Since it’s a holy day of the Church… how about an unexpected blog post?! This past weekend I was privileged to be invited to speak at the Michigan State University Catholic Student Center’s fall retreat. I gave two talks, one of which was entitled, “What is the Good News?”

It was a great for sure, maybe more to come on Friday… For now, click here to watch the talk!

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Today marks the six year anniversary of entering the friars as a postulant.

Wow. Six years ago my parents and I drove up from North Carolina to Wilmington, DE to drop me off at the friary. There are moments of that year, now so long ago, that I can remember as if they were yesterday.

I remember the joy and freedom I felt once it finally began, arriving where I had wanted to be for over a year, starting my new life. The first night I sat in my room—a room left barren with so few possession to fill the big empty space—and smiled with excitement. I was really doing it. No more thoughts. No more discernment. No more “in the future.” I was on my way to becoming a friar.

I remember the awkwardness of meeting my new classmates, working through the social dynamics to figure each other out. For the two weeks, I don’t think anyone talked with each other outside of our meetings and meal times. People did what they were supposed to then shyly retreated to their rooms.

I remember the frustration of dealing with housemates with different values than my own, of having a director place rules on me for the first time since I was probably 12. I felt trapped at times, stuck in a world that was completely foreign to me and bore little resemblance to the life I wanted to join.

I remember the almost daily occurrence of new insights, moments of growth, and challenges that would shape me for the rest of my life. In some ways, it is so difficult to think back six years and remember who I was, what I thought about, what I didn’t know, what I failed to do, and what I still needed to learn. If only postulant me could see almost-solemnly-professed me…

I’ve said multiple times before that I decided to become a friar in July of 2010, a year before I actually entered the Order. I knew at that moment that I was in it for life, and could very well have taken solemn vows right then and there. Even looking back, I believe I could have. My conviction for this life has not changed, and there has never been a moment in these seven years that I have legitimately considered anything else.

And yet, as grueling and frustrating as this preparation has been, knowing the whole time that I didn’t actually need time to make the decision, I can’t even begin to think about what type of friar I would be right now without it. These six years of memories—

  • Almost burning down the postulant house when someone put a pizza box in the oven
  • Going through three rounds of evaluations in novitiate in which I had to present all of my strengths and weaknesses to a panel of four team members
  • Staying up late at night to discuss religion, politics, philosophy, and the need in the world today, “Making plans to change the world, While the world is changing us,” (to quote the great pot-smoking mystic Dave Matthews)
  • Mourning as classmates decided to leave the Order for another life
  • The amazingly supportive people I have interacted with, at ministry sights, within religious life, and even here online
  • Fighting with the brothers over things that can only be fought over when people are under-stimulated and see each other too much
  • Nervously stepping into the role of Church leader for the first time, struggling to do things that I can do without a moment of preparation today

—yes, this six years of friar life could fill a book with all I’ve reflected on and learned along the way, how I have maintained the same conviction with the same values, and yet become a person I would have never imagined. What a ride it’s been.

Come Saturday—yes, this Saturday, no longer any needed a qualifier or explanation because it was so far in the future, but the very Saturday that is next on the calendar—I will make my solemn profession before my Provincial Minister, the friars gathered, my friends, my family, and anyone else who wants to join, to live as a Franciscan for as long as I live.

Walking with my classmates, six years ago, to the solemn profession of two brothers. Quite surreal to know that I will be on the other side of this picture soon.

And I find myself at the crossroads I imagined from the beginning.

Five years ago, I wondered about the future of Breaking In The Habit. As a name, it fit perfectly for what I was doing; “Reflections of a friar in training” was the original tagline. Once I was solemnly professed, would I continue with the blog? Would I keep the name? Now, crossing the proverbial bridge we knew we would come to, the answer is obvious to me: of course I will keep going. Besides the practical business side of maintaining a brand, the fact of the matter is that I’m not done breaking in this habit. Despite the fact that I am done with formation and am ready to live the rest of my life as a Franciscan Friar, my life is not over! Come Sunday, friar life will not all of the sudden become magically easy; the challenges to Gospel living I face Friday will not disappear by Sunday; my flaws today will still be my flaws next week! No, “breaking in the habit,” learning to live this life, is not something that one can complete and move on from. It is a life-long process.

And I can’t wait.

I want to thank all of you who have followed me from the beginning, those who have supported me along the way, and those who will support me in the future I continue to break in the habit of a very strange life. My last six years has not been lived in a vacuum, and what I said in the original “why blog” tab that was on the old site: I wanted to blog not just to share my life with others, but so that others could take part in my reflections, forming and challenging me along the way. So many of you have done just that, and so I want to thank you, but also exhort you: just as my work of breaking in this way of life is not done, neither is your effort in doing it with me. If I am going to be anything close to what God wants me to be for the people of God, you all are going to have to keep it up as well. And I’m sure you will.

