Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Where do Franciscans go to get away from other Franciscans?

Don’t get me wrong. I love my brothers. But from time to time, I really need to get away from them. And vice versa. So, where does this Franciscan go to get away from other friars? Well, a lot of places, actually. My personal preference is to spend some time at another religious community—most often with Jesuits, Trappists, or the Benedictines. Whether for a ‘sabbath day’ away, or a week-long retreat—the atmosphere of retreat house or monastery can provide a real relief from the stress of ministry and yes, of community living, as well.

Since moving from Sacramento to southern California last July, I have been searching for a place/ places where I can get away from the demands of parish and community life in order to get some rest, time out and spiritual refreshment. It’s ironic. So many people come to us—to our home—looking for those very things. Our Franciscan community at Old Mission San Luis Rey (Oceanside, CA), has an excellent retreat house (and some pretty good cooks!), beautiful grounds, and a wonderful old historic mission church. But it’s also where we friars, eight of us, live. And on weekends, we are often swamped with school groups, Marriage Encounter weekends, and other crowded retreat activities. What looks like an idyllic, restful environment ain’t all that peaceful when you are living there and working behind the scenes.

I try to go for spiritual direction about once a month and, when possible, I make it an overnight visit. It usually involves a three-hour train and bus trip to Los Angeles for me-- to the Cardinal Manning House of Prayer for Priests in the city’s Echo Park neighborhood. As the name suggests, this facility, perched at the edge of the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), focuses on the spiritual needs of Catholic clergy. Two resident priests, both Jesuits, are available to work with priests from throughout the region and country. For me personally, a visit to the House of Prayer is a savored opportunity to rest deeply in the Lord.

Hospitality is the cornerstone of the Benedictine tradition since the establishment of the Order more than 1,500 years ago. In southern California, we are blessed with two abbeys of Benedictine men. Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, California, is just down the road from our friary at Old Mission San Luis Rey. Poised on a secluded hilltop adjacent to the US Marine facility at Camp Pendelton, it offers a splendid beach and ocean view. The contemporary architecture of Prince of Peace is particularly striking, but what one notices most about the place is the quality of meditative quiet it embodies and imparts. It would be difficult for anyone to leave this spot unaffected by its serenity. Prince of Peace Abbey:

Just about 2.5 hours north of Oceanside is another Benedictine monastery, St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo. Unlike Prince of Peace and the Cardinal Manning House of Prayer, St. Andrew’s is, quite literally, a desert community. Cactus, cottonwoods, and Joshua trees dot the sparse and parched landscape of this very basic, very simple monastic settlement. Though physically isolated, it is, ironically, within the bounds of Los Angeles County. Consequently, both individuals and groups from throughout the metropolitan area take advantage of the Abbey’s idyllic environs. In addition to guest/retreat facilities, the Abbey hosts a ceramics center, youth retreat facilities, and its welcome center boasts one of the best Catholic bookstores in the West.

The community at St. Andrew’s consists of some 20 monks, but not everyone is at home 24/7. As one monk quipped: “We Benedictines take a vow of stability, not immobility.” At the moment, a small Byzantine monastery of the Holy Resurrection shares the site while its members search for a more permanent home of their own. They offer, through their presence, an opportunity to experience the richness of the Eastern Christian monastic tradition. St. Andrew’s Abbey:

The Trappists offer hospitality at the New Clairvaux Abbey in Vina, California, about two hours north of Sacramento. The region boasts vast prune and almond orchard, and the abbey has its own winery and pottery. A recently reconstructed 12th century Spanish charterhouse solidifies the stamp of the Cistercian spirit and identity on the site in physical terms. Retreatants are welcome to attend the Liturgy of the Hours, but I, like others, skip the odd hours of prayer and focus on resting as much as possible. Once, I informed one of my spiritual directors of my earnest plans to bring a stack of books and my journal and breviary along with me on a week-long retreat. He just chuckled: “Concentrate on sleep instead. The best thing about retreat time is getting as much rest as you can.” He was so right! New Clairvaux Abbey:

It is to places like these that I try to make personal pilgrimage whenever I can. In religious life, if you’re too busy to pray, you are way too busy! I work at a large multicultural parish. We’re on call, often 10-12 hours a day, six days a week. The people are wonderful, but the level of stress can really get to you. So when I can, I try to take a day (or two, if I can squeeze it in) to spend a ‘sabbath’ day in a monastic environment.

I really admire our Benedictine, Trappist, and Jesuit confreres, but have no inclination to join either community. Each group has its own particular ‘personality’ or charism, and without going into detail, I still feel most at home with the Franciscan lifestyle. It fits. But I deeply appreciate and respect the quiet, rhythm and balance of monastic life, in particular. Its harmonic, unhurried pace helps me to put my own too busy routine into perspective. It helps one to refocus, “re-center” on one’s prayer and personal encounter with the Lord.

