Eight hundred years ago, a little man from Assisi, a man without tremendous wealth, power, stature, or societal influence, set a movement in motion that would leave the Church and world forever changed. That man was St. Francis of Assisi.

Within just a short decade, there were already more than 5,000 friars in countries all across Europe, the Poor Clares had spread to multiple monasteries and established itself as a new way of monastic living, and the penitent movements had received their rule and amassed a larger number even than the rest.

It’s difficult to underestimate the effect that the Franciscan movement had on history. With its great size and diversity came the ability to spread its culture and values, including a number of innovations, in a way that had never been seen before. Constantly on the move, they could respond to the signs of the times, enflaming a people with passion before moving on to the next place. The way they served the poorest of the poor, living humbly themselves, preaching in new and popular ways, and not asking for much in return challenged the secular priests of their day to serve in a different way. The nativity scene and stations of the cross, while not invented by the Franciscans, are popular devotions today because of their insistence on an incarnational way of prayer. And the breviary, the shortened and compacted way of praying the psalms found in every religious house in the world today, was first employed by these traveling preachers.

At every level of the Church, in every country in the world, the Franciscans have not only been present, but have left their mark in irreconcilable ways.

But why? Why didn’t the Dominicans, who were formed around the same time, not grow as quickly? Why did it take the Jesuits, who were founded to do similar forms of ministry, so long to get its first pope (who took the name Francis!) Why haven’t the Benedictines, who have existed for much longer, had such a lasting effect on the imagination of the Church? And why haven’t the countless other religious orders that were founded throughout the history of the Church been able to match what the Franciscans have done in 800 years?

I ask these questions not to put down other Orders or even to shamelessly promote the Franciscans (okay, a little bit of the latter), but simply to marvel at what seems inconceivable: a religious movement started by a simple man like Francis should have never worked at all, let alone have changed the Church and world as it did.

Why is that? And maybe more importantly, what might we learn from the success of this movement 800 years ago in what our Church and world are facing today? That is what I was employed to talk about last weekend at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Arizona. While I can’t repeat all 5 hours of talks, I wanted to share the central points here in this week’s vlog.

I hope it inspires you to join in the movement, in however you can in your situation, and happy Feast of St. Francis to you all!

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No, it’s not the Ritz Carlton, it’s our dormitory at La72

As you might have noticed from my first post a month back, Christian and I are living in pretty tight quarters during our time here in Mexico. Not only are there six men in one room sharing a barley functional bathroom (you don’t want to know), our room is between the girl’s dormitory (six women sharing one room and one bathroom) and the common room, an all-purpose room for the volunteers to eat, talk, relax, play guitar, nap, and whatever else we like doing in our free time. Located on the second floor of the main building, it is open to all volunteers, not just the ones in residence, and so usually has at least 2-3 people present at all hours of the day.

This, honestly, has been one of the most difficult aspects of the trip.

Sure, the food is different and my body has struggled to adjust. Naturally, the weather is oppressive to someone acclimated to air-conditioning. And of course, trying to think and speak in another language provides more than enough headaches. But do you know what? I mentally prepared for these things. I expected them. And while they’re certainly don’t make what we’re doing a vacation, they are things that I have become relatively accustomed to over the past month.

I did not prepare for two months without privacy. When I go to bed, someone is in the bed next to mine; when I use the restroom, someone is just outside the door; when I sit down to read or study, someone is there making coffee, playing guitar, dealing with a problem. For almost five weeks now, everything I’ve done has been in the presence of others.

For an introvert, this is tiring to say the least.

But this post is not a cry for sympathy, nor is it a complaint of any kind. You see, as difficult as the conditions have been for me to endure coming from my comfortable life in the United States, it takes but a single look outside of my window to see how comfortable I still have it. When I walk down the stairs of the volunteers’ quarters to the common area of La72, I see hundreds of people that would love to have what I have right now. A bathroom that only 6 people share? A bed to myself? A room with a door to close so I only have to be with three people, not 200As much as La72 is a Godsend to so many people, a place where people can breathe easily because they don’t have to worry about getting caught, facing violence, or finding their next meal without any money, it is not a comfortable living environment. The vulnerable groups (women, minors, and LGBT) each have a room to share with themselves while the men all sleep on mats under the pavilion or on the basketball court; they all share their meals in common; and there are just a handful of bathrooms and showers for everyone.

Seeing this makes me think of a number of things.

So that there is room for everyone, the men sleep four to two mats

The most obvious lesson, of course, is “be thankful for what you have.” So often we think about what we don’t have failing to see what we do and failing to see how rich our own circumstances are compared to others. This is a reminder I think we could all use.

But I think there’s something more to it than a cliché. What I am experiencing is a challenge to two strongly held values in our western world: privacy and autonomy. We like walls and fences over open layouts, suburban homes and rural fortresses over apartments.  I want my room, with my stuff, during my time. And who can blame us? Sharing is difficult. No matter if you’re five or sixty five, sharing requires that we give up something that we enjoy so that someone else can enjoy it instead of us. Sometimes it is difficult enough to share possessions that we are not even using. But what about our time? Our space? When we share these, relinquishing a little of our privacy and autonomy, we not only give up the right of use to something we enjoy, we allow ourselves to be bombarded with other people’s lives. Without walls or fences, without clear distinctions between yours and mine, we’re forced to interact with people outside of controlled environments, to meet them where they are rather than on our own terms.

And it makes me wonder: are privacy and autonomy due the amount of emphasis we give them? What if we were bombarded with people’s lives a little more, forced to interact with people not when we were prepared and ready but when the moment naturally developed?

What I—and to a much greater extent, the migrants—am experiencing is certainly the extreme case. Living two months without any privacy may not be the healthiest of lifestyles and I am surely not recommending it as the norm. But there is something here. There is something about being thrown to the extreme that has made the “normal” setup seem equally as distorted. Whereas in the US I am an autonomous individual that seeks out community when I see fit, here, my primary identity is as a part of a community and I have to actively seek privacy from the group.

Now of course, proximity does not necessitate community and togetherness does not necessitate intimacy, but there is something clearly different about this situation than my normal life at home: here, there is no denying that I am in this life with others. Like it or not, for better or for worse, I can’t think about myself or act in any way without being in relationship with another person. There is no escaping the larger group. Oppressive? A little. Claustrophobic? At times. But it’s an important question to ask ourselves as Christians: in all that we have and all that we do to maintain our privacy and autonomy, are we reflecting community and oneness, or we building structures of exclusivity and selfishness? Here, more than anything or anywhere else I have experienced, I have a sense that we are in this together.

