Friday, September 30, 2011

So Tired

And it is only quarter to ten in the evening. What happened to the young man who lived owlishly?

Waking early in the morning, before sunrise, has jerked me out of my preferred biorhythm. Late to rise, late to rest has always been my way of being. I charge up slowly and disperse my energies slowly, moving a few steps more leisurely than the day itself. Rising early forces me to rev up quickly and burn my energy rapidly in order to stay awake and alert.

I have avoided morning living as long as possible. Unfortunately, friars do not dwell in the nocturnal habitat.

These used to be my peak hours: the deepening evening, the subtle, brilliant edges around midnight. Now the evening is just a blur, and all sensation grows soft, and my consciousness drifts into cataracts.

It dismays me to feel so absent from myself at this hour. It often had been when I felt most the presence of God.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

In the Kitchen

It was observed, that even in the busiest times in the kitchen, Brother Lawrence still preserved his recollection and heavenly-mindedness. He was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its turn with an even, uninterrupted composure and tranquility of spirit. "The time of work," said he, "does not with me differ from the time of prayer. In the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great a tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Supper."

Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God


The first day I walked into Neighbors Together to work, the smell of the food revolted me, and I had to take shallow breaths. It's not that the food was bad, but the aroma was unappetizing to me. There is something about cafeterias, all of them, any one of them, that shrinks my stomach.

And there is something about handling food that makes me feel so awkward, so graceless. The kitchen, so hot, so wet, so noisy when a team of cooks and assistants are at work, is not my natural place.

But I have wanted to do the corporal works of mercy, and to do them more directly, not only to call a sick society to repentance for letting people loose into squalor and suffer starvation. So to the kitchen I have gone.

In these two weeks on the serving line, it has been hard to remember God in the work. It is in part because I have been learning what to do and how to do it while on shift, and this has left little time and space within the shift for prayerful energies to spark. It is also in part because I am precoccupied in the flow of work by lesser things. Sometimes I permit myself to feel the satisfaction that this young woman and that elderly man each got two nutritious meals from us. And I think, indulgently, to myself that we won a little victory. They were fed. They did not starve. We have defeated the system that defeated them. I feel vindication, but that does not mean I feel God.

We ran out of food on Tuesday at Neighbors Together. That is, at lunch time we served all the chicken stew that had been prepared, all the white rice, and all the salad. There were more hungry people at the door, and it was not time to close the serving line. We had no choice but to bring out the leftovers, which was nothing but cold macaroni. The people did not like it, and neither did I. They did not like me for serving this lesser food to them, and neither did I. And I had to struggle not to feel hatred toward them for their feeling of disappointment in me, or even disgust.

Today, seeking the inspiration of the French Carmelite monk and mystic of the quotidian, Brother Lawrence, I tried harder to practice the presence of God in the kitchen. The situation was the same as Tuesday: many hungry people, a long line, a full cafe, and low reserves of food. The spaghetti was sticky, and we had to use a pitchfork to serve it. The meatsauce ran all over everything. The salad was in short supply. The sweet potatoes were oily and small. It was the same stressful scene I had entered earlier in the week. Yet everyone seemed to be acting in slow motion and unperturbed. Was it the stale summer weather? Anyway, rather than work frenetically and thus in opposition to the cooks and servers, I took up the same pace as they set. Never mind that the line moved too slowly for any demanding customer's liking. For a few moments, disturbed only by complaints about the way I served a plate or answered a customer's request, I could commend myself to the watchful gaze of God.

I would like to believe with deeper faith that we are being seen. In every place, we are being seen -- not only in the chapel with the saints and angels, not only in the street with the prophets, but also in the kitchen with the sinners. I want to remember this longing, and feel its fulfillment in the kitchen. And maybe, just maybe, with this faith, I could look upon the people -- "members" of Neighbors Together, we call them -- with the look of love by which God, the angels, the saints and prophets, and Jesus gaze upon us, members of the body of Christ.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Still Here

Evening came and morning followed -- the twelve thousand four hundred and nineteenth day, and thirty-fourth anniversary, of my life in this world.

Like my brothers and sisters in the spirit, I am still here in this world, but my hope is that I am much less of the world, without being any less for the world and its people. On the contrary, I pray I am becoming more committed to the world, more truly grounded in the God of the Word made flesh.

I am still here in formation with the Capuchin Franciscan friars. I have not left. I have not backed out. I have not felt second thoughts. My hand is on the plow, and my eyes are looking straight ahead. I don't care where I go, as long as it is going to Jerusalem. There I must go to build up and be built up.

I am still here, learning to think not as people of the world think, but as God thinks. Learning to see not as those who want only this world, the world as it is, but to see as God sees. To see not with my own mind's eye, which sees only its idols, but with the mind's-eye of God, whose gaze sees us into being and whose sight is our icon.

It is right to be here still with the brothers, and every day it feels more right that I remain where I am, where I have been placed, or, rather, displaced. For I could have continued easily in my good way of life in Boston. There I could have followed along, one way or another, for many more days without number. It was good to be there. Were I to return now, it would still be good. Indeed, it is good that everyone I love there remains there, and I depend on them to be still on their way.

But my goal is beyond the good I have known in any one place, even Boston. I have been looking for a deeper transformation of my life, especially in the character of my interpersonal relationships, and in my relationship within the Church and with its people.

For the sake of my continuing personal conversion, and for the sake of a world groaning for renewal, I have picked up my tent, moved into a new country, and made camp. And I will be here for a time, looking less at the world at large, looking less at only myself, and looking more at the house in which I dwell and the people who dwell under the same roof.

I have just gotten here. I am still here. I will remain here.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Why I Pray

This morning the postulants met with a Capuchin friar to talk about, and practice, meditative prayer. Inevitably, the discussion turned to our personal views of prayer, and the brother asked us what is prayer for us today. I resisted giving an answer, because for me prayer has always been more a matter of how I live and less a matter of what I do. So I told the brother that why I pray has always been more important for me than what I say of prayer. (I was not trying to be snide or snippy with the good friar; I am glad he is visiting us to help us pray the way we would like to live, and live the way we would like to pray.)

And then I was reminded of a little note I wrote almost five years ago in response to a question from a good friend of mine, a fellow student at Boston University School of Theology who is now writing her doctoral thesis on the phenomenon of the pub church. I post it here in the hope that it connects to you. To my delight, the words below, though five years old, still ring true to my understanding and practices of prayer, and they are lively words.


"Your love is teaching me how to kneel." U2, "Vertigo"
"Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near." Isaiah 55:6 (NAB)
"Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praise." James 4:13 (NAB)
"Standing by God's river, my soul is beginnin' to shake." Bob Dylan, "Summer Days"

This is a partial answer to a simple question asked of me: Why do I pray?

I pray because I have been loved. I pray because I want to love.
Love never fails, but when I have failed to love, I pray.
When I know no other way to tell my friends how much I love them, I pray.
When I know there is no other way to tell my enemies I love them, I pray.
When I feel that demons are near, I pray.
When I feel that angels are near, I pray.
When I feel that God is near, I pray.
When I am lonely and I miss people more than I want to, I pray.
When I am lonely and I miss God more than I can bear, I pray.

I pray because I need.
Because I've longed, I pray.
Because I've cried, I pray.
Because I've felt joy, I pray.
And because I still need to long and cry and feel joy, I pray.

Prayer is utterly personal.

I am a soulful entity. As food and drink sustain the inspirited body, so does prayer sustain the embodied spirit.

As breathing is to the life of the inspirited body, so is prayer to the life of the embodied spirit.

Because I do, I pray. Because I am, I pray.
Prayer is the most I can do. A prayer is the most I can be.

Prayer is utterly practical.

I pray because I remember. I pray because I forget.
I pray because you pray. I pray because we pray.
I pray because you asked me. I pray because you didn't ask me.
I pray because I seek. I pray because I have found.
I pray because I was given. I pray because I will give.
I pray because I know. I pray because I don't know. I pray because one day all will know.

Because I'm sorry, I pray. Because I'm not yet sorry, I pray.
Because I am distressed, I pray. Because you are distressed, I pray.
When I feel mortal, I pray. When I feel divine, I pray.

Prayer contains me. Prayer releases me. Prayer joins me to things. Prayer sets me apart.

Prayer reveals me. And I believe prayer reveals God.

