Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Visit to Bose

With a little time to spare after the Chapter of Mats, before the next meeting in Assisi beginning May 16 I decided to explore a bit of Italy and renew some friendships.

Friday I boarded a train in Assisi at 9:30 in the morning. At 5:00 p.m. I arrived in the north of Italy at Biella, where Br. Guido was waiting to take me to Monasterio di Bose.

Br. Guido had been an observer at Lambeth Conference in July and we gravitated to each other sharing stories about our communities.

Bose is an extraordinary place! Nestled in a spectacular Alpine valley, it is a community for both men and women. It is an ecumenical community, founded at the close of Vatican II. In 44 years it has grown to over 70 members, living under the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They are completely self supporting and have fantastic ministries: writing icons, translating and publishing books, making jams and jellies, raising honey bees, and extensive vegetable gardens, building furniture welcoming pilgrims of every kind. They have close ties with Orthodox religious communities, Anglicans as well as Taize and Roman Catholic Communities.

It is odd for a verbal person like me to not understand a syllable of what is happening around me. I indulged in a bit of trial and error. Like a person who has lost a crucial sense, I had to rely on my other senses to communicate. Smiles and gestures became very important. Since I couldn't read the instructions, breakfast the first morning was an adventure with an Italian coffee machine with steam and jets of liquid shooting out oddly placed nozzles. My first attempt to get a cup of coffee ended in a mess on me and the floor (the bowls were to drink out of, not for cereal, which wasn't served anyhow). Except for breakfast I ate with Guido and English speaking brothers. In my enthusiasm to talk I flailed my hands around, sending lettuce and bread crumbs flying. They were very patient.

I joined them for prayer and sat in on a lecture about St. Francis. But everything was in Italian and even an ardent admirer like me can only fake it so long. I used much of the time for private prayer and the opportunity for reflection on the events of the past couple of months.

Certainly being itinerant is a challenging way to live. I found myself counting up airports, beds and different kinds of food. All of these things are just externals, but they are tangible ways of thinking about where I have been. When I can remember specific details I find myself catching hold of other memories and ideas. Not understanding language is a common theme: much of the conversation around me in Zimbabwe was in Shona. Yet rarely have I felt isolated. "Shalom" has become very important to me, the sense of well being, wholeness, peace, right relationships. Several people have greeted me in my travels this spring saying "Shalom" and in Italy they then kiss me on both cheeks. (People should kiss more!) My need for prayer has sharpened. When I feel momentarily lonely or our of sorts I find a place to pray, or just begin to say the little prayers that help stitch my psyche back to the basics of acceptance, gratitude and joy. People are so beautiful. I have been deeply impressed by the generosity, the vulnerability of us human beings: we want to help and give so much but at the same time capable of monumental resentments. I found myself going over old hurts, vendettas and fantasies only to be shocked by my thoughts and forced into that place of prayer. The beauty of the present moment.

I never saw much of the mountains that surround Bose. Clouds and rain obscured them. The brothers were apologetic, but I was glad. Sometimes we perceive best when we are forced to rely on other senses, rely on God to provide the beauty and brightness.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

800 Years of Franciscan Movement

I arrived in Assisi on Tuesday of Easter Week, having flown over night from Harare, via Zurich and Rome. I came in order to represent the Society of St. Francis at the Chapter of Mats held to honor the Pope's approval of St. Francis' Gospel way of life in 1209.

1800 brothers from all over the world came to Assisi at the invitation of the Ministers General of the Order of Friars Minor, the OFM Cappuchins, the Conventuals and the Third Order Regular. There were seven of us Ministers General there, and when I was introduced as the Minister General "Anglicani" I got a huge round of applause.

I stayed with the Society of the Atonement friars in Assisi. During my travels I had not read all my e-mails carefully and thus missed the important detail of where all this was taking place...I had a fuzzy idea of "Rome and Assisi". So I 'd not made any plans for a place to stay, praying the Lord would provide. I was richly provided for, and got to spend a terrific time getting to know the Atonement brothers and their extremely generous and friendly Minister General, Jim Puglisi, SA. Their novitiate is as international as SSF's, but they live together in Assisi: young men from Congo, Philippines and India.

