Mid-Year Updates

From Sunday afternoon until noon today, all ten members of St. Paul’s friary here in Wilmington took a retreat to the province’s house in Margate as a way to slow down, fellowship, and pray with one another without the busyness of everyday life. Spending a good amount of time contemplating the year gone by, I read through a number of my past journal entries to see where I’ve been and how I’ve changed. (This sort of reflection makes the time and effort of keeping a journal totally worth it!) In a similar way, I thought it would be the perfect time, being that it’s almost exactly half-way through the year, to give an update on a few of my previous posts.

Retreat to the Beach: Let’s start with this past retreat. While the first trip to Margate was a great chance to get to know one another, replacing content with conversations and stories, this trip was an excellent time to slow down, fellowship, and pray with an already established community. Led by two of the friars, we met for three, one-hour sessions of Lectio Divina to prayerfully and communally explore the word of God. We used Mark 8:14-21, Luke 10:1-10, and 2 Corinthians 6:6-10. Besides prayer, we were also graced with the presence of our provincial, John O’Connor, who added nicely to our time for fellowship.

A Rush to Slow Down: I honestly could not have named the title better back in August. We’re almost never idle, always focusing on how we can be more still (a paradox that it is, I find it both helpful in my formation, as well as a bit crazy…) Nothing could be truer of the post, however, than the point of our rooms being “sacred space.” In a life of community that shares everything and has no privacy, one’s room is a wonderful sanctuary for both.

Español con Capuchinas: I would be lying if I said that my Spanish was anything more than “abysmal” as I described it back in September. The truth of the matter is that languages are very difficult to learn, and meeting for one and a half hours once a week is not enough to become proficient. The lack of improvement so far has made it clear that I’m going to have to put in a lot more time outside of class if I’m ever going to speak the language.

The Charism of Preaching: Dennis and I are continuing with the bible study at the Little Sisters of the Poor each week, and have an exciting “term” planned for our eager “students.” Beginning with the Pentateuch on Thursday, we’re going to focus on a major section/genre of the bible each week, sharing our thoughts on the genre as a whole as well as reading of 2-3 examples of each, until we’ve offered a complete survey of the bible. It’s a big task, but I think it’s important to have a rough idea of what’s in the bible and how it’s put together.

On another note, we’re going to be accompanying Fr. Ron on another parish mission at the end of next month. Unlike last time in which only Ramon and I that spoke to the youth, all five of the postulants will be given the opportunity to “preach” in a particular fashion throughout the week. This one will be a bit bigger scale and will require a bit more preparation.

The Lower Delaware Friars: On Sunday the friars from Wilmington, Philadelphia, and Camden, will be meeting in Camden for a Super Bowl party (to watch the Patriots stomp the New York football Giants). I imagine that we’ll begin with prayer as usual, and see it as a nice night for fellowship among communities. Go Pats!

Time to Read: I tend to bounce around with books, skimming for what I find interesting/useful and skipping what I don’t: though I did finish In the Spirit of Francis and the Sultan (and recommend it to anyone interested in peaceful dialogue) and am forcing my way through the bible, I have shelved the other books for a little while in place of others. I’m currently fascinated by Dominic Monti’s Francis and His Brothers because it simplifies Franciscan history into a very manageable and interesting way. As for pleasure reading, I’ve started reading Stephen Colbert’s I Am America (And So Can You!) and listening to Tina Fey’s Bossypants, both of which are hilarious.

What Can’t I Live Without? Which brings me to the most contented issue of that history, and the issue that has been the biggest focus on my own contemplation through these six months: poverty. If I may add an insight to my previous comments, I’d like to add that poverty doesn’t mean dirty or cheap. We are called to sufficiency and simplicity, which means both having less and respecting what we have. Buying the cheapest thing possible isn’t always the best option because it won’t last as long forcing us to be consumers much more often. In the same way, keeping our living conditions dirty and our possessions in disrepair says nothing about sufficiency and simplicity; it says that we don’t value the things we have.

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What If I Fall In Love?

The question isn't a matter of what to do "if" I fall in love, but rather "when" I do.

“So, what if you take solemn vows in a few years, and after that, you meet a girl that knocks you off your feet and you fall totally in love? What do you do then? Are you allowed to leave?”

In the six months that I’ve been a postulant, and the two years I discerned religious life prior to entering, I heard this question too many times. Honestly, it’s a truly despicable question. I find it to be very indicative of the culture from which it comes: one that is afraid of commitment and is obviously skeptical of celibate chastity, whether it’s implicitly or explicitly realized.

For starters, it implicitly treats the choice to enter religious life as a “Plan B”. If there is a possibility that someone would leave religious life for marriage (which there has to be in the mind of the questioner otherwise it would have never been asked), it means that God is not ultimately the first choice; religious life was an option chosen in the absence of one’s “soul mate,” but if and when that person is found there is a new best option. In a surprisingly high number of cases, people who ask this question assume that the only reason people enter religious life is because they are either assexual or were incapable of forming and maintaining an intimate relationship with another.

