Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Expanding our boundaries

This past weekend , on Saturday, I had the opportunity to work with a parish on the theme "Expanding our Spiritual Boundaries." Sunday I was the preacher, and the text was Jesus' call of his disciples. We heard in the Scriptures how the men left their boats, their families, and followed Jesus. They expanded their boundaries. How do we expand our boundaries and respond to the call of Jesus in our day? I can think of three ways, and I could probably think of more. First, seek go be in relationship with people. As my friend Bishop Cathy Roskam, suffragan bishop of New York says: "relationship is converting." People find it harder to dismiss other people with whom they have a personal relationship. And the more people we know, the more complex our understanding of the world. Friendships were the basis for Jesus' ministry; he became friends with the prostitutes and tax collectors. It is clear to me that we are called to to friendship outside our comfort zone and these relationships wil open up new opportunities for serving Christ in all persons.

Another way to expand our boundaries is to say "yes" when ever we are called upon to help. In this way I have stumbled upon some extraordinary ministry opportunities. They always seem to come out of left field. When my friend Matilde asked me if the migrant workers could meet at Little Portion, I said yes, and over the years the brothers have become deeply involved and had many wonderful friendships with the workers. Of course there are times when we need to say "no" because we are exhausted or the situation won't work for any number of reasons. But I find the general practice of saying yes has radically transformed my sense of what I can do, and the ministry God is calling me to follow.

A third way is to read, study, think! I am a great believer in reading any and everything I can get my hands on, and reading helps us to test our categories, can challenge our assumptions and provide new framework for on-going reflection on our experiences. It isn't cheating to read what other people think about the Scriptures, or social concerns or relationships!

The thing which constricts my boundaries, create an invisible fence around my life is fear. When ever I feel zapped by fright or anxiety I remember what an old priest in Seattle WA said tome when I was 20 years old: "Clark hold tight to Christ and hang loose in the world." Still good words to live by.

The Home Front

I arrived back at Little Portion January 12: what a joy to come home! I love the feeling of my familiar bed, foods I like, and many friends. Feeling at home is something that I hope will be increasingly true wherever I go as I continue to visit the brothers around the world.

It is winter here. The deer are bolder as they seek food, and it is always a thrill to see them. Here they are on the labyrinth. The brothers hosted a labyrinth walk January 22, and a large crowd gathered for a potluck dinner, Taize Prayer service and many were able to walk the labyrinth, illuminated by the light of the moon: the wind kept blowing out the torches!

On a personal level, I was able to finish my farewell to Br. Jon Bankert, who died September 24. I made the grave marker. Jon was my novice guardian, and lived across the hall from me for many years. We traded books, commiserated over our troubles and shared our joys. He was a lovely supportive brother to me. His death from pancreatic cancer was an example to me of how to live faithfully and graciously right up to the last. A few days before he died he told me that he wanted to die at home, with his brothers. He did, just like St. Francis, stretched out on the floor, as we said the prayers at time of death.

Tomorrow I leave for the Solomon Islands. They are located down near Australia, just below the equator. Farewell winter!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Northumberland and Dorset: the Brothers offer Franciscan hospitality

Packing my bags (again! dear God give me strength) Damian gave me a ride to our large friary in Alnmouth, home to Edward, Paschal, Maximilian and Augustine Thomas. The building was built in the early 20th Century as a private home. But after the Second World War it was sold to an entrepreneur who turned it into a nightclub. Much of the elegant finish work was removed from the rooms on the main floor to create a large bar and dance floor. But in time these pleasures palled and the place was abandoned. It was several years later that the brothers came across the building, home to mice and other wildlife, leaking and generally a mess: a new home! they thought. And so it became one after a tremendous amount of hard work (and the generosity of the Duke of Northumberland who purchased the building and gave it to the brothers and took care of some of the most pressing repairs--the joys of an aristocratic society, as Brother Edward observed.) Today Alnmouth friary is beautiful, the result of almost 50 years of loving care by many generations of brothers. The chapel is where the bar and dance floor was, with a mesmerizing view of the sea. Br. Edward was one of the original brothers and still greets visitors with grace and charm. The three younger brothers work like fiends, and I joined in with the cleaning: familiar routines at last. A different country, but in many ways I felt I was back at Little Portion on Long Island. though thinking that made me feel very homesick, so I tried not to make too many comparisons. My visit coincided with a group from Scotland; I met a woman from Lockerbie. The Franciscan hospitality was generous and the sense of peace and serenity I knew to be created by tremendous effort behind the scenes. When people comment how peaceful Little Portion is for them I fight to temptation to say: "You're kidding!"

