Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On the Go

Yesterday the friars had the postulants on the move.

After morning meditation and prayer, we traveled to Blessed Sacrament Parish for Eucharist with the people of the parish. We do this so as to keep the public character of worship.

Then the postulants went to White Plains to the provincialate, the headquarters for the Capuchins of New York and New England. This is where the provincial minister and the vicar provincial maintain their offices, and it is where the provincial council and other standing councils conduct business. We met the brothers who balance the books and maintain the archives, as well as the brothers who reside at the adjoining friary. But our main purpose was to meet the registered nurse who is our personal health care coordinator, as well as our health insurance administrator and medical claims manager. Yes, the friars have health care, just like ordinary people. Unlike ordinary people, the friars share their confidential medical records with the health care coordinator and with the provincial minister and vicar provincial. And, instead of naming family, usually they designate fellow friars to be their health proxies.

If only I had a camera! I would show you the Capuchin archives. It is remarkable what has been preserved, and how much history there is. The Capuchin Franciscans have been doing mission in the United States for over 150 years. The province of New York and New England maintains the records of hundreds and hundreds of friars from entry into the order until death. There are rare books of theology dating to the 18th century and earlier, including a manuscript from the 1500s. Bound correspondence from friars in the missions. Dissertations. Newsletters and bulletins. Logs to chronicle the comings and goings of brothers at all the fraternities. Blueprints for all the Capuchins' properties. Personal effects of select friars. A computerized photo archive. The archives were in some disarray because Hurricane Irene caused two inches of water to seep into the basement, but it appeared that nothing was ruined. And no artifacts, documents, or records ever been thrown away. My mind reeled as I felt the spirit of fraternity, both the earthly and celestial, leaning on me in a palpable way.

Following lunch with the staff and friars, we returned to Brooklyn and to Blessed Sacrament, which is the parish ministry site. One of the four postulants, or maybe more than one, will work with the pastor in general stewardship through an assortment of tasks.

For instance, the postulant can do catechesis, or religious instruction. He can help with the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. It is a one-year program for becoming a Catholic during which men and women prepare to receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and communion. He can also work on faith formation with the youth in the parochial school across the street. Then there are ministries of visitation. The postulant can see the sick and homebound and pray with them. He can also make visits to poor parishioners with the St. Vincent de Paul Society. This group interviews indigent church members at their homes and helps to pay their bills. The postulant may also organize the Tuesday food pantry, which is a lot of heavy lifting, and train the altar servers. And when the parish office manager is besieged with calls and lonely, needy people at the doorstep, it's time for the postulant to step up! And I've mentioned only a third of what needs attention.

In the evening we traveled to Douglaston in Queens to the Immaculate Conception Center, where seminarians preparing for ordination to priesthood in the Diocese of Brooklyn are studying. Here we had dinner and participated in a safe environment training that is mandatory for all priests, religious, and pastoral ministers.

Last week I slept fitfully and lightly, in part because I always need some time to adjust to sleeping in a new home, but mostly because my body refuses to adapt to the demands of early rising! But last night after 16 hours on the go, it was easy to rest. May all my days be so vigorous and my nights so refreshing.


Today the itinerary has been less varied. We had morning prayer and Eucharist in the friary chapel, then a brief house meeting to make plans for the official welcoming reception of the postulants on Monday. About 40 brothers will come to Brooklyn for worship, followed by a barbecue. Well, it is Labor Day.

Late in the morning the friars and postulants did their house chores. Wednesdays are reserved for all the general housekeeping tasks. For the next few months, I will be scouring the second floor bathroom sinks and toilets, cleaning the showers, and brooming and mopping the floors.

This afternoon we visited the last two of the four ministry sites:

First, we toured Salve Regina School, which is next door to the friary. It used to be St. Michael School, enrolling about 300 students from ages 3 to 13 (nursery, preschool, kindergarten to eighth grade). The Diocese of Brooklyn has merged St. Michael with St. Rita and St. Sylvester, two neighboring parochial schools, and now there will be at least 620 students, maybe 700, at the newly christened Salve Regina School. There will be growing pains as the students, faculty, and staff make the merger work, and plenty of opportunity for a postulant to get involved in highly productive ways. Over the years the postulant has done faith formation with various grades and also provided supervision for the afterschool program.