Peace and good to all.

Well hello to all. Remember me? My name is Br. Casey and I used to write a blog here. It’s been nearly two months since I posted a video or blog post, and, let’s be honest, almost four months since I’ve posted an actual reflection. Quite a hiatus if you ask me.

But not without good reason! Man, it’s been a crazy few months, and not without a lot of work for future Breaking in the Habit works!

Br. Jay Woods, OFM, getting a closeup with the wide angle lens

Br. Jay Woods, OFM, getting a closeup with the wide angle lens

Church Alive. My internship officially ended way back on May 26 when I went on a road trip throughout the east coast filming a documentary series with two of my fellow student friars. In the back of our minds were the negative things we hear about the Church on the news and from the outside—”No one goes to church anymore,” “the Church is in decline,” “faith is not relevant today,”—with a goal of finding the other part of the story. We knew, of course, that these statements each had some truth to them, but we also knew that the some churches are full, that in some places the Church was growing, that faith was what got some people by, that the Church was very much alive. 

For 25 days—yes, nearly a month—the three of us traveled from city to city unsure of what we’d find. Sure, we had a plan. Sure, I contacted people ahead of time. But you know that nothing ever goes according to plan! You know that there were surprises at each stop! The trip was exciting, tiring, stressful, encouraging, and altogether difficult, and I’m happy I did it. If all goes well, you might see the fruit of it late this fall.

Vacation. After what seemed like a never-ending sprint of work since Christmas, I was so thankful to take a little over a week off at the end of June to see my family and to just relax. Outside of posting the final “A Friar Life” video and a phone interview, I did nothing of consequence. And it was fantastic. Yard and card games, beer, movies, and a lot of sleeping in.

The pilgrimage consisted of men from the OFMs, Conventuals, and Capuchins, all preparing for solemn vows

Solemn Vow Retreat. Which was good, because I needed all the stored up energy I could get! Starting with the first transatlantic flight of my life (watched three whole movies and took a nap!) and ending five weeks later with twenty hours of traveling in one day, I had an AMAZING trip to Europe for my solemn vow retreat. Here are just a few of the highlights:

Rome. The trip started with a chaotic and exciting three days in the ancient city, hitting as many of the landmarks as we could in such a short time. It was in the 90s, public transportation went on strike our second day, and we were all jet-lagged. But man did it all just blow my mind. I mean, there were structures in that city that are 7-8 times older than my country. Everywhere you looked, it seemed, there was an ancient monument, a gorgeous Church, a historical artifact. The city is so old and so filled with amazing sights that the Church they call Chiesa Nuova, literally “New Church,” is nearly 450 years old. And seriously. St. Peter’s is bigger than you think. You see it in pictures and you hear that it’s really big. No, you just can’t fathom how big it is until you are in the square, walking around the altar, or standing on the roof of the Franciscan curia next door (year, we knew a guy…) We only got to spend a few hours there, but if I had seen only this in Rome, the trip would have been worth it.

Rieti Valley. After the craziness of the first few days in the city you could say that the “true” pilgrimage began with our trip to the Rieti Valley. Surrounded by mountain ranges, this valley is the first place that St. Francis went to preach and is home to some of the most significant Franciscan events. We went to Greccio, the place of the first ever nativity scene (organized by St. Francis); saw the places where St. Francis prayed and wrote some of his most famous writings; walked around the earliest houses in the order; and even saw a tau cross on a little chapel painted by St. Francis himself. While not as exciting as Rome and not as powerful as our next stop, it was a great introduction to Franciscan history and warmed us up for what we were about to encounter.

The Basilica of St. Francis

Assisi. What can I really say about Assisi that others haven’t already said? Truly, there is something special about the city. From the ancient wall on the top of the mountain that was partially destroyed by the rising lower classes (something that St. Francis would have probably took part in as a 15-year-old), to the baptismal font where Francis and Clare were both baptized as children, to the basilicas that honor their lives and hold their remains 800 years later, everything about the city was just immensely powerful. While I struggled at first to deal with all of the other people flooding to the city trying to capture some of its power (and a million selfies in supposedly quiet and holy places…) I think it was the very fact that there were so many people there that eventually touched me the most. What we were visiting were not just old buildings, dead stones on top of dead stones, we were making a pilgrimage to be a part of a living faith. Yes, many people came to take pictures and most obviously couldn’t read the signs that said “quiet” written in three languages in every holy sight, but there was something powerful drawing them there. They may have expressed their reverence differently than I did, but they were not there for the same reason that people go to art museums. At least not most of them. I remember sitting at the tomb of St. Francis down in the tiny crypt of the basilica and marveling at the literally hundreds of people that walked through every few minutes. It was a constant stream of people, so thick you could barely walk at times, lighting candles, touching the altar, kneeling, stopping for prayer, and gazing on with amazement.

