A Missed Opportunity

After a particularly heady reflection on the Trinity in the spirituality of St. Bonaventure, I thought that I’d bring it back down to earth with St. Francis in this post. In contrast to Bonaventure’s inward journey, that of the soul and intellect being moved by the great mysteries of the transcendent God, Francis’ journey was of a poor traveller:

He wanted the attitude of traveller and stranger to characterize the friars minor. He envisioned them as pilgrims on the way to the heavenly kingdom. The historic Christ, after all, came to this world as a pilgrim. His starting point was heaven. Then He tarried, like the very poor, long enough to carry out the will of His heavenly Father, and, having atoned for sin and merited the grace of the Holy Spirit, He returned to His Father by an ascension. Francis knew that the whole meaning of the kerygma was to participate in this humiliation and exaltation of Christ.

(Sergius Wroblewski, OFM, Bonaventure: Theology of Prayer)

As a poor traveller, the object of one’s contemplation is less of the transcendent forms of heaven and more of the immanent, mundane realities of the world.  As followers in the way of St. Francis, we Franciscans find great meaning in the dirty, the chaotic, and the less-than-ideal because that is the road traveled by Jesus. Basilicas are wonderful, but so are bus stops.

In this way, you will find with the Franciscans almost no attempt to present a false air of perfection, to hide our flaws (although it might be nice if some friars did sometimes!) There is a recognition in our spirituality that the only thing potentially “holier” about us than lay people is that we embrace the fact that we are not complete, recognize that we are in need of God, and seek to journey in the way of Christ. Despite what some may think about the “holy brothers in the monastery,” we do not spend every waking moment in pious practices or talking about Jesus; we watch television, talk about sports, and even fight. But that’s the beauty of it: even in, or should I say especially in, the mundane conversations, petty conflicts, dirty situations, and dry moments, we attempt to identify ourselves with the humble struggle of Jesus’ life.

I was reminded of this recently in the two areas of greatest conflict in friar communities: kitchens and bathrooms. (I’ve said before, no fights are had over theology, but there is a weekly conflict over dishes.) Needing a fork, I opened the drawer only to find that all of the silverware had been indiscriminately thrown every which way. Utter chaos. Infuriating laziness. “Really people??” There are only so many messes you can clean in one day, I told myself. I’ll give them the opportunity to fix it. If it’s not fixed by the time I’m done eating, I’ll fix it, but I’m not dealing with this now. Closing the drawer, another friar looks at me and says, “If you’re not a part of the solution you’re a part of the problem.” I nearly smacked him in the face. Why is it my responsibility to clean up everyone else’s mess, especially given the fact that I do so in almost every other case.

Fast forward a few weeks, and low and behold, we have a bathroom issue. Issue is not strong enough. We have a toilet atrocity. Let’s leave it at that. Nope. Not dealing with this (insert pun). Whoever did this can come back and clean it up later, I’ll find another bathroom. A few hours later, the mess was cleaned and nothing further was ever mentioned.

Do you know what my spiritual director had the audacity to say about these two events, particularly the toilet? “You really missed an opportunity to love.” Come again? His point was that, very simply, I was too focused on how I had been wronged to notice how a brother may have needed me.

I could have helped a brother that was likely sick (confirmed later that he was); I could have provided a clean bathroom for the next person so that they wouldn’t have to deal with the frustration of a dirty bathroom too; I could have experienced humility in swallowing my pride and doing something that “I shouldn’t have to do”. Instead, I chose to leave the mess, use the other bathroom, and leave a statement to whoever did this that I’m not your maid; doing things for people that can easily do them themselves but refuse to do so is not love, it’s enabling rude and inconsiderate behavior.

I wonder, though, if that’s the only message being sent. I wonder if my sick brother that day got that message, or if, after returning to the bathroom in his weakened state a few hours later he got a different one: “We’re all in this alone so don’t expect any help from me.” Ouch.

Obviously, I do not advocate a community based on submission or abuse of those willing to care for the others. If a problem was recurring and it was clear that the person was less needy than lazy, direct confrontation would probably have been the best way to love. That being said, we can never forget that we are in this together. I know that my brothers unjustly deal with the burdens I unknowingly place on them. Couldn’t I put up with their’s as well, doing what “I shouldn’t have to do” simply because I’m taking a burden away from them?

