A few weeks ago, the friars in our community had a House Chapter, a regular meeting where we discuss fraternal or spiritual issues to grow closer and build up the fraternity. The topic was on fraternal correction: how we do lovingly approach a brother when issues arise.

Overall, it was a fantastic meeting that showed how mature every member of my house is (not always the case…) One brother brought up a story that has stuck with me for weeks. He shared how here was a friar in one house who no one could stand. He was annoying to be around, self-centered, and just problematic to live with. Finally, the brothers got together and requested the he be transferred to another house. In many ways, this part of the story is sadly not uncommon; sometimes, guys just don’t get along. No, what was striking about it was how that brother reacted. Shocked and hurt, he could only respond, “Why didn’t anyone ever tell me I was difficult to live with?”

So often, we are blind to our own weaknesses. Whether it’s because they’re difficult to spot or simply because we don’t want to see them, others are always better equipped to point out those areas within us that need the most growth. Without a community around us who is mature (and loving) enough to step in a correct us, to point out our blindspots when we can’t see them, we will go through life hurting and annoying others without a care in the world.

I’m not sure about you, but ignorance is not bliss.

For so many of us, it is not that “we don’t know what we don’t know,” it’s that “we don’t even know THAT we don’t know.” We are completely oblivious (or completely deny) that there is even anything in us that needs to change.

And so before we walk away thinking that this reflection is all about others and how we need to fix them, let me bring it back to our poor brother. He was most certainly blind to things that caused trouble for him in his community, and no one can outright fault him for not seeing what he could not see, but it is not entirely up to others to take responsibility for our behavior. Knowing, of course, that we ALL have blindspots—that we all have failings we cannot see, that we all have rough edges that do not reflect the kingdom of God—it is most certainly our responsibility to have the humility to accept this in ourselves and the courage to do something about it.

How we go about that seemingly impossible process… is the topic of this week’s video.

How many people made New Year’s resolutions this year? How many have already dropped them? My guess is that very few people reading today are still committed to something they made at the beginning of the year, mostly because the vast majority of us don’t even bother trying anymore! We’ve failed so many times, what’s the point of coming up with something?

Our readings this past weekend tell us why: because we are called to conversion each and every day. The prophet Jonah goes through Nineveh preaching repentence, reminding us that we need to change, and more importantly, that we can change. St. Paul tells us that the time for change is not tomorrow or some day in the future, but now. Now is the time for the coming of the kingdom. And our Gospel, the Good News of Jesus, shows us the way: we are to leave behind what hold us back and follow him.

So why don’t we? Why are we so bad at coming up with and sticking to new ways of living? I would like to suggest three things we do wrong and three ways to act differently.

1. We don’t even show up

We live by an interesting all-or-nothing attitude sometimes. We think that unless we are 100% committed to something, unless we are passionate, focused, and excited about doing something, we’re just going through the motions and cheating ourselves. If we’re not going to commit, why do anything at all, right?

Yeah… except that’s sort of ridiculous. Can you imagine if we only did the things we wanted to do, only the things that we had passion for? My guess is that we wouldn’t have friends, a family, or a job, because each of those things require that we show up even when we don’t want to. As terrible as it sounds, showing up and doing the right thing, even for the wrong reason, is still better than not showing up at all! Life is made by those who show up, not by those who don’t.

In making good habits in the new year, the biggest mistake we make is letting how we feel about something dictate how committed we are to it. Our motivation is our inspiration/passion/emotion rather than the goodness of the act itself. If prayer is our goal, going to prayer, even when we don’t want to, even when we’re not feeling anything, even when we don’t “get anything out of it,” is still better than not going at all. It may not feel authentic at first, but with time and consistency, it will become a habit. Staying home is not going to make us better at prayer; only showing up will do that.

2. We think only about ourselves

How many of our resolutions have only to do with us? “I want to lose 10 pounds.” “I want to eat healthier.” “I want to read more.” It’s all about “I.” We put the emphasis on ourselves, saying that no one else can do it for us, and we’re only cheating ourselves if we don’t follow through.

But there’s another side to this: we’re only benefiting ourselves if we succeed. There is no sense of community, connectedness, responsibility. Rise or fall, our actions affect us. And if I’m not hurting anyone else, it’s easy to let resolutions slide and never actually change.

But what if our goal was something that could benefit others if we succeed and hurt others if we fail? What if our New Year’s resolution was community-minded or even Christ-minded? My guess is that we would have a little extra motivation. My guess is that we would feel more committed to what we were doing.

In picking habits, we need to move away from ourselves and move towards Jesus. What should we be doing that Jesus wants us to do? What did Jesus do himself and how do we become more “Christ-like”? When we go to pray, when we read about his life, death, and resurrection… that’s when we find the things that we need to change and the motivation to stick to them.

3. We have no trust or patience in God

So often we expect to reach the end of our conversion on the first day. We go to the gym for a week and wonder why we don’t have six-pack abs. We think that just because we set our hearts on Jesus that our lives will all-of-the-sudden be sinless and perfect. And when we don’t see immediate results, it is very easy to get discouraged and give up.

But here’s the thing: conversion takes time. We can’t be today what only tomorrow will bring. We can’t reach the end without running the race, putting in work, and taking our time.

And here’s another, more important thing: conversion is ultimately up to the work of God. If all we do is trust in ourselves and build everything on the foundation our of own strength, we’re going to fail every time. We are simply not good enough in ourselves to overcome sin. We are not strong enough to overcome human weakness in ourselves. It is only God who can truly effect something new in us. It is only God who has the power to conquer sin, to give strength.

We may have setbacks, struggles, and failings. That’s all apart of conversion. Those who reach the end are not those who give up after failing at first, they are the ones who trust in the slow work of God in them.

***

We are all called to conversion. We are all called to take a step towards a more Christ-like life each and every day. The journey will never be completed in the day but is the result of continually showing up, keeping our focus on Christ, and trusting in the slow work of God. If you haven’t had success starting something new in your life this year, maybe this is what you need.

It seems like a rule of nature that conflict is inevitable. While the last two decades has been witness to extremely polarized thinking in both ecclesiastical and political debates, the fact of the matter is that people have always been in conflict. We disagree with one another. We get angry. We fight. Such is life. On this side of the Kingdom, I’m just not sure we can avoid it.

But oh do we try.

When I meet someone who has opinions diametrically different from mine, my first impulse is to try to change their mind. I may not open with that, and really, I may not even pursue it in action, but that desire is there. While small differences in opinion are not only good, they’re necessary, there is something deep inside of me that is unsettled when someone claims something I find absolutely ludicrous. I must fix them.

