Monday, October 31, 2011

Soup Kitchen

Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul.
Dorothy Day

Still backtracking to Saturday in Detroit, let me show you, in words, the Capuchin Soup Kitchen.

It began in November 1929, one month after the stock market crashed, when Fr. Solanus Casey and other friars began to serve coffee and bread to the hungry who came to the door of St. Bonaventure Monastery. There was no great design for an emergency food program; the brothers simply began to share their bounty with the poor. The only ambition was to extend Christian hospitality to the needy. It is the Franciscan tradition to nourish the soul and spirit as well as feed the body.

In order to welcome more people with dignity and respect, in time the friars and Secular Franciscans established a kitchen where the hungry could get soup and bread. Now, the Capuchins serve 2,000 hot meals every day from their two kitchens located within several blocks of each other across town. On these sites men and women can take showers as needed, receive clothing, meet with advocates for case management services, and pursue GED training. At a warehouse called the Capuchin Services Center, families in emergency can receive supplemental food packages once a month. Every day the staff and their volunteers assemble and distribute 70-pound packages of meat, grains, dairy, and vegetables to 200 families. Beyond this, families in crisis can receive clothing and, for households in transition, even furniture and kitchen appliances.

This is only the beginning of what the Capuchin Soup Kitchen does. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are wider and deeper than immediate charity.

Jefferson House is the site of an extended residential treatment program for men recovering from addictions. It was established in the 1970s as the friars sought ways to lift people permanently out of the conditions that cause crippling involuntary poverty.

Over the years, the greater number of meals served has gone to children. The Rosa Parks Art Studio and Children's Library are the outgrowth of efforts to nurture these children in safe spaces and supportive environments. Staff and volunteers tutor these young persons and lead art therapy sessions for them, while also offering field trips, summer camp, and gardening lessons to learn how to make peace in their neighborhood.

In a city where there are no jobs and little opportunity for meaningful work, the Capuchins have founded and subsidized On the Rise Bakery, where men leaving incarceration and quitting drugs can learn a trade, gain entrepreneurial skills, and stabilize their lives. The bake shop is indeed sweetness and light.

One day ten years ago a friar was making a shopping list of groceries, and some children asked him to which gasoline station he was headed to buy the food. Appalled by the lack of any real and genuine connection between poor people and the earth that supplied their daily bread, he founded a community garden on site from which food could be harvested directly for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. Out of that first garden has emerged the Earthworks Urban Farm. Certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (no herbicides or pesticides), the farm consists of an acre and several smaller plots given by local landholders to Earthworks volunteers to use, provided the harvest goes to neighborhood residents and for consumption in the soup kitchen dining rooms. Quietly and subtly, the urban farm is reforming the city and remodelling how people live together -- with each other, and with the earth. It's a bit like the occupation movement, really, with the urban farm taking an acre here, a plot there, taking down fences, walls, and other secure barriers, reclaiming (and consecrating) a common space in the name of communitarian virtues. Food is the common denominator, but more fundamental than the food itself is love.

The gravity pull of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen is irresistible. Everybody supports it with their finest gifts, no matter how big or small. Everybody, no matter what their station in Detroit, works together to ensure the continuing operation of all the service sites. For me, the main reason for this is that the Franciscan ethos of feeding body and soul has remained intact and compelling. Secondly, the kitchen is doing what the city, state, and federal government have failed to do, which is to keep covenant with the people. It weaves a strong social web; it seals a social compact in blood, sweat, and tears. The major economic and financial institutions of Detroit support the kitchen; yes, the powers and principalities of our time bow before this humble Capuchin institution. (It makes me wonder what the Capuchins, with their good relationship with big business, can do to push the envelope with them, to goad them to subordinate their power to the power of the people and let justice, not only charity, roll down like waters.) The kitchen is pervaded by a positive spirit; and its unanimous regard, not only by the people of Detroit but also from admirers beyond the city limits, is a call to our conscience to do more.

Eighty-two years after the Great Depression descended, and nearly four years into the Great Recession, the spirit of mercy alive in Venerable Solanus Casey is alive at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Milwaukee via Detroit

I am falling asleep at my computer as I type these words from St. Conrad Friary in Milwaukee, where I will spend the night and day, make further acquaintance with the postulants here in the Province of St. Joseph, learn about Christian ritual, and try local custard before journeying 12 miles north to Mt. Calvary near Fond du Lac for most of the remainder of the week.

We made great time getting here from Detroit. We left the Motor City at 9:20 a.m., crossed into Indiana early in the afternoon, and then over into the Central Time Zone soon after. We stopped for lunch at an Irish pub in the suburbs of Chicago after 1 p.m. local time. Heading north along Lake Michigan, we made it to Milwaukee by mid-afternoon, and though it was blustery and more than misty by then, we took some time to stroll down a curving pier.

If I can get Internet access in the house where I am staying in Mt. Calvary, I will finish backtracking on Saturday in Detroit. The Capuchin Soup Kitchen is worth writing home about, and it is worth your charitable donation.

A word in passing about Detroit. This is a place that measures progress by boasting of a record low in home arsons. This is a place with nowhere to go and no one to take you there. (Just ask locals about the bus system.) Detroit is a tough town. The people who have remained to rebuild it are tougher, and yet they have the most tender of hearts. Nature is reclaiming the city, block by block, and grace is perfecting what nature and the better angels of human nature are beginning. It is better, perhaps, if we don't spoil the secret work God is about here, through the agency of human hands, with sentimental speechifying. But permit me enough pride to tell you that the Capuchins have always been doing great things here, in good times and bad. If, as we hope and pray, our saintly Capuchin brother Solanus Casey (d. 1957) becomes the first U.S.-born Catholic male to be canonized, it will be primarily for his years of ministry in Detroit.


It has taken me over ten years to understand all the fuss about Solanus Casey.

Why did so many people, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and others, come to him, "The Holy Priest," for counsel and prayers of healing? How come his prayers for the many were answered so miraculously? Why did 20,000 people attend his funeral? Why did the Capuchins build a shrine for him? Why, of all the saintly people born in the United States since the Catholic faith was planted here, is he the most likely to become the first male to be canonized?

I have found my answers here in Detroit.

Bernard Francis Casey was born in 1870 in Wisconsin and died in 1957 in Detroit. Taking the religious name Solanus, he was a Capuchin friar for 60 years and a priest for the last 53 years of his life.

Barney knew how unremarkable he was. He was the sixth of sixteen children in an Irish immigrant pioneer family. His education was limited, and he went to work early in his life. Nothing he did seemed to fit him. In his encounters with the large and little traumas of mundane life, this logger, prison guard, and streetcar motorman became convinced he was supposed to become a priest.

After a couple of false starts at becoming a diocesan priest, Barney heard the still small voice of God telling him to enter religious life with the Capuchins and try there to attain to the priesthood. Barney literally knocked on the door of St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit on Christmas Eve in 1897, and the door was opened for him.

But even there not all would turn out as Barney, now Solanus, had hoped. Studying in Milwaukee, he could not master German, the language of the immigrant people he and the Capuchins shepherded. For this reason and others concerning his academic performance, he was ordained priest but denied the faculties of preaching sermons and hearing confessions. The consequence of this was that he was relegated to minor tasks around the parish like answering the door, greeting visitors, and keeping the sacristy in order. Though he could say Mass, he held little more status than an altar server.

Father Solanus was undeterred. His was the faith of a mustard seed. He trusted in small beginnings, confident that God could make big things grow out of them. He once said that the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are one, like God the Father-Son-Spirit is the great Three-in-One. And for him faith, like the Creator God, was the first among these.

After serving parishes in Harlem and Yonkers, Father Solanus returned to the Midwest. He was the porter at St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit for over 20 years. He was meant to open the door to Christ. He opened that door for everybody. He talked to everybody, and everybody could talk to the kindly and unassuming porter.

Everybody has someone like that for them -- the one person who can speak a divine word of healing to you, who can listen to you with such powerful compassion that you are opened up to holy restoration. But that someone usually reserves that divine touch for only one other person, or a few at most. Father Solanus spoke God's word of love and healing to everybody he met. He was always giving freely to everybody.