I pray because we belong to God.
I pray because we are made to be like God.
I pray because we are made to love, relate, and create like God.
I pray because I want to know God.
I pray because I'm sick of just talking about God.
I pray because God overwhelms me. God has stirred my soul.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

This Week

Today began the sixth week of my postulancy, and it was a surprisingly warm day in New York City. This morning I was lector at the 9 o'clock Mass at St. Michael-St. Malachy Parish, next door to our friary. This is where I worship when we the postulants are not traveling or otherwise obligated.

After worship and breakfast I rode the subway into Manhattan and up to Harlem, where I met a friend who studies in the master of divinity program at Union Theological Seminary. My friend is on the track to ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America but is also considering doctoral studies. Over lunch and then a personal tour of the Union campus, we had a great conversation about conversion and social transformation. (I've begun reading Fr. David Couturier's book.) We took a leisurely walk around the Union cloister, through its common areas and classrooms, into its chapel, and the student quarters. We saw the Burke Theological Library, whose catalog, I am told, is the largest in the Western Hemisphere, surpassed only by the Vatican Library. I also learned a lot more about my friend's work with the Poverty Initiative, which is headquartered at Union. You should check it out.

Every Sunday one of the friars or postulants prepares dinner. (During the week one of the members of St. Michael-St. Malachy Parish does the cooking for us.) After evening prayer we had a feast of a meal prepared by one of the postulants. Next Sunday, it will be my turn. I can promise only that what I serve will be edible.

Now all is quiet this evening, and I am looking to the week ahead:

We will have our usual schedule of common prayer, Eucharist, and ministry, as well as assorted house chores and projects. This week we will have a class on meditation, following on our discussion of the Capuchin charism of contemplation. We will also begin our study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which will continue intermittently through the year. The choir director of Sacred Heart Parish in Yonkers visited us last week to give us a lesson in liturgical singing, and we will continue with those lessons this week.

Toward the end of the week, we will prepare as a fraternity to celebrate the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, which is Oct. 4. It is the tradition among Franciscans to celebrate the transitus, or the passing of Francis from this world to eternal life, on the evening of Oct. 3. This year, rather than join a public commemoration of Francis' death and birth into new life at a parish, we will hold our own transitus service at St. Michael Friary.

Finally, on Saturday the 1st, we will participate in an affiliation ceremony at Sacred Heart. Affiliation is an honor bestowed upon persons who have demonstrated great service to the Capuchin Franciscans, who have helped significantly to advance the mission of the province, and who exemplify the spirit of Francis and the charisms of our order. Affiliation is like becoming an honorary brother, and it confers distinct privileges within the order, such as invitation to all fraternal events. This weekend we will honor the recently retired office manager of the vocation office, who gave over a decade of excellent service to this important ministry of the province.

Let the week begin!

A Little Holiday

Saturday is a free day for the postulants, most of the time. On this day we have no common prayer, no instruction, and no ministry.

For this Saturday, being three days before my birthday, I decided to visit my family for the day in Babylon, Long Island. We had a pleasant afternoon and evening together. My brother and I took a walk around Argyle Lake in Babylon Village. During the day the two of us took in the Mets doubleheader (and a rare win-win!) on the television. With my mother and brother, we prepared dinner together. Later, my sister arrived from East Northport. With the nuclear family reunited -- mother, father, sister, brother -- we had a good meal and a quiet but cheerful birthday celebration with cake and candles. I brought some zeppole from the previous night's St. Pio festival at St. John the Baptist Church in Manhattan to add to the merriment.

The day went so quickly, and I forgot myself in cheerful enjoyment of the company of my family. It was all over too soon. I wish we had more time. We will, come Thanksgiving, when the postulants get a few days off; and again at Christmas, when we get the last ten days of the year for ourselves.

In a way, it was odd being with my family in Babylon so soon after beginning postulancy. For one thing, it would have been more appropriate to reunite at Thanksgiving, after a longer period in formation could show for my folks a more pronounced transformation in me. For another thing, just being together at all was like a dream scene. Once upon a time, it would have been unthinkable for any person entering religious life to see their relations, much less at will. It used to be that when you entered the cloister (if you became a monastic) or the seminary or friary (if you became a brother), that was that. You did not speak to or visit your family but for exceptional circumstances. And the family would not be able to visit you. With the commencement of formation you severed your ties with the world of your upbringing in a radical way.

This, of course, is no longer the case. The Capuchins highly value the family ties of their brothers and actively encourage the friars to see to the well-being of their blood relationships, within the parameters of their vows. By being fully present to their relations in the habit of their religious life, the friars can bring their unique form of witness to the Gospel back to their families, and thus build the family of God that encompasses yet supersedes all blood ties.

And though I have been in formation for only five weeks and speak regularly to my folks, their curiosity about my activities was heightened just by my presence among them. It was a precious opportunity to share more deeply with them about how I am, what I do, and how I feel about what I do. Although we did not say grace at our meal (none was requested, none was offered), and we did not pray together in any way formal or informal, I believe I was able to share my faith with them in our conversation and way of being together. We exchanged peace. We showed compassion. We were loving and kind toward one another. We spoke no ill words. In our little way, we honored the God whose Holy Spirit yearns to make a home in our bodily temples. We made of my birthday a little holiday -- a holy day -- and it was good.

Friday, September 23, 2011


Continuing our study of the Capuchin charisms yesterday with Brother Jack, we talked about contemplation and did an exercise in contemplative prayer.

This is not the place to define contemplation or give a history of its practice from a Catholic Christian perspective. It is sufficient here to relate how the Capuchins understand and do contemplation. According to the Capuchin Constitutions contemplation is speaking "to God with the heart." Through sacred texts and images, the friar enters into a holy dialogue with God. In this dialogue the brother seeks to be enveloped by the presence of God. He asks God, in contemplation, to become a prayer itself, a living prayer. Saint Clare speaks of an attentive "gazing upon God'' that leads one through prayerful consideration and meditation into imitation of the One who loves.

Through contemplative prayer, the Capuchins seek the Spirit of God and her holy activity. It is not for their own sake that they strive for this intimate communion with their Creator and Redeemer. The brothers desire for others to see in them the goodness and lovingkindness of God made present in the world. Contemplation is not about feeling good with God. It is not about our own enjoyment of God's holy presence. It is not an end in itself. It is about transformation into the love of God for others.

Minority is one of the two wheels driving the vehicle of fraternity. Contemplation is the other. It is not ministry, and it is not the holy concern for justice, peace, and care of creation. Why not? Why is contemplation a driving value in the Capuchin reform of Franciscan life? Brother Jack puts it this way. When there is conflict, the state, society, and even the Church respond with cruel authority and violent power. But the Capuchins respond with silence.

Without the contemplative dimension, we forget to listen to God and we lose sight of the gifts God has given us in unconditional, ever-sustaining love. When we forget that all we are and all we have comes from God, we begin to lord it over others as if life were of our own making. Contemplation enables us to accept our weakness and our true condition of poverty with gratitude. And we learn to stop acting mindlessly against our brothers and sisters, our human neighbors and all our beloved earthly neighbors. Especially when we start to thinking we are acting righteously and God is always and forever on our side.

In contemplation, the ethical and mystical come together. As we gaze upon God in the person of Jesus Christ, who became one with all people in love poured out for us, we are made one with our God; and our lives are made new, for a new relation to the world in humble service.

Hard Times

Yesterday I had to tell the people coming for a meal at Neighbors Together they could not have a second helping. I didn't like that. I do not like it that we do not have enough food for people who are so hungry that they do need a second helping.

Yesterday I came home in the afternoon and saw a NYPD vehicle parked in the little driveway at St. Michael Friary with my across-the-street neighbor sitting in the squad car with his hands cuffed. He was being violent against his wife. The two 75th Precinct officers would tell me nothing about what happened. I had to get the story from the bystanders. I didn't like any of it. I do not like it that the police are trained to act above the people. I am angry about the man under arrest who was being violent toward the woman he is with and lost himself in his anger.

Yesterday I was angry with myself for being angry on the serving line at the men who were angry at me because I could not give them more food. I told one of the men that "we're all hungry," meaning that everybody who comes to Neighbors Together is hungry and needs a meal. This man said to me that not everybody is hungry, meaning that not everybody has to come to Neighbors Together.

