Updated: May 13, 2019
When I was in high school, I distinctly recall a time where, laying out on the roof of my grandmother’s house, I slipped into a mindset in which I made the conscience effort to not forget that moment. I remember my father, uncles, and brother had just started a quick water break. I stayed behind in order to rest. I remember laying on the unfinished roof, staring up at the sky, thinking to myself, “I want to remember this moment forever.” To this day, many years later, I can still recall that moment with clarity.
At the time, I was going through a dramatic shift in my life. Looking back, it was typical of any high school aged person to experience the doubts and anxieties found in many young people during these formative years. At the time, I was going through the early stages of an eating disorder. My entire world was focused on losing weight and trying to appeal to others. I was also in the midst of beginning to seriously consider the priesthood as my life vocation.
Yet, at that exact moment on the roof, those worries disappeared. Instead, I remember thinking about how far away and beautiful the sky is. What was my place in it?
Ever since that time I’ve occasionally turned my thoughts to the idea of eternity and the essence of my being. For what purpose was I created? For whom do I choose to live? Even more important—what importance does dwelling on these questions actually have when gazing upon the unimaginably vast eternity yet to come? What is a minute of reflection worth when compared to eternity?
What haunts me is the idea of not being around anymore to experience all the things yet to come. I don’t know of really any way to deal with the idea of nonexistence. I know as a Christian, I find my soul shaped by the ideas and teachings from Jesus of Nazareth. As a Franciscan friar, I have decided to dedicate my life to understanding this man better. Like Saint Francis, I want to be the hands and feet of God to those who are most in need. In dwelling on the needs of others, I forget myself and my problems, and start thinking about other people.
When I am find myself existentially groaning with despair, I retrieve my Bible and read from the Gospels. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says, “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are ye not much better than they?…Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.”
Side note: I can’t help but be reminded of Monty Python’s Life of Brian where, after hearing this same parable told by Brian, the people respond by asking what Brian has against birds. "I haven't got anything against the birds" says Brian. "Consider the lilies...," he continues.
"He's having a go at the flowers now," says the crowd. "Oh, give the flowers a chance!" they say.
But what Jesus says is the truth. It’s not always important to focus on death but to be more mindful of the here and now. Death is as unstoppable as puberty is to a teenager; a teen can’t by his own will make puberty skip him or delay it from happening. Neither can I imagine myself a way out of avoiding death. I really have no choice but to accept it and know it will one day come for me.
I believe part of my life as a Franciscan friar teaches me to let go, to let go of all those questions and concerns about my impending demise. Part of the education I’m receiving from the brothers here is learning how to let go of so many parts of my life I used to value, particularly my individual freedom and desires. Dying to self doesn’t necessarily mean life will go your way. I’m still learning that. Despite evidence to the contrary, I realize I’m not the central story of this whole thing called existence. I believe I am part of God’s creation, not the center of it. Being a Franciscan isn’t even about keeping the person of St. Francis at the center of myself. Being a Franciscan is partly about losing myself for the sake of others, for the sake of bringing the love of God closer to people in a way they may not have understood or experienced before. Abandoning myself completely to the will of God means letting go of myself and learning to die before I actually die.
Brother James Nathaniel can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.