Saturday, December 31, 2011

Year-End Whereabouts

Hello, brothers and sisters and constant readers. It's a wet and lukewarm day for New Year's Eve, but nothing can quench the living flame of love that shoots from the heart of the world, Jesus, and from the Spirit of God, to kindle the hearts of all people of good will. Here's to a new year guided by the Spirit of God, the Spirit given to live in us.

It's another catch-my-breath day after a catch-me-if-you-can day. Arose before 7:30 this morning to the soft grey daylight, and this time I recited morning prayer privately in the San Lorenzo chapel, instead of in transit. Had a quiet breakfast and quick chat with the brother guardian about yesterday's outings and plans for today and New Year's Day. I may have dinner with a few friars tomorrow evening before returning to Brooklyn with my postulant brother, who is driving into town from Maine today. I'll be lunching with a friend in Harvard Square and moviegoing with another friend on Boston Common before that. And there's Sunday morning Mass, of course.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Today I'm reading and blogging at the friary until mid-afternoon. I may return to the Boston Public Library for a change of venue. My final destination is The Dugout Cafe, across the street from Boston University School of Theology, for evening worship and dinner at The Pub Church with my Christian theologian and seeker friends.

What is a pub church? It meets in a bar or tavern instead of a building consecrated by the Church for public and sacramental worship. It is a church for persons who find it difficult or impossible to encounter the living God as encountered in the apostolic and ecclesiastical traditions of institutional Christianity, whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. It is, in my view, a "primitive" church in that it dispenses with many of the doctrinal and liturgical developments of later centuries, treating them as human accretions, receiving nothing except what the Spirit of God gives the Church at the present moment, as at its origin in Christ, as its truth and life. It is a church thoroughly inculturated, and it is deeply missional. It bears, I believe, some affinity with the emerging church phenomenon, which aims for a post-denominational, non-hierarchical form of Christian community. This pub church is organized by one of my BU friends, a doctoral student at the School of Theology, and her companions. I have been meaning to visit her church for some time, so to extend and receive the Spirit's friendship and fellowship, and also better to know my understanding of Church as a Catholic.

Following Pub Church our group will adjourn to my friend's house in Cambridge to greet 2012. To all, be safe, be smart, and be well on this first night of the new year.


This has been a momentous year, and I anticipate many more little earthquakes of the Spirit in 2012.

It is a great blessing to have such a strong formation program to steady the soul through the transition into religious life. As I have said before, there is no place I would rather be now than in fraternity with the Capuchins. This is the right call, the right place, and the right time.

To all my brothers in religion: Thank you for guiding me into postulancy and, God willing, onward to novitiate. I will keep you in my grateful prayers as you keep me in yours.

I'll see you soon in Brooklyn ... until then, I wish you peace and all good things from my beloved Boston!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Whereabouts, Day Three

Expecting a day of many happy meetings around town. Catch me if you can!

This morning I opened the front door of San Lorenzo Friary just as Terry Burke was walking up to the gate. He is the senior minister at First Church in Jamaica Plain, Unitarian Universalist. We met in the spring of 2009 at Ecclesia Ministries. He came to worship one Sunday at Common Cathedral, bringing members of his congregation who brought sandwiches and snacks for the community. He introduced himself to me after he heard me lead an intercessory prayer on behalf of undocumented immigrants, who, like the homeless Ecclesia serves, are excluded from the sacred canopy that covers "respectable" society. He was moved by my prayer and wanted to know more about me and what I was doing. A warm friendship was born on that soggy afternoon. Ever since, we have had many adventures in faith doing justice, especially with Interfaith Worker Justice. (Terry loves to boast that he got arrested because of me!) He knew several of the Capuchins through their work on the Massachusetts health care reform with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, but he had never been to the friary before. It was a privilege to have him over this morning for breakfast and a tour of the house.

This afternoon for lunch I will reunite with two more Unitarian Universalist friends in Cambridge, both pillars of the Boston New Sanctuary Movement. We used to meet all the time at the Au Bon Pain in Holyoke Center of Harvard Square. Perhaps we'll convene there for old times' sake!

Later in the day I will pay respects to the mother of a religious sister I know from the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. The memorial is at St. Katharine Drexel Parish Center in Roxbury. My sister friend, a native of Trinidad, has devoted her ministry to service of immigrants, especially farmworkers. She has been a beacon for many of the interfaith organizations dedicated to social and economic justice in Greater Boston, including Mass. Interfaith Worker Justice and the Boston New Sanctuary Movement. She has been most kind to me over the years. In all her comings and goings she has held her mother close to her heart. I have been moved by her affectionate care for her mother, who passed away last Friday at her home in Melrose, Mass. I feel like her mother accompanied her in spirit whenever we met. Now her mother accompanies us all from her place in eternity. May she smile upon us and pray for the success of our most virtuous efforts to live like Jesus. And may the God of peace and love be with my sister friend at this sorrowful hour and bring her consolation. It is doubly difficult to lose a loved one at this time of year. I can still remember the grief I felt twenty years ago, when my maternal grandfather died two days before Christmas.

From St. Katharine Drexel I will hurtle uptown to Chinatown to meet a friend for Vietnamese food, perhaps at Pho Pasteur. The seafood chowfoon there is excellent. Postscript from yesterday: I came to the Back Bay anticipating a great meal at Arirang House, the Korean-Japanese buffet, only to find that the commercial building where it was, was demolished! The Berklee College of Music has purchased the parcel and is redeveloping it into residence halls, dining halls, and retail space. I was so bummed out. I mourned this loss over some too-sticky sesame chicken from a Chinese take-out across the street. (My only consolation was that the McDonald's next door to Arirang was also uprooted.)

Anyway, after dinner I will adjourn to Limelight Stage and Studios in the Theater District for karaoke and camaraderie. The song selection is great, and the vibes are usually laid back here. The audience is always generous and supportive. The raised platform, concert lights, and projector screen make you the star of the stage. It's as good an ending to the week as I can imagine.

Now, off to morning prayer on the Orange Line and 12:05 p.m. Mass at the Paulist Center. Godspeed....

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Whereabouts, Day Two

Hello from Terminal 12 of Tech Central at the Boston Public Library ... the computer tells me I have 45 minutes of time left at this station, so I'll be brief.

It was a cold night, properly wintry. I drew the curtains and huddled under two blankets in my warmest fleece. When it gets chilly, I like to get extra sleep. Having kept up late last night, this morning I slept in, rising at nine, far later than any friar who fears the deadly sin of sloth more than me would dare!

Conversations arose in the kitchen as I fixed breakfast. If you want to catch friars in their comings and goings, wait in the kitchen or pantry, and you will not be disappointed. I have always been a shrinking violet at table, especially when I have a good meal and a newspaper in front of me, so it's been a good exercise in counterphobic behavior to linger in the kitchen.

I rode the Orange Line to downtown, reading morning prayer along the way, and made it to the Paulist Center in time for the 12:05 Mass. Then I jumped the Charles River and crossed Cambridge to Somerville, where I met a good friend at the Diesel Cafe in Davis Square. He and I worked extensively in the Boston New Sanctuary Movement, expanding our network of congregations into the Protestant communities of Boston and Cambridge. He attends Church of the Covenant, a federation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ. For 30 years he has done marvelous work with his congregation's sister community in Nicaragua. We met a couple of years ago through mutual friends in the faith-based activist community. He is a righteous soul, a gentle radical, and he adds an earthen spirit to Boston's faith-based movement for immigrant rights. For two hours over mint tea we picked up and wove together the threads of many conversations: religious life and conversion; Christian anarchist economics vis-a-vis neoliberal capitalism and Marxist state socialism; organizational ups and downs in churches and non-profits; and news of dear colleagues and partners in ministry. Tea and talk with a brother in spirit. These are the kinds of meetings that feed my mind and soul for a month.

Toting a book on the history and theology of Christian tradition by Yves Congar (1904-1995), a French Dominican priest and architect of the Second Vatican Council, I have come now to Boston Public Library for a spell from the cold. Later I'll visit Arirang House, a Korean-Japanese buffet in the Back Bay, before going to Emmanuel Church for this evening's general assembly of Occupy Boston.

Today has been a catch-my-breath day: a contemplative day. Tomorrow the itinerary will be more active, a catch-me-if-you-can day. I'll post Friday's whereabouts later tonight, so you can catch me if you like!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Been commuting and perambulating today, meeting up with friends old and new in familiar and beloved places.

