Monday, February 16, 2009

A Few Novel Approaches to Discernment

“Once at a conference of Benedictines,” writes Kathleen Norris, in her recently published bestseller, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life, (Riverhead Books: New York), 2008: “ I witnessed an impassioned response to a presentation a sister had given on using the ancient practice of discernment to treat mental illness in the present day. She defined discernment clearly enough, as fostering ‘our ability to do the right deed with the right intention or motivation.”

I, too, remember once attending a lecture and listening to a stirring presentation as well. Only this one was given by a visual artist as she described her work and process. She said it was so important to “plant” an idea on one’s mind and then to follow that creative impulse over time and notice how the idea “grows” and develops. How the subconscious appears to gather information the artist needs for the work from a wide variety of sources: from nature, from exhibitions, from books and publications, and even chance encounters with people. Provided, of course, that one is consistently alert and carefully attentive.

I’ve been experimenting with that idea myself lately with regard to the whole idea of vocational discernment: How do we learn to make good decisions? How do we know and trust the path we are taking? What helps and hinders us along the way? Instead of referring to the ‘usual suspects’ of Scriptural references, academic writing, and biography for help in this time, I decided just to “plant the idea” in my mind and pay attention to the results.

I’ve been doing this over the past several weeks now-- reading (and watching) things more or less at random to see what pops up in terms of approaches to vocational discernment Here are a few of the discoveries I’ve made that I’d like to share with you. I hope that this process may help to stimulate your own spiritual creativity and discovery. If you’ve made any analogous discoveries on your own that you’d like to share, let me know. Just send an email to: --ct

The Green Knight, by Iris Murdoch (Penguin Books, New York), 1993. One of the chief characters in this novel about a rather complicated upper-middle class family of friends in the London of the 1980s is a rather earnest young man named Bellamy. Still in his early 20s, Bellamy has made an impulsive and superficial conversion to Catholicism, after which he resolves to become a monk to boot. He leaves school and work, rents a tiny room in a rundown neighborhood, surrenders most of his worldy possessions-- including his beloved dog—all in the name of his recently embraced aesceticism. He starts to correspond with a monk, a certain Father Damien, who turns out to be a great deal wiser and more perceptive than Bellamy would ever suspect. The priest is friendly and polite, but also cautious and circumspect in his long-distance spiritual direction. He consistently offers very good advice about discernment which Bellamy consistently ignores or rejects. Sound familiar?

Towards the end of the novel, we find Bellamy—now a bit older, sadder, and wiser, going over his accumulated correspondence with Fr. Damien. From this pile of letters, he fashions for himself a rather breathless summary of Damien’s observations and advice over time: “You are deeply stained by the world, (the priest writes), the stain is taken deeply, as the years go by, you cannot become holy by renouncing worldly pleasures, you must not look for revelations or for signs, these are mere selfish thrills which you mistake for adoration, what you take for humility is the charm of masochism, what you call the dark night is the obscurity of the restless soul, by picturing the end of the road you imagine you have reached it, you cherish magic which is the enemy of truth, you think of the dedicated life as a form of death, but you will be alive and crying, the way of Christ is hard and plain, it is a way of brokenness, we seek the invisible through the visible, but we make idols of the visible, icons which are made for breaking, the agonies of that pilgrimage may consume a lifetime and end in despair, your wish to suffer is a soothing day-dream, the false God punishes, the true God slays, the evils in you must be killed, not as pets to be tormented, do not punish your sins, you must destroy them, go out and help your neighbor, be happy yourself and make others happy, that is your path, not that of the cloister, be quiet, humble, know that what you can achieve is little, desire the good which purifies the love that seeks it, pray always, stay at home and do not look for God outside your own soul.” (p. 464).

Father Damien gives it to Bellamy both barrels. Yes, he is rough on the young man, but he is also honest, direct, and generous. He attempts to break through the thick layers of adolescent self-deception and denial that Bellamy substitutes for authentic experience, reflection, and understanding. He insists that the young man can and must find his own path—but only by entering through the narrow gate of authentic relationship with others-- in both friendship and in service. It is difficult for Bellamy to digest and accept any of this. But finally, and only after much resistance and multiple failures, does the young man start to admit the truth of his life and search. It is then that his real novitiate into adult life begins.

