Thursday, June 23, 2011

More Martyrs

Yesterday was the Feast of St. Alban, the first martyr of Britain. Martyrs seem to be a theme with me recently...

Alban was killed by the Roman Empire in a crackdown on Christianity in the third Century. His death was voluntary: he volunteered himself in place of a priest to whom he'd offered hospitality. After a few short days of conversation with the priest, Alban embraced Christianity, and then was required to either turn in his guest, or offer himself. He did the latter.

I spent last Saturday at St. Alban's Cathedral, in (where else?) St. Albans, England. It was for the annual observance of St. Alban's Day. Hundreds of folks came--the event took me by surprise. I'd been expecting something stodgy and conventional. But it was nothing like that. Huge puppets dominated the outdoor procession. The spring which welled up to slake Alban's thirst was suggested by the local fire department blasting fire hoses from the shrubbery. Scores of children participated too: dressed as flowers, stained glass windows, soldiers and monks the procession was colorful and LIVELY!! The high point, for most of the little boys at least, was when the centurion who chops off Alban's head loses his eyeballs in some kind of divine retribution, and they roll around the grass...

I am not sure who the guiding genius is behind this extraordinary event. It got even better inside the Cathedral with the girls choir singing a jazz mass. The Dean of the Catheral is Jeffrey John, who seems unpopular with the Church hierarchy because he is a gay man in a relationship. I suspect he is the source of the razzle-dazzle. Even the way he introduced the different pilgrim groups had people laughing out loud--in an English Cathedral. I was totally charmed.

The day ended with everybody filing past the shrine of St. Alban singing special words to a familiar tune (The Battle Hymn of the Republic):

We sing of holy Alban and his suffering for the Lord,
of resounding words of witness for the Christ whom he adored;
of his boldness and his daring and his dying by the sword;
his faith is marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah! ...His faith is marching on!

It was an inspiring day. The classsical formulation is that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church: new life and growth and encouragement springs from their witness.

It worked for me. The Cathedral was packed. The Dean made us laugh and everyone felt welcomed: imagination was unfettered.

It made me think: imagine if this man was a bishop!

Monday, June 13, 2011


Pentecost is about empowering.
New beginnings.

Hildegard of Bingen said the color best associated with the Spirit is green--
the green of trees leafing out
herbs growing in the garden,
wheat sprouting in the fields.

The friary kitchen garden here in Dorset is an icon of fecundity! (I haven't figured out how to get photos off my cellphone onto the internet yet...soon, soon, soon...)

There are complaints of drought in other parts of England. A photo of burnt fields appeared in the newspapers recently. Bewildering weather patterns are a sign of global climate change, I fear. Whoever heard of a drought in England in May???

Nevertheless here in Doreset, at least our corner of it is GREEN. Pentecost came at the end of a long week of Chapter meetings. And the sap was rising all week! It was the first All Brothers Chapter, now expecting to meet every year at Pentecost. Every borther in the Province had a voice and a vote. We spent two days in small groups and a third n plenary, sharing the results of the small group work and making decisions for the year ahead. We concluded singing the praises of God. Everybody had a wonderful time. Not always the case at the end of a business meeting.

Every voice was honored.
Leadership was shared.
Creativity was everywhere.

These are key features for what I think must charatcterize Franciscan life!

And the week wasn't all work either. There was time for Brother John and me to get away to visit a nearby stately home/museum, Stourhead. I'd visited there in 1978: very faint impressions endured. It was a pleasure to re-visit especially the gardens, designed by Capability Brown. And we ate a Ploughman's lunch at a little country pub--all my favorite lunchtime foods of cheese, pickles, ham and lettuce...

Another highlight was gathering with all the brothers and watching Of Gods and Men together. It is a story of a small communityof Cistercian monks lifing in algeria who decide to stay at their monastery during a time of Islamist jihad. Most of the monks are killed. It is a true story, from 1996, I believe.

The other color for Pentecost is red, the red of fire. Of martyrdom.

