simply a waste of time altogether when one could be learning about “something that actually happened.” I couldn’t disagree more. Just because works of fiction do not contain many—if any—details that are factually accurate does not mean that they are devoid of truth. In many ways, I would argue quite the opposite: novels use lies to tell the truth (paraphrase of Alan Moore, V for Vendetta). Using characters, places, and situations that do not exist in our world, writers use their imaginations to speak profoundly about the human existence in a way that biographies and treatises simply cannot.

It is with the use of this imagination—the ability to dream and believe and create—that writers help so many see beyond the mundane happenings of life and into the transcendent experience of God. Even when works of fiction do not convey an immediate or underlying Christian message, the reader is offered a glimpse into the transcendent simply because s/he is experiencing beauty. The eloquently chosen words on the page, the palpable emotion flowing from the actors, the disturbing/inspirational/unbelievable/mesmerizing images that the writer evokes are all gateways into God if the reader allows it.

What fiction lacks in historical accuracies is often more than made up for in what it reveals about the human experience. I think of the incredible precision with which F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, telling such an emotive and visually packed story with so few words; I think of how terribly defeated I was after reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as if it had been me who had had all of my hopes and dreams crushed and cast aside; I think of how taken away I was by the imagery and storytelling of Yann Martel in Life of Pi, as if I were sitting at the feet of a wise old master telling about his life (which does not make me a Hindu relativist, fyi…) These stories moved me. They touched me. They evoked something in me that, despite being about people and events that never took place, helped me to relate to and understand the world in a new way.

That is what I want to recapture this year as I take a break from formal studies. While Karl Rahner, official papal documents, and classical treatises are certainly useful and have been fruitful in many aspects of my life, and I will most certainly not abandon them completely as I will be teaching many classes this year, having to read hundreds of pages of them each week has left a major imbalance in my life that needs fixing.

And fixed it will be.

Starting just after the road trip in May, I began to reread my favorite series of all-time, Harry Potter (it took me only 25 days to read all seven books… That is an emotional roller coaster I do not recommend!) Over the summer in Mexico I read The Little Prince in Spanish. And upon arriving here in Durham I signed up for a library card and checked out my first two books within twelve hours of arriving: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor and Jazz Age Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, two collections of short stories.

Like my friend from seminary, my stack of books is quickly piling up as I try to fit as much in as I can, making up for the lost time during school. And even though our stacks look completely different and it would be easy to say that our goals are quite different, I don’t think they are. Both of us, in our own ways, are seeking to know God and God’s people better so that we can be better ministers today and in the future. The difference is a matter of perspective: while he has chosen to read books about God and God’s people, I have chosen to read books that help me experience God and God’s people firsthand. Now that’s a novel idea.

There is one Spanish phrase that I have used more than any in my three weeks here in Mexico. No, it’s not “See you later”; thankfully, it’s not “I need a bathroom, fast”; but unfortunately it’s not “Thank you for the beer.” No, of all the phrases that I have used on a regular basis, the one phrase that I use more times per a day than I care count is, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

As you can imagine, this is a a frustrating thing to have to say on a number of different levels.

The first, quite simply, is that it sucks to be dumb. For someone who has always done well in school, has a fairly good grasp of the English language and is more than comfortable expressing personal and complex thoughts and feelings, to routinely have to say that “I don’t understand” and ask that they repeat themselves more slowly is humiliating. If, by chance, they are patient enough to speak to me like a small child—only adding to the feeling of inadequacy—I’m likely to understand the gist of the question or comment, but am left with another dilemma: What do I say in return? “Yes, I like cheese,” or “I am from the United States,” or “I need food.” Simple, direct, and extremely limited in expressing any sort of complexity or affect. So often I find myself wanting to say something just beyond the ordinary—a wish, a conditional statement, something with subtlety—but have to filter my ideas through my vastly inferior speaking ability.