Second, we traveled to Neighbors Together, a community soup kitchen. There, the postulant will be working in the dinner program, preparing to serve hundreds of guests every evening. But there is the opportunity to do much more than this, for Neighbors Together is much more than a soup kitchen. It provides social services and engages in advocacy for its members. I say "members" because every person who comes for a meal (this place serves lunch and dinner) is given a membership card and is encouraged to take advantage of clinics for legal aid, tax preparation, housing, and so on. Neighbors Together is a community organization, and it mobilizes its members and leaders around antipoverty campaigns to promote a living wage, stop evictions, and promote safe and stable housing. There are many unscrupulous landlords who take advantage of the homeless and recovering addicts through the operation of "three-quarters housing." (Think of halfway houses, but a step closer to self-sufficiency. Many of these houses, subsidized by the government, are unregulated, overpriced, overcrowded, and drug-riddled.) Perhaps a place such as this could find a use for a former community organizer?


Brothers in initial formation do not receive their habit, the brown robe of the Franciscans, until they enter the novitiate. While the robing ceremony is still a year away, I have been shirted! The postulant directors gave each postulant a pair of brown polo shirts and magnetized name tags to wear at our ministry sites and fraternal ceremonies. This genesis of the gift was past postulants' desire to be somehow distinguished from candidates in discernment and fellow colleagues in ministry, lay and clerical. It's funny, but appropriate, that we look like busboys or servers from Applebee's, because after all, we have been called to a life of humble service!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Religious Life and the Road Less Traveled By

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred

Bob Dylan, "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken"

How come young Catholic women and men do not enter religious life in the United States anymore?

Today the postulants are discussing an article that appeared three years ago in America Magazine, a weekly periodical published by the Jesuits, the largest religious order of priests and brothers in the world. The author is a Jesuit priest and professor of anthropology at a Catholic college in Philadelphia. Addressing the question from a cultural perspective, he makes the following observations:

1. Young men and women know neither the mind nor the heart of their Catholic faith: its stories, its figures, or its ways of knowing truth. Their culture is erected on different stories (or no stories at all), it is peopled differently, and its avenues for knowing truth lead in only one way or to dead ends. In consequence, their culture is bereft of a religious substance, Catholic or otherwise.

2. People who enter religious life have to make a break from all familiar relationships and commitments and submit to a lengthy, somewhat complicated process of formation. In a real sense, young men and women have a lot more to lose by entering religious life today, and not only because they must let go of their cell phone, car, apartment, and bank accounts. They must also let go of their attachments to friends and family, or at least hold on to their loved ones much more loosely than before.

Arguably, the tradeoff is mostly unequal for young adults, because postulants and novices enter into new social groupings whose members are more diverse and unlike the groups they have left behind. The process of formation itself is psychologically and spiritually intense. No doubt, the fact of separation from one's previous groups of support makes the experience further challenging.

3. Religious sisters and brothers are simply not a part of young men and women's web of relationships. People will not aspire to become persons they are not in relationship with, whether priests or police officers. Young adults not only do not know people in religious life; they also do not identify with them. This is in part a consequence of a generation gap, but it is more than this. In truth, young adults, more than other cohorts, do not identify as religious at all, much less Catholic.

4. Young adults and older religious: different media, different messages. Without prejudice to either group, it is clear that young adults and older religious men and women tend to occupy different media worlds. The former soar happily in the clouds of today's electronic, digital, and social media, while the latter light their eyes on the sharp beams of yesterday's print and electronic media (now recapitulated in today's technology). Each have been formed in the wombs of different sensoriums and thus come to experience and understand the world differently. Are these groups' perceptions of reality so different as to be incompatible and preclude a life shared in common?

5. Religious persons' and young adults' experiences of gender and sexuality are mutual stumbling blocks. The cultural gaps are perhaps wider here than in any other part of human experience. Attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, and values are not only divergent but also at points irreconcilable. Where one group speaks of love, the other speaks of mortal sin. When one says "Born this way," the other says "intrinsically disordered." While the avant-garde fight for equality, the rear guard fights for tradition. On one side they champion tolerance, and on the other they champion religious freedom. Those who condemn sexism and heterosexism point to the signs of the times, and those who condemn immorality point to natural law and canon law. Is East to be East and West to be West, and never the twain shall meet?