I had a lovely time and enjoyed being a bit of an objet fascinans among the Roman Catholics. The English translation was difficult, the young friars in the booth would breathe heavily into the microphone and then say, "um...he is using a lot of Italian words...it is difficult...um. (more heavy breathing)" But the majority found the talks very edifying. Occasionally our English translators would have a burst of lucidity, and we heard terrific stories of Franciscan work around the world, and a call to go out into the world.

Although I anticipated it, I felt sad at the historic divisions between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, and our lack of communion. So I fasted from the Eucharist during Easter Week. But it forced me to practice what I call Spiritual Communion: remembering it is about THANKSGIVING. I had so much to be grateful for; the time of communion was rich with memories and prayers. Plus it was so fabulous to be in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, imagining Francis there, the brothers gathering there, and finally Francis' death practically on the spot I was sitting on.

Although there was no full communion I was always invited to sit with the other Minister Generals during the programs. At Morning Prayer at the Basilica of St. Clare I was hauled from my spot in the back of the transept to sit next to the Bishop of Assisi ("Salve" he said as he shook my hand). The other time of greatest connection was during the penitential procession from St. Mary of the Angels to the Basilica of St. Francis. The seven Generals carried the cross and the 1800+ friars practically pushed us along, singing chants. Here I am with Br. Jose Carballo the Minister General of the OFM.

The Chapter of Mats is so named because the only other one was held by St. Francis and there was insufficient accommodation so the brothers had to live in shelters made of mats. The first Chapter of Mats and this, the second, concluded with a meeting with the Pope. We traveled by bus to Castel Gandolfo. Once there we had mass before going to the Papal Audience. At the Mass we were introduced to a special guest, the warden of the Ecclesiastical Penitentiary, and I wondered which poor theologians are languishing there. I later learned it is an old title but does not involve jails per se...it is not a Gospel ministry I aspire to.

The Audience was like a football rally. The friars were roaring "Benedetto!" and singing "Alleluia!" We were clinging to the walls. Many were eager to wave their national flags, but this was VERY unpopular with the people standing behind the different delegations. Finally Pope Benedict came in waving his hands, and the brothers roared and stamped and whistled. An American friar later asked me what I thought of it all, and I said I had made up my mind before it happened that it was a privilege to be there, he was THEIR leader, not mine. And he only made encouraging remarks, which I appreciated. Being an ecumenical guest means being non critical at the hosts' party. But if he ever wants to talk about the validity of Anglican Orders I'd be happy to talk.

"Brothers, my brothers, the Lord has called me to walk the road of simplicity and has shown me the way. I do not want therefore that you mention other Rules to me [...]. The Lord has revealed to me his will that I should be a step in the world: this is the science to which he wishes us to dedicate ourselves." (St. Francis to the five thousand friars participating in the Chapter of Mats in 1219)

Easter in Zimbabwe

It has been a while since I posted because getting to an internet cafe required a two hour ride on a decrepit bus. A trip to Mutare was an all day task, and in the light of the many things we were trying to accomplish, we couldn't justify the time.

Difficulty in travel is one of the ways we experienced the realities of life in Zimbabwe today. We also did without running water for most of my visit, due to unavailability of new pipes, and a "work slow down" by the workers who are not getting paid. We had daily power cuts. The students we support were asking the brothers for almost doubled school fees. People have high hopes for the Unity Government, and we prayed for peace in the country every day, as reports of killings and farm evictions continued to be reported.

I never felt at risk of violence, and I came to really love not only the Dr. Seuss-like landscape of wild boulder strewn mountains, but the people I met. Especially my brothers.

