Many good folks have been asking about my taking vows this past Friday in the Franciscan Community of Compassion. So I will share a bit about that arrival point and the road there.
The Community was founded just a few years ago in the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. It is an ecumenical community, open to men and women, married and unmarried, from any branch of Christianity. The community is dispersed, that is non-residential, with vowed members living in their own homes in various locations, presently in several states.* The Community includes some ordained persons and many whose path to this commitment flows out of the grace of their baptism. (Hopefully the same is true of us members who have also been ordained).
The vows taken are the traditional ones of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Those who have learned of the life and love of Francis of Assisi at all will know that the first of these, Poverty, was of central and life-giving importance for him.
Members are clothed in a Franciscan habit, as the three of us received last Friday evening at Saint Luke’s Church at Forest Hill, Queens, New York were. This simple robing is an ongoing sign of the inner commitment made to the living of the Gospel of Jesus in the Spirit of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi and of the many many thousands of women and men who have lived the Franciscan charism (grace) since their day. I plan on letting that sign of the habit be seen and speak its word and invitation to the people of our 21st century. I wore it at Saint Matthew’s, the church which I serve, this past Sunday morning for the first time.
I have been considering in mind and heart what those three vows mean to me.
To live vowed poverty is to choose to live life with open hands, clinging to nothing and accepting all that comes as gift of God and invitation to an ever-deepening relationship with God, now in this world and in hope of the ultimate future. Poverty is absolute openness to life as it comes, firmly believing that in ways sometimes beautifully obvious and sometimes darkly hidden, all that comes my way and all that I am asked to live, at times by seemingly random circumstance, comes from the hand and heart of the God whose only motivation is God’s very essence: Love.
Chastity is to value every person whose path I cross as a reminder of God’s proven intention in Christ to be present and to be revealed in human persons, even in those where God seems (to my weak eyes) most well-disguised. Chastity is a promise not to seek to possess or to dominate another human being, anywhere, at any time, in any kind of relationship. It means to hold sacred the freedom and the uniqueness of all whom I am blessed to meet and to know. It means in valuing each of them as icons of God’s presence to find myself constantly blessed to be looking into the eyes of Christ, hearing the voice of Christ, holding the hands of Christ.
Obedience is the willingness to be a lifelong listener. Obedience is to listen with reverence to the voices of sisters and brothers, to the sounds of nature, to the music of life each day with confidence that in openness to what is heard I will be guided by the Creator and Redeemer, by the ever-present Spirit, in the way that I should go, in the next step I am called to take. In that listening, I am confident, will be found the strength to say yes to what is heard with the heart.
Am I going to mess up along the way? (Excuse me, have we met?!) Of course! But as Benedictine friends have reminded me in a manner that is a blessing: every day we begin again.
I will continue to think about all this, and to share what may seem worthwhile. Thank you for your interest, and for your moving and loving support.
Saint Therese of Lisieux reminds me, “ Accept and embrace your own littleness.”
Saint Ignatius of Loyola tells me, “Keep doing the work of discernment until you arrive.”
Saint Charles de Foucauld urges me, “Carry on day-by-day faithfully, even when – especially when – you cannot see the way ahead.”
Thomas Keating, OCSO counsels me, “Above all else, pray faithfully. Place yourself quietly in the Presence always.”
Saint Francis of Assisi says, “Know the grace of God is flowing into your life every moment; your job is to be open to the gift.”
Saint Benedict of Nursia assures me, “Keep listening. Always keep listening for the Word as it comes.”
These are my companions and patrons on what feels sometimes like a fool’s errand, but feels always like an invitation to follow no matter how circuitous the route or pitted the path.
Early in 2021 a call that had murmured at the foundation of my soul, a message that had whispered from the back stacks of the library of my life spoke out loud. The words were simple, “Now are you ready?” Ready to seek community, prayer, service, shared life in a community of faith, in a dedicated community of others who heard the call in their own manner and answered.
I have come to recognize this call is so profoundly basic to my being that the question of whether to answer it in the Roman Catholic communion of most of my life, or in the Anglican Communion of these latter years, or in another place that I have not seen myself is a secondary question. The primary question is community, is a life of prayer, is service, is shared life, and yes, is silence too.