Yesterday I went around the cafe at Neighbors Together with white paper plates asking people to write a letter on a paper plate to Rep. Edolphus Towns so he will know how many people rely on Neighbors Together. We are mailing the paper plates to Towns so he will remember these hungry people when Congress considers cutting back more on Food Stamps and the federal programs that keep our soup kitchen open. I read the paper plates yesterday. I am angry because the poor have to go begging for their lives while there is always plenty of money to make war. There is always plenty of money to make people poor, sick, and hungry. Maybe we should just get rid of money all together.

Yesterday I could feel how hard the times are, and I could feel the times hardening me. God, do not let them harden my heart.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Fraternity and Minority

We are continuing our study of the Capuchin charisms with Brother Jack, whose ideas I relate below.

After the Second Vatican Council, which reformed and renewed the identity and practices of Roman Catholic Church, the religious orders of the Catholic Church were summoned to reclaim the particular gifts that characterized their founding spirit and apply them to life in the 20th century. Religious sisters and brothers were called to be faithful to the founders of their communities, and to bring their founders' vision and values into the present by reading the "signs of the times."

For the Capuchins, their charisms or gifts number five: fraternity, minority, contemplation, ministry, and justice-peace-ecology. Brother Jack says there is an order of priority here. Using the metaphor of a wagon, he says fraternity is the vehicle driving the Capuchins' way of life; minority and contemplation are the front wheels that steer the vehicle and give direction to ministry and efforts for justice, peace, and care of creation.

Fraternity is the most important value for Franciscan women and men. Francis of Assisi believed that his vision for Church and society was confirmed by the God of Jesus Christ who "gave him brothers," companions on the way. For Francis and his new community, the brothers were the charism itself.

What comes to mind when you think of fraternity? The postulants named the following: togetherness; being one family; kindness, affection, dependability; acceptance; peace and happiness; like-mindedness in Christ; mutual support and guidance; and strength for witness to the reign of God.

What do Capuchins mean by fraternity? It is all of the above, and more. Very simply, it is relationship with those persons God has specially given to you to live with. For the Capuchins, Christ is at the heart of fraternity. God is everywhere and in all things, and God has made a covenant to be there in love for all persons who gather in God's name. One has only to believe this truly to receive the strength to love other people and all of creation in a way that brings life, goodness, peace, and joy.

The Capuchin Constitutions (chapter 6, no. 98) state: "[l]et us live in the midst of the world as a gospel leaven so that people, seeing our fraternal life centered in the spirit of the beatitudes, may realize that the Kingdom of God has already begun in their midst." Brother Jack says fraternity also has a penitential dimension. The Capuchins' form of Gospel brotherhood trains the friars to look first of all to the gifts in each other, not the sins. Living in gratitude for these gifts is a practice of ongoing conversion that enables the brothers to go about God's work with humility.

Minority is our relationship with the poor. It is our desire to live among the poor and the voiceless in relationships marked by integrity and equality. Poverty, which itself is a state of life and not a "charism" or gift -- ask the poor if their poverty is a gift -- is a condition Capuchin Franciscans assume, the better to enter into loving relationships that are other-centered, peaceful, vulnerable, and just.

Francis of Assisi rejected his merchant father's dream to enter the class of "maiores" or nobility and took a path of downward mobility to become one with the "minores," the lowest class of Italian society. Brother Jack says the name of our order, Capuchin Friars Minor, reflects our commitment, not merely to solidarity with the underclass, but also a relationship of authentic minority with all people, as a minor.

Friars do not seek poverty for its own sake. Poverty, especially involuntary poverty, is evil. The gift, the charism, lies in a chosen identity -- servant of society's "lepers" -- and a commitment to relationships with all people despite their social class.

Some Franciscan orders may construe the connection between poverty and minority differently. For some people minority and poverty may in fact be synonymous. The Capuchins are careful to distinguish the two, for the reasons Brother Jack has described. Poverty is a condition. Minority is a relationship, and the relationship is the gift.

I could see an equivalence between minority and what the beatitudes call being "poor in spirit" or "spiritually poor." Some might substitute the term "simplicity" for such a notion of poverty. Minority, simplicity, or spiritual poverty may or may not obtain within the condition of one's own material poverty. Even the poor do violence to one another. And I could be persuaded to believe that genuine minority can manifest without personal poverty (e.g., Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero, Franklin D. Roosevelt).

What made Francis revolutionary was that he humanized poverty, and he restored to the "minores" their personhood. And he admonished his brothers to do the same. One question for every generation of Christian disciples is, Can a wealthy person do this and still remain wealthy?

We will continue our study of the charisms tomorrow with contemplation. We will return to ministry and justice-peace-ecology later in the year, after we have had a few months to live into these charisms we have named and recognized in ourselves.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Time to Rebuild

Last week was the unofficial beginning to the postulants' apostolates, or outward-looking ministries to the Church and society. Today, with a week uninterrupted by travels and visits, we will settle properly into our work of rebuilding our world. Without arrogance, and also without a craven humility, we seek to repair a Church whose only rightful claim is the love of the God of Jesus Christ and whose only mission is to serve a new creation where the mercy, peace, and justice of God reign.

The readings we heard at Mass, particularly the Hebrew Bible texts, taken from the beginning of the book of Ezra and from Psalm 126, were most fitting for this moment in the postulancy. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Ezra and Nehemiah and the people of Judah returned to the place they could make their home, the place where they could dwell in the house of their God. Eight hundred years ago, Francis was thrust out of his former way of belonging in the world and brought back into relation with his homeland in a new way, one fit for dwelling, joyfully alive, in the presence of his God. Called forth from our places of exile; called forth, out of empire's encroaching grasp; called forth from the anonymity of alienation to the harmony of community, we come into our world and to our Church with a new walk, to build up the kind of place where we may dwell in community and walk this earth in peace. We come prepared to build up what cannot be torn down. We come to give rise, not to Babylon or Rome or Washington, but the New Jerusalem.

Blessings to all the brothers in formation who go about their work with the will of Ezra, Nehemiah, and the people of Judah; the mind of Jesus and the disciples he sent forth; and the heart of Francis and all the friends he called his lesser brothers and poor ladies.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Home, Graces, Vows

The postulants and I returned a few hours ago to Brooklyn and St. Michael Friary from the retreat center of Good Shepherd Parish in Manhattan, where we met candidates for the Capuchin religious life. We also celebrated the profession of perpetual vows by three of the brothers, on Saturday at Sacred Heart Parish in Yonkers. It was a full weekend, and for the last five hours I have been gradually emptying myself of the good things that filled my soul. Those soul-gifts are being slowly unwrapped. Now my spirit vessel is ready to be filled again in the week to come. And I hope to share fully with others the gifts I have received.

On many a previous discernment weekend, I would finish feeling tired. It's a lot of work socializing with so many candidates, friars, and their friends and colleagues. But that was when I was on the outside looking in, considering the life and seeking to integrate, seeking to belong. Now, I am on the inside looking out. My role this weekend was different, as I was helping candidates to feel welcome. Somehow, doing that did not drain me. This time, I returned with a surplus of energy. Seriously: I jogged five miles on the house treadmill to work it off.


Our provincial vicar, Fr. Michael Marigliano, is a gifted speaker: part teacher, part preacher. Over four hours of presentations he told a vivid story of the Capuchin Franciscan vowed life. It is the story of a mad band of brothers who, like Jesus and Francis, challenge the peoples of the world to face the awesome forces of power, money, and sex in life-giving, loving ways that reveal the reign of God. You came away from his lectures knowing in your heart what a beautiful and dramatic and exceptional thing it is to live the vowed life in common with a community of fellow religious. I will leave you with only a few tidbits from his talks:

1. "All Christians are professedly religious by virtue of the sacrament of baptism." All who are baptized into the body of Christ make a vow to reject the works of evil and to live according to the Gospel that Jesus proclaimed and enacted in his person. The Capuchin vows to obedience, poverty, and celibacy provide a "unique witness" to the reign of God that all Christians promise to serve by their word and example.

2. The traditional vows of religious life "can not and do not replace or supersede the common vowed life of all Christians." All Christians, by virtue of the baptismal vow, affirm that God is present and active in the world. It is every Christian's responsibility to attest to this good news, or Gospel. The vows of religious life "assist this gospel responsibility by drawing dramatic attention to the dynamics of power, sex, and money as these serve to shape the life of the world."