Ultimately, how can we say that we walk the journey with Christ if we are unwilling to participate in the burdens he faced? If we love only those who treat us well and do only what is ours to do, we miss a real opportunity to experience Christ in the way of St. Francis. God is found in basilicas, for sure, but don’t miss the opportunity to see him in the mundane situations all around us.

A Retreat With Saint Bonaventure

My little cabin in the "woods"

My little cabin in the “woods”

This past weekend I left the world for a while. Like hermitage retreats in the past (one during postulancy and two during novitiate) I disconnected from technology, quieted my life, and spent the weekend in prayer and reflection. Unlike previous hermitage weekends, I did this one entirely on my own. No one was there to find the location or pay for the cabin (although they would have); no one was there to tell me when to leave or when to get up for prayer; no one was there to cook for me or clean up when I was done. In reality, no one told me that I had to go on a personal retreat in the first place; this one was entirely on my own initiative. And what an experience that was.

Don’t get me wrong: I love community life and have no desire to live the life of a hermit. But given the nature of formation so far, being “encouraged” to try this and that, being carted off on one trip after another, being thrown into classes, workshops, discussions, and faith sharing sessions on a regular basis, there is something positively fulfilling and extraordinarily liberating about taking control of my own formation. There was a sense of ownership in this retreat, having spent my own money; a sense of intentionality in choosing to go do something beyond requirements; a sense of confirmation in my own vocation after such a personal, intimate experience.

What, then, does one temporary professed Franciscan friar do with such liberation? I spent the weekend with one of the great doctors of the Church, St. Bonaventure. Living shortly after the time of Francis, Bonaventure acted for as the Minister General (world leader) of the Franciscans before becoming a Cardinal, and represents the beginning of the vast Franciscan intellectual tradition that largely shaped the high middle ages. Despite all of this, I knew very little about him or his theology prior to this weekend, and decided that he could be my guide.

In some ways, it definitely felt a lot like studying for my philosophy and theology courses at Catholic University given the difficulty of some of his works and the incredible intellect that he packs into each page. The difference was, unlike studying for school, I was able to spend as much time as I needed with each concept because I had no overall “objective” to complete other than to pray in the way of someone gone before me. When something troubled me, I took time to pray about it, to think deeply about its implications before moving on. When something appeared not to produce spiritual fruit, I moved on to something else, not worrying that I was missing something that might be on a test.

Space certainly does not allow for me to explain all of these concepts that tied my brain in a knot, nor do I feel like I even have a good enough grasp of his spirituality to even try, but I would like to offer two points of particular importance. (I realize that this is not for a general audience, but there is an aspect of my nurturing my own understanding in attempting to express it. I completely understand if you choose to stop reading at this point. In some ways I actually recommend it!)

The first is the way in which Bonaventure viewed the Trinity. One of the great detriments I’m finding with common spirituality is that we often talk about and pray to “God,” a homogenous, single-faceted being. In our Christian tradition, however, God consists of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Unlike many others in the west that wondered how one God could be three persons, Bonaventure focused on the individuality of the three persons and asked how they could be one. These are two sides of the same coin for sure, but the nuance here is significant. That difference, as I understand it, is twofold: it emphasizes union over division (how to come together rather than split apart) and it calls the believer to a particular focus on each facet of God’s greatest, even a particular relationship with each person. God is at once father, brother, and spouse; each a different person, each requiring a different response. (This is something worth taking to prayer.)

There is quite obviously a flaw to this analogy, as in the case of all analogies: God is not male and so cannot be “Father,” “brother,” or “Son,” in the complete sense that we understand these terms. The point is the relationship, one of begetting or giving birth to another, followed by emanation. In less human terms, Bonaventure uses the analogy of speech: one is the speaker, one is the word being spoken, and one is the diffusion of that speech or the rhetoric. Which is first? Which is most important? Which actually creates, redeems, or sanctifies? Well, all of them, really. Clearly one cannot be speaking without the word spoken, which naturally diffuses, and the word cannot be spoken or diffused without a speaker. They are all simultaneous and yet distinct, individually incomplete and yet each containing the fullness of God.

