It was a typical British evening, one Spring in 2019. That is to say, it was very wet and very, very cold. I was walking home from the Alnmouth train station located in the sparsely populated Northumbrian landscape in northern England. Accompanying me was the ex-pat Brother Jason—originally from Boston—and Brother Joseph Emmanuel, a formidable Scotsman. We just returned from a long day’s trip up north to Edinburgh, from where Joe and his family originate.
Pictured above: Brother Joseph Emmanuel with a Poor Clare Sister in Arkley.
As we were walking home, I started telling Brothers Jason and Joe about the recent transformation taking place in our American province. I told them how we were figuring out what our charism was that distinguished us from not only other Franciscan houses but other religious orders. The Benedictines, for instance, spend their days praying five, six, or seven times each day. The Jesuits teach at universities and schools. The Franciscans, I said, work mostly with the poor or forgotten. And within Franciscan homes, some friaries like San Damiano Friary in San Francisco are very, very active. Other houses, like the future hermitage in Kelseyville, California will be, I suspect, very contemplative places. Each house has a role to play in the life of the community, I said. As a result, brothers join the community and end up in the houses that fit their individual calling from God. Some brothers are called to serve the poor. Others are called to teach. Others called to preach.
I knew I had said something disconcerting to Brother Joe when he didn’t respond to me. Even as the rain was pouring down, I knew he had heard me. Just a few days prior, we had gone to visit Holy Island just north of Almouth Friary. There the rain was pouring heavier than it was this evening. Even in the frigid rain, the indomitable Scotsman was as coherent as ever.
“No,” Joe finally replied. “All our houses are, first and foremost, houses of prayer. From the outpouring of our life of prayer do we then engage in ministries—like running a guest house, or working at food banks, or leading retreats, or engaging in a more contemplative life.”
That evening, after we made it back to the friary, I went to bed shivering and partially frozen. Ever since then, however, I realize Joe had touched upon something I haven’t been able to shake since.
His words ring as true today as they did when Father Joseph Crookston, our American Franciscan founder was recorded as saying, “Every religious community now existing is the result of prayer.”
Pictured above: Father Joseph, founder of the Order of St. Francis.
To be a religious brother means, first a foremost, to be a man of prayer. Without prayer, nothing else we do matters. Without a strong prayer life, our vocation rests on sand.
As Franciscans, we do not exist to only care for the poor and downtrodden. If that were so, why then did we not just become social workers? Why have we voluntarily chosen to live with other men, (especially men with whom we may find difficult at times!) if we could achieve the same ends whilst living in the privacy of our own homes?
Why have we chosen to abstain from a married life, foregoing the joy that comes from being a father or husband?
Why have we chosen to embrace poverty when many of us lived comfortably even before we became a brother?
Pictured above: A campus chapel in Edinburgh. Brother Jason on the left. Brother Joseph Emmanuel on the right.
As Franciscans, we are, as Brother Joe rightly observed, first and foremost men of prayer. From our experience of prayer flows the fruit that makes us Franciscans. And, as Franciscans, we know our founder did his best to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. That too is our goal. More than just helping the poor, more than just leading retreats, more than just celebrating the Mass, our goal as Franciscans is to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
When we recognize the absolute primacy of God in our lives, then our relationship with our neighbors and all of creation is strengthened. “We love because he first loved us,” writes John the Evangelist (1 John 4:19). From that prime experience of love—both in order and degree—we become (imperfect) tools of God. We become Our Lord’s hands and feet in the 21st Century.
For us, no lasting joy, no fulfillment, no harmony is found unless we engage our hearts towards the One who brings all joy, all fullness, all harmony and peace to our hearts and minds. But to experience the love of God, we must first become men of prayer.
Brother James Nathaniel can be reached at email@example.com