This past Tuesday, along with my Franciscan brother, Friar Benjamin Owusu, I have been accompanying a group of pilgrims in the Holy Land. As I have written in this feature recently, pilgrimage is a special experience—for some, it is life-changing. No one makes a pilgrimage without being affected in some way.
If you want one word to describe pilgrimage, it easily can be encounter:
with the land, the stones of memory related to our ancestors in the faith, and mostly importantly, Jesus himself;
with the Word of God as it is proclaimed there;
with the “living stones,” the people of the land;
and, finally, with each other—fellow pilgrims.
Through all these, we encounter God.
I think the Holy Land itself speaks most loudly—if not always the most clearly. Mountains, desert, water, vegetation, cities, ancient ruins, confront the pilgrim. The land forces the pilgrim to adjust.
Today, I walked with one of our group who was breathing heavily as we climbed “Tell es Sultan” in Jericho, the site of ancient Jericho. As we took deep breaths, he commented that he thought the desert would be flat—not hilly! Deserts, he told me later, were not his thing—“not even close!”
“The stones are emblematic of this land—part of the culture,” another pilgrim said. Of course, pilgrims are drawn to the “stones of memory,” the rock of Calvary, the Tomb of Jesus, and so many more. “Who am I,” a pilgrim marveled, “to touch these stones?” He felt humbled.
“It’s the common stuff that touches us,” another said—marveling on the simple fact that Jesus may have walked on the stones beneath us.
“They keep reminding us of Jesus,” one woman noted, much as things in our homes recall our loved ones.
At each holy place, we have read from the Scripture, most often the Gospel story. We try to evoke the memory of what Jesus said or did, on or near that spot. Our liturgies in each place mark the key events of salvation. “It brings you into the moment,” a pilgrim said.
Our pilgrims have met and interacted with the people of the Land. For some, it is their first encounter with Palestinian Christians, like the quiet, friendly man who drives our bus. They marvel at the various forms of dress among Orthodox Jews. On the first morning, the calls of the muezzin, from Jerusalem’s mosques at five a.m., awakened one of our pilgrims! Faith in God is expressed here in different ways among the three “Peoples of the Book.”
A member of our group bent down and kissed a woman in a wheelchair seated near the Anointing Stone in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “How did you get here?” my pilgrim marveled to the woman, and a moment of encounter followed. “It’s Christ in us,” she recalled later. Another said, “It’s finding Christ in our fellow human beings.”
Finally, in getting to know each other, our pilgrims are also discovering the Lord. People who were previously strangers share their common experiences of discovery, of helping one another, of shared prayer. “They’re not strangers, one of my group said, “because they love Christ. It’s a deep connection.”
The discoveries of pilgrimage will continue, as we journey into Jordan and later next week, the Galilee. I am praying to allow God to reveal new surprises as we continue.
From Italy, I’m writing this Frate Venerdì—Friar Friday. Since Sept. 24, I’ve been a “nomad,” wandering a bit around Italy, taking some days of vacation before beginning a weeklong pilgrimage with students from Ohio and Indiana. Today they arrived, and with them, I am now a pilgrim.
It’s a good time to begin a pilgrimage. Franciscans all over the world celebrated the Feast of St. Francis this past week, remembering his death (The “Transitus”) on Oct. 3, and his birth into heaven the next day.
I was fortunate enough to join the friars of St. Isidore’s College in Rome. Founded centuries ago by a famous Franciscan scholar, it has served as a center for learning for Franciscans from around the world. The community there celebrated a beautiful service commemorating Francis’ death—by candlelight in their ancient chapel. The next day, we marked the Feast of St. Francis with a morning Mass, and two celebratory meals (two, because we are friars, after all!)
The reflection for the feast day was given by Friar Bill Short OFM, a Franciscan scholar from California, now residing in Rome. Bill called our attention to two images—mosaics—which grace a courtyard at St. Isidore’s, just off the chapel. One is of the San Damiano Cross, the other is of Francis receiving the Stigmata.