6. The color line and the poverty line run through religious institutes. In a few more years, the plurality of Catholics in the United States will be Latino and lower-class. But the Catholic Church in the United States is governed largely by middle-class whites of European descent. And the demographic and socioeconomic composition of religious orders of 2011 bears more of a resemblance to the Catholic Church of 1961.

7. Today's young adults are too maladjusted to live any kind of life, much less adopt the habits of religious life. Those who take this pessimistic view are taking into sight the pervasive sense of emptiness and meaninglessness of modern and postmodern life. They cite the train of morbid addictions and sickly anxieties to which the desperate are prone. In a world that preaches the autonomy of the individual, many young people feel hardly able to cope and totally unable to imagine the alternative of interdependent being. In a world where freedom means unlimited options and choice without restraints, people no longer know how to choose or make consequential commitments. In a world where there is no destiny and the only purpose is to make yourself who you are, there are no persons, only an assortment of ever-shifting faces.


Asked for our opinion on this article, I commented that we are living in an age when it is profoundly difficult to build a mutual community. We are a confederacy of hyperindividuals who are hyperlinked to one another as individuals, but we are less than the sum of our connections. We are, but we are not together. Unable to find enough like-minded and like-hearted partners with whom to make a living, we live apart, even from our family and friends. The heart of the world is not sacred; in fact, there is no heart from which we flow or to which we can return. We float nervously among each other in the nebula of our shared space. But there is no center of gravity, no force to pull us into orbit. Although we can go anywhere, we don't believe we can get anywhere. And we do not trust that our movement makes any real difference, so why set any course at all?

There is an existential crisis of confidence, a profound doubt that life, in its depths, has ultimate meaning, and a sneaking suspicion that any commitment to life beyond survival, any goal higher than the struggle for existence, is fancy or foolishness. Those who actively persist in the quest for a better way of life, a common way of life, that transcends life as we know it, are in the minority. That is true of every generation, and it is true in its own way for the generation now rising. It is a generation that cannot come to terms on a shared vision of life big enough for all of us to inhabit. We may walk together for a little while, but we part company early and often. Basically we believe we are going it alone. Of our pilgrim roads, each of us fancies we take "the one less traveled by." We make a path where no one has gone before and none will follow after us. Although I do believe we make the road by walking, I do not believe that the road vanishes behind us. All evidence to the contrary, the footsteps remain. And so we do not merely chance upon the places we can go.

While the decline of religious life in the United States is exacerbated by numerous intramural factors, I believe the deepest reasons lie outside the ignoble dysfunction of the Catholic Church. Religious life is the road not taken. And religious life is the road taken, again and again. But religious life is not, and never can be, the road less traveled by. Yet for many young adults, all they can see, everywhere they turn, are nearly deserted streets.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Window Poem No. 10

Every morning, the friars gather in the chapel for silent meditation before singing and reciting morning prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours. Some brothers quietly read the prescribed texts from the office of readings, or matins, customarily spoken or chanted by clergy and religious in the vigil before sunrise, when morning prayer traditionally begins. I have been reading one poem every morning from "Window Poems" by Wendell Berry, the well known farmer and author. This, to me, is appropriate because the gravitational pull of morning prayer is toward praise of God for creation and redemption. As, with the dawning light, we recall the resurrection, we call on God to sanctify all time and space, and we consecrate ourselves to love and serve one another. Reading this volume of Berry's poems, a cycle of observations on the Kentucky River and its environs from the window of his cabin, well disposes me for the contemplative attitude of morning prayer.

This is the poem I read in the manner of lectio divina this morning under the blindly advancing, blindly watching eye of Hurricane Irene before saying morning prayer. The intertextual comments are mine.

Rising, the river
is wild. There is no end
to what one may imagine
whose lands and buildings
lie in its reach. To one
who has felt his little boat
taken this way and that
in the braided currents
it is beyond speech.

You have carried me, God, upon the windy waves. I have dared to walk upon the water. Now I am here in a far place among lands and buildings I never imagined I would know. I have prayed to be taken beyond what I knew, and beyond what I could express. You have responded. Amen, and God help me. These waters are very high, very deep. The wind breaks the boughs and it turns my head. Be with me when I pass through the waters; do not let me be swept away through the rivers.