Our neighborhoods, our Church, and our world would all be better places if we more tangibly knew what this felt like.

 

04567_Christmas_nativity_scene_at_the_Franciscan_church_in_Sanok,_2010The so-called “Nativity Scene” is a staple this time of year. Found on the lawn of nearly every church and in the home of nearly every Christian, they can be big or small,  life-like or cartoonish, full of animals or simply Mary with her newborn child. Some churches even put on a “living nativity,” complete with costumes, live animals, and a crying baby. For many, it’s just not Christmas without a depiction of the birth of Jesus, and it’s amazing to see the level of creativity from one year to the next.

Overall, it’s a wonderful thing. There’s something about being able to experience the event for ourselves, to use our senses to capture all that the original scene must have been like, to make the story from the Bible come alive. It’s why Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene back in 1223 (trivia for you!) and why Christians have continued the tradition for 800 years.

And yet, there is something tragically lost in so many of our depictions, and I can’t help but wonder if we miss the true spirit of Christmas because of it. Yes, all nativity scenes capture gist of the story: Jesus was born to Mary outside because there was no room in the inn and was eventually visited by either three men bearing gifts (Matthew) or shepherds (Luke). And no, there’s nothing wrong with themes like “peace on earth,” joy, and giving to one another. But like so many Biblical stories, this one has become so familiar to us that our depictions of it are often white-washed and sterilized, glossing over the truly challenging parts of the story for something that makes us feel nice inside.

When we look at the Gospel accounts of the birth of our Lord, what we see is not a happy, feel-good moment, but rather an act that was provocative, controversial, and even upsetting to the religious elite of the time. The nativity scene is a sign of subversion and ultimate conversion.

Take the situation of Mary and Joseph in its context. When we look back on this situation with the eyes of faith and the privilege of history, we can call them the “Holy Family.” But to their contemporaries, especially the religious elite, there was nothing “holy” about them. Even though Joseph takes her into his home rather than exposing her, people had to have known that Joseph was not the father. Irregular marriage and child out of wedlock? Strike one. Embarking on their journey, they find themselves foreigners in a distant country. Immigrants? Strike two. And let’s not forget that this was hardly a wealthy family. They did not have a caravan of camels and servants, they did not stop at fancy places and dine with princes. Joseph and Mary were poor peasants with no political or religious power. In their world, they were essentially worthless to both the Jews and the Romans. Strike three.

And yet, this is the situation into which God is born. The creator of the universe, the King of Kings, was not born in a palace to a noble family. He was brought into this world by poor, seemingly-worthless immigrants in an irregular marriage.

Another powerful, yet mostly overlooked point, is the symbolic place of his birth:

She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

To many, this simply continues the theme of his humble situation: Jesus was laid in the manger because Mary couldn’t afford a nice bed or crib. But it’s more than that. The problem is that most of us think we know what a manger is… but actually we don’t. A manger is not a synonym for crèche, has nothing to do with a barn, and is not a normal 1st century crib; a manger is a trough where animals eat. Seriously. In other words, “She wrapped the poor child and laid him the chafing dish.” An odd statement, to say the least. Sure, given the circumstances, it might have been the most comfortable and convenient place to lay a baby and Luke may have just been recounting the practical details. But I don’t think so. Of all the themes in his Gospel, nothing is more significant than the institution of the Eucharist from their table fellowship. Luke, even from the point of Jesus’ birth, is announcing Jesus as food for the world.

To us, that’s a nice little detail, a cool foreshadowing to things to come. We love the symbolism and it helps us understand who Jesus is for us. But for the people of his time, this was blasphemous. Eat what? Who does this person think he is? From the very beginning of the Gospel, Luke makes the message clear: Jesus is the way to salvation, not the law. To accept this and follow him meant stepping outside of the status quo, rejecting the practices and teachings of the religious elite of the day, and having the faith to follow a radical man who upset a lot of people.

Finally, no nativity scene would be complete without a few visitors. Whether we highlight the magi in Matthew or the shepherds in Luke, their presence is highly significant, and highly controversial. For now, though, I want to focus on Luke’s account of the sheep.

So the shepherds went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.

We’ve been so desensitized to the idea of shepherds that it seems normal. How could we have a nativity scene without a shepherd and a few cute sheep? It seems almost obvious to us. But to the people of the time, this would have been absolutely scandalized by them.

The whole issue is over ritual purity. For the Jews, certain things were clean and certain things were unclean, and exposing oneself to certain situations made one ritual impure, meaning they were excluded from the community and temple worship until they were ritually washed. Shepherds were very unclean. Not only did they spend their entire lives with livestock, no doubt encountering blood and other unclean substances, they were basically stuck in an institutional state of uncleanliness: as long as they remained a shepherd they were unclean, and if they took the time to enter the city to purify themselves, they would lose their flock. In Jesus’ time, shepherds were outcasts and undesirables, and they were not alone: for many, the law was a burden that inhibited community, created an entire class of people unfit for worship.

This is the situation that Jesus enters. These are the people that visit our Lord at the moment of his birth. It was not the chief priests or the ritually pure; it was not the most charitable or most liked; it was not the noble or important. The people connected to Jesus’ birth are the outcasts and unclean.

The savior of our world did not fit into religious categories, and was probably not regarded as important by the religious elite of his day. Think about what it means that  Jesus is the outcast and the unclean.

JoseyMariaWebTaken altogether, the birth of our Lord, captured in our nativity scenes, is a provocative, controversial, and downright upsetting symbol of our faith. His birth is yes, in a way, a sign of peace on earth and holy giving, but only if it is understood with an unmistakable sense of subversion. Jesus came to upset the religious and political systems of the day, to bring a new order contrary to what was expected.

As we look at own nativity scenes this time of year and glory in the birth of our Lord, my hope is that we may experience something more than a Hallmark moment. Recreating this scene as we do offers us an opportunity to see and feel how radically upending his birth really is, in his world, and in ours. It’s an opportunity to realize that, if our Lord were to be born today, many of us would not be among the outcasts or undesirables included in this scene, we might be among the religious elite, shocked by the blasphemy of it all, concerned with the ritual laws of our day, and unknowingly overlooking something quite extraordinary in our midst.

This Christmas, may we capture once again the true spirit of Christmas, that spirit that upholds the poor, welcomes the outcast, is open to conversion, and lives as a community gathered at table. I hope you all have a Merry Christmas!

With the passing of Halloween, it is officially Christmas season… at least for department stores, television advertisers, and Franciscans. That is an odd combination, I will admit, and some of you may be singing the Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the other…” Are Franciscans also invested in the commercialism of Christmas? No, not exactly.