I had a strong sene of identification with the brothers in the film. Their community life was not so different from ours in SSF--small, fragile, poor. Yet the relationships among the brothers in the film rang true too: both the small frictions among them and the profoundly loving way they came together to make their decisions and face the future together. In one scene they were in the chapel singing, as a helicopter circled tightly overhead. They gathered together, in a kind of communal embrace. I have felt that at time with my brothers. But thank God, never under threat of death.

Their fear and their faith moved me to tears. Their decision not to run from the terrorists, but to stay with their neighbors, knowing what might happen to them struck many of us SSF brothers in a deeply personal way. What would I do (or what will I do) in similar circumstances? They wrote to the terrorists as their brothers, and recognized a terror-filled death was one shared with Jesus.

It is the highest hope and greatest fear of a religious calling.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people, and kindle in us the fire of your love.
It was an enlivening, green time.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In Communion

I can't believe it has been a month since I last posted on the blog. It has been a month of chapter meetings: first in Brisbane, Australia, then on Long Island, NY at Little Portion. Both meetings were good and interesting.

But combine jet lag with meeting-lag and I didn't have much juice in my batteries!

These past few days, however, I've been able to get back up on my feet and begin to do some things. Most enjoyably, I've been gardening. I've got blisters to prove it, and the flower boxes are now brimming with marigolds, shrubs have been pruned and the terraces swept. It is hard to do this around Little Portion without thinking abut all the brothers before me who have popped their blisters doing the same tasks. I feel very closely connected with them, part of the continuity of religious life, the "Quotidian Mysteries" Kathleen Norris writes about. Every day mystery of communion with brothers, nature, God: the communion of saints and the communion of the cosmos.

As I swept this morning I remember how Jon and I would watch the bees and drink coffee together next to the herb garden, resting from weeding. Jason would smoke his pipe and spend his summer evenings joyously weeding a lush English border he'd planted next to the arbor. Dunstan still weeds with a table fork and has a personal relationship with every bulb and bush ever planted at Little Portion, as well as living on a first name basis with the chipmunks and the birds.

Yesterday I was running along Shore Road, along Mt. Sinai Harbor, and a box turtle was just edging out onto the road. Fearing for its safety I snatched it up and carried it across the road: power to the box turtle!

Inside I typed up all the Norms and Policies for the Province so that they could be restored to our Manuals. These too are a trip down memory lane. Every Norm, which is really a statement about things we have agreed upon as a chapter, is a story. I remember why we said we wanted brothers to learn Spanish. I remember why we agonized for a long time over job descriptions. There are older norms about participating in demonstrations: I can just hear the brothers debating it, and the differing points of view. These ancestor brothers still have a vote, as their opinions have been captured in the Provincial Norms.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Australian Easter

I celebrated the Easter weekend in Darwin, Northern Territory. Talk about hot! But Br. James Andrew's house is set to capture any breeze blowing through, and it was fairly comfortable. I preached on good Friday at the little Anglican Church in Palmerston that Br. James attends. After that we had a picnic on the beach. Easter Sunday we were back in Palmerston.

I've just finished reading a couple of great books: Rob Bell's "Love wins" and Eugene Peterson's "Practicing Resurrection." Rob's book had been coming up on my Amazon "recommended book list" for several days, but it wasn't until after I read a review of it in the UK Church Times that I got it. Apparently he gets protesters appearing when he speaks about this book because he holds out the possibility of heaven for everybody who wants it, and insists that Jesus is the "Way" meaning it in the broadest possible terms: even people who aren't Christian but practice love and compassion and justice are part of Jesus' Way. It's depressing to think people would get angry about that.

Practicing Resurrection is another very helpful book. Peterson is the author of "The Message," and after listening to Br. Tom read from it during my stay in Los Angeles, I was intrigued to see what the guy has to say. The book is a fairly thorough exegesis (study) of the Letter to the Ephesians. I found it very liberating to read.

