Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Morning Reflections

This morning on the way to work, I was marveling at the beauty of the morning. It was one of those rare fall days that was dark and gray to the North, but to the South-East, the clouds were broken up and sparse; the sun, not quite up yet was casting the most beautiful salmon/pink cast to the back and underside of the clouds, with the purple/gray of the front of the clouds in clear contrast with the pale blue of the sky behind them.

The amazing colors of the sky created this wonderful glow that had the red berries of the Mountain Ash standing out against the deep gold of the leaves remaining on the trees. It was in the midst of this reverie that I began to do some serious contemplation and thoughts about the people that I have been called to minister to.

There is a common misperception among many people that residents of nursing homes are non-productive, that they have no life and that they are just there waiting to die. One of the greatest joys I have at my job are those rare moments when I have time to sit and be present with those people that are often considered outcasts by much of our society.

Through the years that I have been working with the residents here in Seward, I have seen so many demonstrations of care and concern residents have shown for staff and for each other that I am often overwhelmed and brought to tears by the depth of the human soul.

One of the most incredible things that I have seen through the years is the response of our elders when I am saying Mass. Most of the elders that come to the weekly Eucharist’s are not Episcopalian. They are primarily Roman Catholics or Russian Orthodox, but since they do not have the option of attending the Eucharistic celebration in their own tradition they join us.

It is not the religion that in important to these residents, it is the ritual and the relationship that is important. Even after all these years I am surprised when I see a resident that is typically non-participatory say the Our Father with the rest of the group. I am reduced to tears when I see a non-verbal resident follow my hand movements as I celebrate that most intimate and sacred thing that a priest can do. I am humbled when the elders thank me for providing this very important part of their lives for them.

I think that the sunrise this morning was a reminder to me that God is bigger than the limitations that we place on the name of God. A reminder that God is, that God works in ways and places that we as humans can not begin to imagine, and that God calls each and every one of us into communion with each other, regardless of our religious affiliations.

Next time I see a sunrise like this, I will remember these holy people that I have been called to minister too, and I will be grateful for the many lessons that the elders have taught me, and I will once again be humbled.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Community Life

I was chatting with a friend today about the brotherhood, and I sent him the link. After I had pulled it up I spent some time going through it and looking at the pictures and reading the brothers profiles and just immersing myself in “community”.

This is not an unusual occurrence for me; I do this probably at least once a month or so. This little act of “virtual” reality is like opening a scrap book or looking at an old high school album, it takes me back to conversations and moments that linger in my memory and just need a bit of coaxing to come out and be relived.

Part of my thought processes today were about the time that we spend together but that is not centered around liturgy, prayer or business. Those times sitting on the porch in small groups, those walks with a brother to catch up on the last few months, or that riotly boisterous time that we spend in the break room in the evenings. Many of our conversations are serious and very deep and complex. Other conversations are light and airy, while others are full of laughter and would be seen as sacrilegious and scandalous, but I find it comforting, because it is honest and it is who we are.

One of the dishonors that has happened through the years is that religious have been mentally kept behind the grills that used to keep them from the public. Religious as a whole were lost as individuals and only seen as a faceless mass in a particular habit. When nuns became people and climbed trees and road motor scooters, we (as people) were shocked that they had (not only legs), but personalities. Of the hundreds and thousands of men and women religious, we really only know a few as individuals.

One thing that you can be sure of that religious life is made up of people from all walks of life, of all sorts of personalities, and all temperaments. There is no magic wand that changes us into the exact replica of another when we make our vows… and thank God for that. Religious life is the fullest expression of who we are and who we want to become. It is the all embracing of our love of God, our ideologies, our short comings, our sense of sacred, our love of the macabre and sometimes even a bit of twisted humor.

It is in these conversations that we have with each other that help us to bond. It these moments, where we really begin to know and understand the men that we are walking through life with. Those moments are really as much or more about community than sitting in choir and singing. These few precious moments are when we are alive, as individuals, as friends, as brothers.

One of the things I like best about our community is that we are who we are; we are sometimes irreverent, sometimes sacrilegious, some times boisterous, sometimes funny, sometimes sad and always gregarious. But at the same time, we are devoted, we are loyal, we are prayerful, we are meditative, we are servants, we are holy, we live completely into our baptismal covenant. Religious life is not about habits or how long we sit in choir, it is about integrating ourselves, warts and all (so to speak) into a community life where we together embraces each others foibles and graces and grow into Gods grace and together find ways to support our brothers in their lives and ministries.