And yet, the most amazing place to me in the whole city was a place that few people actually visited: San Damiano church. About a 15 minute walk down the hill (and so difficult to get back from) still stands the original church where St. Francis stayed after his conversion (officially becoming an oblate of the Church before starting his order), and where St. Clare lived for the majority of her life. To someone looking for something big and extraordinary, something classy or fancy, this is not it. The church might hold fifty people if they packed in, there is little-to-no artwork on the walls, and never a busload of tourists waiting to take a picture. It’s just a little chapel of stone off the beaten track. And it was so amazingly peaceful and grounding to be there. This is where the charism began. This is where the Poor Clares began. Incredible to sit and pray there.

The mountain top at La Verna

La Verna. Even in Assisi all good things must come to an end, and after two weeks of touring and sweating nonstop (oh, yeah, it was 95 degrees each day with no AC), we made it for our final stop for an intensive retreat: Mount La Verna. Located a few hours north of Assisi in Tuscany, La Verna is the place where St. Francis received the stigmata. If San Damiano was an incredible place to pray, I have no works for La Verna. It was cool, only in the 70s during the day and down to the 50s at night, surrounded by trees and filled with walking trails up the mountain, and basically just one big place of meditation. Each day I found a new rock, new overlook, new trail to stop and pray, to contemplate the beauty of nature, to imagine what it must have been like to be St. Francis walking around these deserted trees. I sat at one place, what I now call “epiphany rock,” for almost an hour each day and found myself thinking more clearly and tackling bigger issues than I ever have in my life. I found peace, was challenged, and felt at home with God and self in that place. It was a fantastic place to do a retreat and end our pilgrimage.

But wait, there’s more.

If there is ever a time to take a selfie, this is it

Vacation. As you’ll remember, I only took “a little over a week” of vacation back in June, meaning that I still had a week left to take. Yeah, I took in in Europe. I mean, c’mon! How many times am I going to get to Europe in my life with absolutely no responsibilities? You bet I was going to save my vacation money and travel around a bit. Starting in a small hotel in Florence, I spent three nights with the friars in Venice, stopped for 6 hours in Innsbruck, Austria to climb to the top of the Alps on my train north, and then three days with the friars in Munich, Germany. My quick synopsis of each: Venice was chaotic and dirty and yet a must-see with gorgeous views everywhere you look, Innsbruck might have been the best part of the whole trip (including Assisi) and going to the top of the Alps was definitely the coolest thing I have ever done in my life, and basically all I did in Munich (and this is not an exaggeration) was eat sausage and drink beer. So, yeah, that’s a vacation I won’t forget!

To Chicago, and beyond! I’m running out of breath here (more like my fingers are getting tired!) but there’s one last thing to mention. After a twenty-hour day of travel in which I jumped six time zones, I took one day of relaxation and packing in Durham before renting a car and driving out to Chicago over two days. I’ve spent that last two organizing my room, setting up doctor’s appointments, preparing for school in a few weeks, and, wait for it…

setting up a permanent film studio in the basement.

This post is already too long for me to get into what that means, but let’s just say that Breaking in the Habit will be making some big steps forward this year. If you haven’t already followed me on Facebook, Twitter, or now Instagram, I suggest you do so now. Besides the large album of photos that will be posted tomorrow only on Facebook, the efforts of Breaking in the Habit are expanding and diversifying, and you’re going to want to catch every announcement coming over the next three weeks! There’s even one that’s so big I’m not sure if I’m allowed to announce it yet…

Until then, thanks for all of your prayers, and I’m happy to be back to work! Peace and good to all!

Believe it or not (and there are days that I refuse to believe it!) my internship is quickly coming to a close. After nine months of living and working at Immaculate Conception Church in Durham, NC, I find myself preparing to say goodbye once more, three weeks from today. The life of Franciscan itinerancy is lived most by those in initial formation, and I must move on.

Naturally, the announcement of my departure has elicited more than a few questions over the past month and I find myself almost constantly answering some variation of the same question: “What are you going to do next?” For longtime blog readers, my answer may sound a little familiar…

Road Trip!