Maybe you know this feeling. If so, then maybe you know what usually happens in these cases: nothing. In my whole life, in all the people I have met and in all of the conversations about politics, religion, philosophy, or the like, I’m not sure if I have ever changed the opinion of someone who started off diametrically opposed to me. Never. Instead, what almost always happens is that at least one of us gets frustrated at our inability to fix the other person and we leave the conversation worse off than when we started: same opinions held but a worse relationship between us.

What do we do now?

More times than not, we just let it go. Rather than carrying the burden of the frustration with us well after the conversation is done, we try to forget the argument and move on with our lives. And on the surface, this seems like our best option: adding resentment to an altogether meaningless conversation is not good for one’s mental or emotional health, and benefits neither you nor your opponent. Letting the conversation go is probably the best thing we can do.

Rather unfortunately, though, we often let go of much more than that. In my experience, when faced with a difficult person or opinion that we cannot reconcile with the way we view the world, we often let go of the person as well. Rather than having to deal with the frustration that such a perspective is out there, and unwilling to accept that it cannot be reconciled with our world view, we employ a defense mechanism that eliminates the problem: we determine that that person or opinion is fundamentally wrong, therefore not of any worth to our lives.

It’s a nice tactic, actually. Able to put someone in a box—no, they put themselves in a box away from reason, not us!—our commitment to them and their ideas disappears. Those people are so messed up, we say. That one is crazy, we think. Why waste time thinking about or engaging people who are so far from right thinking?

And yet, as nice and comforting it is to us, as neat and tidy as it makes our relationships, when we do this, we forget something rather fundamental to our lives: As Christians, we do not have the luxury of writing people off.

As much as we want to solve problems by cutting people out of our lives and forever ignoring them, we do not have the luxury: we are called to forgiveness.

As much as we want to put people down for being “so messed up,” we do not have the luxury. We are called to love even our enemies.

As much as we want to attack others, play the victim, or try to get people our our side against them, we do not have the luxury. We are called to be meek peacemakers.

As much as the world may find certain behaviors and ways of dealing with conflict acceptable, we do not have the luxury. We are called to another world.

As much as we want to hide from issues and people, avoiding conflict and saying that “it’s not my problem,” we do not have the luxury. We are called to imitate God’s justice and mercy in our world, building up the kingdom of God, not just for ourselves, but for all.

There is no doubt in my mind that conflict has existed as long as life has existed and that it will continue long after I am gone. I have no utopian dreams of creating a world in which everyone holds hands and gets along, all thinking and speaking with one voice. This side of the Kingdom, conflict is a reality at the center of our lives. As Christians, that should not free us from being who we say we are—Christians. No, Jesus himself came and lived in a volatile world with conflict all around him. In fact, it is mainly through conflict that we know what we know about him and how we are to live. As easy as it is to buy into the values of the world—to act like the leaders of camps we see around us, to improve our cause by putting down our enemy, to determine for ourselves who is worth engaging and who is not—we need to remember one thing: if we want to call ourselves followers of Christ, we do not have the luxury of letting go of any part of the body of Christ.

Quotes. They’re a powerful literary and rhetorical device that bring meaning to what we’re saying, strengthen our argument, and legitimize our ideas, showing that someone of significance had the same feeling about something that we have.

Or they’re completely made up.

As comedian John Oliver presented on his late night HBO show two years ago, we live in a world where the spread of information reaches further than our ability (or desire) to fact check. While presenting a number of ridiculous and obviously fake quotes from Abraham Lincoln, Marie Curie, Alexander Hamilton, and even himself, he points out, “If you have the right font and the right photo any quote can seem real.”

No doubt, we have all witnessed this phenomenon on social media, and while we probably don’t want to admit it, we have probably perpetuated it. I mean, who among us hasn’t quoted Ghandi saying “Be the change you wish to see in the world” or seen a quote from Albert Einstein and said, “Wow, I like that”? Chances are, all of us have fallen prey to at least one of these 50 common misquotations or, more to theme of these blog, a misquote of the Bible or a popular saint.

Which brings us to the beloved saint, Francis of Assisi. Arguably the most popular saint behind the blessed Mother, what St. Francis lacks in popularity behind Mary the Mother of God is more than made up for in misappropriated quotes. Sure, you can find pictures every once in a while of Mary holding the rosary (praying through herself…?) and there is no shortage of claimed apparitions, but no one matches the breadth of famously-quoted-but-never-actually-spoken lines as St. Francis. Do a quick Google search of “St. Francis quotes” and you will find tons of beautiful words attributed to the saint, many of which you have undoubtedly heard before. Many of them are great lines that touch our hearts and captures our imagination. And most of them have nothing to do with St. Francis! In researching this topic, I went to a popular quote website to see what he is credited with saying. Of the top 20, he might have said three of them (although none of them were exact quotations), but he most definitely did not say the first 16 listed.

That would not get you a good grade on an essay. Just saying.

But it raises an interesting question: what do we do with all of these quotes attributed to St. Francis? Outside of an academic setting where accuracy is paramount, I’m a bit torn. A part of me, sharing in John Oliver’s frustration, seeks for a purity of history, sticking as close to the facts as we are able and citing sources to support our claims. The spread of incorrect information is no small issue. And yet, there’s another part of me that sees the merit in even misattributed quotes. While not historically factual, there is nonetheless something true about some of them. Maybe St. Francis did not say these exact words, but he lived by their meaning, and, had he lived in the 21st century with us, might have said it just like that. In these historically inaccurate and misattributed lines we find an insight to the saint that we love and a way to carry on his legacy in a new world.

Or not. Some are just ridiculous and insulting and really frustrating and should never be said or shared or thought ever again. *Regains composure*

So, which quotes of Francis are authentic, and what do we do with the not-so-historically-accurate ones? That is the topic of this week’s Catholicism in Focus. In honor of the Feast of St. Francis this Wednesday, I look into some of his most popularly shared quotes on social media and give my take of their significance in our lives today.

For email subscribers, click here to watch the video.

As a final note, I have left here at the bottom some of my favorite quotes of St. Francis that actually have a source. Now, we can question the historical accuracy of the document (a much larger discussion for another time), but we are probably much closer to the real Francis when we quote sources from the 1220s rather than the 1990s… (All quotes from Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, New City Press, volume 1.)