I’d like to share with you my understanding of what Bill said, although he spoke in Italian, and I was translating for myself, and may have missed a lot of his nuances! Basically, though, he invited us to imagine ourselves standing between these two images.
One, the San Damiano Cross, recalls Christ’s instruction the young Francis of Assisi: “Rebuild my house, which as you see is falling into ruins.” Francis sprang into action after hearing this message. He sold cloth and a horse belonging to his father and used the money to begin rebuilding the little church of San Damiano, which was crumbling around him. Later, Francis would see a different understanding of “rebuild,” applying it to the Church—at least as he interpreted a mission to preach the Gospel.
The other image, the Stigmata, is how we picture Francis at the center of a deep interior life, so open to God that Francis receives, bodily, the wounds of Jesus crucified in his hands, feet, and side. Bill spoke of “suffering” as a way of seeing this image—but for me, it also depicts how Francis was enabled by God to let go of nearly everything, and allow God to fill him with love. Such a love encompasses suffering, as it did in the great gift of Jesus on the cross.
Bill suggested that we friars live in between two poles—a life of activity, of mission, and an interior life, which embraces suffering, and love. (I’m paraphrasing and interpreting here, for sure—I know he said a lot more!) These two poles are for me part of my lifelong journey as a friar. Sometimes, I’m more focused on action, my ministry, the mission of the Order, or of a parish, or my local friar-community. At other times, I am drawn to the interior life. It is frequently a tension, occasionally a conflict (usually from my point of view, not God’s!) and at its best, a balance.
Could you also experience these two poles in your life as a Franciscan, a Christian, a believer? Action and contemplation, mission and mysticism, doing and being—people of all beliefs seem to move between one and the other. And I think that’s a healthy rhythm. The holy people whom I admire—of various religions, belief systems and simply life-choices—seem to get it right. The rest of us struggle from time to time.
As we Franciscans conclude this week of feasting, and as I begin my pilgrim’s walk to Assisi, I wish you peace in your mission in life, and patience on the interior journey of suffering and of love!
In two weeks, I’ll be leaving the U.S. for seven weeks of travel to Italy, Israel, and Jordan, with airport stopovers in Frankfurt and Munich, Germany. This long trip will conclude the busiest year of my life in international travel (I was in Pakistan and Italy early this year, and spent long hours in airport terminals in Dubai, Abu Dabi, Frankfurt, and London.) With air travel as it is today—whether you’re flying overseas or domestically—things can be unpredictable. On a recent round of travel, I was delayed in terminals by two airplanes with mechanical problems—on the ground, fortunately! Maybe that’s why none of the other friars want to fly with me!
As I prepare to depart for this trip, I recall a comparison the late Franciscan pilgrim guide Friar Roch Niemier OFM made between a pilgrim and a nomad. He used the two terms as metaphors for living as a Christian, at the of a pilgrimage in Italy 15 years ago,
A pilgrim, Friar Roch said, is someone who “goes to places that are holy [where] sacred characters [like Jesus or Saint Francis] stopped there in the past.” A pilgrim usually has a guide, who cares for the needs of the pilgrims, gets them safely to and from the holy places, and helps them get in touch with the stories of the holy men and women who were there.
In the next seven weeks, I will be such a guide for two groups—high school students from the US, and adults journeying to the Holy Land. Together, we will visit holy places in Rome, Assisi, and the Holy Land. These pilgrims will be in my care. I will try my best to tell the stories and lead them in prayer. As always, I trust that God will be at work in all of us as we travel together.
But being an actual pilgrim in the Holy Land or to other shrines may be a privilege something one has the chance to do once or twice in life. The rest of the time, Roch suggested, we are nomads. He described a nomad as one “who goes to unknown places for holiness, places that yet need to be made holy in the present or the future. The nomad has no guide, other than God.”
Roch concluded his reflection to us (who were pilgrims at that moment) with the injunction: “Be nomads! There’s so much work to be done to have the Kingdom of God come about….So much to be done!”