Looking back over the first few weeks of April I am astonished at how much we accomplished! We met for hours every day sorting through various issues facing the community. What emerged as our first task was to restructure the daily time table to reflect the reality of the brothers' life; mostly we created the opportunity for more negotiation and accountability. A little more time in bed as well, starting the day at 7:00 instead of 6:00. The biggest gift to come out of this revision of the timetable was accidental, the decision to have a community meal for the brothers, workers and other residents of the Angler's Rest. The brothers decided to do the cooking. These meals were an immediate hit with everybody. One young resident, a young man who grew up in an orphanage and now lives with the brothers thought they were in honor of me and said how he would always remember my visit because of these happy meals together. "This is a new development," the brothers replied. Every Sunday we can remember Br. Clark at our family dinner.

Another big decision was to move the chapel from a small musty room the size of a brother's cell to an exquisite thatched hut they'd built on a hill on the corner of the property for another purpose. The original plans didn't come off, and the building was languishing. We began by marching up there during the Palm Sunday Liturgy. The next few days were full as we waxed the floor, set up the tabernacle, created a holy water font, and experimented with the best way to have liturgies. The all night vigil on Maundy Thursday was there, the rafters reflecting the candlelight, flowers crowded around the Blessed Sacrament. The Chapel quickly became a spiritual home, bringing together the familiar shape of their cultural homes with the needs of a praying community. In the picture here you can see the Paschal Candle made by Br. Bhekimpilo from $3.00 worth of pure beeswax bought from the neighboring honey processing plant.

As the community has grown and changed over the years, they have struggled to adapt jobs needing to be done with the skills and interests of the brothers. Some of them felt under utilized. In our talks about this we decided to list all of the tasks that need to get done on a weekly basis, no job too humble to mention. They listed sixty or seventy things they felt should be done regularly. Next we clumped these tasks together and wrote eight job descriptions. Lastly we looked around the room and divvied the jobs among the brothers. I've never seen men happier to get jobs! With the clarity of the job descriptions they immediately began to function as a team. Things which had been long over looked were getting addressed. The Guardian with his new job description as "facilitator and coordinator" had to suffer a bit as things were done differently from the way he would have done them, but after a week or so he admitted things were getting done in a much more amicable and efficient way.

One of the hopes the brothers had for my visit was to do some educational sessions with them, over and above the practical problem solving. They wanted to hear about the vows. So we gathered by candlelight in the new chapel Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week to talk about the vows of obedience, chastity and poverty. After I spoke we would consider the vows from their cultural perspectives. Religious vows are just as counter cultural to a Shona man from Bolaweyo, Zimbabwe as they are to an American from Snohomish, Washington! We all had an unexpected sense of the challenge and holiness of our vocation.

Thursday morning of Holy Week, we had a special Chapter. It was called by the Guardian to capture the good work that had begun in the community, ratify it and record it. As we went through our accomplishments item by item, I had a strong feeling a miracle had taken place in the commitments and processes of this small Franciscan community.

My visit culminated in the Triduum. We installed the brothers in their new positions and blessed them and then they in turn washed the feet of the community: workers and orphans. The foot washing ceremony became incredibly lively as we sang choruses. It was something about being touched, feeling bound together in service, the Liturgy presenting the themes and hopes of our conversations and decisions in a powerful way.

Good Friday we spent in quiet, with the most newly professed brother, Brian, leading us in a reflection on the meaning of the Cross in his life.

The Great Easter Vigil at 4:00 a.m. Sunday began with a roaring fire in the fireplace next to the Chapel, then each brother took a lesson from Scripture, and after reading it lead the rest in a response: reading a psalm, telling a story, teaching a dance or a song. Br. Peter had us go outside the chapel into the strong moonlight after he'd read the Valley of Dry Bones "to listen." "To what?" we asked. "Your hearts," he replied. I heard a great knocking, and saw sinews coming over the bones and a new spirit breathed into my brothers. Deo gratias!

I always cry when I leave a friary after a long visit. Usually it is just stinging eyes, and I cover it with a laugh and a quick wave. This time I wept. I felt I was saying good bye to the brothers of my heart. So much had been at stake, so much claimed through the power of the Spirit.