Thursday, 11 December 2014

Franciscan Friends

As the weather gets colder and we travel from autumn to winter, my husband and I have been indulging ourselves in the luxury of spending more time reading.  After a busy start to the school year in my new role as a homeschooling coordinator (which has been both a challenge and a great joy), it now seems right and good to spend some quality time hibernating with hot chocolate and good books in the ever-darkening evenings. And since my husband has embarked on a “study year”, as he contemplates permanent profession as a Secular Franciscan, we’ve immersed ourselves in learning more about various Franciscan personalities throughout history. Last year we studied the spirituality and life of St. Francis, in depth.  This fall, it’s been like meeting some terrific new Franciscan friends!

Such as…

St. Clare… who we discovered was not just Francis’ feminine counterpart, but a woman of independence, strength and courage.  In 1212, she and her female followers founded the Order of Poor Ladies, also known as the “Poor Clares”, and together they created a way for the radical life of Francis to be lived with freedom and joy.  Her letters and writings are so hopeful, encouraging, visionary and loving. 

St. Bonaventure… a medieval philosopher and Franciscan Friar who became Minister General of the Franciscan Order in 1265, just one year before the death of St. Francis. Where as much Christianity in this period was filled with fear and guilt, Bonaventure’s frame of reference is big, optimistic and positive. He passionately believed in the universal “belonging” of all creation, and he wrote and preached that fear-based preoccupations are small and unnecessary.  His writings still feel like a breath of fresh air, 750 years after they were written.

John Duns Scotus… who in 1224 joined an early group of Franciscans who lived in Canterbury, England. His brilliant insights were a breakthrough in the Middle Ages. In a time when the concept of the individual apart from the group had not yet been born, Scotus honoured the uniqueness of persons and things within the Wholeness of God.  He understood that God’s love always shows itself in the specific, the concrete, the particular – something he called “this-ness”.  Fascinating stuff!

This fall we’ve also enjoyed reading two books written by modern Franciscans, which have sparked much thought and discussion:

The Lessons of St. Francis: How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality Into Your Daily Life (Penguin Group Publisher; 1997) by John Michael Talbot.  Talbot is a Secular Franciscan, musician and author, who founded and still lives in a Franciscan integrated monastic community at the Little Portion Hermitage in the Ozark Mountains. This beautiful book is filled with wisdom and practical advice about living a more simple and authentic life.

Immortal Diamond: Searching for Our True Self (Jossey-Bass Publishers; 2013) by Richard Rohr.  Rohr is a Franciscan priest and founding director of the Centre for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  His book is a wonderful exploration of identity and truth – of shedding our false self and getting in touch with our true self, which lies like a diamond buried within and is rooted in God’s love and mercy.  

And now we are approaching the third Sunday of Advent.  Our research, reading and discussions this fall have given both my husband and I a better appreciation of our rich Franciscan heritage...and also nourished our faith and increased our Advent longing for more of Christ in our lives!

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Permanent Profession

June always seems like the end of the year to me.  I know this is because I’ve been involved in school calendars for most of my life – as a student, a teacher, and a parent of students.  So, according to my brain, the year starts in September and comes to completion in June, with July and August being…bonus months!

This particular June has been a time of completion for something else in my life.  After three years of orientation and formation, I came to the happy conclusion this spring that I was ready for a permanent commitment to live my life as a Secular Franciscan - centered on Christ, guided by simplicity, focused on peace, trusting God’s mercy.  Bill, my husband, came to his own conclusion that he needs to continue his formation for another year, taking time to study, pray and ponder; being sure in his heart that this is the right decision for him. I applaud his choice, because the decision to make your Permanent Profession to the Order of Secular Franciscans is not one to take lightly. But for me, this was the right time. And so, filled with joy and thanksgiving to God, I made my “Permanent Profession” during a special Mass on a beautiful, sunny June afternoon at St. Luke’s Church, in front of my Secular Franciscan Fraternity.

For students, teachers and parents, June is both an ending and a beginning. It is the end of a school year filled with work and play, challenges and victories. But, at the same time, June is the beginning of summer holidays, leading to the beginning of a new school year, a new class, and a new adventure.  Permanent Profession is also both an ending and a beginning. It is the end of a formation period filled with work and play, challenges and victories.  But it is the start of a new phase in the life of a Secular Franciscan – the beginning of a lifelong walk on the path of discovery, trying every day to discern how best to live out the call of the Gospel in a secular world.  With Christ the Good Shepherd guiding the way, and St. Francis as my inspiration, I’m humbled as I take my first wobbly steps on this path. But I’m excited, too!

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Sacred Bookends

We are definitely in the home stretch of our formation journey as Secular Franciscans, as we are nearing the end of our first “Candidacy” year. We are approaching a time when we can make a decision to make our “Permanent Profession”, but another option is to wait one or two more years, if we don’t feel we are ready for that commitment. Regardless, now is an excellent opportunity to reflect on all that we’ve learned and gained over these past three years. One very positive plus in my life has been learning about the Liturgy of the Hours.

