The End As We Know It

It only feels like it is!

After nearly nine months of attending workshops, meeting friars, ministering, praying, reflecting, and so on and so forth, the postulancy year is just about over… Well, with the exception of the final three months we have yet to complete.

With all the goodbyes we’ve said over the past few days, and the fact that our bodies are naturally attuned to the academic calendar, we’ve all allowed ourselves to believe that we were approaching the end by completely forgetting about the final three months. This minor lapse in memory aside, the fact of the matter is that the postulant year will come to an “end as we know it” next Saturday.

The reason I say this is because on that day (which is the day before Mothers’ Day) we will all board flights for our respective homes for “Spring Break.” For five weeks, we’ll break ourselves from the typical routine of a religious house and be thrown back into the secular world, free to run our lives how we please and adopt any old habits we so desire.  Like our Christmas vacation, it will be both a test and an affirmation of the life we’ve chosen as friars.

Upon returning from vacation (on the day after Fathers’ Day), we’ll have one day to do laundry and repack before it’s off to St. Bonaventure University for a retreat with the other postulants and five weeks of classes at the Franciscan Institute.  Living in a community of more than twenty brothers divided into eight townhouses, we’ll forces ourselves back into the “normal” routine of the year, i.e. communal prayer, but the experience will be an entirely different one than we’re used to. It will be, in a sense, a different postulant year with different expectations and challenges before us.

Assuming that we all survive such an experience, we’ll spend the final two weeks of the summer in Wilmington, at which point our entire focus (I imagine) will be on preparing for the Novitiate.

In this way, I think it’s acceptable, even necessary, to say that the postulancy ends in less than a week. From a psychological standpoint, it brings closure to the feelings each of our subconsciouses are already recognizing, that the end is near, by allowing ourselves to feel accomplished with what has already passed. The clear end of one part, and the clear beginning of another, though completely artificial in nature, allows each of us to return rejuvenated and excited for the final three months because it is, in a sense, a new year. The temptation to coast through the final three months is almost eliminated, then, because the mindset is very different: instead of “trying to get through the last little bit of the big year,” we are “starting a new chapter in our lives.” The latter is something for which we all need to strive.

Ultimately, no matter how I explain it to my subconscious, the point I’m making to myself through this reflection is that the year is not over, and that there is still room for growth and discernment. To allow myself to believe that we’re approaching the end is to close myself to new experiences that may shape my life in unknown ways. It may be the end of the postulancy as we know it, but if we begin to see each day as a new day to be formed by God, a chance to break in the habit, what’s it matter what “year” it is?

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Learning to Say Goodbye

We formed some great relationships at the Jeanne Jugan residence this year.

Today was our last day volunteering at the Jeanne Jugan Residence. After more than seven months of Bingo, room visits, word games, Bible study, and the like, our time came to a close with a farewell “Berry Special Sendoff” (named for the strawberry pound cake that was served). A number of sisters, staff members, and residents came to the microphone to say some kind words, and we had the chance to walk around to all of the tables to say goodbye to the men and women that we had gotten to know so well. The whole day was quite touching, and great way to end.

As I look back on the year and wonder what effect Dennis and I may have had on the residents, I come to realize that this has been just as fulfilling and revelatory for me as it has been for them. Here are two of the things that I found helpful for my future in ministry.

I will grow to love ANY ministry 

Back in September when we were assigned ministry locations, I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the prospect of working at a nursing home. Though I was open to the idea, and by no means fought it or showed any disappointment, there was certainly a part of me that wished for something else. Ugh… a nursing home?

What I came to realize was that, even though I wasn’t a part of some newsworthy effort to radically “save the world,” this ministry effected the lives of a number of individuals in a profound way, making it just as worthwhile as anything I could have done. Like the story of the person throwing back starfish into the water despite the impossibility of saving all of them, I realized that “I made a difference to that one!” and that is all that matters!

There’s no doubt that I’ll be placed in ministries throughout my life that are not my “ideal” choices. After having this experience I now know that it doesn’t matter. Every place I go there are going to extraordinary things to be done, incredible people to meet, and discoveries to be made about myself. In the end, if it’s God working through me, who am I to decide where that should and shouldn’t go? Because of this, I think it will be very difficult not to love every ministry as my own after only a short time.

No ministry is mine

This gradual love for each ministry can, however, lead to a different problem: the inability to give it up later. Transitions like the one we made today will more or less dominate the rest of our lives. As transient preachers, Franciscan friars rarely stay in one place forever. Whether it’s three, six, nine, or even twelve years, we all know that our ministry assignments will probably never be permanent, and that at some point we’ll be asked to pack up and move on.

In this way, it can be difficult to realize that no ministry is mine. More than likely a ministry existed before I got there, and most definitely will there be people left behind doing work after I leave. As attached as we may get to a particular place, ministry, or group of people, we must remember that our vocation was not to work in that specific circumstance alone; we were called to spread the Gospel wherever it needs spreading.

