A Franciscanist reacts to the documentary Minimalism: A Documentary about Important Things
I heard an NPR interview with the two guys who call themselves “The Minimalists” last week. I stopped what I was doing to listen to the entirety of the interview. They’ve got a lot of things right. When their movie “Minimalism” popped up on my Netflix feed this evening, I got comfortable, happy to have an alternative to going out to see Star Wars (where my family went) for the evening. As someone who has spent a lot of time reading St. Francis and thinking about him, I have a few things to share after watching this movie.
The documentary follows two guys as they travel around the country promoting their book and ideas. Their shtick is that they’ve pared down their belongings to the bare necessities. We don’t catch a glimpse of the living quarters of one of the fellas, so there’s no chance for that curiosity to be satiated, but that’s alright. The film features interviews with several people who advocate for aspects of minimalism: a neuroscientist who thinks we spend too much time looking at screens, tiny house dwellers, a handsome millennial who eschews an apartment in order to couch surf and use Airbnb (presumably). I like all of this. While listening to the guy talk about screentime, I paused the movie to further adjust the limits on the app on my phone (App Detox) which limits how much time I spend using my phone. They give great advice, examples, stories and statistics that will cause viewers to take a minute to consider their own consumption. St. Francis of Assisi jumped up excitedly, recognizing “This is what I want!” when he heard the readings where Jesus tells a young man to go, sell everything he has, give the money to the poor in order to follow him properly. So, these ideas are as old as the hills, but it is great to see them repackaged in 2016 style and to see that 100s of people show up to their book signings/bookstore appearances. They’ve got quiet the marketing machine in place, which gets them interviewed by all sorts of media so kudos to them for going “maximalist” on the P.R. front.
I guessed correctly that there would be some nod toward Buddhism and articulation of its ideas about possessions. There was and it was explained by a former news reporter/drug addict who found through mediation a way to focus and worry less. I wish there were more Francis-loving filmmakers out there who might be able to tell a story like this with a nod to Francis, but that’s not their problem.
It is a movie that could only have been made in 2016, by my compatriot Americans from a certain economic class (upper middle) and has all the predictable conclusions about minimalism boosting personal happiness. There are a few interviewees who toss in ideas about the earth’s resources and for a minute I thought that the statement which started with (I’m paraphrasing here), “It is hard to believe that in a time when Americans enjoy so much comfort and wealth…” was going to end with an assessment of the world around us and the lack of comfort and wealth in much of the world. However, the remainder of that statement was something like, “…and yet everyone is so unsatisfied.” I believe that lots of us Americans are unsatisfied and believe that we need to acquire more and more. I live in a town where all the 1960s and 1970s houses are being torn down to make way for sad, oversized McMansions. So, yes, they are on to something. However, it is compelling and true that we need to take a look at how our choices affect others. Also, about how we can harness the power we have (the money we control, for example) to be a force for good. And, how we need to see ourselves in the context of the whole world. I’m not saying that my fellow Catholics are all knowlegable to analyze these things in light of Catholic Social Teaching and the teachings of our Popes, but it would add a layer of depth to the film. St. Francis of Assisi did not eschew his family possessions and status because he wanted to be happier, but because it is what God called him to do and freed him up to love and serve others all over the world.
I recommend watching this film. It makes a statement which doesn’t get heard very much amongst the din of commercials which are our steady source of information on materialism and how to embrace it. It opened my eyes up to some new vocabulary and I was encouraged to see the number of people showing up to hear them speak. No doubt, they are on to something and they have hit a nerve. I heard a lot of ideas which have been popular for a few years-about working minimal hours so you can chill more. Sounds good to me.
I’d like to know what you think about The Minimalists and their movie, Minimalism.
I love Living Nativity Scenes. This Advent, my goal is to try see 4 or 5 of them, inviting friends and family along with me. One of the most extraordinary descriptions in the first biography of St. Francis (written just a few years after his death) is about the Living Nativity which he pulled together. More precisely, he delegated it, like a smart leader, and had a lay man, John, pull together the townspeople of Greccio, plus an ox plus an ass. I try to imagine how spectacular this scene was for folks who loved a good tableau and the occasional entertainers who came to town. I wonder what it was like for John to talk people into letting him borrow their ox for the night. “No, really, we just want to put it on display next to the so-and-so family who has already agreed to depict Jesus, Mary and Joseph for the evening.”
I love when churches put a lot of effort in to these Living Nativity Scenes, sometimes called Live Nativities or other words. Some churches put on a drive-through experience or a walk-through experience. Yes, I will concede that in most cases, a medieval historian was not consulted to get the costumes just right and, in many cases, peoples’ own bathrobes account for most of the costumes, but the sentiment is right and before I criticize other people, I have to remember that THEY are the ones doing it while I did not lift a finger to help.