'What's the river doing?'
'Coming up.'
In Port Royal, that begins
a submergence of minds.
Heads are darkened.
To the man at work
through the mornings
in the long-legged cabin
above the water, there is
an influence of the rise
that he feels in his footsoles
and in his belly
even while he thinks
of something else.

Be careful what you pray for. You will always receive it.

There is something fearful in the rising we have longed for with half-hearted sentimentality. Do you mean that there really is a rising, and it is going to sweep me up, too? How do I let myself get swept up without being swept away? Do I truly desire to be taken up and beyond myself? No, surely it will not come like this, not like a storm. Keep away from my weakly curious mind, and do not trouble my heart. Keep still the ground beneath my feet. Leave the lesser lights on, lest the tremendous darkness overshadow my senses. I am not ready for that.

It does not matter. You are never ready for the happening that never ends. You have got yourself into the boat, and now you must ride the rising river anyhow. It does not matter what you think or what you let yourself feel.

                             The window
looks out, like a word,
upon the wordless, fact
dissolving into mystery, darkness
overtaking light.

This poet is no fool. Surely he knows the spirit of the Psalms. He is not writing of the lesser darkness that overcomes natural light. He is writing of the greater darkness that is in truth Light overtaking our lesser light. Such is this Light that we cannot apprehend it by our senses; it is of a wavelength beyond our detection; it is therefore only as darkness to us. It is, for the moment, inattainable to us. And yet we "darkly" sense it at times when creation is in tumult and when our world is distressed. Something or someone shakes our sleepy selves into a higher state of perception. And the darkness becomes as light, or at least less dim. We can see a little more of the Light. At these moments, like Berry, we can look out upon it from the window, the "wind's eye," as he called it, or the "word." Be thou my vision and my true word in a world whose facts have falsified  my sight.

Praise God, even for hurricanes.

And the water reaches a height
it can only fall from, leaving
the tree trunks wet.
It has made a roof
to its rising, and become
a domestic thing.
It lies down in its place
like a horse in his stall.
Facts emerge from it:
drift it has hung in the trees,
stranded cans and bottles,
new carving in the banks
--a place of change, changed.

This storm is now receding. Another rising has passed. Gone is the dread and the delight. We had a glimpse of glory, a glance at grandeur, and then the moment passed. For an hour, the blind and unblinking eye shone upon us. A moment of truth has slipped away, and we are left with a mire of facts once again. It is Sunday afternoon.

Here we remain. Didn't we fantasize we would be cast away in the surge? That the water would catch us from every direction and carry us on a crazy careless course before burying us?

Here we remain. We are safe at home, cozing in our chairs, curling in our beds. We cannot say we survived the storm because we did not ride the storm. We are so poor in our riches. Did our boats leave the port, after all?

Here we remain. Some things have changed. Has anyone changed?

It leaves a mystic plane
in the air, a membrane
of history stretched between
the silt-lines on the banks,
a depth that for months
the man will go from his window
down into, knowing
he goes within the reach
of a dark power: where
the birds are, fish

We can only follow so far so soon. I am not yet ready to follow the storm all the way. But I want to.

I want to follow the air as it goes up and down. I want to cross the membrane of history where the rapid waters cut through. I want to sink deep into the depths where the river runs quietly for now. I want to rise with the fish to the unimaginable heights of the birds. I ought to be caught up, like a fish out of unseasonal waters.

I want to renew my baptism and feel the rising, rising within me.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Letters Along the Way

In the last post one of the links takes you to my other blog, Letters Along the Way. Let me take a moment to explain why I have two blogs.

This blog, From a Brother, is a public diary about my being-becoming a Capuchin Franciscan friar and is written in a mostly public language for a public audience. That is how it was conceived and that is how it is currently intended. When and if it ever becomes inaccessible or unintelligible to you, my readers, do let me know!

