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)

 

Brother Joe Babcock, ofm cap

A native of Port Washington, WI, I am a friar-in-formation for the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph (Midwest USA). Click here to read more...