As I found out today, this second point is much harder than the first. Just because we live a transient lifestyle does not mean that we do not engage in deeply connected relationships; all it means is that we must cope with letting these connections go shortly after they’re developed. The important thing to remember in all this is that, no matter how difficult it may be to leave a beloved ministry now, there will always be another one prepared for us by God just up ahead. Today, I may have learned how to say goodbye to people I have come to care for greatly, but tomorrow I will begin to say hello once more to the new possibilities that this life has to offer. What a beautiful thing this is, the life of a friar.

The Clares

With the Capuchin Poor Clares in Wilmington after dinner Sunday night.

One of the things that I’ve learned this year is that I cannot truly know Francis without also knowing Clare.  She was influential in his life around the time of his conversion, was in close relationship with him throughout his religious life, and after his death, she and her order continued to protect Francis’ words and relics from distortion and abuse. Clare’s charism was that of Francis, and Francis’ charism was that of Clare.

While we haven’t devoted a lot of time to Clare in an academic sense [yet], we have spent much of this year developing a relationship with her order of sisters.

Here in Wilmington, the Capuchin Poor Clares at the St. Veronica Guiliani Monastery have been our closest companions. Not only do these sisters host us for Vespers and mass once each per week, they have also included us in two of their sisters’ renewal of vows ceremonies, and invited us to observe Francis’ death and feast in their monastery. Just last evening we were invited into their cloister for a wonderful dinner and more than an hour of laughs. As a bonus, Sister Dolores (kneeling in the front) is also our habit maker and Spanish teacher, and so is very important to many people in our province!

Because our relationship with Clare and her sisters is so important, we have found ourselves venturing great distances from Wilmington to be in relationship with them (and vice versa). The biggest of these gatherings is of course the Franciscan workshop I’ve mentioned in Finally, a Franciscan! and Acting Like Friars at the Graymoor Spiritual Life Center. You can see from the picture that we met a lot of Poor Clares from all over, and that the existence of such a gathering proves the importance of developing a relationship with one another early in the formation process.

The extent of our traveling does not end there, however, as in the past six months we have visited the Clares in Wappinger Falls, NY and Chesterfield, NJ for prayers, mass, and meals. Both of these visits were refreshing (and entertaining!) chances to share our vocational experience with others so close to us on our journey of faith, and to thank those closest to us in prayer for all of their support. I do not believe that the friars would be the way they are today had it not been for the prayers and direction of the Clares throughout our history.

And thus, our relationship must live on beyond initial formation, an outside of formal gatherings. We’ve been given the opportunity to travel as a group to meet a number of excellent monasteries, and now it is up to us to foster these relationships and continue the bond between our two orders. Edgardo and Ramon have already started: this past weekend they took it upon themselves to travel to Langhorne, PA for the solemn profession of one of their sisters. I hope to do the same over my upcoming break and make a trip to see the Traveler’s Rest, SC sisters, where there are a number of wonderful sisters there that have been praying for me and sending me letters throughout the year. How can we possibly be a Franciscan without knowing his sisters? I’m not sure, nor am I going to find out!

Living Together

Just like newlyweds, there will be conflict in new friar communities unless there is mutuality and compromise.

As I mentioned in my last post, A Life to Share, intimacy among brothers is something for which we all strive, and is something I see already present in my life. What I failed to mention in my last post is that being intimate with a brother and living together are completely different things. Ask any newly married couple having just moved in with one another or best friends from high school that decide to share a dorm room in college: living together places a strain on any relationship, no matter how close.

One of the things that our postulant director has said to us early and often is that the source of conflict in religious houses is not theology or politics: it’s kitchens and bathrooms. Domestic disagreements, he says, over how clean an area should be or who’s responsibility it is to do certain chores, is the source of all household conflict.

So far in my experience of fraternal life I would have to agree. The fact of the matter is that there are no universal standards by which one is expected to live. Because each of us were formed by different people in different settings, we each have different expectations for the way things should be, making it inevitable that conflicts will arise. The way the table should be set, the position of the toilet seat when not in use, the length of time clothes may sit in the washer/dryer, the level of dust/grime/stain/smear that is acceptable before something must be cleaned, and the time allowed to clean one’s dishes, are all examples of issues for which there is no “correct” answer; each of us answers them from our own experience before entering community life, and must attempt to integrate them into one another.

When this is not done effectively, I envision one of two things happening:

The first is that the friary can turn into a college apartment. In this setting, cleaning is only done when it is convenient or one’s threshold of disgust is met, allowing for all lifestyle choices to be acceptable. It’s a “if it bothers you, you can clean it” mentality in which the majority of people feel very comfortable in their surroundings, while those few with the highest demand for cleanliness and order are left with the majority of the responsibilities of the house. This is not a desirable living situation because it does not take into consideration the needs of all, and places an unfair burden on the few.

