Coming Up For Air: What Does Time Off Mean as a Friar?

I’ve been here at my summer assignment in Triangle, VA for about a month now, and what a summer it’s been so far! Apparently, when I first met with the parish staff back in early May, I said the words, “I don’t want to be bored this summer” four different times. The parish has been happy to oblige my request!

So besides making videos and being a rockstar at an elementary school, the only two things I’ve shared thus far, what else am I doing to stay busy? Let’s see…

  • Twice a week I teach a class for an hour an a half. The first class is “How to Read the Bible,” a class I taught last summer in Camden but have almost completely rebooted given the amount I learned in seminary this past year. It is not a Bible “study” in the sense that we are not focusing on specific passages but rather a class to give people the tools to understand how Catholics approach the text with regard to its genre, historical significance, place in salvation history, and life of prayer. The second class, a completely new idea for me, is called “Catholic Bootcamp.” Over seven weeks, I hope to cover “all” of Catholicism in a sort of remedial RCIA framework that really challenges even the most faithful Catholics. So far we’ve covered Scripture, history, and theology, and will finish with moral theology, social teaching, and worship. It’s a bit ambitious, to say the least, and I am learning a lot about myself (and my own faith) in the process.
  • Twice now I have preached, alternating weekends, and will plan to do that two more times this summer.
  • With the help of the director of religious education, I’m organizing a summer young adult group (ages 18-25) that meets once a week. So far it’s been casual, focusing almost exclusively on building community. We’ve played ultimate frisbee, had a cookout, and tonight, we’ll be watching Wall-E in the gym. I’m amazed at how the group, which otherwise had never met one another, has been so enthusiastic about organizing these events and how well they’ve gotten along with one another. A separate post is sure to follow.
  • One of the big reasons I chose St. Francis in Triangle for my summer assignment was the Franciscan Action and Advocacy group. Among the most active social justice parishes in the province (if not the most active given the amount it has done to effect actual legislation), I’ve had a good opportunity to learn from the director and see how much a parish is capable of. Although the summer is a bit slow, I’ve sat in on meetings for two different groups, plan to attend the USCCB’s Anti-Human Trafficking Conference next week (for which the parish’s director will be a key speaker on a panel) and in a few weeks, will lead a discussion on Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the care of our common home.
  • Miscellaneous tasks include giving the announcements and greeting parishioners at all of the masses, serving at a Eucharistic minister, cooking dinner a few times per week in the house, attending staff meetings, volunteering once a week at the parish-run food pantry, meeting with parishioners on request, and periodically attending weddings, baptisms, or special events at the parish for the experience.

I mention all of these things, not to brag about all I’m doing (I mean, it’s a lot of work, but come on… I know so many people reading this post work so much harder than I do!) but to set up what this reflection is really about: how much should a friar “work”?

Here’s the issue: as a professed religious, we are called to serve the Church in one capacity or another. Because this is the life we live and not a job we fulfill, the idea of being “off” and “on” is not quite as clear as it is for someone who works a 9-5 job and clocks out at the end of the day. Being at a parish, and being someone who wants to work as hard as possible, I’ve found that there are things that can fill every minute of the day if I let them. (There have been more than a few days this summer that I have focused on ministry, in one way or another, from 9am until 10pm.)

At the one extreme, this can be suffocating and deadly. If a friar overextends himself, constantly giving what he has not replenished through prayer, or if he separates the external ministry from what is essential to the charism, namely minority and fraternity, such work will eventually lose purpose and the friar will burnout. This is not good, and as a result, there are many friars that are very sensitive to the amount of work we do, calling others to learn to say no more often, to work less and spend more time in fraternity.

At the other extreme, an extreme I find equally as deadly, is to put so much emphasis on “self-care” and fraternity that barely any ministry gets done. The irony of this situation, constantly focused on avoiding the burnout of work, can actually lead to a burnout of a different kind: isolated and inward-looking, this friar runs the risk of falling into a rut, losing passion, and becoming numb to the comforts around him. This is obviously not good either, and as a result, there are many friars that a very sensitive to the amount of time they take off and call others to spend less time in the friary and more time in the world.

