“What Do You Do For Fun?”

Another question that we as postulants get asked quite often by the curious laity is, “What do you do when you’re not working or studying? Are you allowed to have fun?” Though more times than not I think it comes out of a culture that works from the weekend and doesn’t view work as a life calling, it’s a very valid question. How do we as friars-in-training relax and refuel ourselves mentally and physically?

As bad as it might sound, our most common form of “fun” and most effective way of (voluntarily) bringing the postulants together is around the television. I know, I know! There are more effective ways of forming community and certainly more productive things to do than anchoring oneself on the couch and mind-numbingly staring at a colorful box. At the same time that I accept these criticisms, it’s been something that all five of us have enjoyed doing and look forward to each day we can get together.

So what do we watch? For starters, Dennis and I have been pretty successful indoctrinating the others with our love for NBC’s 30 Rock, making it an almost daily ritual to watch re-runs after dinner (and the new episode on Thursdays at 8:00, of course!) For an hour most nights, the show allows us to laugh and relax together, while also offering a catalyst for conversation (I’ve seen every episode so there’s often talking while the show’s even on.) On weekends when we have a little more time in the evenings, we’ll get together in the basement around a movie. Though there’s generally no talking during these, everyone recognizes it as a shared experience done in community. Back in October, we got in the “Halloween spirit” with a horror movie marathon, watching a scary movie each night for 5-6 days leading up to Halloween (which included complimentary pranks and scare tactics for our jumpier friars!) On a few occasions, we’ve taken movie night out, going to a theater to see something up and coming.

As a bit more fulfilling form of entertainment, the other postulants and I have also began playing cards on a regular basis. After an initial night of trying a number of different games, we found one that everyone enjoyed: Poker. Using toothpicks, M&M’s, salt and pepper shakers, dominoes, and Rummicube tiles, we’re pieced together a different form of “currency” each time to simulate real money. So far it’s been more instructive than it has been competitive (as, to my surprise, people grew up doing things other than playing card games), but fun nonetheless.  

Along with both of these things, each of the postulants takes time to relax and have fun individually. Speaking only for myself, this means reading, working out at the YMCA, playing Words With Friends and other online/cell phone games, writing here on the blog, and keeping in touch with friends and family on the phone.

In terms of our definition of “fun,” how we once defined fun is becoming very different than the way we define it now. Going to bars and clubs have probably been removed from our list of future activities, but that’s completely fine. Isn’t that the case for most people? As we get older and make life-changing decisions, so too does our social life change. The important part is that, no matter how “mature” we get or how much responsibility we’re given, we must find time to relax and have fun, with our brothers. In a lot of ways, it’s less important what we’re doing than the fact that we’re having fun and doing it together.

New Photos

After a while of neglect, I have finally updated the Shutterfly website with an additional 20-30 pictures from our December and January trips. This includes our trip to the Cloisters, New Jersey Parishes, and Wisconsin, as well as a few new pictures added to the Graymoor, and Cincinnati albums.

In the future, I’m going to link the blogposts to the Shutterfly albums so that it’s easier to navigate, but for the time being you’ll have to click here and scroll down through the albums. This link can also be found on the “Photos” tab and the link on the righthand toolbar.

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.

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.