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.

Transitioning to a New Life

I'm ready to accept a new way of life

On the eve of making the trip up to Wilmington and starting my journey into the Franciscan order, I find myself finally grasping the reality of my situation. I’ve known for a while now that I would be entering on this day, but for some reason my life has felt a bit surreal since graduation; while always knowing where I was going, it was just a blur of events and experiences since then. The gravity of the situation did not begin to set in until I started packing, and I imagine will not fully sink in until I have settled in my new home: this is a transition in my life unlike any other til now. In a lot of ways, what I’m doing next is not just the “next step” in my life; it is the acceptance of a new life. Here are a few changes that I’ve been thinking about:

This is not college. Given my age and recent experience at a University, packing a small number of belongings, moving in with people I don’t know, sharing a bathroom, taking classes, and having very little purchasing power comes with a false sense of familiarity. What I will be doing now, though resembling what I did six months ago, is a fundamentally different situation, and requires a fundamentally different approach.

I am not “mature” anymore. For an adolescent or young-adult, being called mature is a great compliment. It means that an individual makes rational choices, relates well with a variety of people, and understands one’s place in development. Essentially, being “mature” means grasping things that are not expected of one’s age. This, I feel, will be where another fundamental change occurs. Though I obviously cannot magically obtain years of life experience and all of the sudden act like an “adult” (whatever that means), the expectation is that “mature” will be the status quo rather than the exception.

My role in evangelization will change. What I mean by this is that I will be perceived differently based on my social status. Sharing my story of struggling with faith and deciding to accept a religious vocation is heard by a group of college students one way when it comes from a peer who plays sports, goes to parties, and is a part of their primary friend group, and a different way when it comes from a first year postulant that does religious things all day, even though it’s the same story. It’s kind of like an adult complimenting a child: if it’s someone else’s child, the adult comes across as unbiased and credible; when it’s their own child, it’s less interesting because any compliment is to be expected. Entering the order is accepting a status are being part of the institution, relinquishing the ability to share from the perspective of an outsider.

There is no doubt that I will encounter many more transitions, and I hope that you will all share in my journey as I face each one. We’re leaving North Carolina at 7 tomorrow, hoping to arrive in the middle of the afternoon. Thanks for all the prayers! Look for a lot of updates in the next few days!