Obviously, the amount of work that one does is going to be based on that person’s ability and we can’t expect more from a friar than he is able to give or judge him for how much or little he works. What I can say, though, is that there can be a healthier, more balanced approach to work for friars (including myself!) Here are just a few reflections at the moment:

  • We can’t give what we don’t have. If we spend little or no time in prayer, do not interact with the brothers enough to let them know we love them (and let them do the same for us!), and are so busy that we lose touch with the outside world, we will eventually have nothing to give no matter how many hours we work.
  • We are a “fraternity in mission,” not a “fraternity and mission”; these two aspects of our life should not be compartmentalized. For those who complain about “workaholic” friars, we need to remember that working together is a vital part of fraternity; for those who complain about “lazy” friars, we need to remember that recreating is a vital part of our mission.
  • Our work is not like other people’s work: while others work to make a living, we live to work for others. Yes, some days are incredibly difficult, depressing, and downright deflating. And yet, everyone needs time off, including vacations, to recharge. But work for us is who we are. Francis made it very clear in his writings that we are to work before we beg, that work (particularly manual work) is essential to be a Franciscan. It’s my hope for all friars, and what is driving me this summer, that we be so overjoyed with the Gospel that we would want to fill every moment of our day living and sharing it, not counting it as “work” to be completed so we can go on vacation or have some “real fun” but something we can’t get enough of.
  • Finally, I need to remember that people in the “real world” work just as hard, but also have to take care of kids, spend time with their spouse and worry about paying bills, without not having the amazing support that we have from our parishes and donors.

My summer here in Triangle is more than halfway over and I’m truly devastated by that fact. I have loved every minute of the work I’m doing here and would do even more if there was more time in a day. And it’s because of that, it is because I love doing what I’m doing so much and want to be able to do so for the rest of my time here, that I’m taking almost the entire day off: relax in my room, grab some lunch in town, play a round of golf, and come back for prayer and dinner with the friars. I know that I could be reading Laudato Si, planning class tomorrow, or taking care of any number of people at the parish today. And a part of me feels really guilty about not doing these things today. But part of my formation as a friar is learning to pace myself, that I want to sprint when it’s really a marathon, that all I want to do is to continue diving deeper, but I can’t do that without coming up for some air every once in a while.

Top Ten Friar Questions

The video series rolls on. And does it ever. I want to thank everyone for your amazing support over the past week. I’ve received a lot of encouraging messages and really appreciate how much people have shared the new video series with others on social media. Comments are nice, but seeing that people like it enough to share is so affirming. (To give you an idea, a normal day is about 80 hits and the most in a day in 308. Four straight days now it’s been over 200, and yesterday reached a new high of 555 hits! As of 10:00am this morning, there have already been 70 hits.)

With that said, hopefully you’ll enjoy this one just as much. Because I’m still experimenting and trying to find the character of the channel, you’ll notice that it is a very different style than the Patience video and the Welcome but just as Franciscan: Top ten questions I get asked as a Franciscan friar.

Also, special thanks to Rob Goraieb, OFS (a parishioner and Secular Franciscan at the parish) for his many hours of planning, filming, critiquing, editing and making me laugh! You’ll catch him at the end of the video in our “bonus segment.”

Well, Here Goes Nothing!

After a fairly positive response all around, it looks like I’m going to start making videos on a regular basis along with writing the blog. As mentioned in the last post, I have been working on a trailer for the channel and am happy to present it to you now. I’m also working on two or three new videos, and hope to get a regular reflection up about this past weekend’s readings, so check back in a few days!

New Video Series?

After the modest success of the road trip videos (by which I mean that I was able to string together a few clips with no prior editing skill and people actually watched it), I started thinking about new ways to use the technology. I may have come up with the answer. Below you will find my first reflection video, the “pilot” we’ll say, in the Breaking In The Habit video series. I’m still working out the idea, and despite the fact that this is already finished and loaded, I’m still working on a trailer for the series (talk about putting the cart before the horse!) but I hope it will serve at a good experiment worthy of your feedback.

So check it out here or below, and comment either on the blog or YouTube to let me know a) if it’s something you would watch, and b) what sort of content would be interesting to you. I’m open to a wide variety of things (scripture reflections, Church issues, Franciscan life, social questions, vocations, and maybe even some “Franciscan movie reviews”) as well as a number of different deliveries (interview, documentary, and short reflection). Hope you enjoy it, and hopefully there will be more of these soon!

Trust in the Slow Work of God

Waiting can be an unbearable process. But there is a reason Jesus gives us this image for the Kingdom of God.

Waiting can be an unbearable process. But there is a reason Jesus gives us this image for the Kingdom of God.

