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!

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