Monday, October 6, 2008

Our Morning in Malibu

Welcome to our vocations day of recollection at the Serra Retreat Center in Malibu, California (Saturday, September 27). "Excuse me. Um. Malibu? You said the Franciscans are in Malibu? What's up with that?" Yes, the friars are definitely in Malibu and have been, fires notwithstanding, since 1943. In other words, we got there before all the celebrities did. Before Malibu was, well, Malibu.

That said, Father Warren, Father Mike, Father Philip and I were all ready to take bets on how many men would show up for the discernment experience. Three? Five? More? Imagine our delight and surprise as 12 men-- an even dozen-- made their way past the guardhouse and up the windy drive to Serra Retreat. Who were these young men, all of them willing to spend a Saturday morning to learn more about the Franciscans? Let me see: a graduate student, a social worker, a man who works in a jewelry store, an attendant in a convalescent hospital, a software whiz, a fella finishing up his Ph.D. who is absolutely in love with cycling, a translator in a hospital, a student at a community college.... In other words, a pretty decent cross-section of single young Catholic men in the Los Angeles who also, by the way, are willing to take their spiritual lives and dreams seriously. We had a great time together.

Fathers Warren, Mike, and Philip were our hosts-- all experienced retreat leaders-- all of them very interesting and accomplished men in their own right. But truth be known, this was only my second visit to Serra Center-- a 28-acre hilltop expanse with quite simple guest rooms, a dining room and chapel, and wonderful gardens overlooking the Pacific. A center of spiritual rest and renewal accessible to people throughout the LA area, its elegant surroundings notwithstanding.

I had never lived or worked much with any of these particular friars before. I was wondering what they would say in their talks, and whether or not they would 'click' with our inquirers. I shouldn't have wasted a moment in worry. I met our guests in the drive and showed them immediately to the dining room where some enjoyed a second (or third?) breakfast until everyone had arrived. Then we headed over to the Terrence Room (named after one of our much-loved confreres, Fr. Terrence Cronin) to sit for a morning session of conferences. Starting with Father Warren, each of the friars in turn came to the table to share his own vocation story and to give some insight into his particular involvement in retreat ministry.

It's not uncommon for someone who is first starting out on the spiritual journey to be a little bit romantic and starry-eyed. In fact, I contend that it is a natural stage in one's spiritual development overall. If we don't fall in love-- with God, with Jesus, with Francis, with the Franciscans-- then why the heck are we wasting our time? The romance-- and the memory of this 'first love' is so important in religious life. It's the spark that gets the fire, the passion going.

As each of the friars spoke, he shared something of the spark in his own life which kindled his particular vocational quest. For some friars it was an experience of literally 'falling in love' with God. For others, it was something more mundane and even superficial at first: the momentary romance of the habit, or, as in one case, the romance of coming to California and being close to the ocean! But the first love/romance quickly yields to the more challenging quest of digging in for the long run. Personally, I was very moved, listening to my brothers share about their lives. About the fulfillment they have found in ministry and community living. About their personal satisfaction with Franciscan life and gratitude for what it has given them. But they also spok about the thorns as well as the roses: periods of aridity, confusion, doubts, and detours. Difficulties and struggles along the way. The friars didn't try to paint a rosy picture of our lives. They try to express the reality of the joy and the pain-- and the ongoing call to conversion we experience throughout our lives.

Our guests were impressed. They asked good, direct questions: Did you ever doubt your vocation? Have you ever been in love? Did you ever think of leaving? What has kept you going in religious life? What has been most satisfying for you? Most difficult and challenging? What was the hardest thing to give up, or adjust to in community?

It was a good morning. Good, thoughtful questions. Good, honest answers. We concluded with prayer and lunch. As the men got to know each other a bit better, they shared stories and exchanged email addresses. There was a lot to talk about as well. Afterwards, the inquirers were welcome to spend time strolling the paths of the Center, or just sitting and enjoying the view. They did both.

So this is how we introduce men to our way of life. We invite them into our homes (friaries) and our ministries. We invite them to observe, reflect, share, respond. We invite, and then try to get out of the way so that the Spirit can move them to the next part of their spiritual journey. For some, it will be a journey that brings them 'home' to God through the Franciscan life and commitment. At least we hope so.

Enjoy YOUR morning, wherever you are. Even if it's not Malibu. And know that today, God's spirit is at work in your heart.//