Updated: Jun 6, 2019
Here is the text of Brother Desmond Alban's annual address to Chapter, May 15, 2019:
I have travelled a lot in the past few weeks, but that can give you a chance to catch up with movies. One I watched ten days ago, between Chicago and New York was the adaptation of a book I also read this year, Gerrard Conley's Boy Erased. Spoiler alert, but somewhere in the last reel of the film, Jared, now two or three years into his escape from gay-conversion therapy and embarking on a fledgling writing career, makes an unannounced visit to his parents' home on a Sunday where he finds his mother home. She suggests that if he wants to talk with his father he'll have to go to Church - he is, after all, the Pastor! But that prompts Jared to ask his mother, why she isn't there. "I do go. Sometimes. I support your father. But he knows I can't cope with all the... well... I love God, God loves me, I love my son. That's it. I think for your father it's a little bit more complicated."
If there is one thing I have learned in two years as Minister, it's something that I really already knew. Love is always more complicated. Not, of course, in the ultimate sense - in the sense that so inflames our hearts as Franciscans - that conviction that Christ, the Creation, the Incarnation, the Universe, the very life of the Holy Trinity, the whole thing, is fundamentally about relationship the primacy of a love that we can find so hard to believe in, at least for ourselves, in a practical sense, even when we're declaring it to others. That hard knowledge that we are loved. Not because we love God. Not because we think we care for the poor, or the environment or about inclusion or social justice. Not because we say the right things or pray the right prayers. Not because we screw up our faces to try to make sure we believe what we say we believe. That nothing in the whole picture has anything to do with what we might deserve because it was never about being deserved in the first place. That truth that is so hard to accept is also really so simple. But on the way, yes, it's complicated. Working it out, living it out in our individual lives and especially our community life, may be one of the most important examples of that insight of Oliver Wendell Homes, "For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn't give you a fig, but for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have."
Two years ago, in my first address as Minister, I quoted the beautiful poem by Galway Kinnell about Francis blessing the sow, about the need to teach a thing its loveliness. I felt that it encapsulated so much of the ministry we aspire to as Franciscans. And I felt its acute relevance when we look around at one another in community and what we see, sometimes, isn't lovely at all. Perhaps, I felt, if we could only enable each other to believe that we are loved, then we might begin more consistently to behave as if that were actually true. We can feel so small, so fragile, so uncertain, so in need of some kind of security and validation. Are we doing it all right? Am I going to make it? Are we going to make it? That example of teaching a thing its loveliness was so important to me that I made reference to it again a year ago, and here I am bringing it up once more. It seems relevant to some of the more difficult pastoral and interpersonal moments of the last year and in our current community life. But maybe, too, there was on my part an erring on that short-cut side of complexity. If, in the years ahead, at the start of this second Century of our existence as a community, and starting almost from scratch - which is a good place to start - we are going to continue on the journey of building a community that expresses not only the love we have found in Christ but also the joy and humility that are core values for us as Franciscans, it's often going to be complicated.
That thought of joy caught me up short recently. I was "surprised by joy" by something said by a couple of members of the superiors' group during our sharing at the Leaders' Conference of CAROA[i]. One of them is someone I have thought of as one of the least inspiring and uncharismatic people I have ever met! But I could tell they meant it when they spoke of the sheer wonder and privilege of living the Religious Life to which they were called, almost unable to fathom why anyone wouldn't choose to be a religious brother or sister in the Episcopal Church. I know that most of us wouldn't say that. Some of us would be rather cynical. I wonder why Franciscans of all people may be so reticent to express our lives in terms of joy, or even to characterize it as much of a feature of our daily life. We - I - seem to be pre-occupied with the problems, the anxieties, with all that is wrong...especially with each other. Of course, joy, as our Principles effectively remind us, is not the same thing as happiness, and neither is much attained by its deliberate seeking or grasping. As William Blake put it, "He who binds to himself a joy Does the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in eternity's sun rise." And sometimes there is a joy that shines through in our community life, despite everything. It is often most apparent to those who are one step removed from our center, those who encounter us in the hinterland of our houses: in the parishes, the residential homes or hospitals, the clothing and feeding programs and the streets of our lives. We are, at least, not afraid of a sense of humor! And sometimes we actually rediscover joy when we articulate our life in talking to others. But if we may not grasp at it, joy is, unlike happiness, and more like the gratitude with which it is linked, something we can seek to cultivate and practice. Perhaps we do need to remember to kiss it as it flies occasionally! There is a very real sense in which it is a choice, an aspect reflected in those irritating stories of Francis upbraiding brothers who dared to walk around looking miserable!