Lots of time to read because it is wet weather here in Brisbane, Australia. There is more flooding to the west of the city, but the part the brothers live in is high and safe from the floods.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fine Fall Days Down Under

I spent a week in New Zealand, with the Brothers at Hamilton. Hamilton is a small city on the North Island, far from Christchurch and the earthquake. But we were not isolated from the effects of the earthquake--being a small country, the brothers knew of plenty of people who'd been affected directly. And there are lots of fundraisers for the earthquake victims being advertised on T.V.

Br. Simone and I enjoyed a day out, going to visit several places where volcanic activity was bubbling to the surface. Steaming rivers and boiling pools of mud are big tourist attractions in New Zealand. Best was swimming in the hot springs at Rotorua.

Here we are standing on a beach with the Pacific ocean stretching out behind us.

Brothers Damian Kenneth and Brian hosted a dinner party during my stay. It was a very ecumenical affair with Roman Catholic, Anglican and Romanian Orthodox clergy.

Another evening Simone and I visited a homeless shelter where he volunteers. We took some food, then stayed to talk. I was impressed by the experience--we could have been in New York, Washington or California. Its depressing to think homelessness is such a universal experience. The major difference here is that the men were mostly Maori. The other universal quality is the selflessness of the volunteers, the sign of never failing grace and generosity and that where homeless exists and the worst of urban life, there is always it seems right alongside it, the very best of human behavior: generous, caring and creative in the face of tremendous need. I was reminded of a line of a liturgy from the 80's: God came not to take away our suffering but to be with us in it. Yet with some political determination and a minor allocation of resources (compared to, say, defense budgets) we could make homelessness history.

The last weekend I was there I gave a quiet day for about 10 people: "Remember who you are" was the theme. I told them "be who you are before God: be simply yourself." The desire to do this is evidence of God's action. We spent the morning remembering family, hometown, the costs of forgetting our background: vulnerability to social marginalization, addictions. Remembering brings the will to work for healing and can unleash creativity. In the afternoon we spent time remembering who we are in God's eyes: beloved, worthy, empowered, forgiven. And to remember that we ARE the church. I ended up with the words of Eugene Peterson: Now God has us where he wants us--with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us.

Now I am in Australia. We spent the other day digging trenches to divert rain water, and since then we've not had any rain: glorious early autumn weather. Generally though getting spiritually ready for Easter and the cold winter months.

It is such a head trip switching hemispheres!!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Leaving Lincoln heights

Preaching, cooking, housework, food pantry, and running, going to meetings: it’s been a full month in Los Angeles.

The greatest part has been working in the kitchen. I almost never get to work in the kitchen on a daily basis anymore. Simon taught me how to “supreme” an orange. The weekly food delivery from the food pantry the brothers run (and live off of) brought out all my creative impulses. What to do with grits, 20 pounds of them? Beans, beans, beans…

Every afternoon I sat on the verandah to drink a cup of tea. After a few days I recognized the neighbors, and they me. Now we greet each other with a nod or a smile. One tot who goes by with her Grandma every day waves enthusiastically. I sure wish I spoke Spanish; add that to the bucket list.

The Church of the Epiphany has long been a community anchor. Although attendance has declined in the past 10 years or so, it has an amazing past. And with the SSF brothers here, I wager it has a brilliant future. Throughout the Sixties through the Eighties, the Church was “the storied Lincoln heights church that hosted United Farm Workers organizer and former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie and was a center of Chicano civil rights activism” according to The Episcopal News, the diocese of Los Angeles magazine.

Last Tuesday Br. Tom Carey and I went to a book signing for “Blowout!: Sal Castro and the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice” by Mario T. Garcia and Sal Castro. It was mesmerizing to listen to Sal tell his stories of how he helped students organize perhaps the largest student demonstration in history, and to hear about how the folks from Epiphany church helped and shared their lives and parish facilities for dances, speeches, teach-ins. I kept thinking about the stories of the Chicano students and their desire for education, for opportunity and respect here in America sound so much like the students in Tripoli, Sana, Cairo and the other cities where we see students speaking out against oppression, fighting for opportunity.