I hope that you will take some time to find a living nativity in your town. A lot of northerners have told me they’ve never heard of such a thing-poor lambs. I know that in the south here, we have plenty to choose from . Many of them are just a few nights and most of them close shop way before Christmas, so start looking now. Francis and John put together the first Living Nativity Scene because they wanted the scene to come to life for people and for the reality of the incarnation to be more tangible for people who got to go there, huddling against the cold, singing and enjoying the candlelit scene. I hope you jump in the car with some in-laws to check one out near you. It is what St. Francis would do.
O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity —
greedy, dishonest, adulterous…
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
(This passage is from the Gospel for yesterday. It is from the Book of Luke, Chapter 18.)
My friend Matthew took the above photo, Garbage Flowers, on his way to his bus stop for work last week. When I look at it, it makes me think about the beautiful things we create and our attempts to share them with others. This image lingered in my mind yesterday when I went to an early service at a Methodist Church to hear my friend preach. Afterwards, my husband and I went to Mass at our parish. Because both followed the lectionary readings of the day, I got to hear the same Gospel reading twice. Above is an excerpt from the Gospel. It goes on to say that we’re not supposed to spend our time thinking of all the ways we’re more awesome than the next person and envying them for their success. Garbage Flowers and this admonition to not be a “playah hater” merge in this blogpost.
I’ve made a couple of short documentaries in the past year. They are not perfect. I know that. I am not a perfectionist. The worst part of perfectionism is that people allow themselves to be intimidated and afraid to the point that they will not let their work be seen by others. I have a relative who is a talented artist but doesn’t want others to see what she’s drawn. I have another relative is plain and simple, really good at what he does so he writes many plays each year, all of which are performed publically. I’m not as good at my art as he is, but I’m also not afraid to put it out there, like she is. I created these films and decided to take the next, bold step of submitting them to film festivals. Each film has been accepted to one festival apiece so far. Each has been rejected from a handful of festivals as well. I’m waiting to hear back from a few others and of course, I hope they are selected.
In the meantime, another film has come to my attention. I’m in search of benchmarks as I wonder how I’m doing in this new-to-me endeavor, so I’ve been checking out the stats on this other film. I realize it is not a good practice and I need to stop doing it. It is like comparing apples and oranges. Our films are not in competition and they are two different things. However, Mamma Mia! It has the support of hundreds of people, almost two dozen organizations and a well-known Hollywood personality. When I learned all of that, I let it bother me because it got a lot more financial support than what I gathered for my films before jumping in.
When I try to temper that comparison and focus on my gratitude instead, I think about this:
I spent about $2000 (including $1000 given generously from National Catholic Sisters’ Week) and yes, had lots and lots of awesome people come forward to offer me other kinds of (non-financial) help along the way. People offered me places to sleep, generously took me out to lunch and kindly introduced me to the women who were featured in my films. Not only that, but many of the women featured in my films were recruited at the last minute. For example, I stayed with a friend in Philadelphia who discerned that it was not her time to be interviewed, but she told the women she lived with and as a result, I got to interview them and they are in it. This happened again and again along the way. I have so much more to be grateful for than to be envious of. About 10 people took a look at it before I released it, giving me much-needed pointers and tips. A musician from Scotland composed the music for one of the films, scoring it from beginning to end. He did this for the love of doing it and did not ask for any money. People came from all directions to help bring these films to life.
I get worked up when I think about this other film (just as the Gospel reading depicts someone getting worked up over other people) because the film uses the personal stories of several people to thrust forth its own agenda.
This is where the Gospel reading really hit a chord with me. As I compare my project with theirs, I get annoyed and angry and, yes, even envious. But, this Gospel reading tells me to get over that and to focus on my own stuff.
When I shift my focus away from this other film to my own work, I can reaffirm my commitment to work ethically.
My agenda for these films is to tell the stories of women who serve the poor. When you make a documentary, you realize there is a great moral task at time. There is a great ethical factor in every decision you make. Imagine you have 1 hour of footage from an interview you did with someone. The person is comfortable with you and likes you, so they speak freely after a while, as though they are speaking right to you. The camera is situated so that it is off your shoulder a bit. That way, they can talk directly to you, which allows them to relax and be open an honest, while the camera is right there, recording it all in an unobtrusive way. When you sit down to take a look at the footage, you realize the power you have in your hands. You can snip together pieces of an interview to fit any agenda you have in mind. In one interview I did, the person, as part of our friendly banter at the beginning, told me about some of the foods she did not like in a particular place where she once lived. This is a simple example but it illustrates the decision that must be made. Do I want the 3-4 minutes of this woman to be marked by this comment? It was made in an innocuous way as we were making conversation. However, it can be used to such an effect that it makes the speaker look like a jerk who complains. Of course, I did not use that footage, but you see my point about how easy it is to be the puppeteer. Anyhow, these kind of ethical decisions are made every time you piece together an interview.