I mentioned in passing last year that Christmas was probably the most important celebration for St. Francis. While Easter celebrates the Resurrection of our Lord and the fulfilled hope of our salvation—a pretty big thing to celebrate for sure—Christmas marks the end of our waiting and the beginning of the fulfilled promise. As Simeon says in the Gospel of Luke, “My eyes have seen the salvation which you prepared in the sight of every people, a light to reveal you to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32). The Incarnation for Francis was the height of human history: God became human. What a marvel. What a miracle. What a joy of our faith.

So what does this have to do with beginning the Christmas planning on November 1st like those needing to sell us something? Well, because it was such an important feast for St. Francis, he exhorted his friars to prepare for it to an even greater extent than the Church required in the season of Advent: “Let them fast from the Feast of All Saints until Christmas” (Rule of St. Francis III.5).

For us, fasting doesn’t have to mean the literal use of the word, that is, to abstain from food or drink at certain times; fasting can mean abstaining from luxuries more broadly, or even being more intentional with our time so to do something more purposeful, like prayer.

This year, I have come up with something new, and I would like to invite anyone who is interested to try it with me. We all know that humility was probably the highest desire of Francis’ life, that he wished to always be the lowest and least important. We also know that one of his chief reasons for loving this virtue so much was in fact the Incarnation, the humility of God to become human, to be born in such an insignificant way, and to be presented to shepherds, among the dirtiest and least important people of society. For this reason, I will be taking the newly created and aptly named “Franciscan Humility Challenge.”

The purpose of this challenge is to actively seek opportunities to give up control and to be humbled every day. What do I mean by this? Well, so much of our lives is working to get our own way. In our jobs, relationships, families, and interactions with strangers, we find ourselves in conflict with others who want something different from us: Who is in charge? What movie should we watch? Where should we go? Whose turn is it? Who gets to make the decision? Conflicts can range from inconsequential decisions like which station to listen to on the radio in the car, to significant decisions like which car to buy.

For me, what I see in these situations is an opportunity… an opportunity to exercise my ability to be humble like Jesus. The practice of letting go of my will and letting others make decisions, humbly assenting to the desire of someone else, is not just nice pleasantries to keep people happy. It is an active decision to imitate the will of our Lord Jesus, “who humbled himself even to the point of death, death on a cross,” and to put into practice what I pray every day in the Our Father: “Thy will be done.” It’s no coincidence that these words follow immediately after “Thy kingdom come”: the true reign of God’s kingdom is the complete submission of our wills to the will of God. The Kingdom of God is trusting in God above all else.

But how can we expect to do that, a great task, if we struggle to give up our wills in even small situations? Like anything that is difficult, we need practice and preparation to be ready. Why not do so now as we prepare for Christmas, the celebration of God’s great act of humility?

If you feel up to the challenge, I feel a need to clarify two things. The first is that humility cannot be confused with being a doormat, that is, letting others cause us harm because we are unable to stand up for ourselves. Submitting our will to another must always be done willingly, and from a position of privilege and self-assurance. It is our very confidence in our situation, in who we are and who God is, that allows us to give up our will and accept the consequences. If it is done out of fear, under compulsion, or desperation, this is a different situation. There is a huge difference between humility of will and allowing ourselves to be abused, and we need to make sure we know the difference.

The reason for this is the second point, and ultimately the whole point of the challenge: we are doing this to imitate Jesus and so share in the Father’s joy. If we submit our will to another but in doing so feel angry or hold resentment towards the other, we have missed the point. The point is to be free of our need to be in control, and to take joy in the fact that God is in control. This is the great joy of our Christmas celebration, and the truth that we hope to make true in our lives.

St. Francis is probably the most popular, widely recognized, and most misunderstood saint in the Church’s history. It’s not that people don’t know a lot about him, it’s the opposite: since there have been so many stories written about him over the past 800 years, everyone knows something, but it can be difficult to separate fact from folklore.

As someone who has studied the early sources of his life, it can be frustrating sometimes to see how his name is used or what people are saying about him. Take the “Prayer of St. Francis.” It’s a nice prayer, but those who have read Francis’ actual writings know that it sounds absolutely nothing like him. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that it was a prayer for peace written during World War I.

Francis preaching to the birds is another example. Did Francis preach to the birds in a literal sense? Maybe. We do have one or two references to it in his early biographies. But what’s interesting is that so many other saints before him were also said to preach to animals, and that, for some, the birds represented the many types of people of the world. And besides that, he did and wrote about many other things; preaching to the birds is something he never mentions, and is really insignificant to all of the other more important things he said and did. And yet, he is the man of the birdbath.

These are just two examples of the manways the image of Francis has been misunderstood throughout the years, and it’s no wonder that he can be found promoting such vastly different causes. Once, for instance, our novitiate class was forced to attend an etiquette because, as the friar hosting it said, “Isn’t this what Francis would have done?” An etiquette workshop. Right.

That’s the feeling that Rob Goraieb, OFS had a few weeks ago when we were preparing for the feast of St. Francis, coming up this weekend. How could we deal with this frustration in a positive way? Like the 40 minute video we filmed a few months ago about vocations and church in the modern world, we decided to just sit down and talk about it on camera. What things frustrated us? What aspects of Francis’ life are often overlooked or forgotten? What do we as Franciscans want the world to know about St. Francis?

We sat for about an hour on camera and we hardly scratched the surface of what we wanted to say. In fact, both of us were initially left dissatisfied with what we had done. The fact of the matter, as we realized, is that there is no way to totally encapsulate the inspiration of the life of Francis, and in some ways, we didn’t even want to try. But we did want to share with you what we found most essential to Francis’ life and what it might mean to follow Francis today.

Happy Feast!

For those on email, the link is here.

You Can Be As Poor As You Want

Having experienced third world poverty, I know that I cannot live the poverty I want here in the US. On the other hand, I can absolutely live the poverty I need.

Having experienced third world poverty, I know that I cannot live the poverty I want here in the US. On the other hand, I can absolutely live the poverty I need.

I have mentioned a number of times that Franciscan poverty, freeing oneself of material possessions in order to identify with the poor Jesus, was a major attraction to me in my discernment; receiving a minor in Poverty Studies and completing an internship at a soup kitchen even before seriously considering the friars should tell a bit about me. I have also mentioned that defining Franciscan poverty has been an 800-year battle among Franciscans; what and how much one should be able to own has been fought over and divided the charism more than a few times.