Morning prayer on the Orange Line brought me from Jamaica Plain to downtown Boston, where I attended the 7:55 Mass at the Paulist Center. A couple of conversations on the Common with the homeless who stem for change or sell newspapers made my prayers on this feast day of the Holy Innocents more real.

Walking through the Common and the Public Garden, I made my way to Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street, where today Ecclesia Ministries was holding a Christmas party. I volunteered myself for kitchen duty, helping make pizzas, wash dishes, and serve the guests. There was so much food, so many songs, and so much spirit. If you have never joined Ecclesia on a Sunday afternoon on the Common to celebrate the Eucharist with the city's homeless, go the first chance you get. This morning and afternoon I saw the best of Ecclesia, and it brought back the best memories of my years worshipping with that community. Bar none, Ecclesia is the shining example of what it means for there to be neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek in Christ.

Back on the Orange Line, I hurried down to Jamaica Plain again. Browsing some stores along the way on Centre Street, I ambled over to the Unitarian Universalist church on Eliot Street. Here, there was a reception for friends and relatives of Brian Arredondo, a young man who committed suicide on Dec. 19. He was a peace activist whose brother, Alex, was killed in action in Iraq in 2004. Let no one tell you that soldiers are the only casualties of war. The grief that consumed Alex's family would ultimately claim Brian. "I am not afraid of dying. I am more afraid of what will happen to all the ones that I love if something happens to me," wrote Alex in a 2003 letter. Sadly, his words proved to be prescient. Fortunately, the power of hope overshadowed all fears and anxieties in the good company of Brian's loved ones: family, friends, ministers, and allies, including activists from Veterans for Peace and the Occupy Boston movement.

I returned to San Lorenzo Friary to catch my breath, warm up, and recite evening prayer. Now, it's on to Sol Azteca, a Mexican eatery in Brookline, to meet a friend from Boston University School of Theology for his birthday party. Onward....

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

In God's Country

Hello from Jamaica Plain in Boston! I'm typing this from San Lorenzo Friary, where I'm staying with the Capuchins. Outside the rain is drilling the earth, and the wind is kicking up, but inside all is calm. Although the sky was dismally gray when our Greyhound bus pulled into South Station at four in the afternoon, it could not perturb my spirits. As one of my postulant brothers told me, "Good to be back in God's country, huh?"

Amen and alleluia, brother! I wanna testify.

Seriously, there's something about being in Boston that inspires me to try things I've never done before. Somehow this city makes me highly receptive to the working of the Holy Spirit, as if the city had a collective Christ-consciousness that mediates the presence of the Spirit for me. I don't claim to know what Jerusalem means to people of Jewish or Muslim faith, but when I read the psalms that speak with passion about the holy city, I try to think of my feelings for Boston. My faith burns brightly here, and it leads me to take healthy risks. Here, I feel the strength to love. Here, I feel the courage to speak in God's name.

So, speaking of trying things I've never done before: Tonight after prayer and dinner, I went to an Occupy Boston general assembly at Arlington Street Church. It was the first such meeting I've been to -- I never had the time or freedom to go to the Occupy Wall Street general assemblies, though I've been to Occupy rallies and marches in New York. For a couple of hours I lurked from the back of the room and observed the proceedings without speaking. (Before we judge and act, we must first observe. This I believe firmly.) Mainly I was curious to see what participatory democracy looks like. It was noisy and slow and a little trivial and sometimes disorderly, but it was working. I left in the middle of deliberations over a proposal to protect Occupy Boston's public assemblies from the predations of Level 3 sex offenders, impressed by their commitment to process and determination to counter the perception that the Occupy movement is a grave threat to public safety.

In the church hall there were about 120 people sitting or moving around. I didn't see anyone I recognized except for one transgender activist. I didn't recognize any people of faith, either, but that doesn't mean such persons weren't there. We were all ordinary people, carrying forward an extraordinary experiment in democracy in pursuit of the common good.

This may not strike you as a particularly bold step out on faith, but that's the point. I have grown into discipleship in Boston through small, imperceptible steps. Little opportunities arise constantly for stretching: my concept of where a Christian goes and what a Christian does has expanded incrementally, time and time again, since I settled here in 2005. In this city, the course of human events seems to trickle like water into my spirit and touch my soul in ways that never happened in Baltimore or New York. Of course, the people of God conspire everywhere to unharden the hearts of sinners, but the people of Boston have done wonders for me.

All right, time to retire. I may not have another post for a few days, but I will try to write if I have free time. My Beantown dance card is filling up!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Precious Gifts

Packing my breviary, my clothes, my toiletries, and after this post, my computer for the trip to Boston. I'm raring to go!

What I am not packing is gifts. It's not that I received no presents, nor am I refusing the presents I got. They are destined for Brooklyn, which is why it would be cumbersome to lug them to Boston where I will be for the next five nights and days. My parents have graciously offered to mail them to Brooklyn.

I am still a year and a half away from making my first vow of poverty, but I am very conscious of my intention to live now as if I had already taken the vow. For me, this means aiming not to accumulate even one more permanent material possession. My family took my desires to heart as well as their own -- they still sought to bless me with gifts. They honored my wishes by giving me care packages -- soap, toothpaste, mouthwash, vitamins, and the like. Bless them.

Only one person, my sister Jennifer, broke from the pattern, as is her wont. She did present me with things I cannot use up, dispose of, or hand on to another. In fact, it would be unthinkable, nay impossible, to do so. She's so clever ... but in a good way. For her gifts were the most precious of all to me, although they cost her nothing, nothing at all. What did she give?

There were two presents. The first she created herself. She made a drawing in pastels of a tau cross necklace, such as the Franciscans wear. Remind me to blog one day about the history and meaning of the tau cross in Franciscan life, but for now suffice it to say that I was much surprised when I saw this symbol, made from my sister's hand, glowing at me in her dusky rendering. She has been paying attention.

The second gift was a discovery and recovery.

Twenty-one years ago, when I was in seventh grade, I was a finalist in the National Spelling Bee. I finished 13th in a field of 226 contestants. It's the closest I've come to world-class distinction. I have a few memorabilia from that competition, including newspaper clippings, a commendation from the New York State legislature, word study lists, and a prize edition of Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary that has remained a part of my study library ever since. As a contestant in the national finals and the qualifying bees, I also received commemorative T-shirts. At some point two of those T-shirts went absent without leave. We eventually forgot we had lost them.

Then, recently, Jen, who teaches art at our old junior high school, found the shirts on a shelf while reorganizing the stockroom of her classroom studio. What the shirts were doing there, we will never know. The nearest I can guess is that we took photographs of me wearing the T-shirts at the junior high school, which I remember heavily promoted my advancement in the competition and boasted of my success as its own.

Anyway, my sister has always thought highly of me for going nearly all the way. It is one of the things she is most proud of. And for Christmas she presented those two T-shirts to me, giving back to me the pride and joy I had forgotten but which she had tended in her heart all these years. This was a most precious gift.

May we all become cheerful and gracious givers of the goodness of God, each to the measure we have received of the Spirit's gifts.

Faith of a Martyr

Spending one more day in Babylon with the family. This afternoon I am baking a lasagna for my folks; this is a Christmas gift to them. Everybody got food this year! How Capuchin of me. Tomorrow I travel to Boston by bus.

My brother and I worshipped at the 9 o'clock Mass at Our Lady of Grace Parish this morning. The presider, who was unfamiliar with us, greeted us afterward and asked us if we were seminarians. The priest noticed my brown hooded sweatshirt with the logo of the Capuchins embroidered on it. Happily I told him about my vocation and of my longtime involvement in the parish. He blessed me and my brother, and he invited me to join in the church's 50th anniversary celebrations, coming up next year.

During Mass we heard the story of Stephen, honored by the Church as the first martyr -- the first person to die for his witness to the power and wisdom of God in Jesus Christ. This power and wisdom was alive in Stephen, who by faith "was working great wonders and signs among the people" (Acts 6:8).

It may seem funny to commemorate the first person to die for Christ only one day after the high solemnity of the Nativity. However, for Catholics who seek to live into the mystery of faith, the journey from the manger to the cross is neither long nor wide in time and space. From God's-eye perspective, each is contained within the other. The wood of the manger is the wood of the cross. It is wholly appropriate that we hear this good news today. The instinct of adoration, which we gratify at Christmas, carries us toward the communion of Easter. What we behold, we become.

The story of Stephen reminds me that our saving faith in Jesus is manifested when we show by our words and works the faith of Jesus. To be born into a life like Christ's is to accept dying as Jesus did. To bend the knee at the name of Jesus, one must be bent like Jesus. What we revere, we must serve. To serve as the savior Jesus served is to encounter, with compassion, the suffering of others, and to risk it in oneself. It is the adventure of faith -- the faith of a martyr. It is the faith every person consecrated to religious life assumes.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Greetings

Hail to all as the Advent vigil gives way to the fulfillment of Christmas. God is here!