If you think you’re still with me, here’s an excerpt from “The Journey of the Mind to God” in which he contemplates the mystery of the Trinity, the conundrums of the relationship:

You wonder how communicability can be found together with self-containment, consubstantiality with plurality, alikeness with distinct personality, coequality with sequence, coeternity with begetting, mutual indwelling with emission… For in Christ there is personal union together with trinity of substance and duality of nature; there is full accord coexisting with plurality of wills, joint predication of God and man with plurality of properties, joint adoration with plurality of rank, joint exaltation with plurality of eminence, and joint dominion with plurality of powers. (Chapter 6)

This presents itself with a very interesting question: if Jesus is “begotten” of the Father, the Word spoken of the first, uncreated, unmoved, always existing speaker, when did this happen (keep in mind that the Church believes Jesus to be coeternal with the Father)? The only possible answer to this question is that it has always been happening. The very nature of the first person of the Trinity is to create, to beget from itself; for this to be true, the first person must have always been begetting the second person, forever being disseminated in the third person. There can never be a moment in which God the Father is not creating through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, past, present, or future.

The key to this whole discussion is that Bonaventure believes God’s very nature to be creative and diffusive Love. Pure, perfect love cannot help but to beget of itself something to be loved, and can only be perfected if it has someone to share it with. To say that God is love is not just some hallmark catchphrase but a highly Trinitarian theology: God is by God’s very nature self-contained overflowing love (sit with that one for a little while).

Thus, Creation is but an outpouring of that very nature, a model for the Trinity itself. Isaiah provides the perfect image of this Franciscan understanding:

Yet just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me, achieving the end for which I sent it. (55:10-11)

The Creation of the world was an act of God the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit, and outpouring of God’s very nature to create, diffuse, and return. Self-contained overflowing love. As created being ourselves, we are taking part in this outpouring of God, this emanation of Love; we ourselves are an outpouring of this Love that must return to God one day.

If you made it this far, I thank and commend you, and hope that it may be inspiration for your own prayer as it has been for mine. I do not suggest quoting anything I have said as it is a humble friar’s first encounter with Bonaventure and no doubt lacks precision in language.

Radical Obedience

There are few people that live obedience more radically than these two!

There are few people that live obedience more radically than these two!

When we think of things that are “radical” about religious life, things like helping the poor, shared life in community, and celibacy all come to mind as being counter-cultural witnesses to Christian life. How often, however, do we associate obedience with being radical? By their very definitions, one would think, “radical” and “obedience” are closer to opposites than synonyms: one requires submission, the other fundamental change. Obedience is something for children and the oppressed, not for radicals that want to change the world. And yet, I stand by the title of this post. Even more boldly, I stand by the statement that obedience is the most radical thing we as Franciscans can share with the Church and the world.

Before you click to a new link, hear me out! I’m not trying to start a cult or militia, and I’m not asking anyone to stop being a free thinker. Quite the opposite actually.

The way I see it, we live in a society focused entirely on the individual. We have become such an inwardly looking people that we have given up on absolute, universal Truth. Truth in today’s world is determined by the individual based on what is considered meaningful, and it varies from person to person. “That may be true for you, but it’s not for me,” one may say. Inevitably, it devolves into a system of belief that can only say, “Who are you to tell me what to do? I believe whatever I want.” In this world of thinking, the world in which the only obedience is obedience to self, we have made ourselves into gods. This is not truth at all. This is delusion.

Christianity professes a very different idea of Truth: Jesus Christ, God incarnate, is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and he is obedient to the Father. St. Paul writes in the letter to the Philippians that Jesus humbled himself by renouncing his place in heaven to take on flesh, that he was “obedient to death, even death on a cross.” As fully divine and fully human, this act of obedience was a full and conscious choice and the part of Jesus, a choice that could have gone otherwise: just as He was free in the desert to be tempted by the devil, Jesus was free to let fear of pain and death deter him from doing what He was asked to do. Had it been up to his own will, things might have been different:

Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.” He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” (Mt 26:38-39)

Jesus provides us with a perfect example of obedience: even though He did not want to do it, and wasn’t completely sure if what He was being asked to do was entirely necessary, He did it anyway. Was it because He was brainwashed and couldn’t think for himself? Hardly. His example of obedience is rooted in humility, trust, and faithfulness to what he knew was the will of God. Jesus’ kenosis included giving up the need to know, the need to be in control, and the need to be consulted before God made the decision. All Jesus needed was to pray and to live in the tension of the situation.

When I look at obedience through this lens, I see it as an openness to be moved, to be taken outside of one’s comfort zone, and to be brought outside the realm of control. It is radical trust in people we love, in people who have gone before us and claim to know the way, and in God, knowing that our feeble attempts at controlling our world pale in comparison to the active work of God in salvation history.