I reached out with energy newborn to those who could help in the Catholic Church, in the Episcopal Church, and to new friends hearing similar calls and seeking new ways to answer it together. I spoke with and visited monastic communities where I have visited for lengths of time in the past and found myself at home in a manner that I have known nowhere else. I have received encouragement and discouragement in about equal measure. The encouragement comes from voices that seem to hear the echo of something real in my voice when I speak of this call. The discouragement comes principally from obstacles of course, which are more than one. But the single hardest one is the general agreement that I am asking, looking, searching too late in life.
The several religious communities who have responded in that way have, no doubt, good reason for saying so, coming out of other experience with candidates beyond a certain determined age (which varies) who have come and not settled and sometimes caused disruption and often left again with both their individual lives and the life of the community unsettled. I can see and understand that.
But the voice which asks “now are you ready” continues to ask, even as the ‘now’ both slips into the past and remains ever new with the rising of each sun and the changing of each season. And I continue, and I will continue – taking all the counsel from my saintly companions above – to respond with the most profound Yes I ever have spoken. A Yes rooted so deeply in my origin and identity, soul and spirit, that it is bigger than, and as well embraces entirely, the joyful Yes I spoke to ordained service decades ago.
I trust that the God whom the desperate and exhausted Elijah met again at Mount Horeb, the God who both refreshed the prophet and then set him on his way again, will continue to show me the way, if only I show a daily willingness to follow wherever the way leads. And I pledge, as sure as the God of daily graces lives and gives, that I will.
And I place no limits on how this call might find its answer. Limits are not my business here. Whatever Christian communion it might be in, whatever spiritual family following whatever ever-fresh charism from past to future, whatever monastery or abbey or friary or house of prayer; whether the community be numerous or few, whether the group be growing or shrinking, whether I find my place in an established community or help establish a community, or become a solitary linked to other solitaries across the miles, or an anchorite living by the side of church in prayer and bonded to the parish community there – whatever be the path and whatever be the point of arrival, as long as I have breath I will continue and walk on willingly.
“I do not ask to see the distant scene, – one step enough for me.” And another step as the following day begins. Accepting my own littleness. Discerning what the days are teaching me. Carrying on, in prayer. Life thrown open to the pouring fonts of grace, head thrown back and mouth open to drink the rain pouring down from heaven. And always listening. Listening for the voice of the living God in all the ways that voice faithfully speaks.
Perhaps even in your voice, dear reader, as you read and respond?
Within days of his election as Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis shared the story of how he came to choose the name of Francis of Assisi in speaking to representatives of the world’s communication media gathered at Vatican City. In that context, Francis said, “How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!” This short phrase, entirely in accord with his talk at that occasion, caught the attention of the world’s media and of millions more (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/16/pope-francis-church-poverty).
These words stood out for most Catholics, and for followers of many other denominations and faiths, as words of hope. I think they are words of hope as they are heard, in part, because of how difficult it is for the church, as an institution, to make real and present the spirit of Jesus, who walked the roads of ancient Israel asking nothing for himself, describing himself and his life in these words: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58 NRSV). To hear an echo of that spirit from the person in charge of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly as the spirit and style of a ministry is being determined in its first hours, catches people’s attention.
It’s important to recall, lest the hearers shortly hereafter begin to doubt the reality and possibility of those words of Pope Francis, that in expressing this desire this man stands in a long tradition. In 1964, while the second Vatican Council was still ongoing, French Dominican and ecclesiologist Yves Congar (1904 – 1995) published a slim volume entitled Power and Poverty in the Church (http://www.amazon.com/Power-Poverty-Church-Yves-Congar/dp/B0000CM9T2). Its preparation was inspired by the discussions then being heard both within the Council and outside it, from trattoria tables in Trastevere to breakfast tables in the Irish countryside. What was being heard, and having an effect, were words like those of John XXIII, spoken to the Diplomatic Corps the year before, and quoted in Congar’s Foreword:
It is the spirit that counts more than the gesture; and this lesson does not apply to the leaders of the church alone: every position of power, every exercise of authority, is a service. The Pope gladly calls himself Servus servorum Dei; he is conscious of being, and strives to be, the servant of all. God grant that those who bear the burden of responsibility for the human community may take to heart this last great lesson of Maundy Thursday, and recognize that their authority will be all the more acceptable to their people for being exercised in a spirit of humble service and complete devotion to the welfare of all men.