The opposite extreme is just as likely: in order to make those with the highest demand for cleanliness and order feel comfortable, the other guys in the house are required to maintain a pristine level of living, one that far surpasses their own needs. This method guarantees that no brother will feel uncomfortable or taken advantage of, but it also means that the whole house is at the mercy of a few individuals. This is also not a desirable living situation because it does not facilitate dialog or expect each brother to make sacrifices for the sake of all.

Now before I get myself into trouble, neither of these extremes describes the way in which we live here in Wilmington, though I do see elements of both from time to time (as I did also in college and at home.)

Like any group of people trying to live together, what’s needed most is mutuality. Each person needs to recognize that there are many right ways of doing something, and that at times, it’s not only acceptable, it’s necessary, to live by another’s standards. Sometimes that means being patient and accepting the idiosyncrasies of others, either accepting it the way it is or doing a little more work to have it the desired way, while other times it means finding a respectful way to ask a bit more of a housemate. The truth of the matter is that it is all compromise, but that compromise isn’t so bad if all parties are involved in the decision and are equally looking out for their own benefit and the benefit of the whole community.

As I continue in my journey as a franciscan friar, constantly living in fraternity, I need to recognize that I am just as guilty of annoying my fellow brothers as they are me because we come with different expectations for one another. If I fail to recognize this, and seek to live my own lifestyle at the expense of others, living together is going to be very difficult for us all. On the other hand, if I’m open and dedicated to the life of the fraternity, living together will simply be a means by which we may form and nurture meaningful, intimate relationships for the rest of our lives. I guess ultimately the question is this: do I wish to live individually by my own rules, or do I wish to give up some of my own expectations so as to live together, fraternally?

I choose to live together.

A Life to Share

Celibacy can be a bit of a deal breaker. Ask any young Catholic man or woman, active in their faith, why they are not considering some form of consecrated life, and I can almost guarantee that celibacy is one of the reasons. “I really want to get married,” you might hear. From my own experience, this was the largest hurtle to jump.

But despite what many may think, including even those going through the discernment process, I don’t believe that the problem is abstinence from sex (at least not entirely). Believe it or not, there are still many young people in this world who have not discarded chastity for the loose sexuality embraced by popular culture. (It’s not what you hear on t.v. or see in the movies, but it’s still out there, trust me!) And yet, of those who have held on to or readopted this unpopular virtue, there is an even smaller minority of people wishing to do so in the form of consecrated life. Why is this?

The reason has everything to do with intimacy, or rather, the perceived lack of intimacy in religious life. When I look back to the time when I used “I really wanted to get married” as an excuse, I believe what I was really saying was, “I really want someone to share my life with.” For much of my life, I saw marriage as the only way to do this. When I looked at the priests and religious I knew (which was only a few), all I saw were people growing in age, living alone, and frankly, looking either miserable or lonely. From this narrow experience I concluded that it must take the type of holy person that is willing to sacrifice any chance of intimacy for the sake of a worthwhile ministry, and I knew that I was not that holy person.

The first step in my transformative move toward religious life was a painful, yet inevitable one: I matured. As I grew older and developed emotionally, I began to form relationships that were much more meaningful than being “just friends” while being wholly different from my romantic partners. I had begun to realize that intimacy was much more than just romance. For an adult, this is painstakingly obvious. But for me, the realization that I could be fulfilled and sustained emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and even physically (in a different way of course) from something other than an exclusive, romantic relationship, meant that I didn’t need to get married to have all of my needs met. It was not until this realization did the prospect of entering religious life even deserve my attention.

At some point, however, it did, and I was forced on an excruciating journey of heart and soul that tore me into pieces for many months.  Can I do that sort of work? What about my girlfriend? Do I want children? Which community? Have I lived enough to know? Little by little I grew more comfortable with idea, developed a fondess for St. Francis and became to accept almost every aspect of Franciscan life. I could do that.

There remained one final question: were these specific guys, the members of the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Name Province, guys that I wanted to share my life with? It’s one thing to understand and to like the idea of fraternity in the way St. Francis instituted it, but another thing entirely to live it with actual people. I was convinced that religious life could fulfill me in the way I sought. But would it?

The long and short of it is a resounding yes. As I’ve come to know many of the men in this province over the past five years, I have felt a distinct growth in many of them from mere acquaintances, to familiar friends, to something potentially much more. While I’m growing to understand each member as a brother owed my unconditional love and respect, I have nonetheless grown close to a few in a very spectacular way. I find myself catching glimpses of an intimacy with my brothers that is to come, fulfilling and sustaining me for whatever lies in the road ahead.

It may be true that I will never be fulfilled in such a physical way that a wife could provide: I am never going to have sex. Frankly, I’ll survive without it. But when I begin to look at celibacy through the lens I’ve described above, the abstinence from sex no longer appears to me as a restriction to be followed or a sacrifice to be endured; rather, it is the freedom, and the call to love more broadly than would ever be possible while vowed to just one person. I know that I feel called to this life, and that it is a life to share.