Keeping Holy the Sabbath

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Six days you shall labor, and do all your work;
but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God;
in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son,
or your daughter, your manservant,
or your maidservant or your cattle,
or the sojourner who is within your gates;
for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
and rested the seventh day;
therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.

Exodus 20:8-11

The idea of the Sabbath day is a familiar one: Jews and Christians alike, though varied in day and practice depending on the specific faith tradition, are called to observe a day of rest and reflection. For many, it is a day away from the busyness of daily life and work and a time for spiritual renewal through community worship and personal reflection.

What happens, then, in the life of a professed religious? The “busyness of daily life and work” IS the Sabbath day; though no doubt spiritually satisfying, it is nonetheless a day of great work. Is it considered “keeping the Sabbath” to spend one’s whole day working, albeit at church? If not, does one simply skip this requirement and go back to work Monday? These are important questions for which the Order doesn’t have strict answers.

At this point in my formation, I find keeping the Sabbath to be critical to the life of a friar, though I recognize that making it once a week, no more or less, is a bit arbitrary. In my time with the friars, both in discernment and now in the Postulancy, I have witnessed great examples of what it means to keep the Sabbath, as well as some examples that leave something to be desired. Each method characterized below has its obvious positive and negative aspects, but offer a unique and fruitful perspective to religious life. Because they’re not mutually exclusive ideas, I see the best solution at this point to be a combination of the three, mixing and matching based on the situation of each friar’s ministry.

Make a different day the Sabbath. There’s really no good reason that the Sabbath has to be Sunday; the bible simply dictates that it should be observed, not when it should be (Since the early church saw Christianity as a movement within Judaism, they observed the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday, and began celebrating the Eucharist on Sunday. Eventually the Saturday part was dropped.) Because of this, a good number of friars will choose a regular day of the week, usually Monday, as their “off” day, to relax and spend time in prayer. In a similar vein, friars at the St. Francis Inn (Philadelphia) take off one day a week for leisure and rest, as well as one day specifically set aside for prayer and reflection. The former allows for more work to get done while the latter doesn’t make the friar choose between leisure and prayer each week.

Cut the day in thirds. Probably as common as an alternative day off, a number of friars have told me that they cut the day into three shifts, (8-12, 12-5, and 5-10) and require themselves to rest during one of them. This method guarantees time for prayer and reduces the risk of burning oneself out, while still allows them to be “always available” if needed. The upside to this method is that everyday, in a sense, can be a partial Sabbath day, allowing an opportunity to remove oneself in the midst of great stress to be with God; the downside is that one is never “off the clock” mentally, and it can be very easy to slip back into work mode during prayer/relaxation time.

Fill up only when empty. The last method is probably the least desired but not uncommon in our province. Rather than taking a specified time or day off each week, some friars choose to work as needed, taking short breaks for prayer and rest sporadically throughout the day, going long periods of time without a “formal” break. When they feel like they’ve worked to the point of exhaustion they will take a short leave, usually in the form of a week long vacation or retreat. Healthy friars are able to see work as an additional form of prayer and remain spiritually nourished, though physically exhausted; unhealthy men begin to see work as a replacement for prayer, and will eventually find themselves not only physically exhausted, but spiritually as well.

We’re Baaaaack….

After nearly 12 days in North Carolina with my family, I find myself back in the familiar (and very cold) confines of Wilmington, Delaware, refreshed and ready for another fives months of whatever the Postulancy has to offer. While at home, I spent most of the mornings/afternoons relaxed on the couch, either in front of the t.v. watching mediocre college football games or re-runs of my favorite show, 30 Rock, or catching up on a little reading and journaling. The highlight of the break was definitely the time I got to spend with my whole family playing games such as Monopoly, Spades, Cranium, and Yatzee, winning all of them of course (except for the ones I lost).

Besides relaxation and fellowship, I had also mentioned before that this would be a great time for reflection and discernment as it would most definitely bring to light the differences between the life I once had and the life I’ve recently adopted. In this way, the break did not disappoint. Though I didn’t come to any earth-changing realizations, I left my house yesterday reconfirmed in my decision to join the friars and actually a bit excited to return to Wilmington (a truly preposterous statement if you’ve ever lived a block from I-95 in Wilmington!) Here are a few of the things that I came to realize that probably influenced these sentiments:

Community prayer is important to me. In the five months since I moved to Delaware, I think I missed Morning prayer, Evening prayer, and Mass a total of ten times, all but one of those times due to traveling constraints. Praying multiple times a day in community became sort of second nature to me, a “habit” if you will. It wasn’t until I went home and forced myself to restrain from praying the Office or going to daily mass that I realized, however, that it was much more than just a programmed behavior: community prayer is a critical part of my spiritual life. Sure, I went to Mass on Sunday, and I prayed frequently over break, but I knew that something was missing.

