Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Going Without, Again

A lively discussion, during morning instruction on early Franciscan history, on the question of poverty.

In Francis' own lifetime the order moved away from his vision of radical simplicity. Against his will the brothers began to follow the customs of monastic life, adopting a strict regimen of prayer and fasting like the Benedictines, while relaxing the rule that the brothers live without any property for their collective use. This turnabout made it possible for the order to survive, but it also marked the end of the Edenic era, if you will, of the Franciscan movement.

Perhaps only Francis alone was able to realize the goal of evangelical poverty toward which the Spirit of God guided him. Ironically, he achieved this when he was forced to concede that his great experiment in Gospel living had failed. His dream was dissipated. Letting go of the pretension of universal dispossession, an absolute poverty for all the brothers: this was the greatest poverty of all.

Questions, I have a few. Is privation a necessary element of voluntary poverty? If so, what must its character or quality be? What is its degree? Is it more than material? Is it also emotional, even spiritual? Are any of these kinds of privation desirable, healthy, or sane?

Led by the Spirit, Francis practiced self-denial as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. Yet the order was compelled to channel its charismatic embrace of poverty into the more acceptable measures of monastic discipline. To what extent is asceticism compatible with poverty? To what extent is it instrumental to the charism of minority? When and how does it conflict with the spirit of Christian discipleship?

Has the idea of poverty become outworn after centuries of spiritual conflict within the Church? Is the term too freighted with negative associations? Has the word lost its integrity? Ought we not adopt fresh language to refer to the conditions under which friars live up to their call to minority? Perhaps "simplicity"?

I do not have answers, but I do know my own preferences, and I can anticipate the choices I would have made if I were living with Francis and his companions in those momentous days of the early 13th century when changes to their way of life were inevitable. Faced with ultimatums, it would not have been easy for any follower of Francis to make a decision freely and faithfully. Thanks be to God, we who are in formation today embrace both/and thinking-and-doing, and with the benefit of eight centuries of hindsight, plus an ongoing reclamation of the charisms of our order, we can reckon with the challenge of poverty with a liberty our ancestors in faith would envy.

Francis and Clare, pray for us as we prepare to take the vow of poverty and embrace the charism of minority. Give us a spirit of fidelity to the Gospel, the core of our Rule, and a greater love of the poor Jesus, the Heart of our heart and the Soul of our soul.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Going Without

Let me tell you about dinner at St. Michael Friary. Just about every other evening, when we go off script to improvise the grace before or after meals, we call on God to help us remember those who go without food while we enjoy our abundance of good things to eat.

Tonight I had about 250 people to remember in prayer while dining on whitefish and pasta, tomato and squash, peas and carrots, salad, and apple pie and strawberry gelatin.

The plumbing failed at Neighbors Together this afternoon, leaving us without hot water. According to the city health code, we could not serve our hot food without having hot water for the serving stations that keep prepared foods warm. So we cancelled dinner.

Was there nothing else we could do? Couldn't we serve sandwiches instead? Maybe we didn't have the groceries for 250 sandwiches, but surely we could buy them, no? Or does the city have a rule against that, too?

Perhaps we were being too cautious. Perhaps we did have the latitude but decided not to make a way out of no way. But I shouldn't talk -- my eye is full of splinters. I don't know the city health regulations governing emergency food programs, and I should be the last to question a decision made by the kitchen crew and staff. Still -- was there nothing else we could do?

Just another day in the neighborhood. Good people coming up short in the city. I have a hundred days of postulancy left, a hundred more days in Brooklyn. I've never gone hungry, and I know I'll never go without enough food while I remain here. Sometimes it seems like I don't even live in East New York at all.

Sometimes? That's too much.

In formation I am getting plenty of practice in fraternity and contemplation, two of our leading charisms. I get to practice ministry and scratch the itch of injustice now and then. But when and how will I live into our major charism of minority? How do I do this when right now I can go downstairs and behold a fully stocked pantry and three refrigerator-freezers? If I wait until vows to practice minority, it will be too late.

The worst part about this afternoon is that I could not feel what it felt like for the others to be turned away with nothing for the evening. Couldn't even remotely sense it. Didn't even try to talk to anyone about how they felt; I was squirreled in my office making lesson plans. I was afraid to go out and talk, to tell you the truth. What could a well-fed volunteer say of consolation? Today, I had nothing to give. A failure of nerve, again. I have no right to claim moral high ground because I could not find the way to show compassion.

With many saints it has been otherwise, but for Francis of Assisi, he could not live with himself having material goods as if he had them not. It was not enough to sympathize for the poor. He had to become like the poor. He had to become hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, captive, beaten, defeated. He had to go without in order to go with the God of Jesus Christ.

But see, there's a big difference between Francis and me. I would become a minor to keep my conscience clear. Francis became a minor because he wanted to become like Christ. Oh, Lord, rid me of rationalizations!

God, I said it before and I will say it again: burst my bubble. Pierce my pretensions. Help me get over myself and my guilt over material security so I can truly live the way of a lesser brother, a life freed in minority for radical hospitality. Show me how to go without and enter into the presence of God within us, beyond us, near us.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sleepy Time Thoughts

A few poor thoughts, mostly negations, before bed:

The American Dream is not the Gospel. Many of us try to reconcile the two, but in the end a mash-up is a mash-up. Whose story are you living? Which story would you rather live?

God's shield is not a bubble. It is a shield. It surrounds us, but it can be lowered, and it does get lowered from time to time. If you are in a bubble, it is not of God's own making. Pray that God will burst it.

Vulnerability, like protection, is providential, and maybe more so.

History is not the science of the past. It is the art of transcending time.

If only you could be the word that effects perfectly what it utters! Until you are, you ought to be silent, because you are in fact effecting many things by words without wisdom.

Speak only when spoken to. Good advice for gabby children; great advice for voluble prophets.

"Immediately" is the first word of the evangelists. It is the first command to penitents. It is the last word of Jesus.

If the young will see visions and the old will dream dreams, then what of those who live in between the times of youth and maturity? That would be most of us. I hazard a guess: we, our parents' children and our children's parents, will be shown a mystery.

Sometimes it seems to me that the problem is not that our hearts have hardened. The problem is not that our hearts are in the wrong place, either. The problem is that our hearts are too small. The problem is that our hearts are in no place at all.

Try to make no news except Good News.

Upcoming, and a Memory

Looking at a routine week ahead. We have a guest, Fr. Ray Frias, who is an expert on Franciscan history in particular and church history in general. He is here this week to teach us about the history of the Capuchins, presumably with a focus on the saints in our fraternity. Brother Ray will take us on a guided tour of The Cloisters, which houses the Metropolitan Museum of Art's extensive collection of medieval Christian art and architecture. The Cloisters is itself a treasure, being a composite reconstruction, stone-for-stone, of five monastery cloisters. It's simply beautiful, and the environment, quiet and contemplative, is rich enough to make even people of no faith feel religious in spite of themselves.

I first visited the place in August 2003 while on vacation from Baltimore. It was the 14th, in fact. I'll never forget the date, because that afternoon the lights went out ... all over the Northeast.

Friends from the Middle States and Massachusetts, remember where you were when the blackout hit? I sure do. Little did I know what was up when The Cloisters staff evacuated everybody from the museum. At first I thought it was just a neighborhood blackout, affecting only Fort Tryon Park and Inwood. No problem. Then I discovered the subways were grounded. Okay, time to get on the bus. It took an hour and a half to reach Midtown! And I was one of the lucky ones to have a seat on a bus. The whole world wanted to get on! You never saw so many people milling the city sidewalks. Weird, I thought, but no matter. Thinking I was home free, when I got to Penn Station I discovered that the railroads were grounded, too. Stranded! I had flashbacks to Sept. 11, 2001, when it took several hours for all commuter rail service to resume. Trouble was, this was a much different scenario. Then, the rails were frozen for security reasons. Now, there was no power. Hour after hour passed, and evening came, and still no service. And then came the bad news: this was a blackout of historic proportions. No one had a clue when the lights were coming back on. Seriously stranded! Overnight in Manhattan with no place to go. At the time I did not have a cell phone, and I remember standing in line to use a pay phone to let my folks know I was all right but looking for someplace safe to stay. (This was probably the last time anyone ever saw a rush on pay phones.)

I had a ray of hope: an acquaintance who, like me, just finished a year of service in the Capuchins' volunteer program, CapCorps. She had just moved to Manhattan. Finding her address, I entered the apartment building with optimism. The doorman was all too glad to crush my hopes. I told him who I was looking for and who I was. But he couldn't buzz my friend's apartment because there was no power, and he would not allow me to take the stairs to her apartment. He refused to take my word for it that I did know the tenant. I tried calling my friend's number, but there was no answer. I was out of luck.

Wandering over to St. John the Baptist Church, the Capuchin parish on West 31st Street, for solace -- as I did on Sept. 11 less than two years earlier -- I found out that the church was open for the night to all who were stuck in the city. I believe I was met by Bro. Sal Patricola, who recognized me from some of the visits I had made to St. John the Baptist on candidate discernment weekends. He told me I could sleep on a pew in the church and use the facilities to wash up. Bless him. With a hot night on a hard pew, it was one of the worst nights of sleep I ever had. But while my body stayed tired, my soul was rested.

As sour as that night was, it was sweetened by signs of humanity at its best: impromptu block parties with restaurants and households sharing their perishables; civilians helping to direct traffic; people patrolling the streets in groups with flashlights; the Capuchin church open to all comers. And the streets of Manhattan, though shadowy and unquiet, yet with their darkened skyscrapers now soaring silhouettes, were strangely beautiful.

I didn't expect to riff off that first visit to The Cloisters like this! (May Wednesday's field trip with Brother  Ray be more benign.) My journey to Manhattan did not end in any way like it had begun. But there is something important to consider. Whereas I fancied myself a pilgrim while walking blissfully through The Cloisters in climate-controlled comfort that afternoon, I became a real pilgrim that sultry night. Gazing at holy objects in a sacred space, I dreamed of being a disciple, full of heroic virtue. Standing on line to use the telephone, being turned away from shelter, and squirming on a pew, struggling for drowsiness in a room full of snoring people, I had to acquire the character of a disciple. Sad to say, I did not become a much better person from my experience, though I could have if I was more aware of the opportunity that had presented itself.

The next time a great inconvenience arises, or even a small crisis, I pray I will turn a seeming disadvantage into an advantage. I hope I look for the way to respond faithfully, in fact joyfully, in the moment of trial. Because life is to be lived religiously, especially when the times are poor enough to make even the righteous lose faith.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Comma: More Notes From Retreat

Concluding the notes I took down during my retreat week. These final jottings came on Jan. 19, while moving through a discernment process for use in the formation of persons in the Franciscan way of life.

I title these scribblings "A Comma." See if you can see why.


[Guiding Scripture text: Mark 10:51]

A Franciscan Discernment Process
For Use in Formation

Place yourself in the presence of the Lord. Our focus is on Jesus in a Gospel scene such as his healing of the blind Bartimaeus. Hear the Lord ask you, "What do you want me to do for you?" Respond by asking for light, perhaps using Francis' own Prayer Before the Crucifix.

[A series of prompts and questions follows. These notes are from my little fat notebook.]

A Comma
Q -- What do you want me to do for you?

A -- Help me not to ask, "Give me your Word"
Help me to ask, "Give me, your word"

I am the word in direct proportion to
the degree I accept the gift

I give the word to the degree that
what I am, is the word and
what I will is God's will

Q -- Is my desire God's unconditioned desire?

The word actuates God's unconditioned desire

Help me see what you give -- me
Help me desire what you give, and give it
as you have given it

I feel calm, resolute
My body feels good, healthy,
A little stiff and sore but strong
enough to be built up

God is circulating within me
God is near outside of me
God's shield is still around me

God says, Help others receive you, a word of God
God says, Help others read you interpret you
God says, let others help God give you by reading you and interpreting you

I am comfortable with this
God has given me this awareness

Q -- What keeps me from being freely read and received?
What keeps me from giving my word so it is read and received rightly and fully?

Q -- Is it time for a change?
What is it, and will I accept it?

1. Admit your need of joy and when you do not feel it
2. Make people more comfortable to share their joy with you
3. Let others teach you how to feel joy and show it
4. Let others show you how to play
5. Adopt more play in your living

--Receive the whole gift--
--Be the whole word--
--Say it wholly, perfectly--


It is time to meditate on whatever happened during the retreat. It is time to sleep, perchance to dream, on these pinpoints of seeing. Then, to become more alive to what I am becoming aware of day by day and all of a sudden.

Notes From Retreat

In the silence of Saturday afternoon, I am feeling drawn back to the retreat week. I want to pray over what rose into awareness.

I want to remember how I prayed. I want to recall how I was, in the presence of God. I want also to call to mind the quality of my attention. I want to bring there over here.

To begin, I want to put down some of the notes I jotted in a little fat notebook I carry around with me. I also left some marginalia on several of the essays and exercises we received from Brother Ignatius. Let me record them all in one (cyber)space, roughly in the order in which I wrote them down, with minimal editing.


Discernment guiding symbols
The gift and the word

Discernment guiding questions

What is being given
Who is giving the gift
Who is receiving what is given
What is the gift doing to being

What word am I
What word am I giving -- am I giving it well
Is it the [same as the] word I am
What word are people receiving
What is my word doing to them

What is the relationship between
The gift given and the word I am

[Guiding Scripture text: Romans 4:17]


Changes in My Life
A Reflective Exercise

[From a worksheet. Questions for reflection. The following are marginalia from the page.]

I spend more time at home -- I like it
I pray more at home -- I like this
I want to bring people to my home and feed them -- I like this a lot
I want to be "Church at home" -- I am understanding this slowly
My time is less my own -- I don't mind it
I want people to "read" me -- I wish they could
I want to be the word I say -- I am not, not yet
I want to know what word I am to others -- I do not know yet
My brothers want to know my word -- they don't, not yet
I want to "play" more -- am I? Don't know -- they want it, my brothers

I am doing less for transformation of church and society -- I wish I could [do more], but less than I want to [do more to] change my quality of interpersonal conversion; that is, changing how I live at home
God is surfacing here the most
I feel good and calm about this work
I believe it will not be without effect
The changes are coming into focus


Befriending Our Desires

[Another reflective exercise. Questions and marginalia from a worksheet.]

Am I at ease in praying about my desires? Why or why not?
Yes -- it's what I pray most about, although the desires are and have been chaotic and incoherent.

When I am still and attentive to God, what desires do I notice surfacing within myself?
I want to be attractive, but I reject [others]; I do not consciously attract [others]
What makes the lover lovely is what I'm looking for
I want what gives the beautiful person beauty
I want more to be loved and accepted than to love or accept
I want not to be respected before I am loved, and not only respected
The desires are there but not turbulent
They are muted, not vivid, not roiling
They have been calmly channeled

What is my deepest desire in my relationship with God? How am I acknowledging this desire in my daily life?
To live for God, to bear God to others
To be with others in the presence of God
I acknowledge this desire by seeking to discover the ways God is with us even in [the] ways I can't see God being there

How am I dealing with conflicting desires (those that draw me to God and those that draw me away from God) in my relationship with God?
I am suppressing them into prayer, but I am also being open about my commitments and letting others into my world and house to see my commitments
I am trying to show openly my pleasure in some others so as to project/incorporate it into the orbit of God-desire

[Do] I see growth in my desire for God?
Yes, but it is slow and steady and marked by an equilibrium without punctuation

How have I noticed the clarifying of my desires in community? How has this come about?
I desire to be church at home so I can be church in the world
I want brothers who want for me what I want for myself in God/Christ/Spirit

Am I able to speak about my deepest desire with my brothers?
I can speak about my desires. I am able. But my deepest desire? No, not honestly or candidly, not yet. I am unwilling to entrust them with these [deepest] desires. I am able, but I want to be willing.

As I clarify my own desires how have I noticed how it affects the way I see the world? The way I see human suffering? The way I see the church? My view of politics; other cultures?
I have yet to connect what I desire for myself with what I desire for others -- a chasm remains between my heart and other hearts -- by living into the heart of the world I hope our hearts may be made one


Theological Assumptions and
Practical Prerequisites

[Another worksheet with marginalia.]

Will of God = desire without condition (feeling or emotion, e.g.)
Q -- can my will truly become an unconditioned desire
Commitment = religious life, religious vows
"Does your life attract or scare"
Trust the process
Desire poured out

[Reflection questions follow. Name theological assumptions and note their origins.]

God -- ground of being, giver of being, beyond being
Church -- eschatological community of salvation, people of God in Christ
Religious life -- not a family, but a household of God, a domestic Church
Family -- to be transcended and overcome

God is worthy of praise and adoration, and creation is too by derivation
Religious life is not a family but a place to share goods in Christ
God gives me, a fire, to make/be made
God is the supernatural fire
I am striving in religious life to pour out my fire, my desire upon the world, to set world ablaze with Holy Spirit
To be moral is to offer no violence, to offer peace and reconciliation, to build up life and not to destroy it -- to reverence image of invisible God in all

Origins of theological assumptions: reason open to experience mediated by tradition ruled by Scripture


I feel the need to pause and go to the chapel. I will put down the rest of the notes this evening.

A Better Dream

I dream vividly in the last hour of sleep. Sometimes I wish I could simply rise out of a black unconsciousness because these final dreams often are disorienting, if not disturbing. It's hard enough to begin the day, because I am not, never have been, and never will be a morning person. Rising to life while hacking my way through a jungle of entangled images and symbols makes it all the harder to begin well.

Lately I have been discouraged by my dreams because they seem to arise from the territories of my soul that have yet to be turned over to the rule of my Creator. It's not that these dreams are erotic or violent -- most of them are not -- but that they are pedestrian. They are calling me back to my former ways of living; and worse, not to do over what I have done, not to become better, but to do away with the way that has brought me to today.

These dreams surfaced, like oil on water, at the end of the retreat week. They plunged me into a foul funk for two days. I became withdrawn and irritable and only dirtied the air of desolation. A trip to confession cleared the air. And the kind companionship of the brothers over the candidate discernment weekend dispelled the clouds of desolation.

I came away from the retreat and discernment weekend further convinced that God is not the only one who listens to prayers. Other spirits overhear the conversation. They know how to interrupt it, too. And they try to keep it from carrying on.

But I cannot keep from dreaming. All I can do is ask that these dreams come not only from myself, unguarded and uninspired, but also from the One who gives me life and the promise of life beyond the bounds of my consciousness.

God, will you be merciful to me and grant me this consolation? I am hopeful you will.

The final dream I had this previous night was different. I was being driven around the neighborhood of my hometown by my kid brother. We were approaching our parents' house when he took a detour a few blocks north. He led me through the side streets, which appeared darker and narrower than I remembered them. They were also greener and more overgrown. I observed that more of these roads had become one-way streets, and some had unusual dead ends. We turned onto the avenue a block north of our family home. It, too, was darker, narrower, and greener. Then, in another turn from reality, the road itself turned 90 degrees and changed its name. Its name was "Examen." Just the one word, like Broadway. We drove slowly down Examen for a block or two. At the end of Examen we came to a tiny two-way street and were facing a century-old home on an estate larger than all the suburban tracts around us. The house was covered in ivy and surrounded by a thick garden. It was also buttresed from all four sides by stone steps leading to the front door and to second- and third-floor balconies. All around the garden were whitewashed statues of saints. Many more statutes were mounted on the steps, arranged as if they were ascending and descending from the house. My brother let me regard this Edenic scene for a while before driving on around the block. The street called Examen continued on the other side of the house, and after another block turned back to its former name.

As best I can recall, my brother and I did not continue on to our parents' home, though we may have passed it. We kept on driving around the neighborhood as the dream ended.

Although I cannot fully understand it, my intuition tells me this was a better dream than others that have visited me. Guide my waking, O God, and guard my sleeping, that awake I may watch with Christ, and asleep I may rest in peace.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Is It Ministry?

These days at Neighbors Together, most of the time I prepare for the leadership program, which meets on Fridays.

I draft and revise a class agenda with my supervisor, the community organizer. We debrief on the previous class. We select icebreakers and team-building activities for the next class. We review our "curriculum" and gather materials for the next presentation. We prepare questions to prompt discussion. Then I transform our conference room into a classroom. I get out my markers and colored paper. I draw charts on butcher paper and tape them to the wall. I outline class activities on a dry-erase board. I get snacks and juice ready, as well as meals-to-go from our kitchen so our students can stay in class while dinner is being served in the cafeteria. In all, I spend about six to eight hours every week to plan and prepare for our 90-minute class on Friday. I may not be the model of industry and efficiency, but I fulfill my responsibility.

The remainder of my time is given to pastoral outreach to our members: any time in the cafeteria, Tuesdays at the general membership meeting, or on outings such as our march with Occupy Wall Street, the mass meeting for the NYC living wage bill at Riverside Church, or our recent trip to the Bronx to ask Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to preserve funding for food stamps.

The upshot to this arrangement is that I spend much less time with the larger body of our members. Nowadays I rarely serve meals with the kitchen staff and volunteers. My free time in the cafeteria is limited, which means I have fewer opportunities to meet new people or faces lost in the crowd. I know only a handful of people well -- the activists who attend our meetings, programs, or actions. The rest of the people who come for meals, the tired souls behind sleepy faces, they remain strangers to me.

Is it they who are sleepwalking through Neighbors Together, or is it I?

The staff have asked me to focus on outreach and organizing. Trusting in the Holy Spirit, I have agreed to do this and tried to follow through the work with my whole heart. I do my work faithfully. But is it ministry? Is it loving service to the Lord and one another? To open the question: does what I do at Neighbors Together bring out in and around me, and among my neighbors, the presence of God? Does it bring out God's words and works? And how fully do I give myself in service when I am removed personally from many of the people of God? Do my works of mercy, amass with deeds purporting to cause justice, weigh too light on the scale of charity?

I am thinking about the class itself, into which I am investing all my talents. It has only four or five students. They are our most active members, and while they are committed to the program, they are a little resistant to the class philosophy. Unlike our campaign-oriented membership meetings, these classes have no intended outcome other than to give a model of just leadership to live by. However, my supervisor and I trust that this is enough. And it is everything. We are challenging our members to adapt from a goal-oriented focus to a process-driven approach to life. It has been an adjustment, and I hope a positive one.

The way we are learning about power, organizing, and change is how we are becoming leaders, and how we are becoming leaders is changing who we are. We are looking at power differently than the world and conceiving it differently. We are learning together, not as master and pupil, but as friends under the guidance of wisdom. We are not driven by a thirst for information or a hunger for results. Rather, we are looking for enlightenment. We don't just want to change the world; we want to change the way the world changes so that it begins finally to look like the world where dreams of peace and justice come true.

If what I have said about the class is honest and true, then the leadership program is a work of love. For ministry, that may be enough, no matter how few people I serve in the training. For I am bringing the highest quality of attention I can give to each class, and the highest quality of attention is nothing less than love.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Study and Reflection

Holding off on writing about last week for a little while more. Sometimes it is good to let the experience season in your soul until the flavor of its meaning ripens.

At the moment, the postulants are moving from the future-oriented posture of prayer and action of the retreat week and discernment weekend back to a present-tense engagement of life in the Spirit. (Or at least I am, if I speak with certainty only for myself.) We are reading the early documents on Francis concerning his encounters with lepers, his religious experience at the church of San Damiano, and other episodes from that time in his conversion and change in habits.

We are soon to reflect on our ministries with our formators in a more intentional way than we have done in either our formation conferences or mid-year evaluations. Having written about several experiences in ministry in this space, and feeling quite connected in mind and spirit to my daily practice of pastoral and prophetic presence at Neighbors Together, it will not be difficult for me to do this.

Finally, I continue to coax, entice, and lure friends to visit St. Michael Friary for prayer, dinner, and an overnight stay. This old house is good for company.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Settling Down

Hello again, friends and faithful readers. Just a quick note before I head off to ministry at Neighbors Together, and later this evening to a reception in Manhattan for alumni of Boston University School of Theology. To recap:

From last Monday afternoon to Friday morning I was on retreat, staying in Beacon, N.Y., at St. Lawrence Friary with the Capuchin Franciscans of the Province of the Stigmata of St. Francis, several of whose senior friars reside there in retirement. From Friday until Sunday afternoon I was attending the latest candidate discernment weekend in Saugerties, staying at St. Joseph Villa, a retreat house run by the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill. It was beautiful most of the week. For those who love snow, which arrived on Saturday, it made our environs on the Hudson River all the more charming.

It's amazing, but I felt no itch to check e-mail or Facebook or write for the blog or even pick up a phone or newspaper. It was good practice for the novitiate, when all of the brothers detach a little more from the world. What did a week of detachment, contemplation, and discernment bring? It brought peace, quiet joy, and other powerful sensations. The retreat felt good, though it surfaced some curious feelings, too, but in the end it always felt right to be where I was. As you may guess, I hope to write about the week that was on the blog soon.

Upon returning online yesterday afternoon, I received a couple of compliments about the blog. Thank you, friends, for the affirmations. It encourages me to keep writing.

For your encouragement and consolation, I close with an e-mail response to one of my friends and brothers in spirit:

You can depend on my prayers for you and the congregation, and I hope to visit for worship next Sunday. Indeed, this faith is hard to practice. God hears our prayers, but I firmly believe other spirits are listening in, too, and they conspire to whisper words of despair to us in our times of trial. Whether they are internal to our psyche or external and cosmic, or both, it doesn't matter -- it is so easy to get demoralized or numbed into practical disbelief. God give us the grace to persevere in faith in bad times and good.

Postscript: Now that I'm back in Brooklyn, I'm done travelling for a while. Our next big trip won't be until late March for a weekend with the friars and candidates for the order in Duxbury, Mass. It will be nice to settle down! In the meantime, the friary is open and available for guests. Don't be a stranger!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Musing on Reading and Speaking

Just sitting still and musing on a quiet Sunday afternoon a couple of hours before evening prayer, social time with the friars, and dinner.

1. What will I be reading this week while on retreat? Surely the Bible in the manner of lectio divina, and my breviary when reciting and singing the Liturgy of the Hours. In addition, I have packed the following texts, which I hope to browse or read deeply:

Coleman, John A. (ed.) One Hundred Years of Catholic Social Thought. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Press, 1991. Published on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the encyclical on labor by Pope Leo XIII, the essays in this volume were commissioned for a conference held at the University of San Francisco in June 1991. Includes articles by bishops, priests, religious, and lay persons.

Congar, Yves. The Meaning of Tradition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004. This is a single-volume English edition of the two-volume classic from one of the theological architects of the Second Vatican Council. It has a foreword from the late Cardinal Avery Dulles. I swiped this book from the library at San Lorenzo Friary and promise to return it when I'm at last finished!

Pable, Martin W. A Man and His God. Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Marie Press, 1988; and The Quest for the Male Soul. Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 1996. Brother Marty is a Capuchin priest in the Province of St. Joseph, currently helping direct the postulancy program in Milwaukee. He has been a counselor and spiritual director for four decades.

Rahner, Karl. Words of Faith. New York: Crossroad, 1987. An anthology of the Jesuit theologian's spiritual writings for a popular audience.

So, a little social ethics, a little spirituality, a little theology. A balanced diet!

2. A little more reading: At the moment I am midway through an article in Theological Studies, a pre-eminent academic journal, by Brian Robinette of Saint Louis University. Try this title on for size: "The Difference Nothing Makes: Creatio ex Nihilo, Resurrection, and Divine Gratuity." It is a response to process theologians and theologians of deconstruction who reject the doctrines of creation out of nothing and divine omnipotence because they set God's power in opposition to God's goodness as well as creaturely agency, and they fail to seriously answer the question of suffering and evil. Robinette is addressing in particular the philosopher John Caputo, whose argument against these doctrines in The Weakness of God is the starting point of his critique. Basically Robinette is saying that Caputo misconstrues these classical doctrines and wrongly attributes to them the metaphysical origin of false dichotomies between power and goodness, or God and creation. Whew....

Robinette's work excites me because it takes seriously the phenomenon of the Resurrection as a starting point for all Christian theology. His development of a theology of gift is inspiring me, and so is his determination to keep the formulations of classical systematic theology in dialogue with postmodern thought. He makes amazing links between theological anthropology and philosophical theology, connecting "low" and "high" theology. His arguments are fresh; his affirmations are confident. Somehow he brings out the dazzling newness of age-old doctrines, demonstrating they are rooted in the vitality of Scripture and the Christ-event. I will be keeping my mind trained on the work of this up-and-coming theologian.

3. Lest I get caught up too much in the text printed on paper, I hope and pray I will become more literate where it concerns the text imprinted in flesh and bone. We ask God to help us understand the Word that brings to life, renews in redemption, and sustains unto glory. Let us remember that the Author of this Word, written on the page under human words, seeks now to inscribe this Word in us under our human flesh; even to make of our flesh the Word itself through union with the One who was the Word itself, and not merely its stereotype. Those who are humble and wise ask God to show them how to read the Word living in the holy words and deeds of every person, the Word dwelling in each body, a temple of the Spirit.

A more modest goal, related to this and relevant to religious life, is to learn what kind of word I am to others. When my brothers in religion see me; when the folks at Neighbors Together talk to me; when I visit my family, what is the word people get from me? What am I "saying" to them, and what "message" are they receiving? What is my word doing to them? Is it giving them love? Is it showing them comfort? Is it attracting them or scaring them? Is it healing them or scarring them? Is it a blessing or a curse? I ought to know. I ought to want to know, not out of narcissistic curiosity, but because the word I am makes the world insofar as it shares in the creativity of the Word, and it deforms it insofar as it betrays, distorts, or falsifies that Word.

Let me read and be built up, mind, body, soul, and spirit. Let me speak and build others in the same.


This is my last post for a while. I will resume the blog next Sunday evening, at the earliest. To everyone, peace and all goodness. I promise you, after this week away, I will write you loving words again.

Saturday, January 14, 2012


Putting clothing, toiletries, and an alarm clock into my luggage for the seven days away from St. Michael Friary. Also browsing the basement library for good spiritual reading during the retreat. I'm not leaving until Monday morning, but I dislike packing immediately prior to travelling. The older I get, the more I am accustomed to moving, but the less I like to feel rushed into moving. Having the luggage ready at least the night before if not earlier reminds me of the existential reality of life as pilgrimage and makes it easier to accept this without anxiety.

Apart from this activity, it is a real day of rest. I'll be going with two of the brothers to the cinema in Forest Hills in a little while. In the evening I'll likely be hanging out with one of the postulants and his friends while they cook and watch one of the football games. It's not about the football and the food -- I am detached from these secular festivals of sport -- it is about fraternity and finding God while giving time to those who want the gift of your presence -- the gift in your presence.

In between, a little bit of physical exercise with the help of our new hand-me-down treadmill and the stationary bike; a little bit of mental exercise with further reading on Francis from the early documents; and a little bit of spiritual exercise with some time in the chapel. A good sabbath to you all.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Deep Change

Feeling a little tired and a little hungry. But I'm going to fast today until the evening, as I usually do on Fridays outside the seasons of Christmas and Easter. So I'm trying to conserve my energy and focus it for the work ahead. I'm giving a presentation on two episodes in the life of Francis this morning, and facilitating the leadership program this afternoon at Neighbors Together.

When you are trying to make a change, it is hard to accept the possibility that the things you are doing are not really so different after all. Francis comes to this realization while setting off from his hometown of Assisi for the city of Apulia seeking a commission in the papal army. Although he barely survived his last experience of combat, nearly dying of malaria while imprisoned for a year in Perugia, Francis still believed he was destined for glory through war. The difference? Whereas formerly he fought for the honor of Assisi, now he would fight for the glory of God. A vision of his house filled with soldiers' arms and a promise of many knights under his service sped Francis with joy to Apulia, laden with armor, arms, and expensive clothing, riding a steed and accompanied by a squire.

Then something happened during a stopover in Spoleto. A flashback? A relapse of malaria? In a delirium, Francis hears a voice question him. Who is greater, the master or the servant? The master, of course. Then why are you abandoning the master for the servant? Francis recalls the first vision he had and reconsiders its meaning. He is devastated. Changed in his mind, he turns back.

Francis retreats to Assisi, knowing full well the humiliation awaiting him. He doesn't care. He retires from worldly affairs, abandoning all concern for his father's business in the cloth trade. He retreats to a cave near the city every day for prayer and reflection. He is in his early twenties and has no work, no wife, and no prospects for the future. Yet he swears he has found a great and valuable treasure, will do great and noble deeds, and will take the most wise and beautiful bride of all.

For many people, stripped of all other dreams and hopes, bereft of refuge, God comes to them like the last ray of sunset, as a gift of desperation. Sadly, not all of these souls receive What and Who is being given to them, and they keep going on in the fruitless, useless ways they know. Fortunately, Francis was awake enough to let his course be changed, deeply be changed, and not only superficially to give the appearance of change. Today during instruction we will be examining that mysterious moment in his young life, when he found the courage to live thoroughly into the change commanded of him.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Lose the Game, Not the Faith

A hard reading for faith-sharing this morning from the First Book of Samuel: Israel is defeated by the Philistines and loses the ark of the Lord, the symbol of the covenant between God and the people.

This is a pivotal moment in the history of the twelve tribes of Israel, which in this time of crisis evolves from a confederacy ruled by charismatic judges to a monarchy. The texts of the two books of Samuel reveal theological tensions over this fateful development. One tradition holds that Israel departed from the will of God by naming a king, for Yahweh alone was their sovereign. Another tradition holds that receiving a king was a sign of God's covenant faithfulness, a fulfillment of God's plan to make of Israel a great and glorious people. The history of ancient Israel is a story of struggle to remain faithful in a world whose ways were contrary to God's ways. Would the people of God live with and for God and fashion a community different from the empires and nations, or would they surrender faith and become like the nations who would enslave them? The losses to the Philistines began to push Israel toward the option of monarchy, a momentous decision.

To return to today's reading itself, what strikes me is the fact that the religious piety of the Israelites could not save them. I do not think it was wrong for them to hope God would fight with them and give them victory. What was wrong was the way they sought God's help. They brought the ark to battle as if that act alone assured God's presence and favor. God is for us, but it is presumptuous to call on God to take our side against an enemy. God struggles with us for justice, but God cannot be conscripted for service in our all-too-human contests like some supernatural mercenary.

In this life we are going to suffer losses. When we live by faith, we may lose quite a lot, perhaps more often than those who live by the law of club and fang and thrive under worldly machinations. The point is, we will lose and keep on losing for a long time. That's all right, because God is with us. That's all right, because the game is not always worth winning. The game is worldly, and the game is faithless. So don't worry so much about playing the game. You can lose the game all the time and still have God. What you cannot allow yourself to do is strive to win the game by playing with God, because then you can lose the game and lose your faith.

As I discern more deeply my call into religious life, I must examine my conscience daily. I must ask whether I am working humbly to win the faith, no matter what losses I sustain in my efforts at fraternity or ministry. Am I acting nobly, trusting in God who wills our good, or am I really only aiming to win the game of life by cleverer means, by playing the God card?

God of all faithfulness, make me a good loser.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change

In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.

John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845)

What is true for ideas is surely true for people. Whatever is essential, absolute, and eternal in human creatures subsists under a beautiful but fragile and fallible existence. God gives us a share in being-itself by making us exist. We are "given" beings. God's gift is our being-in-existence. This giving of God's is not once-for-all-time. Everything that lives and moves and continues in existential being must change or die. God sustains what is essential in us by changing us in space and time. God loves me by changing me. One can imagine the tender, even affectionate, but ironic voice of our Creator: "I love you, you're perfect, now change."

In a little while I will be having my formation conference, during which the formation directors will suggest areas of attention in my personal, social, and spiritual development. They will ask me to name the pieces of personhood that I would like most to develop, drawing on the recommendations of the mid-year evaluation.

The emphasis is on development. It's not like I am already the person I ought to be, and all I need to do is bring to the fore those positive qualities of character I have been neglecting to manifest while suppressing behaviors contrary to the way I already know I ought to be and do. No -- not only do I not know the way fully, but also I do not know myself well enough. Not only this, but who I am, good as I am, does not have the means sufficient within or without to become greater than who I am. To be lifted up and out of my limited self, I must look to something or someone greater to lift me up and out. This requires that I look up and look out toward what is greater.

This speaks of turning. Indeed, what is being called for is a return to conscious and conscientious conversion, whereby the Spirit of God that dwells in me and around me is permitted to show me the way and also to build up and show forth the soul I am to become on the way. There is a dialectic here. To take on a new way of doing things, I must consent to becoming a new being. To become a new creation, I must surrender in trust to a new way of living. My work in religious life is to discover my being by accepting a perpetual change of the way I live, a change whose only permanence is its perpetuity.

Truly, God says to the saints, "I love you. You're perfect. Now change."

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Desert Beckons

After Jesus was baptized, the Spirit of God led him into the desert, where Satan confronted him and tempted him three times.

Isn't that the way of things. We are filled with grace and favor and carried by the Holy Spirit into the hard places. It is not that we are led into temptation by the Spirit of God, but that God allows for our faith to be proved. In the end, we find ourselves in the desert to meet God and the demonic, whether or not we go willingly. Better to go willingly and accompanied by the Spirit.

This is what I want to do now, more than ever. I want to spend time with God, apart from both work and rest. A Sabbath beyond all sabbaths. And I will do battle with any demons who dare to get in the way.

Next Monday the postulants depart for Beacon, N.Y., for a five-day retreat with Capuchin Br. Ignatius Feaver, a friar from the Province of Mary, Mother of the Good Shepherd in Central Canada. We will be learning methods of discernment as we inquire of God and our brothers whether we are called to continue formation into the novitiate. We will also explore where and how we need to grow personally, spiritually. Apart from instruction, prayer, and meal time, it will be a silent retreat. We will be staying at St. Lawrence Retreat Center in the town.

On Friday we will head to Saugerties to join the candidates for their discernment weekend through Sunday. In all it will be a week away from Brooklyn.

I have already decided to go offline next week. I am not bringing my laptop; I will resist checking e-mail and web surfing from my brothers' computers. I don't have a cell phone; I will try not to use any telephone. I will try not to read the news. I apologize ahead of time to those who are accustomed to the near-daily posts from the friary. I will be away only for a little while. But it will be a complete disappearance.

God, be with me. Demons, be warned. I am going to the desert. The desert beckons.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Remembering Baptism

On this day the Church remembers the baptism of Jesus, usually reckoned as the beginning of his public ministry. With this feast the Christmas season comes to its conclusion, and the season of ordinary time begins tomorrow.

I cannot recall my baptism because it was on Dec. 5, 1977, and I was nine weeks old. That there was a baptism, there is no doubt: the baptismal certificate is on file at St. Kevin Parish in Flushing, Queens, and I successfully obtained a copy of it for my application to the Capuchin postulancy program. I have seen photographs of the occasion, so there were eyewitnesses. One of the photos appears to depict the very moment when the priest sprinkled the water while reciting the words of the baptismal formula ("I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"). Still, I have no memory of the event. I cannot recall the moment.

This does not mean I do not remember my baptism. It is a felt experience every time I dip my fingers into holy water and make the sign of the cross when I enter a church. It it re-presented for me whenever I witness the baptism of an infant, child, or adult. It becomes immediate on those occasions when the congregation renews its baptismal vows during liturgy.

There are times when baptism comes to mind beyond the sacred space of worship. For instance, when I am in the shower, I say to myself, as the water jets down, "Remember your baptism." Since bathing is the first thing I do almost every day, this mantra is a good way to consecrate the day ahead. Also, whenever I take walks by streams and rivers, I look and I listen to the currents and think of living water, carrying life, making life possible, channeling the Spirit of God.

There have been other extraordinary reminders of baptism. Receiving the sacrament of confirmation on June 11, 2000, was such an occasion and one of the most powerful religious experiences I ever had. (About this, I hope to write more someday.)

Four summers ago I visited Niagara Falls for the first time. My friend from Buffalo took the photo I have adopted to represent my likeness on this blog. I have chosen this picture because it is more than a pleasing-looking image. It captures a sacramental moment. While looking at the millions of gallons of water running over, I was meditating on baptism and thinking that there, at Niagara Falls, God continues to baptize the world and its peoples. God never ceases to baptize creation.

Life is renewed, constantly. All creatures of nature are filled by the Creator with grace and favor. As for human creatures, continually we are regenerated, physically and morally. Continually, we are invited to fulfillment and commissioned to live life to its fullest, in right relationship with our Creator, with each other, and with all God's creatures.

On this day and, I hope, every day, I aim to remember my baptism and renew my commitment to the baptismal vows. In pursuit of the religious vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience, I aim to live out my baptismal vows in a particular way, after the manner of Francis himself, who gave high praise to the virtues of living water:

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Sister Water,
So useful, lowly,
precious, and pure.

Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Creatures

Sunday, January 8, 2012


The Christmas season is coming to a close. Today the Church observes Epiphany, a celebration that marks the nations' recognition of Jesus as the saving, loving power of God.

Yesterday I wrote about seeing Francis with the sense of faith, through good myth constructed upon a trustworthy interpretation of the sound testimonies of history. The same applies to Jesus Christ, whose phenomenon we cannot come to perceive fully except by the light of faith. The infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, namely the adoration of the magi, and the Gospels' account of Jesus's baptism by John the Baptist, are like a light reflected. They exist because the first believers mirrored to us the luminous divinity they knew to be in Jesus Christ. These stories serve to assure new generations of disciples that Jesus, whose words and works manifested God in history, also manifested the fullness of divinity in his very person from the beginning of his human existence. What was made known to the world only gradually over Jesus' lifetime is in truth the ultimate reality for all time and beyond all time.

My aim in religious life is to know the God of Jesus Christ by living like Francis. During this Christmas season, a deeper desire has dawned on me: to name and to know what God has given to me, and to receive into my personhood what has been given. To see the holy, even to touch holiness: this is what so many in the world long for in their own way. But we can and should dare more than this: to become what we would behold. For the Christian, it is to be made divine like Jesus, to become a child of God. Seeing the light, we aim to be the light. Adoration leads to communion. To confess faith in Jesus Christ is to live the faith of Jesus Christ, and then we become like the Son of God.

It is with the sense of faith, led by the Holy Spirit, that one makes a prayer such as this:

Father of light, unchanging God,
today you reveal to men of faith
the resplendent fact of the Word made flesh.
Your light is strong,
your love is near;
draw us beyond the limits which this world imposes,
to the life where your Spirit makes all life complete.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

This prayer is the alternative collect for the solemnity of the Epiphany in the Liturgy of the Hours. I will be meditating on these words for some time: "[D]raw us beyond the limits which this world imposes, to the life where your Spirit makes all life complete." What beautiful words for a beautiful hope. This world, limited though it is, is where the infinite Love dwells -- once in secret, then openly, and now within everyone who surrenders their longing to be made whole to the Holy One who makes whole.

Love comes to us, and we follow. A strong light beckons us. In the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, "Lead, kindly light."

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Franciscan Studies

For the first four months of our postulancy, our instruction has focused mainly on catechesis, liturgy, prayer, and spirituality. In the context of these subjects we have learned some history about Francis of Assisi, the founder of our religious movement. Now, throughout the second half of the postulancy program, we will study Francis more directly, using the primary sources that consist of his own writings and the writings of his followers from the 13th century. We will continue to study the Catechism of the Catholic Church, church history, and other subjects, but now the center of gravity in our studies is the person of Francis of Assisi himself.

Where does the Francis enthusiast begin, when the bibliography for this holy man is longer than that of every other saint -- the longest of any person in all of history, save perhaps for Lincoln and Jesus? Until the end of the 20th Century, the standard reference in English for primary sources on the life of Francis was the Omnibus of Sources, edited by one Marion A. Habig. This text has now been superseded by Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, a three-volume edition of primary sources, first published from 1999 to 2001. In addition to presenting the classic texts in new translations with helpful annotations, it introduced to a wider English-speaking audience texts previously unavailable or inaccessible to all except scholars versed in Latin and the early Romance languages. Texts formerly deemed insignificant have been given greater prominence, too.

It is the Early Documents series that we will be working with this winter and spring, and it will remain our foundational reference throughout formation.

For the remainder of this year, we will be examining in detail select episodes in the life of Francis in chronological order. Guiding our exploration is a beginner's workbook by Capuchin Fr. Bill Hugo, Studying the Life of Francis of Assisi (2nd ed.). Thank goodness for this text. First, it gives the uninitiated an accessible introduction to the historical-critical method. Second, it offers a synopsis of the most historically significant early documents. Third, it provides a series of exercises corresponding to the major incidents in the life of Francis, designed to make you think critically about the subject and the sources. Finally, it provides handy citations of the sources from Early Documents that recount the episodes we are studying. Left to our own devices, we postulants would get lost in these three volumes, which in all run to 2,350 pages!

I have been waiting a long time to reach this point. It will be a privilege to have the time and space to sit down with the primary sources and flex the muscles under my thinking cap. I will do this so that my faith, braced by reason, may be more authentically like the faith of Francis. This is not a disinterested quest for the historical Francis. Like Jesus, the faithful see Francis through thick layers of myth. This is not a bad thing provided the myths are luminous and transparent, not dark and opaque. Where Christianity, a quintessentially historical religion, is concerned, I believe that bad myth tends to be constructed out of bad history. And while good history alone is no substitute for and no guarantee of good myth, it is also true that good myths will turn rotten without nourishment in true testimony. If I aspire to walk in the footsteps of Francis, and if I aspire to walk like Francis, then I should want to know the saint's history truly, so that I may see him more truly with the sense of faith, and thus in hope imitate his love.

Your humble and mostly faithful correspondent hopes to share some insights from his studies now and again! Keep checking the blog for dispatches from the friary classroom.

A 'Punk Rock' Friar

A little timeout from housework (bathrooms) and homework (studying early primary sources on Francis of Assisi -- more on this in another post) to share with you a feature about one of my Capuchin brothers.

Direct your browser to this article from the Jamaica Plain Gazette. It's a profile of Fr. Charles Sammons, whose blog, A Minor Friar, I read almost daily and have linked a couple of times in passing here at From a Brother. I have known Brother Charles for about as long as I have known any of the Capuchins, which is 11 years. He is a very witty person and a gifted storyteller. Eminently quotable, he must have made the Gazette reporter's work easy.

I have heard my friar friend talk about how punk music brought him providentially into religion and eventually Catholicism. But is Brother Charles a "punk rock friar," as the article declares? Insofar as Francis of Assisi is truly, in his words, "the most punk person I'd heard of in history," then both he and every friar who walk as Francis walked are punks.

Our founder not a hippie, then? Well, conventional wisdom often has it wrong when it comes to religious life.

There's our question of the day: is Francis more like a hippie or a punk? Which one better personifies the Franciscan ethos? Discuss among yourselves.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Followers Into Leaders

We are beginning the leadership training program at Neighbors Together today. I am a little nervous about this new venture, as I am about starting anything without precedent. The staff community organizer and I will be the trainers for a group of about six of our members. This group may expand or change, but it will be no larger than ten.

These men and women know their neighborhood. They know the needs of their people. They know the problems they face. They are tired of waiting for the world to change. They are reaching out for change, and they are seizing the moments when a real contest for power appears -- and appears to be winnable. They have claimed their voice, and Neighbors Together has given them a platform for speaking out to the public and to the powers.

Up until now, the Neighbors Together staff has been doing the work of entering or forming coalitions with like-minded persons and groups to fight hunger and poverty and unstable housing situations. Our members, trusting the initiative of our staff, take advantage of the opportunities they are given to make a difference. Their participation in the struggle involves attending our Tuesday membership meetings; taking part in advocacy by writing letters, making phone calls, and visiting elected officials; and joining mass meetings, marches, and rallies for economic justice campaigns. As activists they have been dedicated constituents in our in-house and coalition campaigns for positive community change.

Now we want our activists to take the next step. We encourage them to become leaders in their own right, taking control of their own destiny. By learning community organizing skills, interpersonal skills, and the fundamentals of the political process, they will gain the tools they need to construct the kind of communities they want to live, communities of compassion and justice.

It is for me an honor and a privilege to engage in this kind of work, which I see as the faithful work of building a world ready to receive the reign of God. Christian disciples are not to wait passively for the city of God to arise or for the servant-leader Jesus Christ, its humble ruler, to return. To be a follower of Christ is to become a humble leader, led, like Jesus, by the Spirit of God. Therefore, they are to work earnestly and tirelessly, with all the faithful and all people of good will, and with the movement of the Holy Spirit, for the liberation of the world, even as they keep vigil for the kingdom, power, and the glory to come.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Marriage and Religious Life

Had a lively conversation at the dinner table tonight with the brothers about marriage, inspired by our bemusement over the opulence of wedding celebrations. How lavish the wedding feasts have become; how impoverished the marriages. A banquet in tribute to the vanity of the bride and groom and their families, followed by a starvation diet as the spouses and clans neglect the covenant made. Why such an effusion of creativity and splendor for the wedding feast, and a complete and utter lack of imagination for the work of the marriage itself?

I contended that the Church, which requires a year or several years of catechesis and faith formation for reception of the sacraments of initiation, and which requires many years of formation for one of the sacraments of vocation, holy orders, should require at least as much preparation for marriage, the other sacrament of vocation. Couples who desire a marriage in the Church ought first to know what the Church is offering by way of the sacrament, and then they should decide if they want what the Church gives. But they should not approach the Church wanting only a pretty place for a wedding. And the Church should not rubber-stamp their request for a sacramental marriage just because they are in love and feel entitled to it.

I feel very strongly about this, having been in discernment about my vocation for many years and now in the first year of a prolonged process of formation in preparation for my equivalent of the marriage vows, the religious vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience. Just because I feel called to be a Capuchin doesn't mean I automatically get to be one. The other friars have something to say about this, and so does the Church! I feel this way especially because, unlike the vocation to religious life, the Church has raised the vocation to married life to the dignity of a sacrament. Every baptized Christian has a right to the sacraments, but with rights come responsibilities.

Every baptized Christian is called to bear the love of God revealed through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit into the world. Only a few are called to do this through consecrated religious life. Most of them are called to do so through a relationship with another person characterized by mutuality, intimacy, exclusivity, commitment, and justice. By the grace of God, the love between these two persons may become, through the sacrament of marriage, a mirror of the love between Christ and the Church. That love is courageous and just, loyal and true, all-powerful, deeply creative, tenderly intimate, perfectly mutual, and indestructible. Every person should want their love to become this kind of love. To help committed couples attain this, the Church offers them the love of God in the sacrament of marriage. This offer of grace should be as inclusive as the Church's ever-developing understanding of marriage will permit it, but it should not on that account be an easy offer or a cheap grace.

My thinking has been stirred by a symposium of reflections in the most recent issue of Commonweal on sex, marriage, and the Church. A panel of writers and theologians were invited to comment on the following thesis by church historian Eamon Duffy:

The shrinking of Catholic institutions is clearly part and parcel of a much broader unsettlement within Western society. It is not merely Catholic marriages, for example, which are in decline, but, it would seem, the institution of marriage itself. The moral pattern imposed by the church (slowly and with enormous difficulty) on European sexual behavior and family structure from the early Middle Ages onwards seems now to be collapsing. Later than most of the rest of the churches of the West, the Catholic Church is increasingly confronted with the need to evolve a modus vivendi with these apparently inexorable social trends, which can be lived by ordinary people with integrity. Marriage is above everything else a social institution, and if the church is not to decline into being a sect for the saintly, ordinary Catholic couples cannot realistically be expected to live lives untouched by the social and sexual expectations and mores of the culture as a whole. The tragically large and growing number of Catholics in irregular unions is both an indicator of the way in which the values of society shape the lives and perceptions of Christians and also, in pastoral terms, a ticking time bomb, which by one means or another is going to have to be defused if it is not to decimate the Catholic community and, more importantly, deprive thousands of people of the sacramental support and light they need.

I encourage you to read the full article of replies to Duffy, but I will excerpt from the response by Prof. Nancy Dallavalle of Fairfield University, as it reflects my own thinking:

Duffy’s warning, with which I concur, is not so much about the list of desirable behaviors as it is about the danger of seeing marriage not as a sacred institution into which one enters, but rather as a self-expressive affective choice that comes with no inherited goods and gives rise to no ramifications beyond the immediate bonds. The problem, in other words, is not our behavior; in fact our behavior is quite understandable. It’s the impoverished goal—a private union that is about me. Well, “us.” Well, actually, me....

