An Italian Masterpiece

Why wouldn't you put an apple swan in the middle of a caprese salad?

One of the perks of living in a large formation house is that it’s possible to hire a cook to take over a few meals a week, leaving the friars free to work, travel, or pray up until the time of dinner. Not to mention the fact that at least half of us would not be able to produce edible or satisfying meals for that many people, friars do not work 9-5 jobs: sometimes the guys will come back for dinner and be back to their ministry until late in the night. In a lot of ways a cook is a necessity for a house this large and active.

That being said, we’re still responsible for our own breakfast and lunch everyday, and dinners on the weekend. Generally speaking, our director Ron will take one day and the Postulants are responsible for another, rotating among those confident enough to prepare a whole meal. Tonight, Sergio (whose parents are from Italy) made an Italian meal so good it was worth writing about on the blog.

Though we don’t partition the meals into courses, the meal started with two types of salads: standard house salad, and a caprese salad pictured above, complete with an apple carved into the shape of a swan (why not, right?). The main course was a linguini with marinara sauce and Italian sausage. Though none of this was made from scratch, he did a great job of adding a few spices here and there to make it extraordinary. On the side we had sauteed carrots and broccoli rabi, with a homemade loaf of bread. For dessert, a simple sugar free strawberry Jello with a few slices of strawberries on top. Not only was every dish prepared to perfection, Sergio had a lot of fun experimenting with the garnishes and creating little works of art on the food.

Though I can’t say that I did much more than lend a hand here and there (I handled the Jello all by myself), it was great to be in the kitchen most of the afternoon providing a service to the rest of the community. It can be a great place to talk while you pass the time, and it comes with a great sense of fulfillment when everything is plated and served for the others. Sometimes we’re Mary, other times we’re Martha, and I think it’s a sign of a great community when we can take on either role from time to time.


Why Do We Suffer? Pt. 3

Where is God in our suffering? Right here with us.

After a long and busy week that allowed me almost no time to write, I finally present to you my concluding reflection on theodicy: the existence of evil as a source of suffering. As I outlined in the previous two posts, I believe that suffering can be caused by a number of sources, both good and evil, and that God can certainly play a role in the former category. But what about the latter? Is the Holocaust all a part of God’s plan for humanity? Do people get murdered, raped, or abused because God willed it? In situations like these, and in others that are much less dramatic, e.g. gaining or losing money on the stock market, I refuse to accept that God has even an ounce of responsibility in the suffering that ensues.

My conclusions are based on what I come to know as the definition of evil and sin: any act, whether fully realized by the actor or not, that breaks from the divine will of God for the sake of one’s own will. The original sin was the choice by the primordial humans to disobey God and eat the fruit of the tree. In doing this, they brought into the world something that God did not create: a “no.” Like a stone thrown into still water, this act of disobedience caused a ripple in human history than could not be contained. Each act of saying “no” to God offered the same possibility to the next person, leading humanity to live in a culture of sin and separation from God. This is the imperfect world in which we live, and this is the world in which suffering is caused by evil.

If we accept this foundational thought, the next logical question is, “Even if God didn’t bring evil into this world, why doesn’t he use his omnipotence to get rid of it?” Those in the midst of suffering often ask this in their despair. “Where was God when X happened?!”

The problem with this demand is that it in order for God to intervene, he would have to remove the very thing that separates us from the rest of creation: our free will. Without it, we become like animals, working within a system of instincts and stimulus/response, unable to truly love God and one another. Of course it feels really bad when a friend or family member hurts your feelings, but would you rather them not have the ability to do such things? In the same way, God respects our autonomy from him and allows us to act against his will, hoping that we will choice to love him as he loves us.

But just like his creation in the last post, this does not mean that God stands idly by, refusing to intervene. On a very basic level, he has intervened in human history by inspiring his priests, prophets, and kings to act out of justice and to reorient the people of God back to their Lord. He continues to do so today as he inspiring each one of us through our consciences, his living word found in the Bible, and the sacraments, each of which are channels of God’s grace in the world.