When I shift my focus from seeking accolades…
The last thing I want to talk about is recognition, accolades and awards. I was fortunate enough to attend the two film festivals my two films have been accepted to so far. It was so awesome to sit in the audience and hear peoples’ reactions. I enjoyed answering their questions afterwards and yes, accepting their compliments. I hope to do this a few more times with each of these films. I also know that accolades cannot be my main goal. I guess the main goal is to create something beautiful and to release it into the world. I guess we don’t really have control over how many people see something or how they react to it, including the people who review films and make selections for festivals. I wanted to make a film which documents the stories of religious women (aka nuns) who serve the poor. I wanted them to tell their own stories, in their own ways. Out of the 1 or 1.5 hours of footage I gathered from each woman, I selected the story each one told which brought out the most emotion in her. I even have a hunch that this is something I’m supposed to be doing for the next few years, collecting their stories and packaging them in such a way that the rest of us can hear them and be motivated to serve the poor as they have.
What does this have to do with St. Francis of Assisi?
Well, every post, movie, book, meme and video I make has something to do with St. Francis of Assisi, sometimes overtly. In this blog post, I think that there is a place for Francis’ admonitions to not be too hung up on our things. That even means the things we create-one’s “brainchild” for example. I think we can be excited about the stuff we create and put a lot of work into but that ultimately we have to let it go and let others do with it what they will.
I don’t know if this blogpost makes sense to anybody else out there. If it does, I’d love to hear about your own experience with this stuff (being envious, getting over yourself, filmmaking). Thanks for taking the time to read it, in all its glorious imperfections, and yes, you can make the Garbage Flowers your screensaver if you’d like.
When I walked the pilgrimage route in Spain in 2002, I carried index cards with the intentions of my friends and family written on them. I will be carrying intentions on this trip as well. If you have a special prayer request, please send it to me and I will travel with it into the holiest Franciscan sites in Assisi, remembering you and your family in prayer while I am there.
Perhaps you’d like to purchase the book I worked on. Buy one through PayPal (cheaper than using Amazon) and I can put that money toward some of these expenses.
Think about 2017. Do you want to go to Assisi with me in 2017? Let’s make it happen if so.
Some logistics of traveling to Assisi, Italy
In September, I will take an 8 hour flight to Rome. From there, I will board a train to Assisi, walk a few blocks, take an outdoor escalator up a hillside, then walk a few more blocks uphill toward the guesthouse. Within about 15 hours of closing my St. Francis Booth at the Charlotte, NC Eucharistic Congress, I will be in my room at an Assisi guesthouse.
Why I’m going there
If you ask me why I am going to Assisi for 2 weeks, I will tell you that I am going there for language school and to get to know Assisi so well that I can draw a map of it from memory, able to describe to you what you will find on every street within the city. However, I know that there are things that will happen that I cannot even imagine right now: wonderful things. Since I reserved my rooms, it has been announced that the Pope is going to Assisi while I’m there, accompanied by the world leaders of world religions. It will be an especially interesting time to be there.
Language Study in Assisi, Italy
I have been studying the Italian language since January. I first enrolled in a weekly small group class in my town for 12 weeks. This was a good introduction to the language and the instructor was skillful. Next, I met an Italian woman with whom I did an English-Italian exchange a few times. Since then, I’ve been using a free App on my phone for 20 minutes-1 hour per day for the past 3 months. According to the App, I’ve been working with about 1200 Italian words at this point. I believe that vocabulary is the most important component of learning a language. [Pro Tip: A good way to avoid having to conjugate verbs a million ways is to learn how to structure sentences so you only have to use the infinitive of the verb]. Before I decided to study Italian in Assisi, I spent a few weeks figuring out how I could cobble together an immersive Italian language experience in the U.S. During my search, I found a school in Vermont (summers-only) and plenty of language schools (which meet once per week in various cities) but could not find exactly what I was looking for. I teach ESL and I know that full immersion is an efficient way to learn a language so I decided to go to a place where I could be immersed in it. to attend a language school in Italy. I’ve enrolled in a reputable language school in Assisi where I will be taking small group classes every morning for two weeks, followed by one-on-one lessons every afternoon. I’m using the internet to find some women in Assisi who are interested in an English-Italian exchange with me. I want to avoid speaking English while I’m there, with the exception of daily calls home. I also want to post daily photos to Youtube so people can follow along virtually.
