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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Franciscan life, there is not one way to live together. When we look at factors like size of the community, ministerial focus, liturgical preference, community engagement, recreation, and even house governance, there is almost nothing that unites the friars universally. In our own province now in the 21st century, we have houses with more than 25 guys in which meals are prepared by a staff and ministerial duties are individual to each friar, while we also have houses of 3 guys in which they share both domestic and ministerial responsibilities.

While both are legitimate expressions of Franciscan life and both provide their own set of benefits and challenges, I have made clear before that I have a strong preference in the matter: small houses are the way to go for me. Even though I’ve had good experiences in houses of 10, 21, 30, 25, and 19, have been able to accomplish great feats, throw great parties, and make great friends, the experiences that inspired me to be a friar in the first place and keep me here after five years have almost always come in the houses of 5, 3, and now 4. With fewer guys, there are fewer opportunities to find community and fewer people to share the load, meaning that there is a greater opportunity for interdependence, active responsibility, and flexibility.

What does all that mean in real life? Among other things, it means that I get to cook again. For four of out my five years as a friar I have lived in houses with cooks. With 25 people in the house, it just makes more sense to have a full-time staff person manage the workings of a kitchen rather than having a host of different people all buying, cooking, cleaning, fixing, breaking, and wasting all at the same time. I get that.

But there’s also something intangible lost in that, something that doesn’t show up on a budget report. At the most base level, there’s just more control: choosing the types of foods and brands, getting to pick what we eat and don’t, being flexible when a craving hits. On another level, there’s something very satisfying about taking responsibility for the domestic duties of the house—buying, organizing, cooking, serving, and cleaning—rather than having someone else do it for you.

But even more important than those, for me at least, is the intentionality that meals can have for a community when done together. Eating together is not simply a practical activity for the sake of nutritional nourishment, it’s a time to bond, to share, to laugh, to plan, and to let loose after (or in the midst of) a long day. Not that there’s anything against guests in the house or meals prepared for us, there’s just something about congregating in the kitchen while someone is cooking, helping to set the table, and working together to clean up, with just us present, that makes the whole experience more meaningful to me. It’s a time to remember, each and every day, that we’re in this life together.

Is it without it’s difficulties? Of course not. Not all meals are winners, having to stop to cook and clean up when there’s a lot of work to do can be a pain, and sometimes it can just be difficult with the same four people gathering together every day. Sometimes you just get bored of each other! For me, though, that’s where the fraternity has meaning and where this life gets its purpose. In fraternal life, as in cooking, the most satisfying experiences are not the one’s given to us through someone else’s labors, they’re the ones that we have to make with our own hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Congratulations to George, John, and Egdardo

As hard as it is to believe, Christian and I had our last Spanish class yesterday. After a little more than seven weeks, our time is up at La72, and we’ll be heading to Mexico City  on Wednesday for a few days of tourism, reflection, and much needed relaxation before heading back to the United States on Sunday. It’s been quite a trip, and I will definitely not go home empty handed.

Some Spanish

My primary goal in coming to Mexico was to improve my Spanish and that definitely happened. I would be lying if I said that I’m not a little disappointed in the amount I learned, but I never intended to leave the country fluent in just two months; this experience was always supposed to be the first of many along the road to fluency and I am happy with the foundation that it offered. We learned some basic vocabulary, ten different verb tenses (yeah… our teachers lied to us when they said there’s just “past,” “present,” and “future!”), and many common phrases, enough to get by in many situations.

Malas Palabras

As many of you know, though, language is much more than asking for things and calling objects by their correct name. It’s about knowing situations, being informal, and yes, knowing when and how to swear. And let me tell you: Mexicans know how to swear. Whereas English has only a handful of rude or vulgar words that are repeated over and over in rap songs and movies—the only “creative” ones being horribly offensive and filled with hate—Spanish, or maybe more accurately Mexican Spanish, has a plethora of hilarious, playful, and powerful “bad words.” For some, this might seem like a strange thing for a friar to be talking about. Swear words? Two things: 1) knowing something bad doesn’t mean that one has to use it, but it’s important to know what’s going on, 2) “bad words” in many places here depend on context, and it is often completely acceptable to call a friend a terrible word in jest and to use that same word as an incredibly offensive slur in another situation. Will I use these words often? Probably not, but it was worth a few laughs.