He kept nearly nothing for himself. He owned precious few possessions, among them his habit, his prayer books, a violin, and a harmonica. He owned none of the items given for his use in his cell of the friary--the bed, lamp, night-table, or typewriter.

As more and more people pressed their requests for prayers and petitions upon him, his superiors asked Father Solanus to keep a journal of his encounters. These diaries run into several volumes.

Father Solanus turned the seeming disadvantage of being a simplex priest into a great advantage. Relieved of the major duties that priests with full faculties exercised, he was freed to attend to the people of God in little but meaningful ways. He always had the right words, the kind words, the healing gesture. He had a simple faith and a total dependence on God for everything, and his confidence in God's pervasive providence made an impression on you. In his presence, you felt how given the presence of God was for him. He did not take God's presence for granted; rather, he took it as granted.

His last words were, "I give my soul to Jesus Christ." Who can say this without stuttering or swallowing hard on their own words? Who can say this and not sound either insincere or sanctimonious? But Father Solanus could because he had already made his rendering before he said it.

That in the 20th century, an age of doubt unto despair, a person could render himself so completely to God so that he could receive as a given the reality of God -- that is the key to Solanus Casey's sainthood. That is what all the fuss is about.

He was known in life to play his fiddle in front of the statues of the saints in the sanctuary. Now he makes music with Francis and all of God's creatures eternally. You have to lean forward, in faith, to hear it.

The music of Solanus is "heard" at the level of felt experience at the shrine built in his honor, the Solanus Center. What an inspiring place it is.

The minister general of the global Capuchin movement, Mauro Johri, is reported to have said that the custodians of the shrines to another Capuchin saint, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, could stand to learn from the Solanus Center. Whereas Pio shrines tend to focus on the person of Pio and his miraculous powers, the Solanus Center puts the focus squarely on Christian discipleship and practices of charity. Father Solanus was often fond of telling visitors to "thank God ahead of time" for the graces and favors they would receive and encouraged a "go and do likewise" attitude in everyone who sought his help.

Some Catholic shrines pummel the senses into submission as you behold the glory of God, the majesty of Christ, the heroism of the saint, and your own insignificance. At the Solanus Center, you get a feeling of ease and calm. At the courtyard gate you are welcomed, not by warrior-like angels and saints of the Church militant, but by Brother Sun and Sister Moon and a peace garden of sculptures, from artists of different faiths, illustrating the Canticle of Creatures, composed by Francis of Assisi and beloved of Father Solanus. As you enter the center itself, you are met by modern-day apostles of non-violence who personify the Beatitudes: Dorothy Day, Catherine deHueck Doherty, Jean Donovan, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Archbishop Oscar Romero.

I wanted to fall to my knees, and I did so at Solanus' tomb, which was papered over with prayer requests. The tomb, originally part of the monastery cemetery, has been moved twice, first into the monastery friars' chapel, and then into the center when it was dedicated in 2002. In his lifetime, the Capuchins reassigned Father Solanus more than once to reduce the crush of people who flocked to see him (they followed him, anyway). In death, they have had to move him again, this time to bring the people he loved closer to him.

And no wonder. Solanus Casey's Christianity is attractive. It is a Christianity in which you can breathe -- in which God is near and loving. You are reassured that, although you, too, may be small and unremarkable in speech and manner; although you may not be blessed of exceptional intelligence or other gifts; yet you, too, could live by faith and hand on that faith to thousands of people who in their own way could do good and simple things. God grants us the greatness, so long as we ask only to be the person God makes us to be.

Now you know what all the fuss over Solanus Casey is about. Let us discover the secret of his faith together.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


Following a morning touring the ministries of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and an afternoon browsing the center dedicated to the cause of our saintly Capuchin brother, Venerable Solanus Casey, I am still absorbing what I have taken in. Soon, I hope I can wring out a few drops of inspiration for you, good reader.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Stage One

Greetings from Detroit! We have completed the first stage of our travels, arriving at St. Bonaventure Monastery around quarter after nine this evening. Along the way from Brooklyn we did the following on our 15-hour trip:

We recited and sang morning prayer as the golden rays of the sun bronzed the orange New Jersey foliage.

We rested at progressively bigger and cleaner service areas to fuel the van and our bodies.

We played Twenty Questions, Two Truths and a Lie, and Would You Rather...?

We paused in Clearfield, Pa., at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, where we attended Mass with several classes from the parochial school.

We talked. We slept. We took turns driving. (That is, all but myself and our youngest postulant, who does not have a license. My time is going to come, somewhere in Wisconsin and on the way back over the long and monotonous stretches of I-80. Prayers, please.)

We toured St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Cleveland and visited the Capuchin candidate who is studying there before applying to join the order in the New York/New England province. We also had dinner early at a New York-style diner, which just goes to show that you can always find a way to feel at home abroad.

For me and the postulant director, we listened to my CD of Creedence Clearwater Revival; and, for my younger, hipper brother postulants, whatever dance, club, and pop music was on the radio.

We recited and sang evening prayer facing into the Ohio sunset, with beautiful bands of baby blue and pink striping the skies between the clouds.

We laughed, sometimes quite a lot.

Tomorrow it is on to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and the Solanus Center. Sunday after Mass we begin Stage Two, the trip to Milwaukee. Now, to bed. I bid you peace and leave you with the hope of more updates to come.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Prayers on the Way

At six o'clock Friday morning the postulants will be off to Wisconsin.

The first destination on the way, after finding a Catholic parish where we can celebrate Eucharist, will be outside Cleveland, where we will meet up with a young Capuchin candidate who is studying at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. Depending on traffic and time off-road for rest and meal breaks, we hope to arrive in Detroit and St. Bonaventure Monastery after nightfall. We will remain in Detroit until Sunday after Mass, and then we will continue to Milwaukee, and from there to Mt. Calvary, Wis., where we will stay for most of next week.

Ordinarily I would take an evening such as this to fashion another anecdote out of the odds and ends of the day. Just today I learned something new, subtle, and significant about praying the Liturgy of the Hours. I have yet to sufficiently describe to you the Capuchin sense of humor and its importance in our fraternal culture. And there are several colorful Capuchin customs I have been meaning to share with you, such as our nightly reading of the necrology.

But these will wait for another time. I'd like to be fully rested for the journey that begins tomorrow. Therefore we will call it an early night tonight.


I leave you with a few traditional prayers for travelers:

(via Catholic Online)

O Almighty and merciful God, who hast commissioned Thy angels to guide and protect us, command them to be our assiduous companions from our setting out until our return; to clothe us with their invisible protection; to keep from us all danger of collision, of fire, of explosion, of fall and bruises, and finally, having preserved us from all evil, and especially from sin, to guide us to our heavenly home. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

My holy Angel Guardian, ask the Lord to bless the journey which I undertake, that it may profit the health of my soul and body; that I may reach its end, and that, returning safe and sound, I may find my family in good health. Do thou guard, guide and preserve us. Amen.

Catholics have a blessing for everything. Here is a blessing for automobiles:

V. Our help is in the name of the Lord.
R. Who has made heaven and earth.
V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Lend a willing ear, Lord God, to our prayers, and bless this vehicle with Your holy right hand. Direct Your holy angels to accompany it, that they may free those who ride in it from all dangers, and always guard them. And just as by Your deacon Philip You gave faith and grace to the man of Ethiopia as he sat in his chariot reading the Sacred Word, so, point out to Your servants the way of salvation. Grant that, aided by Your grace, and with their hearts set on good works, they may, after all the joys and sorrows of this journey through life, merit to receive eternal joys, through Christ our Lord.

R. Amen.

Here is a contemporary Catholic blessing from a blogger in San Jose:

Loving and gracious God, you always show mercy to those who love you,
and you are never far away from those who seek you.
Remain with your servants as they travel far from home,
and guide their way by the light of your Word.
Shelter them with your protection by day, give them the light of your grace by night,
and as their companion on their journey, bring them to their destination in safety.
May they see your face in everyone they meet,
and know the depth of your love on every road they walk.
At the end of their journey, may they return to us once again
with renewed faith and hearts full of joy.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Finally, prayers for a safe journey from the Jewish, Orthodox Christian, and Muslim traditions:

(via Beliefnet)

Jewish: May it be Your will, Lord my God, to lead me on the way of peace and guide and direct my steps in peace, so that You will bring me happily to my destination, safe and sound. Save me from danger on the way. Give me good grace, kindness and favor in both Your eyes and in the eyes of all whom I may meet. Hear this my prayer, for you are a God who hears to the heart's supplication and communion. Blessed are You, Lord our God, who hears prayer.