Today I found great peace of soul writing greetings to friends, partners in ministry, and loved ones. Writing words of thanksgiving and gratitude made these feelings arise naturally in my heart. What I have said to them, I share in part with you, so that you may share in my joy, too. The blessings of the living God who is with us and loves us be with all of you.


In the name of the God who lives and reigns here on earth and in heaven, I wish you peace and all good things! Receiving your personal note and Christmas circular letter brought more light into my day. Reading your messages is like sitting down to a generous repast or walking into a banquet already in progress....


Greetings and blessings to you ... and the family. I give thanks for your goodness to me as mentor, colleague, and friend. Your generosity is great, and I happily acknowledge my debt to you. Every day I try to pay it forward by sharing with my Capuchin brothers, especially my postulant brothers, the politics of Jesus....


The Spirit of God sets a place for us wherever we go, I believe. She shows us how to make a home out of any place no matter how strange. I am trusting that with the Capuchins I am learning how to be at home anywhere while making that home wide enough for every pilgrim soul I meet….May God and her Holy Spirit enliven your journeys, make them good, and give you rest everywhere you lay your head.


Peace be with you, with your comrades, and with all the people we strive in humility to show the love of the servant savior Jesus. I think of you with great pride because of your friendship with God’s beloved—workers, immigrants, and ordinary people with extraordinary pain and suffering in their heart.


Peace and all good things, my old friend….Whenever we meet for a meal life feels fresh, beautiful, and urgent. I feel the “now” when we talk. There are no fearful memories to hold me back, and no fear of the future. There is only freedom, and this is how I know you are a friend of God, a real brother in spirit.


Thank goodness for the celebration of Christmas, which reminds [us] that God delights so much in our being, that God assumed our being to save it from death and the desecrations of violence and injustice. Bless you … and happy Christmas from me and the Capuchin friars.


For your life and well-being I hope for light and fulfillment. May every church bell you hear ringing today send into your soul a vibration of the love that is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Let it be so.


God be with you in the highest and lowest moments. The life you live, the good and the bad you have, and the hope for something better for yourselves—all of this is held deep in the heart of the world, who is not of this world but comes to it and remains with us by the Spirit of God that filled Mary’s womb, and will fill your souls with love. In Jesus’ name, I wish you peace.


No letters can be written large enough to exclaim what I want to tell you and all the world—God is with us! God is for us!....Let us turn to the God who turns to us. Let each of us be the first to make the turn.


God has seen everything you will see. God has felt everything you will feel. Come now, rise, and go to the Lord of love. Seek him by seeking the face of Jesus, born on earth, born from above, waiting to be born in your soul.

Friday, December 23, 2011

To Bethlehem

The postulants have dispersed, each to their home town. Bethlehem is waiting, everywhere.

We left St. Michael Friary yesterday shortly after noon. The brothers cooked a big breakfast to celebrate our departure: french toast and fritatta, with fresh fruit. Three cheers for the fraternal gourmets! Joining us at the breakfast table was a family from Ecuador. They are relatives of the vicar guardian of our house and are staying in our friary for two weeks.

My brother Nicholas gave me a ride from the Babylon train station. In the early evening the nuclear family gathered at my sister Jennifer's home in East Northport to celebrate her birthday. It was a small but sweet affair with her husband and son, and two of Jen's friends. My nephew Jesse is almost two years old but looks like a four-year-old. He is picking up language and every material object within his reach. His personality was beaming yesterday. I presented my sister a portable New Testament in The Message translation by Eugene Peterson. It will be, for her, like feeding on breast milk before she moves on to solid food.

This morning I celebrated Eucharist with Nicholas at Our Lady of Grace Parish, which is commemorating its 50th year as the Catholic community of West Babylon. Our Lady of Grace was our first genuine encounter of Church. The people of the parish, from the many lay volunteers up to the deacons and pastor, formed us in the faith. It is the parish in which we were both confirmed -- me in 2000, and Nicholas in 2001, with me as his sponsor. Today we remembered our grandfather, John Kuziemko Sr., who died 20 years ago today. We will return tomorrow as a family to participate in the Christmas vigil Mass at 3 p.m. Nicholas will be a lector.

After breakfast, I baked a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies, a Christmas gift for my aunt, my mother's sister. This cooking kick has inspired me. Now, everybody's getting food from me this Christmas. On Monday I'll be cooking dinner for the nuclear family. Being able to feed others, and recognize this as a gift, my very best offering, makes me very happy. This, for me, has been the great discovery of Advent.

On our dismissal yesterday the postulant director reminded us that we don't stop being Capuchins when we go on vacation. He told us to bear the spirit of Francis wherever we go. Show the world the example of Gospel living we are learning to model in its beauty, love, and truth. Most of all, he told us to go to Church and keep praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Prayer is the air for our spiritual bodies. The Eucharist is our daily bread. We must remember to breathe in the Spirit. We must feed on the goodness of the Lord. Sitting in my bedroom meditating and reciting morning prayer; and later, praying during Eucharist, I felt the nearness, in their absence, of my Capuchin brothers.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dear Jennifer

My sister, Jennifer, is 32 years old today. This note is for her.

Dear Sister,

Greetings and blessings to you this day, the day you were made known to the world.

One of the reasons I give thanks for you is that you give your gifts graciously to everyone. You use your talents unstintingly for the well being of family and friends. There is no one who is unworthy of your love and service. There is no partiality in your giving, though to some people it may seem like partisan preference. I know it is not that way with you. The persons with a jealous disposition, who chafe under irritable skin, fail to understand the meaning of your giving, which is magnanimity. Those people are not to be your concern. They are full enough.

Rather, without fear or anxiety, shed your light even more broadly on others, especially the ones who are loved and served by none, until your light shines for all. Who else waits for you? Your secret neighbors, the poor. Their existence you can scarcely imagine today, but I promise you, as much as you enjoy giving to those who can return your love, it is a much more perfect joy to give to those who cannot make a return. Search yourself; see your poverty of spirit, and you will learn to see the poor.

You have been granted many good things, sister. All of them come from God, because all that is good, God grants. Keep giving what you have been given, and keep in mind how you give it: with complete dedication. The intention of making your gifts a total offering pleases God most and makes mercy, justice, and love live among us.

From my heart and with appeal to Jesus, the heart of the world, I wish you, Jesse, and little Jesse peace and all goodness, and life to the fullest.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Koans for Christmas

A koan is, according to Webster's, "a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment."

These quotations are from Christmas sermons by Augustine, bishop of Hippo, cited in a reflection by Lawrence Cunningham in the Dec. 16 issue of Commonweal.

Born of his mother, he commended this day to the ages, while born of the Father he created all ages. That birth could have no mother, while this one required no man as father. To sum up: Christ was born both of a Father and of a mother; of a Father as God, of a mother as man; without a mother as God, without a father as man.

The maker of Mary, born of Mary ... the maker of the earth, made on earth, the creator of heaven, created under heaven.

Don't be ashamed of being the Lord's donkey. You will be carrying Christ. You won't go astray walking along the way; the Way is sitting on you.


I am no Augustine, and I am certainly not a Zen Buddhist master. But here are a few of my own koans for Christmas.

God became human. Did you miss it? Sometimes you lose your patience a moment too late.

Humans are becoming gods. Will you join them? Don't hold your breath.

You can fast all you want and never learn to hunger for righteousness. Your daily bread is in the manger.

You can keep watch until the late hours and still never see what you would see, the coming of God. Your eyes see upside down and inside out. Look out! A cloud! Look down! The sun! Look in! A rock! Look up! Empty!

God became a human being. So, at last, are human beings.


The festival of Hanukkah began at sundown last evening. During our intercessions at evening prayer I asked our brothers to remember our elder sisters and brothers in faith, the first children of Abraham.

Throughout my travels of discipleship in secular life and now religious life, I have been graced with the friendship and fellowship of many -- Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist, and others of no religion -- who strive mightily toward the purification and rededication of our world for full life -- for life lived in praise of the divine glory and service of neighbor. For life lived as praise and service. These friends inspire me with their determination to keep covenant with God through their concern for the neediest among us. I am grateful for the good they bring to their communities. I love them not because they are always the most politic or civil or sensible or orthodox. I love them because they are righteous.

They have an everlasting light, and their light shines within them, but it does not shine for their pleasure or on account of their merits. They have an everlasting light because they understand that the light shines for others.

