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.

Having My Habit, and Wearing it Too!

At this point, wearing a habit is just a dream.

Some will say that the habit should be worn at all times, even within the confines of one’s own house. Focusing mostly on the effect that the habit has on the one wearing it, they argue that the habit’s primary function is to remind the professed religious of their inward commitment: just as one puts on the habit in the morning, so too are they putting on a way of life. No matter what one does or where one goes throughout the day, they will be reminded of their commitment. This is a very powerful sign to oneself. Ordinary secular clothes lack the separation from one’s old way of life to capture the gravity of a vowed life.

In public, the habit serves as an easily recognizable sign to the others of a religious person. One sister asked me once, “If a mailcarrier wears a uniform, why shouldn’t we?” In a similar way that a mailcarrier’s uniform separates ordinary people from mailcarriers, so too does the habit separate ordinary people from religious. This separation offers a protective barrier from the secular world by drawing clearly distinguished lines between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. The presence of the habit in ordinary situations offers a sense of comfort, purity, and Godliness to those around it that cannot be captured by simply wearing normal clothes. There is a “holiness” that cannot be ignored.

It is this very reason why many others have chosen not to wear it at all: the habit creates too much separation. Some religious claim that the habit inhibits their ability to engage in meaningful, mutual relationships with those they serve because it brings with it not just comfort, purity, and Godliness, but also power, authority, and for some, an expectation of false piety. When someone sees a religious in a habit, like it or not, consciously or subconsciously, one’s behavior will be effected; regardless of whether it is for better or worse, people act differently around “brother” X than they would if they had just met X on the street. Many religious find this very troubling, and believe that it is almost impossibile to lead with someone under these circumstances. In this way, some religious focus more on the effect the habit has on it’s beholder than effect it has on its wearer.

To accomodate the beholder, thus, some religious have chosen to blend in. Adopting simply clothing, they resemble the very people they serve. This, they say, is the true essence of the original habit; now that it is a sign of prominent status, it must be removed and replaced with something lowly and cheap. By dressing in a more comfortable way, any sort of stigma of being a professed religious is absent from their interactions. They are no longer above others leading down, but instead among others leading together. Those who have adopted this approach tell me that the greatest compliment they receive is, “Oh! I didn’t even know you were a brother/sister,” because it means that their status as a religious brother or sister had no effect on their ability to serve.

With that being said, there’s a pretty obvious million dollar question about to be asked: How do I feel about the habit? Do I see it as a part of the identity of a friar and wish to wear it as my default attire? Or, do I wish to live by the spirit of the habit, wearing poor clothes in solidarity with those I will serve?

Can’t I have my cake and eat it too? I want to have my habit and wear it too! What do I mean by this? I mean that the question itself is flawed because it should not be an either/or situation; the most complete way that I find to view the habit at this point in my formation needs to include sentiments from both perspectives.

For example, I think that the habit is a needed outward sign of inner “habit” that has changed, as well as a being wonderful expression to the secular world, but that sometimes sign value is less important than being in solidarity with the poor and even impractical (or detrimental) when doing extensive manual labor; I believe that it’s important for the uplifting of the laity to blend in and lead as equals rather than create visual separations, while at the same time realizing that the world needs to see good examples of religious in the world, and that no one will ever walk up to us and ask us to pray for them if they can’t find us.

In short, I like the habit, but I don’t plan on wearing it every minute of every day. Will I wear it more than I don’t? Probably. Will I wear it to the bank, grocery store, or movie theatre? I’m not sure, but I do think there is a need for the world to see a habited religious in normal, secular places. I understand the desire to lead as equals and the sentiment of not drawing too much attention to oneself, but a the same time, if we only wear our habits to church how will we ever be able to evangelize to those who have never heard the Word or know what a Franciscan is?

As it stands now, I won’t receive a habit for another eleven months. A lot could change between now and then. A lot could change when I put it on for the first time. A lot could change the first time I’m out in public and realize that everyone is staring at me. All I can say right now is what I’ve seen so far. Until then, I’m going to dream about having my habit and wearing it too!

We Are The Future

This past weekend, all of friars in pre-Novitiate, Novitiate, and post-Novitiate formation, as well as the formaters and a member of the Provincial Counsel of Holy Name Province, had a grand get together at the Bon Secours Spiritual Center in Marriottsville, MD. Known as the “Formation Intersession Program,” this three day meeting is a yearly tradition of our province that seems to fulfill three main goals: 1) To allow for fellowship and interaction between the men in formation, 2) to teach the men in formation something related to Franciscan theology beneficial for spiritual and communal growth, and 3) to inform new members of the happenings of the province, both financially and statistically, in a sort of “State of the Province” address. Overall, the weekend was excellent at fulfilling each of these goals, and with the exception of the food poisoning I got Friday night, everything went really well! (Dont worry, it wasn’t that bad and I’m completely fine now!)

Getting to know our new brothers. Unlike many of the workshops we’ve attended thus far, there was actually more “free time” on this one than anything else. With most of our afternoons and nights free, we had plenty of time to chat, go out to eat, and even watch a movie on the projector one afternoon. Given that the majority of us have had at least one common formation director or formation house, we all hit it off almost immediately because a lot of our experiences (as well as a few misfortunes!) were common among everyone. Add to it a group of very humorous, brotherly, guys, and you get a weekend long laugh-fest of stories, jeers, and rivalries fit for the friars.

Besides simply having a good time, there was a serious purpose for bringing us together: we are the future of the order. Turn the calendar ahead 20-25 years and this group of men will be very core of the province, running ministries and dictating the vision for its future. As a postulant, this can no doubt be an overwhelming responsibility to focus on right now. But at the same time, I think we all realize that its a reality in our future, and it’s comforting to know that we’ll have such a strong group of men along for the ride.