That ‘last great lesson’ of Maundy Thursday is the lesson of humble service preserved in the 13th chapter of John’s Gospel. There, at his last meal with his beloved, Jesus gets down on the floor and washes their feet. He acts as the servant of all. And then he speaks quite clearly of what this act implies: “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14 NRSV). John XXIII, in embracing this service as his own call, reminded the representatives of the world’s governments that they, no less than he, are similarly charged. He is saying that the church, as the presence of Christ, must be the poor servant of all and, in doing so, give example to all who exercise authority or power. Or control vast sums of money which, in this world, are equivalent to power.
In the body of his book Congar, a master of the church’s self-understanding through the centuries, writes of the influence of the Roman Empire upon the post-Constantinian church, and of the lingering vestiges of the way things were done in feudal times. In two brief segments, however, he places that history and past ways of being in the context of the mid-20th century and says, “Men [and women] want the truth of the Gospel, its authenticity and simplicity, and on those conditions they are ready to accept its demands ungrudgingly. We can no longer hope to dazzle men with purple and gold, heraldry and titles ending in ‘-issimus’. He compels us now to show forth in our lives the truth of what we profess to believe and love with all our heart. Who can complain of that?”
For Congar, and for many church leaders at that moment in time (as he reveals in a catena of quotes from Council Fathers that he includes as an appendix to his work), “In a world that has become, or has become again, purely ‘worldly”, the Church finds herself forced, if she would still be anything at all, to be simply the Church, witness to the Gospel and the kingdom of God, through Jesus Christ and in view of him. That is what men need, that is what they expect of her. In fact if we listed all their most valid claims on the Church we should find that they amounted to this: that she be less of the world and more in the world; that she be simply the Church of Jesus Christ, the conscience of men in the light of the Gospel, but that she be this with her whole heart.”
The heartfelt appeal of Pope Francis, as well as this confirmation in the words of John XXIII, Yves Congar, and many others in the 1960’s stand in a long line of seemingly occasional, but always dramatic and appreciated responses to an oft-ignored message at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Anthony of the Desert (251 – 356 AD) walked into church in the year 269 as these words of Matthew’s Gospel were being read: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Matthew 19:21). Anthony took these words to mean just what they said, and he did exactly that, becoming first a hermit and then the father of monasticism.
Centuries later the present pope’s namesake from Assisi heard a sermon on the 10th chapter of the same Gospel, including these words of Jesus as he sent the Twelve out on mission: “You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.” He too took Jesus at his word, and that changed everything.
The founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day, stands in that same line. So too does the 20th century Orthodox nun, Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891 – 1945). A Russian revolutionary spirit, married twice, she converted deeply to the Gospel of Christ and reached out in Paris to provide everything she could in the name of Jesus to Russian emigres and others in need, asking nothing for herself. She died in the concentration camp at Ravensbruck on Holy Saturday, 1945.
To return to John XXIII words, “it is the spirit that counts more than the gesture,” though both spirit and gesture carry unique power when they are inspired by the Gospel itself. What does a “Church which is poor and for the poor” look like, sound like, move like? Does it mean some measure of divestiture, of traditions which are not central to the Gospel, or of goods and property? Perhaps. But perhaps whether it means that or not, it must mean something even deeper, something fundamental to the church’s very being. Is it not a call to be more faithful to the person of Jesus Christ than to anything or anyone else? Before Anthony of the Desert, Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Mother Maria or Dom Helder Camara of Brazil; before Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, or Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, or any of the innumerable unnamed and unknown who heard the Word and responded as inspired, there was the first poor man, Jesus. His church is, to use the old church language, ecclesia pro parvulis.