A Sabbath is not the same as a sabbatical, but it certainly is better than nothing. And it’s important. All of us need to put on the breaks periodically and make more time for the Lord. You certainly don’t have to be a member of a religious community to partake of the offerings of such centers of hospitality. Laypeople, whether on an individual, private retreat or as part of a visiting group are often welcome. I’ve included contact information above for the places which would welcome inquirers and guests. Amen.//

Sunday, May 9, 2010

True Conversions No. 4: Sara Miles (again)

Jesus Freak: feeding, healing, raising the dead
Sara Miles
Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, c.2010
171 pp. hardbound, US$21.95
ISBN: 978-0-470-48166-0

This is a great book with an unfortunate title. Jesus freak ? Visions of flower children dance in one’s head. That’s definitely not what this book is about. JF is basically the sequel to Miles’s hard-hitting spiritual memoir, Take this bread: A Radical Conversion (c.2007). In a way, this most recent literary effort by Miles—the “feeding’ segment, in particular—takes up where its predecessor left off. The rest of the book is an extended meditation on the meaning of the presence of Christ as healer and reconciler — embodied/ incarnated in the experience of suffering of the poor and those dedicated to accompanying them.

Feeding. The Food Pantry, which Miles founded while a member of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco shortly after her initial conversion experience in the mid-Nineties, has now blossomed into a regional network of some 18 pantries for the poor. The Portrero Hill site presently offers free groceries on a weekly basis to upwards of 800 families and individuals. Throughout this surge, Miles has maintained her determination to continue to offer a sense of genuine eucharist (and Eucharist) to all comers. All are fed. In fact, volunteers are especially well fed, with a home-cooked meal prepared for them each Friday before the doors open to the public. The Pantry’s radical sense of inclusion— its stubborn ‘no questions asked’ policy— makes it oddly invincible. Miles reflects: “We had everything we needed because we gave everything away: we were invincible because we offered power and authority, just like food, to everyone.” A teen volunteer concurs: “…it’s cool how people can’t take advantage of you.”

Miles’ focus here is almost exclusively on her own project. It is important, even extraordinary work. But it would be helpful if she had put it in the context of the impressive array of nonprofit projects throughout The City which also serve the poor-- often heroically: e.g., Project Open Hand, Glide Memorial Methodist Church, and our own Franciscan-inspired St. Anthony’s Dining Room, which feeds up to 3,000 free meals daily to the poor.

Healing, raising the dead. If Miles’ entire book were concerned solely with the work of The Food Pantry, it would serve primarily as an informative sequel to her culinary cum spiritual endeavors. Thankfully, it doesn’t stop there. Instead, Miles plunges into a fervent and feverish reprise of the Gospels-- a relentless reflection on its meaning and relevance to her own experience. She’s on a spiritual truffle hunt and doesn’t come home empty handed. In this literal —“hunting for the Gospel in our own stories”—she branches out from The Food Pantry to work with a group of health care professionals based at nearby San Francisco General Hospital. Here she encounters dedicated women and men determined to instill meaning as well as technical/professional efficiency in their work: “Healing’, here, “(is) about creating meaning. What was our suffering, the suffering of others really for?” Miles’ responds with the ‘answer’ of Jesus: “… the answer to all the questions of our lives. Sickness, war, falling in love, going to the grocery store: everything happens so that God’s works might be revealed.”

While Miles the journalist reports on her active participation in projects aimed at feeding the hungry and healing the sick, Miles the convert (but no longer the neophyte) sinks her roots (and teeth) more deeply into the Christian faith: “I realized how my continuing conversion depended on being thrown together in intimate ways with all kinds of strangers I hadn’t chosen.” And, one might add, all kinds of experiences, impressions, and ideas she had not countenanced either. Miles appears to want to take things and shake them up to see what they’re really made of. In this, she is willing to be unorthodox, even “heretical”— while not taking herself too seriously in the process. (In Miles’ argot, Jesus The Beloved becomes The Boyfriend, for example. Cute, but a little annoying after a while)…. With relish, she takes on the issue of authority, especially the authority of The Church. Miles brings communion (and Communion) to the homebound; she anoints the sick; she listens to confessions; she buries the dead. Why, she asks, as do others—why is this sacramental life and power restricted to ordained ministers of The Church? Jesus trusts us (all of us) to do his work, she submits.

Miles goes further in her exploration and theological inquiry, ever willing to push the envelope. She meets Anibal Mejia, a psychologist working with the desperately poor, who is also a priest in the Brazilian Candomble tradition. Her gets her thinking about and questioning The Church’s resistance to and rejection of cultural/ theological syncretism…. At one point, she entertains the notion that religion itself is an enemy of the Gospel. She proposes her own definitions here as “a set of ideas about God, purified and abstracted from ongoing relationship with God. And from religion springs sin: the attempt to separate ourselves from others, the failure to see everyone as an inseparable part of God’s body.” Isn’t Miles painting with a rather broad brush here? Is religion itself, rather than its abuse, the real culprit?

Yet, Miles’ frankness, her willingness to cast a broad net, to address people, experiences, and ideas fearlessly is in part what makes her faith so dynamic, intense, and – well, so downright attractive. In that regard, one is wondering when and how Miles will come up for air, take a giant step back—zoom out and reflect on the whole body and trajectory of this intensely active faith lfe. Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves; Miles has the whole goshdarn four Gospels on hers.

In a reflective moment, she considers the enduring effects of her conversion: “In my new life with The Boyfriend, I wasn’t particularly nicer, but I was freer. I wasn’t more holy, but I felt more blessed. And I knew that to the extent new life was real in any of us, it had sprung, just as Jesus promised, actual feeding, healing, forgiving. It didn’t come from the sky, but from plates of enchiladas, the bruises of strangers, frustration and tears.” Amen.