in personal, spirituality

Beyond “Checkbox” Discernment

Pictured: Brother Joe (the elder)’s birthday shenanigans.

The date for my first vows is approaching very quickly. On July 15th I will leave the novitiate, and on Friday, July 21st I will take my first vows as a Capuchin brother. The vows are a commitment to God of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the presence of my religious community. Even though these vows are simple (as opposed to solemn) and thus last for only one year, this is pretty serious business! But this is all merely a response to a calling—an invitation of love—which Jesus has already placed in my heart. As I come near to this important occasion, it is a good time for me to reflect on the path of discernment which led me here.

More and more the past two years have revealed to me the ultimate value of fidelity.

At some point in my process of discernment (when I really began to consider God might be asking of me), I adopted a “checkbox” mentality. That is, whatever religious community or opportunity that met the most of my standards (“checkboxes”) would clearly be where God was calling me to be. It was merely a matter of finding the most checked boxes. In retrospect, I see how self-centered (perhaps even hedonistic) that perspective was. Nonetheless, I kept a tight grip on these checkboxes, probably out of fear, a fear that I could not be happy unless my whole life was balanced and kept under my control.

Well, the truth is that I have not found that ideal balance. The reality is that my community does not “check all of my boxes”. I still deal with tension, disagreement, and compromise on a daily basis. Not only is discord and disappointment present in my community, but also right here within myself. So at various times over the past two years, I have felt drawn to seek another community that would better conform to my ideal, that would check more boxes. I would like a community that works for me.

Then there was the transformation. Gradually I shifted from “the community for myself” to “myself for the community“. I began to realize the value of fidelity. This happened as I came to know the lives of the friars in my community who have come before me. This came in the day-to-day work around the friary (which matters so much more to the life of the fraternity than I had previously thought!). Most of all, this came through the realization that those bonds I share as a Capuchin Franciscan friar run very deep. In fact, it was the realization that these fraternal bonds are the very work of God that finally brought me to my senses. Nothing other than a transcendent and supernatural calling is what has given me my secure affirmation.

And so it is in the fidelity to this supernatural calling that I find my peace. I’m so struck now by models of fidelity from all walks of life: priests and nuns who live to see 60,  70, or even 80 years of faithful service, wedded couples who struggle fiercely to live their marriage vows in a culture of divorce, and even the old sushi master who has done one thing very well for his whole life (see below).

I can’t recommend this movie enough.

So it is with a little hesitation that I decisively throw the checkboxes into the trash bin. Those lists aren’t for me to make, because if they were, they wouldn’t mean much at all. With great delight and excitement I march on towards first vows. As a closing thought, allow me to share some incredibly relevant words from L’Arche founder Jean Vanier (who is the subject of an incredible upcoming film):

I am more and more struck by people in community who are dissatisfied. When they live in small communities, they want to be in larger ones, where there is more nourishment, where there are more community activities, or where the liturgy is more beautifully prepared. And when they are in large communities, they dream of ideal small ones. Those who have a lot to do dream of having plenty of time for prayer: those who have a lot of time for themselves seem to get bored and search distractedly for some sort of activity which will give a sense of purpose to their lives. And don’t we all dream of the perfect community, where we will be at peace and in complete harmony, with a perfect balance between the outward and the inward, where everything will be joyful?

It is difficult to get people to understand that the ideal doesn’t exist, that personal equilibrium and the harmony they dream of come only after years and years of struggle, and even then only as flashes of grace and peace. If we are always looking for our own equilibrium—I’d even say if we are looking too much for our own peace—we will never find it, because peace is the fruit of love and service to others. I’d like to tell the many people in communities who are looking for this impossible ideal: ‘Stop looking for peace, give yourselves where you are. Stop looking at yourselves—look instead at your brothers and sisters in need. Be close to those God has given you in community today; and work with the situation as it is. Ask how you can better love your brothers and sisters. Then you will find peace. You will find rest and that famous balance you’re looking for between the outward and the inward, between prayer and activity, between time for yourself and time for others. Everything will resolve itself through love. Stop wasting time running after the perfect community. Live your life fully in your community today. Stop seeing flaws—and thank God there are some! Look rather at your own defects and know that you are forgiven and can, in your turn, forgive others and today enter into the conversion of love, and remember, pray always.’ (Community and Growth, Rev. Ed., Page 46-47)

Other People’s Funerals

This post was originally published on the Capuchin Franciscan Vocation Blog:

It has now been over six months at the novitiate.

What are the possible symptoms of such a prolonged stay in the realm of contemplation?