In response to this (and the problems particular to our province of men in the 21st century), a number of our friars have taken the opinion that a friar “can be as poor as he wants in this province.” What they mean by this is that one’s personal decisions for a simpler lifestyle are one’s own free choice. No one is forcing us to spend any of our stipend, maintain excessive wardrobes, or consume any more food or drink that we want to. Even if others define poverty in an altogether different way and live much more comfortably than one would choose, their decisions, these friars would say, do not affect one’s ability to live poverty how they choose: you can be as poor as you want.

Over the past four years I’ve thought about and struggled to live out this opinion. There is great truth in it: why blame others or “the culture of the friars” for not living poorly enough when I take everything that’s given to me without question? I have been forced (in a very good way) to think about what I’ve been given by the friars and decide if that’s even too much. At times, it has meant giving back part of my stipend, abstaining from food or drink, and refusing gifts. And that helps. But I find that this is only part of the answer. When we choose to live together, whether that be in a Franciscan context, a family, or simply in a larger society, we are never free to do anything and everything we want.

It’s tough to be that poor in America. The broadest example of this is simply living in the United States. Having just spent ten days in one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, I have now seen real poverty (as compared to the “poverty” we Franciscans live.) I saw houses the size of the bedroom I’m in right now with dirt floors and little-to-no sanitation, teenagers that walk 2 hours each way to get an education, children that had to drop out of school to help support their families, and meals in which a tortilla is the main (or only) item on the menu. Compared to even the poorest in the United States, the average person in Nicaragua has very little.

And yet, there is a great appeal to the simplicity of lifestyle we saw. Sure, they had much less, but their world was not tied to material possessions in the way that ours is. Most of them had very little, but many of them had a sufficient amount, and were happy. It’s no wonder that so many people go on trips like these and have a great desire to change their lives when they come home. Looking at the excesses all around them in the US, people like myself, feel very uncomfortable with all the things they now see as luxuries.

But good luck getting rid of them. What I mean by this is not a cynical take on one’s ability to let go but rather a realization that much of what we have is built into our societal structure. Are we really going to renounce clean drinking water to be in solidarity with our poor brothers and sisters in Nicaragua? Are we really going to throw our toilet paper in the trashcan rather than flushing it to go through some of the hardships they do? Are we really going to turn off our air conditioners AND lobby that every other home and business we visit do the same so that we can experience the relentless heat we knew there? I don’t think so. They’re kind of ridiculous questions, really. But that’s the point. So many of our luxuries are built into our societal structure and are outside of our control. Short of doing these radically ridiculous things, we are not free to live as poorly as we want.

Living together means shared decisions. Bringing this question back to where it started, the Franciscan friary, we can see a similar dynamic. One’s personal decisions can effect the situation to an extent, but are not the only factor in the situation. What if others in the house don’t agree with one’s conception of poverty? What if everyone in the house has a different conception? I may think it inappropriate to ever eat filet mignon as a friar (hypothetical), while others might think it’s appropriate sometimes, and even more think that it’s appropriate often. Does the house eat filet mignon? My personal desires only go so far in community because, believe it or not, there are other personal desires than mine. I would obviously be free to abstain from eating the steak as it is outside of my conception of poverty and no one can force me to eat it. True. I could go make a PB and J sandwich and be completely happy. But look what I have done. I have decided that my personal desire is great enough that I’m willing to remove myself from the group to do my own thing. I have chosen that it is better to be “right” than to be “together.”

And maybe, at times, that’s what we have to do. Everyone can’t be happy all of the time, and I don’t mind abstaining for someone else’s happiness. For one meal, that’s no big deal. But what if it’s every meal? What if it’s every friar outing? What if it is the general life of the friary? I can abstain from eating certain meals, but I cannot abstain from living in a certain house or using certain furniture. Just as in the situation with Nicaragua, there is a clear sense of culture in each friary that cannot be discounted. It is something outside of an individual’s control and has a great effect on their ability to act how they want.

So, can you be as poor as you want as a friar in Holy Name province? No, not at all. And I struggle with that. But it’s a struggle I want to have because I am not called to be a king. I am not called to be right all of the time and to get my way. I am called, as a Franciscan, to a humble life in community in which I have to learn to accept my brothers’ desires as legitimate, to grow outside of myself, and to live with the poverty that I am not in control. Sometimes, as difficult as it may sound, I have to compromise on my own ideals for the sake of community. Does this mean that I’m a fraud, that I’m weak and a hypocrite because I don’t stand up for what I believe? No. It means that, while I will challenge my brothers to a simpler lifestyle when I can, I realized very early in my Franciscan life that we are called to be together, not necessarily always “right.” A big part of being Franciscan is realizing that community life is never going to be exactly how we envision it, but that it is better to be challenged by our brothers than to easily have everything we want on our own. In this way, I know that I could live material poverty better on my own, but it is only in community can experience the poverty of not being in control and having to work with others that are different from you. As a Franciscan in this sense, you can can be as poor as you want.

Not So Minor

It is in serving the least of his day that Francis experienced perfect humility and minority.

It is in serving the least of his day that Francis experienced perfect humility and minority.

A man of great conversion, Francis is probably most well-known for dramatically renouncing his earthly wealth and high social status in order to minister to the lepers, those people so sick and disgusting that they needed to live outside the city (and wear a bell so that people could run away when they heard them coming.) The Franciscan charism follows in his example: As members of the Order of Friars Minor, the “lesser brothers,” we are called to live a life for the poor, with the poor, as the poor, renouncing any sort of wealth, power, or status, that would nurture a feeling of entitlement or honor. The lowest in society do not expect to be served or cared for, they know that they must serve others. That is what Francis wanted.

When I look at my own life, I struggle to identify a single way in which I am a minor in our society: I am a young, white, college-educated, middle class, heterosexual male, born in the United States to parents that are still married, a member of the largest religious organization in the world, and have no mental or physical disabilities. If that’s not enough, I joined one of the largest religious orders in the Catholic Church, giving me tremendous (and largely undeserved) respect as a religious and future member of the clergy. In literally every way that I can imagine I find myself among the privileged in society.

And unlike Francis who was able to renounce his status in society with a symbolic undressing before the bishop, I can hardly renounce the attributes that make me privileged in this one:

  • As I see racial discrimination continue to boil over in places like Furgeson, and I am reminded how much easier it is to be white. Upon arriving in Camden, one friar told me, “Oh don’t worry, you’re white. The gang members and drug dealers won’t hurt you because they don’t want to scare away their white customers.”
  • As I watch news coverage of the recent boarder crossings and immigration laws in Arizona and Georgia, I know that I will never be “randomly” stopped on the street and forced to prove that I belong, have to flee one country into a country that does not want me, or have to worry about my rights when abroad.
  • As a male, I know that I will never be given less money for doing the same job as a co-worker, fear being alone outside at night, or constantly have to prove my self and my gender as not inferior.
  • As our church and country continues to understand homosexuality, I am made aware that I have never had to worry about how my sexuality or sexual orientation could offend someone, what people might think of me if they found out, or being thrown out of my house by my parents.