“For what a person is before God, that he is and no more.” (Admonition XIX)

“A person sins who wishes to receive more from his neighbor than he wishes to give of himself to the Lord God.” (Admonition XVII)

“Nothing should displease a servant of God except sin.” (Admonition XI)

“Nothing belongs to you; you can boast of none of these things.” (Admonition V)

“Most high, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me true faith, certain hope, and perfect charity, sense and knowledge, Lord, that I may carry out your hold and true command.” (Prayer before the Crucifix)

“We must never desire to be above others, but, instead, we must be servants and subject to every human creature for God’s sake.” (Later Admonition and Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance)

“When the day of death does come, everything they think they have shall be taken from them. The wiser and more powerful they may have been in this world, the greater will be the punishment they will endure in hell.” (A Letter to the Rulers of the Peoples)

“It is a great misery and miserable weakness that when you have Him present in this way, you are concerned with anything else in the whole world!” (A Letter to the Entire Order)

“The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed to bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwords I delayed a little and left the world.” (The Testament)

“Hail, O Lady, Holy Queen, Mary, holy Mother of God, who are the Virgin made Church, chosen by the most Holy Father in heaven whom he consecrated with His most holy beloved Son and with the Holy Spirit the Paraclete, in whom there was and is all fullness of grace and every good. Hail His Palace! Hail His Tabernacle! Hail His Dwelling! Hail His Robe! Hail His Servant! Hail His Mother! And hail all You holy virtues which are poured into the hearts of the faithful through the grace and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, that from being unbelievers, you may make them faithful to God.” (A Salutation of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

The other day I had an unfortunate run-in with someone on Facebook.

Scrolling through my newsfeed, I found an acquaintance of mine had posted something about the election from the viewpoint of the Catholic Church. Not recognizing the news source (not a good sign) and seeing a provocative title (something like, “Vote correctly or see your church close in November”) I hesitantly clicked. Apparently, some priest was telling everyone that if a “certain party” was elected, Churches would be forced to accept new doctrines, decided on by the government, or they would be forced to close because it was the goal of this party to destroy the family and shut down all churches.

Ugh. Talk about fear-mongering and dangerous rhetoric… and in the name of the Church.

While I try not to get involved with things like this when I can, I felt that, as a representative of the Catholic Church and knowing that this person had influence, I needed to make a public statement about the article. Responding via comment, I said that I was very disappointed in the priest and article, that it is yet another example of people trying to manipulate voters with fears that are not based in reality, and assured people that neither party has stated it plans to (or is even capable of) repealing the First Amendment, and that despite statements like this over the past eight years, religious houses of worship have always been granted exemptions to issues of religious freedom. This person’s response? “I’m entitled to my opinion and so are you.” The problem I had with this article, of course, was not that it shared opinions different from mine, but that it shared “facts” that were not true. No one is entitled to say things that are not true.

After writing this as a response, I was not only “defriended,” I was blocked entirely. Ouch.

The reason I write this is not to dwell on this particular encounter, as this is a nice person and I do not mean any harm, nor is it to discuss the issue of religious freedom and the interplay of government and religious institutions, as that is a topic for another day and another time. Instead, I have something very specific, and very important on my mind: we need to learn how to argue with each other.

This may sound like a strange statement coming from a man of peace, but I think the very fact that it does is one of the great failings of our current society (and Church!) and why we are as polarized as we are today. Arguments are not evil encounters that only exist with bad people and so should be avoided at all costs. No! Arguments are simply situations in which people who have come to different conclusions about something engage one another in conversation. Sure, they can be heated. Of course, passion may drive the conversation. But choosing to stand up for one’s opinion rather than ignore the situation or immediately assent to the other’s is not a bad thing, and it most certainly doesn’t have to end in punches or defriending. It can be a very good thing. At least, if it’s done well. As a Catholic and as a Franciscan living in a pluralistic United States, I think that we absolutely have to engage people, but that we need to do it with a few things in mind.

Arguments are not meant to be “won” The biggest issue for many is a conceptional one: the point of a good argument is not to defeat one’s opponent, it is to improve the understanding of the issue at hand for everyone. If the goal of each is to simply “win” the argument, the conversation becomes less about the issue itself—presumably something important worth doing—and more about determining who is “right” and who is “wrong.” But is there ever really a case in which one person is 100% right and the other 100% wrong? Likely not. No matter the situation, there is guaranteed to be something that both parties can walk away with better off than where they started.

But let’s say that there is such a case and one person is just categorically wrong and refuses to accept the truth, i.e. someone who believes that vaccinations cause autism. What is truly gained from seeing each other as enemies and creating winners and losers and making it one’s goal to belittle them? In those cases, I think we as Christians are called to go below the surface of the argument, to seek to understand the person a little better so as to know why they see the world as they do. There might in fact be something very true—a life experience, a fear, a hope for the future—that is shared between both parties and may help to bridge the gap of understanding. This is a situation in which everyone wins, no matter what they ultimately conclude.

Some arguments are just bad… but that doesn’t mean people are In a class years ago, a student shared an opinion that I felt misinterpreted the situation. I raised my hand and said, “I see where you’re coming from, but based on X and Y, I have to disagree.” After class, he came up to me and asked what I had against him. Huh? I don’t have anything against you! For him, there was no distinction between one’s ideas and one’s self, and so me attacking his idea was interpreted as me attacking him.

The fact of the matter is that sometimes good people have bad ideas and bad people have good ideas. In entering a debate, we need to always make the distinction between who someone is and what they’re arguing, and not a) let our emotions get the best of us and become offended by disagreement, or b) belittle an argument based on the character of the one saying it. If God has taught us anything in history it’s that the weakest and least likely people are are just as capable of speaking the truth as the wealthy and well-learned. Truth exists not because of the merit of the one who says it, but because it’s true in itself. In arguing, we are seek the truth irrespective of who says it.

Humility can go a long way The opposite is also true. Certain friends or family might find this final statement a bit humorous coming from me, but one of the most critical traits one has to have to argue well is the ability to admit to being wrong and change when necessary. Being impervious to change and unrelenting in one’s opinion does not make one “faithful,” it makes one dogmatic and an ideologue. Jesus denounced these people when he walked the earth and he certainly doesn’t need people like that now to build up his Church. What he did need, and what he desperately needs now, are men and women who have a firm foundation in the truth of God and God’s creation, but are willing to admit that they themselves are not omniscient or omnipotent—people who are willing to work from a foundation but adapt to the pastoral and cultural “signs of the times.”