So, I will just keep going to our website, looking at the pictures and immersing myself in the community men that I have laughed with, cried with, walked, with prayed with, celebrated with, been frustrated and angry with, and when I do, I know that I will be surrounded by those I love and those that love me.

Monday, September 15, 2008

On Flexible Friars

Yesterday was the foundation day of my community. Normally this weekend finds our community gathering as individual Provinces, but as I was not able to gather with my brothers, I have spent much of my weekend reflecting on this day, thirty-nine years ago, when our founder Richard Thomas Biernacki made his vows and began this sometimes tumultuous, sometimes holy, but always devoted community of men that band together in the service of the Lord.

Richard set a standard when he said no to the traditional forms of religious life. This standard was to be forward thinking and to look ahead to the needs and concerns of the church; to continually evaluate who we are, where we are going and to not become stagnant in our way of life. As “Flexible Friars”, we are called to continue this tradition and minister to all that God places before us.

As a community we have done quite a bit of work on what it means to be a man in life vows; how this differs from annual vows, and we have tried to answer the question of whether or not we have made life vows an objet to be obtained versus a journey to be lived. At our summer convocation his past July, it was really wonderful to listen to the thoughts, experiences and visions of the diverse brothers in the various stages of their journey within religious life.

Each one of the brothers that was a presenter to the community had a different analogy or view of what life vows was, and it was apparent through the discussions that followed, everyone recognizes the importance of this phase in our life as a religious, but articulating is somewhat difficult. As a brother that will someday (God willing and Council consenting) make my life vows, I find verbalizing what I expect life vows to be about daunting; how can I know what it will be like when I have not done it? Yet somehow I know that this is a wonderful and momentous step.

Part of me recognizes that as a journey, life vows will be a very different experience for me than it will be for a brother that has been in the community 30 years, 20 years or even 10 years. I know that the Church is a very different organization than what Richard started out with all those many years ago. I know that much of our theology has grown and evolved with our human evolution. As a community we continue to change as new men enter, and as we sadly say goodbye to those men that go on to sing in the heavenly chorus. Our community, as is life, is in a constant state of flux.

For me, being a part of this community has been liberating, joyous, heartbreaking, comforting, exasperating and wonderful. As I look toward the future I can not imagine my life without this community; they are in me and I am in them. I know that I am a better priest, a better person, and a better Christian because of these men, and I am blessed to walk this journey with them.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Fall Favorites

The walk between the hospital and nursing home the last two days have left no doubt in my mind that fall is here and I have noticed other understated changes in the flora and fauna around here; and since it seems like we have had only about five days of summer, this has me somewhat distressed.

Alaska does not have the notable colors that have people flocking to the East Coast, but the subtle changes that happen in this state are truly amazing and awe inspiring. The trees are rapidly changing from green to yellow; the cotton woods are the fastest, and their changes are like the quick changes of actors between scenes. The birch trees are a bit more reserved, they change slowly, a leaf here or there, then a branch, till slowly and quite unexpectedly the whole tree has done a change.

The most spectacular change here is the fireweed. Fireweed is one of the most resilient plants on the planet, and true to its name it is the first thing to come back after a forest fire. It has a tendency to be some what of a nuisance for those people that try to have formal flower beds, but as a wild flower it is beautiful. The bright fuchsia pink flowers grow on stalks three to four feet high and grown in huge patches around the mountain sides.

The brilliance of these flowers is overwhelming and their fall color is no less spectacular. Once the mist starts rolling around the tops of the mountains and shrouds the tree line with her cold, yet steamy presence, the fireweed begins to change. The change is rapid, overnight it goes from green to various shades of bronze, rust and red. This year was even more spectacular as the fire weed was so late in blooming that there were still spots of hot pink; providing an amazing contrast with those early notes of colorful Autumnal foliage.