Let us give thanks for the women and men who, by the help of the Spirit of God, find it very easy to be true to life. Let us give thanks that they willingly consecrate themselves to the work of illuminating a world worthy of consecration. Let us give thanks that divine justice and divine mercy live in the many who dare today to die before faith, and thus all life, should perish. Let us give thanks, in them, for the light that lasts longer than we can dream.

To my friends who observe Hanukkah, may the blessings you know in your life overflow to bless your loved ones, your community, and our world. To all, have oil within you, that you may burn long and bright.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sin and Grace

It is barely five days until Christmas begins. At St. Michael Friary, we sense the Spirit is with us. Prayerfully, we speak, we sing, we sit in silence, and we wait.

One of the things we have talked about, during instruction, is sin and grace. My postulant brother and I gave a good presentation on these doctrines. I come away with a renewed conviction of the reality of each -- the derivative reality of sin and the ultimate reality of grace.

And I sense both the solidity and instability of my being. Life is welling up inside of me, but also there is dullness, and at times yet I perceive dread emptiness itself.

I am full of sin. I am full of grace. Which is easier to believe -- we are full of sin, or that we are full of grace?

We are dared to believe both, so as to underestimate neither and properly appreciate the mystery of each.

Sin is real, and so is grace. The challenge is daring to believe that grace is the most real reality, which is to say that all is grace. All that is, is grace. All that increases the well-being of the creation, this is grace, and it is present in thoughts, words, and deeds that perfect being-in-life. Sin, in contrast, is nothing, nothing at all, nothing in all. All thought and word and deed that declines well-being, that diminishes what is and denies what could be, and could be better, is sin.

"Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Romans 5:20). The mystery of Christ is that, in spite of or because of the preponderance of ill-being, there comes to us the incredible gift of new life, as if the morbid sighs of resignation are the unbearable provocation that launches divinity into the broken heart of humanity. To the unspeakable horrors of age after age, across a void the work of creation did not close, God speaks the Word. Amen and alleluia.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Heading out to Manhattan in a little while for a little merrymaking with the brothers.

First we'll see the big tree in Rockefeller Center and peer into St. Patrick's Cathedral. From there we'll make our way to St. John the Baptist on 31st Street for the Advent vespers service there. From the 17th to the 23rd of December, the Church heightens its vigil for the once-and-future coming of Christ by proclaiming the "O" antiphons at evening prayer. These antiphons, which derive from the ancient hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" (Veni Veni Emmanuel), have been prayed by the Church for centuries. Each antiphon lifts a name for Christ; he is Wisdom, the Rod of Jesse, Key of David, and Desire of Nations, among others. With confidence in the source of our salvation, we, too, name our hope and claim what we have named. It is particularly fitting for young aspiring religious to become practiced at pointing out, with praise, the epiphanies of grace come down from heaven's frontier and still presenting. One day yet, the hymns of joy will thunder with a strength to topple the walls we have built to keep the love of God out of our world and ourselves.

After vespers we will have dinner and share fellowship with the friars at St. John the Baptist. We look forward to our time together. Let it be bright and cheerful.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

On Human Nature

In the previous post I mentioned the delight of discovery as I combed through old theology papers from Boston University for my upcoming presentation on sin.

Here is one paper I would like to share with you from the fall of 2006. It's part of a longer theological statement on the traditional loci of Christian doctrine (God, Christ, Holy Spirit, etc.). This segment is on human nature, which is the most logical context for a description of sin.

God has made us to be like God. We are not God, but when we aspire to love one another and live in fullest, deepest relationship with other people and the world we inhabit, using the gifts of our mind and heart in freedom, we are like God. Thus we have been made in the image of God. What makes humans human is that we have been singularly made to love, to relate, to create, and to take care of our world. Many Christians believe that these abilities, and the robustness with which we exercise them, make us, of all creatures, most like our Creator. Other creatures may demonstrate a capacity for creativity, and some creatures may even show an ability to make and re-make their world beyond what the powers of instinct allow them. However, it has yet to be shown (or at least to be apprehended in any significant way) that any other creature possesses with comparable totality the same whole capacity to love and relate and create of which we are conscious.

Being limited creatures and not the Creator, our acting and being in love and relationship ultimately cannot be compared with that of God, the divine Other who is love in perfection. We may be called to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48), but we are not called to be the perfect heavenly Father. However, we do fall short of our God-given capacity to love, relate, and create, and the distance between who we are and who we are meant to be as loving, relational beings is sin. Sin is a vacuum that cuts us off not only from ourselves, but from creation, humanity, and God. We are not meant to be strangers to each other. Our separation from one another as friends, relatives, citizens, and intimate partners is a reliable marker of our fallen condition.

I agree with Reinhold Niebuhr that sin becomes our unhappy reality because we forget we are human, both when we think and act above our limited nature, putting ourselves in the place of God; and below it, fearful of our call to holiness and despairing of our sacred worth. To rescue us from the agony of sin and the damnation of separation, God sent Jesus Christ, the most fully human being who ever lived, to restore in us the image of God. Through Christ, God re-created us, freeing us once more to love, relate, and create like God, according to our nature.

Thesis: God has made us to be like God by giving us the unique capacity to love our neighbor and care for our world creatively in freedom.


A return to familiar habits today, as I've spent Saturday quietly in my room reading and making preparations for my presentation to the postulants on sin and grace. Don't be disappointed! Today was the first time in a long while that I worked like the graduate student I used to be. In spite of the familiarity, there were, for me, a couple of discoveries, or recoveries, I should say.

First was the return to a schedule of intense reading and outlining, such as I have not done for some time, punctuated only by breaks for prayer, meals, a call to my sister, and exercise (the latter being a new wrinkle). My mind feels ripped.

Second, I found myself returning to class papers from my Boston University days, and delighted by what I had written, firstly in its concern for the mystery of faith and secondly for the clarity and urgency of thought. With this delight came a mild wistfulness: I was a good theological writer. These days I feel my writer's muscles have grown flabby, at least the ones that flex theological. Oh, well -- you write what you are given to write according to the situation and preferably under inspiration only.

I have always and everywhere written a little bit daily, but rarely do I write daily a little bit of everything. God seems to give me a certain kind of writing to do over a period of time -- a few kinds, at most -- and then after that period gives me some other kind(s). It's like turning off one tap and turning on another. From 1997 to 2001, I wrote and edited journalism, and I kept a private journal from 1999 to 2003. From 1997 to 2003, I wrote a good deal of poetry. For two years, from 2003 to 2005, I did little to no writing. Then the taps turned on again. The academic theological writing I did from 2005 to 2008 gave way to sermons, songs, poems, and prayers from 2008 to 2011. Now I am writing a public diary.

The friars have been encouraging me to keep up the blog, and at least one brother has exhorted me to make writing a constitutive element of my ministry. God knows that I agree, but God only knows what I must write. Necessity is a good goad, but spontaneity is better, or else what needs to be said lacks the irresistible character of a gift. My very best work is driven by passion. My voice is most clear when it is critical, that is, responding to wounded or wounding words: receiving distorted signals of the Word in the world, isolating the traces from the noise, and amplifying them through the soundboard of my soul. But I am now wondering if I can acquire another approach to writing, one predicated on praise, whose virtue is gratuity. Why?

In the life of fraternal religious, at least as lived by Capuchins, the charism of contemplation precedes the charism of justice-seeking, the mystical giving direction to the ethical or prophetic. Capuchin ministries manifest in tandem with the brothers' prophetic gifts, but they gain their traction from contemplation. Whatever I do in service of the Church as a friar, I want my works to witness both a thankful love for God and neighbor and a burning desire that all will know and love likewise. Only a grateful person can be truly just and call others to conversion. As I would do, so must I speak. A prophet must be a lover. A lover must be a prophet. Shall I be a brother who writes? Let my words of burning concern be first, last, and always gifted words of praise.

As I say, it has been a day of discovery with recovery, each dwelling in the other.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Something Different

Just did something really out of character this evening ... something different for me, anyway. I baked oatmeal raisin cookies with one of my postulant brothers.

I didn't squirrel back to my bedroom with another book from our basement library. I didn't pick up the latest issue of National Catholic Reporter or Commonweal. I made cookies in the kitchen.

I didn't steal away to study our catechism lessons or prepare for my upcoming presentation on sin and grace. I just mixed some sugar, oil, flour, eggs, oats, and raisins together and fixed a batch of cookies.