On the other hand, Letters Along the Way is not a public diary. It is a spiritual journal. It is available for the public to read but it is not at the moment intended for public comment. From a Brother was created to answer the questions many friends have about religious life in the Catholic Church and with the Capuchin Franciscan friars in particular. It exists to address their curiosities, and I am happy to indulge every curiosity! Letters Along the Way is not an answer or an address to any person. It is a personal response to God. Of course, From a Brother is also a rendering to God, but it is more of an answer, and an answer is not the same in quality as a response. An answer meets the exigency of the question. A response transcends the question. This explains why Letters Along the Way, which was dedicated from the beginning in a vague and indistinct way to being a record of my soul's indescribable migration to God, gradually took the form of poems, prayers, and songs. And its first tagline, "From Babylon to Boston and Beyond," became "Some Markings -- Some Footprints of Pilgrim Path," the earthly itinerary becoming rooted more from above than below.

From time to time there may be goings-on that point to spiritual happenings too deep for me to put into prosaic words. Or there may be details in my mundane life that are best kept within the confidence of the fraternity. Such details will remain off the record in a journalistic sense and hence, off this blog. But those jarring experiences or crisis points may seek expression by other means that keep confidentiality but satisfy the groaning of the Spirit in my spirit that seeks to be heard.

So stay tuned to this blog for the daily dispatches from friary, church, and society; but also adjust your tuner once in a while and see what stirrings of the Spirit arise over the ether at Letters Along the Way.

Riding the Storm Out

God is for us a refuge and strength, a helper close at hand, in time of distress:
so we shall not fear though the earth should rock,
though the mountains fall into the depths of the sea,
even though its waters rage and foam,
even though the mountains be shaken by its waves.

The Lord of hosts is with us:
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

Psalm 46:2-4

This would have been the day I would begin exploring Brooklyn, to begin to know, in the words of Walker Percy, the "soul-genie" of the city in which I now live. Of course, nature and the God of nature have other plans. With the outer bands of Hurricane Irene already upon the Greater New York area, the light gray sky is crying, and the city is shutting down its mass transit system. No trains, no subways, no buses will run after noon. With only ten hours of fair-weather driving to merit my newly regained license, you could not pay me to take one of the friary vehicles out for a trip. I am grounded at St. Michael Friary, and here I will stay cheerfully with the brothers until the storm has passed.

Under the circumstances of my former life, a situation like this would make me itchy and irritable. I hate staying at home. My work and lifestyle in Boston had thoroughly un-domesticated me. No waiting on tables for me, not like Martha and the first deacons; send me forth, like Paul and the missionary apostles. Whether to the worker or to the immigrant and refugee, it did not matter: just send me! However, my zeal for what Protestants call mission and Catholics call the apostolate had all but dimmed my vision for communion, the joy of gathering together with the people of God and people of good will for the ultimate fellowship of word and table and for blessed friendship born of good food and good conversation. I had gorged myself gleaning a thousand fields but starved when I came back to a thousand dinner tables. A spiritual bulimic and anemic!

The dawning awareness of this lack of proportion is one of the primary reasons I have sought the balance of religious life, with its promise of a better order of prayer and work, contemplation and activity, communion and mission. Prayerful as you may know me to be; mystic though you think I am; and as friendly a fellow as you say I am, the dominant notes have strung into the tune of a man driven to something, driven by superego more than drawn by grace. Who I am, even now, is good enough for God, but it is how I can be who I am that can be sanctified ever more and ever more.

I want to know how to live better who I am. That is why I am now in religious life. That is why I am becoming a Capuchin Franciscan. That is why I am content for the moment to stay at home and do things I would, given my own way, choose not to do. God, give me grace to do my laundry with happiness. Give me grace to sit with gladly my brothers to watch a movie and play cards. Give me grace to gab with the brothers over breakfast at the crowded kitchen table with glad and generous heart. In all things let me praise the God who dwells in them and in every space of this house. For you are indeed our refuge, and not only in the tabernacle of our chapel.


Yesterday the brothers and postulants travelled to Gilgo Beach in Babylon, Long Island, for a day of recollection. Late in the morning until early in the afternoon the postulants each shared their story of vocation, or calling, into life in Christian community, and into life with the Capuchin Franciscan fraternity. Although only a day before the great storm, the beach was a pleasant place to be. Though the skies were a little murky with moisture and the horizon was indistinct, the breeze was light, the sun was soaring, and the water was frothy and warm. The heat soaked into us, gently soothing us to sleepiness. After a casual evening prayer a barbecue with food from a slow-cooking charcoal grill carried us into the evening. With light conviviality we rode on westward to Brooklyn underneath the blackening skies.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Work, Ministry, Time

Postulants have free time from their schedule of prayer and work from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. I hope to use some of that time to do a little backtracking on the blog. My aim is to write more in depth about my general studies and offer you, my readers, some theological reflections as they are inspired. It is my desire to incense you with aromatic traces of life from the grounds I pass while the scent of the trail is still fresh!