3. Capuchins' vow to "live in obedience, without property, and in chastity" is for the sole purpose of following the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The religious vows serve the baptismal vow.

4. The Franciscan movement constituted a radical response to the forces of power, sex, and money that were driving 13th century Europe into social and spiritual ruin. The rise of a money-based, mercantile economy; the emergence of violent city-states; the concentration of wealth in the Church, nobility, and empire; and the abandonment of the vast numbers of poor, sick, and landless peasantry speak to the depth of disease. Into this world Francis was born and lived a life of conversion. The renewal he effected "gives a specific spirit and orientation to the three traditional vows of religious life." As Brother Michael put it,

In a time of greed and acquisition -- brothers and sisters of simplicity
A time of endless war and violence -- brothers and sisters of peace
A time of self-aggrandizement -- brothers and sisters of humility

5. The Capuchin vowed life must be purposed for living the Gospel life in the 21st Century. The religious vows reflect the values of fraternity, minority, conversion, reconciliation, and service. These values must be harnessed to transform a world throttled by religious and ethnic violence; global economic inequalities and the abominations of poverty; planetary ecological crisis; and never-ending war and militarism.

And, for now, some final words from Brother Michael about the three vows :

1. Poverty (Money): "Both communally and individually as friars minor, we endeavor to bring the ambiguity of wealth and money into clear view, as a witness to the universal human challenge to act justly in our manner of sharing the resources of creation."

2. Obedience (Power): "At the core of this vow ... lies the challenge of deep listening -- this is the meaning of the term obedere. Our obedience is not akin to that of military organizations, corporate structures, nor even parental authority....As friars minor, we are committed to challenging any and all exercise of power that bullies, coerces, threatens, and destroys."

3. Chastity (Sex): "By our celibate way of life, we witness to the truth that our sexuality is a larger force for good than the gift of genital sex, that the erotic does not exhaust the meaning and power of love, and that the ability to be generative extends to the full range of our affective life."

Thank you, Brother Michael, for giving the candidates and postulants and friars so many good things to ponder. Now the postulants and I are looking forward to a week of lessons on the charisms of the Capuchin life from Fr. Jack Rathschmidt.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Discernment Weekend

Beginning this afternoon and continuing through Sunday afternoon, I will be attending the candidate discernment weekend with my fellow postulants and a number of friars. We will be staying in Inwood, upper Manhattan, at the friary of Good Shepherd Parish, which the Capuchins have been operating for the last few years.

We expect, at this time, 14 men to attend who are exploring whether the Franciscan way of life is the way they are meant to live the way of Jesus. And there are still other young men who are interested in the Capuchins but who will not be able to join us for the weekend. The vocation director for the province, who also lives here in the postulant house, does excellent work, both in recruitment of individuals and in the organization of well-crafted weekend encounters with the Capuchins. He deserves great credit for what he does; many religious orders nowadays do not have a vocation director and devote little to no resources toward inviting women and men into the adventure of consecrated life.

Our presenter this weekend is the provincial vicar (sort of like vice president of the province). His theme is threefold: "Living the Rule of St. Francis, the Capuchin Constitutions and Our Vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience." These are appropriate topics this weekend, because during our gathering we will make an excursion to Sacred Heart Parish in Yonkers to witness the perpetual profession of three brothers, Tim Aller, Victor Garcia, and Richard Mattox. Tomorrow morning, in the presence of their fellow brothers and their family and friends, they will be making a permanent commitment to religious life and the mission of our province of the Capuchin order. These friars have already been living the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience for at least three years, but they have been temporary vows, renewed annually. Now they are ready to take the final step of perpetual vows, meaning they will now be Capuchin friars for life.

What better way to show the candidates what it means to live the rule of Francis according to the constitutions of the Capuchin fraternity than to meet real, live friars in the flesh; to get to know brothers who are in various stages of formation; and most of all, to behold the ritual "becoming" of three brothers? It promises to be a very good weekend, full of celebration, even mirth.

I have attended these discernment weekends over two discrete periods, from 2000 to 2002 and again from 2010 to the present. Although I am a postulant and not a candidate, my participation is mandatory, but I gladly go because now I get to share with those inquiring into this way of life what my experience of it so far has been like. Moreover, I have always approached these weekends in the spirit of retreat, although these gatherings tend to be more dense with activities than retreats would be. There are, in spite of the busyness of our schedule, plenty of opportunities for prayer and silent meditation. As our vocation director would put it, these are good occasions to "come apart and rest awhile" with the God of love and in the fraternal affection of one another.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Our Lady of Sorrows

Christians, particularly those of us of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, are known for our intimate, even mystical, relationship to our mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers in the faith, the witnesses to the way of Jesus who have gone before us. In revering them we make their journey with and to God our own, and in praising their goodness we honor the divinity to which their humanity had attained and to which we in aspire in loving, humble service.

In seeking a spiritual connection to our predecessors, we hope somehow to draw nearer to the benevolent power that transformed their lives into generous gifts of life marked by love, peace, and justice. The cult of saints across the Christian traditions is a healthy reflection and development of the naturally religious instinct to bless (and seek the blessing of) our ancestors for these purposes. Of all the saints, however, one person stands out for special recognition, and that is Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In this month alone, the postulants and friars have already observed three celebrations for Mary. First was her nativity, or birth, on Sept. 8. Next was her "holy name," that is, her title as Blessed Virgin Mary, on Sept. 12. As people invoke the honorific titles and nicknames of heroic figures who inspire them to their own pursuit of greatness, so Catholics revere and invoke the many names of Mary because her unique relationship to Jesus gives disciples comfort and support. Today, Sept. 15, we again recall Mary, this time in her relationship to us as Our Lady of Sorrows. In this observance we remember Mary as one who has seen her most precious gifts and hopes, in the person of Jesus, rejected and abandoned by the world.

I will confess that I do not participate easily in Marian devotions as a "good Catholic" does. The iconoclast in me is always on the lookout for signs of idolatry. But I am less concerned about misplaced worship in Mary than misapplied worship of God. On some days I can't help but feel that the telos, or goal, of Mariological prayer, which is to experience a birth to life centered actively in God, is nullified. As I see it, there is a tendency in Marian devotion toward suspicion of our paradoxical powerfulness in Christ. Where this tendency goes unchecked, it leads to a negation of our God-given freedom. Instead of rendering our faculties of mind and heart, the reason and the will, to God for purification, enlightenment, and perfection in Christ-centered living, we surrender them completely to an authoritarian Lord, through the regents of Jesus and Mary, for their burial. Instead of a mature dependence on God, one that is childlike in gratitude but also self-possessed for the serious responsibilities of holy, prophetic living, our prayers foster infantile submission to a severe sovereign, a submission whose spirit never rises above the childish and equates holiness practically with invalidism.

So I need to find a way into Marian prayer by which I can live. I suppose practice is the first thing I need to do, and I can trust my Capuchin brothers to stretch me. This morning, for instance, as we recited morning prayer on the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, my mind turned to the women I know, mothers and sisters, who nurture and teach children and young people, both their own and everybody's children, the daughters and sons they know and love as their neighbors -- love truly as themselves. I prayed that God would bless them and protect them and encourage them through every challenge and hold them joyfully in every joy and tenderly in every grief. For all the sufferings of women that go unnoticed, unmourned, unrelieved, I asked Mary to watch and pray for them and for the Spirit of God that once and now eternally overshadows her to graciously encloud them. Most of all, I prayed that Mary and all the saints would sorrow with our sorrow and also make us sorrow with their sorrow.

For there are a great many things for which the saints weep that we do not recognize as cause for mourning. If Mary walked the earth today, she would sorrow for a people divided and bent on their own destruction.

She would sorrow for the traumatized truth tellers whose pleas and warnings go unheeded. She would sorrow for the murdered, disappeared, raped, and tortured.

She would sorrow for the immigrant and the refugee, fleeing everywhere from Egypt but finding no Canaan anywhere.

She would sorrow for the millions of children lost too young: the starved, the mutilated, the kidnapped and conscripted, the sexually abused, the indoctrinated, and the abandoned.

She would sorrow for the millions of women and men sent on a forced march to Calvary: the enslaved, the uprooted, the impoverished, the imprisoned.

