… one day when Francis went out to meditate in the fields, he walked near the church of San Damiano which was threatening to collapse because of age. Impelled by the Spirit, he went inside to pray. Prostrate before an image of the Crucified, he was filled with no little consolation as he prayed. While his tear-filled eyes were gazing at the Lord's cross, he heard with his bodily ears a voice coming from that cross, telling him three times: "Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is all being destroyed."
The Major Legend of St. Francis, St. Bonaventure
BECOME A BROTHER
Do you think God may be calling you to explore a Franciscan vocation? Are you looking for a life where you can dedicate yourself to prayer and contemplation alongside a serious commitment to serve those on the margins of society? Are you looking to follow Jesus incarnationally, as the hands and feet of God in the world today? Do you wish to grow in faith by following the Gospel after the pattern of the little poor man of Assisi? Here are some initial thoughts on beginning to discern a vocation with SSF.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours. No hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which look out Christ's blessing on this world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless people now.
St. Teresa of Avila
POINTS TO PONDER
Forever, right now? Many of the stories of Francis seem to describe a dramatic moment when he gave up everything and immediately set to an entirely new life. Read together, though, they show that even for Francis, discerning this radical new way was a long process. While a sudden flash of certainty it is an inspiring idea, its probably not how most of us experience discernment. There is, of course, no magic way to know right now what you are called to for the rest of your life. And no one in SSF will ask you to!
How will I know? While there is much prayer and study that can inform discernment into a vocation as a Franciscan Brother, the proof (as the saying goes) is in the pudding. Discernment happens in stages, and in community. When men come to join us, we speak of them as "testing a vocation." You will only know if this calling is the right one for you by living in it.
What if it isn't right? There is a standing joke in our community about an elderly Brother who used to say "another Novice has come to test our vocation!" While cheeky, it is also true. Every new Brother makes us a new community, and together we strive to discern the right way forward. Some men come to us for a very brief time, and know the fit is not right. Some men stay for a while, and then feel a call elsewhere. Some stay for many years, but even then we find the way forward is not together. Some stay forever, and grow old and enter glory surrounded by their Brothers. It is vitally important to realize that all of those vocations are successful. We are grateful for every man who comes to test with us. Whatever time we have together is God's gift to us, and our opportunity to be gifts to one another. We are changed by every man who comes to us.
THE RIGHT STUFF?
Francis was once asked what would make the perfect Friar Minor. He replied by describing the various traits of the Brothers he already had. There is no perfect Brother. He is all of us, and none of us. We all bring different gifts, insights, and yes, challenges to community. No particular personality type, training, or experience automatically makes someone a good or bad candidate for a vocation. Still, it is worth considering some traits that are likely to make your adjustment to our life easier, or more challenging.
Are you able to "roll with the punches?" Can you tolerate mess and uncertainty? Or do you need everything to be "just so," consistent and neat all the time? People who are markedly inflexible will often have great difficulty in community. Everyone is different, and their differences are expressed in our life together. You can be sure things will not always be as you want them.
Joining a religious community is not just an investment in being religious, it's also an investment in being part of a community. While many of us value significant "alone time," we are not hermits. Meaningful engagement with one another and the world around us is non-negotiable. If you are a person who prefers to avoid close relationships, you will likely struggle in community.
The flip side of flexibility. While some struggle with the uncertainty and change of community, others wish change would happen faster, or strain against the rhythm and routines of our life. We try live our life at a slower pace than the rest of our culture, which can be a great gift or a great frustration. Community decisions and changes may come slowly as we seek to move by consensus, not by majority rule.
Humility is one of the great values of our Principles. It is also absolutely vital to living together. We live in a world of "us" more than "me." Are you able to set aside your need to act on your own, an independent agent? While we do not set aside our individuality, we do often choose to give it a back seat. We make decisions together, because all that we do affects the whole community.
Sooner or later, you will become disillusioned with our life. It's best to say that right now. We all come to religious life with romantic ideas of a life of undistracted spirituality among men of great holiness. The reality is much grittier. We are a group of broken humans, no different from anyone else, trying to live the Gospel together as best we can. If you are coming here to escape life, don't. It will come with you.
Here's a "nuts and bolts" overview of the discernment and formation process for becoming a Brother in the Society of St Francis.
While there may be variations in each individual case, this is the general progress and timing of events from first considering a call all the way to Life Profession in the Society. The time spans for the Novitiate and First Profession reflect the minimum required time and the maximum allowable time in each stage.
Note that from the time of moving to the Novitiate to the time of Life Profession is at minimum 5 1/2 years (its usually longer). Discernment is a process, not an event. There is no rush.
Click on the image to enlarge.
Discernment should always be a three-way conversation among the individual, God, and the community.
Discernment is often less about talking and more about listening. We must take care to listen to each of these participants in the conversation. Discernment cannot be simply "I have decided..."
Community here includes not only the Brothers of SSF who will be considering your request, but also your parish, family, friends, spiritual director and others who know you and can offer insight.
This book, Listening Hearts, by Susan Farnham, et al., has been used by many individuals and parishes in learning about how to discern God's call. It's been very popular in Episcopal circles, so if you belong to an Episcopal parish, you may well find it in your church library.