This morning, in lieu of class, the postulants worked in the courtyard weeding the garden and pruning badly overgrown bushes. The courtyard features a grotto for Mary, mother of Jesus, and statuettes of Francis of Assisi, Anthony of Padua, and Michael the archangel. Bushes, shrubbery, ivy, and covering plants insulate the high-walled perimeter. We finished our chores moments before tanks of rainclouds spilled their fill. With our garden given a more orderly appearance, we are more ready to render hospitality to the friars who will descend on Brooklyn for our annual Labor Day barbecue.


Shortly I will begin a tour of possible ministry sites. They include a nursing home, a parish, a parochial school, and a soup kitchen. The postulants work four afternoons a week at one of these institutions. Other sites are possible, but these have become the preferred options of recent years. Postulants are encouraged to select a ministry that will challenge them to use their talents fully and stretch them where they may feel less gifted for a particular form of service. Without prejudice to my fellow postulants' preferences and skills, it is my hope to assume a ministry I have never done before, one that I have usually taken for granted -- and even discounted as to its real worth.

First up in our tour today is the nursing home. Later this afternoon we will do a walking tour of downtown Brooklyn and eat at Junior's, one of NYC's best restaurant-diners and home, so they say, to the "World's Most Fabulous Cheesecake." Tasty treats, here we come!


Earlier today I got a wonderful request to visit Boston to speak about my experiences in the Capuchin fraternity. Had I the freedom, I would jump at the chance. Unfortunately, as a postulant, my schedule is very restricted nowadays, and especially from now until the first week of October, when we gear up for the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4). Again, my only free time is weekends, from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon.

Resources are also an issue. I don't have the greater means to get around beyond the NYC area. In addition, although my formation directors would not absolutely prohibit it, I suspect they would be disinclined to permit me to travel out of the area unless I am making an excursion with the Capuchin fraternity or to be with family. The whole point of postulancy is to integrate the initiates into the life of Franciscan community over the next nine months.

All of this is to say I'm not really available for the present. Thus, on the one hand, what I am telling you is, if you want to know about my adventures in religious life, come soon to St. Michael Friary! On the other hand, I will be returning to Boston in the fall of 2013 for the post-novitiate years of formation. I will be living in Jamaica Plain during that time. By then I will be living my temporary vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience, and I will have had two years' experience living in Capuchin community. I think any showcase of religious life we make would be much richer by then and more illuminating for you!

So to one and all, Bostonians especially, keep me in your e-mail address book, and let's revisit this very good idea in two years! Blessings on all that you and your friends do to build vibrant communities of peace, spirit, and light.


PS -- Please pray for my postulancy director, whose father is ill with stomach trouble. He was called away from the friary last night to handle his father's medical emergency.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Breaking the Surface

We have begun our orientation. The friars and postulants gather in the chapel and arrive into the day with meditation for 15 minutes, soon to be a half hour when we assume our regular schedule. This leads into morning prayer as we sing hymns, recite psalms, hear Scripture, and offer petitions. Immediately following morning prayer is Eucharist in the same chapel. We will celebrate Eucharist at the friary on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; on Tuesdays and Thursdays we will go to Mass at Blessed Sacrament Parish, a neighborhood parish. Following breakfast, we have instruction, which today concerns the philosophy of the postulancy program and the elements of this first stage of our initial formation. Through the year we will have instruction every morning in the cozy basement library, and our classes will touch upon prayer (liturgical and personal), the catechism of the Catholic Church, conversion and discernment, and the life of Francis of Assisi and Capuchin Franciscan saints.

Following lunch, we did a thoroughgoing tour of the friary, room by room, to learn how the house "works," in anticipation of our responsibilities, as residents, for its upkeep. Mid-afternoon we took a walk through our part of East New York, getting our bearings, seeing where we can buy groceries, where we can go for recreation and exercise, and meeting our neighbors. Momentarily I will return to chapel for meditation and evening prayer. After dinner, the friars and postulants have free time, which is understood to be personal time. There is no obligation to "be together" in fraternity, prayer, or otherwise for the rest of the day.