She would sorrow for the extinction of whole peoples, whole races, whole societies, whole cultures, whole religions. She would sorrow for the suicide of the human species and the homicide of the earth. She would sorrow for the death of hope, the death of meaning, the death of change, the death of redemption, the death of dreams.

She would sorrow for a world that is turning toward the death of Life itself.

She would sorrow for the forgetting, the amnesia, the revision of history.

Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Once a Monastery

While visiting Capuchin Youth & Family Ministries in Garrison, N.Y., yesterday, the postulants made a tour of what used to be a house of formation for the priests and lay brothers.

Through the late 19th century and early 20th century, many religious orders settled along the Hudson River, outside New York City, where distance from nativist and anti-Catholic resentment made it easier to purchase property. The Capuchins acquired Glenclyffe, the former estate of Hamilton Fish, who was governor of New York and also U.S. Secretary of State under President Ulysses S. Grant. On these grounds were built a minor seminary, which was a high school that prepared boys who were considering priesthood or religious life for the rigors of theological education. Also, a group of Third Order Franciscans -- men and women who promised to live according to the way of St. Francis without formally entering religious life -- built a villa on the grounds. Finally, there was the house of formation itself. It was known as the Monastery of Mary Immaculate, and it was built in 1932 for the purpose of theological instruction. The brothers would study, work, and reside there for four years until they completed their oral examination in theology.

The monastery had the capacity to shelter about 120 persons. At its peak, the monastery housed about 80 friars in formation. As vocations to religious life declined, the province had no alternative but to close the monastery in the 1970s and move its post-novitiate formation into more economical quarters. At present the post novices, who number about 10 to 12 in any given year, live in Boston in the neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, and they attend classes in theology and philosophy at Boston College, Emmanuel College, and St. John's Seminary.

With the upkeep of the property becoming increasingly cost-prohibitive, the province decided finally to sell the monastery building at the beginning of the last decade. Its occupant is now the Garrison Institute, an educational center dedicated to the "non-sectarian exploration of contemplative practice within a social context." You can see a few pictures of the building and grounds, as they look today, right here.

The chaplain at Capuchin Youth & Family Ministries took us through the Gothic-style complex. His memory was excellent, and since the Garrison Institute made significant renovations only to the bathrooms and former chapel, he could point out exactly the purpose of every room and space in the building. It was easy to picture ourselves with him and his fellow confreres at the refectory, taking meals in silence while some sacred text was being read. We could see ourselves working with the lay brothers in the kitchen or laundry room. We could imagine lounging with the priests in their recreation room. We could envision the fairly strict separation between the lay brothers and the priest-brothers, who resided in different quarters, attended separate classes, and even prayed apart at chapel, with the priest-brothers on the ground level and the lay brothers in the loft.

A quick word about the chapel. What happens to a place of worship when its founders leave? Well, in this instance, it still remains a sacred space -- only the rituals have changed. Truthfully, I can think of no better second life for this chapel than to become a meditation hall. Though I must admit, I experienced some cognitive dissonance as the chaplain described where the altar and sanctuary used to be. From the place where a baldachino, or canopy, arched over an altar of Christ, now a great Buddha sits composurely. Gone, too, are many of the choir seats; and the panel scenes for the Stations of the Cross (a traditional chapel devotion popularized by the Franciscans), embedded in recesses of the stone walls, have been cemented over. Vestiges of the chapel's origins are seen in the stained glass windows.

One of the postulants and I were daydreaming about what it would be like to live for several years in a cloistered space like Mary Immaculate, with everything we needed all in one place, and all our activities (work, study, prayer, recreation) in the same environs. We could definitely place ourselves where our elder brothers were 50, 60, and 70 years ago, but we were glad all the same that the friars do things differently today. First and foremost, we would never think of ourselves as monastics, though friars share a common spiritual heritage with monks; and we would never build a house to operate like a monastery. We would never segregate the priest-brothers and lay brothers in a clerical pecking order or take meals in silence. The Capuchins have always had a contemplative bent, but our charism is to outward-looking fraternity. We do not dwell apart from the world in serenity and contentment. It is fitting that Capuchins strive to live contemplatively even in the cities, and that the majority of formation now takes place in an urban context.

Much more could be said about what it means to be a friar and not a monk, and I will say more in posts to come.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Youth Ministries

The majority of ministries the Capuchin Franciscans do are based at the organizational level of the congregation, or parish. The remainder involve other institutions where the presence of a chaplain is desired, such as a hospital, hospice, nursing home, shelter, or house of correction. At the request of a bishop or executive director, the province sends brothers and priests to serve at churches and non-profits. The responsibility of supporting the brother's ministry belongs to the congregation or organization that seeks his services.

On the other hand, a group of religious may also found, operate, govern, and sustain a ministry of its own. Thus did religious orders of brothers and sisters establish and maintain hospitals, colleges and universities, and numerous charitable agencies throughout the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Today, the Capuchins of New York and New England operate one ministry at the provincial level. Capuchin Youth and Family Ministries was founded in the middle 1970s to evangelize adolescents through parish group retreats, and to build teen and youth leadership through training programs. The retreat facilities are in Garrison, N.Y., on a 30-acre campus overlooking the Hudson River. It is the spiritual descendant of a high school the friars used to operate there as a minor seminary, which fed many young men into priestly and religious formation upon their graduation. Every year, thousands of youths from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut head to Garrison for the retreats and training programs held two or three times a week all the year round. What they receive in faith formation and leadership development, they hand on to their families, their parishes, and their schools. Thus the call to Francis of Assisi to rebuild the Church is passed on to his innumerable spiritual children.

The postulants travelled to Garrison today to learn practical retreat skills from the brothers, staff, and volunteers. We stayed for lunch, Mass, and dinner. Two friars, a priest and a brother, work as chaplain and assistant director, respectively. The executive director is a lay person. There are eight young adult volunteers working at the retreat center this year with the friars and staff. The chaplain is a great and gentle guy; the assistant director is a strong and steady presence. The executive director is an excellent group leader. And the volunteers are just about the most high-octane bunch of young adults I've ever met!

It is remarkable what the volunteers, staff, and friars accomplish every year in lives touched and spirits kindled through the youth retreats and outreach programs. Rather than recapitulate what you can find very easily on the Capuchins' website, I will direct you there, with a recommendation to view their vision statement, history, and virtual tour

Often I have been skeptical of the value of youth ministry, because my own religious and spiritual awakening occurred at the end of my adolescence and more in spite of the spare religious education I received growing up than because of it. Because I have experienced my faith as fundamentally an "adult" thing, it has been my bias to assume that children and young people don't really have true faith. But my visit to Capuchin Youth and Family Ministries has lessened the rigidity of my view. It is vanity to boast that one's faith is authentic because it was untimely born, and it is uncharitable to wish upon others a wilderness of alienation in their formative years in the lazy hope that God may touch them, too, in their dryness. While I am convinced that powerful religious experiences take place ultimately according to God's initiative alone, human cooperation is also required, which means that we can and must create an environment in which it is possible for people to have an encounter with God. It sobers me to think that we as a human race are increasingly building a world where it is impossible to experience the holy. In that light, I am newly grateful for the work that youth and young adult ministers do everywhere -- Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist, everyone from all faiths.

As for the Franciscans with whom I now walk, I would say that Capuchin Youth and Family Ministries is the jewel in the Capuchin crown, except the friars take vows of poverty and wouldn't wear a crown! Say instead that this ministry is like a golden seam in the brothers' humble habit.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Neighbors Together

Come next week, I will be spending four afternoons every week at Neighbors Together, the community soup kitchen and anti-poverty organization serving Ocean Hill, Brownsville, and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn.

This afternoon I stopped by for a preliminary meeting. I interviewed with Nathalie, who manages both the Community Cafe, which provides hot meals in the afternoon and early evening, and the Empowerment Program, which provides health and legal clinics, counseling, and social services, among other things. She sought to know my interests and goals, my strengths and areas for growth, and my idea of what makes for an effective organization. She also wanted to know what I needed from Neighbors Together to have an excellent working experience there.

You may know I have volunteered at a homeless shelter and worshipped with spiritual communities of the homeless and very poor at outdoor churches. And I have been a community organizer at three faith-based organizations. Given my gifts, talents, and acquired skills, I think Neighbors Together, more than the other sites of ministry available to the Capuchin postulants, is the right challenge and the greatest opportunity for me.