There was no necessity to compel the act. It wasn't like it was my turn to cook for the house. I just wanted to make some cookies, which in fact we will bring to the brothers at St. John the Baptist Friary in Manhattan when we visit them for vespers and dinner this Sunday.

But no one told me to do it. No one said it would be a good idea. I just thought of it myself.

Just an offering for the domestic Church to which I belong. It's different from what I usually offer. But it's something I can give, though I didn't recognize what I had to give. It's like I'm putting on a coat I haven't worn in many a year, only to find a few dollars in a forgotten pocket.

Postulancy continues to bring to me the pleasure of little surprises. May such joyful discoveries continue to dawn on me and my brothers.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Reflecting on various arisings in life and thought....

We had our postulancy evaluation conferences this morning. Mine was a very good experience. Our formation co-directors are affirming, compassionate, generous, and wise. And my postulant brothers are perceptive companions on the way. My enthusiasm for the adventure of religious life remains undiminished, and the positive reinforcement I have received during this time of evaluation renews my determination to strive on toward what lies ahead.


For chapel meditation and spiritual reading I am picking up selected writings of St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), a Spanish priest and a Carmelite friar. For his wisdom as a spiritual master, he is officially recognized, among a handful of the saints, as a doctor (teacher) of the Church. Today is his feast day.

When I was a senior at Cornell University, in the first full flush of fervor for the faith, I registered for a class in Christian mystical literature, and I encountered John of the Cross. We read excerpts of The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night, The Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love. This was in the spring of 1999, before I completed my initiation into the Catholic Church (I was confirmed a year later, in 2000). It was long before I first dreamed of religious life, and a long, long time before I studied theology or developed good spiritual habits.

I was so in love with the idea of mystical union with God. Ah, the felicitous indiscretions of youth. Only a fool who doesn't know he can't swim dives into the deep end of the pool, and head first.

Did I really seek to sit at the feet of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila so early on? I'm an intelligent person, so I don't doubt that I comprehended John of the Cross on an intellectual level. John of the Cross wasn't over my head -- that wasn't the problem. The problem is that he was over my soul and way beyond it. I knew John of the Cross the way a high school calculus student knows pi -- maybe you can name the first 100 places of pi and define it correctly, throwing around phrases like "mathematical constant," "irrational number," and "transcendental number," but you don't speak with any authority, and you don't really get the magic of the meaning.

And so it was, too, with God, the mysteries of faith, and the adventure of life, period. I didn't know I had such a long way to go.

But the journey of faith unwinds in a spiral, and we pilgrims are fortunate enough to come around to the places we have been before with new eyes to see what we never knew existed below the surface of things. As a fellow Capuchin blogger notes, God graces us with understanding at the right time, after we have been seasoned by the pilgrimage.

I still have my wrinkled paperback from the The Classics of Western Spirituality series. I will be re-reading my annotated copy slowly, with devotion. Having lately been drawn into the image of a fire that burns but does not destroy, I will dare to re-read The Living Flame of Love.

Oh, speaking of the right time, I have just noticed inside my paperback the cover art credit: John Lynch, a Capuchin friar.


I'm still thinking about the challenges of organizing with the Catholic Church for social justice. I am beginning to understand the obstacles by consulting my own experience. A correspondent who does local faith-based organizing kindly invited me and the brothers to a benefit for a particular campaign in East New York. Here is part of my response:

Peace and Advent blessings be with you.

Thank you for the invitation to this fundraiser to support organizing around Walmart and fair retail jobs. It is not possible for me or the brothers to come, for a few reasons. First, this event is on a weeknight in Manhattan, which is too late for us, since we all have to rise early for chapel in the morning. Second, it is Advent, and we are making an effort as a household to spend the evening contemplatively at the friary doing spiritual reading and night prayer together....
I say all this because I would like to be as intentional as I can about introducing the Capuchins to you.... Meeting the friars at our place for dinner (and prayer, if you are comfortable) would go a long way toward establishing a relationship. You could see what kind of persons they are. It would give you an idea what kind of actions they're willing and able to take. They care about justice and peace. Like me, they want the Church to be a leading witness to God's healing work in the world....

My colleagues who build social movements want to draw the Catholic Church into all of their campaigns for change. They want a visible Church for a world militant. I do, too. But often I suspect that they're only looking at the stones on the facade. And what they want, they see only superficially. They seek the blessing of a just and merciful God for their movements. They ask for it through the people of God they mobilize. But I ask, what kind of God do they really want the people to bring? It makes a difference whether the people of God are truly invited to bear with them the presence of the living God, or in reality a god who looks and sounds like the power of the people.

What shall I tell my faith-based and secular organizer friends? Catholics are not squares; they are, every one of them, living stones built into the edifice of the Church, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone. Some of those stones face only the inside of the Church. Not every believer will walk a picket line or occupy Wall Street. Other stones face only its outside. Not every believer will spend an hour in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

It is a truism among Catholics with a high theology of church, or ecclesiology, that you change the world by building the Church. On the other hand, if you are compelled by a strong theology of mission, or missiology, then you would aver that you build the Church by changing the world, by transforming persons in community. I know Catholics who subscribe to the build-to-heal model only, the heal-to-build model only, and to both models in dialectic.

To rebuild the Church and heal the world, we need Catholics of all minds. The wounded world needs a Church with strong inner and outer walls. The mending Church, both her indoors and outdoors, needs to plant itself firmly in the world. We need all Catholics, all sisters and brothers, all of these precious stones. As a community organizer turning religious, I am now trying to identify the stones around me and see how they fit together according to the blueprint.


This afternoon we will visit the brothers at St. Joseph the Worker Friary in East Patchogue to tour their parish and associated ministries. We will rejoice in each other's presence through evening prayer and dinner. I have nothing but admiration for clergy and religious and the faithful who do suburban ministries; it is no small feat to spiritually pauperize the rich so that they, too, can enter the kingdom of heaven. I have long since cut my spiritual ties to the suburbs, but Long Island is still my home turf, and it will be very good indeed to claim it in the company of the Capuchins.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Catholic Social Thought

Pausing for a moment after our second class this week on Catholic social teaching, led by Fr. Michael Marigliano, our current provincial vicar. Brother Michael led presentations on religious vows and the Capuchin Franciscan life at the candidate discernment weekend in September.

Yesterday Brother Michael introduced us broadly to the historical context of Catholic social teaching. This body of doctrine stands between the sacred mysteries of faith and the ways that human beings live in the world. At the core of the Church's social thought is a social symbol: the reign of God, as proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth to a people in crisis. This living symbol is of primary significance because it articulates a truth of faith: to be redeemed is to be a part of a community where God is the prevailing power; to be saved is to be liberated from destructive relationships and gracefully enmeshed in just relationships. The Church, and its churches, emerged from the Christ-event to proclaim the reign of God, and immediately the question arose: How do we live as faithful witnesses to Christ in the midst of social, political, economic, and cultural crisis? Ever since the first disciples died and the final coming of Christ did not happen when expected, the faithful have had to deal with the social question.

The tradition of Catholic social thought gives the people of God a vision of the human being in community. It calls on disciples to promote the flourishing of the human community and point out what distorts it. It calls on us to describe the human person truly, as loved and transformed by God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. The tradition, though rooted in the Gospel and oriented toward the reign of God, is wide enough to engage those who do not share our belief but embrace our hope for a just world.

Catholic social thought, especially as developed over the last 120 years, comprises a critical tradition that examines social conditions in light of the Gospel of Jesus. From papal encyclicals and the documents of church councils to the words and works of lay movements and associations, it is a self-conscious tradition building on 2,000 years of reflection from the faithful who have worked out their salvation in the world.

That was yesterday. Today Brother Michael situated Catholic social doctrine in the context of the once-and-future revolutions in philosophy, the social sciences, politics, economics, and culture. Class today was like sitting through a succession of quick-paced movie trailers. Revolution! The Enlightenment! The turn to the subject! No certainty of knowledge but through reason. The state has no authority from God; it is derived from the people. Along comes Adam Smith, and the economic question becomes how we create wealth. Revolution in France and America ... and don't forget the Industrial Revolution! Steam and steel! Globalization didn't begin with the Internet; it began with the railroad, telegraph, and telephone. Along comes Marx and the class struggle, the Communist Manifesto and the First International. Along come clandestine, mixed, and civil marriages; along come utopian experiments in family systems. Also comes dystopia in the cities. Alcohol! Sex! Darwin publishes his research into the origin of species, and human anthropology must change, to say nothing of theology of creation. From Descartes to Kant to Nietzsche, and clunk! The metaphysical pool has been drained dry. There is no "there" out there, and what is "here" is only what we make of it.