Why I’m learning Italian now
I teach ESL. One year ago, we befriended a family I met through ESL. The husband spoke little English at the time but now, he could be a translator for the United Nations! Okay, that might not be a good idea yet, but I am inspired by how much he has learned in a year. He’s also in his 40s so I thought that maybe I had it in me to learn their language, too. I am not someone who picks up hobbies here and there. I’m not really someone who gets really into one thing for a while then drops it, so this interest I have in Italian is unique to me. I am very enthusiastic about studying it every day. I know that I am supposed to learn Italian right now. I can honestly say that I feel compelled to learn it. I’ve dedicated a lot of time to studying it this year and it has paid off. I think that I will be able to use my Italian skills to help people experience St. Francis and St. Clare in a meaningful way. I don’t know what this means yet, but I know it will reveal itself in due time. Also, Italian is a useful, modern language with immediate applications but it will also help me feel my way around the Latin in the early writings pertaining to Saints Francis and Clare. No, I don’t know medieval Latin (yet) but at this time, I think there is more use for Italian (supplemented by my current Spanish skills). The bottom line is that I believe I am meant to learn Italian right now so that I can put it to the service of others, teaching them about Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi.
Finding Accommodation while in Assisi for Language School
I’m using a website which serves as the middle man between the customer and monasteries/religious houses which rent out rooms. It takes a few days to get each booking confirmed. I indicate my top several choices since my first choice might not be available. Despite these delays, it is a great service and enables me to find housing where I could not have arranged it on my own. For one week, I will be staying at a guesthouse recommended to me by many people I know. I chose this one because I knew it would be comfortable and I wanted to be able to jump right in to my studies that first week rather than worrying about any problems with accommodation. For my second week, I will be staying at a monastery of French Franciscan nuns. I hope that I am forced to use Italian (or my 50 words of French) to get by there. I chose to find my own accommodations rather than set them up through the language school since that is the cheaper option. Plus, I have lived with my fair share of roommates over the course of my life and am no longer interested in adapting to the idiosyncrasies of strangers. I look forward to waking up in these guest houses, with their stone floors and views of the countryside, typical Italian breakfasts and strong coffee. It will be a good experience
My previous times in Italy
I have been to Italy 2 times before. One time, I went as a participant in Youth toward Assisi, an international gathering sponsored by the Conventual Franciscan Friars. The
men I served with as a campus minister for 11 years are Conventual Franciscans. At Youth toward Assisi (which occurs every few years), there were about 500 of us there from all over the world. For 5-6 days, We listened to speakers, got to go behind the scenes at a lot of holy sites and camped in a beautiful, cheap huge campground just up the hill from Assisi. Youth toward Assisi is geared toward youth (18-25) . I was there to accompany our students and was 31 at the time. When I myself was a youth (18-25), I had many wonderful experiences hanging out with other young people from all over the world. My first job out of college was to work at an International hostel, then I visited Taize (which is a gathering place for youth in France) at age 25, I knew that those days were behind me. I could tell that something had shifted in me as I was no longer needing to stay up at all hours of the night getting to know the other 499 people there. We were only in Assisi for a few days and I wanted to make the most of my time there. So, on the morning of my 32nd birthday, I discerned that my day would be better spent exploring Assisi rather than joining the bumbling crowd on 30 slow buses on a field trip that day. I got up after my tent mates left, literally just started walking and ended up, much to my delight, at the Carceri atop Mount Subasio. This is a friary/church built on the side of the mountain where the caves are. St. Francis of Assisi went to these caves to be in solitude, to pray and discern his next steps along the way. As I walked up the road, I joined up with an elderly French lady who was walking it as well. Neither of us spoke the other language, but we managed it [Pro Tip: most words that end in -ation in English are the same in Romance languages] so we had a conversation for the entire trip up the hill to the Carceri. I loved having time to be in those woods, chat with other people and to enjoy my birthday lunch of salami and bread while in the woods St. Francis loved so much. In 2012, I went to Italy again, at Easterto meet up with Dr. Alison More, my master’s thesis advisor and my roommates from graduate school. Alison was living in the Netherlands at the time. Her own PhD advisor joined us from Germany and the Felician sisters from New Mexico who were my roommates at St. Bonaventure University were there with their novices. Together, we were 4 generations of women, all within a few years’ of each other. What I mean by four generations is that one had taught the other who had taught the 3 of us who taught others so that makes for four generations of women teaching women. It was cool to be with such smart women in Assisi. Highlights include being in a small crowd of about 40 people, just feet away from the lighting of the Easter candle outside St. Mary of the Angels, where it was freezing cold outside but strangers pressing together helped preserve enough warmth. Another highlight of that trip was processing through the darkened streets of Assisi with candles in a tradition older than St. Francis himself. Another day, Alison and I took an unexpected walk (in too-cute boots) through an unexpected rain for several miles from San Damiano to St. Mary of the Angels. It was that night, uncomfortable and wet, that I discovered truffles for the first time. They are native to the area and affordable in pasta dishes. They are like mushrooms, pungent and earthy, times 1000. Yum. I had never eaten anything so good in my life. They are prohibitively expensive here so the best I can do once in a while is get truffle oil which is basic olive oil infused with truffle oil. Still yummy and pungent but not as good as the real deal. If you are reading this and find yourself getting jealous, assuming this trip cost thousands of dollars and thinking this is way beyond your reach, you should call me right now. The trip cost hundreds, not thousands of dollars (the flight was the biggest expense) and it is a heck of a lot cheaper than what you paid for cable TV last year.