Does that mean that everything needs to be on the table at all times? Of course not. For what it’s worth, I will probably never change my opinion on the human and divine nature of Jesus, the holiness of human life, and the need to care for the poor and marginalized. These are non-negotionables for me, and we all have them. What must always be open to change, however, is what these things mean in the modern world and how we are to live them out. And if this is can be true for something as important as how we honor the holiness of human life (something that has drastically changed every century in Church history), then it seems only fitting that we be able to do the same when it comes to taxes, education, daily habits, liturgy, where we eat dinner, foreign policy, and bed times.

***

We live in a world with seven billion people, all going in different directions with different sets of values. Thinking that we will always get along, or worse yet, that we should avoid anyone who disagrees with us for fear of conflicts, is not for Christians. It’s not the way Jesus lived by any means. When we commit to living by a radical worldview, we should not only expect arguments with others, we should welcome it. Evangelization does not occur when people already agree with us, it occurs when we engage people who have come to different conclusions about the world than us. As Christians, are we going to treat these people as our enemies, putting them down or running from them, or are we going to welcome them into peaceful, fruitful dialogue in which we learn to seek the truth together?

Upon turning 70 years old last week, one of our friars took the opportunity at mass to share some words of wisdom and a beautiful prayer about what the experience of getting “old” is like. Using the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, he said something to effect of, “as the body begins to break and weaken, filling up with holes, one finds room for God they never had before.” It was from the heart, insightful, and highly appropriate.

Or so I thought.

After concluding mass, a parishioner approached him, agitated at what he had said. “You’re not old! I’m 78 and I still do so much. Do you think I’m old?!” While the friar was simply using the word as an objective category, “someone who is closer to death than baptism,” as he said, the parishioner took the word to have an offensive undertone: something that is “old” is less-capable, out-of-date, and undesirable.

It’s a situation that I have been in many times in my life as a friar. Being the “youngest” friar in the province, I learned very quickly that what I considered “young” and “old” was often not what others did, and that using such words was to be done with extreme caution, if ever at all. Despite being a senior citizen, 65 was not “old” to a 70-year-old. Despite being the average age of death, 75 was not “old” to an 80-year-old, and so on. Depending on who I’m talking to, someone who is 40, 50, even 60 can be considered “young,” and you don’t dare call them otherwise.

You can guess what that frame of reference does to someone in my position. At 27-years-old, having entered at 22, I am the youngest professed friar in our province… and can never forget it. “Oh my God you’re so young!” is a phrase I hear from parishioners and friars alike on a regular basis. For five years, it has been my “minority status,” the underrepresented category in our Order and Church that defines me, making me the unofficial spokesperson, expert, and representative for all things youthful. Because the friars are aging in this country, I am and probably will be “young” in this line of work far longer than if I were to do anything else.

Which is fine. Hooray. Outside of the occasional question of my maturity, being “young” is a great thing. It’s the reason that 78-year-olds still think of themselves that way and refuse to use the word “old.” It’s the reason that Bob Dylan and Alphaville sung songs about it, why we have so much nostalgia for our youth, why it takes some people a decade to move on after college. Being “young” is what we want and being “old” is terrible. Right?

What I want to suggest in this post, and why I have the words “young” and “old” in quotes throughout this whole post, is that these words are generic terms that do not adequately reflect the human experience nor do they point us to what is really important.

As someone who has been branded with the title of “young” over the past five years, I can’t help but recognize the irony of the fact that I have come to recognize my own age and mortality in that same time period. At 22, when I became the “youngest in the province,” I played my last ever competitive baseball game. I reached an age in which the best of something was behind me. At 24, being the “youngest novice in the country,” I tore my shoulder and was told that I would have to begin exercising in a different way. I became physically unable to do something I once could. At 27, as parishioners can’t believe that I’m old enough to be a friar, I notice that the small cut on my face from shaving has become a permanent scar, the stray and occasional grey hair has become a dozen fixed features of my scalp, and my one eye sags a little bit when I smile. My body is shifting from growth to decline. Despite being so “young,” I can’t help but feel “old” compared to how I used to be.

Am I “old” then? Aren’t I still “young”? The obvious answer is that these terms are meant to be relative and only make sense in comparison to something else: I am old compared to the students at Immaculata Elementary School but quite young compared to my formators and provincial leadership. But I don’t think that is what offends people at church or drives people to want to be “forever young.” No, the problem is that we associate being “young” with life, vibrancy, and potential whereas we associate being “old” with weakness, decay, and the past. Despite the fact that youth comes with its tremendous detriments (immaturity, doubt, lack of experience) and that increased age comes with its tremendous benefits (wisdom, confidence, identity), we somehow only remember the things we used to do but now can’t, rather than all of the things we couldn’t do but now can.

Why such pessimism? I can’t speak for everyone, but I have a theory for most: we fear our own death more than we think. With everything that changes, diminishes, gets weaker, or disappears, we are reminded that there will come a day when we are a shadow of the person we once were; with everything that we lose, we are reminded that there will come a day when we lose it all. The little things we lose—the color of our hair, the quickness of our mind, the strength in our step—do not bother us in themselves. Who cares about a few grey hairs? It’s what they represent that gets us. Loss. Diminishment. Irrelevancy. Death.

That’s the problem with the categories we use: no matter the age, we all experience death and loss. It’s not a binary system in which one goes from “young” to “old” overnight, from a period of growth to decline as if we’re two different people. No matter the age, we are all confronted with the fact that the past is gone, that what we once knew and loved will not last forever. All things must come to an end.

So to speak.

While all of us have an innate fear of the unknown, difficulty handling loss, and uneasiness about death, we as Christians know at our very core that death is not the end, that loss is not the final note. It is precisely from death that we receive new life; it is from our pain, loss, and weakness that we find relief, gain more than we had, and know that Christ is strong in us. In an ultimate sense, we know that we our death from this world will be made new with the resurrection and we will rise with Christ on the last day.

But it’s more than that and sooner than that. With every loss that we experience throughout our years, there is the sadness of saying goodbye to something we loved, but also room to welcome something new to love. Leaving college was sad… but starting a career is exciting. Not being able to play baseball anymore was devastating… but taking up a new hobby of golf is invigorating. Saying goodbye to the people we love is tragic… but finding the time and need to love others in their place is a life-giving opportunity. With every loss comes new life. It is in that understanding that I understand very clearly what my Franciscan brother meant to share at mass last week: sometimes, in the weak moments when all we seem to know are the holes of what used to be, we find that we have more room for God’s work than we ever had before. I tell you, that is a lesson to learn, no matter the age.

