Celebrating the Life and Death of Francis

Francis was in a state of ecstasy, even in pain on his deathbed!

Like Christmas and Easter for all Christians, the Transitus and Feast of Saint Francis are two holidays that are treated with the greatest reverence by all Franciscans. Around the world, the number of Franciscans in all three types of orders is in the hundreds of thousands (the order I am joining, O.F.M., is somewhere between 12 and 13 thousand, with the Secular Franciscans at about 400,000.) For many, the specifics of the celebration ranges greatly from community to community, but the purpose is the same: commemorate the life and death of our Seraphic father. In this case, our community celebrated with the Capuchin friars, Poor Clare sisters, and two other groups of Franciscan sisters that I unfortunately did not get a chance to meet.

Our celebration began October 3 with the Transitus, or the transition of Francis from this life to the next. In the chapel, the lights were dimmed, and placed in the middle of the floor was a habit surrounded by candles. Structured like the Palm Sunday Gospel in which a number of people took parts, i.e. “Francis” or “Leader,” we recreated the last moments of his life in order to share in his transition. At first, it felt very mournful, and I was overcome by a feeling of sadness and despair over the death of a great saint. What surprised me was how, despite the solemn atmosphere, the ceremony was filled with hope and joy, happiness and celebration. Here’s a section that I found particularly profound:

Narrator: On another occasion, when he felt that his end was not so far away, Francis once more asked his brothers to sing to him the Canticle of the Sun. And this time when they came to the end, Francis added still another verse–the praise of Sister Death.

Francis: Praised be you, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one living can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin. Blessed be those whom death will find in Your most holy will.

All: Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks, and serve Him with great humility.

Francis lived his life up until his last breath as if he had never gotten over the fact that God loved him. He was always experiencing God in different ways, and like a loyal dog, treated everything like it was the most incredible experience yet. He was not saddened by death, but rather, welcomes it as the long awaited entrance into heaven. Simply beautiful. In recreating his final acts, we shared bread (not mass) and made for each other a sign of peace before concluding in joyful song.

Following the Transitus was the full celebration of the Feast of St. Francis on October 4. Including the blessing of the animals, a commemorative mass, and huge feast, we come together once more as a large Franciscan community to look more broadly on the life of the great saint and celebrate the life of our own communities. It was a wonderful experience, to which we certainly did not forget the feast aspect! After mass, the many communities of Franciscans came together for a spectacular meal and fellowship in the spirit of Francis. All in all, it was a joyful experience and a confirmation of my call to follow Francis’ way to Jesus.


We Met A Cardinal!

Cardinal Seán O'Malley is a Capuchin Franciscan

For all you Braves and Phillies fans out there, all Cardinals are not enemies. In some cases, they’re wonderful men who commit their lives to the service of the Church, responsible for overseeing the spiritual well being of millions of people. In this case, we’re talking about Seán O’Malley, OFM Cap, the Cardinal of Boston.

Cardinal O’Malley was in Wilmington yesterday presiding over the jubilee celebration for Sister Maria Elena Romero, P.C. Cap. Just like in marriage, men and women religious get together to celebrate big anniversaries of their profession of vows (usually 25 and 50), usually renewing them in the process. In this case, Sr. Maria Elena celebrated her 25th anniversary.

Though we got a picture with him, we really didn’t have a chance to speak with him privately. He seemed like a very nice guy, and the parts of his homily that were in English were very well spoken. (I’m not sure if he was being funnier while speaking Spanish or the Spanish speaking crowd was just easier to please, but something was working for him that I couldn’t understand!) All in all, we were very pleased to meet him and very gracious that he could come down from Boston for such a joyous occasion.

(Sorry about the picture! The blinds were actually closed behind us but I guess the sun was just that bright. Unfortunately the sun wasn’t all that warm, and being that it was an outside mass, it was quite chilly in the shade where the “choir” had to stand. I put choir in quotes because of the fact that I was in it, meaning it was not the sort of choir you would expect.)

Why Do We Suffer? Pt. 2

Natural disasters are a huge source of suffering

As I concluded in the last post, I think it’s important to differentiate between those sufferings caused by God and others caused not by God. Even though suffering is suffering, manifesting itself in a similar way no matter the source, the reason I separate the two is because they require completely different responses. This post will deal specifically with sufferings caused by God.

The very idea of God causing suffering may be very hard for some to accept because it contradicts the image of a “loving God that just wants you to be happy.” Part of the problem in this field of study is that we often believe that suffering, no matter the source, shouldn’t exist. I don’t think that’s true. What sort of world would it be if we only ever experienced happiness, joy, sunshine, and success? What sort of superficial love would we have for God if we never experienced sadness, sorrow, or disappointment? Without the ability to experience all of these emotions we lack an ability to experience God. In some cases, God not only allows suffering to occur, but is also the one who sends it. How do we know the difference?

Like I said before, the approach has to be both/and, not either/or: I think God can manipulate natural forces and send them specifically to an individual in a miraculous way, e.g. the plagues in the Exodus, but I think that it’s more likely that creation exists as an ever-moving machine, always acting within the laws that govern it. For example, God could send a lightning bolt to target your house specifically, but its more likely that the answer is that your house was the tallest in the area, containing materials conducive for the flow of electricity between the earth to the sky. God created the laws of physics, and lightning abides by it, indiscriminate of whether or not humans dwell nearby.

In a way, this explanation is simply splitting hairs: either God is directly responsible by sending it specifically to a given people or place, or indirectly responsible because he allowed his creation, which never acts outside of its intended nature, to cause suffering. If we are to believe that God is all-powerful, why would he let things like this happen?