Orthodox Christian: Be mindful, O Lord, of those who travel by land, by sea, and by air; of the old and young, the sick, the suffering, the sorrowing, the afflicted, the captives, the needy and the poor; and upon them all send forth Thy mercies, for Thou art the Giver of all good things.

Muslim: In the name of Allah! I have placed faith in Allah and I have put full trust in Allah. It is as Allah wills! There is no strength and no power save with Allah. O Allah! Protect me and protect what is with me, and deliver me to my destination. By Allah I commence my journey; by Allah I seek to accomplish the purpose of my journey; and by Muhammad (s.a.w.) I have set out. O Allah, make me overcome all; and make easy for me all difficulties; and give me more of goodness than I hope for; and keep away all evil of which I am apprehensive for my health, O the most Merciful.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem

What will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine,
or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?....

No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly
through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor principalities,
nor present things, nor future things,
nor powers, nor height, nor depth,
nor any other creature will be able to separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:35, 37-39

Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you,
how many times I yearned to gather your children together
as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,
but you were unwilling!
Behold, your house will be abandoned.

Luke 13:34-35a

The brothers reflected on the daily readings at Eucharist in the chapel this morning. My heart was drawn to Jesus' lament over Jerusalem, soon to be destroyed by the gnarled hands of empire. He grieves that the power of faith should yield to the power of sheer might.

The words "Jerusalem, Jerusalem" echo across the centuries and resonate in my ears as "New York, New York," or "Washington, Washington," and, most commonly, as "America, America." And why should I not hear Jesus' words thus? The European Christian settlers who came to the Western Hemisphere to found a godly commonwealth; who sought in the New World a New Jerusalem, a city on a hill whose light shined for all; who consciously styled themselves as a New Israel on a New Exodus, would tragically recapitulate the history of the ancient Israelites, whose confederacy devolved into kingdom and then satellite of worldly powers. Their spiritual descendants presided over the downward evolution as the American republic degenerated into a pseudo-Christian empire whose totality Egypt and Rome could scarcely conceive. I am reminded of the refrain from Langston Hughes' poem,

America never was America to me.

What do you do when Jerusalem becomes Rome? You abandon it. If you cannot gather its citizens and rededicate them to making Jerusalem the place they were meant to live in, then you abandon it.

Jesus may have foreseen that there was no saving Jerusalem, but in obedience to God, he was committed to trying, even to the point of dying. The Pharisees warn Jesus of Herod and his murderous intentions. Maybe they sought to threaten Jesus and so wrapped themselves in the bloody mantle of Herod. Or perhaps some of the Pharisees believed in Jesus and, loving him, tried to do the right thing by cautioning him. Either way, Jesus defiantly disregards all calls to fear for himself. Indeed, he flips fear on its head. He tells the Pharisees to report to Herod of all that he promises to do in Jerusalem and on the way. Addressing Herod as "that fox," we are left no doubt about what Jesus thinks of that servant of Caesar.

Like Jesus, Paul scoffs at the notion that any earthly or even cosmic force could thwart the will of our loving God. As he piles defeated power after defeated power in his litany, from death and life to heavenly and earthly creatures to principalities and celestial movements, it becomes almost ridiculous even to suggest that anything can surpass the power of God's love.

So how come we let all of these lesser powers hold sway all of the time? We have made peace with the lesser powers because although we suffer by them, we are afraid to live without them. And we let this fear surpass our fear of life without God. Paul notes the obstacles to God's love: anguish, distress, persecution, peril, and the sword. He names the adversaries, the principalities and powers. He does not say they are presently unable to separate us from the love of Christ. Clearly they can, and clearly they do, from Paul's day down to ours. These obstacles and adversaries are, respectively, the subjective and objective manifestation of separation from God. But Paul says he is convinced that these obstacles and adversaries no longer will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.

This is unreservedly good news. But the disturbing subtext of Paul's affirmation is Jesus' negation: what is not joined to the love of God is abandoned. That means that quite possibly the places and things we have loved with good intentions will have to be let go, if those places and things refuse to be joined to God's love. And if we hold on too tightly to those abandoned things, we too will be abadoned.

It is sometimes hard to say this, especially to my family and friends who love their country and its way of life, but I am willing to abandon New York, Washington, and America itself so that I will always remain in union with the love of God.

But, just as Jesus loved his people and God's holy city of Jerusalem to the end, I will try to love America and its people and its cities so that our land may not be an empire of despair, but a commonwealth of hope. I remember why I entered religious life -- so that I could be gathered into places of peace where charity and justice prevail; where I could learn how to increase the presence of God's mercy and love. I can sense this victory in the work being done at Neighbors Together. I get a glimpse of the economy of grace in the fellowship of the Capuchin fraternities.

Carrying the lessons from today's Scripture to the world as it is today, I think of the people of the occupation movement. I think of their challenge to America, a New Jerusalem turned  into a New Rome. They don't want the power of the corporate state. It is absolutely corrupt. Liberals who want to use the power of the corporate state to reform the political economy are mistaken. The vertical, institutional power of the corporate state must be subordinated to the horizontal, charismatic power of the people.

For a Christian, all power must be subordinated to the love and justice of God, which purifies the exercise of power. Love and justice flow from the communion of persons; these can never be the gift of institutions. The power of the people is anterior to and greater than the power of the institutions people create to serve persons.

The occupation movement has put the economic powers and the government on notice. If the power of the corporate state will not be subordinated and purified, then it must be abandoned. They refuse to let anything separate them from a love of humanity surpassing all other loves -- theirs is, I would submit, a love divine.

"Let America be America again." The fearless confidence of Jesus in the reign of God and of Paul in the Church's witness to God's reign reminds me of the ultimate refrain in the Hughes poem,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Babette's Feast

To prepare for our study of the Eucharist in Wisconsin next week, the postulants were to read Fr. Edward Foley's textbook, From Age to Age. We have done that. Another thing we were to do is watch the film Babette's Feast. Now we have done that, too.

Would that I had discovered this film earlier in my life. Ah, well; now I am certainly of age and wisdom to appreciate it. What I lacked of experiences of faith in film in my younger days I can make up for now with the ability to savor each new encounter of the divine through the arts with grace-enhanced powers of perception.

Loss and gain have much to do with the message of this meditation on life, mortality, and hope. As one of the principal characters notes near the climax of the plot, in this life all things are possible because in God's abundance, we receive everything we have chosen nobly to pursue; and yet we shall also receive everything we have renounced as a return for our desire to attain the infinite. And as the protagonist Babette herself observes in the denouement, an artist is never poor when she is freed to give her very best.

Let me not spoil the plot for those who have not seen the film or read the Isak Dinesen story on which it is based. Suffice it to say that the meal from which the movie takes its name is rich in fare both gustatorial and spiritual. My own prayers and contemplations at the celebration of the Eucharist will be seasoned for some time to come by the benedictions of this picture.

For my friends who have seen Babette's Feast, what say you? How did it speak or sing to you?

Capuchins in Brooklyn

A record is cold. It doesn't tell the real story of sorrows and joys, of grace and repentance.

From the pen of a former pastor of St. Michael Parish, Brooklyn, undated


For this post, I am backtracking to Monday's class, a history lesson on St. Michael Parish. It is the church next door to the friary where I now reside, and for over a century it was in the custody of the Capuchins.

Fr. John Gallagher, a former pastor at St. Michael and also a former provincial minister for the Capuchins in New York and New England, gave us an overview of the founding and described how the friars assumed stewardship of the church. He also shared with us his portion of institutional memory of this particular Catholic community.

Like many U.S. Catholic churches in the mid-19th century, St. Michael was established to serve immigrants who fled Europe to escape from economic and political crises. This church, also like many others, was dedicated as a national church, meaning it would serve immigrants united by a common ethnicity, language, and culture.

