There’s an old commercial for a major hotel chain that used to end with the slogan: “We’ll leave the light on for ya.”
As Franciscans, I wonder if our vow of poverty could be summarized with the same slogan. Discovering what poverty actually looks like has been a constant part of my life as a friar. The idyllic image of a wandering Franciscan, moving from place to place with nothing more than the shirt on his back is simply not feasible in our modern society. What place does poverty have in 21st Century living? What does the Society of St. Francis have to offer the world today in regards to the holiness of poverty?
Before I converted to the Episcopal Church, I was actively discerning the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. My vocations director, Father Brian, invited me to dinner at his church rectory with him and 3 other priests. Together, they lived next to one of the wealthier parishes in the suburbs of Indianapolis. Unlike the simple little priest’s rectory at my home parish, Fr. Brian’s accommodations consisted of a 3 floor rustic home, bedecked in dark wood from floor to ceiling, a kitchen with granite countertops, complete with a sizable deck for a few rocking chairs and a place to smoke a cigar and drink a glass of whiskey at night. Father Brian even has his own gym membership. Being a priest in this particular parish was for someone like me a step up the socioeconomic ladder.
Reflecting on this experience years later, I don’t find myself actually being jealous of these priests who, in all likelihood, did not ask for these amenities and at any time may be asked to relocate to another, less financially well-off parish. I even felt a hint of joy, knowing there was a parish like this that decided to spend so much to care for its priests who in turn have given so much of their lives towards the tending of God's flock.
As a Franciscan living in community, as brothers have alluded to in other articles on this website, I often wonder at the relative safety and security I have living in our homes. Here in San Francisco, I feel a hint of embarrassment when I tell people I live across from one of the more popular parks in the city. I always have to say, “Well, when the brothers moved here 40 years ago, this part of town wasn’t as nice as it is today.” I hate having to qualify my living arrangements with people who don’t know the long history and selfless work of the brothers here on Dolores Street.
People on the outside may never see it, but our lives as brothers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City is a selfless life. No matter where we live, our lives are no longer our own. Today, our Franciscan homes live out the hotel slogan I mentioned earlier. Many, if not all, of the brothers, will tell you stories of how they’ve been awakened in the middle of the night to tend to the need of God's flock. For me, those are the times when I feel the most Franciscan.
Our schedule as brothers does have its restrictions, such as time set aside for prayer and study, but we learn quickly that things are susceptible to change if God calls us. A passage ripped from our guiding principles as First Order brothers and sisters comes to mind. It reads, “The brothers and sisters must be glad at all times to relieve those who come to them for help or counsel. They must never give the impression that they have no time for such ministry. Rather must they be ready to lay aside all other work, including even the work of prayer, where such service is immediately required, confident that such a negligence will surely be well-pleasing to the Servant of all.”
How many times us brothers have been in a rush to get to a particular ministry only to be stopped by a man or woman seeking spiritual counseling or direction! How many times has someone on the street needed a listening ear, an inspirational word, or a shoulder to cry on! There’s a reason our brothers are not known for their punctuality.
As a brother, one learns quickly that your life is no longer your own. Instead, it is something to be shared. What was so comfortably “yours” before one joins is now no more. “Your” prayer routine and devotions do not supersede the house’s communal offering. “Your” ministries are subject to the ministries and needs of the house. “Your” goals become part of the larger vision of the community and its mission. “Your” vacation or personal time is dependent on the financial and personal state of the friary. “Your” home friary is dependent upon where the brothers need you to be.
Those who are married or have children will know well the obligations and joys that come with no longer living for oneself but for others. As brothers, as men who have decided to live in community under vows, our lives are no longer in our hands. We are part of something much larger than ourselves. Our fortunes are tied with that of others. It is an incredibly vulnerable position we find ourselves in. Many of us left a comfortable and enjoyable life in order to explore the depths of God’s love. We go where the Lord calls us. Whether it be halfway across the world or to answer the front door in the middle of the night. Where God calls us, there we are.