And for casual conversations, this sort of embarrassment or frustration is to be expected, and most of the volunteers are helpful enough to make every conversation a teaching moment rather than get frustrated with me in return. But what about in conversations with the migrants, those who find themselves in great physical, emotional, and spiritual need? When a volunteer asks if I have seen such-and-such a person but I don’t understand the question, there’s really no problem; when a migrant asks me where they can get some food, tells me about their home country, or seeks help about some issue they have, to stare back at them blankly, request that they speak slower, and repeatedly have to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” it’s a different story. I feel stupid, yes, but often they do too. For some, my inability to understand them looks poorly on me as a student of the language (which is fine), but for others, the experience only furthers their feelings of doubt and alienation. “You don’t understand me?” It’s not about the language, per se, but feelings of inadequacy, feelings of being unintelligent, feelings of not being understood by others.

It’s a complex situation and I have mixed feelings about my experience thus far. On the one hand, there is tremendous benefit to being put in such a vulnerable situation, stripped of my confidence and forced to feel as so many do everyday. It is truly a “minor” position, and even if the conversation yields no tangible results for either party and I don’t necessarily grow in my Spanish-speaking ability, it is an experience worth having. On the other hand, though, there is definitely a sense that I would benefit more under controlled conditions, speaking to people who are not so vulnerable themselves, and who, frankly, are able to annunciate and articulate themselves in a simple enough way for me to grasp what is going on. (People from one country in particular are almost impossible to understand, even for the Mexican volunteers. For example, in one conversation this morning, one women said “De-SAY.” After a few seconds of confusion, I realized that what she was saying was dieciséis, the word for sixteen, pronounced, Dee-es-ee-SAYes, not “De-Say.”) To have “conversations” in which I am consistently lost from beginning to end doesn’t seem to be the best way to learn a language.

But who knows. Now just under three weeks in, Christian and I have another six weeks in Mexico to make the most of it. Our classes each day (for three hours) have been going well, I’m constantly studying vocabulary on an app on my phone, and I’m starting to notice results. I’m picking up more words in each sentence, I’m beginning to get more comfortable speaking, and just today, Christian said that he thought my vocabulary had noticeably improved already. Here’s hoping! For now, I’ll just have to get used to the fact that I’m not going to understand everything, and that that is okay.

Our first day in Mexico was the longest day of my life. 

Beginning our travels at 10pm on Monday evening (having been awake for thirteen hours already), we took a plane to a bus to another plane to a three-hour car ride, arriving at our destination a mere fifteen hours after departed. At this point, it was only 1:30pm, a long way away from finishing.

The biggest adjustment, even greater than the language, was the weather. As some of you know, Washington, D.C. has been unseasonably cold, remaining in the 50s and 60s during the month of May as it experienced 19 straight days of rain. When we arrived in Tenosique, Mexico, a tropical area in the south of the country, the temperature was 102 with a dew point of 66. I was completely shell-shocked throughout the first day. No air conditioning, no ice or cold water, no relief in either night or day. (Now in our third day, I have not stopped sweating at any point.)

But wait, we haven’t even done anything yet; our day, in a sense, was just beinning! First there was a tour of the place, were acquainted with our rooms (more in a second), a quick nap, then concluded with multiple hours of aimlessly walking around the grounds attempting to have conversations in Spanish with the volunteers and migrants. Let’s just say I was not in the mood nor did I have the energy for this to be enjoyable.

So what about the room? Well, let’s just it’s not exactly what we were expecting. Not a room in the friary, our room is a communal barracks-style room shared with other volunteers. It’s kind of austere… 

     

  

 

It was at this point that we thought we had made a mistake. What have we gotten ourselves info? There was no mention of our language classes and it appeared that we would be volunteering all summer as workers (or at least until we died of heat stroke.)

Christian and I prayed together that night before bed in our sweltering room, exhausted, dejected, and a bit worried. We were going to reserve judgment until the morning, deciding that a good night’s sleep would make things better.

We were half right. The heat kept me up all night, prolonging the longest day, but the next two days have been much better. We met with the director and made a schedule, organized prayer times (previously not regularly done but added at our request), and began our classes. 

We’ve had some interesting and exciting experiences already since then, and it looks like it’s going to be a great, albeit hot, Summer  for the both of us… But that first day was something I will never forget nor do I want to repeat!

Before leaving, I filmed this final video for the summer. My internet is not great here so you may have to go to the YouTube channel to find it, but this link might work: