Had our day of recollection with the postulants from the St. Augustine and Stigmata provinces today. Actually it was more like a half-day. The brothers in formation arrived at St. Michael Friary around quarter after nine and had a bagel breakfast with us. We heard Fr. Jim Gavin present on the story cycles of the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham and Jacob until eleven-thirty. Mass and lunch followed, and then we departed for Manhattan to walk the canyons of cathedrals, both those dedicated to Christ and capitalism.
We filled our souls at the two Franciscan churches on West 31st Street. Our church crawl stopped next at Fifth Avenue and East 51st Street, at the Cathedral of St. Patrick, the church of the archbishop of New York. Then we doubled back to St. John the Baptist, the Capuchin church, for pizza with the postulants and friars. We departed early in the evening.
On the way to St. Patrick's we got an eyeful as we crossed through that colossal light bulb known as Times Square. I really dislike moving through the square. There is no place, save for the pavement, where you can rest your eyes and not see something they're selling. Oh, God, the lights are too much. They move; they blink; they dissolve; they bounce. They jump and they crawl. They pounce. They beam and strobe and flutter. They pierce the eyes and blanket the mind. It's enough to make anyone an epileptic. I kept my feet from stumbling only by looking down and looking at the people in my company in front of me. We got no relief until West 49th Street.
There are ten postulants from the St. Augustine and Stigmata provinces. There are another five men in formation from the provinces of St. Joseph (Midwest) and Mary Mother of the Good Shepherd (Canada). Then there are the four of us from New York/New England, the St. Mary province. That's nineteen postulants. There are another eight postulants from the western U.S. provinces and the Pacific territories we have not yet met who will be gathering with us for the novitiate in California. I am relieved to have met most of them before moving in with them!
Some things Father Jim said in his presentation on the Hebrew Bible, Genesis and 1 Samuel in particular, gave me pause. The call of God to Abraham was both a promise of greatness and an invitation to indeterminacy. The call of God to Samuel was as much about Eli because Eli had to trust that the Lord was speaking to Samuel, despite the anxiety this would cause Eli. All this made me think about the way the Church goes about promoting interest in religious life.
We pray all the time, every morning and evening, that more men will take up the Capuchin Franciscan way of life. Here some examples of the intercessions for vocations we use in the Liturgy of the Hours:
Lord, your goodness fills the earth. Send workers to gather your abundant harvest,
--so that all people may know you and find life in the name of Jesus, your Son.
Lord, strengthen our community, our Province and our Order in faith, hope and love;
--send us new brothers so that together we may more effectively share the Good News of salvation.
Lord Jesus, you call all men, women and children to follow you;
--may we joyfully follow in your footsteps and faithfully observe your Gospel after the example of Francis and Clare.
Lord Jesus, you promised to be with us always and to love us until the end;
--be our strength in times of doubt or disappointment and increase our trust in you that we may draw others to our way of life.
You get the idea.
This is asking a lot from God. Not only do we ask God to show up in our lives and shape us into followers of Jesus like Francis, but we also ask that God show other men that they are meant to be shaped into brothers like Francis. This presumes that God wants to be experienced by us through the kinds of communities that Francis of Assisi created -- the communities Francis inspires today, however short of the founder's mark they fall. Now I do believe this is acceptable to God and consonant with what is truly God's holy will. After all, God forms a people for salvation. Communities of faith prepare us for an encounter with the holy and condition our response to the holy in ways that make both the encounter and the response more probable to be shared in common, and mutually reinforcing.
Even still, no two people experience God the same way, and no two people respond to their experience of God in the same way. And in the end, like Abraham, although we "know," we just don't know what comes next after an epiphany. How do we know God wants such-and-such a person to be a Franciscan? Is there anything inherent in his or her epiphany that opens or forecloses the possibility or increases the probability of assuming a particular habit, even to the point of inevitability? Moreover, who says God is no longer doing new things? After all, Francis, who was living in a time of cultural, economic, political, and social innovations, formed an original pattern of living in response to a series of singular experiences of God such as had rarely if ever been known before. We may be living in a period where, despite an abatement of entries into the customary forms of religious life, a resurgence is nearly upon us. What comes next is not yet known, but when it appears, it will be other than the existing religious forms.
Which leads me to another point. I am thinking about the correlation between "religious experience" and vocation. Must the pursuit of consecrated life be in some way validated by an originating mystical encounter with God? Can a vocation be profitably attained without being underwritten with the credit of epiphanies? What kind of correlation, never mind causation, could ever be established between one person's apprehension of sacred mystery and that person's inscription of the mystery into his thoughts, words, and deeds? What that person professes to have experienced is ultimately inaccessible to our reason; we must turn to faith, for all reason has is that person's interpretation of the mystery and the person's behaviors. We have to judge as Eli did when Samuel kept coming to him in the night.
I think that, yes, a personal experience of God is absolutely essential to having a religious vocation, and no vocation will survive without it. My two fears are that we have created a world where it is nearly impossible to have a religious experience, and where religious experiences do occur, we know neither how to recognize nor how to interpret them.
Before I pray for God to bring me brothers, I must first pray that God will speak to those brothers-to-be! Second, I must pray that God lets them know that it is God addressing them. How many people have had a religious experience, or were close to the edge of a religious experience, without ever knowing it? What a tragedy. God, let them know that you speak to them. Then, I would pray that God let us know that it is really true that God has spoken to them, so that we can believe as they have come to believe that God has encountered them for the purpose of guiding them into a community of religious brothers, hopefully a Franciscan community. Let us test every spirit with the Holy Spirit. Let us read the signs of the times in our sisters and brothers who search for the way to live with God. You who search our hearts, help us search the hearts of others and hear the Heart of the World beating in theirs. God, let us know that you speak to them. Finally, if there is anything the Church can do or which Franciscans themselves can do to help young men and women interpret their dreams of God if they do not believe God has spoken to them or do not understand what God has told them, let us do those things.