When I was in 3rd grade we did a science experiment. We took a big seed and we put it in a plastic bag with a little bit of water. We put our names on the bags and hung them in the windows. We wanted to see what would happen if a seed wasn’t put in the ground. Would it grow? If it did, how would it know to grow up if there wasn’t in the ground? These questions confounded us and we couldn’t wait to see the answer. But by the end of the day, the seed looked the exact same as it did in the morning. The next day, no change. A whole week went by and only the slightest change had occurred. We waited… and waited… and waited. At ten years old, we were impatient and wanted to give up.

At 26 years old, I now see that impatience is part of the human condition. We always want things to happen right now. The idea of waiting is just unbearable.

  • Children and teenagers always want to be older than they actually are, wanting to grow up before they’re ready
  • Young adults, after working so hard in college, are waiting for their lives to take off. “When am I going to be able to move out my parents house?”
  • Parents… are wondering the same thing. “When are my children going to grow up to be the people we raised them to be: loving, successful, and faithful?”
  • For all of us, we’re waiting for things to become clearer, for our path to be known, for our problems to go away so we can “go back to normal.”

Sometimes, it can feel like we’re 3rd graders watching a tiny seed grow: nothing seems to happen.

But that’s not the end of the story. In our 3rd grade class, our seeds eventually grew. Even without soil, even elevated six feet above the ground, its roots grew down and its stem grew up. And it continued to grow. Soon enough, it grew so large that the plastic bag could no longer contain it. And here’s the tough thing to accept in this story:

  • It didn’t grow when we wanted it to grow
  • It didn’t grow how we expected it to grow
  • and it didn’t grow because of anything we did.

As hard-working Americans, people that believe we can accomplish anything we set our minds to, we don’t like to hear that we are not in control, that we can’t fix something if just work harder. We want to hear stories about how the smartest kid in the class was able to make her seed grow faster than expected, defeating all odds. But that’s not what happened. Everyone’s seed grew, and they all grew equally fast. From the smartest kid to the kid who picked his nose the whole time, they all grew equally. And really, how could we expect anything different? Can anyone here say that they know how a seed grows and that they are able to make it grow faster or slower? In fact, if anyone has ever planted a garden you know that the opposite is true: too much attention, believing that we can will the seed forward, can actually smother our dear plants and they won’t grow at all. Seeds need time to grow; they cannot be rushed. Like the man in the Gospel, all we can do is plant it in the ground, give it water, make sure the ground has enough nutrients, and wait for another day.

What it comes down to is accepting the fact that it is not us that makes a seed grow, it is God. I think that it is the same for us and all of our desires. We cannot force them any faster than God is willing to give them to us.

  • There’s nothing we can do to make ourselves grow up faster
  • Nothing we can do to guarantee our success
  • Nothing we can do to make our children be someone they don’t want to be
  • Nothing we can do to make our problems go away, to know exactly what is the best thing to do, or to make life easier

What we can do, sometimes all we can do, is to trust that God is in control, and have patience for the seeds to grow when they’re ready. It’s in times like these that I find the words of the great Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to be so helpful. His prayer goes like this:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you; your ideas mature gradually—let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

When I hear these words, I’m reminded that we are all seeds planted in the ground by God. One day, God hopes that we will all be tall trees, producing an abundance of fruit, and offering many dwelling places for the birds. He gives us all that we need, protects us from what is harmful; sometimes God needs to trim us of our dead branches, cutting back what is not good even if it hurts; sometimes he needs to rip us right out of the ground and plant us somewhere else where we will do better; and sometimes, he just needs to let us grow, patiently waiting for us to be who he has planted us to be: God’s creations.

And so, I think our message today is that we need to be patient, not just with others, but patient with ourselves. We all want to be big trees, fulfilling our great plans for ourselves. But trees don’t grow overnight, and it’s foolish to expect this of others, or ourselves. Why grow impatient with all the things in our lives that we don’t even have the power to change? Instead, trust in the process; trust that, even if you don’t see the seed growing, it is; trust that being incomplete, imperfect, and on the way still pleases God; and most of all, trust that God is going to lead us where God wants us to be.

Like my 3rd grade science project, we may not grow when we want or how we expect; we may not have the power to make all things right ourselves; but we will always grow. Sometimes it may feel like all we’re doing is waiting for God and God is never around; I tell you, it is quite the opposite: God has been there all along, planting, nurturing, and patiently waiting for us to turn to him and trust. Trust in the slow work of God.