I am conscious that over the next seven weeks I will be a pilgrim guide, and I’ll also be something of a nomad before and after my pilgrimages. I have a couple of weeks off to visit in Italy, seeing friars, and my family there, as well as working in Jerusalem, researching stories for our magazine, The Holy Land Review. As a “nomad,” I’m certain that I will meet people along the way who will reveal the Kingdom to me, if I am attentive. Perhaps I will do the same for them.
I said above that being a pilgrim to those special sacred places is a rare privilege. But truly, our lives are made up of many small “pilgrimages” to the places sacred to us in our lives—our homes, our parishes, the circle of our families; there, we tell our own “sacred stories” and God speaks to us through them.
The rest of the time, we are “nomads” in the sense that Roch described. We’re “on our own” in the world, traveling to places which are not yet holy, where we can help the Kingdom of God to take root and flourish. It might be your college campus, work place—or even an airport terminal!
If you are a regular reader of the #FriarFriday posts, you know that there is a quartet of friars who take turns writing these short articles about Franciscan life. What you may not know is that three of these friar-authors—Jim, Michael, and Tom—all are on the move this summer to new assignments. It’s part of Franciscan life. Periodically, each of us pulls up our roots in a place and travels to a different region (or perhaps a different friary within a city) and takes up a new job.
This mobility is central to Franciscan life. People often ask us if we are monks. Our answer is, no, we’re not monks. We are friars, a word which simply means brothers. But there is more to the distinction between a monk and a friar. In the 13th century, a new form of religious life for men began to appear, with the founding of the mendicant orders. Of these, the Franciscans and the Dominicans are perhaps the best known. (I’ll define that term in a moment!)
Previously, religious orders of men were gathered into the monastic orders—the most important of these was the Benedictine Order. The members were monks, living in a monastery, to which they took a vow of stability. This vow meant that a monk remained attached to a particular monastery for life. He lived his life in a self-contained way there. (Occasionally a monk could be sent to make a new foundation, a new monastery; or be sent on a special assignment by his abbot-superior or the Pope; some monks might venture outside the monastery to do some service, but in general, monks stayed put!)
When St. Francis gathered men about him to live the Gospel life, he wrote a simple way of life. His brothers were to live poorly, without possessions. They lived in huts made by their own hands or slept under the stars. They worked or begged for their food. The Latin word mendicare, “to beg,” gave rise to the word mendicants to describe these itinerant religious. They went where God led them, to work, give witness, and sometimes preach (if permitted by the Church).
The itinerant quality of Franciscan life has survived since the 13th century. It’s true that the Order took on monastic qualities at various points in its history—with large friaries, which even here in the U.S. were called “monasteries” (like the place I live in Washington, DC, the “Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America”).But that description was not really accurate. Monks live in
But that description was not really accurate. Monks live in monasteries and are bound to a particular one. Friars live in “friaries” and can be transferred from place to place. By virtue of our vow of obedience, we are sometimes asked by our ministers—the friars who direct the life of the community—to take on a new assignment. These days, such a request is usually accompanied by dialogue. A friar can also ask for a change, for various reasons.Friars commit themselves to be open to reasonable requests, made for the good the Order or the Church. No friar can be commanded against his conscience or the Rule of the Order. But in most cases “obedience” needn’t be invoked. That vow means we remain open to what the Order and the Church needs.
Friars commit themselves to be open to reasonable requests, made for the good the Order or the Church. No friar can be commanded against his conscience or the Rule of the Order. But in most cases, obedience needn’t be invoked. That vow means we remain open to what the Order and the Church needs.
An active spiritual life includes prayer and ongoing discernment. “Where is God calling me at this time in life?” We dialogue regularly with our leadership and share the answer to that question! Honest prayer and self-evaluation must include the possibility of a request by the community for a change in ministry or residence.
Once in a while, someone will tell a friar—“Well, how can you really get involved in a ministry when you might be changed some day? Can you really care about the people here, if you know you will be moved in the future?”