On our walking tour of the neighborhood, the friars stopped over at the North Brooklyn YMCA on Jamaica Avenue. We were mightily impressed with the facilities and variety of programs for exercise, training, and development of general well-being of mind, body, and spirit. We are considering whether to get a membership so we can lift weights, walk the track or treadmill, or take a swim.

With some loving encouragement, you could coax my self-conscious body into the pool. But the truth is my head is swimming right now.

For me, the experience of starting something new is like diving into cool water. Right this moment, it feels like the moment of impact with the water, when the shock of the cold slaps you and the weight of the water envelops you. Ordinarily, we absorb these shocks one at a time, because life doesn't change all at once. Well, this is several simulataneous changes: a new worship life, a new social life, a new work life, and above all, a new domestic life in community with the brothers. There is little falling back on my former lives. My routine will be, and is already, vastly reformed. I am breaking the surface of the water, and the sensation of it is a rush! So it will feel for a week or two, until my body relaxes, rises, and floats comfortably in the immersion. But first, I must complete the dive and go through with the plunge. Thankfully, the friars are jumping in with me and with all the postulants. We are breaking the surface together.

Let us hold hands gently as we stand at the edge of the water. Stay with me in prayer, friends, and I promise to keep you in my many petitions.

Beginning Again, Beginning At Last

I am unpacked and ready to pack down for the night. A brief note before I fall asleep at my computer.

My family and I arrived at St. Michael Friary shortly before 5 p.m. on Sunday afternoon under skies heavily laden. The three other postulants have arrived, too, with their families in tow. We had social time and a brief word of prayer, followed by a dinner rich in fare and fellowship. Parting from our parents and brothers and sisters was joyous and sad, but a leave-taking like this is uncommonly bittersweet. After all, we postulants are making our preliminary break from a natural way of life. This is what we wanted: a grace-full way of life that depends explicitly on that grace to be sustained. It's wonderfully liberating, but, even within the blessed surrounding of Gospel brotherhood, it is also fearlessly solitary. You can already feel the kind of emotional poverty that friars embrace.

Now we are all settling in for the beginning of at least a week of orientation: the four postulants and the the four friars in residence. Outside it has been showering and softly thundering all over the city. Inside the friary all is calm. We are ready, all of us are ready.

Life is always full of beginnings. Such is life -- beginning, becoming, and renewing. I have made my goodbyes. I am very good at making ends, at finishing. This is not all there is to life. An end is itself a beginning. Life is beginning again, and it is beginning at last.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

More Than a Next Step

The following is an article I was asked to submit for the Capuchin Franciscans' website. It is a reflection on the transition from candidacy into postulancy. For those of you familiar with my writing, this piece may strike you as self-consciously and uncharacteristically pious, and so it strikes me, too. Perhaps I was writing with a very particular type of Catholic audience in mind. Perhaps I am cloaking my Pietist leanings in romantic sentiments!
Many friends have congratulated me for taking the “next step” in my journey of faith. Indeed, I am becoming a Capuchin Franciscan friar because I believe there is no surer way to follow Jesus faithfully than to walk in the footsteps of Francis. It may truly be said that in joining the Capuchins and beginning postulancy, I am undertaking an expedition to uncover the footprints of Francis and the revolutionary path he pioneered.
But there is more than this. Today I am a postulant because it is not enough for me only to find the path, to retrace Francis’ steps. Any seeker can do that. Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of heaven is like “a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). Well, out of joy for finding the path, I move to the margin of the road I have been travelling and merge onto the way of the Poverello.
But there is still more than this. The Gospel is not only to be believed but also lived. Discipleship is faith put into practice. It is not enough for me to say, “There is a path, and I see it leads me straight and true.” Francis knew the way of Christ does not admit of tourists or museum curators. Therefore, becoming a Capuchin Franciscan friar is not merely the “next step” in the journey back to God—it is a change in the way I walk. If it is true that we make the road by walking, then nothing less than a radical re-ordering of my steps will enable me to tread in the tracks of the one whose pilgrim path was often muddy and rough.
But, thanks be to God, I won’t run this race alone. First of all, the Spirit of God will always guide my feet. Second, the word and works of Jesus Christ abide, and Jesus’ gift of himself in the Eucharist nourishes me for the journey. Third, God has given me brothers, companions on the way. My encounters with the Capuchins throughout candidacy intensified my desire to enter religious life because I have seen the friars’ love for one another, and I trust that by this love God is changing these men and, through them, the world as well.
Now, after many years of friendship with the friars and a year of deep discernment as a candidate, I am ready to walk humbly with God from within the fellowship of the Capuchins. Please pray for me and my brothers in the postulancy program. May God’s kingdom come speedily, and God’s will be done in our world as in heaven.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