Getting married should mean—for some of us must mean—entering with awe into a sacramental moment that is much bigger than any given couple and their combined Facebook friends. In response to Duffy, I suggest that the bar for this sacrament should be higher, not lower, so that marriage can serve its properly prophetic role in a world that longs for a transcendent that must be more than one’s own world writ large. Yes, the traditional moral patterns matter—let’s teach them. But they are not the entire point, and should not be presented as such. Sacramental marriage should not be reduced to a prize awarded to couples who meet all items on a checklist of approved behaviors; it should be an invitation, reserved for couples who genuinely recognize their need for grace, and have the humility to hunger for a tradition that will sustain it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Moving Target

Stay sober and alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith.

1 Peter 5:8-9a

This is the reading for Tuesday night prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours. It has always impressed me with the epistle writer's firm conviction of the real presence of demonic forces surrounding us, crowding within us, pulling us down, tempting us to abandon our hope in destiny and resign ourselves to tragic fate.

After the near-collision on the road to Brooklyn, this admonition from 1 Peter carries more weight for me. The evil one is real. The wrath of the demonic sets upon us without provocation and without warning. And you must swerve out of Satan's path as swiftly as you would swerve to avoid a fatal collision on the road.

[By the way, I don't believe Satan sent a wayward motorist to doom us. But I do think the ordinary presence of the demonic becomes more apparent to us through occasions of extraordinary and ultimate threat to our life and being, however fleeting they are. And I firmly believe it was a divine power that protected my postulant brother and I from an awful accident.]

A friend of mine wrote me yesterday: "Hope you're having fun wherever you are. I noticed on your blog that you appear to be celebrating your role as a moving target. Hopefully, you have been intercepted by friends along the way."

"A moving target." If he didn't read yesterday's post, then he doesn't yet realize how devilishly dark his remark has proved to be. After all, in earlier posts on my Boston travels, I did say "catch me if you can." Do you think only human creatures can comprehend and respond to our words?

A moving target ... actually, I like that one. For once, my friend's offbeat sense of humor is on the mark. A moving target: I can accept that in a mordantly ironic kind of way, especially after the journey back to Brooklyn.

Let the devil try and get me: he won't snatch me. I am in God's hands.

I am feeling really good right now. I am thankful for my life. I am grateful to be here with the Capuchins. I can't wait to go to Kansas and California this year and back to Boston next year.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Journey's End

When will I come to the end of my pilgrimage and enter the presence of God?

Liturgy of the Hours, antiphon for morning prayer, Week II

Safely home in Brooklyn and feeling full of life. After midnight, on the way back from Boston, on the Hutchinson River Parkway in the Bronx, there suddenly appeared a motorist driving in the wrong direction. The driver swerved into our lane. My postulant brother, who was driving, swerved out of harm's way and avoided what would certainly have been a fatal head-on collision. God's shield was around us.

We did not crash. We came home. We finished this journey. But the pilgrimage is not over. It is not yet our time to enter the presence of God.


New Year's Day was as perfect a day as I could dream.

I went to the 10:30 a.m. Mass at St. Monica-St. Augustine Parish in South Boston. Rev. Robert R. Kennedy, the pastor, is my hero, a priest with a passion for urban agriculture and the well-being of workers. His grandfather, James W. Kennedy, took part in the Boston Police Strike of 1919. A brush with mortality by way of acute appendicitis in his early twenties turned Father Kennedy toward ultimate concerns and eventually the seminary. He experienced his priestly formation during the revolutions of the Second Vatican Council. Ordained in 1965, he parlayed his passions into non-traditional ministry, helping to launch the Community Harvest Project in the 1970s, before assuming parochial duties. The Massachusetts affiliate of Interfaith Worker Justice was born in 1997 at Father Kennedy's former parish in East Boston, St. Mary Star of the Sea, and sheltered there until his parish was closed in 2004. In the summer of 2010, at the age of 72, he was arrested while engaging in civil disobedience with Hyatt housekeepers who were leading a boycott after their jobs were outsourced. Among the priests I have known, Father Kennedy is the exemplar in his exercise of the prophetic office.

Yesterday after worship he invited me back to the rectory and offered me some oolong tea and observations on the Occupy movement. How I prize his friendship.

Had my visit to South Boston been the only highlight of the day, it would be enough. But the day had only begun. Bidding Godspeed to Father Kennedy, I took the Red Line up to Cambridge and Harvard Square to meet a friend who studies Buddhism at Harvard Divinity School. We met at a Hyatt boycott prayer vigil a little over two years ago. We were introduced through a mutual friend involved in the Boston Workmen's Circle, a secular Jewish organization for social justice that began a century ago as a mutual aid society for immigrant workers. We have had many a warm conversation on burning issues. She is a good listener; she is a good questioner. She challenges me to speak truth to power, not only to the world I wish to change, but also to the Church I serve. She embraces everyone with kindness, even persons who must be resisted when they cause ill-being or mindlessly diminish well-being. She is a generous soul, one of my teachers of compassion. Our time together over a lunch buffet and mango pudding at The Maharaja was all too brief!

From Harvard Square I left speedily for Boston Common, meeting another friend to see The Adventures of Tintin. We studied together at Boston University School of Theology; lifted our voices, her soprano and my tenor, every Wednesday in Marsh Chapel with the Seminary Singers; and had our apprenticeship in prophecy while leading CAUSE, our student group for social justice. She is in the process of becoming an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. And she is a fellow blogger, whose thoughts you can find here. As the title of her blog suggests, she is always game for God-talk. She is a true sister in the Holy Spirit, my adelpha. We have pledged to attend each other's vocation rituals -- her ordination and my profession of vows. May it be so!

This day was not yet done. Saying goodbye to my "wicked Methodist" friend, I stepped onto the Silver Line and bused down Washington Street to the South End. I got off at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and rang the bell of the rectory. I was received and led inside. After exchanging pleasantries with the rector, parochial vicar, and another visiting priest, we were greeted by Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston and a fellow Capuchin brother. One of the Capuchin friars who lives in Jamaica Plain arranged to have dinner with Brother Sean, and he invited me and my postulant brother to join them. After he and my postulant confrere arrived, we had a light cocktail hour and then departed for dinner at a seafood restaurant on the Boston waterfront.

This is the third time I have met the cardinal in person. The first time was in the company of the Capuchins at St. Francis of Assisi Friary, our house in Jamaica Plain for the brothers who have taken their perpetual vows but are continuing their studies. It was Super Bowl Sunday in 2006, and one of the brothers invited me over for pizza and to cheer for the Pittsburgh Steelers, as many Capuchins do. Sean had not yet been named a cardinal, but we knew his elevation was imminent. The second time I met Sean was in January 2009 on a meeting for business. I was working with immigrant activists on a campaign called Welcoming Massachusetts. Its goal was to get 100,000 citizens and numerous municipalities to endorse a pledge to make the Commonwealth a place that affirmed the value of immigrants. It also called for our political leaders in Congress to engage in civil dialogue about immigration reform. We sought the endorsement of religious leaders so that we could do more effective outreach to congregations. After a few months of efforts, I secured a meeting with Cardinal O'Malley and obtained his endorsement. My colleagues had to do most of the talking for me, because I had laryngitis. Brother Sean took pity on me as I struggled to speak, and he fetched me some tea with lemon.

I left the restaurant last night high in the clouds. It was only dinner, dessert, and conversation among brothers, but it felt like a conversation with spirit and purpose, and I feel like it achieved something.


So here I am, feeling the life that is swelling inside of me, grateful that I have another day, another year to fulfill my duty, to do what God wills, to follow Jesus to the end of life and beyond. I am thankful that the end is not yet. Since Sept. 11, 2001, I have been keenly aware of the precariousness of life. Yesterday I had one of the most amazing days of my life, the capstone of a blessed week, and that life nearly came crashing to an end. How full of grace, how full of favor all of us are. I want to be a follower of Jesus more than ever.

I have reached the end of my journeying, for a while. The pilgrimage goes on.

When will I come to the end of my pilgrimage and enter the presence of God?