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time, Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, (Penguin Books: New York), 2006. This bestselling autobiography describes Mortenson's transition from a professional mountain-climber to a humanitarian committed to reducing poverty and educating girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 1993, after an unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the second-highest mountain in the world (where he intended to plant a necklace in honor of his recently deceased sister, Chrissa), Mortenson descends the peak only to arrive at the modest village of Korphe. He is welcomed by the villagers and their mayor, Haji Ali, who helps Mortenson recuperate from the treacherous descent. In time, Mortenson is shown the village ‘school’—an open air site where the children gather year-round to study. He writes: “I felt like my heart was being torn out. There was a fierceness in their desire to learn, despite how mightily everything was stacked against them…. I knew I had to do something….

"Standing next to Haji Ali, on the ledge overlooking the valley, with such a crystalline view of the mountains he’d come halfway around the world to measure himself against, climbing K2 … suddenly felt beside the point. There was much more meaningful gesture he could make in honor of his sister’s memory. He put his hands on Haji Ali’s shoulders, as the old man had done to him dozens of times since they’d shared their first cup of tea. ‘I’m going to build you a school,’ he said, not yet realizing that with those words, the path of his life had just detoured down another trail, a route far more serpentine and arduous than the wrong turns he’d taken since retreating from K2. ‘I will build a school,’ Mortenson said. ‘I promise.’” pp. 32--33

Man on Wire (film, director, James Marsh, 2008). Frenchman Philippe Petit first captured the world's attentio—and imagination-- in 1974 when he successfully walked across a high wire between twin towers of New York's. World Trade Center. This documentary film explores the preparations that went into the amazing stunt as well as the event and its aftermath. The project was eight years in the making. In the film, Petit describes the genesis of his idea: As a 17-year-old boy, he finds himself sitting in the waiting room of his dentist’s office in Paris. He notices a newspaper drawing of the proposed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York and immediately envisions the possibility of traversing the space between the two structures on a wire: “ Suddenly I see something magnificent,” he recalls. “Now I need to have this little tangible start of my dream. Everyone is watching, but I must have that little piece of my dream….“Usually when you have a dream, the object of your dream is tangible—it’s there….it’s quixotic, but its’ there, you know, nagging you, confronting you.” Petit rushes out of the dentist’s office-- newspaper in hand-- determined to pursue an improbable, even impossible dream which would take him nearly a decade to realize.

A Gentle Path through the Twelve Steps: The Classic Guide for All People in the Process of Recovery, Patrick Carnes, Ph.D (Hazeldon: Center City, Minnesota). 1993, p. 111 “Access your own wisdom,” the author of this popular 12-step recovery workbook writes. “Emptying ourselves of distractions, preoccupations, and obsessions allows us to connect with who we really are. Henri Nouwen, the famous tehologican, described this early stage of spiritual life as the ‘conversion of loneliness into solitude,’ It means discovering what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, ‘the ground of our being.’ It is finding the sacred within us. When we are true to ourselves, we are most spiritual. That means tuning into our own authentic voice.

“How do we do that? Think of your own life experience. Think of the times you had an intuition that something was not going to work out, but you did it anyway. And when that turned out to be a disaster, you said, ‘If only I had listened to myself.’ Carl Jung talked about a larger consciousness that we can tap into with our intuition—if we would listen. This is called ‘discernment’—the ability to see clearly what is, especially in those situations when we have no rules, laws, or prior experience to direct us. This is where divine guidance and trusting ourselves meet. All heroes come to this crossroards where they do not know the outcome, but must act.

“To cultivate discernment, keep a regular journal, develp a daily meditation routine, listen to music that makes you feel like yourself, and read what helps your insight and sense of self. There is no magic about this process. If you work at it, your true voice—the one that is in harmony with the larger universe—will become clear.” p. 111

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A New 'Chapter' in Our History

"Siempre adelante! Nunca para atras!" ("Always go forward! Never turn back!") These word of Blessed/ Beato Junipero Serra, ofm, presidente of the historic California Missions founded during the Spanish Empire in the West, served as inspirational bookends for our recent Chapter 2009 (January 4-9, 2009). Old Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, California, served as an effective inspirational backdrop to our week-long meetings and festivities. And, oh, what a week it was!

In fewer than five days, the 160-plus Franciscan friars of the Province of St. Barbara had to make their way through a daunting list of decisions, projects, and activities. First off, we received a summary report from our Visitator General, Father Peter Williams, whose job it has been to visit each of our fraternities and interview and evaluate the work and community life of each and all of our friars. Secondly, we had the task of bidding farewell to our current Minister Provincial, Father Mel Jurisich, and then electing new leadership for the next six-year period. The new leadership team includes a new provincial minister (Fr. John Hardin)and his assistant/ vicar provincial, Fr. Ken Laverone. In additon, the solemnly professed friars also voted on the membership of the provincial's group of councillors, or Definitorium-- six friars who will assist in the decision-making functions of the Province over the next three years.