I was able to go for some truly marvelous and inspiring runs along the beach, and one day, through the hills and sheep pastures. The hospitality was an incarnation of the prayer; we gathered with joy at the two tables: the Altar and the dining room table. I had a nourishing visit to Alnmouth Friary.

My next visit was at the other end of England, on the south coast in Dorset. Here Society of St. Francis has St. Francis Friary at Hilfield. Here Donald Luke offers the welcome. The building used to be the hunting lodge for the Earl of Sandwich. Later it became a school. Finally it was given to the brothers for a friary. In years past the friary has been home to over twenty brothers at a time, plus numerous homeless men ('Wayfarers' they are called in England) who lived with the brothers. I was very impressed by the enormous Franciscan history of the place; the ministry reflecting a tremendous adaptability and openness to the needs of people at a particular time. Presently it is in another time of innovation. With declining numbers among the brothers in the province, it is home to only 10 brothers. Yet their ministry is becoming more and more focussed on the environment. Under the leadership of the Minister Provincial, Brother Samuel, "The Hilfield Project" is beginning to provide creative leadership in the Church of England (and secularly too). The Project attracts many young people who come to live as volunteers for a few months (some stay longer) working on the land, talking with visitors, and honing their own knowledge and skills as environmentalists. For people interested in living in harmony with the earth, finding new ways to live, Hilfield offers some practical opportunities for re-learning some old English rural skills as well: laying hedges and coppicing are two colorful terms I only dimly understand. The brothers and volunteers are aggressively "green" in their lifestyle, not using a tumble dryer, and washing clothes with some kind of plastic ball filled with some kind of pebbles which "ionize" the water and make the clothes clean without using detergent: it worked well enough for me!

A highlight of the visit to Hilfield was being present for Br. John's ordination to the Diaconate. Here he is with our Bishop Protector Bishop Michael Perham.

We celebrated Christmas while I was at Hilfield, the great feast adored by St. Francis, and a time for Franciscan excess in decorating and a huge dinner. We collected branches, moss, and pine cones for Chantal ,a volunteer from Switzerland , to make into stunning decorations. Small slugs emerging from the moss star decorations were a special imprimatur of authenticity. Br. Sam took me and the other American brother living there at this time, Br. Donald Luke, on a terrific visit to Glastonbury and Wells Cathedral on the Sunday after Christmas. Br. Benedict made sure I got to see and admire the Cerne Abbas giant.

From Hilfield I went east to Canterbury. Here the brothers live at Greyfriars. Their chapel is a Twelfth Century building built over a stream. The building was standing when the first Franciscans came to Canterbury in 1220 or there abouts: during St. Francis' lifetime at any rate. Br. Austin has just been appointed the Master of the old Eastbridge "hospital" a medieval almshouse, housing 8 poor people. It is the classiest subsidized housing I've ever seen. Yet the patina of age and Anglican respectability don't dilute this wonderful Franciscan ministry of caring for and living with the poor. This friary is also one of the houses of learning in our world-wide order, with brothers and sisters from around the world coming to stay there and study at the Franciscan Study Center which is located just outside town up on a hill. Br. Colin Wilfred works there one day a week. Br. Reginald, suffering at present from a broken arm, spend time at the great cathedral, praying with people, helping out where he can. Canterbury is still very much a place of pilgrimage and the brothers are called on to help out with pilgrims and various ministries throughout the city parishes. It is a very busy place. Here from left to right, Reginald, Martin John ( a brother come to study), Austin, Colin Wilfred, and Christopher John, another brother scholar visiting from The Australia New Zealand Province.