One might very well acquire an outlook of prayer, gentleness, and silence. Perhaps half of a year of novitiate could transform an ordinary young man into a saintly friar. Maybe this is when friars can start preaching to birds.

To be honest, it hasn’t gone totally according to that plan. As it turns out, six months at the novitiate is actually quite similar to six months spent in any secluded place with the same people. What exactly does that entail? Well, human nature. It has all happened: cabin fever, conflict, frustration, anger, and distraction. Who would have thought that a life of prayer would be so nail-grinding? For instance, how was it possible that after a full day of hermitage my first interpersonal reaction was to tell off my brother for his ideas about mopping the floor? Many times, I have reached a point in my spiritual life when I have been able to identify with Mother Angelica when she jested, “If it wasn’t for people, we could all be holy!”.

It crossed my mind that all of this has to do with my locus of judgment. Judgment is good and useful, but who am I judging: someone else or myself? There’s a reason for those times that I’ve sat there in prayer, roiling over other people’s petty offenses or remarks. It’s because I have been deceived into believing that my task is to pluck out the slivers from everyone else’s eyes. When I do that, I’m hiding from my own log. Thus, I have returned to the truth: we’re all broken, we’re all in need of healing, we’re all human. Now I can pray again.

In the wonderfully morbid words of Saint Theophan the Recluse, “With your own dead in the house you will not trouble about other people’s funerals”

A Spirituality of Bingo

This post was originally published on the Capuchin Franciscan Vocation Blog:

It’s 10:07 AM on a balmy Friday morning in Southern California. The air in the colorless multi-purpose room is tense, yet sedentary…and a little bit stinky.

“B,”

faces begin to scrunch up, necks begin to pivot frantically, eyes race up and down the fatefully-laminated columns on the narrow dining table,

“14.”

A moment of dish-shuffling, chip-clicking, and frustrated groans.

“Is this straight bingo or cover-all?” asks the pleasant little lady from North Dakota.

“Cover-all,” answers the lanky young man in a sweat-dampened Franciscan habit.

“Well, then I guess I have bingo,” replies the shy grandmother, as she visibly holds back her excitement.

The skinny woman with a prominent facial bandage to her right offers the innocent old lady an unrepentant “death stare”.

Meanwhile across the table, a hunched veteran of the Rhodesian conflict observes the scene. He unsubtly looks toward the friar, smiles, and compresses the left half of his face (…perhaps this is a wink?). The friar returns the gesture.

~~~

What you have just read is indeed a true story. In fact, this vignette I have narrated for you is not so unlike every Friday morning at 10:07 AM in the Personal Care Unit.

My ministry outside of the novitiate is spending time with the elderly. Every week, one hour and a half of that ministry is devoted to calling bingo numbers.

I love it.

“How can anyone find something as mind-numbingly boring as Friday morning bingo to be even remotely ‘loveable’”?

Allow me to explain.

~~~

In so many ways, bingo is a metaphor for our spiritual lives.

The first principle of bingo is that there is no strategy to winning. In fact, in most bingo games there is no prize or incentive at all awaiting the winner. What, then, distinguishes a good bingo player from a bad bingo player? If the player has no influence in picking their card or drawing their numbers, what skill is involved? Our society is obsessed with success (monetary, social, intellectual, and otherwise) and the people that can produce it. Thus, we need even our games to be competitive battles of wit & strength. When measured against this yardstick of typical American values, bingo fails to prove itself as a worthy endeavor. And thus we have grasped the genius of bingo.

Bingo is not about drawing the right numbers: it’s about receiving whatever numbers that are drawn with grace. In my story, there was a woman who humbly asked with great anticipation, “is this straight bingo or cover-all?”. She was good at bingo. Then, there was a woman who fumed in anger over her neighbor’s success. She was a bad bingo player. Finally, there was the man who took an objective look at the whole scenario and was overcome with joy. He was the best bingo player.

So too with life. We can never pick our cards, and very rarely do we get to draw our own numbers. The vast majority of our decisions are not pure actions, but they are responses to circumstances. This reality is in contradiction to the commonly-held illusion that we are in total control of our destiny.