The friars have subtly become my “other” family. For all in my immediate and extended family reading this, don’t think that I’m in any way saying that there has been a replacement of feelings from you to them! Those in my family will always have that special relationship. But having lived together now for five months, praying, learning, traveling, and working with each other, it’s hard not to see that new, intimate relationships have begun to form. I found myself on break thinking, “I miss those guys,” and “I’m excited to go back and see everyone,” in a way that somewhat resembles, but feels ultimately different than the feeling I had upon returning to college each year. It took a little time away for me to realize that these guys had subtly become my brothers.

For now, I think I’ll leave it at that. I spent some time reflecting on a few other unrelated things, but in the interest of space and organization, I’ll leave those topics for another day. Our next adventure begins Thursday afternoon when we travel down to Maryland for the Formation Intercession, a meeting of all the Holy Name Province students. It should be a great opportunity to look ahead in the formation process and hear from those in years two through five about their experiences along the way.

As a last note, thanks to all those I saw over break that shared such reaffirming words about the blog. I try not to get caught up in the comments or page statistics, but it is nice to hear that it’s more than just a tool to organize my thoughts. Thank you for all of your support along the way!

Vocation Vacation

Vocation Vacation? Not what I had in mind…

Starting tomorrow, the other four postulants and I will be free to leave for Christmas break, spending the next ten days however we please, wherever it pleases us. Personally, I’ll be on my way to the airport en route for my family’s house in North Carolina where I will spend most of my time relaxing and catching up with friends and family.

There’s no doubt that this is a very typical situation for most people: many people my age (including myself for the last four years) visit home for the holidays and spend the whole time relaxing and socializing. It is a familiar, comfortable place where we fall back into old habits and remember the person we once were. Surely, this is the farthest place from discernment one can be, right? Our postulant director sees it quite differently. Here’s a section of the letter he gave us yesterday:

I have insisted that this break is important and argued for your going home (or as close as I could get you to your home). The break is only a little more than a week, not long at all. During that time I’d suggest you take your breviary and pray the Office as you find comfortable. Do the same with daily mass; don’t feel that you have to go other than on Sunday but go as you like. Do not visit friars or friaries, your break is to get away from friars and friaries (and celebrate holiday time with your family). If you do not distance yourself you cannot get a clear picture of things. Talk with your family members and friends about the choice you’ve made and the vocation you feel called to. Test it against them. Ask if they notice any change in you. Notice any changes in them or your former environment.

This break is as important as any retreat you will take; it is a time for discernment.

Oddly enough, approaching the once familiar and comfortable might be the best bit of discernment I’ll have this entire year. By distancing myself from religious life, breaking out of the new habits I’ve formed and back into the old ones, I’ll have the opportunity to test the new against the old. Will the old habits fit too well to be shaken? Will I remember the life I once had and seek to live it again?

Or will I begin to feel as Francis did, as written in The Legend of the Three Companions: “What before seemed delightful and sweet will be unbearable and bitter; and what before made you shudder will offer you great sweetness and enormous delight.”

There’s no doubt that there is a different feel to this trip home than there was in the previous four years; something feels different. Maybe I’m different. Time to relax and reflect will certainly tell. One thing I do know for sure, however, is that I have been looking forward to seeing my family and being home for a while now, and I’m very excited to see them later today! Wish me luck on my Vocation Vacation!

Now does that mean a vacation for my vocation, or from it…?

Rethinking the “Season of Giving”

Sometimes, this is what Christmas feels like to me.

As a “friar in training,” I’m pretty poor. I have enough to cover all my my needs and a few of my wants, but there’s no room for saving or extravagance. This, I have absolutely no complaints about.

One of the things that this forces me to do is to focus myself much better on the true meaning of the Advent and Christmas seasons. Most of my life I have been caught up in the “Season of Giving,” in which the holiday was dictated by things, either given or received; the great arrival that we awaited came in a box, not a manger. Even in the past few years when I’ve explicitly asked friends and family to abstain from buying me things, there has still been both a desire and a pressure to give to others (usually in the form of a purchased gift) which has inevitably led me to focus more on things and less on Jesus.

This year, I hope to no one’s surprise, I will not be buying any gifts for my friends and family members. For the amount I could possibly spend on each person, it is simply not worth the trouble. This, however, doesn’t mean that I will be ditching the sentiment altogether: there’s something to be said about the altruistic nature of the holiday that doesn’t need to be thrown away with the consumeristic “bathwater.”

Instead of focusing on the time as the “Season of Giving,” I’m going to try to see it as the “Season for Faith, Hope, and Love,” in which the three cardinal virtues will be my gifts to others. Understanding that gift giving is only one way to show affection to others, my lack of financial means will force me to try a number of the others: quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and touch.

I certainly believe that it is situations such as these, facing circumstances that upset the status quo of our lives, that we come to see the world in a different (and usually better) way, learn a bit more about ourselves, and ultimately grow closer to God and neighbor. I pray that this Christmas will be one filled with new experiences centered around the hope and joy of the coming Lord.

