“Into the Woods”

How do we approach the unknown?

As a part of our orientation to each other, the life of a friar, and living in community, we spent the afternoon watching a broadway musical called Into the Woods, and spent the evening in conversation about its many themes. For those who are unfamiliar with the story, it is quite interesting: staring Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (from Jack and the Beanstalk), a wicked witch, Repunzel, and a peasant bread maker, the musical attempts to meld together an assortment of fairy tales based on their common messages. Though we may find such stories a bit silly or juvenile, some of humanity’s deepest truths can be found within them.

Stepping out of the comfort zone “into the woods” causes great changes in us. In the play, each character is forced to leave their comfortable setting and travel to the dark woods in order to fulfill some desire. At first, there are episodes of fear, excitement, mourning, and confusion as each enter an unknown, uncontrollable place. A few of the characters were unchanged and unaffected by the woods because they refused to accept the reality of the situation. The majority, however, left the woods entirely different characters; taken out of their usual setting, they were forced to face their own failings and to cooperate with strangers for the sake of survival. We find this very same concept throughout the Bible: when people are forced into the wilderness, to the unknown, they are found face to face with God. It is only in that uncontrollably setting that we are able to let go of distractions and find truth in such a beautiful way.

There is an interconnectedness about all human interaction making it impossible for any individual to be isolated or unaffected by others. Similar to the movie Crash, (my all-time favorite, go see it if you haven’t already) there is no main protagonist nor is there a central plot in which all of the characters take part. Rather, each character pursues his or her own self interests, meeting other characters doing the same thing. The realization here is that we, like the characters, are not the protagonist of every story. Every human being in the world has been developed by unique set of experiences, forming a truly individual “story” in which they are the main character. When people interact, we see not one linear set of events developing an understandable plot, complete with the “good” characters and the “bad” characters, but rather a complex web of events in which we play different roles to different people, critically altering the plot of each individual’s life. Two things can be learned from this: 1) Our actions, no matter how small to us, may have profound effect on another person’s story, and 2) we do not enter the scene from the same place and so we will not experience it in the same way. When we approach communal life, or any social setting, in this way, we are more likely to try to understand our neighbor better and treat everyone we meet as brother and sister.

Our desires will never end if they are not focused correctly. The play opens with each character singing about their deepest wishes. Statements begin with, “If only I had ____…” or “I would trade anything for ____,” varying from a child, to wealth, to beauty. Each character believes that this ONE this, just this one, will bring them happiness. To the surprise of all, at the end of Act One each character actually obtains their deepest wish and they end by singing about living “happily ever after.” Unsurprisingly, Act Two begins just as the first did: each character is no longer satisfied by their fulfilled wish, and now wishes for something else, to which they will now seek. How incredibly true is this?! (And talk about the anti-Disney!) This idea of happily ever after, and happiness based on a status, possession, or companion is ultimately fleeting. It can never last forever, and we end up right back where we started. As St. Augustine puts it, “Our souls are restless until they rest in you.” Until we start seeking the right things, we will never be fully satisfied.

This was the first deep conversation among the postulants, and I enjoyed it very much. Each person offered a different perspective on the play, and we tackled some tough issues. I’m excited for more of these discussions and know that this is a great group of guys to challenge me.

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New Photos Page

As you’ll now notice, there is an additional tab on the top right-hand corner of the page called “Photos.” This was the easiest way (thought not terribly efficient) to visually share my experience with everyone. I’ll post new photos periodically after traveling or attending certain events, and will usually mention it in a post so you’ll know when to check it out. Right now, all I have is my room.

A Rush to Slow Down

My "sacred" space

Having completed 24 hours of the Postulancy, I have to say that I’m already exhausted. I imagine the majority of physical fatigue is due to the abrupt change to the sleep cycle, but there is certainly a rush of new information, experiences, relationships, and responsibilities that is not helping either. This is not to be misinterpreted though: I’m very happy so far! I’m pleased with my fellow Postulants, feel incredibly comfortable in my room and in this house, and am enjoying the new lifestyle so far (7:30 morning prayer may be a chore though…)

Rather than trying to recount everything that has happened, I’d like to focus on one concept that I imagine will be quite critical to this year’s formation: learning to slow down in the midst of being very busy. We already know that we will be traveling to New York City, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Bonaventure’s University throughout the year, while also being responsible for taking a spanish class at the community college, working three days a week at an internship site, and taking part in a number of seminars and workshops. There is no doubt that we will be very busy throughout the year. But ministry, we were told last night, was not the purpose of this first year.

Where we begin to be “formed” is in our emphasis on slowing down, and emphasizing our life of prayer and community. For starters, we were asked to approach our bedrooms as sacred space. They are to be kept simple, yet personal, and used exclusively for individual use; rather than using them for fellowship or general space, they should be an intimately private space to retreat, reflect, and recharge (this is not some catchy list they gave us, but just a coincidence that they were the three words I used to describe the space.) It is in conjunction with the communal time and regimented prayer life that we’re asked to slow down our lives, begin to listen more closely, and remove distractions. To aid in this task, each of us were given hardcover notebooks (not the cheap $1.00 spiral ones) as a reminder to journal our experiences, thoughts, concerns, etc. I hope to use this almost every day as a place for raw ideas and unfinished conclusions rather than “well” planned reflections such as these. There is something to be said about a stream of consciousness, writing without a filter and with no regard to organization or aesthetics.