As I study more philosophy and theology, and as I begin to take on a more active ministerial role in the Church, I am increasingly faced with teachings and actions of the Church that leave me unsettled. In some cases, I find myself truly struggling to accept them. And so I return to the title of this post: what does it mean to live with radical obedience when faced with situations that seemingly challenge my conscience? It means living in the tension between humbly challenging and faithfully trusting. The church does not need brainwashed robots that will blindly follow its every command, especially when they may be contrary to the Gospel. At the same time, the Church needs people to recognize that it is founded on nearly two thousands years of tradition and tremendous amounts of prayer, study, and action. After 24 years of life, am I really willing to say that I know more than the collection of theological thinkers over two millennia? I hope not.

When I look to history for other examples of faithful Christians faced with the same issues, a Saint and Pope bearing the same name come to mind: Francis. The profound counter-cultural nature of their lives reveals a disconnect between the Church they imagine and the Church they see; there is no doubt that these men saw a Church in need of reform. And yet, I daresay you will not find a single line of either of their’s calling for revolution, denouncing a Church teaching, or encouraging dissent from the outside. The humility and reverence for the Church is simply too great in each of them. Rather, the profound reform of these two men emanates from inside, within the limits of a less-than-perfect church, through their living of the Gospel as authentically as possible and by challenging the Church to do the same.

This is the type of radical obedience I hope to live. The type of obedience that says, “I may not agree, but I’m willing to try.” The type of obedience that trusts before it dissents, investigates before it acts. The type of obedience that holds the revelation and dogma of the Church in one hand, my own will and the will of the people I serve in the other, and refuses to ever let go of either. I assure you that I will never find the answer to all of our questions and I severely doubt that I will ever be able to profess without reservation everything the Church teaches, but my charism as a Franciscan will always guide me live life in the tension of these realities. For Franciscans, we do not seek easy answers to difficult questions. The world is not so black and white. For us, God is in the grey area, the murkiness, the tension. It is in faithfully trusting what we do not know, imitating our Lord that did the same, that we are able find God.

[Not] Too Busy To…

A lot of times, my prayer is simply putting down my books, turning off my cell-phone, and for twenty minutes just sitting without worrying about what I have do to.

A lot of times, my prayer is simply putting down my books, turning off my cell-phone, and just sitting without worrying about what I have do to. Its amazing what can happen if you just give God a little time.

. . . write this post, frankly. What can I say? I’ve got a lot on my plate! Between 15 credits of courses that require a lot of reading and writing, teaching two confirmation classes, the fraternal prayer and meal schedule, starting up JPIC (Justice Peace and Integrity of Creation) events in the house, an ever-increasing list of speaking opportunities, and a host of other things I hope to do this year to keep me a healthy, sane, and social person, there’s very little time to spare. It would be very easy for me to become overwhelmed, defeated, or even cut a few things out.

The fact of the matter is that there still is time to do many things. There is always time. What there usually is not is the ability to prioritize effectively and the perseverance to keep going when things are difficult or no longer interesting. When I fail to do these things, no amount of time in the world could ever suffice to do everything I need to do. Without these two things, apathy seeks in and even the important things lose meaning.

When people struggle to make ends meet, most will choose to cut the food or personal care budget rather than miss a mortgage or car payment, because as they see it, the mortgage and car payment has to be paid whereas food and personal care are a bit more flexible; no one is going to penalize them for not eating. These people, and there are many among us, are able to maintain the structures of their lives, but are ultimately left insufficiently nourished.

For us in religious life, or more inclusively, all who profess to be Christian, prayer is often the first thing cut for the same reason: school, work, finances, and friends often bring about obvious penalties if neglected, whereas prayer does not. As a result, just as in the case of the person struggling to make ends meet, we are able to maintain the structures of our lives, but are ultimately left insufficiently nourished.

One friar in our house often says, “Prayer must always remain a priority. Like meals, school work, exercise, and fraternity time, it needs to be set in the schedule for thirty minutes each day so as to not be neglected.” This is quite obvious and makes perfect sense: if time is set out during the day, no matter what, for something like exercise, shouldn’t prayer be as well. But that’s not the end of it: “And in times when you’re busy, those times when you’re overwhelmed and can’t imagine how you’re going to get through it all, make it an hour.” How contradictory to the way most of us normally act! And yet, how true! What is it that’s going to keep us going? What is it that nourishes us? What is it that gives us meaning and reminds us why? It is relationship with God. It is prayer. In times of great struggle, even when there is little time to spare, a little prayer can go a long way.