With all of this the Church and all the faithful had to reckon, according to the Gospel. And so must we reckon with the perpetual and perplexing changes today, for in all this lies the passion, and through all this comes the reign of God. How do followers of Jesus engage this world in perennial revolution? Withdrawal? Assimilation? Through transcendence? Through paradox? Transformation? To be continued....

Monday, December 12, 2011

Neighbors Apart

At 2:20 a.m. this morning, an armed robber shot a New York City police officer in the face while attempting to escape the scene of the crime. The police officer died four hours later at the hospital.

The murder happened at 25 Pine St. in Cypress Hills, one block to the north and west of Blessed Sacrament Parish, where the brothers and I go to Mass twice a week.

The police officer's name was Peter Figoski. He was 47 years old. He had four teenaged daughters. And he lived in my hometown, West Babylon.

The suspect's name is Lamont Pride. He is 27 years old. He has been arrested five times previously, served over a year in prison, and is wanted in North Carolina. I do not know where he made his home.

I have been praying for and thinking about these two men all day. They are both a part of my community.

My sister, who teaches art at West Babylon Junior High School, probably had all of Figoski's daughters in her classes at one time or another.

Perhaps my brother, who worships at Our Lady of Grace Parish, passed the peace to Figoski at one time or another.

Maybe Neighbors Together, where I volunteer, served lunch and dinner to Pride at one time or another. If Pride passed through our doors this fall, then maybe I took his meal ticket and gave him a tray or take home package.

These men are a part of my communities -- the place where I grew up, and the place I have adopted. In a better world, these men would have been neighbors. Instead, they met as strangers in the basement of a Brooklyn row home, both of them far from home. One of them is now dead. The other one is committing spiritual suicide.

I have no anger against Pride in my heart. I have no desire for our criminal justice system to visit revenge upon him. Retribution will save neither him nor us.

You will object, "How arrogant, how self-centered of you! You're an innocent bystander to the crime. You have the luxury of saying these things." I will answer: "No, I am a guilty bystander. And as a Christian, smug or not, I must say these things." There is nothing left in this world that can terrify a hardened man like Pride -- all you can do is terrorize him and destroy him. Only God's grace and mercy can terrify him into believing he cannot live a day longer in this world without love, and that he will die for all eternity unless he accepts that love.

It will be strange to go to church and receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ knowing that mere hundreds of feet from the altar, human blood was spilled. But then, the passion of Christ goes on all around us. The wounded members of Christ's body go on mutilating themselves while piercing others.

And it will go on like this until the end of time. Grace removes sin, but it does not remove the cross. Either we take up our cross or we lay it down upon others.

I will pray for the repose of Figoski's soul, asking God to look kindly on his work to serve and protect a people whose trauma he carried to his death.

I have no words to comfort Figoski's daughters, or his spouse. Only God can give us the words and gestures to console the sorrowful. God will work wonders of compassion through the loved ones who remain.

For the rest of us, we can mourn in silence -- mourn deeply and broadly for a shattered family, for a brutish and mortally endangered soul, for neighbors a world apart, and for communities damned by fear and violence. What we cannot restore, let the healing power of the Spirit set right.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Cooking and Decorating

That's what I did today after late morning worship at Our Lady of Sorrows in the Lower East Side. It's all a part of my continuing education in being Church at home.

It was my turn to make dinner for the brothers. I got started early in the afternoon because we would be eating a half hour early this evening, leaving time for us to decorate the friary for Christmas. Taking my time in the kitchen made the work much more enjoyable than it was on my last turn. As well it should be. After all, cooking should be fun. Making Spanish rice with chicken and red beans was helpful in this regard because it is a slow-cooking dish. Pacing myself and doing one thing at a time -- now cleaning, now dicing and slicing, now stirring -- sent me into a flow. I served the rice and beans with freshly baked cornbread, fresh sugar snap peas, and chips and salsa. Everyone enjoyed the meal, thanks be to God.

After cleanup we met again in the living room and dining room, divvied up the tasks, and proceeded to festoon the friary festively. I helped rig the lights; our tree, a real pine, needed eight strands. The others put up our nativity scene, set candles in the windows, and garlanded the general area. We ornamented the tree and used a green fringed Guatemalan blanket for a skirt. All this we did over hot chocolate, ice cream, and not-too-tacky Christmas pop music. When all was ready, we turned out all the other lights and rested in the cool colored glow of the tree.

It was good, and it was right. You can argue about timing and taste all you like, but what you cannot argue -- not with a Catholic, anyway -- is that it is fitting at Christmas to sacramentalize our living space to celebrate the God who came to live with us.

Now, time to turn to the week ahead: instruction on Catholic social teaching, and continuing preparation of the curriculum for our leadership development program at Neighbors Together. I will pay attention to my spirit, to see how the quality of my presence in the domestic Church affects the quality of my presence in the public Church.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Today was spent mostly in the company of my religious brothers, followed by the company of my kid brother.

The friars who sit on the provincial formation council, which governs the initial formation program that shapes men into fully professed friars, met at St. Michael Friary this morning and afternoon. The postulants were asked to be present through the afternoon to offer company and hospitality during breaks in between the meetings. We were happy enough to oblige. So there was a lot of time hanging out in the kitchen and dining room, making coffee and eating donuts and trading shares of small talk. And though my own preference on a Saturday is to become scarce, lost in a book or stealing away to Manhattan, I felt good about being around the brothers on my day off.

In the in-between moments I got some chores done, purchasing a few money orders, getting mail from the St. Michael-St. Malachy parish office, completing my postulancy self-evaluation, and, with the other postulants, putting up a fresh-scented pine tree in our dining room. Tomorrow evening, after dinner, it will be ornamented and lit, and we shall have our Christmas tree.

My brother Nicholas, the birthday boy, arrived as my postulant brothers departed for their afternoons of leisure. After the formation council adjourned, we said our adieus to those friars, and Nick and I went to downtown Brooklyn for a stroll around the Fulton Mall and MetroTech district. Our main destination was Junior's for dinner and dessert. Where food and service are concerned, the place just can't disappoint! Our meals were sizable, like they ought to be in good diners; and we tipped the server generously in cash (not credit card), like you're supposed to do for restaurant workers. Mine tonight was the strawberry shortcake cheesecake. On my recommendation Nicholas had the apple crumb, which I first sampled in August when the postulants were treated there during orientation. It's not in my means to be a big spender, but on this occasion, I paid my own tab, and at least Nick's dessert was on me.

I am learning how live in the domestic church. My Capuchin friary, like any Catholic household, is the Church at the molecular level. Do we stop being Church when we leave her places of worship? By no means. Today I did not protest any law or rule; I did not risk public scorn or arrest for Christ's sake. Today I did not serve in the soup kitchen or come to the aid of someone in grave need of assistance. Today I was doing something else: fraternizing; that is, being Church, interpersonally. I got good practice this morning and early afternoon just hanging out around the house. It was like a medium-impact spiritual exercise; then, when I was ready for a cool-down and reward, Nicholas arrived. Thank God for him; through our strides and stumbles together, we have learned how to be brothers to each other, friends to our loved ones, and neighbors to the world.

"And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection" (Colossians 3:14). With the spiritual credit I have built up over 27 years in brotherhood with Nicholas, I am paying attention to my brothers in religion. I trust the investment will return a profit, but my faith must be centered in love, not the profit. When the times come when I must know in my body the crucified Christ (and they will), surely some sisters and brothers will be there to watch and pray and carry me deep in their heart. Among many others, the Capuchins will be near. And Nicholas will be the first witness.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Dear Nicholas

Nicholas, my brother, is 27 years old today. This note is for him.

Dear Brother,

This year's greeting is plain and simple, like communion bread, not fancy, like a birthday cake. I know you will appreciate that because, like me, you know that the substance of any birthday greeting is the words, not the kind of paper it is written on or the color of the ink. The words make the greeting, and the words make it holy, give it the character of a benediction. As you give us a blessing when you say "happy birthday," so now do I bless you, my brother. "The grass withers, the flower wilts, but the word of our God stands forever" (Isaiah 40:8). One day this card will be recycled, but my blessing will remain with you always.

Let us always be about the business of blessing the world, not cursing it. Like St. Nicholas, we may have to give our gifts secretly, under cover of darkness, because people will not understand what we are doing, or they will be scandalized by our actions. So be it; yet nothing must stop us from becoming the thankful givers God bids us become. As you receive your presents now and again at Christmas, prepare to present yourself as someone's precious gift -- not by wrapping yourself in the gaudy but brittle foils we delight in seeing, but by cloaking yourself in the mantle of Jesus Christ, whose garment is plain and simple and whose everlasting beauty is seen only by faith.