Previous times in Rome
I’ve been to Rome on four separate overnights, to and from Assisi. Coincidentally, my various hosts took me to the same church each time so I’ve seen one church multiple times. On one trip, we stayed at an AirB&B apartment which was safe, clean and cheap. Of course, I have visited the Vatican as well. St. Peter’s is a sight to behold. The variety of languages and ethnicities of people in the square is awesome. t. I hope Rome reveals some delights on this trip. One of my favorite parts about visiting the Vatican was the worldwide swath of humanity represented among the other people poking around the square, touching St. Peter’s foot (statue), marveling at the sights, praying, looking and whispering. I have been given this experience in many parts of the world, where I get to look around and see that all of these people, with their varying skin tones, linguistic tones, moods, hats, shoes, education levels, attitudes, disabilities and families, were also Catholic Christians. It is truly the most universal gathering on earth.
This past weekend, I got to represent one of my two documentaries at a film festival 10 hours from home. After the awards ceremony (my short documentary was beat out by an interesting one about the Loch Ness Monster of the Finger Lakes. If I have to lose, I like to lose to sea monsters!) I had a short conversation with a guy in a Yankees cap about creating movies and his response was so enthusiastic that I thought I ought to record the gist of it here so I can come back to it. Maybe it will speak to you. I know I am talking to myself as I give this advice.
The guy in the Yankees cap was there because his friend (a breakdancer!) had a film in the film festival.He told me there are two documentaries he has always wanted to make. He wants to make one about his cousin who lost his sight when someone shot him with a gun. He wants to make another movie about the people in his neighborhood who have to eat,
sleep, raise their kids, commute to work, walk their pets and do their shopping while surrounded by gangs and gang violence. Both of these subjects he knows and is close to in a way that many people are not. He told me he was afraid to make the film about his cousin because there are people who would do it better. I told him that he’s the only one who can make those movies. He may not have $10,000 worth of equipment and a $100,000 film school education (or a $1,000,000 film budget which, unbelievably, some independent films have) but, as someone in my film Energy of Nuns says, “They aren’t there.” Sometimes we are the only ones who can do something. In this case, “they” aren’t interested or able to make these films. This guy is. He nodded and saw that maybe this is a calling. In my own experience of 42 years on earth, many of them spent listening to other people, I believe that a calling can be identified when it is something (truly good and beautiful) that we feel drawn to do while the vast majority of people would not go near it with a 10 foot pole (for example: do you want to be a social worker in the field of pediatric hospice?). He liked what I said and called that advice “a win.” He told me that little nudge of encouragement makes him recognize he has the capability of doing these projects and most importantly, the desire to do them. That is bravery right there. Bravery is NOTHING more than recognizing our strength. Sure, we like to conjure up these mythical creatures we refer to as “they” as in “they would make a better film than me” or “they might not think this is good enough” but most of the time, there is no “they,” there is only you.
I learned recently that in Latin, the word for “brave” is the same for the word for “strong”- fortis. The reason I know this now is that my husband, who is so encouraging and supportive of me, knows that I often let myself be stymied by fear when it comes to taking on new projects through Franciscan Passages. I suggested we come up with a little phrase or word to come back to so we can “name it and claim it.” I looked up the words for strength and for bravery since it seems like what I lack at times is bravery and my husband assures me I already possess the strength I need. When I saw that “fortis” can mean either strength or bravery, I saw their connection. As my encouraging husband reminds me, I am strong. I have varied life experience, travel and education to draw from. I have good people around me, the love and support, a good track record and plenty of references after six years of giving presentations, putting together a book, putting together two movies and other projects through Franciscan Passages. So to be brave is simply to recognize strength that is already present. Pope John Paul II reminded us thousands of times that we should not be afraid. That advice resurfaces throughout the Old and the New Testaments. God knows we are full of fear. But he also made us so he knows our strength. Fear can be replaced by bravery and bravery gives us the confidence to go ahead and start something. For me, this means taking on new projects, looking at things that have been done by others and figuring out how to make them more accessible to more people. I can make a long list of things I am not and excuses for why I want to procrastinate on starting something but all of that comes from fear, not bravery. For some people, perfectionism serves as the perfect disguise for their fear. They pretend that they will take on this project or that project sometime way in the future when they have all the right tools or when the timing is just right or when the weather is right. So, perfectionism is the enemy of creativity and bravery can overcome even perfectionism…if you let it.