And so, to humility which is so much the key factor in our Franciscan perspective on the living of the Gospel. And so paradoxical! Do we sometimes struggle to express the Gospel life in our community because we love ourselves too much or because we haven't learned to love ourselves at all? And perhaps that's the same thing. Looking around, I do see a fair bit of protected-ness in our community, a lot of body armor at times. Including in myself. What that looks like varies of course. Some of us can appear very reluctant to really let others in, to relate to one another at a level much below the surface. We escape into our heads, or into the acceptable stereotypes of our culture's construction of masculinity, or into a piety or religious practice that keeps us at arm's length from the messy reality of being human, and hence, actually from genuine encounter with our frightening, incarnate God. The Gospel tells us quite clearly that He is to be found where broken humanity is - and we revel in that in the kinds of ministries we identify with as Franciscans. But what if the broken humanity with which I need to engage is my own? Or indeed that of my brother whose broken parts and deep need for connection is masked by apparent self-sufficiency. As Bishop Frank Griswold put it in his address to CAROA, imagine if people could really see what we're like underneath the habit! But there's another kind of armor that doesn't look like armor at all. For those of us who are so inclined, weakness and vulnerability - which in their most genuine expression can be holy ground for true human and divine encounter - can become just another way of evading conflict or responsibility, of hiding behind an apologetic humility that isn't really humility at all. If I'm incapable of doing it, then it really can't be my fault! And "sorry" can be a kind of "safe word", calculated to make me more comfortable by preempting any further challenge from you. But sometimes we appear as if we think of ourselves as absolutely right, at least in our own favored areas of expertise, as if we have nothing at all to learn from the ignorant and character-flawed simpletons with whom we graciously condescend to share our lives. False strength, false weakness, both can be places to hide.
Now I don't think we're a disaster! I look around the room and "I thank God when I remember you in my prayers", I really do. And I do see you loving and caring for one another! When I do hear complaints about others, they are often born of a deep frustration that the unique value, the true giftedness of the brother we live with, is somehow being distorted or not given authentic expression. But there is a tension, maybe even a genuine paradox, between actually valuing ourselves with some small reflection of the value that God puts on each of us, and the sine proprio of letting go, not grasping at or promoting our "own" abilities, experience and opinions. We need help to realize our true value in Christ, in the light of which all our inauthentic self-regard melts away.
It might be simplest to consider for a moment two of our number not present here this week. And I don't, for now, mean our less-mobile brothers, Robert and Leo, at home in San Francisco, but rather the other Robert, and Edward, our newly arrived aspirants. They come with those passions and gifts and life experiences. Thank God that Religious Life no longer demands that should be denied or left outside the door. But as they will hopefully formally say in the novicing rite later this year, they have come "to learn (our) way of life, and to be tested in the following of Christ crucified". There will be much they see that they might wish to challenge. There will be much that they might want to reform and many ways, indeed, in which our life together doubtless is in need of reform. But one of the needed reforms right now may well be, ironically, to reset this balance. They haven't come to reform us, or to tell us how to live. They have come to learn, to submit actually, to set aside self-will, to learn that way of sine proprio, to be changed rather than to change us - even though our being changed by them is inevitable, and part of the economy of grace. I believe we should be thankful for much that we shared with those other three novices who came and went over this last year, much that we gained from our life together. But I believe that some, at least, of the pain and struggle that we experienced over the winter might have been lessened if we had given clearer expression to that principle.
On the other hand, formation doesn't end, it is ongoing - for life. And in that sense, I am talking about what is needed for Robert Hugh, and Leo Anthony, and Desmond Alban and all of us here. We are all in formation. And that means we are all called to this challenging, complicated business of learning - still learning - how to navigate the complexity of actually being a community. To do that we need to embrace that setting aside of self-will, that openness to the way of dying to self and rising to life that Easter reminds us is the fundamental Gospel principle of how transformation works, for individuals, for communities, for the whole creation actually. And we need help to do this. We need the help of each other in our acceptance and affirmation and loving of one another despite everything that drives us crazy. And we need help from others too. All of us should have effective Spiritual Directors. Several of us are currently in therapeutic or analytical relationships or are in some sense or another currently students of psychology as well as spirituality. I'm glad that we are. That is a new, or at least extended, development for several individuals here just in recent weeks or months, or something that others are considering, and it gives me hope and reassurance to know that is happening and that others are seriously discerning such a path. We need help getting out from under our own illusions and projections, help for us to interrogate the reality of ourselves and others, to courageously embrace truth, rather than the fantasies, whether good or bad, with which we are so often content.
Thomas of Celano famously records Francis saying at the end of his life, "I have done what was mine to do, may God teach you what is yours." It tends to make us think of his ministry, his service to the poor, his deepening life of contemplation. But may we not also ask what it was he needed to do, or at least to accept and consent to in his life, which made his own continuing conversion possible? Our Benedictine brothers and sisters take a vow of Conversion of Life and I think they are on to something. What will it take for you to fearlessly continue along the path of transformation whatever hobgoblins or foul fiends of the soul you may have to contend with in the way? Will you take the risk? Will you fearlessly persevere? Will you continue in the necessary personal work? I think that's what I'm asking. With the encouragement of my brothers, I have taken a few intentional steps this year along the complex path of learning how to love myself and serve with love in the role I've been called to. I believe I have begun to do what is mine to do. May God teach you what is yours.
Desmond Alban SSF
Wednesday, 15 May, 2019
[i] Conference of Anglican Religious Orders in the Americas