The truth is, a large number of healthy men and women in religious orders have had experience in love, (and yes, even sex), before entering and taking vows. In my own life before I decided to enter, I had experienced 2 two-year long relationships with women that I loved enough to marry and was fully aware of the prospect of finding another. My choice to be a part of religious life was not without other options, nor will it be without new options in the future. (Many will tell you it’s not a matter of what to do “if” you fall in love, but rather “when.”) Like all healthy religious, however, I discerned that my life would be more greatly fulfilled in celibate chastity than in marriage, and so it was my “Plan A” to seek God in this way.

I imagine that God is insulted by this question for the same reason: is it not possible that someone could see a life fully devoted to God as the best option, an option greater than even the man/woman of one’s dreams? Not only do I know that this is entirely possible, I feel very strongly that God has called me and others to this life, and that it is just as much his choice as it is ours. When I’m asked about leaving after solemn profession for the sake of “love,” I get the sense that the asker either refuses to believe or is unable to understand that one can want a relationship with God in the form of a celibate chastity more than an exclusive relationship with another person.

The final, and most disappointing part of this question is that it completely disregards the gravity and sanctity of a covenant with God. Does solemn profession mean so little that one would be curious enough to ask whether or not a religious is willing to break it? I imagine that these same people wouldn’t ask an engaged man, “So what happens if after you’re married you meet a woman that knocks you off your feet and you fall totally in love? What do you do? Are you allowed to leave?” It’s an incredibly insulting question. Why doesn’t it sound as insulting when someone asks it about a commitment to religious life? Again, I think the person that asks this question implicitly values a commitment to God and an ascetic life less than a commitment to another person.

If you’ve asked this question before your life, I forgive you. I imagine that the implications of the question were not quite realized at the time, and had you known, you would have never asked it. For others, I hope that it is just as appalling to you as it is to me, and you will help to create a culture that views a solemn commitment to God as an extraordinarily fulfilling way of life.

At this point, I’m a long way to away from professing any sort of formal vows, and so am quite free to leave whenever I wish. At the same time, I have placed the prospect of marriage on hold for a while as to enter into an intimate, exclusive relationship with God, discerning a lifelong commitment by essentially “dating God” (a term Dan Horan, OFM has famously used.) If and when that day comes when I’m ready for solemn profession, and someone very unfortunately asks me what I would do if I fall in love, I’ll have the perfect answer for them: “I already have.”

Standing On The Shoulders of Others

It's on the shoulders of friars like these that we stand today.

One of the core values of Western Culture, particularly in America, is that of upward mobility in the form of constant progress. It’s almost implicit in the way we approach generational differences that each one will achieve greater success and push society forward more than the previous one. Though there is certainly some truth in a statement such as this (western culture has continued to make advances in every field of study), it runs the risk of forgetting the shoulders on which each new generation stands: without the advances of yesterday, we could never achieve what we do today.

Why do I bring this up? Well, after an interesting history lesson by Dominic Monti, OFM, about the history of our Order and Province, the postulants had an opportunity for some real “field research.” Spending last weekend traveling around northern New Jersey and New York City, we visited one of Holy Name Province’s three homes for retired friars, the Infirmary for aged and sick friars, and The Cloisters, a museum devoted to medieval religious life. This supplement to our classroom time gave us a more holistic experience of the province because we could actually interact with our past, forcing us to come face-to-face with the fact that everything we achieve in the future will be a direct result of what they did in the past (Originally, I had planned on titling this post, “The New, Old, and Ancient,” for that reason, but decided it might be misinterpreted by some…)

Starting at the chronological beginning, The Cloisters was quite an extraordinary experience. Built in the 1930s by John D. Rockefeller Jr., the museum is a full scale construction of a medieval monastery. The reason I don’t say “replica”  is because major structural pieces of the building, including pillars, stone arches, windows, and entire walls, are authentic pieces of medieval European monasteries, dating between 500-1100 years old! Instead of simply having pieces of art viewable from behind a piece of glass, like most museums, this one worked the art into it’s original settings, giving the viewer both context and heightened sensory awareness of the world that once was. Though not particularly “Franciscan,” it was enlightening to see what the predominant expression of religious life looked like during that time because it would have been the only thing on which they could based their own new lives. The whole place was truly fascinating.

Jumping ahead about 750 years we find the most immediate shoulders on which to stand: Holy Name Province “retirees.” Located in Butler, NJ, Boston, MA, and St. Petersburg, FL, our province houses the friars that brought us into the modern age of Catholicism. Because there’s no official age to retire, and because even if there was these guys wouldn’t do it, the majority of these men still engage in active ministry at local parishes and hospitals. We had dinner with the friars in Butler one evening, and had a great time talking about their adventures in religious life. In one sense, it was incredible to see men continuing to spread the Gospel and bringing people to faith well into their 80s (even a few 90s); on the other hand, it made us all realize that we weren’t going to “retire” any time soon, and that it’s time for us to get to work writing our own history!