In a much more climactic way, God intervened in human history by becoming part of it in the person of Jesus. How could he have possibly intervened more than becoming human himself? Through the incarnation, God not only shepherded his lost sheep in a concrete, physical way, he actually took on suffering himself. This is an incredible revelation of which we must remind ourselves every time we ask in disgust, “Where is God when X happened?” The answer is that he suffers allow with us. In situations such as these, we might be better off asking, “Where is humanity when X happened, and why did we let this happen to our brothers and sisters?”

Unlike suffering that comes as a result of God’s will, I do not believe that there is any divine purpose or ultimate plan for suffering caused by evil. It is not true that anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger: evil causes despair, hopelessness, and loss of faith, none of which God ever wants us to experience. I believe that God has, and will continue to intervene on behalf of humanity, but will always respect us as autonomous beings created in his image. This is the only way that we can truly love and be loved by God.

Celebrating the Life and Death of Francis

Francis was in a state of ecstasy, even in pain on his deathbed!

Like Christmas and Easter for all Christians, the Transitus and Feast of Saint Francis are two holidays that are treated with the greatest reverence by all Franciscans. Around the world, the number of Franciscans in all three types of orders is in the hundreds of thousands (the order I am joining, O.F.M., is somewhere between 12 and 13 thousand, with the Secular Franciscans at about 400,000.) For many, the specifics of the celebration ranges greatly from community to community, but the purpose is the same: commemorate the life and death of our Seraphic father. In this case, our community celebrated with the Capuchin friars, Poor Clare sisters, and two other groups of Franciscan sisters that I unfortunately did not get a chance to meet.

Our celebration began October 3 with the Transitus, or the transition of Francis from this life to the next. In the chapel, the lights were dimmed, and placed in the middle of the floor was a habit surrounded by candles. Structured like the Palm Sunday Gospel in which a number of people took parts, i.e. “Francis” or “Leader,” we recreated the last moments of his life in order to share in his transition. At first, it felt very mournful, and I was overcome by a feeling of sadness and despair over the death of a great saint. What surprised me was how, despite the solemn atmosphere, the ceremony was filled with hope and joy, happiness and celebration. Here’s a section that I found particularly profound:

Narrator: On another occasion, when he felt that his end was not so far away, Francis once more asked his brothers to sing to him the Canticle of the Sun. And this time when they came to the end, Francis added still another verse–the praise of Sister Death.

Francis: Praised be you, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one living can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin. Blessed be those whom death will find in Your most holy will.

All: Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks, and serve Him with great humility.

Francis lived his life up until his last breath as if he had never gotten over the fact that God loved him. He was always experiencing God in different ways, and like a loyal dog, treated everything like it was the most incredible experience yet. He was not saddened by death, but rather, welcomes it as the long awaited entrance into heaven. Simply beautiful. In recreating his final acts, we shared bread (not mass) and made for each other a sign of peace before concluding in joyful song.

Following the Transitus was the full celebration of the Feast of St. Francis on October 4. Including the blessing of the animals, a commemorative mass, and huge feast, we come together once more as a large Franciscan community to look more broadly on the life of the great saint and celebrate the life of our own communities. It was a wonderful experience, to which we certainly did not forget the feast aspect! After mass, the many communities of Franciscans came together for a spectacular meal and fellowship in the spirit of Francis. All in all, it was a joyful experience and a confirmation of my call to follow Francis’ way to Jesus.


We Met A Cardinal!

Cardinal Seán O'Malley is a Capuchin Franciscan

For all you Braves and Phillies fans out there, all Cardinals are not enemies. In some cases, they’re wonderful men who commit their lives to the service of the Church, responsible for overseeing the spiritual well being of millions of people. In this case, we’re talking about Seán O’Malley, OFM Cap, the Cardinal of Boston.

Cardinal O’Malley was in Wilmington yesterday presiding over the jubilee celebration for Sister Maria Elena Romero, P.C. Cap. Just like in marriage, men and women religious get together to celebrate big anniversaries of their profession of vows (usually 25 and 50), usually renewing them in the process. In this case, Sr. Maria Elena celebrated her 25th anniversary.