This list could go on and on. As I look out into the world, I see people being discriminated against and made “lesser” in our society each day, and it is never me. I doubt it ever will be. And so I’m faced with a challenge. How do I ever become “lesser” in society? How do I ever even approach minority when things like race, gender, sexual orientation, education, and physical capability are not exactly things that can be stripped and handed to a bishop?

It is here that I would normally have a conclusion like, “For me, what’s important is… The key is… I’ve found that the best answer is…” Unfortunately, my reflection today is a little less complete than normal. The fact of the matter is that I simply do not know and I will have to sit with this struggle for a while longer. There are obviously some things that I can change, e.g. how I spend my money, with whom I associate, how intentional I am at being with the poor. As I leave formation and entire into a little more autonomous life as a friar, I know that there will be a little more freedom to choose where and how I live, and what ministry I do, making this a little easier to live out.

And yet, there is a part of me that realizes that I will never be the least in society and I am struggling to accept that. How can I say to be a friar minor, an imitator of Jesus and Francis of Assisi, with so much respect, authority, privilege, and “wealth,” both civilly and ecclesiastically? I don’t know. For now, all I can do is realize that this “great privilege” I have in our society is nothing but a lucky ticket in the womb lottery: I have done nothing to deserve it and ultimately am no better off than anyone else because of it. I am what I am before God, and nothing more. This is a bit of wisdom that I must always keep with me. For though I may never be able to fully renounce all that separates me from the least in our society, I know that there is always a full reserve of pretension, entitlement, and arrogance just waiting to be given up inside me. If I want to be minor in society, it starts with the attitude I bring to every situation: I am here to serve the people of God with perfect humility and minority, and they do not owe me anything because it is God who is truly doing all the work.

Begging For Your Respect

Have you ever been so desperate you had to resort to begging?

Have you ever been so desperate you had to resort to begging?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday when I was riding the bus to school, a man in his thirties got on the bus and began soliciting help from everyone one the bus. For the next fifteen minutes of the trip, he walked up and down the bus repeating this story:

Excuse me, sir. I’m sorry to bother you, but I was hoping that you could help me out. My name is Christian, and I was hit by a drunk driver nine years ago and lost my job and for three years I was in a wheelchair and couldn’t work but I’m better now. I still have some issues, you see my bruises [shows legs and arms with serious scars] but I’m working really hard and I run and when I do the dishes at night I do pushups in between each dish to get strong, you see, and it takes me an hour and a half but I’m getting stronger and able to work I even run each night although that can be really difficult I’m getting better. I used to be a glass installer making $60,000 a year before I got hit by the drunk driver and the company said that they would hire me back now if I got strong enough but in the mean time I’m on disability but I’m out of money and just need help for two days, I’ll get my disability check May 1. If you have any paper metro cards with anything on them or just some spare change or anything I could really use your help you know its just a few days but I don’t know what I’m going to eat and anything would help. If you don’t have any money that’s fine but I could really use some prayers so please pray to God that I get this job because it would get my life back together. Thank you so much, God bless you.

And again…

Excuse me sir…

And again…

Perdon Señor…

His story sounded genuine and my heart went out to him. At the same time, the cynical side of me analyzed everything he did, looking for a reason to make me believe that he was just a mooch on society, lying to people to get free money, or would go and immediately spend that money on drugs.

And do you know what? Those questions are irrelevant compared to the way people reacted to him. Person after person refused to look at him or even acknowledge his presence. One person didn’t even take his headphones off to see what he wanted. Because they had heard the story just a minute earlier when he had told it to someone else, they knew what he wanted, and completely shut off contact.

For all I know, he was a drug addict. For all I know, he was lying directly to my face. For all I know, he had blown his money on useless things like cigarettes or alcohol. I can’t prove that he hadn’t, and I’ll never know.

What I do know, however, is that this man was in a really bad place. He was in such a desperate place that he was willing to get on a bus, share his story with complete strangers, and lower himself to begging. How humiliating and dehumanizing! Even after being rejected by the first few people and having others refuse to even acknowledge that he existed, he kept trying, restarting the story in an attempt to get, as he said, “Even if you have a few pennies that will help.” Have you ever been so desperate that you had to ask complete strangers for pennies?

What should we as Christians do in situations like these, I wonder? Some will say that you should never, under any circumstances, give money to a person like this for fear that they might use it to hurt themselves with drugs or alcohol. There is a lot of merit to this argument: beyond that fear, money can serve as a way of simply getting rid of the person so that they won’t bother you anymore, making the giver feel good about giving but never actually having to enter into relationship or be challenged.

On the other hand, how can we look on someone in time of great desperation, even if it is their own fault, and do nothing?

If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? (Ja 2:15-16)

My experience with the poor and homeless is far from thorough and so I in no way claim to be an expert, but there are a number of things that I am trying out myself to see how they work. The first is making sure that I get every person’s name that I speak with, and make it a point to mention mine as well. We can never underestimate the power of humanizing a person that is rarely treated with respect. I let them talk, and I ask them about their life. It’s good to know what they need, and most times I will ask them if they know of a place where they can get food/shelter/clothing. The second this I do is carry extra food or gift cards that I know will go directly to a need. Granola bars are great to keep in my backpack because I know they won’t go bad for a while, and $5 Subway/McDonalds gift cards won’t break the bank for the few I give out but I feel that they are better to give than cash. Lastly, I tell them that I will pray for them, and then I offer a prayer for them right then as I walk away and as well as that evening at communal prayer.

Ultimately, people have to go with their comfort level when it comes to direct service such as this. Some people don’t feel comfortable giving out money, and that’s not a bad thing. What I will say, though, is that when you come to realize how humiliating it must be to beg, to walk up to a complete stranger and ask for something, you know that you can’t just pretend like you don’t see them. You have to acknowledge them, acknowledge their desperate situation, and at least speak to them as a human being even if that is just, “I’m sorry, I don’t have anything.”

For me at this point in my life, I think that I need to err on the side of charity not judgment. Sometimes we are simply called to be a brother or sister to someone in need, not wonder whether or not they’re being genuine or not. I look to Matthew 25:31-46 as a reminder that how I treat the poor is how I treat Jesus. Do I want to be his brother, or his judge? I imagine begging for his forgiveness is much more difficult than begging for a dollar on the street.