From Candidate to Postulant

There was a time when Catholics began formation into religious life with little to no preparation for the phenomenal transformation in lifestyle. Discernment, or a methodical examination of a person's sense of calling to the vocation of consecrated life, did not occur prior to formation into that life, but concurrently, and usually then often or only in a manner that compelled one to ratify the decision already taken. Nowadays, men and women who enter religious life do not do so without first getting a glimpse of what the life is like. 

With the Capuchin Franciscans and also among many other religious orders, we call this period of discernment candidacy. Through attendance of come-and-see events like discernment weekends, prospective candidates meet friars and friars in formation, worship together, share meals and stories, and experience the community in general, especially as marked by its fraternity and ministry. In addition, candidates are encouraged to be in touch often with the vocation director and visit any of the friaries as they are able.

When a candidate feels ready to take the next step, an application is made to the postulancy program. If accepted, the candidate will take residence in a friary, where formation commences at the level of catechesis, liturgical practice, and pastoral ministry. In addition, postulants receive instruction in the traditions of the Capuchin Franciscan order, while adopting the habits of the friars by following the common routine of prayer, meals, and work. Postulants receive spiritual direction and work on their human development.

Some candidates move quickly into the postulancy program, while for others the transition from candidacy to postulancy is the culmination of a long process of discernment. The Spirit moves when she will at her own chosen speed. In my case, it is the latter, as I have known the Capuchins for over ten years. Long have I been in the orbit of the friars' world, and the gravitational pull of religious life has been sometimes strong, sometimes weak. Clearly at this time it is irresistible! We are flying closer to the Franciscan planet.

The postulancy program is nine months at St. Michael Friary in East New York, Brooklyn. What happens next? Here is an overview of the stages of formation into Capuchin Franciscan life.

Friday, August 19, 2011


Greetings and blessings. In two days I will begin formation into religious life with the Capuchin Franciscan friars. After prayerful consideration of my friends’ kind encouragement, I have created this public diary to chronicle the journey.

This blog is conceived primarily for my friends and colleagues in Christian ministry. It is especially for my Protestant friends who are personally unfamiliar with the traditions and institutions of consecrated life in the Roman Catholic Church. It is, of course, for my Catholic sisters and brothers, who first formed me into a life of faith and Christian community. It is for my friends in the Jewish and Muslim faiths, the eldest and youngest daughters of Abraham. It is for my many Unitarian Universalist friends and secular humanist brothers and sisters, who subscribe to no doctrine and whose only creed is compassion. It is for people from all faiths and all people of good will. It is for seekers and settled believers. It is for pilgrims who know the road they are walking, and for wanderers who have no direction home. Lastly and firstly, this blog is for me as I work out my salvation in fear and trembling, and my liberation in a girding faith and joyful hope.

This public diary is conceived with little forethought to its form or substance. Your curiosity and questions will drive its development. I trust that with time and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, I will know what to record in this journal and how to do it. Your correspondence will stimulate activity on this blog, I am sure!

There are numerous religious institutes for men and women within the Roman Catholic Church, more than I can count. I am joining one of the older and larger institutes, the Capuchin Franciscans. The Capuchins are a 500-year-old branch in the family tree planted by St. Francis of Assisi eight centuries ago. I hope this public diary gives you a glimpse of what consecrated life is like, through my experience of it with the Capuchin Franciscans of New York and New England.

I would love dearly to receive a word from you, through your comments on this public diary and personal contact. You can write to me at St. Michael Friary, 225 Jerome Street, Brooklyn, NY 11207. My telephone number at the friary is (718) 827-6990. You can send e-mail to

With God’s love and mine, in the manner of all Franciscans, I wish you peace and all good things. Thank you, friends, for being companions on the way.