A Tribute To Nana, God’s Joyful Servant

On November 11, 2014, my grandmother, Mary Hendel, died at the age of 91. She was a beloved woman and the life of the family. Yesterday, I was privileged to be able to give a reflection of her life at her funeral mass. My message was this: Nana led us to God, and God will lead us back to Nana.

Mary with her husband Albert

Mary with her husband Albert

When I think of Nana, I think of a woman of great joy. Tremendous joy. Infectious joy. As I thought about her over the past couple of days, I struggled to come up with even one memory of her that did not include a smile. And do you know what? That made me smile. She was an affective person, someone that simply could not contain her joy. She was the woman that played tennis well into her 80s. The card player that could bid the same thing all night and still beat you… with a smile. The life of the party that found herself on YouTube playing beer pong (seriously, check it out here!). There is very little that she did not get out of this life.

When I think of Nana, I think of a woman of great sacrifice, always giving of herself. Tremendous sacrifice. Infectious sacrifice. As someone who will never have kids, I can’t even imagine how much she must have given of herself to raise ten children, and to raise them well. And trust me: I know all of you and I’ve heard stories. She must have been a saint to handle you through your teenage years! And that’s the way she was until she breathed her last. Nana was a woman always looking to serve, ready to do whatever she had to do to make sure that her family was happy, well-fed, welcome. There is very little that she did not give of herself in this life.

When I think of Nana, someone who is truly a saint in my eyes, it makes me wonder: what made her so joyous all of the time? What was it that gave her the strength to love so selflessly and unconditionally? The only answer that I can possibly give is the love of God. Nana was a woman of strong faith and great hope. God was her shepherd, the one who guided her through tough times and rejoiced with her during the good. He was her comfort, and clearly her strength.

The fact of the matter is that Nana was someone so close to God that she truly embodied Christ in her person. Think about the Gospel passage we have just heard. Right before his death, a death he freely accepted, Jesus took time to do two things: share a meal with his closest companions, and wash their feet. Joy and sacrifice. That, I believe, is the totality of what God meant to reveal to us in the person of Jesus. That truly is the meaning of our life here. Through Jesus, we know the joy of our salvation, the good news preached to the poor and oppressed, that God loves us and wants to bring us home to him. This is not just some passing emotion; I’m not talking about simply being happy. What Jesus brought was the day in, day out, eternal joy of knowing that God was walking with us as our shepherd. And how did he reveal this to us? As a king lording it over us? As one demanding his strict obedience and service? No, quite the opposite. Jesus showed by his example that the way we are to love one another, the way that God relates to us, is as humble servants. Without arrogance. Without entitlement. Without pride. Just love without counting the cost, even if that means giving of our lives.

Isn’t that the way Nana lived every moment of her life? A joyful servant of God?

Pictures like these were more than plentiful at the viewing. Nana was joyful and outgoing.

Pictures like these were more than plentiful at the viewing. Nana was joyful and outgoing.

What I love so much about our psalm today is the image of an overflowing cup. Isn’t that truly what our lives are? Overflowing cups? How could we begin to count the ways God has blessed us? When has our cup ever gone dry? For those who ask to be refilled, God will never stop pouring. That’s the way Nana lived her life. She never thought twice about taking a sip out of life, enjoying every blessing God was going to give her, never fearing that she might run out tomorrow. She was joyful because she knew that God would fill her back up. She never thought twice about giving of herself, emptying her cup for love of others, never fearing that she wouldn’t have enough for herself. She was a servant of others because she knew that God was going to fill her back up.

As she grew older and older, she used to joke, “I think God must have forgotten about little old me down here.” I hardly think this was the case. God had not forgotten about her, and she certainly had not forgotten about God. But I think there’s something so human about a statement like that. Even when joking, it touches on the deep, existential questions we all have to some degree. Does God exist? Why am I here when others have died? What happens when we die? What is the meaning of life? There is within each one of us a longing to know the answer to each of these questions, a struggle to realize that we cannot prove our answers to any of them. It is the human condition, to know that we will never find absolute certainty in this life, but that we have to make a decision anyway. On the one hand, we can let our doubts and skepticism get the best of us, focus entirely on what we don’t know, and wallow in our great loss. Nana is gone from this world forever. But that is not our only choice. We have within us the capacity to hope to believe what we have heard in Scripture and what others have told us. We have hope that what we have seen with our own eyes is God working in this world. This is not some wishful desire made up to comfort us. It is the experience of good and faithful people for thousands of years. It is hope that keeps us from despair; hope that keeps us going until that final day when we breathe our last and we find ourselves face to face with the one who created us and called us home.

As Christians, gathered around this saint named Mary, how can we have anything else but hope and joy for where she is now. Are we sad? Of course. Do we miss her? Undoubtedly. But if we have hope in the life of Jesus, how can we not have nope for Nana. Jesus came to us for a short time, brought us the Father’s joy and love through humble service, and when his work was done, he returned to the Father. Isn’t that Nana’s story as well? After witnessing to the great love of God our father for 91 years, she now returns to that love, to remain in the comfort of his hands forever.

And so I ask something of you, something for you to think about and ponder as you remember the life of such a wonderful woman. If Nana has touched your life is some way, if her joy made you smile (or continues to make you smile), if she has made your life better because of her great sacrifice, if she has made you the person that you are today… would you allow yourself to believe that is was God who touched her life and made her who she was? Would you allow yourself to believe that it was God working through Nana to show you his love?

If you say yes, know that Nana will never be far away. For what we truly loved about Nana is before us here and before us always. God’s love is ready to be poured out to all who ask for it and made truly present here in the word and at this table. God’s grace made Nana’s cup overflow so much that we couldn’t help but feel his presence in our lives. May you allow your cup to overflow with the grace of God so that you may also bring joy and selfless love to all you meet.

Why I Wear My Habit: Everything I Forgot To Say

Despite my last post being the longest entry so far, I realized after speaking with a number of people, embarrassingly enough, that I forgot a few key points that I wanted to make. I mentioned quite briefly that wearing the habit makes me a better person, but failed to mention exactly why I believe that. I mentioned that the habit is a sign that is not only external, but also internal, but failed to fully explain what that sign represents. So, without further adieu, I give you part two of “why I wear my habit.”

Francis' habit may have changed a bit through the years, but I believe that it can still be relevant.

Francis’ habit may have changed a bit through the years, but I believe that it can still be relevant.

A Habit of Penance

Most embarrassingly about my last post is that I did not once use the words penance, simplicity, or poverty. These are major oversights on my part, as they are at the very core of what it means to be a Franciscan, and among the primary reasons for wearing the habit.