As a last stop on the trip, we payed a visit to the friars at Holy Name Friary, a nursing home/hospital run by our province in Ringwood, NJ. It’s by far the least active of our houses, with most of the men suffering from a number of mental or physical ailments. For me, it was difficult to see the once influential men of our province in such a frail state, having stepped aside to let others lead the way many years ago. But at the same time, I find it to be a humbling reminder of the finitude of our lives in the grand scope of God’s infinite work; we may play a small role, but it can be a profound one if we let it be.

As I reflect and pray about the experience of this weekend, about what it means to stand on the shoulders of those before me so that I may lift up those after, I’m drawn to the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero in his poem, “A Future Not Our Own,” because it offers great perspective on our lives and our work. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do:

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Once Upon A Time…

Though Franciscan history may not be as neat and tidy as a fairy tale, it is an incredible story!

… there was a man from Assisi that renounced his wealth and status, trading all he had for poverty and started a brotherhood. The small band of brothers merrily traveled from town to town, joyfully singing to the animals and preaching of God’s greatness. When new, intelligent and healthy young men wanted to join their way of life, they were given the formal training necessary and were sent on their way to spread the clearly understood teachings of their founder, who lived happily ever after. Today, there are still many followers of this man that live out the same rule he ordered from the very beginning. The end.

Like all fairy tales, this one starts with a bit of truth but ultimately provides little to no historical value. In reality, the Order of Friars Minor has been one of the most splintered, dynamic religious communities in the history of the Catholic Church, complete with reforms, schisms, papal impositions, and problems with civil governments. There has been so much change that Francis himself longed for the earlier days of the order before he died. Does this mean that from the time of Francis things have only gotten worse? No. It just means that the history of the Franciscans is very rich in its developments and has not resisted adaptation when it was necessary.

Because of this, we needed some help understanding the complex history of the order. Fr. Dominic Monti, OFM, the Vicar Provincial of Holy Name Province and widely known Franciscan historian, was more than willing to help. Besides giving us a fairly thorough background of the order to better understand the historical context of our own province, Dominic helped us to better grasp the inner struggles that have defined and shaped our order for 800 years. Rather than attempt to summarize all of Franciscan history, I’d like to share what he posed as the fundamental catalyst to Franciscan reform throughout history.

Unlike most other religious orders in the church, Franciscans are not defined by a specific apostolate. Though they can educate, preach, evangelize, and care for the sick, none of these things are fundamental to its identity; drop any one of them and replace it with another and the Franciscan identity is unaffected. Francis is thus, best defined by how he approached God and community, not what he did. In this way, friars have isolated three fundamental characteristics to Franciscan identity: 1) prayer, 2) being “lesser”, and 3) brotherhood. From a well-informed sense of these principles, the mission of the friars is defined.

Problems have arisen throughout history when this process has been reversed: out of a strong sense for a specific mission, friars made concessions to maintain a specific ministry, ultimately reshaping the order. Sometimes it was a lessening of prayers so as to work more; a downsize of community as to evangelize in a greater number of places; an acceptance of power and education as to become greater scholars. Of all these concessions, however, none was more divisive than the issue of money. Driven by a desire to run parishes, and pressured by outside forces, some communities of friars began owning property and collecting money, two things expressly condemned by Francis. By 1517, concessions such as these had worked enough changes into the order that the pope saw the differences in prayer, poverty and brotherhood to be irreconcilable, and split the order into two autonomous entities.

Like many “once upon a time” stories, the Franciscan story is filled with triumph and failure, success and struggles, growth and decline, all while seeking to grasp its identity. Some have sought to “recapture” the past by living their lives as if they were in the 13th century, literally following every word of Francis; others have sought to extrapolate the spirit of Francis into the modern world, updating the Rule for the modern ages.

For me, I think it’s important to remember Francis’ famous words: “I have done what is mine to do. May Christ teach you what is yours to do.” His intention was never to create an order of homogenous men carrying out a strict order to the letter; he wanted men that shared his love for Christ and a charism of penitence who would ultimately live a life that was authentic to them, individually and communally. When we take this quote to heart, it’s a wonder if “Franciscan uniformity” is a bit of an oxymoron, and things such as reforms and divisions are simply part of the charism. That’s not to say that the fluidity of this rich tradition in any way calls into question its authenticity or truthfulness; it simply means that the holy spirit is working very hard, and that people are inspired in different ways. As I grow within the order, I will have to remind myself and my brothers to be constantly discerning Christ’s call, and to adjust our vision likewise.

For a more detailed history of the Franciscans, the Catholic Encyclopedia is a great resource.