There is still so much to do here in this neighborhood and around the world.

Tonight I fly to New Zealand to spend some time with the brothers there.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Praying through the news

The T.V. has been on already this morning, and we have been watching scenes from Japan. Then they cut to scenes from Libya. People have been phoning with news about my “step-nephew” who lives in Nagoya, Japan (he and his family are okay).

Something about watching disasters and wars that make me feel impotent, sometimes a bit frightened and wondering what the heck I can do….

Pray, of course.

The real task is to take this chance to get in touch with who I am and be ready for whatever might happen in my life. Because we never really know what might happen. I am traveling soon to New Zealand, we know earthquakes strike there. I don’t have any plans to visit a war zone, but I feel I need to be ready, if I find myself in harm’s way to do what I need to, to help others; ready to work to find safe solutions, promote peace. Necessary skills, when you come to think of it no matter where we are…

Do I have choices about my involvement? If I choose to be involved in a protest or demonstration or contentious conversation (try “abortion” at the dinner table) am I at peace inside? Am I still equipped with my sense of humor and compassion? Am I motivated by love? If not I need to watch out I don’t get caught up in a situation that pulls me into a place of forgetfulness, governed by fear and anger.

Sometimes we don’t have a choice: even more we need to remember who we are. I remember speaking with some monks who escaped their burning monastery in the hills above Santa Barbara, CA a few years back. How did they feel? One reported he felt concerned but not panicky, able to follow instructions and to look out for the welfare of others. I hope I could say the same! After watching the response of many during 9/11 I think many of us have deeper reserves of strength than we suspect.

I spoke with a nurse a few years ago in the Solomon Islands after a tsunami warning had her moving patients from the Central Hospital to higher ground. How did she feel? She admitted to feeling frightened but glad of work to do; happy to be helping others. It turns out that experience was a real wake up call for local authorities who would have only been able to save half the patients if disaster had struck.

But the nurse, the monks, they are people who were able to walk through frightening experiences, grounded n an understanding that they were accompanied by God.

They did not expect exemption form trials and disasters. They were able to find comfort and meaning in their faith which made them much more effective.

“Be still and know that I am God,” the psalmist writes. I pray this often. Not that I will sit still and avoid life, but that I can maintain a calm center, a quiet heart, a sense that God is with me. Then I find my decisions are sounder, my attitude is saner and I am of better service.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Week In Thailand

Last week I was in Thailand.

I was attending a Leaders’ Conference hosted by Franciscans International. They brought together a large group of Franciscans from around the Asia-Pacific region (which embraces everything from Pakistan and India to the Solomon Islands and New Zealand, and Mongolia!!). I went to speak about the Solomon Islands training Franciscans International helped us with (and to remind them that Franciscans International is an ecumenical organization). It was a good meeting, and I made friends with a wide array of people.

Our visit began with a visit to the United Nations offices in Bangkok. We met with a staff officer from the Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific, and then we listened to a panel of experts representing a variety of organizations within the UN. We were reminded that the UN is “a member State driven organization.” I took this to be a reason why the UN is so often perplexingly silent. Some of the speakers expressed frustration with the UN yet at the same time they endorsed it as one of the few international organizations to which most of the nations belong. Our FI staff said the real power of the UN is in its ability “to name and shame” member states. What happened to Libya is an example.

Franciscans International will be spending a lot of time and effort this year looking at the plight of women and children who are trafficked for cheap labor or sexual exploitation. Because these are big issues, we have partnered with other organizations, especially ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking), Save the Children, Caritas and Jesuit Refugee Service. These NGO’s offer direct service to at risk and exploited children and they advocate for them at the UN. Those countries that do not have laws or systems in place to protect children will get some pressure from other countries at the UN, with a big push from FI and our friends.

In addition to advocacy at the UN, Franciscans International does a lot of “capacity building” among Franciscans. This means they come and do training about human rights, and how to develop social justice ministry like they did for the religious orders of the Anglican Church of Melanesia in the Solomon Islands. I was able to talk about our experience and the possibilities we now have as a result of the training.