All in all, I am overjoyed with my experience so far, and thankful for all the prayers and messages I’ve received so far. There is simply too much to report at the moment, so I hope you’ll check back soon for more updates!

(Two more pictures can be found here.)

Transitioning to a New Life

I'm ready to accept a new way of life

On the eve of making the trip up to Wilmington and starting my journey into the Franciscan order, I find myself finally grasping the reality of my situation. I’ve known for a while now that I would be entering on this day, but for some reason my life has felt a bit surreal since graduation; while always knowing where I was going, it was just a blur of events and experiences since then. The gravity of the situation did not begin to set in until I started packing, and I imagine will not fully sink in until I have settled in my new home: this is a transition in my life unlike any other til now. In a lot of ways, what I’m doing next is not just the “next step” in my life; it is the acceptance of a new life. Here are a few changes that I’ve been thinking about:

This is not college. Given my age and recent experience at a University, packing a small number of belongings, moving in with people I don’t know, sharing a bathroom, taking classes, and having very little purchasing power comes with a false sense of familiarity. What I will be doing now, though resembling what I did six months ago, is a fundamentally different situation, and requires a fundamentally different approach.

I am not “mature” anymore. For an adolescent or young-adult, being called mature is a great compliment. It means that an individual makes rational choices, relates well with a variety of people, and understands one’s place in development. Essentially, being “mature” means grasping things that are not expected of one’s age. This, I feel, will be where another fundamental change occurs. Though I obviously cannot magically obtain years of life experience and all of the sudden act like an “adult” (whatever that means), the expectation is that “mature” will be the status quo rather than the exception.

My role in evangelization will change. What I mean by this is that I will be perceived differently based on my social status. Sharing my story of struggling with faith and deciding to accept a religious vocation is heard by a group of college students one way when it comes from a peer who plays sports, goes to parties, and is a part of their primary friend group, and a different way when it comes from a first year postulant that does religious things all day, even though it’s the same story. It’s kind of like an adult complimenting a child: if it’s someone else’s child, the adult comes across as unbiased and credible; when it’s their own child, it’s less interesting because any compliment is to be expected. Entering the order is accepting a status are being part of the institution, relinquishing the ability to share from the perspective of an outsider.

There is no doubt that I will encounter many more transitions, and I hope that you will all share in my journey as I face each one. We’re leaving North Carolina at 7 tomorrow, hoping to arrive in the middle of the afternoon. Thanks for all the prayers! Look for a lot of updates in the next few days!

Discerning the Priesthood Pt. 2

Am I called to stand in for Jesus as priest?

Whenever I discern a difficult decision, I often think of Moses. When asked by God to go to Egypt, Moses challenges God by saying that they won’t believe him and that he’s not an eloquent speaker. What God is asking of him is outside of his own capabilities, and in opposition to his personal happiness. What does he do? He goes, and God provides for him.

One night I was reflecting with some friends about powerful experiences we had had in our lives. Two came to my mind. The first was in high school performing a skit called “Pushups for Salvation.” I sat in the middle of the 150 people on the retreat as doughnuts were offered to each person individually. If they accepted, I did two pushups; if they declined, I did two pushups. The point was to give a visual representation of Jesus’ pain and sacrifice for everyone, whether or not it was accepted. It was definitely painful (300 pushups in about 20 minutes) and somewhat embarrassing to be watched in such a vulnerable position.

The other story took place during adoration last fall. Without making a connection to the first story, I decided to take a different approach than most: I wanted to share in Jesus’ suffering on the cross by kneeling until the conclusion of the prayer (which usually lasted an hour). In the more than TWO hours that it lasted, I was faced with temptations such as “Why are you doing this,” “You just want to get noticed,” “This isn’t accomplishing anything,” and “You can’t do this,” along with a few more personal doubts. I expected share in Jesus’ physical pain, but never expected to share in his emotional pain as well (or even stopped to think that he experienced any, I guess). What a powerful experience that was.

It was only after telling these two stories out loud that I ever made the connection: I have had my most meaningful experiences taking on the role of Christ, particularly sharing in his suffering. The following day, I was in an adoration praying and listening for some clarity when I looked over and saw a bible, and “Luke 22” popped into my head. Skeptical of course, I dismissed it, thinking, “The mind generates random bits of information all the time, looking at the bible would trigger things like this for everyone. I can think of 100 passages off the top of my head.” To my surprise, as a religion major, I was left completely blank for 5-10 seconds. Nothing. Not another book of the bible came to my head. Still skeptical, I opened the bible to see what Luke 22 was, “just out of curiosity,” to find that it was the beginning of the Lord’s Passion, where he consecrates the first eucharist and begins his suffering.

What do I make of this? I’m not entirely sure. It’s more than a coincidence that my closest experiences of the divine have been of the same nature, and that this nature is taking on the role of Christ, standing in his place. When I think about the role of the priest, I think of just that: a stand in for Christ, both in sign and reality. Is that what I’m called to be? At this point, I feel like Moses: “There are better people out there; this isn’t a calling, it’s a coincidence; how can someone of such little faith take on the role of JESUS?” As he was, I’m held back by my own fears and shortcomings, but am open to listening to God’s call.

Given all that I’ve said in both posts, I find myself leaning towards ordination. There is no doubt that this will be a common topic on this blog, and I thank you for your prayers as I continue to discern.