My [Continued] Struggle With Poverty

With the conclusion of this four part series on poverty, I would like to begin right where I left off because I believe that my motivation for writing these posts over the past few weeks is encapsulated in this paragraph:

But at the same time, it’s easy to see that there are clear limitations to what one can do and still consider oneself “poor.” At some point, using that word is an insult to those whose lives in no way resemble ours. As one friar put it, “the poor can always smell a rat.” I think that’s true, and I think that’s why our first step must always be to listen to and imitate the poor, erring on the side of going too far. Until we are able to do that, to put our health, safety, and dignity on the line, how can we ever begin to be compared to those who do it everyday without any choice in the matter? Our poverty is voluntary, and we will never be able to fully rid ourselves of the safety nets around us, but at some point we need to dive in and live poverty the way the real poor people do.

When I look at my life and the life of this Order, I struggle to see “poverty” in any real sense. Who, honestly, would confuse me for a poor person? This is a great disappointment of mine and a struggle I know that I will face for the rest of my life.

Being Institutionalized

As someone in formation, there is an overriding and unavoidable nature to the way we live: within an institution. Unlike the majority of our friars, friars in formation tend to live in large houses. (My postulancy house was 10, novitiate was 21, and now post-novitiate is 25.) With that many people, and without the skilled brothers we once had, it is both necessary and fiscally responsible to obtain external help cooking, cleaning, and maintaining the structure of the house. It is necessary and fiscally responsible to buy things in bulk and to have many options at hand at all times. It is necessary and fiscally responsible to have a fleet of cars, each assigned to an individual so as to keep it well maintained and organized.

There are, however, unintended consequences to these “necessary” and “fiscally responsible” measures. For one, there is a lost sense of cost in our houses. Laundry detergent magically appears in pallet-sized quantities; food shows up on our table without work or sacrifice; and satisfying the desires of only a few individuals still leaves us with 6 different soda options, 4 types of snacks, and an endless supply of ice cream. While it’s probably true that we live more cheaply per person than a house of four does, there is not such a thing as an unfulfilled need here. Sure, we may not have our first choice, but boy do we have a lot of choices and an endless supply!

The other problem I see with this is that it is very easy to slip from “external help cooking, cleaning, and maintaining the structure of the house” to “my personal chef, maid, and handyman.” With a house this size, I don’t see a problem with filling in the gaps with a professional, but I begin to feel uncomfortable when outside help replaces our own work. Yes, I’m in school, and don’t exactly want to come home after a long day and cook dinner and clean out the gutters, but I’m sure that the poor do, and I know for sure that students of other religious orders have to do that. For me, it’s not the idea of having employees that bother me; it’s the amount of work we allow them to do that I believe strips us of poverty and minority.

Rationalizing or Redefining Poverty

Another struggle I face each is the inability to come to consensus on what poverty is in our lives. This is not to blame my brothers, as I know my opinion is just one opinion, and I do not expect others to assent to it. It just makes it difficult to decide how to live if we are all working from different starting points.

That’s not to say that I think all opinions are created equal, as there are two “rationalizations” that really annoy me (and yet I find myself doing both of them!) The first is making poverty a purely spiritual matter. “It’s not really about what you have, it’s about how attached to it you are. I could very easily give up my flatscreen TV if I needed to.” Right. But you haven’t. While spiritual poverty is what I believe material poverty is leading us to, a freedom from desire and dependence on God, I don’t see how it can be separated from actual, material poverty. Knowing that one could go without something is quite different from actually going without it.

The other problem I see is more prevalent: allowing ministry to reign supreme. We all love the people of God and have committed ourselves to building up God’s kingdom. That’s no in question. But all too often we make compromises to our way of life for our work of life. Eating meals out rather than cooking at home; each friar having their own car instead of carpooling or using public transit; the newest and latest gadgets for “productivity” and convenience; and employees taking care of our house so that we can take care of others. Ultimately, especially for priests, we may decide that our work is so highly specialized and in such high demand that we must do anything we can to do as much ministry as we can. That’s very selfless for sure. But we are more than ministry machines. Let us not be shortsighted in sacrificing what gives our ministry such high quality, our poverty, minority, and fraternity, in order to provide a greater quantity.

Caught in a Safety Net

The last struggle that I must face comes with the reality that I may never be able to free myself from it. Ironic and insulting to most Americans, the burden I must face in this life is know that I will always have local and provincial safety nets to protect me. This means having medical insurance, retirement facilities (and brothers who will care for me financially and fraternally), and the comfort of never being too far away from a “transfer” if things get too bad. Sure, I will care about the success of ministries and people we serve, but I know that, even in the worst case scenario, I will never starve, never be alone, or be without sufficient aid.

On a day to day basis, I find the presence of an overarching structure to be a subtle challenge to my spiritual poverty and that of my brothers because of the ability to say these simple words: “The house will pay for that.” In most of our houses, we are given a stipend for personal expenses and the ability to charge to the house any necessary expenses, e.g. gas, oil change, and books, outside of that original stipend. Again, how do we define necessary? For me, even though the house will pay for lunch if we’re at school, I would have never spent money like that before becoming a friar: pack a lunch or don’t eat. Like the employee with the company credit card, however, the abstract entity that is the “province” or the “house” becomes the ever-flowing well that can always be pumped, and without malice or ill intent, we allow ourselves to rest, spend more, and care less about how we live because the safety net will provide. When I’m running behind, there is a temptation not to pack a lunch because, “the house will pay for it,” so there’s no need to go through the extra trouble. This is a seed, a seed that I do not want to plant. It is the seed of safety and complacency.

True and Perfect Joy

As so I conclude this post, but my struggle is just beginning. On the one hand, I must live within a system that is not ideal with people that vary from apathetic to fanatical on the subject. I must accept that we as a community will never meet the ideals I wish to achieve. In a very positive way, I have accepted that struggling on this issue together is more important to me than succeeding alone. Our charism recognizes that love is messy, that the world is not filled with easy answers, and that God is found in the struggle.

On the other hand, I know that I am given a tremendous amount of freedom when it comes to my personal decisions related to poverty. In some ways I succeed: I don’t have to eat everything that is placed before me, nor do I have to spend everything that is given to me, and so I often avoid meat and return part of my stipend or donate it. In some ways I struggle to do better: I could probably use public transit more often, go without some of my possessions, or offer to do more work where needed.