Father Mel, in his farewell address, encapsulate the efforts of his six-year term of service under the rubric of "transparency": “'Transparency'", he said, "has become a key word of this administration. This movement of open communication has involved more than just a transfer of information We (firars) are speaking more openly and honestly with each other. This open approach has brought about some significant changes. First, we are moving more and more from a vertical relationship to a horizontal one which is more in keeping with Francis’ vision. Instead of running to the Provincial with every issue in fraternal life and ministry, friars are engaging one another as true brothers. Secondly, this transparency has deepened our communal ownership of the Province. And thirdly, this ownership has brought about more accountability and responsibility on the part of the friars. At the heart of all of this transparency is trust. Because we have a heightened trust of one another, we are more tolerant of our differences. We see it as a generative circle: transparency leads to trust which engenders respect which encourages transparency. We believe that the friars will not settle for less in the future."

Following Fr. Mel's presentation, friars heard from the top five candidates nominated for the position of provincial minister. The friars' choice was Father John Hardin, 53, who is presently head of the St. Anthony Foundation in San Francisco, one of the largest nonprofit organizations in the western United States providing direct services to the poor. In addition to his deep and abiding concern for the marginalized people of our society, Father John brings excellent organizational skills and a business acumen almost unheard of in our province-- he holds an MBA from Notre Dame University. Second in 'commnand' is our new vicar-provincial minister, Father Ken Laverone. A sixth-generation native California, Father Ken hails from the town of San Juan Bautista, south of San Francisco, and worked as a diocesan priest and pastor for 25 years before joining the friars. He also holds a degree in canon law. We will be well-served by both of our confreres.

The third go-round of elections was for the six positions on our Definitorium. Definitors act as advisors to the administration, but keep their day jobs. They confer for a solid week every other month and handle oversight of both routine administration and the extraordinary business of the province. This year, the friars selected men representing a variety of personal backgrounds and geographical regions: Franklin Fong, Oscar Mendez, Joe Schwab, Mike Doherty, Robert Rodrigues, and myself. Wish us luck and keep us in prayer!

The rest of the business of the Chapter was 'business.' Our province holds 'open' chapters (vs. 'delegate' chapters), which means that all solemnly professed friars are expected to be present and participate. We discussed and voted on several proposals which, on the whole, will shape the direction of our commitments and focus for the next term: a retirement policy for our senior friars; a long-range strategy for financial planning; evangelization and Our Plan for Gospel Living (i.e., our fraternal life and ministry), and immigration (both on the societal level and within the context of our own province.). Because the friars had been able to vet and discuss much of this material over the 18-month preparation period that proceeds Chapter, we were able (miraculously, some would say), to come to an overall agreement on principles rather easily. Work of this nature belies months and years of study and preparation on the part of many of our friars.

If the Chapter was only about 'business', the friars would rise up in rebellion. For us, it is above all, the opportunity for the brothers to come together. To reconnect and rekindle friendships. To pray together, enjoy meals and recreational time together. To renew our sense of common bonds and shared purpose. During much of the year, friars are most often absorbed in their ministries and local communities. This is a real homecoming in more ways than one.

The midpoint as well as the high point of the week's procceedings and festivities was the visit of our Minister General, Fray Jose Rodriguez-Carballo, who flew directly from Rome along with one of our former provincial ministers, Fr. Finian McGinn, who serves on the international Curia for the Order. Fr. Jose's visit coincides with the celebration internationally of the 800th Anniversary of the Rule of St. Francis (1209-2009). Following his address to the gathered friars and guests, we participated in a dialog with our lay collaborators-- the women and men who work as partners and active participants in our ministries. Mass in the Old Mission Church came next, with the renewal of vows by all of the friars present. For many, it was a deeply moving experience-- not only to share in this historic occasion, but to stand side by side with our confreres as we publicly recommit ourselves to the way of Gospel life inspired by our beloved Poverello, St. Francis of Assisi.

Needless to say, all were invited to a wonderful banquet following the liturgy-- and then proceeded to a special, multi-media revue, "I Conoscenti" ("We knew him") presented by a cast from the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. This event was the second of two cultural offerings during the week. Earlier on, friars as well as professional musicians representing the richness of the cultural diversity of both our fraternity and of the beautiful communities we are privileged to serve, provided an inspirational evening of song, poetry and prayer in our multi-culturual concert.

The Chapter event is over. But the Chapter itself is much more than an intense week of gathering and decision-making. It is, actually, just the culminating moment in our ongoing process of personal and communal conversion, conversation, and renewal. The work goes on and on and on. Siempre adelante! Nunca para atras!//