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.

Now What?

I look forward to spending eight weeks this summer at St. Francis Church in Triangle, VA.

I look forward to spending eight weeks this summer at St. Francis Parish in Triangle, VA.

The year just keeps on moving! After yet another year of studies, I find myself done with exams, finishing up my self-evaluations, and heading to retreat with a simple question: Now What?

For eight weeks this summer, I have been assigned to St. Francis Parish in Triangle, VA. Walking distance from the Quantico Marine Corps base and just off of I-95, St. Francis mixes a large amount of military and government workers with people from far out of town, easily traveling a great distance to be with the friars. These two factors mean that its 2,000 families are diverse in culture and background, coming from all over the country and constantly changing.

Don’t think that the transient nature of the parish means that it is anything less than lively; quite the opposite, actually. As one parishioner said, “We don’t know how long we’ll be stationed here so we can’t afford to take our time. We need to jump right in and take part in our community.” As a result, there is always something going on at either the church or school with new people, ranging from award-winning justice and peace advocacy to a growing youth ministry to innovative pastoral training programs like Stephen Ministry, a program that “equips and empowers lay caregivers to provide high-quality, confidential, Christ-centered care to people who are hurting.”

If that’s not enough, the parish is young and energetic, absolutely teeming with families. When I arrived Saturday for a visit, they had already had two First Holy Communion masses and had one more to go to fit the 150 children in the program. Yeah, that that’s a lot of kids and a lot of young families. Everywhere I looked in its seven, packed Sunday masses were growing families, and they seemed excited to be there.

Needless to say, I’m excited to be there as well, and couldn’t be coming at a better time. After completing a comprehensive parish-wide survey to assess the needs and strengths of the parish, they recently launched a “Now What?” campaign to reengergize the faithful out of complacency and into the world. The first phase, Seek, challenged parishioners to identify their gifts, to articulate their understanding of God, and to determine what was holding them back from taking the next step in their faith journey. The second phase, started during Lent and continuing throughout the time I will be there, is called Discover: “we will ‘Discover’ ways to respond to our NOW WHAT? question through homilies, a parish mission, ministry showcases, a bulletin column, our website, and social media, among other things.” New initiatives are being started, old habits are being questioned, and everyone is being challenged to discover something new about the Church.

So what does that mean for me? Well, after meeting with the pastor and lay pastoral associate, it looks like I’ll be pretty busy! Teaching will be a strong component, as last summer, but I’ll be adding a new course to the “How Do Catholics Read the Bible?” course I taught in Camden. Entitled, “Catholic Bootcamp,” my goal is to teach an “everything you always should have known about Catholicism but were afraid to ask” class, covering the basics of the Bible, Catholic theology, liturgy and sacraments, spirituality and prayer, history, and social teaching in six weeks. Ambitious? You bet! But our tradition has really failed over the years to evangelize and catechize our own people, and many adults honestly don’t know their faith. I see it as a major calling of mine to make the Catholic faith an interesting, engaging experience for everyone. The message is great, but the delivery needs some work for sure!

So that accounts for about three hours of my week plus preparation… what about the rest of the summer? Add to that visiting the students at the elementary school, helping run a vacation Bible school after that, volunteering at the food pantry, setting up a college/young adult ministry, helping to build the already thriving youth ministry (and hopefully going to Kings Dominion!), lectoring, preaching and celebrating communion services when the priests are called away, and working with a creative and hard-working Coordinator of Franciscan Action and Advocacy. And that’s just what we discussed in an thirty minute meeting this morning! I also hope to get a Spanish tutor a few days a week, meet with the marriage preparation team (and maybe even set up some post-Cana formation activities), visit our shut-ins on a regular basis, and if there is any spare time, to sit and just read a book for leisure! Not sure about that last one…

Overall, I couldn’t have had a better weekend in Triangle and couldn’t be more excited about the prospect of things to come. Besides the incredible ministry all around me, the two friars I’ll be living with are great guys, the house is comfortable, and there is a gym and cheap golf course just around the corner of the parish. I guess all I can say is that the answer to “What Now?” is “an awesome summer that I can’t wait to begin.”

And while here would have been a great place to end this post, having given a summary statement and used the title of the blog in a way to bring everything full circle, I continue to type. That’s because the answer to the question at hand has actually nothing to do with parish ministry and everything to do with what I’ll be doing before I head out. You see, what I’m going to do in eleven days is so interesting and exciting that you’ll be asking yourself, with envy and maybe confusion, the entire time I’m doing it, “What Now?!” But not right now. No, what is bound to be the biggest announcement yet on this blog, an opportunity that was inspired by Life From a Suitcase and was hinted at in Spring Break!, will be revealed Friday. It will be unlike anything I’ve done so far as a friar, and yet just a small-scale practice for what I have planned for six years from now. Interested? Excited? Scared? All will be revealed soon enough. You won’t want to miss this one, and you’ll definitely want to be around for all posts (and videos) that follow that week. See you Friday…!