But we couldn’t ignore what was happening all last week in Libya, Bahrain, Tunisia, Egypt, Iran…did I leave anybody out? It was an amazing week to watch Al Jazeera television during my jet-lagged nights, my body unable to sleep. The conference received messages asking for our prayers in solidarity with all of the people caught up in the amazing changes. We heard about some Franciscan friars living and working in Libya. I was happy to know that friars and sisters live and work in these countries, though all of us were deeply concerned for their safety.

Peace is not just an ideal. It is a process. And all of us, especially those who profess and call themselves Franciscans must find ways to engage people, break down barriers of suspicion and hatred, raise up the common ground of men and women in the world today. I finished my time in Thailand by going to visit the place where Thomas Merton died.
He’d gone to Thailand to engage in an interreligious dialogue and had spoken about Marxism and Christianity. He died when a fan shorted out and he was electrocuted. We stood in Star Cottage where it happened and shared a moment of prayer: I prayed that I might find ways to reach out to those of different traditions and cultures like Merton did.

Of course 21st-Century barrier bashing and social change is very different from 40 years ago. The “Arab Spring” is due to the internet. Crowds are galvanized by Facebook and Twitter. Cell phones transmit pictures and stories; these are posted, shared and read out over the television. Anyone can report on what’s happening. All of us have the possibility of “being a contender” and offering what we can to encourage the forces of democracy and freedom and peace.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Gratitude List

This photo is of Dolores Park, right across from San Damiano Friary in San Francisco. I took it Saturday afternoon, after finishing my 4 mile run: a beautiful spring day! It is the perfect image for how I am feeling: grateful!

Flying across the country two weeks ago, the Delta airlines magazine had a section on "Things we liked in 2010" or something like that. Along with the Old Spice Guy, they included a special box on gratitude: how important it is to a happy productive life. I was reminded then of a verse from psalm 66 "Come now and see the works of God, how wonderful he is in his doing toward all people." This verse caught my attention a few weeks ago and prompted me to reflect on the wonderful things God had done in my life, and the link between being grateful and my willingness to keep my vows. Last Friday a group of us were telling stories about the things we are grateful for in our lives today. For me it is the chance to spend time in San Francisco (escaping the snow in New York!!), for meaningful work, for my health, and all the people in my life who love and support me.

On a more micro level, I really enjoyed eating a "Proposition 8" hot dog (two weiners in one bun!) at Zog's Dogs in San Francisco, coffee at the original Peets in Berkeley, cooking dinner for the brothers.

Perhaps it sounds too Pollyanna, but I have discovered that especially at times when I feel aggravated and unhappy, the best way to move through it is to start to list the things that I am grateful for. Eventually the glass is half full, and before I know it it is overflowing.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Forty years in San Francisco

I left New York last Tuesday, possibly one of the last flights to get out of JFK due to an ice storm. What a relief to arrive in nearly 60+ F weather!

Tuesday evening the brothers in the Bay area gathered with the retired Bishop of California, Bill Swing, and his wife Mary for Holy Eucharist and dinner. We began to tell stories about the early days of SSF in San Francisco. It is humbling to think of all the brothers who have lived at San Damiano, and the breadth of their ministries over the past 40 years. Bishop Swing spoke movingly of his perception of our contribution to the life of the diocese.

Wednesday evening, the Feast of the Presentation, we gathered again with the sisters of the Community of St. Francis. After dinner Br. Robert Hugh gave a brilliant talk about the early years. Arriving in San Francisco in February 1971, we originally lived in a apartment until the present location on Dolores Street was found--a "marginal" neighborhood in those days, he said. We moved in a floor at a time over the course of nearly a year.

In those days the men who came to us were like as not to be seeking a way to avoid the draft, something which our commitment to peace and non-violence made an obvious option. But, as Robert Hugh observed, the formation process became more about helping late adolescents mature into adulthood than an in-depth exploration of Franciscanism, though the two are by no means mutually exclusive efforts. I think Robert was being a bit modest as he was very involved with the formation program in those days.

One of our earliest ministries in the Bay Area was welcoming young people who came to San Francisco through the Haight Asbury help center. People needing a place to stay were given chits to present to the brothers who provided showers, beds and food. Later we offered the same resources to refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia.

San Damiano was a new kind of effort for SSF in those days, at least in the American Province, because it was not affiliated with a parish. Then, as now, the brothers were involved in different parishes and ministry initiatives.

Sister Ruth, one of our First Order Sisters of the Community of St. Francis has also lived in San Francisco almost the whole 40 years of our presence in the city. CSF came to San Francisco shortly after the brothers. She is justly famous for founding Family Link, a ministry to families of persons affected by AIDS. Now it is for families of people who are affected by illness of any kind and needing housing. But before that she was a contractor and also a nurse to the founder of the American Episcopal Franciscans, Fr. Joseph. She spoke after Robert Hugh finished, and told some poignant stories of the old man's last years. I wanted to laugh and weep at the same time.

Its a joy to hear such a generous assessment of life and ministry.

1971 was also the year the brothers moved into Patteson House in the Solomon Islands. We shared the house with the Sisters of the Church, another Anglican religious order. Initially the brothers and sisters shared the main house: kitchen, dining room, laundry and common room. But within a year or so, a wall was built so that each community could have it's privacy.

So the experiments in community living carry on. It is exciting to me to think of where we have been, and encouraging as we dream about where we can go. We've been out there, challenging culture, welcoming strangers, ministering to the sick and needy, experimenting with the forms and norms of religious life.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Light for Epiphany

Yesterday was the Feast of the Epiphany. It is hard to believe that time has flown so quickly. My last big post was in the Solomons when we published the Declaration from the Social Justice Conference there. That was a remarkable time and a huge event in my life. The month since then has been full of events, and I have thoroughly enjoyed myself. But there wasn’t a lot of gas in my engine. I was very tired. It has taken the whole month to feel “normal” again. Being back at Little Portion with its deeply familiar rhythms, joys and aggravations, and plentiful food and comfortable bed, has helped me feel strong and creative again. Time for another blog entry! Today we got rid of all the Christmas decorations, and as beautiful as they were, it is great to return to ordinary life.

Ordinary life is pretty rich stuff. Kathleen Norris wrote a book called “Quotidian Mysteries” in which she wrote about her experiences of the divine in everyday life. (She of course writes from a Benedictine perspective, but I wonder if she doesn’t have secret Franciscan tendencies? It doesn’t really matter….) Part of the gift of being part of any community that reads and listens to Scripture every day is that the imagery lurks in your brain; for instance, I find myself thinking about scripture throughout the day--in the hardware store even--as I did yesterday.

I noticed yesterday that one of our outdoor lights had burnt out, so I went to Sears in search of a bulb that was suited for outdoors. Much of the imagery that we heard in from the Epiphany Scripture readings had to do with light: ‘the light of the nations,’ ‘light of the world’, and ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ “Where do I find light?” I wondered. “How much light do we need?” After fifteen minutes wandering around the store, I had to ask, and was sent to aisle seven.

This particular floodlight illumines a stair that leads to the house from the labyrinth. For years, when I was Guardian here, I’d minimized the danger of these steps, warning people “Just be careful!” Until, about 5 years ago, one poor woman fell and hurt herself. Suddenly, distracted penny-pinching warnings were totally inadequate. Something had to be done. I contacted an electrician and we got a fixture immediately. Tired of warnings, God sent Jesus to be the light of the world, a light to the nations.

For $12.88 I got two light bulbs; no more darkness.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Videos of Life at Little Portion

Brother Max has been busy with his camera making videos of our life at Little Portion. There's one of me making bread last Friday. It was 5:00 a.m., and I wasn't fully awake, so no small talk! Actually I find the process of baking extremely meditative and healing. You'll have to cut and paste the link below into your browser. Enjoy the show!