We heard a little about the Liturgy of the Hours when we first joined the Catholic Church and were going through R.C.I.A., seven years ago. This set of ancient prayers, also called the Divine Office, are daily prayers that have been part of Church tradition since its earliest times. Early Christians continued the Jewish practice of publicly reciting prayers, consisting of psalms and readings from the Old Testament, at certain hours of the day or night. The Christians added readings of the Gospels, Acts and Epistles. Many brothers and sisters in religious communities still pray these prayers aloud together, but they can also be prayed privately.

The monks of St. Anselm Abbey in New Hampshire pray the Liturgy of the Hours together.
There are seven “offices of prayer” in the Liturgy of the Hours – Morning, Mid-morning, Midday, Mid-afternoon, Evening and Night, as well as a daily “Office of Readings”, which includes a reading from the great spiritual storehouse of the Church, such as wisdom from the early Church Father or inspirational stories from the lives of the saints. Priests are obligated to pray the entire Divine Office daily, and in 2003 Pope John Paul II published an apostolic letter encouraging all of us laity to also take advantage of this rich and beautiful resource, as “a source of nourishment for personal prayer”.

Secular Franciscans are encouraged to pray Morning and Evening prayers from the Liturgy of the Hours, which, along with the Office of Readings, are called the “major hours”. 

As an evangelical Protestant for most of my life, I don’t have much experience with set, written prayer. My prayer times with God have always been quite unstructured and almost conversational in nature. But I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t have to be “either/or” but “both/and”!  The stirring, ancient words of the Morning and Evening Prayers from the Liturgy of the Hours have become sacred bookends to my day, and they often are a gateway to spontaneous, very personal praise and thanksgiving.

Scripture exhorts us to “pray always”, which seems impossible, but the Liturgy of the Hours helps us to get into the habit of interweaving time with God into our day. It has become a very fruitful addition to my spiritual life, and I encourage those who haven’t encountered it to check it out. The Liturgy of the Hours is a great resource for everyone. I think many of my Protestant friends would appreciate that the prayers are so scriptural.

You might ask, “There should be an app for that!” and I’m happy to report that there is – called Divine Office, available from the App Store. With this app, you can either read or listen to the daily “offices of prayer”.  Sometimes I sit and read them prayerfully, but it’s great to have the option of listening to them while I walk the dogs, or do some knitting, or wash the dishes. Sometimes in the middle of the day, I stop and take a few minutes to listen to one of the “minor hours” (Mid-morning, Midday or Mid-afternoon prayer) which are shorter in length…and the lovely and very short night prayer is great to read in bed before drifting off to sleep!

Saturday, 4 January 2014

An "Aha" Moment

Bill and I are now halfway through our year of Candidacy, as temporarily professed Secular Franciscans. How time flies! As we journey through this last stage of formation towards Permanent Profession, we are digging deeper into the wisdom of St. Francis. This past fall has been a time of exploring themes such as Community, Conversion, Simple Living, Evangelizing, and Living a Prayerful Life with our little band of fellow travellers. It’s been a rich five months of reading, learning, listening and discussing many ideas. For example, our formation study text reminds us that as believers we are called to “choose the cross”. What does that really mean? One paradoxical facet might be that we have the choice to “put to death” those behaviours and thought patterns that obstruct us from receiving the fullness of life.  

As this New Year of 2014 begins, it’s a great time to think about the obstacles we have a tendency to “choose” (sometimes unconsciously) that impede us from living a life of peace and joy in God’s presence.  As St. Francis said, “No one is to be called an enemy; all are your benefactors, and no one does you harm.  You have no enemy except yourselves.” So many of our greatest, deepest, most abiding problems are inside, not outside, of us.  They might spring from our inclination to compare our situation to others with a jealous heart, or to obsess about bad things that might happen in the future, or to dwell with regret on the past, or to shy away from new opportunities because of fear.  These initial days of January are a perfect time, with open hearts, to reflect on some of the patterns behind our choices.  Could this year be a time of striking out on some new, brave, healthy paths?

I recently watched an inspirational “Net for God” video ( about a young Dominican priest named Fr. Jean-Joseph Lataste, who was sent to preach a spiritual retreat in September 1864 at a women’s prison in the southwest of France.  He was totally surprised to see the effects of grace in the lives of these rejected, discarded women, many of whom were prostitutes, and to see their readiness to forgive. When he held a night of adoration, he was profoundly moved when he saw hundreds of women in the prison praying devotedly for hours.  Silence was imposed on them every day in the prison, broken only when he was allowed to hear their confessions.  He was struck by the similarity in situation between the female prisoners and a group of religious sisters living in seclusion in a nearby convent.  The only difference was that one group of women had chosen their situation, and the other hadn’t. 

The women's prison in Cadillac-Sur-Garonne, France

He realized that the female prisoners would experience nothing but contempt after their release from prison. But what if they were given a new chance…a new choice? Fr. Lataste felt called to found a congregation where women, regardless of their past, could enter to live a religious life if they desired to devote themselves to God.  A generous-spirited group of Dominican contemplative nuns were willing to welcome these women coming out of prison into their community. The Dominican Sisters of Bethany was born, which now resides in several European countries. These communities continue to be places where former female convicts live a contemplative life in communion with other women religious.