The Paulist Pub

Few things bring brothers today like a cold beer at the end of a long day!

Few things bring brothers today like a cold beer at the end of a long day!

This year, the friars at Holy Name College here in D.C. have been a part of quite a few gatherings. There was the beginning of the year social of all the religious, the recent Franciscan prayer and dinner that brought together OFMs, Conventuals, Capuchins, and TORs (which you can read about here), and the yearly lecture for students in formation. Some, like the “Capuchin Cafe,” have been completely spontaneous and wildly successful: more than 100 students/religious/formators/professors come out each time for a holy hour, great music and coffee each month!

Last night there was something completely new. Not as well attended at the Capuchin Cafe and certainly not organized, it was by far the most creative: The “Paulist Pub.” An obvious play on the Capuchin Cafe, the Paulists decided for a slightly more “adult” way of bringing people together than the Capuchins, replacing coffee with beer and an basement packed with undergrads with an intimate courtyard full of seminarians.

But this was no kegger of cheap light beer, let me tell you. No, in keeping with the history of religious orders, this was a beer brewing competition. That’s right, homemade beer straight from religious houses. You don’t get any more medieval than that! And it was delicious! The Capuchins made a Scottish Ale, a common flavor that was a bit more of my preference, while the Paulists, going for innovation and creativity, decided to experiment with putting mangos in an IPA as it fermented. As someone who does not like that style of beer, let alone never-before-attempted styles made in someone’s basement, I was skeptical. But they proved me wrong. Both were crisp and refreshing, making the vote very difficult indeed.

But lest this become a food and drink blog, I’ll say that I loved the creativity and spontaneity of the event and that we need more of this in our formation experience. No one was forced to be there, there were no formators or evaluators organizing the event, and there was no agenda for our conversation other than to have a good time.  together in a setting that had nothing to do with formation or training.

And yet, how critically important such an experience is in our formation and training. In a time when vocations are “not what they used to be,” (although actually growing in the past decade!), it’s really important that we be around people that share our experiences and trials, that we have peers and friends not just “brothers” and wisdom figures. There is a lot we can learn from our older brothers who have lived this life longer than us, but there is just no replacing learning with those who are also new. Here in D.C., we have the luxury of being surrounded by hundreds of men in their 20s and 30s who have chosen to step away from the world and to walk with God in a different way. Each of us has recently struggled with discernment, made major life decisions, and stepped into unchartered waters. To know that there are men life me, who struggle with the same things I do and want what I seek, is very comforting indeed; to actually get to know these people, especially when it is over a fresh brewed beer, is irreplaceable.

So cheers to all my fellow formation students out there and let’s raise our glasses to all those discerning our way of life. It’s a great life that I wouldn’t trade for anything. For me, it’s not about the beer or the coffee, not about organizing orchestrated events with elaborate prayers and planned entertainment, it’s about guys who share a common hope and dream for themselves and the world coming together to get to know each other, support one another, and have a great laugh. With the right group of guys, it could be anything; what better place than the neighborhood religious pub!

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As far as our beer brewing goes, we’re considering getting in on the action! One of the Capuchins gave me a book about brewing beer made easy, and we might just have to make our own Holy Name Province lager! Stayed tuned next fall for developments!

More of the Same

With the exception of the full-year hiatus when I wasn’t allowed to write during novitiate, these past two weeks have been the longest period of time without posting something. For all my avid readers out there, and by avid readers I mean my parents, I apologize for leaving you hanging for so long. One of the goals of the blog when I set out was to post regularly, but it just wasn’t happening last week.

For starters, school is really kicking up right now. I had a 12-page paper due on the 10th, a 15-page paper due this Wednesday, another 8-page paper due next Friday. That’s not to mention all of the other 3-page reflections papers, the regular reading assignments, and of course, the five exams or papers I will have in just two weeks. But nobody wants to hear my sob stories…

In reality, the bigger issue in not writing lately is that, frankly, life has been “more of the same” for the past couple of weeks. It’s been great, don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed myself and trust me when I say that I’m not bored. But when I was trying to think about something to share, there was nothing that I had not already shared in some other fashion before.

Three Sundays in a row I have played in a softball league with the same diocesan seminarians as I mentioned in Death, Pickaxes, and Home Videos: A Franciscan Feast. I’m happy to report that we have won all of our games so far and will hopefully be playing in the playoffs next week!

I continue to teach English at the parish next door as I mentioned in The View From the Periphery, and that is still the most exhausting yet fulfilling thing I do. Getting to know the people a little better over the past few months has really been great, and seeing their fortitude and progress in such a difficult situation is inspiring.

On Thursday our Vicar Provincial (vice president of the province) visited the house last Thursday for us to renew our vows for another year, as I wrote about in Renewal of Vows. While the one receiving my vows, the two witnesses, and the guardian of the house were all different, the words I spoke and the commitment I made are the same: I wish to live the life of a friar for another year. Given that it’s something that I’ve done now twice and that I plan on living this life until I die, there was just something very pedestrian about it and not worth sharing.