Finally January 9 I traveled by bus back to London.

And got back to Little Portion Friary on Long Island very tired but inspired by all that I had seen and experienced.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Neighborhood ministry in Birmingham

Every week for the past several years the brothers living at St. Clare House in Birmingham have hosted evenings for the young people of the neighborhood to come to the friary to play pool, video games, make snacks, and to enjoy the company of the brothers. This ministry provides a safe place for the young people and the brothers work with them, helping them to discover new ways to live and relate in the world. Above, I am giving the reigning champ a run for his money, but he soon cleared the table of the red balls and won the game. Pictured below is Br. Alan Michael, the Guardian of the brothers in Birmingham. The other brothers in Birmingham, Br. Desmond Alban, Br. Anselm and Br. Martin John, share in the ministry with the young people of the neighborhood. Sadly the brothers' work in Birmingham will be ending this March. Br. Alan Michael has been elected Guardian of Alnmouth Friary. Due to a shortage of brothers in the province there is no successor for the current household of brothers after they move to their new postings. But I was extremely inspired and encouraged by this ministry, and I suspect it won't be long before the Franciscan calling to live among and work with the people most at risk in our world will manifest itself in another creative ministry. The impact of the brothers won't be soon forgotten in Birmingham. They've done this work long enough so that they are now working with the children of some of the original youngsters who came to them eleven years ago. "They'll always be welcome at any Friary" says Alan Michael. He haas taken a group of them several times to Alnmouth, so they will know the way to find him!

After my stay at Birmingham I took a train to Bentley, near Doncaster. I stayed at the vicarage of St. Peter's Church with Bros. Malcolm, Nathanial and Paul Anthony. They work as a team, running this parish. Originally Bentley was a mining town, but with the closing of the mines the town has suffered. The brothers chose to move into this economically depressed area, to create a vibrant parish life. Pictured above a young girl is holding her Kristingle. This Christmas tradition originated in Moravia. As you can see, the Kristingle is an orange with a ribbon around it, candle and candies stuck in the top. The orange symbolized the world, the ribbon is the blood of Christ, the candies on four toothpicks symbolize the four seasons and their fruits, the candle is the light of Christ. And it is good to eat (not the candle of course). Quite a crowd turned out for this event and the collection was given to an organization helping children in different parts of the world. Below, Br. Malcolm shares a Kristingle with some of the young at heart in his parish. The brothers are involved in several programs with senior citzens in the parish. One day Paul and I shared a baked potato lunch with a group who then stayed on to play Bingo all afternoon (we left pleading other responsibilities).
After my time in Bentley, I went north to the holy island of Lindisfarne. Br. Damian met me at Berwick-upon-Tweed train station and we had to make tracks to get across the sand flats which stretch between the mainland and Holy Island. The road is only passable at low tide. If a traveler is too slow getting across, midway there is a tower to climb up into to wait til the next low tide, but bye-bye car. We made the trip with minutes to spare (water was lapping the asphalt). Lindisfarne is one of the ancient sites of celtic Christianity. It was the home of Aidan and Cuthbert. Br. Damian is vicar of the ancient parish church of St Mary's. Built at the same time, or perhaps predating the abbey which was there until the dissolution of the monateries in England byHenry VIII, the church is over 1000 years old. It was an extraordinary experience to pray in this ancient, holy place. It was so cold inside the church during morning prayer it was easy to imagine life on that island as a monk a millenium ago.
One of the most impressive relics of the early monks on Holy Island is the Lindisfarne Gospel book. Here, Damian is holding a gorgeous facsimile of this ancient book housed in a special building near the parish church. Working in a popular pilgrimage site gives the brothers enormous access to a huge variety of people who come to see this place. It is very impressive to think about the very long history of Christianity in this place.