Happily, it will be possible for me to assist Neighbors Together, not only in the Community Cafe (as all previous Capuchin postulants have done), but also in the Empowerment Program and the Community Action Program, which organizes campaigns to stop systemic hunger, poverty, and homelessness. Neighbors Together performs both works of charity and justice, all of which are part of the works of mercy. As an aspiring friar and former community organizer, I would like to be involved in both the pastoral work of feeding the poor and the prophetic work of ending poverty.

It is also important to me to get to know the community in which I live, beyond the walls of the Catholic Church I serve. I want to be a brother and neighbor to all. Working with the staff and serving the people who are members of Neighbors Together seems like a very good way for me to achieve this in the short time I have to live in Brooklyn.

Fortunately, the staff share my confidence that I can be of use to the organization in more ways than usual! Denny, the executive director, has already provided some initial suggestions of what I could do; I am pleased with the opportunities. And, as I wrote earlier, the postulant co-directors affirmed my selection of Neighbors Together as well as the way I came to the decision.

The staff are preparing an orientation to commence on Monday, Sept. 19, when I can assume my weekly schedule with regularity. At that time we will work out the details of my activities and be introduced formally to members, staff, and volunteers. Had I chosen to work at the parochial school, parish, or nursing home, I would probably have started doing things immediately. I can appreciate the need for the staff to prepare for my arrival. Organizers of small non-profit organizations have dense schedules, they are constantly in meetings, and they have precious little time to train and supervise any but a few interns at one time. They make a to-do list of twenty items on Monday morning, and they are lucky if they have finished ten of them by Friday afternoon. I am very grateful they are going out of their way to prepare for my integration into their operations.

You can be sure of dispatches from the soup kitchen and the occasional theological reflection on the practices of ministry I will ply there.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sept. 11 and the Second Death

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Francis of Assisi, The Canticle of the Creatures (1225)


I could have died on Sept. 11, 2001.

From January 2000, I worked in Soho, Manhattan, as a copy editor for Risk Waters Group, a publisher of industry newsletters and magazines whose niche was financial information technology.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Risk Waters was sponsoring a trade conference at Windows on the World, the restaurant located on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. There were 16 employees from Risk Waters in attendance, among them the conference planners, advertising managers, and editors and reporters. David Rivers, the editorial director, was my boss. He was there.

I could have been a reporter, and I should have been a reporter, but I was not. David hired me in the hope that I would become more than a copy editor, but it quickly became clear that I had no desire to do anything else but correct mistakes and improve badly written articles. Although I was a competent copy editor, I showed no enterprise or initiative beyond basic proofreading, editing, and layout. The truth was I had no interest at all in financial information technology. I did not feel like talking to, much less mingling with, the leaders of financial companies or the vendors who supplied them market data and trading technology. Sensing this, David left me alone to proof copy and lay out pages, an arrangement mutually agreeable to the both of us. I never had to leave the office for anything.

I was not a reporter. That is the only reason I was not with David and the 16 men and women of Risk Waters at the World Trade Center that beautiful blue morning. That is the reason why I had leisure, as usual, to attend morning prayer and Mass from 8 to 9 a.m. with the Franciscan friars at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi on 31st Street in midtown Manhattan. I was leaving church and riding the subway heading for Soho when the planes hit the towers. When I arrived at the office around 9:20 a.m., everybody was looking out the large window of the conference room. From where we stood, we could see, two miles to the south and southwest, the twin towers of the World Trade Center burning like colossal smokestacks. My parents made frantic phone calls to the office, urging me to get out of Manhattan immediately. After no more than 20 minutes, I was heading for the subway and riding back to Midtown. Again I was underground, this time when the towers collapsed.


It would be hours before I could get out of Manhattan and back home safely to Babylon, N.Y. When I arrived at Penn Station, I found out that all railroad service had been suspended. Like thousands of people, I was stranded and left to wander in the vicinity of the train station until it was deemed safe for the railroads to ferry passengers out of the city. Strangely enough, I was calm, very calm. (It was not until I got home and watched the endless replays of horror on the television that I became deathly frightened.)

Not knowing what to do, I did the only thing I could think of, and I returned to the Church of St. Francis of Assisi and went to confession in the lower chapel where I had attended Mass earlier. Then I prayed for some time. From one of the church offices I called my parents to let them know I was stranded. Then I wandered up and down the bright, warm sidewalks, listening to car radios sounding the worst news I ever heard -- war on the United States -- and darting in and out of cafes, pubs, and delis to see the televisions beaming the worst images I ever saw -- attacks on New York and Washington. Gradually I migrated to the other Franciscan church by Penn Station, St. John the Baptist Church, administered by the Capuchin Franciscans. I entered the Padre Pio Prayer Garden, dedicated to the visionary Capuchin priest and confessor of Pietrelcina, Italy, who was declared a saint in 2002. And the calm I felt settled into a certainty and determination beyond feelings or emotions. I realized that I was no longer going to live the way I was living. And the changes were going to come very soon.

Within seven weeks I quit my job. My family was furious. I didn't care. For nearly a year I had been considering whether or not to apply to one of the religious orders, to become a priest or a brother. In recent weeks I was getting near the turning point. On Sept. 11, 2001, my life was turned. And I began moving in a new direction, away from Manhattan, away from Babylon, to Baltimore, then Boston, and now to Brooklyn.


After Sept. 11, there were two fears. The first fear was the horror of death, the great many deaths, and the dread that mass death could still come at any hour. (In those first days after the attacks, anything seemed possible.) I escaped death, and I was out of danger, but I was more afraid than ever that I was going to be next. How human, how human. As those fears subsided, a composure, like the calm I felt in the Capuchin church garden, took over. With this composure came a quiet feeling of wonder that the first fear could not touch. But there was also a second fear, less like horror and more like anxiety, a subliminal sense that something was not right and could possibly never be made right. I worried that if I had died on Sept. 11, then I would have also died into the agony of hell, the second death. Although I had by that point become a conscious Christian, I was not yet living the life, in Christ, that God was giving to me, that God was longing for me to receive. This new life, I did not know it, did not understand it, did not have any clue how to recognize it. I was still living merely my own life at best, and I was living nobody's life at worst.

I have tried here to show you what happened to me on Sept. 11, when I came to the crossroads of history and eternity. You have now been given an insight into my passion for religious life.


Since the fall of 2001, I have reflected on my Sept. 11 encounter only twice before in writing. The first time was in the fall of 2006, while I was a student at Boston University School of Theology, when I wrote a theological statement on eschatology, or final things. The second time was two years ago, when I wrote a short poem that you can read on my other blog.

I am posting the theological statement on eschatology here because I have been thinking about the second death in the shadow of the absent towers and in the light of the life that, once upon a time, I never knew -- this new life I am striving to know.


One of the advantages of growing up in a secular environment was never having been subjected to fear of the traditional punishments of hell from threatening religious types. Thus I do not believe in hell as a place of everlasting torment for the wicked. That is too trivial a view of hell. However, I can conceive of hell as “something” much worse. From the age of ten, eleven, or twelve, I became aware of the possibility—no, certainty—of death, and once I could imagine the actuality of my own non-existence, of falling away into eternal unconsciousness, of “becoming” permanent non-being, I became afraid. Yes, I became terrified, absolutely horrified. Now and then this awareness, deeper than feeling, returns to me, and I am helpless with anxiety. I know there “is” a hell, and I discovered it when I was still a child.

I discovered hell before I discovered God. Maybe discovering hell was the first step on a graced journey with God into God. Hell, for me, is the total and irreversible absence of being; from this I now conclude that hell is the “condition” of absolute separation from God, who is the ground of being, the source of being itself. Since I have earlier stated that God is “deepest relationality” and “ultimate being-in-relationship,” hell as absolute separation from God also means total absence of relationship to any person and any created thing. Hell is the eternal “end” of all relationship that ever was and the end to all relationship that ever will be.

Thankfully, God has broken into my world and awakened my spirit. With my acceptance of Christian faith, especially the mystery of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I have concluded that we need not be destined for an unspeakable end that is wholly the abnegation of being. I believe that Jesus’ victory over death in the resurrection shows that while death is an end, it is not the ultimate end. Corruption and utter non-being do not necessarily follow death. In fact, it is quite the opposite: death may now lead into perfection and the fulfillment of being. In Jesus Christ’s death, I believe God, Being Itself, experienced non-being, and somehow in this encounter we have been saved from that destiny so that we may now be renewed in being. I hold the hope that all will be saved from total and eternal annihilation of being, and the eternal loss that “is” hell will be no one’s fate. Together we are called to embrace and live into the wonderful being-in-relationship God offers us.