On Friday, we had our monthly fraternal gathering, as in Don’t Fear Fraternity. This month we celebrated the birthday of four of our guys with a “Game Show” theme, complete with the Price is Right, Jeopardy, and Charades. I took video of almost everyone’s acting ability, but unfortunately promised not to share outside of the house. Trust me when I say that “Airport security” and “Police Officer” were pretty funny though.

And lastly, last night was the third edition of the Capuchin Cafe, the holy hour and concert I mentioned in Frat Party with Hillbilly Thomists. It was another successful evening had by all, and arguably even better than the first: lay people and diocesan seminarians replaced the Dominicans, and one girl played Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” and Lorde’s “Royals” on a ukulele. She was pretty dang awesome.

All in all, the past few weeks have been an experience of the familiar, and that’s not a bad thing. Much of life is simply the same situations we’ve faced before; the difference is that we have changed and thus experience it in a new way (if you’re having deja vu, this, too I have blogged about!) There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s not boring. It’s not monotonous. It’s not even remotely repetitive. Sometimes experiencing what’s familiar, especially when it’s good and fulfilling, is a welcome rest from the ever-changing unpredictable world out there and a time to simply have the confidence that everything is going to be great: I’ve done it once, I can do it again. In these cases, I guess I just have to count my blesses and hope for a  little more of the same!

When Will This End?

This is more or less how I felt this afternoon

This is more or less how I felt this afternoon

Today was a rough day. Without going into great detail, I encountered difficulty with school, formation, all three vows, unavoidable situations and my bracket was seriously ruined in two games. (Seriously Iowa State??) In short, today was a day of penance.

In initial formation, days (or even months) like this can be plentiful. The fact of the matter is, and this doesn’t matter who one’s formator is or what the program is like, formation can be a very frustrating experience because it is but a reflection of the life we were inspired to live. Yes, we are “real” friars and this is “real” life, but in a lot of ways formation does not accurately reflect the day-to-day life that much of us will be living in a just a few short years. This is partly by design. As new friars, we need a little extra oversight, a few more restrictions, more direction and evaluation, and certainly a whole lot of school. There are simply things that have to be different about our life so that we can be ready to live the one we see lived around us.

And while I understand that, it is days like today that make it very hard to see the merit in “the now.” I want to get out of this house and do full time ministry. Why do I have to be stuck here taking stupid tests, writing meaningless evaluations? I want to be with the people of God away from all of this personal attention. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I find it very difficult sometimes to stay focused on the present, and even impossible at times to find the merit in the present when the future captures my attention. Why am I doing THIS when I could be doing THAT?

I think there is a temptation is all of us, not just religious in formation, to see the preparations of life as hoops to jump through. Whether it’s school, job training, internships, or even entire stages of our life (teenage years come to mind), what is ahead always looks more enjoyable than what is directly in front of us, and we count down the days until it is over so that we may begin the “real” task, whatever it may be. At the end of high school, I couldn’t wait for college; at the end of college, I couldn’t wait to enter the friars; even towards the end of that summer in college when I lived at the church, the summer that started my vocation journey and was arguably the greatest time of my entire life, I couldn’t wait to get back to school and move on to the next stage of my life.

In many cases, the preparation period actually is genuinely terrible and it is fitting to look forward to future possibilities. Days like today force my attention away from the present into a future that is much more desirable, frankly, as a way to inspire me to continue on my path forward.

But there is also a great danger in this. For in thinking about the future, I have spent time in the realm of what is truly not real, the possibility of reality, while what is truly real right in front of me has passed by unnoticed. Some go through their entire lives this way, waiting for what is next, having never actually experienced what is now. It is a constant cycle of moving back and forth from day dreaming to nostalgia, from one false reality to another.

The present reality may suck. Seriously. Late nights, difficult work, unfair treatment, bad luck, uncomfortable situations… the whole nine yards. The temptation will be to dwell on what is next and to ask, “When will this end?” Doing so will undoubtedly offer temporary comfort, as most forms of escapism do. But in the end, what fruit will dwelling on the future produce? What we should be asking, what should be asking on days like today, is not “when will this end?” but “what about this situation, in all of its imperfection and failed expectations, is God revealing himself to me?” Even in the worst of situations, there must be a sense in every moment of every day that God is actively engaging us with his love, breaking into our lives through the ordinary and mundane, to draw us closer to himself. This moment may seem terrible and we cannot wait for it to end, but God is in this moment and in no other. We could spend our entire lives wishing that we lived at a different time in a different situation, but in the end, we were given this moment, and this moment alone, for a reason: to encounter God in a unique way. When we realize this, when we realize the power of the present reality and the possibility that every moment has to be with God in a new and life-giving way, there seems no stranger question to ask than “When will this end?”