What does this have to do with St. Francis of Assisi?
At the end of his life, as his brothers were anxious about St. Francis’ dying, knowing they would miss his advice and guidance and leadership, he told them “The Lord has shown me what is mine to do and may he show you what is yours to do.” What freedom he gave them! He did not instruct them to carefully follow his every footstep, to emulate him or try to be a copy of him. He knew that each person, in their uniqueness (remember, God loves us individually, in our uniqueness, not just as humans in aggregate) has something to offer to others.So, quit making excuses, and go do what is yours to do.
This morning, an elderly man, in his 80s, got up early, prayed, thought about the readings for the day and walked into the church where he himself has asked to stay long past his official retirement so he can continue to serve the community there. The pastor was out of town today, so he was on the schedule to celebrate Mass. A few people showed up to daily Mass. What I’ve found in the various places I’ve lived is that the daily Mass crowd is made up of a pretty consistent bunch of people who see each other several times a week, have snippets of conversation in the minutes before or after Mass and know they’ll see each other again the next day. When your priest is in his 80s, you know that one day, he may have to really retire and go someplace to get some rest. It is a nice little community that forms and you get used to seeing the same faces around you from one day to the next.
Well, the news sources are painting this picture of what happened to this priest (in France) today. I don’t know what happened since I was not there. It seems that two young people, who theoretically had the rest of their lives ahead of them, decided to take this octogenarian’s life today.
The day’s readings were actually the readings for the Feast Day of Joachim and Anne. Otherwise, these would have been the day’s readings.
From the Old Testament book of Jeremiah:
Let my eyes stream with tears
day and night, without rest,
Over the great destruction which overwhelms…
If I walk out into the field,
look! Those slain by the sword;
If I enter the city,
look! Those consumed by hunger.
Even the prophet and the priest
forage in a land they know not.
…Why have you struck us a blow
that cannot be healed?
We wait for peace, to no avail;
for a time of healing, but terror comes instead.”
The reading from the New Testament book of Matthew for today (which was not read since it is the feast day of Joachim and Anne) speaks of evil ones being thrown into a fire where they will suffer forever. I guess that is what is happening to the two who did this act today. They are dead now. I can’t think of derogatory names that are base enough to fit them. They disgust me. If they are good people, their own families will be disgusted by them as well.
It is always interesting when these types scream out “God is Great” in a particular language just as they are causing another person to die. Its so profane and must be like nails on a chalkboard to God to have to hear those words spoken as a lie at a time like that. On the other hand, this 80 something year old priest proclaimed “God is Great” by getting up every day and tending to the needs of the people in the parish. The locals described him as being a humble guy who kept to himself and did not draw attention to himself. I’m guessing he knew a lot of them and knew their stories. He didn’t wake up one morning to scream “God is Great” after causing another to suffer. He woke up every single morning and proclaimed it with his life. When you do that, I mean, when you use your life to speak out a particular message, it rings much louder and truer. God is indeed, Great.
Of all the little pieces of paper and bits of data and shreds of parchment in the world, we only know of 2 which Francis of Assisi himself wrote on. One of them was kept for decades by his friend, Leo. On one side is a beautiful writing known as the “Praises of God” with its litany of names for God (my favorite is “You are all our riches unto sufficiency.”) The other side is the one Leo thought was most precious. He folded this parchment three ways until it was a tiny rectangle that would fit presumably in a pocket of his crusty old habit. I imagine he opened it up once in a while to re-read it in the many long years after his friend Francis died. Have you ever had such a precious note or letter? These days, I guess it might be a snapchat or text that we hold dear as a friend expresses her care for us. Although most who would study this parchment care more about the poetry, Leo preserved the little note meant for him. You can tell this because of the way he folded the parchment, careful to keep the more precious side on the inside. Right before he turned it over for safekeeping, probably at the end of his life, probably to the order of cloistered women who also knew and followed Francis, he took red ink and described what this was.