With that, I will close this belabored series and winded post with the story of St. Francis called “True and Perfect Joy” and an insight from my formator and guardian, Fr. Joseph Nangle, ofm. In this story, Francis teaches that true and perfect joy is not felt from great successes, incredible miracles, or powerful skills, but rather in showing up to a friary, cold and wet, and after being turned away by a fellow friar because the friar believes him to be a “rascal” trying to fool the friar, he accepts these insults and maltreatment with patience, that is perfect joy. Fr. Joe, in his book Engaged Spirituality, writes this:

Francis felt that being treated as a poor person, being mistaken for one, even by a fellow friar, was “perfect joy.” He had reached such a sublime point in his own conversion process where his option for the poor showed itself when others saw and treated him as a poor person.

My reading of this story before had always been focused on Francis’ patience and humility, but how true is this sentiment to me today? Given what I’ve said in the last four posts, and the struggles I will undoubtedly face in my future as a friar, I cannot think of a more perfect joy than to be truly mistaken as a poor person. To live a life so authentically like the poor, with the poor, and for the poor that I become poor enough myself to mistake my own brother is the life I wish to live.

How To: Poverty

Like the pope, we will probably never "really" be poor. That doesn't mean we shouldn't get our hands dirty and try.

Like the pope, we will probably never “really” be poor. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get our hands dirty and try.

After my overwhelmingly persuasive and thoroughly inspiring post about why we should voluntarily choose poverty, all of you have undoubtedly sold all of your possessions and are waiting in joyful anticipation for more details, am I right? Well, even if that’s not the case, we’ll press on.

Despite the potentially misleading title, I don’t believe that there is only one way to live Gospel poverty authentically, and so this post will refrain from being overly specific; poverty is a very relative term, and there are things that would fit one’s life that would not fit another. Instead, this “how to” of sorts will identify a few universal values and attempt to offer critical options for particular expressions in a 21st century American context.

Imitate the poor around us

While Jesus is certainly a great figure to imitate, and I in no way want to diminish his witness, following someone who lived 2000 years ago, from a different culture, in a different region, literally, may not be our best blueprint for action in 21st century America. Jesus simply did not have the conception of healthcare, economics, national security, or personal property that we do (which is not to say that our conceptions are better, just to say that there is a context in which we live that puts very real limits on our possibilities.)

Because of this, a much better “role model” for living poverty today is very obviously the poor of our time. How do the poor in our country/region/city live? What do they own? What are they [not] able to do? What are their needs and concerns? What are their social/political/economic struggles?

In a very clear sense, we ask these questions to be more like the poor, in love and in solidarity. As pope Francis has famously said, priests (and ministers in general) should be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” Wow. How beautiful of an image and powerful of a reminder of our role is that? A shepherd is not an administrative authority, well-learned in books and capable of making decisions; a shepherd is someone who comes into close contact with those s/he serves and can only say to have served his/her flock if s/he takes on the situation of the flock. If we are to be authentic, we must be willing to let ourselves be affected by the same conditions that affect them. Taking this seriously helps to form an “upper limit” to the amount of things we can own, luxuries in our life, and privileges we are allowed.

Educate and guide the poor

There is, however, another value that needs to be kept in mind that will undoubtedly muddle this discussion: we must be a witness to the poor. All poverty is not created equal, and we must not fall prey to romanticizing it or making it our absolute goal. Some things that happen to the poor (or are done to themselves) are destructive to the human person and even dehumanizing. Every day, people die of malnutrition, preventable and curable diseases, unnecessary violence, and as a result of inhumane living conditions. This level of poverty, poverty that strips people of their dignity as sons and daughters of God, is disgusting and intolerable.

In this way, poverty is not always something to be imitated because poverty is not the ultimate goal we seek. This is clear even in the witness of Jesus, who, though very poor, was not the poorest person of his day. To seek otherwise would be to seek a bottomless pit, a goal that could never be achieved, short of death by starvation. There will always be someone poorer. Thus, just as an imitation of the poor helped to form an “upper limit” for our own lifestyle, an acknowledgement of an unacceptable level of poverty helps to form a “lower limit” for our lifestyle, keeping us from making poverty an end rather than a means.

Living in this tension

This tension of values makes living Gospel poverty a very tricky and relative thing. We are at the same time called to be in solidarity with a person’s undesirable condition, forced to give up our comfort to experience their grief, while drawing an almost arbitrary line as to what is considered “subhuman” conditions. You can see why “poverty” takes on very different expressions within the Franciscan Order, and why we can seldom agree.

These questions are endless in number:

  • Should we live with the poor or in more comfortable places so to recharge and  better serve them?
  • Should we eat healthier, more expensive foods, or cheap foods that lack nutrition?
  • Should we have cars, or use public transportation? If cars, should we buy reliable cars that are more expensive, or cars more like the poor can afford?
  • Should we even have health insurance, and if so, how comprehensive?
  • Should we buy things in bulk because they are cheaper, or live day-to-day?
  • Should we buy higher-quality products that will last, or cheaper ones that the poor generally use?

For each issue, it’s clear to see how one could be swayed either direction depending on which value is most important and how one defines “subhuman” conditions. For some, it is an affront to humanity to have to share a bathroom. For others, it’s eating the same processed foods every day. Some won’t stop until they’re sleeping on the floor with six other men in the room, without heat or running water, having only eaten one meal that day.

But at the same time, it’s easy to see that there are clear limitations to what one can do and still consider oneself “poor.” At some point, using that word is an insult to those whose lives in no way resemble ours. As one friar put it, “the poor can always smell a rat.” I think that’s true, and I think that’s why our first step must always be to listen to and imitate the poor, erring on the side of going too far. Until we are able to do that, to put our health, safety, and dignity on the line, how can we ever begin to be compared to those who do it everyday without any choice in the matter? Our poverty is voluntary, and we will never be able to fully rid ourselves of the safety nets around us, but at some point we need to dive in and live poverty the way the real poor people do.

Why Poverty?

There's actually great wisdom in seeking to have less money.

There’s actually great wisdom in seeking to have less money.

Before we enter into a potentially lengthy and superfluous discussion about how one should live a life of poverty, it would seem appropriate to make clear why one would even want to be poor in the first place.  Given that it is pretty much the antithesis of what most in the modern western world would consider to be a worthwhile life pursuit, it’s a fair question. Why would one want to spend their life trying to be poor? I believe that there are at least four reasons for each and every Christian to consider.