As is becoming a routine for me, I find myself at the cusp of a third straight year taking a road trip in the month of May. In 2015, some will remember, I drove from San Diego to Washington, D.C. in order to help my classmate move. It was, as I hope some of you will forget, the period of time when my YouTube career began with a fun, yet haphazardly and stressfully made series of daily videos about our trip. (Seriously, I’m not even putting a link. Don’t look for them.)

In 2016 I turned the camera setting from video to photo as I played tour guide for two of my classmates who had never been to the southern part of the United States, visiting all of our ministries in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. It was a fantastically energized trip, visiting eight ministries in eight days while traveling 1500 miles, that left us anything but energized by the end.

Now, in what I believe can only be the result of a developing insanity and lack of sleep, I have plans for a trip that not only combines the two ideas… it intensifies them. For 25 days beginning May 22, I will be traveling with two newly-transferred friars from another province to six of our provincial ministries sites. Covering nearly 1800 miles to stop at six locations, our trip has two goals: 1) to acquaint the new brothers to the friars and their fraternities in mission throughout the province, and 2) more to the true reason behind the trip, to film a six-part documentary series about the Franciscans, life in the Church, and active participation in both. More details to come as the time comes closer, but please keep us all in your prayers as this is unlike anything that any of us have done before!

Vacation

By that point, I’m going to need a vacation. If nine months at the parish hadn’t done enough to exhaust me, this will certainly do it, and I’m looking forward to a week with my family in which I do very little at all.

Solemn Vow retreat, More Travels

Which will be a very good thing because there is no rest for the weary this summer: in another dose of déjà vu, I will be making a trip outside of the country for the third summer in a row. Starting July 2 and ending August 7 (yes, five full weeks), I will be making my first European trip. As is required by canon law, all wishing to make solemn profession must make a retreat. Traditionally extended in length (roughly a month) and done in a quiet setting (retreat center or monastery), many Franciscans in the United States have adopted a new model of late. Instead of locking us up in a monastery—a form of life and prayer distant from our own—the powers that be have transitioned to more of a pilgrimage model, one that is prayerful while itinerant, solemn while within the world. In other words, one that is Franciscan. For four weeks this July I will be joining Franciscans from around the country and of various Orders in a journey to the original Franciscan holy places—Rome, Rieti, Assisi, and La Verna—to contemplate my life as a Franciscan in the very places where the charism was born. You could say that I’m a little excited…

But wait! There’s more! What happened to that fifth week, you ask? Well… since the majority of the expense of a European trip is simply getting to Europe… and since I’m already there and am unlikely to return as a friar any time soon… my director is allowing me to use my final week of vacation and all of my vacation money to spend a week visiting other friars in the area and doing some site seeing. So, yeah. If I can walk by that point, it’s going to be quite a trip!

***

All told, I find myself in a haze of déjà vu. All around me, the story feels the same: move out of a house to live in another, go on a joyfully stressful road trip, take some vacation, and go on an international trip. It’s amazing how things that, for the most part, never existed in my life prior to joining the friars has become somewhat commonplace now with them. And yet, how, no matter frequency or familiarity of such things, there’s something still so exciting, joyful, terrifying, stressful, and new about them. As I prepare to move out of my sixth friary in six years to move on to another stage, I find myself torn in two directions. On the one hand, I’m still the wide-eyed and excited person I was the first time I went through it all, overwhelmed with the change and exhilarated by what most would consider mundane, while on the other hand the calm and disaffected seasoned vet I’ve become, the product of years of experience and success telling me, like the biblical teacher Qoheleth, that “Nothing is new under the sun.”

I guess that’s what makes déjà vu so mysterious: we find ourselves in two places at once, experiencing the old while living the present, confronted with the things of old from a different vantage point. And I guess that’s sort of a good thing. While we all get older and experience new things, there are aspects of ourselves and the world around us that change, but in many ways we will never escape the recurring lessons and experiences of life. What we can hope for, and maybe all we can hope for, is that the perspective we have the next time around helps us to act in a more Christ-like way with every new day.

After forty days of lent, we’ve finally reached Easter and can triumphantly proclaim, “He is Risen! Alleluia!” I appreciate all who followed the Franciscan Media lenten series each week, and all the many words of encouragement I heard along the way. It was a great experience for me, and I hope to do more projects like it in the future.

 

For now, though, it’s time for a little break! As we’ve all worked so hard preparing for Easter, I think it’s appropriate that we all take a little time to enjoy it. For me, that means a few weeks without posting.

 

But have no fear! As we speak, I’m packing my bags to travel to Chicago to film parts 4 and 5 of a new (and hopefully ongoing) series called “A Friar Life,” a look into the many ways that friars live and work in the 21st century. Check back the first week of May for episode 1!

Peace and good to all, Happy Easter!