From a commemorative book, published in 1985 on the 125th anniversary of the founding of St. Michael:

The melting pot that was New York City boasted numerous ethnic groups, each with its own geographical terrain clearly mapped out for the newcomers. But many of the reticent Germans found the city too crowded and noisy. Some went farther west; others looked to the east of New York City in order to fulfill their dreams of open space and a house of their own.

A simple frame church was dedicated on July 8, 1860, by the first bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, John Loughlin. The challenges of serving a rapidly growing immigrant community exhausted a succession of diocesan priests over the next 40 years.

The second bishop of Brooklyn, Most Rev. Charles McDonnell, petitioned the Capuchins, who maintained Our Lady of Sorrows Parish on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and had many German-speaking friars in their number, to care for the parish. The province sent two friars immediately and voted later that year in the provincial chapter to accept the care of the community on a permanent basis.

Brother John chronicled the changes in the faith community and the parallel changes in the physical plant of the parish. German immigrants gave way to Italian immigrants. Raised by nickels and dimes and patterned after a Veronese basilica, a new, larger church building was dedicated on June 25, 1922. By 1928, English had become the vernacular of the parish. An elementary school, in operation from 1864, was augmented by a two-story building in 1910. Secondary school classes of various kinds met on the second floor over the years until a proper high school building was completed in 1956.

After the Second World War, the neighborhood of East New York took a new shape with the arrival of Puerto Rican immigrants and other Latin American nationals, including Dominicans and Ecuadoreans. African Americans also migrated into the community from the South. The economic decline of inner-city neighborhoods led to rising crime and drug-related violence. The St. Michael community was not unaffected. A Capuchin priest, Pancratius Krieg, was murdered on Feb. 3, 1976, at St. Michael Friary by intruders in the act of robbery. The high school closed and became a consolidated parochial school for St. Michael and the parish of St. Malachy (later the parishes, too, would merge); and the elementary school was converted into a parish center.

Through all the tumult, St. Michael continued to serve the community in ways both prophetic and pastoral.

On the prophetic side, St. Michael was a charter member of East Brooklyn Congregations, an ecumenical and interfaith organization of churches dedicated to grassroots organizing of their faith communities and neighborhoods for economic and social empowerment. At the height of its involvement in EBC, St. Michael could turn out 200 of its parishioners for rallies or mass meetings to demand accountability from elected officials, public servants like the police, and business and economic leaders. The church led the way in campaigns to improve public spaces like Highland Park, protect their communities from violent crime and drug trafficking, and build affordable housing. Through the EBC-initiated Nehemiah Plan, developers built thousands of "no-frills" homes in East New York, Brownsville, Bushwick, and Ocean Hill. The Nehemiah project has become a model nationwide for promoting home ownership and economic and community development.

On the pastoral side, the church was home to a variety of vibrant liturgical, educational, and social ministries. Many gifted leaders discovered their vocation in the parish. From the commemorative book:

St. Michael's has contributed more than its share of vocations. Over the years, the parish has seen more than twenty-five young men ordained to the Capuchin Order, more than half a dozen to the Diocese [of Brooklyn] or other religious orders, and more than fifty young women become sisters.

Some of these religious have returned "home" to serve the people of St. Michael's. From 1958 to 1973, the pastors of St. Michael's--Fr. Godfrey Leuchinger, Fr. Owen Shelley, and Fr. Ernest Reardon--were all former parishioners who had entered the Capuchin Order.

In June 1984, St. Michael's was honored with the celebration of the first Mass of Fr. Michael Marigliano. It was a true homecoming. Father Michael had lived opposite the church on Jerome Street before entering the Capuchin Order and had been active in many parish ministry. Another honor was bestowed on St. Michael's in June of 1984. Fr. Gregory Reisert, who as a boy had lived in the parish and attended its elementary school, was elected Provincial Minister of St. Mary's Province of the Capuchin Order. Fr. Philip Fabiano, then pastor of St. Michael's, was chosen as Vicar-Provincial Minister at the same time.

Also, for one year, 1945-46, St. Michael was blessed by the presence of the Venerable Solanus Casey, whose cause for sainthood is currently being promoted.


Of course, all things must change. Around 2004, the Province of St. Mary had to make the difficult decision to relinquish custody of two churches, one under its care for less than a generation, and the other for longer. So the province let go of a church in Manchester, N.H. St. Michael in Brooklyn was the other. The parish, now St. Michael-St. Malachy, is operated by the Religious Family of the Incarnate Word. There remains a parochial school, now called Salve Regina after the merger of neighboring schools, St. Rita and St. Sylvester, with St. Michael-St. Malachy. The church nowadays focuses much more on the cultivation of personal discipleship through its worship and social ministries, and much less on the kind of prophetic outreach it achieved in its heyday as a beacon and vanguard of the community.

While the Capuchins do mourn the loss of their once-robust presence in Brooklyn, they can certainly be proud of their century of service to the generations of immigrants who came in search of a place of their own, a stable community, and a future illuminated by faith in the Christ who promises to make a place for us with God the Father.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Westward Journey

The postulants have been travelling about New York and New England to get acquainted with the professed friars and the other brothers in formation in the Province of St. Mary.

Now we are going to make our first trip outside of the Northeast to our sister province in the Midwest. It will also be the longest trip of the postulancy year.

On Friday we will be leaving Brooklyn for various destinations in the Province of St. Joseph, which is also the founding province of the Capuchin missions in the United States.

The first phase of the journey will bring us to Detroit via Cleveland. We hope to reach St. Bonaventure Monastery a few hours after nightfall on Friday. We will spend Saturday in Detroit at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, a city institution for decades. In addition to its meal program, it operates a bakery, provides substance abuse services, and runs a chidlren's program. One of its signature ministries is the Earthworks Urban Farm, a landmark in urban agriculture. I hope to blog much more about the Capuchin Soup Kitchen while on site.

Also in Detroit is the Solanus Center, a pilgrimage site to commemorate the life of the Venerable Solanus Casey, a 20th-century Capuchin priest whose cause for sainthood is being championed by the friars. To date no Catholic male born in the United States has ever been declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. If Father Solanus is canonized, he will be the first. We will visit his tomb and pray that his cause will advance with success it richly merits. Of this good and great friar I also hope to blog some more.

On Sunday we will leave Detroit for Milwaukee. We will be spending the week in Wisconsin to learn more about Christian ritual, and particularly the Eucharist, from Fr. Edward Foley and Fr. Bill Cieslak.

After an overnight stay in Pennsylvania on the way back, we will return to Brooklyn on Saturday, Nov. 5.

Pray for a safe, enlightening, and joyful journey for me and the postulants and our formation director. Keep your eye on the blog, too. God, my laptop, and wireless Internet willing, you will see dispatches along the way.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

With My Brother

Had a good afternoon today with Nicholas, my brother by blood. He is seven years younger than me and the last of the three Zuba siblings. (I have a middle sister, Jennifer, who is two years my junior.)

When Jennifer arrived from God in 1979, I became a brother for the first time, and for that alone she will always have a special place in my heart. Before I was a brother to anyone else, I was a brother to her. Thus Jennifer was the first person to teach me how to be a brother.

But when Nicholas arrived from heaven in 1984, God gave me the greatest gift I have ever received, next of course to my own life and my own share in the body of Christ. Because when Nicholas arrived, God gave me a brother of my own.

Nicholas is my best friend, closer to me than any person in this world. Although he is seven years younger than me, he made a quick leap from childhood to maturity, and then we bonded deeply. We are kindred souls, sharing similar aesthetic, political, philosophical, and religious perspectives. From Nicholas I have discovered the gift of righteousness and learned how to do justice and practice mercy. Much that I know about fraternity comes from our relationship. In this relationship lies the germ of my vocation. God has spoken to me through our love for one another. Nicholas is a brother in spirit as well as blood, the brother of all brothers.

Today, Nicholas came to visit from Babylon, NY, where he lives and works. He and I chatted for a while at St. Michael Friary over oranges and popcorn, and then we made a trip to Manhattan and the Wall Street occupation. Along the way we had our usual life-building conversations. Our conversations are everything: story, history lesson, reminiscence, spiritual direction, symposium, stand-up routine, counseling, dinner speech, benediction. We had about four hours together, but they felt like twenty-four.