As a follower of Jesus the resurrected Christ, the first fruit of the new creation, I see myself as already living in the end of time, living beyond linear time. Like Karl Rahner and John Polkinghorne, I propose that although we may die at different times in this world, yet we will all arrive together in the new world on the last day, the day of the final resurrection. But I go a step further. Even in this world, I believe God is already pulling me gradually out of chronos into kairos, sometimes gently, sometimes brutally. Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, was an apocalyptic moment for me, and I believe that on this day God pulled me brutally but lovingly further out of chronos into kairos. You see, I was working for a financial publishing firm that was holding a conference breakfast in the World Trade Center that morning. I did not attend that breakfast, because I held a desk job in our offices a couple of miles away from the World Trade Center and did not need to be present. If I had held a slightly different editorial position in my company, I would have been in that restaurant at the top of the North Tower, above where the airplane hit. Mercifully, I would have asphyxiated from all the smoke before the tower collapsed.

Repeatedly I have had occasion to think: if I had died that day in the World Trade Center, would I have fulfilled my life’s meaning and purpose? Would I have been doing what I was most meant to be doing with my gifts? Would I have fulfilled my calling into a sacred way of life, of being-in-relationship? I believe the answer to all these questions would be no. The thought of hell returns to me when I think of Sept. 11. I fear I would have died into nothingness if I died that day.

In a way impossible for me to justify to you, I believe the hand of God stayed me from double death that day by “revealing” to me that it was time to live into the fullness of relationship to which I was called. Since Sept. 11, I have striven to live now according to the end(s) toward which we are coming. Although I had professed my discipleship in Christ before that day, since that day I have been returning with intentionality to the Word, the incorruptible source of our being.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Good Books

Friars in formation begin academic studies at accredited institutions of higher education in the post-novitiate phase, the third year. The Capuchins of the New York and New England province send their brothers to Boston College, Emmanuel College, and St. John's Seminary for theology, philosophy, and other disciplines. However, the friars in formation begin their instruction in Catholic faith and practice from Day One of postulancy.

We meet in seminar style in the library of St. Michael Friary's basement most mornings, and the postulant director or a guest lecturer will lead the class. Most often we will meet with friars from our province or other provinces who have specialized in one area of expertise or another. For instance, the sister from the Franciscan Sisters of Peace returned this week to speak about Franciscan prayer and St. Clare of Assisi, the first Franciscan woman. In one week, one of our own brothers, Fr. Jack Rathschmidt, whose ministries focus on preaching, religious education, and retreat work, will meet us to discuss the charisms, or gifts, of the vocation to Capuchin religious life. Yesterday the postulant director helped us view the liturgy of the Eucharist through the lens of ritual and walked us through the parts of the Mass. We will be travelling to Wisconsin and the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph at the end of October to meet with Fr. Edward Foley for a week of instruction on theology of the Eucharist.

In preparation for that week of instruction, we have been given to read Father Foley's major work on this sacrament, central to the Catholic faith: From Age to Age: How Christians Have Celebrated the Eucharist. Having parted with most of my books on liturgy and worship a few years ago, I am very happy to have this volume in my possession. It is primarily a work of history and practice, but it also incorporates elements of theology as well. It is well illustrated and replete with illuminating sidenotes. I have finished the first forty pages, and it is a refreshing, lively read. It will be a little joy to curl up to this book in my spare moments over the next few weeks.

Another text we have been assigned comes from another Capuchin, Fr. David Couturier. The book, The Four Conversions, proposes that metanoia, the turning toward God, involves more than an individual's change of mind and heart. Conversion has relational consequences; thus, it has interpersonal, ecclesial, and structural dimensions. The personal changes wrought by a turn toward God effect social change, and they have an impact on Christian community. Brother David has explored the links between theology, psychology, and organizational dynamics for years. He will meet with the postulants to discuss his work on the spirituality of transformation next month.

A third book we are reading I have mentioned before on the blog. It is Donald Spoto's biography of Francis of Assisi, Reluctant Saint. I will be cozying up to this book through the weekend.

How blessed the postulants are to have so many good books at our fingertips. How blessed we are to have brothers and sisters who are willing and able to mentor us. We, who have as yet really given nothing and received everything. We, who know nothing and lack good sense but have been greeted as though we had all wisdom and understanding. We, who came to renounce privilege but find ourselves standing in a fountain of favors overflowing. Indeed, has there been any change in my habit of living? When does the gifted become the gift?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Conferences, Policies, Decisions

Every three weeks each of the postulants has a meeting, formally called a formation conference, with the postulant co-directors. During this meeting we have a conversation about the postulancy experience. Each postulant gets to speak about how they are doing physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. These are not occasions to evaluate the progress of the postulant or render criticism of his behavior, attitudes, etc. These are easygoing meetings whose purpose is to maintain clear communication between the postulant and the directors. The postulants should always feel free to seek out the directors as they find they need, and they do. Having the formation conferences ensures that the brother postulants and formation directors are at least looking together toward the same object.

Later this afternoon the postulants will gather with the postulant director to review the policies and procedures of the Province of St. Mary. Among the highlights we will discuss from the policy sourcebook:

Automobiles and driving privileges. How, you may ask, can friars have cars when they take vows of poverty? The answer is that all cars are owned, registered, and insured by the province; vehicles are maintained for ministerial and fraternal purposes only; and no purchase of a car can be made without permission from the provincial minister. The provincial minister can limit, suspend, or revoke a friar's driving privileges depending on the friar's physical condition or record of accidents, violations, and offenses.

Health care. The Rule of St. Francis and Capuchin Constitutions dictate that the brothers are to take care of each other when they are sick, ill, or diseased. One of the agreements the postulants sign is a contract stipulating their rights to medical care, the responsibilities of the Province concerning payments and other obligations, and waivers of liability. The policy handbook details how the province ensures comprehensive health care for all its brothers. It outlines the individual responsibilities of the friar for self-care; the communal responsibilities of the province, its brothers and staff; and addresses special situations like mental health, catastrophic illness, and extraordinary means and procedures for prolonging life, as well as advanced medical directives. There is a special section devoted to directives for the treatment of friars with HIV/AIDS.

Sexual misconduct. In 2003, the province revised its policies concerning response to allegations of sexual abuse of minors brought against friars. This was done to reflect and incorporate the norms approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas in December 2002 in the wake of the scandal of its sexually abusive priests. The province's policies mirror the Dallas Charter by providing for the removal of accused friars from public ministry; requiring the reporting of allegations of sexual abuse to civil authorities; and establishing a review board, with lay members and a lay chair, to ensure the safety of minors, assess the allegations it receives, make a final determination of abuse, and recommend removal from public ministry. The policies provide for pastoral care of the victims and their loved ones, as well as legal, canonical, psychological, and spiritual counsel for the accused friar. I look forward to a vigorous discussion of these policies, their meaning and application, and their strengths and weaknesses, with the brothers.


I am all but certain of the ministry I would like to do. The postulant co-directors have affirmed my choice and the way I arrived at it. Tomorrow the postulants will discuss and confirm their ministry selections with the director, and we will begin our assignments next week.

In the next few days each postulant will make contact with his spiritual director. The directors recommended a religious sister to me at our formation conference, and I will call her tomorrow or over the weekend. After our initial meeting, provided we feel comfortable with each other, we will make arrangements for monthly meetings for spiritual direction.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Reluctant Saint

It is critical, I think, to try to shed light on the humanity of Francis, who had little interest in becoming (much less being called) a saint. In fact, his life bears witness to the fact that holiness is not by necessity a denial of one's humanity, or something added on to it. Holiness may in fact be the deepest achievement of what is authentically human. Here we are close to the Christian mystery of the Incarnation.

Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi

It is possible to speak and act on behalf of God and still be separated from God. Therein lies tragedy. St. Paul gets at this when he writes to the Corinthian church, "And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing." Note what Paul says and what he does not say. He does not say that he does nothing if he does not have love. He says he is nothing if he does not have love. Without love, we have no being, because God, the ground of our being, is love.