I can especially see this dynamic at work in the lives of the elderly people gathered around the bingo people. When they were younger, they were everything from workers to managers, dancers to artists, soldiers to captains. Just like us, they had people to please and goals to achieve. Now, all of this has been made nought. They have lost their old abilities. They have been taken away from their homes. Through the lens of power & competition, they have become irrelevant. Most tragically, some of them have been abandoned in the nursing home, neglected by their very own children.

~~~

From this experience, I have gained a fuller understanding of what Jesus meant when he said, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18).

In the Gospels, Jesus is presented as an extraordinary being. He is constantly healing people, casting out demons, and feeding the multitudes. His ministry is characterized by decisive actions: “Jesus began to proclaim” (Matthew 4:17), “Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit” (Luke 9:42), “Jesus came down from the mountain” (Matthew 8:1), and perhaps most prominently “Jesus healed” (Luke 14:4).

But then everything stops. There is a moment when all of these great, dramatic actions cease. Jesus is betrayed. He enters into his passion (John 18). Suddenly, the active voice begin to disappear from the Gospel. No longer “Jesus takes”, “Jesus goes”, or “Jesus asks”. Christ is now referenced as a passive actor. “Jesus is taken”, then “Jesus is sentenced”, and finally “Jesus receives the wine”. He is given the chalice to drink from, and he is killed.

The very word passion is derived from the Latin root of passive. We honor people like Albert Einstein, Usain Bolt, and Mark Zuckerberg for the things that they have had the ability to do. But Jesus didn’t attain the will of God by the things that he did or the people that he impressed. Rather, he brought us salvation through his humble acceptance of what was done to him. Jesus didn’t redeem by his activity, but by his passion.

Likewise, our redemption isn’t found in doing, but in what is done to us.

So, let us all play this great game of bingo. Let us listen attentively to the numbers. In our uniquely human way, let us rejoice over our neighbor’s “bingo” and have a good laugh over our own–often crappy–cards.

I leave you now with this beautiful writing of Blessed Charles de Foucald. It is called the “Prayer of Abandonment”:

Father,
I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

The Little Cross

This post was originally published on the Capuchin Franciscan Vocation Blog:

Today, we had a silent day of recollection at the novitiate. At one point, we were told to go out and meditate on the crucified Christ (a very Franciscan subject). So, I went out and sat on the road with my rosary's cross to pray and reflect. I faced the East, towards the vale.

As I looked out across the fields, I couldn't help but be struck with awe at the beauty of this place. But one particular trait of this vista captivated me: its sheer immensity. The deep, downward curves of the earth laid a golden blanket below me. Beyond the low plain, the tall mounds rebounded with majestic grandeur. All of this was accentuated by the sky's swatches of shadow and sunlight on, around, & between the competing hilltops.

Then, there was my little cross right before me. This thumb-sized wooden sacramental in the foreground of a sweeping landscape.

I am led to think of Jesus on that cross: a distant impained figure on the top of a hill, a speck on the human scene, a mere nothing when observing our Earth from above. Yet, hidden within the mystery is God. In the littlest death of a man in Palestine, there is found the most meaningful sacrifice ever made.

Suddenly, everything is brought into context. When viewed in light of the vastness of creation, there is little to distinguish the sacrifices of our lives in the smallest things from the sacrifice of our life to the very point of death. We are merely grains of wheat.

The holiness of the world is often hidden. I think of all of those people who live grace-filled lives with quiet and unceasing devotion. I particularly remember Mother Theresa's Missionaries of Charity hastily tending the wounds of Christ in the forgotten people of cities all across the globe.

Saint Lawrence–whose feast we celebrate today–lived a life of many sacrifices. For him, it was apparent that the ordinary was united with the extraordinary when he famously declared to his executioners, "Turn me over, I'm done on this side!" as he lay tied to the burning grill.

So it is my prayer that we all may find strength in our daily lives by constantly offering up the ordinary & the extraordinary, the little & the large, to our most humble and loving God.

…What Can Go Wrong?

This post was originally published on the Capuchin Franciscan Vocation Blog:

This is by far the strangest thing that I have ever done. I have taken up the religious habit of the Capuchin Franciscans.

Here’s what a typical person might say about me:

“Why would any healthy, (mostly) sane young adult male start walking down this path? And at the age of 19? Surely he must realize that this is the 21st century. These days, commitment is rare among youth and religious practice is even rarer…and that’s to say nothing of religious commitment!”

To be honest, I’m often at a loss for answers to these questions myself.

In truth, I can only answer, “God placed a calling within my heart, and I am trying to respond to it.”

So with all of my heart, I want to announce my gratitude to God who has given me so many good gifts. As an extension of this gratitude, I thank all of those inspiring people who—whether they know it or not—have been the presence of Christ in my life, comforting me and urging me forward in my vocation.

Am I afraid? Absolutely. Do I feel unworthy? Yep. Does entering religious life mean that I will always be so grateful and happy? Unfortunately, no.

But if I cling with all of my strength to these facts:

  • I am a beloved son of God.
  • I have a vocation to make that love known in a very unique way.
  • This is absolutely beautiful.

…what can go wrong?

Pray for me as I begin this year of novitiate!