Living In The Moment

(My apologies for the length of this post, but there is a lot to say after an eight-day retreat.)

I’m not sure if everyone else is like this, but I have a very active imagination. I find myself with my head in the clouds quite often, either remembering some past experience or creating an elaborate hypothetical situation in the future, often times taking both sides of an argument or practicing eloquent dissertations. I’ve been told that this doesn’t make me crazy (really!), and that it can actually be a great form of prayer. On the other hand, it can be an escape that leaves me having never experienced the present moment; to only contemplate the past and future leaves no room for experiencing a great homily, the beauty of nature, the particularities of the mass, or most tragically, an experience of direct communication with God. My goal for this retreat was to fight the temptation to drift off and to stay focused on the present, to live in the moment.

And so we began. Ora et labora. Pray and work. St. Benedict’s great motto was our Rule for a week. Off went the cell phone, and quiet went the mouth for the majority of the day.

Each day was greatly dictated by the schedule for prayer: seven times a day, we dropped whatever we were doing and met the monks for a highly formalized prayer. This included Vigils (4:45am), Lauds (7:00am), Mass (9:00am), Sext (12:00pm), None (3:00pm), Vespers (6:30pm), and Compline (8:15pm). Though I found some of the hours to be a bit monotonous, at least intellectually I found the commitment to prayer to be quite profound. Even for minor hours such as Sext and None that lasted literally 6 minutes, no one ever missed it. Because prayer is the most important part of their life, other tasks had to work their way around the prayer schedule. This was a great witness to the rest of the world that prays as an afterthought or only in its “free time.”

Between prayers, we were free to read, go for walks, journal, pray privately, or best of all, nap extensively. With nothing required for us to do and being banned from our phones and unnecessary conversation, I saw the week as an excellent time to relax while being productive enough to catch up on some reading and writing.

To my great surprise, however, there can actually be such a thing as too much free time! And because it is very easy to forget to focus on the present and revert to a normal task-oriented way of thinking, I become restless within just a few days when there wasn’t enough to occupy my time. Without the news, music, conversation, tasks, games, or television to keep my attention, I was left in a world of which I was unfamiliar: silence. I even found myself treating prayer as something to be completed, allotting specific amounts of time for it and expecting certain results. In doing so, I inadvertently focused my attention more on how much time I had left and what my next task was than on my experience at that moment.

In the afternoon of day four, I hit a wall. I had no interest in reading. I had just taken a nap. had nothing to journal about. The thought of formal prayer didn’t entice me. I was in a state of lethargy that left me feeling apathetic, and honestly, a bit helpless. What was I going to do for another seven hours before bed and for four more days? 

Forcing myself to get up, I walked over to the chapel and sat down in eucharistic chapel with one goal: just exist. I told myself not to worry about how long I was going to be there, what I was going to focus on, how I was supposed to prayer. Just exist. Just live in the moment. Instead of closing my eyes and trying to block out the sounds around me, I embraced every one of my senses as a way to take part in the present moment. I thought to myself, “Since Jesus in his Eucharistic presence is in this specific place, I will just sit here and experience the surroundings with him.”

What was I hoping to get out of it? Nothing but a shared experience with a friend.

When was I going to finish? Whenever I didn’t want to enjoy the moment any more.

That was it. Just exist, together.

Though it was my goal from the start, it took time for me to actually realize what that meant. When I finally did, it was amazing how freeing of an experience it was to just sit and enjoy the moment with him. In that moment, for however long it lasted, I was given a faith that hadn’t been there before, connected in a way unlike any other in the past. It was unexpected. It was life giving. It shaped the rest of the week.

And yet, it was only the first wall I had to break through. No sooner did I have this revelation did I fall into the comfort of complacency: Now that I’ve had such a great experience, I’m good for a while. It was as if it gave me a free pass to stop seeking, to stop wanting more experiences, to be comfortable in the current state.

Had the retreat of lasted three days, I would have never gotten to the point of desperation that forced me to let myself go; had it of lasted six days, I would have never had to deal with the complacency that followed. Even though a life following St. Francis doesn’t exist in a cloister and focus entirely on prayer, it is clearly the first way of life described as “contemplative in action.” Without a fruitful foundation in prayer, our life is simply not possibile.

As a final note, there are no pictures from this week. Keeping with the goal of living in the moment, I was inspired by the words of John Mayer in his song 3×5:

Didn’t have a camera by my side this time
Hoping I would see the world through both my eyes
Maybe I will tell you all about it
When I’m in the mood to lose my way with words

Sometimes I can be so focused on capturing the perfect picture (angle, settings, lighting, etc) that I forget to see the world around me as it is. I was taken aback by the lush rolling hills, the open fields in such vastness, the multiplicity of shades of blue in one sky, and the quiet of the human-free world.