You see, Francis and his charism are all about conversion. Once the son of a wealthy merchant, Francis wore clothing that was expensive and flashy, full of color and drastically distinct from that of the peasant class. When he decided to leave the world behind, he dramatically stripped naked in the town square, renouncing all that he had once believed to have possessed, and put on instead a new habitus, that is, the status and way of life, of the poor. At that time in Assisi, the poor would have worn cheap, colorless and mended together fabrics, and for Francis, would have been the drastic external sign to represent his drastic internal conversion.

The habit, however, was much more than simply an external sign, a point that I hastily made at the end of the last post. In reality, the fabric would have been terrible uncomfortable, insufficient in protecting one from the elements, and unlike the habit of today, completely identifiable with the most rejected and repulsive people of society: the poor and diseased. To wear such clothing has an obvious external effect, but the day-to-day internal effect is what is key here. Wearing a habit was a constant reminder to the friars that they were poor, downtrodden, superior to no one, dependent on God and neighbor, simple, and most of all, sinners that sought to do penance.

Today, as I mentioned, the habit has evolved into something slightly different. For some, unfortunately, it has come to be a source of power and authority, respect, affluence, and judgment. I know that people wear it for this purpose, and I completely understand those who choose not to wear it as a reaction to such an abuse.

But as I mentioned in the last post, the possibility of abuse and the changing nature of the habit does not mean that its original purpose cannot remain true. For me, it is a tangible sign of the major conversion I have made to enter religious life, and the many small conversions I am called to each day to die to self. For me, it is a constant reminder that I am a visible person in the world, and that I must strive to be a good example of a Christian no matter the situation. For me, at 95 degrees this week in Washington, it is absolutely a habit of penance, uncomfortable and unable to protect me from the elements, making it absolutely impossible to forget that I have limitations as a sinner, that I cannot go through the world by myself, and that God is the only one who is able to save me. For me, it is a choice for simplicity and modesty, never having to worry about what my clothing says about me, how much I have to spend on clothing to wear something new each day, or how I can look good; wearing the habit, I hope, makes me work to attract people to God, not to me and what I can offer people.

Lastly, I’d just like to say that while each of these reasons expressed in the last two posts are great reasons to wear the habit at all times, I think discernment is needed each day as to when, why, and how I wear it. The negative effects, whether intended or accidental, perceived or real, need to be taken into consideration if we are to be pastoral people for Christ. The habit is a tool, a sign, an aspect of our life, but it is not something that should come at the expense of others (if such a situation exists.) The blessing that we have, and the truth that we as Franciscans can offer, is that we can just as easily take our brown habits off and put our denim ones on while still living with the same habitus, that is, our converted way of life. And that’s the key: whether one chooses to wear the habit or not, and I do believe that there are many good and bad reasons for both, we must always remember that we are people on a journey of conversion, unstable and in need of help, ever seeking to be people of God. For me, this is best remembered and expressed by wearing the habit.

Why I Wear My Habit

Stranger things have been seen at community carnivals...

Strange sight, yes. But it was here that I was able to have a wonderful conversation with a complete stranger about Jesus. Worth it.

Much has been written on this blog about the prospect of wearing a habit (Breaking In The (real) Habit, and Having My Habit and Wearing It Too), but up until now, I have not spoken about my experience since actually receiving one last December.

In short, my perspective on the habit has not changed drastically since being invested. There was a fear in me that once I put it on and began to wear it regularly that I would find it to be uncomfortable, impractical, burdensome, or distracting to myself and others. This could not be further from the truth. While, I will admit, it can be hot at times, I have found it to be an even more positive experience than I had anticipated, and am overjoyed with every moment that I am able to wear it. Seriously. I really like wearing my habit.

For any number of reasons, however, the habit, or external signs in general, is something of a controversial issue within religious life. Since the 1960s when certain mandates regarding religious clothing were softened, it has been a issue that has caused some communities to split completely. Men’s communities have tended to fair better at avoiding conflict over the it, but there is also no scarcity of strong opinions on the matter.

I say all of this simply to point out that there are many ways of looking at a seemingly insignificant issue such as clothing, and that, deciding to wear my habit in fairly comprehensive way is a decision that is the result of much reflection. I would like to share with you that decision, but rather than simply listing off a bunch of reasons why or why not, I have chosen to respond to the most common objections I have heard over the past two years.

I don’t understand why your generation feels a need for an external sign. Externals do not matter. 

Every time we get to the passages of Jesus denouncing the Pharisees for wearing long robes and large phylacteries I cringe because I know that this is the homily we are going to hear: all that matters is one’s relationship with God and neighbor. Externals mean nothing. I think that this really cheapens the Gospel. It’s true that we can all be caught up in the way we appear to others and forget the weightier things, but that doesn’t mean that we forget the external altogether. Jesus says, “Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean [emphasis mine].”

In an attempt to avoid being Pharisees, many in the church have eliminated their external signs and all visible evangelization along with it. We have thousands of religious working in schools, hospitals, universities, and secular institutions around the country and you would never know it. This is a tragedy to me. Yes, there is value to speaking with our actions, but can we not speak with our actions and allow people to know that Jesus Christ is the reason for those actions?

I think people are looking for someone to inspire them, someone to bring them hope, and an opportunity to support others on their journey, and I think that we can offer them a very tangible sign of that. When people greet me with overwhelming smiles and encouragement, I believe that they are looking less at me, Casey Cole, and more at what I represent: a young person that has devoted his life to God and neighbor despite all of the faithlessness and allurements of the world. 

All the habit does is separate the wearer from the community, lifting them up on a pedestal above others. 

As much as I would like to believe that this were false, it has been my experience thus far. When we enter a church, ministry site, or public place in which there are Catholics around, we are inevitably fawned over. People look at us as being better than them, holier, and more worthy of respect because of our “title.” Just the other day a complete stranger walked up to me and said, “Brother, would you like one of my cookies?” There is a fine line for me between genuine support for a religious vocation and undeserved exaltation above everyone else in the room. In many situations, it can be difficult to be “minor,” to be a treated as a “lesser brother” when the habit brings us this sort of attention.

My response to this is quite simple: quit spending so much time around people that will praise you. While I said before that the Catholic faithful could benefit from our presence, there is a whole wide world of people out there who do not know Jesus, have been cast out by society in one way or another, and would certainly not praise us for wearing a brown dress and white rope. It’s funny to see the reception I get the moment I leave Catholic University’s campus and drive home or stop at a store. The strange looks, the awkward questions, the apprehension. “What’s with the robes?” “Are you a monk or something?” “Are you in a play?” (What’s worse is the questions that you know people are thinking but not asking!)