Franciscan spirituality of the Trinity. What does it mean to believe in a triune God? More times that not, do we even distinguish between the three, or do we simply think of God as a homogenous, ambiguous “being”? Such a theology would not Franciscan (or even Christian for that matter). Though being of one essence, God has revealed Godself through history and scripture as three distinct beings, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Call me dense, but until this weekend, I had never put two and two together to realize that since each one is in its own ways distinct, so too should our relationship to each person be unique: God is Father, God is brother, and God is spouse. Each requires a different approach, thus yielding a different experience of the divine.

The “mystery” that leads from this is pretty obvious: how does one God exist in three persons while still being only one God? One way of trying to explain it is the ice, water, and vapor analogy I used in my post, “I think of it like a…”: same chemical, three different forms, all of which can exist simultaneously. But from a “Franciscan” perspective, the question itself is posed wrongly: rather than how can one God exist in three persons, someone like St. Bonaventure would ask how can three persons be one? Some will say it’s the same question, but there are different implications to both. The former, starting with one and splitting into three, must focus on the existence of God, how God is, so as to understand how God can be split in three; the latter, focusing rather on three being one, must focus on the relationship of God, how the three distinct persons must be in relationship with one another in order to be one. The relationship between the three leads one to see the self-communicating love that exists with God, leading to the statement, God is good.

The “State of the Province” address. Much like the yearly State of the Union address given by the President of the United States, were given two lectures on Saturday related to the financial and personnel situations our province was facing. Obviously these sections were a bit dry with information (and obviously quite private to non-friars, so I’ll be vague), but they were also very helpful for looking at the future. It’s not a secret that the world is changing, and with it, religious life as well. There are going to be different problems our generation will face than the ones before us did, and it’s great foresight of those in leadership today to prepare us for them as early as possible. There was nothing revealed in either lecture that was a complete surprise, nor was there anything that made me develop much anxiety about the future. Altogether, it was great to be left in the loop and to have the opportunity to ask questions and begin brainstorming with other future leaders.

Given the fact that the food poisoning was a bit unexpected, I didn’t get to take a lot of the pictures I had wanted to. Also, given the internet struggles lately, it’s been difficult to even load a picture for the title of the post, but we’re working on fixing the problem soon!

Keeping Holy the Sabbath

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Six days you shall labor, and do all your work;
but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God;
in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son,
or your daughter, your manservant,
or your maidservant or your cattle,
or the sojourner who is within your gates;
for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
and rested the seventh day;
therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.

Exodus 20:8-11

The idea of the Sabbath day is a familiar one: Jews and Christians alike, though varied in day and practice depending on the specific faith tradition, are called to observe a day of rest and reflection. For many, it is a day away from the busyness of daily life and work and a time for spiritual renewal through community worship and personal reflection.

What happens, then, in the life of a professed religious? The “busyness of daily life and work” IS the Sabbath day; though no doubt spiritually satisfying, it is nonetheless a day of great work. Is it considered “keeping the Sabbath” to spend one’s whole day working, albeit at church? If not, does one simply skip this requirement and go back to work Monday? These are important questions for which the Order doesn’t have strict answers.

At this point in my formation, I find keeping the Sabbath to be critical to the life of a friar, though I recognize that making it once a week, no more or less, is a bit arbitrary. In my time with the friars, both in discernment and now in the Postulancy, I have witnessed great examples of what it means to keep the Sabbath, as well as some examples that leave something to be desired. Each method characterized below has its obvious positive and negative aspects, but offer a unique and fruitful perspective to religious life. Because they’re not mutually exclusive ideas, I see the best solution at this point to be a combination of the three, mixing and matching based on the situation of each friar’s ministry.

Make a different day the Sabbath. There’s really no good reason that the Sabbath has to be Sunday; the bible simply dictates that it should be observed, not when it should be (Since the early church saw Christianity as a movement within Judaism, they observed the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday, and began celebrating the Eucharist on Sunday. Eventually the Saturday part was dropped.) Because of this, a good number of friars will choose a regular day of the week, usually Monday, as their “off” day, to relax and spend time in prayer. In a similar vein, friars at the St. Francis Inn (Philadelphia) take off one day a week for leisure and rest, as well as one day specifically set aside for prayer and reflection. The former allows for more work to get done while the latter doesn’t make the friar choose between leisure and prayer each week.

Cut the day in thirds. Probably as common as an alternative day off, a number of friars have told me that they cut the day into three shifts, (8-12, 12-5, and 5-10) and require themselves to rest during one of them. This method guarantees time for prayer and reduces the risk of burning oneself out, while still allows them to be “always available” if needed. The upside to this method is that everyday, in a sense, can be a partial Sabbath day, allowing an opportunity to remove oneself in the midst of great stress to be with God; the downside is that one is never “off the clock” mentally, and it can be very easy to slip back into work mode during prayer/relaxation time.

Fill up only when empty. The last method is probably the least desired but not uncommon in our province. Rather than taking a specified time or day off each week, some friars choose to work as needed, taking short breaks for prayer and rest sporadically throughout the day, going long periods of time without a “formal” break. When they feel like they’ve worked to the point of exhaustion they will take a short leave, usually in the form of a week long vacation or retreat. Healthy friars are able to see work as an additional form of prayer and remain spiritually nourished, though physically exhausted; unhealthy men begin to see work as a replacement for prayer, and will eventually find themselves not only physically exhausted, but spiritually as well.