Recently, I was reading something by someone smarter than I am as he lamented that people no longer see friendship as something worthy of philosophizing about. In fact, I can’t even think of any songs which celebrate friendship. They’re usually about love or hate of one person who either now or then was an object of desire. I use Facebook as much as anyone and I wonder sometimes if we aren’t all just kind of sharing little press releases all the time, unawares of who is actually reading them. I overheard a conversation at the gym this morning. The friends had not seen each other in a long time but were able to reference the things they’d seen on Facebook. It made for a funny discussion since they had information about the other person’s recent doings without necessarily having firsthand experience with them or without the other person knowing they knew about what they’d been up to. The conversation seemed stilted and, sadly, unnecessary.
Here’s a quote I’ve remembered since high school: “Affection can withstand very severe storms of vigor, but not a long polar frost of indifference” (by Sir Walter Scott). A strange thing happened to me in 2015. On the same day, I was to drive a couple of hours from where I live to have lunch with one friend and coffee with another friend. As it turns out, the time before that was the last time I’d get to see either one of them. One friend had an accident that week and went into a hospital, then another and another. She passed away in February. I wrote about losing her on this blog. I grieve her still. I just finished creating a documentary about women who serve the poor (called “Energy of Nuns”) and dedicated it to her, “To Madeline, who also loved and served the poor.” This woman was so giving and kind. Even in death, she has allowed her body to be part of the training for medical school students so they can learn from her how to heal others. I still cry for her and I just cannot believe she is gone. If you want me to tell you more about her, email me. She was remarkable and influential and I think, has helped to set me on a path toward really telling the stories of those who serve the poor in order to motivate others to do the same. She is very alive to me in my memory and has influenced my worldview so much over the years that I have to credit her for a lot. She really helped me integrate my intense experience of living in a Hartford ghetto for a year while working at a homeless shelter into serving at a college and a university as a campus minister in Winston-Salem.
On that same day in 2015, I was supposed to have coffee with another friend. We had been in touch a few days before through texting and Facebook so everything seemed on track to get together as planned. Well, I was told the night before that she did not wish to see me because I had said something a month before which really upset her. She told me to “take care” and subsequently did not respond to my attempts to reach out. I scoured my memory, trying to recall what it was that was so awful that a friend of 15 years could not stand the sight of me after it. Almost a year later, I am still scratching my head and wondering what combination of words I managed to string together (unawares) that dealt a death blow to our relationship. I still don’t know. I am cautious now as I speak with friends, afraid at any moment that I will alienate them as quickly. I had no idea I had the power to destroy something so precious in such a simple way. It is terribly humbling and frightening. I grieve that loss as well, though it too seems unreal.
My husband’s job has brought us to many different places over the years and I’ve had to start anew with making friendships. A kind woman who had been a regular at the local YMCA for decades became a friend to me as we’d see each other every morning at 7:15am. In another town, one thing led to another and I became the unofficial assistant volunteer youth group leader (in Reidsville, NC) and met a wonderful woman who I’m going to text right now and tell her I want to see her (excuse me a moment).Okay, I’m back. I don’t want a few months of absence to be confused for a “long polar frost of indifference.” In another town, my friends were all retirees, in their 70s, 80s and even 90s. I share the story that I had my first jello shot that year with a woman who was 88 (and it wasn’t her first!). God has been good to me and given me lots of wonderful women who have given me advice, encouragement and companionship when I’ve needed it most. Naturally, other friendships have come and gone over these years. I’m comforted by the thought that some were just for a season and that it is natural that there is such an ebb and flow. In our country, we move so dang much and we live over such a vast area (one of my bridesmaids is a 40 hour (!) drive away from me) that friendships have to be elastic and able to adapt to changes. Another good friend and her brood of countless kids will be moving back “up nawth” as we say down here. It makes sense logistically since that is where her husband’s job is but it doesn’t make sense to my heart yet. I’m supportive of her and I will do what I can to assist and encourage her because it must be done but man, I think there’s another round of grieving about to hit me again.
A few years ago, I was with some people from high school. One person spend the whole time examining the nature of what she had always thought was a friendship. Reading other meanings into it now, 20 years later, she wanted to approach the person and explore “what was really going on.” This seemed fruitless and even dangerous since both are married now and I’m glad I was able to talk her out of broaching that topic. Sometimes a friendship is just a friendship. Except I don’t mean that. I don’t mean “just” a friendship. I don’t remember where the heck I read it (sorry) but I read recently that friendships are holistic and demand something from us socially, physically, mentally and more. I love when a friend trusts me to water plants while she is out of town. I love to write another friend’s relative who is in prison because I know it brings her some comfort as well. I love to meet up, if just for a cup of coffee or a quick bite to eat with a friend. Yesterday, I even got to spend an entire day with a woman I’ve known for over 20 years, since we swam together in high school. I thank God for these moments. There’s a line from “Stand by Me” at the end where the narrator laments about the death of a childhood friend that “Although I haven’t seen him in more than ten years I know I’ll miss him forever. I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve… does anybody?” Yeah, I think we can. I think we have to work harder at it. Even though today is officially “Social Media Day,” I think we have to work IRL (In Real Life) to support and encourage our friends. I don’t think I’m finished making friends yet. Heck, last year I made friends with a lovely woman who is an Au Pair, here from another country for a year. We have great conversations and as a matter of fact, we’re having lunch tomorrow after my ESL class. Want to join us? You’re invited, friend.