As an added bonus, it presents us with a situation for evangelization that jeans can’t offer; they may not recognize the meaning of the external at first, but they’re definitely going to notice it! In just a few short months, I have had some spectacular experiences with strangers who are fallen-away Catholics, people looking for someone to pray for them, or just curious and want to learn. I would put up with all the strange looks in the world for these experiences!

People are going to think that you’re a crazy or hyper-conservative or both.

Then let them. I find this to be a very ridiculous reason for not doing something, and a bit frustrating that I’ve heard it more than a few times. Because of the split in many communities over it, as well as the recent influx of highly conservative vocations that represent a shift back to the pre-Vatican II church, many have placed too much stock in the line, “perception is reality.” In some ways it is true, and I will inevitably turn some people away from me because of something they have wrongly judged about me. But one the other hand, going back to the first question, how would I have been more successful in ministering to strangers without it? The habit at least gives us a chance to meet people where they are, because, well, they can find us, and possibly even break down that stereotype that all religious are fanatics or hyper-conservatives. Some of us are even normal people. Some of us.

In the end, answer for many is to only wear the habit for liturgical purposes and in situations in which everyone will recognize who we are. The grocery store is a no-no. The bank is unconscionable. An airport is completely out the question. I simply disagree. The possibilities for sharing our faith with others outweighs the possible problems one hundred fold. So people won’t understand at first. It doesn’t mean that they never will. So we might be the target of frustration related to the church. Wouldn’t we as Franciscans want to be the ones working with a person’s brokenness, potentially being the only one who will respect them and listen, maybe even being a part of their reconciliation? So we get stopped more frequently at airports. Our muslims brothers and sisters do not change who they are in the sight of discrimination, so why shouldn’t I stand with them in solidarity?

And yet, beyond all of these reasons, what I’ve found most fulfilling about wearing the habit in this past year has been that the external sign actually affects the internal faith. The habit is as much of a sign to myself as it is to others. It reminds me of who I am, how I am supposed to act, and who I am supposed to be in relationship with. As I have gradually begun to see it as something intrinsically linked to my identity, I find myself becoming more and more comfortable wearing it in any situation, while still recognizing that it is an external expression of my internal faith.

At the end of the day, no matter how effective it may be for evangelization, inspiration, conversation, or identification, I believe that it brings me closer to God and makes me a better person. So why do I wear my habit? I wear it for me and my ongoing conversion to be everything God made me to be.

Kenosis: What Could I Let Go Of?

At the beginning of the year I was moved by Jesus’ Kenosis, his self-emptying of his divine privilege, to become human:

“Though he was in the form of God,
[Jesus] did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.” (Phil 2: 6-8)

Jesus, the second person of the Triune God, chose to empty himself of his power, his will, his security, his appearance, and his life, in order to take on our humanity. What an act of humility! Rather than being called king and worshipped by angels, he was born into poverty, disrespected by many, and executed an innocent man. What an act of trust! Instead of being able to rely on his own authority or ability, Jesus left himself at the mercy of his Father, and remained obedient to the end. What an act of love! John tells us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

Jesus’ self-emptying is the perfect act that Francis spent his entire life attempting to imitate. It is the reason that our Order is called the Order of Friars Minor, the “lesser brothers,” and why poverty is so crucial to our charism. Our lives are an act of emptying anything and everything that could leave us feeling self-reliant, in control of our own fate, proud, or above others, in order that we may be totally reliant on God’s love and mercy.

Moved by this, I decided to make an inventory of absolutely everything that I could claim as my own. If I were to follow the example of our Lord with my own act of kenosis, what would I need to give up in order to be completely reliant on God in humility, trust, and love?

At the top of the list were all of my possessions. These were the easiest to think of and included my laptop, camera, music, pictures, and clothes, among other things. I’ve reflected before on the need to keep possessions simple and to make sure that I use them in keeping with Gospel poverty, but now I wonder what it would be like to renounce ownership or use of everything. Luke’s Gospel mentions a number of times that the disciples of Jesus “left everything and followed him.” Could I do this?

As if that question isn’t difficult enough to answer, the rest of the inventory only got harder as I went on. What about all of my legal assets? I have a driver’s license, a decent credit score, US citizenship that includes a right to vote and protections under the law, and as a religious I am tax exempt. The list goes on. I have physical assets such as good health, all of my limbs, working senses, free of any malformations, and fit enough to perform all basic tasks on my own. I have intellectual assets such as normal memory skills, basic brain functioning, and an ability to study at a university. I have social assets that allow me to keep a desirable reputation, friendships, respect from peers and superiors, and the occasional praise. Lastly, I have assets related to the Church: personally, I am in good standing, have a right to teach and preach, and have the backing of an Order, and structurally the Church is alive, it is organized, and there are many opportunities to be active in it in this country.

So I ask myself: What if, like Jesus, I was an alien in a foreign land, was an innocent man treated as a criminal, or was an outcast in society? What if I were to contract a disease that left me physically or mentally dependent on others for basic tasks? What if my reputation was ruined, people no longer liked me, or I was left without any friends? What if the Church was to reject me, the Order was suppressed, or the Church structures were to crumble? Or what if, in a much more likely situation, I was given a direct order to do something without consulting my desires?

In moments of loss, whether it be life-changing or normal day-to-day disappointments, self-inflicted or imposed, there is the possibility for the greatest gain. In recognizing the futility of all of the many things we claim as our own and divesting of ourselves the ownership, feeling of entitlement, and need for any one of them over God’s love, we become free. In these moments, we are being asked to focus less on the gift that has been taken away from us and more on the One who gave it in the first place, the One who wishes to give us even more in return. In times of self-emptying, we realize how futile it is to put our trust in money, good looks, education, or a host of other things that have meaning to us, things that do not last, and how even more ridiculous it is to fight endlessly to maintain control over them.

My goal in all of this is to free myself of any need to control, appropriate, defend with violence, or hoard any gift from God as if that gift were an end in itself. In making this inventory, I seek not to rid myself of all of God’s many gifts, but to recognize the generous bounty of God in my life and to be more dependent on him.

The image I leave with is one that I recently heard in a homily. God’s abundant generosity is like the air all around us. We are gifted freely with more life-giving air to breathe than we could ever consume, and yet, we have a tendency to hold onto this breath, to claim it as our own, and to be afraid to exhale. What good is that gift to us if we hold onto it? We will eventually suffocate, and the air will leave us whether we like it or not. What I’ve learned from Jesus’ experience of kenosis is that it is only in the exhale, the letting go of all that we have, that we are ever able to receive anything else. It is in the letting go of all that we cling to, and the trust that God will provide for us just as he did before, that we are free to love and be loved by God.