I think I can speak for most friars I know: We don’t think that way! When God calls—through the discernment process and God’s will expressed through our leadership—we try to embrace the assignment totally. Our mobility doesn’t influence our commitment here and now. Personally, I have a spiritual connection to every place I’ve worked and to the Church communities with whom I’ve ministered. I learned from the People of God in each place I’ve lived and worked as a friar. I carry the memories on the road with me.
It’s likely that you’ll be hearing from Friars Jim, Michael and Tom about their new assignments and ministries in future columns. I’m staying put at the moment, having received an “obedience letter” recently from my provincial minister renewing my current ministry to the Franciscan mission on behalf of the Holy Land. But as a friar, “the world is my cloister,” and I am at home wherever the Gospel is to be preached. So someday, I, too may be “on the move.” That’s the mission and life of a mendicant!
Life at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, here in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., is never dull. A constant stream of visitors come for prayer, tours, or just to enjoy our beautiful gardens. But in the past week, we hosted two groups, from two different faith-traditions, who were a departure from the usual.
On Friday, July 8, the Utah Valley Children’s Choir—some 150-strong, along with chaperones—made the Monastery a stop on their cross-country tour. For most of these Mormon young people, and the adults with them, this was probably a first look at a Catholic shrine.
Friar Jim Gardiner, SA, a fellow Franciscan on our staff, arranged for the visit, and the group was able to use our inner courtyard for dinner and a reception following the concert. The musical program itself, which took place in the church, featured both religious and patriotic music.
One of the reasons the choir made the Monastery a destination was that their organist, Don Cook, is a member of the American Guild of Organists (AGO), and had taken part in a musical program here. (The local Washington, DC, chapter of the AGO has—for the past several years—partnered with us in an annual series of Sunday “Music at the Monastery” concerts.) His contact with Friar Jim led to last Friday’s event.
As in any ecumenical exchange, there is learning on both sides. Some of the musical program and narration was drawn from the Mormons’ history—perhaps a bit of a stretch for some of the Catholics who came to hear the music. But the young singers and their leaders also got to ask us questions about what we are about here—how the friars live, our mission, and what one finds in a Catholic church.
One conversation stands out for me. A woman who directed a small group of singers told me of her appreciation for the work of Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr. “I’ve introduced a lot of Mormons to him,” she admitted, noting that Richard’s teachings on faith and contemplation move beyond a strictly Catholic audience. She also had high praise for Pope Francis and his pastoral leadership.
Finding common ground is what a place like the Monastery of the Holy Land is all about. On Wednesday, July 12, we hosted a group of nearly 40 young Buddhist day-campers from the U.S. Zen Institute in nearby Maryland. The monk, Ven. Sagarananda Tien, who organized the visit—again a long-time friend of Father Jim—wanted to show his group what he had discovered in a previous visit: the beauty and peacefulness of the shrine church and gardens.
After lunch in our dining room, Friar Jim and I presented a short program on St. Francis and the Holy Land. We were able to find points of common belief with the Buddhist and Franciscan traditions. The group toured the church, and got to ask about the Catholic symbolism, the replicas of the shrines found in Jerusalem, and the parade of saints depicted above altars and in the window. Then we took the young people to our farm, where the director of our Garden Guild explained our efforts to care for creation by raising pesticide-free vegetables for the needs of the community and neighborhood, and our beekeeping project. Each youngster received a plant to take home.
The Franciscan mission is about sharing the Gospel as Francis experienced it. He lived and preached a message of inclusion, of welcome, of universal kinship with all of creation, and especially with all people. I’d like to think that’s what our Monastery here in Washington can be for visitors who seek peace and a space with God—however they understand God.
That’s what we’ll be about on Saturday, July 15, when we will add Muslim guests, vendors and a group of traditional dancers, to the list of visitors in the past week or so! We will celebrate of our annual Holy Land Festival, where we showcase the culture, food, crafts and real-life issues facing those who live in that land. There, Jews, Muslims and Christians today dream the same dream which we Franciscans offer here—peace and harmony with the God whom we celebrate in common.