The fireweed is done blooming now, and the seed pods are standing tall along side the remnants of the Queen Annes Lace, their big brown seed pods still resembling the white lacy heads that are such a part of our summer. Now their proud stance reminds us that the end of the summer is here, and that Madam Winter is on her way. Winter is my least favorite season with the cold and wet, but the change from summer to fall is truly an amazing process. There is something calming, peaceful and even prayerful about the changes that the world goes through as it prepares to rest.

I think that the reason I love fall is that is it such a strong reminder of what we need in our emotional lives, our spiritual lives and our prayer lives; to take time to gear down, to make adequate preparations for respite. It is only through those times of rest that we can allow enough time in our lives to recharge. If we keep our live in a constant state of growth and change, we will eventually wear ourselves out and be very unhealthy. We like Mother Nature need to have seasons in our life, and when we do, we have balance.

Friday, August 22, 2008

On Being Irish

I was watching an episode of Star Trek Voyager in which the crew is stuck in a storm, and order to pass the time, the holodeck is opened to the entire crew to come and go from the village of Fair Haven. It is exciting for the crew is to interact and become part of the life of a 19th Irish village. The exhilaration that the crew feels is tangible as some use the time in the “Old Country” to take their mind of the stresses and monotony of living on a star ship while others use the time to explore and relive their own ancestor’s way of life and traditions.

Watching this episode today quickly brought me back to me the exhilaration and anticipation of visiting my ancestral home as I was fortunate enough this past winter to have had the opportunity to visit Ireland.

I understand the significance of this anticipation and restlessness, as I grew up with this longing for insight and understanding of the life of my ancestors. I grew with a feeling that I am not only a boy from Montana, but a boy whose essence encompassed generations and places that were well beyond the scope of my surroundings and experiences What causes this longing, this restlessness, this necessity to come into contact with the ancient?

Being of Irish descent, I have grown up with an unspoken understanding that we have an innate sixth sense that directs us back to the motherland. It is my belief that there is a force that draws us back to the Emerald Isle in a way that is tangible, but inexplicable.

The trip to Ireland was all too short and there was so much about the country that was new and strange. Some of the differences of language were at times somewhat difficult and cumbersome, the plumbing was a new experience, driving and finding road signs a challenge.

Yet, amidst the insecurities of being in a foreign country there was an internal warmth and familiarity that that I can not explain. The rolling green hills, the wild daffodils and the thatched roofs all were part of who I am. The earthy, somewhat musky smell of burning peat elicited a wave of memories that I have never experienced. The brogue was familiar and comforting.

I was able to experience a very limited area of Ireland and was unable to visit any of the actual areas where we know my family comes from; I did, however, learn much about myself. I learned that who I am, is not only determined by the house I in which I was nurtured and the extended family that helped mold and shape me; but by centuries of tradition and history, by wars and famine, by stories and legends. I learned that I am me and more, I am Irish.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

What are Friends For?

I have been so blessed lately, through modern technology, to be able to re-connect with some of the nicest people I have ever known; friends from that period of my life when I was young and gangly, unsure and ashamed of myself and often at odds with the world around me. This has made me very thankful for these people, but it has started me thinking about friends and how and why people come and go in our lives.

Our lives as humans, are often relatively short, but in that brief period of time we will experience hundreds, even thousands of people and each one that we interact with, makes a huge impact; whether for good or ill, we are affected someway, somehow by each and every one; be it the loud obnoxious checker at the grocery store that comments on the items you are purchasing (I really hate that) or a receptionist at the dentist that is cheery and is truly concerned for your well being, or that person that you consider your best friend.

Most individuals would reason that the clerk or receptionist would not affect our lives, but they do. Depending on our mood or our stress level, each of these interactions can, if we let it, either smooth or ruffle feathers depending on how we react. In the big picture, these people are not really important to our daily well being, we don’t count them as friends, yet they can impact us tremendously.

Then we have acquaintances, these are the people we know through others, persons that we are not intimate with, but that we can carry on a conversation with in a social situation without feeling awkward. These individuals are the ones we have polite conversations with over the price of fresh fruit at the grocery store and then not think so much about them when we get home.

Then there are those people that we consider friends. People we love to share our lives with, people that we laugh and cry with, people that truly have an impact on who we are and who we become. These people are the warriors of life, they for us and us for them; together we do battle on daily basis. We work in tandem with each other and we make life worth living. These are the persons we work with, the people that we worship with, the people that we carpool with, the people in our card groups and the parents of the kids our kids play with.