Minority

As I wrote a few weeks ago about race and privilege, this experience has partially opened my eyes to things I never knew, partially solidified thoughts I already had. In many ways, it has been such a contradictory experience. On the one had, I have felt marginalized and left out in ways that I had never known before. Not knowing the language, the culture, the sense of humor, or the way things normally go, I was constantly bombarded with feelings of being different and inadequate. I was never “in,” but rather stuck out like a sore thumb in every situation. And yet, that very sticking out was in fact a sign of privilege in other situations. Even though I was different, being the only white guy among people of color is not the same as being the only person of color in a culture of white people. Even though I was someone different and outside, I was at the same time “special,” looking like the people on tv, the heads of of companies, and those leading the nation in politics. Despite how awful and excluded I felt sometimes, how different and “minor” I thought I was being, others around me were still experiencing minority and powerlessness in a way I never could. This was challenging to navigate as a “friar minor,” and I will have to do a lot more reflecting once I return.

Some unwanted lines

Waist and tan, that is. This trip was by no means a day at the spa. While Christian and I certainly had some great excursions to the river and some of the popular sites of Mexico, the regular day-to-day activities were pretty mundane, pretty unhealthy, and pretty lethargic. Ranking nearly as high as the US in obesity rates, the major problem for people in Mexico is not that they have appetites like we do in the US but that much of their food is low in nutrition and fried. Vegetables are very expensive and uncommon, replaced instead with a diet of rice, beans, fried meat, and corn tortillas. Delicious, don’t me wrong, but not sustainable. You add that diet to an American appetite and a daily routine that involves sitting in a classroom and laying on our beds studying, and you end up with two friars returning to the US with a little more “cushion” than we left with. As far as I can tell (and hope) the extra pounds aren’t that noticeable. I can’t say the same about my tanlines…

A Fraternal Experience

Above all of this is a powerful experience of fraternity. Despite the fact that Christian and I lived in the same house two out of the last three years, our paths never really crossed for very long. In a house of about twenty very busy and scattered people, it’s impossible to spend quality time and connect with everyone on the same level meaning that, honestly, we were not very close.

There was no shortage of quality time this summer.

Besides the time we spent in class each day, Christian and I made it a point to pray together, go out of the house to share a meal, and reflect on the theological, social, and human aspects of our trip everyday. Our discussions were frank and thoughtful, challenging each other when we saw something differently and supporting each other when the trip through us bumps in the road. And there were bumps. In many ways, this has easily been the most difficult experience of my life, feeling disappointment, frustration, sickness, isolation, and inadequacy on a regular basis, and I don’t know how either of us would have done it alone. We got through it, together, on the foundation of our Franciscan fraternity.

For many, it is this very fraternity that attracts people to our way of life, the oneness that we share in life as brothers. What many don’t realize, though, is that just because we’re in this life together with similar values and professions doesn’t mean that fraternity will naturally come. It is not something that can be taken for granted. It requires humility. It takes work. It cannot exist without love and commitment to one another, knowing without a doubt that you are willing to sacrifice for the other and that they are willing to do the same for you. In our relatively comfortable lifestyle in the US, in our potentially institutional lives with separate space and time and jobs and money, this is not always felt so strongly. Just as Christian and I were able to live together for two years without a particularly intimate experience, fraternity within comfort and privacy is not always challenged, and thus, not always realized. More than any other time in my life as a friar, I have been dependent on my brother and seen the need for true fraternity, that is, not just living and working together but being vulnerable, intimate, inter-dependent and committed to someone that I did not hand pick. That’s what I experienced this summer, and that, more than anything, is what I will take back with me. If you ask me, even if I don’t remember a single word of Spanish the minute the plane lands, this has made the whole trip worth it.