Lent Mid-Terms

66% isn't great for a test, but it's not bad as far as Lent goes!

If you’ll remember from No Pain, No Gain, I mentioned that I would be making two sacrifices during Lent this year: 1) a reduction in my consumption of meat, and 2) taking shorter, more water-efficient showers. In addition to these two commitments, I decided to also spend the hour after dinner with scripture rather than with reruns of 30 Rock.

So, now more than halfway through the Lenten season, how am I doing you ask? Let’s just say two out of three ain’t bad!

Reducing almost all of the meat from my diet has not been easy at all, but I have to say, easier than I had expected. Keen from the start about not being a vegetarian, I have been pretty strict about eating meat once or twice a week, no more and certainly no less. While there are usually quality, non-meat options available that leave me just as full as I would normally be, I have found great satisfaction in the few instances in which there were not quality alternatives. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going hungry once in a while (as long as its voluntary). Not only is it a wonderful penitential act, it offers a concrete experience of the hunger that so many experience each day, and dropping any feelings of entitlement that “I deserve” something.

Similarly, with the exception of the first few days, I’ve had surprisingly little problem with the adjusted showers. To insure that I am being water-efficient (and to up the ante on the penance), I have been turning off the water during the shower when it’s not in use. The shock of cold can be difficult in the morning, but it certainly reminds me not to take water for granted and to view the showering process in more of utilitarian rather than luxurious way (as it is certainly a luxury in the eyes of many people throughout the world).

My last Lenten commitment has unfortunately not panned out as well. Part of is it my own laziness, but most of it is simply the nature of our schedule: the 7:00 hour of our day has been very irregular given our travels and periodic nightly meetings, and it’s difficult to commit to anything regularly. I have not watched a single rerun of 30 Rock, but at the same time have filled that hour with other tasks. Does that almost count?

Ultimately, the success or failure of Lent does not depend on my ability to observe a given task or achieve an arbitrary goal. Lent is not simply a season for punishing oneself for being a sinner. Instead, I need to ask myself, how have these three tasks helped me grow closer to God, and am I more prepared for Easter than I was before?

In that way, I have to say that Lent has been a success (so far). Each of these commitments have been steps forward in action, flowing from a contrite heart and true faith, to be better reconciled with God, self, others, and God’s created order. Thus, when Lent is over and we are rejoicing in the season of Easter, I don’t plan on dropping these commitments to return to my old habits. What would the point of Lent be if our changed heart does not continue? This is not to say that my old habits are necessarily sinful, but that after having seen how these new habits have helped me grow in awareness and closeness to God, a return to the old ones would be entirely fruitless, and completely illogical.

Lent, like life as a friar, is all about putting on a new habit for the future.

***

As for the hermitage retreat last week, there was simply too much that happened for me to post about it right away. Given that I had almost five full days in complete solitude to pray and think, I’m going to need a bit more time to decompress and organize my thoughts before I can share it with everyone. Without putting any sort of time-table on it, look for a post about that in the future! For the time being, check out the Shutterfly website here for a few sneak peek pictures.

“Into the Woods”

How do we approach the unknown?

As a part of our orientation to each other, the life of a friar, and living in community, we spent the afternoon watching a broadway musical called Into the Woods, and spent the evening in conversation about its many themes. For those who are unfamiliar with the story, it is quite interesting: staring Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (from Jack and the Beanstalk), a wicked witch, Repunzel, and a peasant bread maker, the musical attempts to meld together an assortment of fairy tales based on their common messages. Though we may find such stories a bit silly or juvenile, some of humanity’s deepest truths can be found within them.

Stepping out of the comfort zone “into the woods” causes great changes in us. In the play, each character is forced to leave their comfortable setting and travel to the dark woods in order to fulfill some desire. At first, there are episodes of fear, excitement, mourning, and confusion as each enter an unknown, uncontrollable place. A few of the characters were unchanged and unaffected by the woods because they refused to accept the reality of the situation. The majority, however, left the woods entirely different characters; taken out of their usual setting, they were forced to face their own failings and to cooperate with strangers for the sake of survival. We find this very same concept throughout the Bible: when people are forced into the wilderness, to the unknown, they are found face to face with God. It is only in that uncontrollably setting that we are able to let go of distractions and find truth in such a beautiful way.

There is an interconnectedness about all human interaction making it impossible for any individual to be isolated or unaffected by others. Similar to the movie Crash, (my all-time favorite, go see it if you haven’t already) there is no main protagonist nor is there a central plot in which all of the characters take part. Rather, each character pursues his or her own self interests, meeting other characters doing the same thing. The realization here is that we, like the characters, are not the protagonist of every story. Every human being in the world has been developed by unique set of experiences, forming a truly individual “story” in which they are the main character. When people interact, we see not one linear set of events developing an understandable plot, complete with the “good” characters and the “bad” characters, but rather a complex web of events in which we play different roles to different people, critically altering the plot of each individual’s life. Two things can be learned from this: 1) Our actions, no matter how small to us, may have profound effect on another person’s story, and 2) we do not enter the scene from the same place and so we will not experience it in the same way. When we approach communal life, or any social setting, in this way, we are more likely to try to understand our neighbor better and treat everyone we meet as brother and sister.

Our desires will never end if they are not focused correctly. The play opens with each character singing about their deepest wishes. Statements begin with, “If only I had ____…” or “I would trade anything for ____,” varying from a child, to wealth, to beauty. Each character believes that this ONE this, just this one, will bring them happiness. To the surprise of all, at the end of Act One each character actually obtains their deepest wish and they end by singing about living “happily ever after.” Unsurprisingly, Act Two begins just as the first did: each character is no longer satisfied by their fulfilled wish, and now wishes for something else, to which they will now seek. How incredibly true is this?! (And talk about the anti-Disney!) This idea of happily ever after, and happiness based on a status, possession, or companion is ultimately fleeting. It can never last forever, and we end up right back where we started. As St. Augustine puts it, “Our souls are restless until they rest in you.” Until we start seeking the right things, we will never be fully satisfied.

This was the first deep conversation among the postulants, and I enjoyed it very much. Each person offered a different perspective on the play, and we tackled some tough issues. I’m excited for more of these discussions and know that this is a great group of guys to challenge me.