You know that feeling of waiting for something? Think about when you or a loved one was waiting to find out how someone did on an SAT, a blood test or the Bar Exam. It can be awful, can’t it? In that strange time span of hours, weeks or months, you wonder what has happened. The funny thing is that the facts and reality are already there and have been in place for some amount of time. The test is over, finito, done. It is like celebrating your 50th birthday. Friend, at your 50th birthday party, you’ve already just spent a year working toward being 50!
49 year olds may want to take a short break here while they realize they are already in their 50th year.
In the case of waiting to hear the results of something, what you are waiting for is the information to be interpreted and shared with you. In the case of medical test results, The Funny Business is already at work, networking, getting business cards and making itself known (to your cells, organs, bloodstream or what have you). Or, maybe The Funny Business is chilling and laying or low or maybe has “left the building” altogether. You are among the last to know as the lab techs who tested it, P.A. who interpreted it and nurse who calls you all know these facts before you do. If they get them too close to 4:55pm and traffic can be nuts outside their building, forget about it, you’re not finding out until tomorrow.
Waiting in times like this can be hard, even for people of faith. When we claim to be people of faith, we like to toss about keywords like trust and hope. We can whip out a greeting card to a troubled friend quicker than you can say “where are the stamps, honey?” We can post memes on Facebook with the cheesiest platitudes that we wouldn’t dare use in real life but there’s a kitten and it sounds positive and our friend (or facebook friend) is hurting so we go for it. The hard part about being a person of faith is when you actually have to live it out and the rubber meets the road. The hardest part of chastity is when you encounter someone and have actually fallen head over heels in love with them. The hardest part of serving the poor is when there’s one right in front of you and she annoys you, makes bad decisions, approaches you the wrong way or is rude to you. These ideas of trust and hope (and everything else we claim to hold dear) have to be real to us in these absolutely real moments of our lives otherwise, we are just poking our sticks in the fire without taking the risk of putting a marshmallow on one. Yeah, most marshmallows come out burnt and taste utterly disgusting but if we’re too afraid of how they might come out to risk it, we will just spend the evening fruitlessly poking at coals and yes, maybe accepting a square off the Hershey’s bar and a few squares of Graham crackers but WHO ARE YOU KIDDING? Those cold, timid things (cold squares of chocolate and graham crackerness) are no match for the sugary goodness of a hot, dangerous, messy s’more. Let’s back up here. The point is that real life happens sometimes, even when it seems like we are doing all the right things and living the right way and when these moments hit us, we get to see for ourselves how much we believe in these otherwise transcendent, elusive concepts like faith and trust and hope. If you failed the driver’s test, then what? You’ll schedule another 4 hour day at the DMV to go again. If you find out you failed the Bar Exam, then what? You’ll sell all your law school books on ebay and do what you always wanted to do-go on walkabout for a year ( I’m guessing here). If you fail the blood test, then what? Well, first come the stages of grief, each coupled with a microbrew of your choice, and with the awesome part where you find out what faith, hope and trust mean when its time for you to actually rely on them.
What does this have to do with St. Clare of Assisi?
St. Clare’s big thing is that she insisted on living in a way that meant her monastery did not have the usual failsafe measures in place. She insisted on living out poverty not for its own sake but because it meant relying on God to see them through. Of course, one of the ways God works is by moving the hearts of regular people like you and me to give people like St. Clare and her sisters food, blankets and elbow grease when the roof starts to leak. She didn’t set up a fund with a cool logo, she didn’t accept dowries from those who joined her and she insisted that the monastery have only enough land to grow food for themselves rather than owning lots of land and becoming landladies to the local people who would then farm the land. Her mettle was tested every day and she wanted it that way. Oh, mettle, that’s a cool word. Here are some synonyms: spirit, fortitude, strength of character, moral fiber, steel, determination, resolve, resolution, backbone, grit, true grit, courage, courageousness, bravery, valor, fearlessness, daring and spunk. If you’re afraid of your marshmallow turning out bad and that keeps you from roasting one, you’re missing your spunk, kid. Get it back.