Friday, May 16, 2008

Brother Jeff is leaving... or is he?

Brother Jeff Shackleton, 45, has been with our community for seven years. Soon, he will need to decide either to renew his temporary vows or else leave our formation program. It’s an agonizing decision for any man who has entered religious life, but Jeff’s situation is illustrative of the ongoing nature of vocational discernment.

Discernment doesn’t stop at the front door of the friary. Trying to understand God’s will is a step by step, day by day process for each and all of us. And it’s a lifelong process, as well. Not a once and for all time commitment. We are human beings, not angels. We make our promises and, with the grace of God, we do our best to keep them. But only the saints among us have anything remotely like a perfect record.

I tell men who are in discernment with us and who decide to apply to our postulancy program: “Please relax. You are not making a decision for the rest of your life. You are making a decision for the next nine months—to enter into one of our houses and live with us in order to try on our way of life and see if it fits.” Sometimes I have to remind the solemnly professed friars of the same thing: “Look, Brothers, we are not considering men for solemn profession at this point. There are bound to be lots of quirks and rough spots in a person’s life, unless he has done a really good job of airbrushing his resume. We are looking to see if a man has the desire, the discipline, and the potential to try his vocation with us.”

At this point it may be instructive to repeat the drill. A man who may be considering a call to religious life contacts us, either in person, by letter or phone, or more increasingly, by email. Our Vocations Office responds, sends him a packet of information and a brief questionnaire. Once a man returns the questionnaire, we set up a “let’s get acquainted” meeting. Or we may invite him to one of our monthly prayer and discernment groups (Los Angeles, Oakland, Berkeley, Phoenix/Tucson, Portland). If he comes to a monthly meeting, we’ll give him a nice dinner, show him around the house, sit with him and the 3-5 other men who may be there as well, and, well, just talk. We make suggestions for things to read, people to see (like a local spiritual director), and things to do (volunteer lay ministry in a parish, social service, etc.) that may help. If a man seems reasonably serious, we will invite him to one of several retreats we offer during the course of the year. Then, usually after a period of anywhere from 6-18 months, he may decide to apply to postulancy—the first phase of our formal formation process.

See? It’s all step by step, poco à poco. That’s the way the Spirit works. Nice and easy. Set a good foundation in prayer, service, spiritual direction, community contact. One step leads naturally to another—gently, firmly, confidently. There should be no drama about this. Drama doesn’t do it. At any point, a man may opt out. That’s just fine. It is not the mark of a failed vocation—it’s a sign that, after having done his footwork, a man may have more clarity and peace about his vocation. And his vocation may not be with us. It is not time wasted; it’s time well spent.

As in the case of our brother Jeff, the discernment continues in a very distinctive way throughout the early years of Franciscan formation—through postulancy, novitiate, and what is called “temporary profession” or “postnovitiate formation.” At the conclusion of his second year with us—the novitiate—a man will make public vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience for a period of one year. Here, the process is more formally structured. Most often, a man lives with other men “in formation.” They have common experiences, meet for days of reflection and retreats together. Each man is evaluated periodically-- he meets with his director on a regular basis to discuss how he is growing in his life—as a human being, as a Christian, as a Franciscan. At the conclusion of each “year”, he may opt to renew his vows, re-up for another year. He may decide to leave. Or the community may ask him to leave. Most often, it’s a mutual decision— we try to let a man know where he stands with us. No trap doors.

Again, departing from formation is a decision, not a disgrace. I need to say that because some folks are still walking around with the idea in their heads that if they don’t ‘make it’ in religious life, they have failed as human beings. Often this attitude comes from the expectations we have of ourselves or the expectations of one’s family or community. Which ain’t necessarily the will of God in one’s life.

The third time is a charm. After a man has renewed his vows for three consecutive years (up to a maximum of nine years), he may apply for solemn (lifelong) profession. If he can’t decide after the maximum amount of time, he needs to leave. There is wisdom in this. A man who can’t or won’t make up his mind can drive himself and other people bonkers.

So what about men who are solemnly professed? Don’t some of them leave, too? Is it true that ‘forever’ isn’t ‘forever’ anymore? Well, let’s be honest and look around us. How many people vow to marriage and stay together their entire lifetime? We are part of society, too. Some people burn out. Some may face a midlife crisis. Others may fall in love. We are human beings. So people leave. Some for a while, only to return later on. Others for good.

How does it feel when a friar leaves? It depends on who is leaving, but yes, it can hurt like hell, too. We open our hearts to each other, hope and trust that we will grow old/er together. That we will always have access to each other in the wonderful ways in which the roots of our lives have knitted (and tangled!) themselves together over time. And the ways in which we have come to endure, tolerate, accept, and then even delight in each other’s goofiness. Yep, it can hurt. And so it is with life. You don’t get any dispensation from pain in religious community.

So, Brother Jeff is up for renewal of vows. Whether he or any man decides to stay or leave, we pray that his decision be marked by that deep sense of inner peace which is a sure sign of the Spirit’s presence, protection, and care. And as a community, we are blessed by all the time and energy a man gives to our life and ministry together—whether it be a single day or an entire lifetime.

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