Late to Rise

Your correspondent kept his oil lamp lit long into the night!

The postulants were given a break today from the regular morning schedule of prayer and instruction because of the festivities at our friary last evening for the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Five of the potential candidates for postulancy visited the house last night for a celebration of Eucharist and a presentation on the joyful mystery of the Annunciation. The Gospel reading for the solemnity comes from Luke, in which the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to reveal that she would give birth to Jesus, the Savior. And Mary says Yes. Fr. Jack Rathschmidt, who is currently leading preaching missions, presided at the Eucharist, gave the homily, and in the presentation walked us through the spiritual exercise of lectio divina, a contemplative reading of the Annunciation story. With the holy reading of Luke, we also practiced a holy seeing, gazing contemplatively at a depiction of the Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner, a 19th century African-American painter in the realist tradition. Following chapel we socialized over pizza.

But that was only half of the evening. As your correspondent was updating the public diary, he was keeping watch with Christ and all the guardian angels attending his many friends in the Occupy Boston movement, who were awaiting eviction at midnight by the city police from their encampment. With the judge lifting the restraining order that prevented authorities from removing the occupiers, their tents, and all their belongings, the city had a free hand to show its power. (Apparently, occupation is not a protected act under either First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech or peaceful assembly.) But shortly after 1 a.m., it was announced that the city would not forcefully remove any persons or property. By that point, many had resolved to leave the encampment of their own accord, but nevertheless hundreds of people remained to disobey faithfully or to witness those who would be arrested. So the Boston occupation remains; it is now the longest lasting encampment in the United States.

The occupation movement has succeeded at calling attention to the social and economic inequalities that afflict the many. Where religious authorities and people filled with the Holy Spirit have participated, they have pointed out how the economic crisis is a spiritual crisis and a consequence of both personal and social sin -- the abandonment to greed and power by leaders who have forgotten the common good; who have justified concupiscence and inscribed wanton consumption into the regular patterns and practices of the global political economy; and who have even cheated this consumptive system to further aggrandize themselves and their cronies. To all this the occupiers have cried out with a loud voice: Repent! Turn back to God with all your heart! You, too, are a part of the sheepfold. You are not a wolf. Do no more harm to the flock! In the voice of Christians who join the occupation movement, the call from the 99 percent to the 1 percent becomes a call to conversion. It is a call to stop wounding the body of Christ and instead become the wounded body of Christ. I would have wanted so much to be there with the people, who, as I have written before, have the heart of the Good Shepherd who goes lovingly and with determination after the one sheep out of the hundred who has gone astray.

What is your opinion?
If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,
will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills
and go in search of the stray?
And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it

than over the ninety-nine that did not stray.
In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father
that one of these little ones be lost.

Matthew 18:12-14

In Praise of Interruption

A while back I wrote about routine and interruption. It is fitting during Advent to examine our conscience to see whether we as disciples, particularly those in religious life, are willing to let God into our lives through the disruption of our routines, both the healthy and harmful ones.

In the Gospel of Luke, Mary, the mother of Jesus, offers a song of praise for the God whose ordinary mode of revelation lies in unsettling the settled ways of so-called civilization. God does this for the benefit of those who, like Mary and all the lowly, don't stand a chance in the empires of their age. The Canticle of Mary, or Magnificat, is recited or sung at evening prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours.

A friend of mine, M.T. Davila, is a professor of Christian social ethics at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, Mass. She recently preached a homily on the Magnificat at her seminary chapel. Her main point is that glorifying the God who rips into time and upends our settled existence is a terrifying thing. To illustrate her point she transposed Mary's prayer into a modern key, one that busy parents and professionals can say with authenticity. I share it here with you in admiration for her efforts to get God's Word across today, and in the hope you will be inspired to seek out, in faith, Mary's prayer as it comes down to us in Scripture.

Wherever you are, whatever you are up to, may God stop what you are doing!

My soul is bogged down with the burdens of keeping up appearances—
and therefore glorifying the Lord seems superfluous.
But I suppose that a roof over my head and healthy children to boot are more than enough to acknowledge that God is at work in my life.
I would appreciate all generations calling me successful, not blessed.
While the Mighty One has done great things for me—
Yeah, holy is God’s name, but surely he doesn’t need to hear it from me. I can’t be bothered with Magnifying.
That would be an unneeded and quite bothersome interruption.

And yet, God’s mercy extends to those whose homes have been foreclosed,
and the unemployed from generation to generation.
The Holy One has performed mighty deeds;
and scatters those who are proud and arrogant in our comfort and order.

God’s mercy disrupts the routine in my home, the discord and squabbles, opening new spaces for unbounded familial love.
She has brought down the rules of abuse and inhumanity from their thrones, discontinued collection calls, extended pressing deadlines, empowering me for interrupting and upending love.

Lifting up the humble, God points me to the reality of the hungry whom he tries to fill with good things despite our best efforts at keeping business as usual and upholding norms of inequality and indifference.
The rich, God sends away empty, empty to our antiseptic disinfected routines, our death-dealing normal.

My God has helped this servant, with the blessing of tremendous interruptions,
indeed, remembering to be merciful.
To me and to all the Divine calls out of the routine,
just as it was promised to our ancestors.

Days of Future Past

Christians believe that they have been set free from sin and its deadly effects, redeemed and reconciled by the saving action of God in Jesus Christ. In all seasons, but in a special way during the season of Advent, they wait in joyful hope for the ultimate fulfillment of God's redemptive plan within history.

The reign of God is already here, but it is not yet here fully. This, of course, is obvious to anyone who reads the news on any given day. From Incarnation to Resurrection, the Christ-event happened 2,000 years ago. However, by all appearances, we are still stuck in sin: led into temptation, delivered to evil, drowned in a vortex of violence.

Call it rebellion against God. Call it putting ourselves in the place of God. Call it turning away from others. Call it the turn to violence. The Catholic Church calls it original sin, and the human race remains in a weakened state because of it. The question is, persistence of original sin to the contrary, are there evidences of the final victory of God (in Christ) in history? Traces of the future in days past?

The Church answers Yes, both before and after the coming of Christ. The Church commemorated one of those moments yesterday. Every year on Dec. 8, the Church celebrates the feast of the Immaculate Conception. It is an article of faith in the Church that Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, was conceived in such a way as to be preserved in her very soul from original sin by divine grace.

One of my bright Capuchin brothers writes on his blog that the Resurrection, the End of creation made flesh, has already irrupted into history from eternity and effected God's saving power. For instance, he says, we can perceive the Resurrection effect in the miraculous birth of Isaac, by faith, to aged Abraham and Sarah. Another example is in the call of Mary to bring the Son of God into the world -- her election, her preservation by prevenient grace for her mission, and her unconditional affirmation in faith. The belief that Mary was protected from the corruption of sin from the beginning of her life is telling of 1) the conviction that the forces of the new creation, released by the Resurrection, were operative within her person; and 2) the hope that one day all people will be shielded from sin.

We are by now accustomed to the idea that the past governs the present and to an extent determines the future. I am captivated by the idea that the future can shift the present and interpret the past. Those who theologize about trauma dwell on the ways that events from the past continue to wound creation. We are still being irradiated by the fallout from the Fall. We are shell-shocked by original sin. We are victim-survivors of the Past. We suffer flashbacks, constantly. We cannot look or move forward. At best, we can put the past behind us and learn to live in the ambiguous present. But the theologians of trauma have yet to examine the Resurrection, its place in the economy of salvation, and its historical impact. If they did, they would give it its due as the event from the future, renewing and transforming creation. We are now, and already have been, irradiated by the effects of the Resurrection. We are subsisting now on the Future. The prophets and saints among us "flash forward," constantly. And we see, in Abraham and Sarah, in Mary, and in other mysterious moments now long in age, contours of the new and the everlasting.

Since World War II, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb, modern and postmodern theologians have been investigating original sin with fresh intention. Like detectives on crime's trail, they have been examining its clues and interrogating its witnesses. In truth, they are reconstructing the Fall, and they are coming around to its phenomenality. It is time they did so with the Resurrection.

Monday, December 5, 2011

O'Connor at the Eleventh Hour

During Advent, the brothers at St. Michael Friary are pledging to do an hour of spiritual reading every weeknight at 8 p.m. This hour leads into night prayer in our chapel. It is a good way for the postulants to deepen their contemplative life, and to stretch their prayer muscles, so to speak, in advance of next year in novitiate, when all of us will be spending several hours daily in community prayer and additional time in private for mental prayer.