The unfortunate and unique part of these friends is that often this friendship is for a limited amount of time. People that we can feel so close to at one point in our lives are, often a few years later, a memory. Is it that these individuals are un-important to us? Is it that they are merely a passing fancy, something to amuse us during a certain period of time? My belief is that individuals come into our life for a certain period of time to help mold and shape us into the human beings that we are called to be, and when their job is complete they fade away for reasons that are often mundane (such as a job transfer), but that we don’t see in the grand scheme of the universe.

Fortunately, some of these people will often come and go in our lives when we need them most. It is amazing to me how I can lose track of someone I consider a dear friend only to find them later when I need them again. I think this kind of friend is more like a guardian angel; there to support and uphold us when we need them, but hovering out of site till God summons them back into our lives.

Then, there are those friends that we consider our best friends. These special individuals are such an important part of who we are; but that are really, few in number. These are the few intimates that we truly let know us, the person or persons that often know us as much or better than we know ourselves. These are the friends that share life with us for years and years at a time. People that share in life and death issues with us, people by reason of love share in sickness and in health and people that know just when to call because the connection is so strong that in their gut they know that something is amiss. These “best” friends, these intimates are really the backbone of our life. These are the people that support us no matter what and that give life meaning.

I often wonder if those people that we encounter that are mean and unhappy ever had a best friend? Did they ever know the joy of telling a secret to someone, knowing that it would be kept? Did they ever have that wonderful experience of being in a group conversation look across the table, and with a smirk on their face let their best friend know they knew exactly what he/she was thinking?

I have been blessed in my life to have a couple of people that I am truly connected with. These persons are who I am and who I will become. We share things that no one can ever take away from me, and for that I am grateful. One of these friends was taken from me early in life. I felt his death in the very depths of my being, yet I know that he has truly never left me. I know that on those days when I am overwrought and beyond consolation, and I see his face, I know I am not alone, that even in death our friendship remains, and I am made stronger once again.

Friday, August 15, 2008

On this Day O' Beautiful Mother

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians and others, this Feast Day is one of the larger ones and one that we take great pride in. Churches all over the world will be full of candles and incense, flowers and processions, Masses will be offered for the souls of our departed, expecting mothers will be blessed for safe and healthy babies and easy deliveries. The Church rejoices this day!

Theologians have spent hundreds of years trying to understand the mystery of the relationship of Mary and Jesus and that of Mary to the Church. Mary has been given many titles through the years and countless books have been written on her great powers, miracles have been attributed to her, stories upon stories of visions and apparitions have been told to us for centuries now, but now, today, centuries later we still do not really know the depth of this relationship and the roll that Mary plays in our lives.

I will admit that most of my theology in my early life was shaped by the Benedictine Sisters that taught at our little Catholic grade school. These humble and dedicated women were not theologians, they were dedicated servants that were doing their best to continue the traditions and teaching of the church to those children entrusted to their care, but much of what we were taught was really a somewhat simplistic and methodical view of this strange and wonderful woman.

One of the great things about education is having our thought processes challenged, and hopefully through maturation we can articulate those things that we grew up with and yet make them our own. This is kind of how I feel about Mary. Mary is such an integral part of who I am, yet I no longer say the rosary daily, I don’t go out of my way to light candles in front of every statue I find and I don’t wear my holy medals anymore.

But what do I do? I find comfort in her presence in my life. I try and model my life as a Christian in the same form that she did; that willingness to be open to the sacred, to be free to let God influence our lives by giving up our self will to do Gods will, to be willing to walk with those carrying their cross and share in their pain and grief.

There is always so much discussion about was she a virgin or wasn’t she? Did she have other children or was she, like I was taught, solely the mother of Jesus? Was she assumed into heaven body and spirit or did she really die a death like the rest of us? I am not sure all of this really matters. What matters is that she did have a role in our faith, she did open herself to the holy, and that she continues to direct us to the redeeming power of her son.

I will admit though, there are times when I still feel like a third grader, sitting amid the other kids at our school Mass and I hear:

On this day, O Beautiful Mother,
On this day we give thee our love,
Near the Madonna, fondly we hover……