God created and loves all creation, not just humanity. If he were to intervene in every instance where we had the opportunity to suffer, there wouldn’t be anything left of creation but us! Cancer causes suffering, but it is a creation of God just like dogs, and so sometimes God allows life to work itself out the way it was created. (Other times, he works miracles.) Doing so allows us to more deeply understand God by understanding the nature of creation.

Other times, suffering can be the result of incorrect expectations. In the case of cancer, we experience suffering because we have the expectation of not receiving it; the same can be said about loss of property and death. In cases like these, it’s sometimes helpful to reorganize our priorities and better focus on God: a life in Christ is not free from harm, but it’s one of eternal joy upon rebirth into heaven. Sometimes, we just need to say, “that’s life,” understanding that suffering is just a part of life that we can endure. Can we really say, “I want to follow Christ, but I’m not willing to suffer?”

As crazy as it sounds, suffering may very well just be an experience that God wants us to have. It better prepares us to appreciate the good, it forces us to be dependent on him, it facilitates a society of caring and uplifting, and it opens us up to a more complete experience of God and the fullness of life. God does not send suffering upon us that we cannot endure because he is ever calling us back to him. Sometimes it’s like a parent that punishes a child: the child needs to learn the difference between right and wrong. Other times, God lets us venture out to explore, knowing that we’re going to experience hardship: a parent takes off the training wheels even though there’s a high probability of a crash in the future. Do either of these situations negate the goodness of a parent?

The problem is that a child can experience suffering caused by others, some of which a parent would never wish upon them. Pt. 3 will look at suffering caused by our free will that is completely separate and against the will of God: evil.

Continue to Part 3

Why Do We Suffer? Pt. 1

Where is God amidst suffering?

Poverty, war, ecological disasters, abuse, death, cancer, famine. Why do we experience suffering and evils? It’s a question that I’ve thought about for a few years now, and the lack of a concrete answer begs one of the oldest and most popular theological questions: if we are to believe that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and comprising all that is good, what does the existence of suffering and evil do to God?

There are two very common, and incomplete, answers to this question that attempt to justify God. The first is the claim that “everything happens for a reason.” If there is suffering, it is because God made it so. There is no such thing as coincidence: everything that happens, good or bad, is either a gift or burden from God based on his plan for each of us. This paradigm upholds God’s omnipotence and omniscience, but it also accepts that God permits, even sends, evil and suffering to the world. This is an unacceptable paradigm.

As a reaction to this cold-hearted God that sends despair, others will characterize God as a “watchmaker,” forming all creation as good but then stepping away and taking the role as compassionate observer as it is set into motion. This paradigm upholds God’s omniscience and goodness, but it asserts that God is distant from us in our suffering, and powerless to effect change in creation. This, also, is an unacceptable paradigm.

Though technically complete opposites, both of these explanations share the same flaw: neither is willing to accept that there are different forms of suffering that may have different origins. They both attempt to protect God by saying that he is EITHER in complete control OR completely innocent of any harm. The truth is, God is BOTH just AND merciful; BOTH respects our autonomy AND values our connectedness; and through the incarnation, BOTH separately divine AND similarly human. God is at once in our lives, articulating and inspiring his plan to us through word and deed, responsible for some of our suffering, and also autonomous, allowing for the world to work itself out, free from his every command or desire.

The true question in theodicy, thus, is not whether or not God causes suffering, but rather which acts of suffering are at God’s hand, and which are not (and what are other possible sources)? Part two of this series will deal with understanding how and why God causes suffering, how this suffering does not negate his goodness, and how we are to respond to it. Part three will recognize the free will God grants us, the inevitable consequences of such an act, and how God then responds to us. Taken together, I hope to create a more complete paradigm through which we may see and understand God, refusing to accept easy answers and half-truths. There is no doubt that my synthesis is incomplete and will need further adaptations, but I hope that it may add to each of your own perceptions of God.

Continue to Part 2

Retreat to the Beach

Great guys, great food, and a great view!

Up until only recently, friars were not allowed to spend the night with family or friends outside of the friar community: when visiting home, they were required to sleep at the local rectory and commute to wherever their family lived. This, along with the vow of poverty, made it very difficult for many friars to take much needed vacations or retreats from their ministries.

It was because of this, that the province decided in the 1960s to buy a house in Margate, NJ. Centrally located to a lot of friars back then, this 13 “bedroom” house offered a free and comfortable getaway whenever anyone needed it. (I put “bedroom” in quotes because it was probably designed as a seven bedroom house, but walls were added to trade quality for quantity, and each one is probably about 6×15 ft.) Throughout the summer, and even the off-season, friars fill the house on personal vacations, community retreats, and overnight stays in place of a hotel.

What was great about this trip was that the entire community of Wilmington friars attended it. Though we’ve been living with Fr. Chris, Fr. Todd, Br. Bill, and Fr. John since August, we never really had a chance to formally get to know them. It was a great opportunity to hear their vocation stories, discuss our different experiences in the friars, possible visions we have for the future, and general ideas related to living together. Along with prayer, mass, meals, and a good amount of free time to spend on the deck and beach, it was a refreshing weekend.

Given the free time to just sit by the ocean and think, I think a few things were made a bit clearer in my mind. Over the next few days/weeks, I’d like to post my reflections on a few topics that have grabbed my attention over the past month: Gods role in suffering and why bad things happen to us, the necessity of keeping the sabbath and how difficult it can actually be for a priest/religious brother, and what it means to be a spiritual death valley or dead sea. Though we’re given a lot of time during the day for prayer and reflection, there’s just something about being at the beach and looking out at the wonder of the ocean that is so conducive for epiphanies and revelations. Hopefully I’ll be able to articulate some of the things I realized this weekend in a way that will be helpful to others. I hope you’ll check back in a day or so and see which one I’ve decided to tackle first! Thanks again for reading!

Pictures are up on the shutterfly website!