If the hour were not so late, I would devote this post to a reflection on the practice of spiritual reading. But the night is already far spent, and dawn is nearer than I want to admit. O poor night owls, feathering your insomniac nests in the friaries tonight!

Instead, let me share with you some jagged nuggets of truth, quarried from the rugged depths of the soul by Flannery O'Connor. I am reading a volume, edited by Robert Ellsberg, that excerpts wisdom from her letters, essays, and stories. She writes like an evangelist, and she guides her reader like a Desert Mother. That's who O'Connor is for me: my Amma, the Desert Mother of Milledgeville.


One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in your audience. My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.

As for Jesus' being a realist: if He was not God, He was no realist, only a liar, and the crucifixion an act of justice.

letter to Betty Hester, Aug. 2, 1955


"You ain't said you loved me none," he whispered finally, pulling back from here. "You got to say that...."

She was always careful how she committed herself. "In a sense," she began, "if you use the word loosely, you might say that. But it's not a word I use. I don't have illusions. I'm one of those people who see through to nothing....We are all damned," she said, "but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there's nothing to see. It's a kind of salvation."

The boy's astonished eyes looked blankly through the ends of her hair. "Okay," he almost whined, "but do you love me or don't cher?"

"Good Country People," A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955)


The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock -- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.

"The Fiction Writer and His Country" (1957)


"Put that Bible up!" Sheppard shouted...."That book is something for you to hide behind," Sheppard said. "It's for cowards, people who are afraid to stand on their own feet and figure things out for themselves."

Johnson's eyes snapped. He backed in his chair a little way from the table. "Satan has you in his power," he said. "Not only me. You too...."

Sheppard laughed. "You don't believe in that book and you know you don't believe in it!"

"I believe it!" Johnson said. "You don't know what I believe and what I don't."

Sheppard shook his head. "You don't believe it. You're too intelligent."

"I ain't too intelligent," the boy muttered. "You don't know nothing about me. Even if I didn't believe it, it would still be true."

"The Lame Shall Enter First," Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965)

Sunday, December 4, 2011


A few things I desire at the moment:

1. To have more company at St. Michael Friary. Friends in Boston, New York, and all points throughout the Northeast, you have just been invited. Also, to see many loved ones when I come to Boston at year's end (Dec. 27-Jan. 1; dear Bay Staters, spread the word around).

2. To have a more fertile imagination. To conceive images of the people, places, and things I want to know or to be in communion with or to create. Then, to bring them into existence and the consciousness of others.

3. To be created anew. Out of this body and soul, or out of nothing at all, I would like the person I am to become, to become.

4. To get at least an hour or two more of sleep every night, even though I love the night too much to leave it for unconsciousness.

5. To have meaningful dreams. It's nice to have hours of uninterrupted slumber, for certain, but it is good also to have visions challenging to interpret. For most of the nights since I moved to Brooklyn, my dreaming has been unremarkable, my inner landscapes littered with the detritus of the day or the week; and nothing more precious shines from those mental chambers. A sign of contentment, or complacency? I've had few if any disturbing dreams, for which I am thankful, but a real rattling episode would be better once in a while than a train of trivialities.

6. To send good greetings to my family and friends for Christmas and Hanukkah, and to find appropriate tokens of my gratitude for them.

7. To have a good meeting for spiritual direction this Tuesday. To pray in community with better attention and better intention. To support my brothers throughout the postulancy mid-year evaluation and receive their feedback with equanimity. To find my own way into the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception this Thursday, despite my lack of a fervent Marian spirituality.

8. To make a good meal for the brothers next Sunday, when my turn comes to cook. To enjoy our tree decorating over dessert that evening.

9. To live more chastely, more poorly, and more obediently. To do this with friars who are just as zealous, and more zealous than me, about renouncing their communal comforts and privileges. To get in trouble in the right place at the right time for all the right reasons. To choose cheerfully my own form of suffering; to accept willingly the suffering others bring upon me while working furiously to relieve the suffering that others inflict on all my neighbors; and to reject utterly the sin that brings that suffering to me and my neighbors.

10. To see the world set on fire with the fire that burns but doesn't destroy.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Cry Out!

Heading to sleep, following our day of recollection in Philadelphia with the brothers of the Province of St. Augustine. It was, for me, also a happy reunion with a couple of the St. Augustine friars, whom I first met while I was a volunteer in the Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps in Baltimore from 2002 to 2003. I was mistaken about our meeting the brothers from New Jersey in the Province of the Stigmata of St. Francis. Perhaps we will see them in the new year. Today we took a quick trip through the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke with a Capuchin priest of the St. Augustine province. As the friar understood these Gospels, he said they called the disciple, respectively, to adventurous faith, surpassing righteousness, and compassionate service for salvation.

It is my turn to lector at St. Michael-St. Malachy Parish tomorrow morning for the 9 o'clock Mass. It will be my privilege, and burden, to proclaim the poetry of Isaiah and the exhortation of 2 Peter. It's almost beyond my ability. So familiar have these texts become to me and to the faithful who have heard them all their lives. How do I speak them in a way that carries the immediacy of God's true Word? I don't know ... I don't know. I want these words to live in my soul, so that when I say them they sound like words to live by, not like cliches for an insignificant ceremony. The greatest words of history always end up enveloped in the laminate of careless repetition: "I have a dream...." "Ask not what your country can do for you...." "Our Father, who are in heaven...."

The words I speak must carry heat, or I should just shut up and save my breath. In the same way the words I write must give light, or I should just put down the pen, close my laptop, and fold my fidgety fingers. Sometimes I think it would be best not to say or write anything for days on end, because the more often I use my voice, the less powerful it is, and more of what I voice is meaningless. Speak now or forever hold your peace? It is better to forever hold your peace. Then, if and only if the moment of inspiration comes, offer your speech-act.

Ahhh ... I don't have anything great to say now, and I don't have any great act to make. But I wish I did. Why? Why this sudden surge of impatience within? Is it because of Advent and the pious desire to be expecting? Having conceived religious life in candidacy and now gestating it in postulancy, do I wish already to be in vows and living the charisms of Capuchin life in world-altering ways? At this moment, my steps are very small, my speech is slow and simple, and my acts are not very important. That's fine -- I don't mind that they are unremarkable little things. But where is the great love in them?

Do you hear what I am saying? I don't just want to speak. I want to Speak!

A voice says, "Cry out!"
I answer, "What shall I cry out?"

Isaiah 40:6

Friday, December 2, 2011

Going to Philadelphia

Tonight and tomorrow I will be staying in the City of Brotherly Love with my Capuchin brothers.

We are meeting, for the first time, the postulants from the Province of St. Augustine at their house of formation. We will be joined by the postulants from the Province of the Stigmata of St. Francis. Together we will spend Saturday in a day of recollection for Advent. What is a day of recollection? Well, for me it is like a miniature retreat experience. We will meditate on the joyful mysteries of Christ, God-with-us, in worship and guided reflection.

With this journey, we will have made the acquaintance of nearly all the North American Capuchin postulants, having met the postulants from the Midwest and central Canada last month. We will not meet the brothers from the California and Colorado provinces until the pre-novitiate program in Victoria, Kan., late next May.

We may or may not be one brother short on this trip to Philadelphia. One of the postulants has come down with what sounds like laryngitis. Prayers, please, for the good health of the brothers in all our fraternities.

Please remember, too, one Matthew O'Hearn in your prayers. I never met Matthew, but he was a former novice with our province of the Capuchins. He died on Monday the 28th of cancer. He was only 37.

Here is a part of his death notice, provided by the Capuchins:

We offer our prayers for the repose of the soul of former novice Matthew O’Hearn, who died at home in Cambridge, N.Y., after a long battle with cancer on Monday, Nov. 28, 2011, at the age of 37. 

Matthew was born on April 30, 1974 in Cambridge, N.Y. He began his postulancy at St. Michael Friary in Brooklyn, N.Y., in September, 2007; participated in the Interprovincial Postulancy Program in Victoria, Kan., in May, 2008, and invested as a novice on July 27, 2008.

Matthew Jonathan O’Hearn was the youngest child of Francis and Barbara Murray O’Hearn. He graduated from Cambridge Central School and received his Bachelor’s Degree from Wadhams Hall Seminary. He spent his life at different missions pursuing his dream to be in the religious life. He enjoyed walking and spending time at the beach in Maine. Matt was a parishioner of St. Joseph Church in Greenwich and a member of the Knights of Columbus Council of St. Patrick Church in Cambridge.