Since I have grown up from and grown beyond my original family into the family of God, I have befriended many men and women who have been to me like brothers and sisters, some longer and more lastingly than others.

But Jennifer will always be my first sister.

And Nicholas, who is as close to me as the clothes I wear, will always be my first brother. Thanks be to God forever for him.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Songs of the Spirit

I wish I could write a song for the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God.

I know how to write blues for Jesus. I know how to write blues for the disciples. (I've got many of those.) Once I almost wrote a blues for the Holy Spirit. But it's a blues minus the Holy Spirit. It's a song for the lowly who wait for all eternity in the upper room and never see, touch, or taste the tongues of fire.

Amen, I wish I could write a song for the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God. Blues, spirituals, or whatever it may be given my tongue to sing.

One day I will be singing that song, and I won't even realize I am singing the song. But someone will hear it and tell me, "Friend, teach me the song you are singing." And then I will know the song; it will come to me because God's friends will recognize it. And then I will write it.

Until that day comes, I can ask the Holy Spirit to teach me how to sing my life as God sings the Word, Jesus Christ. And I can learn the songs of the Spirit that have come down the generations to lift up the souls of God's folk.

There is poetry in the liturgy of the Eucharist. "Come, Holy Spirit" (Veni Sancte Spiritus) is a jubilant hymn for Pentecost that has endured in Christian worship for twelve centuries. You can hear it here and pray the text below.

Come, Holy Spirit,
send forth the heavenly
radiance of your light.

Come, father of the poor,
come, giver of gifts,
come, light of the heart.

Greatest comforter,
sweet guest of the soul,
sweet consolation.

In labor, rest,
in heat, temperance,
in tears, solace.

O most blessed light,
fill the inmost heart
of your faithful.

Without your divine will,
there is nothing in man,
nothing is harmless.

Wash that which is unclean,
water that which is dry,
heal that which is wounded.

Bend that which is inflexible,
warm that which is chilled,
make right that which is wrong.

Give to your faithful,
who rely on you,
the sevenfold gifts.

Give reward to virtue,
give salvation at our passing on,
give eternal joy.

Amen. Alleluia.

Friday, October 21, 2011


It was a hard afternoon at Neighbors Together. I had an unhappy encounter with a hungry family: a father, pregnant mother, and child. They came at an hour between lunch time and dinner time when we don't serve meals. I told the father he could bring the family back at dinner time. The father wanted me to get the kitchen supervisor, but I would not ask the cook to make an exception for his family. The cook had allowed no second helpings for anybody at lunch and was saving the leftovers as backup for the dinner meal, because sometimes we run out of food. Another volunteer went to ask the cook to serve them, and she did.

While he was feeding his family, the father said several times I was going to hell. I approached him and told him not to say that, and then he denied having said it. When the family finished eating I apologized to the father on the way out, but he was clearly disgusted.

Although I thought I was being fair, I was not being just, and I was not being compassionate. I was following our agency's rules, but I should know well enough by now that you break the rules to fulfill the Gospel.

I did not want to make the exception. Never mind all the exceptions that God has made for one as undeserving as me.

This incident has haunted me all the day since. What was I thinking? Why wasn't I feeling? Why didn't I do the right thing?

‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’

I am ashamed of myself and sick at heart.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


It's still a year and nine months before for my first vow of celibate chastity with the Capuchins. But the reality is that the postulants are already living, by God's grace, the charism of celibacy.

Today for morning instruction we had an introductory lecture on celibacy in consecrated life. It was nothing fancy -- it was not an academic recitation with deep philosophical or theological foundations. It was not a presentation of canons and norms. Juridical and magisterial concerns were set aside for now. For now we began with love, community, and a state of life given specially to some men and women.

From the beginning of the Church there have been men and women who followed Jesus in such a way that they drew followers of their own. They and their own followers formed distinctive communities within the larger institutional Church. These communities were obedient to the apostles and to the bishops and priests who came to inherit the apostles' authority and power, but they were also delightfully free and uniquely compelling in their witness to Jesus Christ and the reign of God he proclaimed. These autonomous but Christ-centered and Church-building communities have existed in every generation, taking on new forms when saintly men and women appeared on the scene. Thus in late antiquity and the dawn of the Middle Ages there were the great monastic communities inspired by Anthony of Egypt, Augustine, Benedict, and Scholastica. In the High Middle Ages the mendicant orders of itinerant preachers appeared under the guidance of Francis of Assisi (and Clare of Assisi) and Dominic. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation witnessed the rise of apostolic and missionary religious societies thanks to luminaries like Ignatius of Loyola and Vincent de Paul. Contemplative mystics like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila renewed and deepened religious life. In our day we have had spiritual geniuses like Thomas Merton and ascetic lay activists like Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day recast the ideals of consecrated life for modern society.

Across the ages, these holy men and women shared in common a life vowed to celibate chastity, poverty, and obedience. To this day, all women and men who enter religious life take at least these three vows. They saw the vows as God's shield behind which they could build a new world fit to receive the coming kingdom of heaven. I see them as a protection against idolatry. They are a means of resisting the lures of wealth, sex, and power -- the three greatest adult temptations! -- and, from a liberation theology point of view, the sins of classism, sexism, and imperialism/militarism/nationalism.

So for consecrated religious, these three vows remain: chastity, poverty, and obedience. But the distinguishing and originating mark of these saints' vocations, and the definitive characteristic of the life within the religious communities they led, is celibacy.

Celibacy is related to but different than chastity. Chastity is about a purified way of living according to one's state of life. In the sexual arena, chastity is about an ethic of loving that meets criteria of morality and ensures human well-being. Chastity is the virtue; celibacy is the state of life. All Christians, whether celibate, married, or single, are called to be chaste by their baptismal vow. Married Christians channel their sexual practices, particularly the genital behaviors, toward a just and fulfilling love of their partner. Single Christians restrain their genital sexual behaviors in order to grow in maturity and prepare for responsible loving. Celibate Christians abstain from all relationships that involve sexual intercourse and genital activity leading to sexual intercourse, for the sake of intimacy with God and neighbor.

Celibates abstain from sex, but not from their sexuality. Sexuality has to do with much more than what we do with our private parts. It has to do with the way we dispose ourselves to the people, situations, and things we find attractive and lovely. Where sexuality is concerned, in the Christian tradition, the love of God and neighbor leads some men and women to dispose themselves in such a way toward the world that it permanently precludes an exclusive commitment to only one other person. This renunciation of a deep, abiding, exclusive love for another individual is what celibacy is all about.

Celibates renounce the intimacy of a romantic relationship, but not intimacy itself. Intimacy grows out of love, but intimacy is not limited to the erotic love of committed couples. There is a love more restless and relentless, as my Capuchin brother David Couturier has written. This love seeks constantly to reach more and more people; it does not rest, cannot rest, with one person. It is, says Brother Dave, an intimacy "on the road." This is where the celibate person dwells.

The celibate's need for validation comes not from the acceptance of one exclusive soul-mate, but from all people -- from Christ through the community of faith. The celibate seeks love without consummation, for the celibate's love never reaches an end. 

The celibate practices an intimacy with risks of its own. It is extensive -- it is broad and wide but never general or vague. Sometimes the celibate can get overextended, giving love without receiving intimacy. The celibate is a sun that shines for all but can easily get burned out. The celibate can get hurt by others who misunderstand them. They mistake the celibate's affection toward them for a more exclusive kind of intimacy and feel betrayed when the celibate does not reciprocate their desires in the way they expect.

All people are called to love widely and generously -- to extensive love. Most people are called also to the special intimacy of intensive love, the love shared by a couple alone. The celibate of consecrated life is called apart from the rest of us to give up the goods of intensive love for the sake of radically extensive love in Christ. This is how my Capuchin brothers and I have chosen to integrate our sexuality into our discipleship. It will be a challenge, not because our state of life is greater or harder than marriage or singleness, but because living the virtue of chastity is the supreme difficulty of our day. To the matters of mature sexuality and healthy human development we will return later in the year.

Gut Check

This week it has come into my awareness that it feels very ordinary to be doing what I am doing right now. The common prayers, the meals taken together, the daily apostolate, our regular instruction, the frequent fraternal excursions, and the occasional free time for solitude, for seeing old friends, for blessed misty contemplation or holy fiery action: It is all so ordinary.

But it is not mediocre. It is substantial.

It is the clothes I wear. It is the air I breathe. It is the skin I am in. This religious life, it feels like my life. I cannot imagine being anywhere but here in this life, in its train of moments. This is the track I am on. There will be no switching tracks now.

Let those who are anxious for greatness look to it themselves. Let God do the great things. Let me confess my weakness and uselessness and strive in lowliness to do a few good things. Having found a way I can be good for life, or at least better than I have been: let this be the only greatness of which I can boast.

This life is not mediocre. It is unique. It is given.

It is for me. It is changing me.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

House Chapter

For two years I lived at Beacon Hill Friends House, an intentional community organized around the values of Quaker religious principles and spiritual practices. It is a large community of usually 20 persons, the greater number of whom are Quakers or spiritual seekers attracted to the traditions of the Religious Society of Friends. It is a pluralistic community, diverse by age, creed, gender, orientation, and race. The house is also a Quaker meeting house, the place of worship for the local community of Friends, and the venue for a variety of educational forums, open to the public, about the Quaker way of life and the Friends' perspectives on society.

Twice a month, every other Sunday evening, the community would gather for a house meeting. We would alternate between meetings for reflection, in which housemates share what is going on in their lives and how they are doing in the life of the intentional community; and meetings for business, in which residents discuss housekeeping matters, from kitchen issues to house chores to building maintenance. We would hear reports from house committees, both standing and ad hoc, on various elements of our common life, from hospitality to budget to recruitment of residents and social concerns. The Quakers are nothing if not scrupulous about process, and this applied to the process of making a household together.

The fraternity of St. Michael Friary is of an order of magnitude smaller than the intentional community of Beacon Hill Friends House, and its norms, policies, and procedures are less finely detailed than that of the Quaker house. But we, too, have a method for regulating the quality of our lives lived in fraternity. At the provincial level of organization, the Capuchin friars have policies to ensure the well being of the community as a whole, and councils and committees to ensure that each household, or fraternity, is healthy. Every month, fraternities hold what we call a house chapter, in which the brothers pray, share how it is with their souls, and review items of concern, from cooking and chores to social gathering and upcoming fraternal events. To borrow Quaker terminology, it is both a meeting for reflection and a meeting for business.

I look forward to our meeting this afternoon as an occasion for focusing anew on the life we build together in Christ according to the example given to us by Francis of Assisi. It is our regular, formal opportunity as a little Franciscan family to examine how well we are living into our conversion on an interpersonal level.

Does your family meet intentionally to scrutinize the quality of its life together? Do you gather both to pray in the glow of your spiritual hearth and shed light on your place in the home, and to address the "maintenance" issues? How do decisions get made in your household? Do your methods conduce to faithful and joy-filled habitation, according to your shared values? Is your house a place where love, mercy, peace, and justice are growing?

Brother Charlie, RIP

Fr. Charles Repole, whose story I shared previously here, died last night at the age of 96 at Queen of Peace Residence in Queens Village, NY. The arrangements for his wake and funeral are pending.

Brother Charlie died peacefully in his sleep. He lived his last day making his usual rounds among the nursing home residents and staff. None of us suspected he was, to borrow an expression of a priest friend of mine, "on the edge of eternity." The brothers in my household noted that he is mercifully reunited with his brother, Celsus, who was also a Capuchin. The aching that Brother Charlie felt for his brother in blood and spirit, a pain this world could not diminish, has now been relieved.

We are all glad we had the opportunity last month to see our brother, whose simple presence impressed upon you the living history of our tradition and the reality of our communion with the saints who, though so far away, are so near to us. There is no doubt the brothers of this province will gather one more time, as they did in September, out of love for a friar whose journey has now taken its ultimate turn from life in this world to life in the world everlasting.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. May his and the souls of all the faithfully departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

Postscript: You can view photos of Brother Charlie in this Facebook album of the New York Correction History Society. He was for many years chaplain at the city jail complex on Rikers Island. As we remember the work Brother Charlie did for all the souls suffering in prison, let us work and pray for the day when there will be no more incarcerations. We must stop bestializing the poor, criminalizing their souls, undermining their families, and confining their neighborhoods. Retribution will yield to the more perfect way of restoration. The love of God will unharden our stony hearts. The power of God will smash our prison walls to pieces.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Agitating, Equilibrating

It has been a sedate but purposeful Sunday afternoon following an evening and morning of agitation Franciscan style.

I have written about my hidden yet public prayer of the previous evening. Mass this morning was next door at St. Michael Parish, where I am a lector. Following worship I buttonholed the associate pastor with a query about his sermon, which concerned Jesus' teaching to repay to Caesar and to God what belongs respectively to each. His thoughts about the Wall Street occupation and the Catholic dissenter's primary duty to God in worship stirred my disputatious side. Our conversation about religion and politics surfaced our disagreements but ended in concord.

The same kind of conversation arose when I spoke to my family this afternoon, with some messier eruptions. But this conversation, too, ended in charity. Religion, money, and power: hot topics, indeed!

The occupation movement is prompting all kinds of action and reaction. A friend of mine in Cambridge, Mass., is contemplating whether to engage in it, given the many ways that open hearts can put their ready hands to work in mindful healing of the world. I admire her thoughtful discernment of a phenomenon bursting with enthusiasms and fraught with ambiguities.

Discovering the occupation movements is like discovering fire. On the one hand I desire to be present with the people for sustained periods in continuous prayer, to keep the fire going. (It is consistent with the Capuchin Franciscan charisms to bear the Pentecost spirit of the risen Christ wherever the poor are gathered.) At the same time I can only take in so much of the scene at one time. Fire is bright, and it can burn. The people of the commune in Zuccotti Park are living at a high intensity, and it is easy to get oversaturated by the light and heat and sound they generate collectively. The Boston occupation is less heavy because it is smaller, but it, too, demands a lot of energy from those drawn into its gravitational pull.

The occupation movements are awesome but also much too intimidating to most Americans to welcome all of the 99 percent they claim to represent. I feel weak and, strange to say, unfit for the out-loud living that is happening at these occupations. My offerings seem so small. Here in New York City, I do not feel like the gifts or wisdoms of people of traditional or institutionally religious faith are being affirmed or actively sought. (Could it really be that the dreams of conventionally religious people are too small, too tired, too unreal, too violent for the people of Zuccotti Park?) But I will defend the occupation movements from those who misunderstand them or misrepresent them or wish harm to the people who gather daily in assembly. "You can blow out a candle, but you can't blow out a fire" (Peter Gabriel, "Biko").

On Tuesday evening a friar and I will be attending a panel discussion at Fordham University titled "Faithful Citizenship: Keeping the Faith in a Season of Spin." Religious faith meeting modern life; the citizens of God's kingdom striving to live faithfully while subjects of Caesar's dominions. This is the kind of conversation I live for. It is the kind of God-talk I hope will nourish me for holy living and brace me and all of my religious brothers for the once and eternal showdown with Caesar in Jerusalem.


Agitating done, now I have been gently equilibrating, making ready to resume my routine of work and prayer. We will have meditation, evening prayer, and dinner as usual. Tonight I will continue assigned reading about the history of the Eucharist, and I will review my reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church on Jesus Christ for this week's lessons.

This afternoon I crossed one long-standing item off my to-do list. The Capuchin development office, which published the quarterly Capuchin Journey magazine, would like an 800-word article from me about the postulancy experience. I proposed to compile excerpts from this public diary, and the staff agreed that would make for a good read. So I put the pieces together this afternoon; the draft has been submitted, and I look forward to getting the piece into its best shape for publication. And, with full admission of my proneness to pride, I also look forward to gaining a wider audience for the blog!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Quiet Day in an Unquiet World

I wonder if Jesus, the disciples, Francis, and the prophets and saints shied away from the crowds. We know they had to get away from the crowds from time to time. Did they ever shy away, or shrink just a little, in their midst?

Today I needed a quiet day, and I took it. Saturday is the day I am most likely to withdraw for a while.

But withdrawal does not mean complete and solitary confinement. Introverts know how to hide in plain sight as well as hide from everyone's sight. For me, to have a quiet day is to go about my business with a minimum of disturbances. Now I mean here to speak positively of disturbances; by them I mean making waves and being carried on waves. Earlier this week I wrote about interruptions, by which we come to life; one could just as easily call them disturbances.

But there are times when I desire nothing more than to come to rest, when life in its disturbances does not fill me with enthusiasm. Then, I need to retreat until I recover my zeal to interrupt and be interrupted.

So what did I do? Some reading, some walking, and a lot of praying. Except for an errand to the post office, I spent most of the daytime at home. All in the effort to do no more than be quiet.

Then late in the afternoon I did something wholly counterintuitive. In fact, I went to the one place where you would least expect a person not to be disturbed to be stubbornly quiet -- Zuccotti Park, the campsite of the Wall Street occupation. For nearly two hours this evening I meditated and prayed while sitting cross-legged under a thin young tree. I prayed the evening prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours; tried a centering prayer around the phrase "Lord, be with your people"; and silently recited the rosary. I stayed put until the crowds gathered too close for comfort.

In that time I remained mostly unseen and totally anonymous. One woman offered me a lollipop. Another person, he offered me a yellow and black button that said "We Shall Overcome." Another zealous fellow wanted to flyer me and tell me how to stop the bailouts. Two people asked me if I was all right and appeared deputized to help me if I was not all right. I said two words, one word, or no word to them and just nodded or gestured or made no acknowledgment at all. All I wanted to do was pray for them and not to be noticed by them. One tourist made his presence felt simply by staring at me through his camera. I looked up and saw him and hid my face from his predatory lens.

When first I arrived and puttered around looking for a meditation spot, a brawny, scruffy giant in overalls blocked my path and would not let me pass until I gave him a hug. I thought to myself, "Time to embrace the leper," and did as he wished, but I did not feel any sweeter for doing so. Still, love is an act of will, not a feeling.

Why did I go to the most unquiet place in the world to protest in dogged silence? Because I have faith that God can consecrate all the elements that the people have offered there in their daily assembly. Because the people themselves are the elements to be consecrated. Because their cry of revolution is at heart really a cry for evolution, and evolution is simply a continuous act of transubstantiation. I have faith that something like an evolution of human consciousness is happening in the occupation movement. Therefore, I came to witness with prayer, in the hope the body of Christ truly appears out of the people; and I came to adore, in the hope the body of Christ will really present itself. I wanted to offer a holy hour before a living tabernacle.

So I had to be there. At my shyest, I still want to be religious before a watching world. Still, because of my poor longing for a quiet day; because on this day my groanings for God are more chaste when I shut up; and because on this day I speak most obediently when I am silent, I had to be there in a hidden way.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Of the Many-Colored Green Mountain State

We are back in Brooklyn after a nearly a full day in Vermont with the Capuchin brothers who have custody of three parishes: St. Peter in Rutland; St. Dominic in Proctor; and St. Alphonsus in Pittsford.

We left New York yesterday before sunrise driving through mist and worried that the gloom would make a wash of our pilgrimage to the foliage. Happily, our worries were not realized. More vivid colors I have not seen from trees. How excellent, to view for the first time the high rolling hills stippled in every lively hue of yellow and orange over their evergreen foundation. How delightful, to see trees wave their pink leafy tissues, and tall stalks shaking their embers of radiant reds. I thought landscapes like these, the golden, molten greens of slow fireworks, existed only in the perception of a Monet. How naive of me -- after all, Monet could see only as God inspired him to see what was already given. Regarding the few truant clouds overhanging the mountains, wreathing them like smoke, I thought to myself that this is what God's work looked like following the third day.

Hurricane Irene caused more unprecedented natural damage in these parts of Vermont than in my part of New York City. On Thursday the weather was mild enough to make possible an excursion up one of the mountain roads, where construction crews have been working continuously to repair and reinforce bridges and paths. We drove and then walked along a creek whose course had been altered by the surge and the debris of earth, rock, and timber brought crashing down with the current. One of the brothers who used to fish for trout in the streams said it will probably take three to five years for trout to return.

A father and son who attended church at the Capuchin parishes were swept away when they ventured out during the storm. The friars presided at their funeral, which drew to St. Peter over 700 people, including the local dignitaries.

Our hosts served us generously, graciously, and readily. With the majority of our brothers serving in the Greater New York area, Rutland is an outpost seldom seen by them. Maintaining communion with the wider fraternity of the province is challenge for any brother serving here or elsewhere in upper New England. The two friars currently serving these three parishes were most glad to have our company, as you can imagine! We were quick to show our appreciation for them, with several refrains.

It was our joy to visit the churches where our brothers minister and admire the strong and simple architecture of these country parishes. We also passed by a church house in Killington where Catholic vigil Masses are held on Saturday afternoon and a United Church of Christ congregation worships on Sunday! What is Our Lady of the Mountains on Saturday evening becomes Sherburne United Church of Christ on Sunday morning. My heart swelled with ecumenical pride.

The Capuchins have been in this part of Vermont for about five years, and they are continuing to explore how to awaken the living flame of love in the hearts of the faithful. There is much work to be done, and more of it to come: the Diocese of Burlington, which encompasses the entire state of Vermont, has approximately 100 active priests only and nearly as many parishes. As greater labor falls into fewer hands, the body of Christ that is the church in Vermont will have to evolve or wither and atrophy. My prayer for our brothers, and for all who minister in the Church in its many models, is that their work will create a spiritual space for all people in which they can have a real encounter with the living God. In the cool black evening, as the beaming moon watched from on high; and again in the morning in the quiet air of St. Dominic Church, I could sense the Spirit of God coloring my imagination.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


The postulants are staying in Rutland, Vt., on Thursday and Friday in the company of the Capuchin brothers who reside at St. Peter Friary and minister to the Catholic communities of St. Peter and St. Dominic.

I have never been to Vermont before. The forecast is rain throughout our visit, but that doesn't bother me much. The novelty of being in Vermont itself is good enough for me. And the foliage should be near perfection at this time of year.

In addition to enjoying our surroundings, we are going in order to see the ministries in which the brothers serve and to spend some time in fraternity. It is good for us to become acquainted with as many of the friars in our province of New York and New England as we can, so that we may build the foundations our fellowship wide and deep.

Truly, all our travels as brothers and brothers-in-formation are purposed for widening the circle of fraternity. Today, for instance, the postulants visited Bishop Ford Central Catholic High School, one of the schools of the Diocese of Brooklyn. In three morning assemblies we addressed the classes of the student body about our way of life, answered their questions about consecrated religious life, and encouraged the young men among them to consider a vocation with the Capuchins. (There were religious sisters, too, who shared their stories.) I will worry less about whether our seeds fell on rich soil than whether we planted good seeds in the first place! Most of all, I hope that in our words and gestures toward the students, they could feel our brotherly love toward each one of them.

As the friars across our province, from Maine to Manhattan, have showed continually their fraternal affection toward us -- and no doubt will continue to do, to our humble delight -- so I hope we who are in formation may offer a return of the same charity toward those whom we have an opportunity to love as friends in Christ's name.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Of Icons and Idols

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Steve Jobs, commencement address, Stanford University, June 12, 2005

I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.

Galatians 2:19-20

Are these two truth claims compatible? Mutually inclusive? Complementary? Irreconcilable?

Two months before Steve Jobs died, around the time the announcement of his retirement from Apple made front-page news worldwide, Commonweal published this article by Andrew Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University. It is the most troubling essay I have read this year. Here is an excerpt:

As successor to the Machine Age, the so-called Information Age promises to empower humanity as never before and therefore to complete our liberation. Taking the form of a wireless handheld device, the dynamo of our time has truly become, as [Henry] Adams wrote, “a symbol of infinity.” Rather than spewing masses of stone and steam, it offers instant access to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The Information Age does something else as well, however: it displays in stark terms our propensity to bow down before freedom’s reputed source. Anyone who today works with or near young people cannot fail to see this: for members of the present generation, the smartphone has become an amulet. It is a sacred object to be held and caressed and constantly attended to. Previous generations fell in love with their cars or became addicted to TV, but this one elevates devotion to material objects to an altogether different level. In the guise of exercising freedom, its members engage in a form of idolatry. Small wonder that aficionados of Apple’s iPhone call it the Jesus Phone.

Bacevich is not registering merely a Luddite reaction against technological innovation. In his survey of modern civilization, particularly the rise of consumption-driven plutocracy, he laments the eclipse of Christianity, at least in the West, as "a formula for ordering human affairs," and its near-extinction as "a personal ethic or as a medium through which to seek individual salvation." Borrowing from Henry Adams, he says the dynamo (in all its iterations from the steam engine to the smartphone) is our surrogate for God. The devastation this loss of faith has caused, in gross physical trauma of our environment; through conquest, war, and genocide; through mindless consumerism and indifference to crippling poverty, leading to spiritual death; this devastation speaks for itself. Bacevich sounds haunting notes, but his pessimism is not defeatism. Indeed, he is driven by the unshakable conviction that all our signs point the wrong way, and our icons are actually more clever idols than any Abraham and Moses had to break. But the signs can be turned back, and the idols can be broken. His challenge to the Church is great. His challenge to each of us who profess to be religious is stark. Will we refuse to be enchanted?

Another quotation from Jobs' Stanford address:

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

There may be truth in this, but to my ears it rings of desperation. If you believe there is nothing to lose in dying because your desire is ultimately fulfilled or transcended, then great. But if you believe there is nothing to gain, either, and you go naked into nothingness -- that is to say, unrequited -- then I have to wonder how you intend to live.

I trust in following the heart when the reason is right. If for this world only we choose to follow our heart, then terrible consequences can and often do follow. Faith in the world we cannot see yet -- call it the kingdom of heaven, the city of God, the beloved community -- trains our heart better to live for others and not merely to "make" ourselves. There is definitely something of the Promethean in what Jobs is saying. But I worry that there is also something selfish in his words, and, when considered in light of Bacevich's argument, possibly self-destructive.

In religious life, human development is to be measured by the standard of conversion, not by change. Change alone, no matter how dramatic outwardly, is not sufficient. To work doggedly to change one's own life, and even the lives of persons too many to count, is not necessarily the same as bettering oneself, or the world. Still less does great change mean good change.
Yes, each of us must live our own life. Each of us must become our own person. The question is, what kind of person do we become when we believe that we and we alone must make ourselves? A corollary question -- and an important one because, as Jobs himself acknowledges, we do have to live with "the results of other people's thinking" -- is this: what kind of a world do we inhabit when we live as if it were really true that we and we alone must create ourselves? What kind of a world will we inherit if we believe that the future is only what we, and not God, make of it?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Experiences of Prayer

Today we concluded the third in a series of lessons meant to introduce the postulant to types and methods of prayer.

Over the last two weeks, our Capuchin friar guided us through several prayer experiences, according to the following schema, which I found to be a useful one.

We began with vocal prayer, being prayer that relies on the spoken word. An example of this is the litany, in which a person addresses God, Jesus Christ (or an aspect of Jesus' divinity), or one of the saints, responding repetitively (e.g., "have mercy on us," "pray for us") to a long series of holy names, praises, and petitions. Another example is the Liturgy of the Hours, the "divine office" of recited and sung prayer of psalms, hymns, canticles, and readings from Scripture, at appointed times during the day. Other examples include traditional forms of prayer like the rosary and the Stations of the Cross. As we prayed these and other vocal prayers, we were encouraged to pay attention to our sense of the various prayers and what effects they produced on our being and particularly on our awareness of the presence of God.

From vocal prayer we moved into methods of mental prayer. Such prayer does not rely on set prayer, traditional forms, or the liturgical setting. Rather, the person at prayer seeks to connect with God through the imagination, working from within or by one's senses. Using the former, interior, method, perfected by St. Teresa of Avila, a 16th-century Carmelite mystic, the one who seeks God finds a place to be alone in order to gaze upon the divine presence that dwells within the soul. Fixing the eyes of the soul on the very of image of God, conversation with God becomes possible. Using the latter, exterior, method, perfected by St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, one meditates on God by interacting with a story from Scripture, experiencing the living Word of God through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Fixing the senses of the body on the world in which Jesus lived, we can enter into dialogue with him.

A step further along from mental prayer to contemplative prayer is lectio divina, a meditation on a verse or short passage of Scripture. The practice comes from the monastic tradition and follows four movements. The first is an inspired reading of the Bible in search of a word, phrase, or line that captures the person's attention. When the reader lights upon an inspiring verse, she stops and focuses on it, reading it over several times prayerfully. As the word, phrase, or verse settles on her lips, she begins to meditate on it, ruminating over its meaning, digesting it slowly. Meditation gives birth to grateful prayer, as the word now enters into the bloodstream of the body and nourishes the heart. Infused with light and love, the soul finally moves toward contemplation of the God who has created and sustained her. This method of prayer is one of the most familiar and fulfilling practices I follow.

Lectio divina is a bridge between meditation and contemplation. A purer form of contemplative prayer is centering prayer, by which, says our friar, we "consent to God's presence and action within." Adopting a sacred word to symbolize our desire to apprehend and obey God's presence within us, we still ourselves through our breathing and posture. Using the sacred word to dam the ceaseless flow of thoughts, feelings, and emotions that carry us away from God and our true selves, we stay grounded. As we enter into great silence, we let go of the world around us and remain fully present to the God within. Eventually, we leave this grace-full moment, doing so slowly, gently, and silently.

Each of the postulants experienced these forms of prayer differently, with varying degrees of delight or disappointment. We feel encouraged enough to pursue a more perfect practice of all of them. We will keep in mind our brother friar's advice for those times when prayer does not lead to the spiritual progress we dreamed of, or when the will of God appears to defy all our hopes: "When God doesn't answer, it could be because he wants you to be who you really are."

Keep us, O Lord, from our witless prayers, which if granted would only cause us harm or deafen us to your calling.

Remove from our way, O Lord, the blocks that prevent us from praying rightly for ourselves and for others.

Give us the might, God of unsurpassed power, to roll away the stones that entomb our intentions.

Direct our prayers, Holy One, toward the basic goodness of all being, that we may not be captivated by the reflected glory of things. May our prayers for the world be not of the world.

Free us from our sin, good and gracious God, so that we may love, praise, and glorify you with a clean heart.

In all our prayer, take us, Divine Master, to yourself, where we truly and finally come to rest.

Routine and Interruption

Here comes Monday. Here comes life under the form of routine. Here comes Life in its interruptions.

Today we have morning instruction but no afternoon ministry. Tomorrow we have afternoon ministry but no morning instruction. On Wednesday, we celebrate Eucharist not in the morning but in the evening, because in the morning we will visit Catholic high school juniors to tell them about our way of life. Thursday and Friday we will do everything, work and prayer, as intended, but nothing as scheduled, because we will be visiting the Capuchin friars who live in Vermont.

No two days are alike. Thanks be to God.

After an uncommon weekend in Boston, the postulants and friars have returned to Brooklyn and are returning to their routine of work and prayer, the better to interrupt the routine. Or, we could say that the brothers are drawn back to their routine of work and prayer so that the routine may be interrupted, gracefully.

Therein lies the Gift, and the inspiration for the little gift of our lives. For our gift is not the works themselves. Our gift is not the prayers themselves.

The routine is not the gift. The gift is the interruption. The interruption is Life itself.

Our gift is fraternity, holy, loving friendship with God in Christ through the Spirit, to all others. Our work, our prayer is directed wholly toward living together with people everywhere in the God who is everywhere. Living together is the deepest, most ultimate interruption.

What we offer in the fraternity whose heart is Christ is nothing less than the breaking of sameness, singleness, and apartness -- the breaking of distance, in time and space and being.

All our striving in religious life is a preparation for interruption.

Here comes Monday. Let us prepare, once again, to be disturbed out of the depths into delight. While the world waits for change; while the powerful and the impatient claim in their foolishness the fire of change but only burn themselves; while those who strive for might build, build, and rebuild, let us be still, and yet work and pray in expectation of something greater than change, something beyond change. Let routine be transformed into interruption. May our life be transubstantiated into Life.