Though we got a picture with him, we really didn’t have a chance to speak with him privately. He seemed like a very nice guy, and the parts of his homily that were in English were very well spoken. (I’m not sure if he was being funnier while speaking Spanish or the Spanish speaking crowd was just easier to please, but something was working for him that I couldn’t understand!) All in all, we were very pleased to meet him and very gracious that he could come down from Boston for such a joyous occasion.

(Sorry about the picture! The blinds were actually closed behind us but I guess the sun was just that bright. Unfortunately the sun wasn’t all that warm, and being that it was an outside mass, it was quite chilly in the shade where the “choir” had to stand. I put choir in quotes because of the fact that I was in it, meaning it was not the sort of choir you would expect.)

Why Do We Suffer? Pt. 2

Natural disasters are a huge source of suffering

As I concluded in the last post, I think it’s important to differentiate between those sufferings caused by God and others caused not by God. Even though suffering is suffering, manifesting itself in a similar way no matter the source, the reason I separate the two is because they require completely different responses. This post will deal specifically with sufferings caused by God.

The very idea of God causing suffering may be very hard for some to accept because it contradicts the image of a “loving God that just wants you to be happy.” Part of the problem in this field of study is that we often believe that suffering, no matter the source, shouldn’t exist. I don’t think that’s true. What sort of world would it be if we only ever experienced happiness, joy, sunshine, and success? What sort of superficial love would we have for God if we never experienced sadness, sorrow, or disappointment? Without the ability to experience all of these emotions we lack an ability to experience God. In some cases, God not only allows suffering to occur, but is also the one who sends it. How do we know the difference?

Like I said before, the approach has to be both/and, not either/or: I think God can manipulate natural forces and send them specifically to an individual in a miraculous way, e.g. the plagues in the Exodus, but I think that it’s more likely that creation exists as an ever-moving machine, always acting within the laws that govern it. For example, God could send a lightning bolt to target your house specifically, but its more likely that the answer is that your house was the tallest in the area, containing materials conducive for the flow of electricity between the earth to the sky. God created the laws of physics, and lightning abides by it, indiscriminate of whether or not humans dwell nearby.

In a way, this explanation is simply splitting hairs: either God is directly responsible by sending it specifically to a given people or place, or indirectly responsible because he allowed his creation, which never acts outside of its intended nature, to cause suffering. If we are to believe that God is all-powerful, why would he let things like this happen?

God created and loves all creation, not just humanity. If he were to intervene in every instance where we had the opportunity to suffer, there wouldn’t be anything left of creation but us! Cancer causes suffering, but it is a creation of God just like dogs, and so sometimes God allows life to work itself out the way it was created. (Other times, he works miracles.) Doing so allows us to more deeply understand God by understanding the nature of creation.

Other times, suffering can be the result of incorrect expectations. In the case of cancer, we experience suffering because we have the expectation of not receiving it; the same can be said about loss of property and death. In cases like these, it’s sometimes helpful to reorganize our priorities and better focus on God: a life in Christ is not free from harm, but it’s one of eternal joy upon rebirth into heaven. Sometimes, we just need to say, “that’s life,” understanding that suffering is just a part of life that we can endure. Can we really say, “I want to follow Christ, but I’m not willing to suffer?”

As crazy as it sounds, suffering may very well just be an experience that God wants us to have. It better prepares us to appreciate the good, it forces us to be dependent on him, it facilitates a society of caring and uplifting, and it opens us up to a more complete experience of God and the fullness of life. God does not send suffering upon us that we cannot endure because he is ever calling us back to him. Sometimes it’s like a parent that punishes a child: the child needs to learn the difference between right and wrong. Other times, God lets us venture out to explore, knowing that we’re going to experience hardship: a parent takes off the training wheels even though there’s a high probability of a crash in the future. Do either of these situations negate the goodness of a parent?

The problem is that a child can experience suffering caused by others, some of which a parent would never wish upon them. Pt. 3 will look at suffering caused by our free will that is completely separate and against the will of God: evil.

Continue to Part 3