For me, I find myself spending my entire day working directly and indirectly for God. Whether it’s studying so as to be an ordained minister in the future, directly serving to the people of God through ministry opportunities, spending time with the fraternity, or taking care of my mind and body through exercise and social opportunities, I find myself very busy for God’s sake. But is that all God wants, to spend my time doing things for God? I don’t think so. If a relationship is predicated solely on doing things for another, never doing things with another, all one would be left with is an impersonal agreement of benefits among acquaintances. I dare say: this may not even be a relationship at all. I must always remind myself of this fact. Even though I find myself busy doing God’s work and training myself to do it even better in the future, too busy to do much more than I’m already doing, I cannot say that I am truly in a relationship unless I take the time to actually pray, that is, spend quality time with God.

There is always time for prayer. Always. I may be too busy to do everything I could ever dream of doing, but I know for sure that I am not too busy to pray.

My Prayer of Fidelity

The commitment to prayer of our Muslim brothers is truly inspirational. Francis himself admired their universal call to prayer.

The commitment to daily prayer of our Muslim brothers and sisters is truly inspirational. Francis himself admired this.

Woody Allen is famously quoted as saying, “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” For many, this is an example one of those cheesy motivational quotes found on posters of soaring eagles or sunsets over mountains, feel-good lines that don’t stand up to actual reason. For many, glorifying the act of showing up is akin to awarding “participation ribbons” to every kid in Little League, downplaying what really matters, skill and hard work, ultimately lowering our expectations and standards so that we’re all winners. Showing up, for many, is worth very little.

It may surprise many of you then to hear that I find this line is a perfect one to describe my experience of prayer life since the beginning of novitiate. Prayer, as I have found it, is an act of fidelity.

Even for someone who has been a Christian all my life, believed in God, and found prayer to be an important practice, I have often struggled to find prayer to be a consistently fulfilling experience. Sometimes, I would finish empowered, overjoyed, and enlightened about God, myself, and the world; other times, I would leave having spent 20 minutes thinking about what I was going to do next, or worse yet, focused entirely on the question, “What the heck am I doing wasting my time with this?” Because of this, prayer time was never among my highest priorities, and my commitment to it was sporadic at best. This was the case even up through my Postulant year into Novitiate. I intellectually knew that prayer was a good thing to do, but for one reason or another (too busy, bored, tired, distracted, etc.) I could still go days without intentional time for prayer.

This all changed during novitiate. While I knew that I could not control how tired, distracted, interested, comfortable, or happy I was going to be during prayer, nor could I affect the outcome of the experience, I knew that I could control my attendance. Within the first couple weeks of novitiate, I made a commitment to quietly sit in the chapel for 30 minutes a day. All I had to do was show up. And let me tell you: a lot of mornings, that’s all I did. There were days that getting out of bed to sit in a cold chapel was the last thing I wanted to do. There were days when I could have spent that time doing “more important” things. There were days when I was angry at God, my brothers, or myself, and didn’t want to deal with them. There were days when showing up, literally, was all I could have done, and yet, in the past I wouldn’t have even done that.

What I came to realize was that showing up, having fidelity to prayer, was in fact a prayer in and of itself. I found that it offered an insight into God’s fidelity to me, that God was always there, showing up for me, not because I deserved it, was particularly enjoyable to be around, or offered a fulfilling experience, but because of his commitment to my life. Showing up, even when I didn’t want to, offered me the opportunity to return that love, to emulate the God who had never failed to love me.

The reason I believe I failed to experience much in my prayer life before this point, and why I continue to struggle at times, is because prayer is something that requires a lot of work, commitment, and practice. For me, eighty percent of that experience is showing up, and so that’s what I do. I prayer Morning and Evening Prayer each and every day, no matter how busy, and find thirty minutes a day for Lectio Divina. Do I always enjoy it? No, but I can tell you one thing: the more I show up the more I enjoy it. In the same way that one does not pick up running and immediately enjoy it or is able to run well, prayer is something that needs to be entered gradually, worked at, and persevered.

In the end, what more is there for us to do but show up? We are always and already in the presence of God so there is nothing more we can do to call his attention; God is constantly offering us more of his grace than we can surely handle so there is no need to earn anything; and we are certainly not in control of what God may or may not be preparing us for, so there is no use in trying to assert our will over his. All we have to do and all we can ever do is show up and take part in the work of our God. Fidelity. That’s my prayer.