It is not enough to offer the words and works of a prophet. God desires persons, not their deeds alone. We are not merely passive messengers or empty channels through which the will of God is communicated. The creature matters. The person is sacred.

Prophets seek to change the world in God's name. Saints seek, with God's help, to be changed themselves.

This week we are reflecting on the Franciscan path and the ideals of Franciscan prayer that lead to a Gospel way of life. Francis was a saint and a prophet, but he was a saint first because his life was consumed by God, and his vision was to become a person more and more deeply in union with God. He achieved this being-with-God, as much in spite of what he did as because of it. Donald Spoto writes, "Francis remains something of a wonderful embarrassment to the Church and the world. His life and example--and not, let it be stressed, anything specific he said or wrote--had an integrity that challenges our presumptions about what constitutes a good life, not to say a respectable approach to religion."

Over against the pursuit of superhuman feats of detachment, purportedly for Christ, that actually negate one's personhood, the Franciscan path to holiness has to do with finding God through an affirmative turn toward the inherent goodness of our created being. "Earlier concepts [of saintliness or holiness] have with time become too rarefied, linked to an almost absurd idea of perfection and a denial of humanity." [The letter of Paul to the Colossians cautions against this, too.] "Francis, in contrast, seems to me one of the most obviously human and necessary among saints. He was also one of the most reluctant to undertake a spiritual journey."

Many people will go to great lengths to do heroic and glorious things. Indeed, they may achieve the good, the just, and the righteous, and the world will be blessed for their struggle. But they remain the same or, worse, end up by becoming less than the sum of their deeds. Thus today's messiahs become tomorrow's false prophets. Fewer are the persons who are willing to go to the ends of the earth, and beyond its living bounds, to do no more than catch up with themselves. But these are the saints, and are they not themselves the words and works of Christ proclaimed by the prophets?

Monday, September 5, 2011

What Do You Wish?

Dear brothers, what do you wish?

Brother Timothy, we ask to walk with you and the brothers of this community, in order to discern with you whether it is our vocation to follow the Lord Jesus Christ in the Franciscan Family. Teach us how to pray and undergo true conversion; show us how to live in fraternity with patience and joy.

In the words of Jesus, I say to you: "Come and see." We are happy to receive you into this house of formation for the period of postulancy. May you be able to discern clearly your vocation and experience our life of fraternity and minority in the service of the Church.

I now invite you to pray together the prayer our seraphic Father Francis prayed before the Holy Crucifix:

Most High,
glorious God,
enlighten the darkness
of my heart
and give me
true faith,
certain hope,
and perfect charity,
sense and knowledge,
that I may carry out
your holy and true command.


With this dialogue, the brothers and postulants made a covenant. Following this exchange, each of the postulants signed a contract that binds us, for the next year, to the program of initial formation in the Capuchin Province of St. Mary. As a symbol of the status conferred upon us, each postulant received a book of early documents of the life of St. Francis of Assisi.


The following is a reading given at the prayer service this afternoon. It comes from The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, the second of two biographies of St. Francis written by Brother Thomas of Celano.

With his heart already changed--soon his body was also to be changed--Francis was walking one day by the church of San Damiano, which was abandoned by everyone and almost in ruins. Led by the Spirit he went in to pray and knelt down devoutly before the crucifix. He was shaken by unusual experiences and discovered that he was different from when he had entered. As soon as he had this feeling, there occurred something unheard of in previous ages: with the lips of the painting, the image of Christ crucified spoke to him. "Francis," it said, calling him by name, "go rebuild My house; as you see, it is all being destroyed." Francis was more than a little stunned, trembling, and stuttering like a man out of his senses. He prepared himself to obey and pulled himself together to carry out the command. He felt this mysterious change in himself, but he could not describe it. So it is better for us to remain silent about it too. From that time on, compassion for the Crucified was impressed into his holy soul. And we honestly believe the wounds of the sacred Passion were impressed deep in his heart, though not yet on his flesh.


This has been a good day. It is right for me to be here with the brothers. This journey is going to take me places, to the high places, and to the holy Place beyond all places. But all the while on this Labor Day I have been longing to be with my sisters and brothers in Boston, proclaiming woe and weal like the Jewish and Christian prophets, marching like the saints.

One of the Capuchin friars, who plays guitar, brought an Industrial Workers of the World songbook to our barbecue. The two of us sang "Union Maid" and "No Nos Moveran (We Shall Not Be Moved)." Another friar asked me about the T-shirt I was wearing, which came from SEIU Local 615. These were little joys for me, clean and cheerful, and true and necessary.

And yet....

What I have gained in fraternity does not substitute for the solidarity I have felt with immigrants and workers on the streets. When once you've spoken in God's name and taken direct action to cast down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly, you can't stop.

Unless God stops you. And I do believe the Paraclete is pressing down upon my brow to pause me.

Today I am the one cast down from my throne of self-righteousness. My scepter of self-reliance has been snapped in two. My cloak of false humility has been stripped. And I am being lifted up, not as a leader of ministers zealous for justice; not as a journeyman organizer of a nonviolent revolution; not as the first-born, first-ranked, or first among equals; but as the youngest of a family of brothers, even the runt of the litter. As the postulant director told us at the prayer service today, we will do marvelous things for God and the Church one day. And the brothers are perfectly confident that their faith in God's work through us will be proved abundantly. Today, however, is a time for setting foundations. It is a time for beginnings, small in scope, modest in reach. Before we show the world how it must live, we must learn how to live.

And though I am ending my 34th year of life with yet another starting over, I submit to it in a spirit of faith, hope, and charity. I am learning again how to live, in Christ, and this time for all time. It is what I have wished.

Dear brother, what do you wish? One of these years, friends, God willing, I shall be marching as a little brother of Francis and telling the principalities and powers of the world where they can get off. Those days will come again. I can feel it in the deepest parts of my soul. There will be grand things ahead and great feats, maybe even sublime ones. But not now. The labors of the day lie in the doing of many little things. Take the stones at your feet, pick them up, and put them into place. And when you have done that, bring more stones here. If you cannot find your own stones, beg the stones from others. And keep building, until your many stones can form an arch to heaven.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Bridge, A Dream

When I have free time, that almost always means time to cultivate solitude. Today I am reclining at home and reading Hard Times by Charles Dickens. Yesterday I rode the J train to Chambers Street in Manhattan and walked back to Brooklyn over the Brooklyn Bridge. Resting in the northern end of Cadman Plaza Park, in a scruffy little patch rounded by ring of trees, I prayed a rosary under the watchful gaze of William Jay Gaynor, mayor of New York at this time a century ago.

While meditating on the infancy narratives of Jesus, given to us in the Gospel of Luke, I prayed about my new "infancy" in religious life. I have been reborn into a dream, my dream. This dreamer announced his dream a long time ago. Many people have since offered salutations and blessings as the dreamer has awakened to the reality he conceived. Now the dream has left the womb and is alive in the world; it is being welcomed and tended with constant care. In a matter of time, it will be presented to the world and consecrated for the world we dream will come. As the dream matures, the dreamer hopes it will be found in the high places, in temples and in places where all that is holy is honored; but also in the sanctuary of every dreaming soul.

But today the dream is young and fragile. And this dreamer does not always know what he is saying or understand what he is doing.

Riding the rattling train with screaming babies and scheming panhandlers, I felt like I was a nobody and everybody else was a nobody. Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge with the crowds and arriving in the park with no one at my side, I felt like I had broken away from everyone. I had left the past for dead; I was present to none but myself, and only to my dependence and uselessness; to the future I was unalive.

Does the life I left behind live on in the dream? Who am I, the dreamer or the dream? Am I both? Are they two or one reality? Has the dreamer been consumed by the dream?

In the midst of these melancholic wanderings, the spirit of prayer warmed me through, and I felt the anchorage of conviction secure my straining soul. And all the souls I had condemned as nobodies were watching me. We are waiting for you. You must find us. The ones who found you and sent you here are counting on it.

A bridge is always a bridge between worlds. It does not separate worlds; it joins them. The bridge is like the dream.

This must be my faith: that the life I have lived gives rise to the dream I live today. This must be my life: to carry that life to the other side of the bridge. This must be my prayer: that the dream I live raises the life that I have lived and loved.