1. Jesus was poor

As we prepare for Christmas in this season of Advent, we recall that Jesus became flesh not in a castle but in a dirty manger; we recall that the first people to visit him were the shepherds, the ritually and materially “unclean” outcasts of society. Jesus coming in this way is an example of how he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” As Christians, those who follow Christ, we wish to be like Jesus by imitating his simplicity and humility; as Franciscans, those who follow Christ in a very literal sense, we wish to be like Jesus by imitating his material situation as well. While the next post will discuss how we do that (because in some ways it might actually be inappropriate to adopt a literal approach) the point remains: Jesus was poor and we want to be like Jesus.

2. Jesus called his followers to be poor, for the poor

That being said, there are a number of things that Jesus did that we’re probably not all called to imitate, e.g. die on a cross. Because of that, we must look to his words and exhortations. When Jesus called his disciples to follow him, “They left everything and followed him” (Lk 5:11, 5:28, 12:33, 14:33, 18:22; Mk 1:16-20; Mt 4:18-22). Leaving their nets, money, family ties, prestige, and occupations behind, the disciples became poor in order to follow him. When he sent them out, he told them to go without walking stick, sack, food, money, or second tunic (Lk 9:2, Mt 10:9, Mk 6:8).

And what did he preach to the people? “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours” (Lk 6:20). Given the religious climate of the Pharisaical purity laws, it would have been revolutionary enough to say that the poor were more than worthless afterthoughts of God. To say that they were blessed, that there was something particularly special about their situation, was something so cataclysmic to our fallen nature that I believe it has yet to be fully realized in the Church. The poor are special, not in their relation to our charity, but in the very fact that they are poor.

3. We seek justice against a corrupt system.

Because of that, there is an important distinction that needs to be made in order for us to live Gospel poverty appropriately and to relate to the poor compassionately: poverty that promotes virtue, which should be imitated, and poverty that demoralizes and dehumanizes, which should be eradicated. An excellent reason to remain poor is to take a stance against unjust systems that do not allow authentic human development and to stand in solidarity with those affected.

What sorts of stances does this entail? According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in their 1986 letter, Economic Justice for All, this includes anything and everything that could adversely affect the poor:

Decisions must be judged in light of what they do for the poor, what they do to the poor, and what they enable the poor to do for themselves. The fundamental moral criterion for all economic decisions, policies, and institutions is this: they must be at the service of all people, especially the poor. (no. 24)

The way we eat, save, spend vote, travel, reside, and shop all have an impact on the poor. Do we ever stop to wonder how the way we live is possible? How else could our t-shirts be so cheap if it weren’t for child labor? How else could our fast food so cheap if it weren’t for dehumanizing wages?  The list goes on and on. Unless we curve our insatiable need for “stuff” and change our lifestyle, these atrocities will continue to happen to the poorest in society.

As St. John Chrysostom writes, “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.” I believe very strongly that the extra coat one has in one’s closet belongs to the poor; to keep it unused in one’s closet rather than giving it to the poor is a grave sin.

So pervasive are these issues that they in fact take on a structural nature. As Pope Francis writes in his latest papal encyclical Evangelii Gaudiam, reiterating years of papal teaching, these structures need to be challenged.

Some continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been supported by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the economic system. (no. 54)

4. Wealth too easily becomes a false god.

Which brings us to the fourth and final reason to live a life of poverty: you cannot serve both God and mammon. The reason that our economic system in the west is so detrimental to the poor is because it has replaces God with money, a transition that is easy to make and difficult to break.

On the one hand there are those who have made it their life’s pursuit to acquire money, equating wealth with happiness. This is a sad state of affairs. Many people fail to recognize that money cannot satisfy such an insatiable appetite, leading some to resort to morally reprehensible things to obtain or maintain wealth.

The answer, however, is not to become a miser, refusing to spend one’s money on anything. Ironically enough, this is also a form of idolatry because it takes an exorbitant amount of time and energy away from things that actually matter.

***

It is because of all of this that I choose a life of poverty. I choose to imitate Jesus as closely as I can; to obey his word; to reject any system that may inhibit the authentic human development of my brothers and sisters; and to do all that I can do keep the Trinitarian God as my one and true God. I choose to live a life that is simple, without the distractions of useless possessions and futile pursuits. I choose to live a life that focuses entirely on a life with Jesus. That is why I choose to life a life of poverty. Now how do I do that? The next post will attempt to answer jus that.

My Struggle With Poverty

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Sometimes we find ourselves intending to worship one God, but acting like we worship another. I struggle with this discrepancy in my life, especially as a vowed religious.

Let’s be honest right off the bat: who am I to talk about poverty? I am the product of a lower middle class household that has always made ends meet, I attended an expensive university that lacked diversity of social class as much as it lacked diversity of race, and now I am a part of a province known for its affluence within the comfort of one of the Church’s largest institutions. My house has a cook, all of my basic expenses are paid for, and on top of that, I’m given a modest stipend to spend on “extra” things each month. I have had the horrifying and humiliating experience on more than one occasion of showing friends and family around one of our houses and receiving the response, “Wow. So this is how the friars live.” For many, myself included, we as friars do not always appear to be the people we say we are and want to be.

And yet, I continue to write despite the apparent lack of credentials on the matter. I write in this case not to give answers, but to allow others into my life and to share in my struggle.

I have not had an authentic experience of poverty in my life but I choose to live poorly, I want to live poorly. My attraction to this life as a friar was to be like the poor, with the poor, and for the poor. For both good and bad reasons, with personal and structural factors, I have not yet lived the ideals I hold. That does not mean that I don’t have them, nor does it mean that I am not working to live them more fully. This is what I would like to share.

With a topic as controversial and sensitive as this one, it is important to remember the words of our brother Francis: “I warn and exhort them, not to despise or judge men, whom they see clothed with soft and colored clothes, using dainty food and drink, but rather let each one judge and despise his very self.” The fact that my brothers and I do not live up to my ideals, that the institution may at times be a hindrance to poverty by its very nature, is a fact of life. To point out ways in which we fall short, then, is is not intended to be a judgement, but rather an encouraging exhortation.  As a brotherhood of friars and a community of Christians, I believe that it is our right, dare I say responsibility, to invite our neighbors to a more authentic example of Gospel living.

If you agree, and believe that a desire to live Gospel poverty is credibility enough to speak about it, I invite you to join me over the next few posts in a discussion about living Gospel poverty in a more authentic way. The topics I wish to discuss will focus primarily on my struggles so far as a friar, but will no doubt be universal enough for any Christian wishing to follow Jesus more closely in the 21st century.

In the meantime, I offer you the following articles previously posted related to poverty as a further introduction:

What Can’t I Live Without

Solidarity With The Poor

Seeking Insecurity