God gave me an “aha” moment after I watched that video.  What if we “pretended” that the difficult situations that seem to imprison us, for whatever reason, were our own choice? Let me explain. I have always admired the choice that Henri Nouwen, renowned author and speaker, made when he decided to move to L’Arche Daybreak Community in Ontario in 1986, to serve as resident priest and help care for the disabled residents.  He stayed for ten years. One of his “jobs” while there was to be a caregiver to a severely handicapped young man named Adam. Nouwen called Adam “my friend, my teacher and my guide”, and credited Adam with renewing his faith and helping him find joy in the mere gift of human existence.  He wrote a book about the experience, called “Adam, God’s Beloved”. 

Henri Nouwen and Adam

 I must admit that sometimes I feel trapped by my situation caring for the needs of our son Peter, whose neurological disorders are frequently very debilitating and limit the activities we can participate in as a family. But what if caring for Peter was my deliberate choice, like the choice made by Henri Nouwen?  What if I had freely chosen to spend my life ministering to Peter, in a faithful response to a call from God?  When I look at my situation in that light, suddenly it feels more like a privilege, an adventure, a blessed vocation.  

What if we truly believed that God was with us in all the struggles we encounter in life, and that by His love, mercy and power He is able to redeem them for our good? What if we fully trusted Jesus with our whole heart as He invites us to follow Him and "choose the cross" - with a spirit of adventure, courage and even joy? What if it is precisely in the challenging circumstances of our lives that we will find the best opportunities for spiritual growth? It’s a perspective that might not only transform our own lives, but also transform our world. 

To quote another Francis - our Pope: "Remain steadfast in the journey of faith, with firm hope in the Lord.  This is the secret of our journey!  He gives us the courage to swim against the tide.  There are no difficulties, trials or misunderstandings to fear, provided we do not lose our friendship with Him, provided we make ever more room for Him in our lives." (from a homily on April 28, 2013) 

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Temporary Profession

        “Moved by the power of the Gospel, we all experience the call always to begin again and to bring about a continuing inner conversion, so that we may be conformed to Christ – and with Him be given over to the service of the Father, and of our brothers and sisters as well.  In this journey toward permanent commitment, perseverance is a gift of God. Let us pray, therefore, that as we make progress in loving one another, we will remain faithful to the end.” 
       These were the beautiful words prayed over myself, my husband and eight other candidates recently, as we stood at the front of St. Luke’s Church in Calgary on a sunny Sunday afternoon during a special Mass.  Having journeyed together for two years, learning about what it means to follow in the footsteps of “the little poor man of Assisi”, we had all discerned that we were ready to seek Temporary Profession in the Secular Franciscan Order - another decision on the road to Permanent Profession. 
       In unision, all ten of us declared these words before the congregation:  “I make for one year my commitment to observe the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, after the example of St. Francis of Assisi, according to the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order.” The common denominator we all felt that afternoon, I think, was great joy.  We couldn’t stop smiling.
       Since we began our time of formation two years ago, I have constantly been challenged to truly live a more simple life, striving first and foremost for oneness with God. It’s been two years of very intentionally trying to travel through each day with humility, bearing peace to those around me. Believe me when I say it hasn’t been easy! But it’s put me on a path of ongoing change of heart, questioning my priorities and examining my intentions.  In these past two years I’ve experienced my share of discouragement as I saw the need over and over again to free myself from the blockage and brokenness of sin.  But I’ve also experienced extraordinary peace, through the process of realizing that though we are all selfish, erring little children, we are also intensely, completely and unconditionally loved by our heavenly Father. 
       Fr. Louis Geelan OFM, the Spiritual Assistant of our fraternity, earnestly prayed these words for us at the end of the Mass:  “Hear our prayers, O Lord, and grant that these, our brothers and sisters, who strive to spend their daily lives in service to others, may imbue their earthly affairs with a genuine Gospel spirit.”
       As I listened to his prayer while standing in front of the members of our fraternity, I also remembered the encouraging words of St. Francis himself, in the Prologue to our Rule: “Oh, how happy and blessed are these men and women when they do these things and persevere in doing them, because the spirit of the Lord will rest upon them, and He will make his home and dwelling among them.” 
       Amen to all the wonderful words we were blessed with on this important day.  And now, as Temporary Professed Franciscans, the journey continues!

Saturday, 25 May 2013


            My Dad passed away about a month ago.  The pain of losing him is still pretty raw and deep, but I’ve been reflecting on how fortunate I was to be able to spend lots of time with him over the past few years, especially after my Mom died in 2010. 
            Caring for elderly parents is one of those parts of life that can be a blessing or a burden, and is usually a bit of both.  Dad had a habit of phoning me at inconvenient times. I had to shout at him because his hearing wasn’t very good, and sometimes that was frustrating.  He’d often ask me to do him a favour that didn’t fit very well into my schedule. But I can also honestly (and thankfully) say that we had lots of really good times together…going to concerts, our regular weekly power-walk and coffee, watching old movies at his place, going out for breakfast, kayaking on the river, teaching him how to knit. He was a great guy, and I miss him.
            Hanging out with your elderly parents is one of those things that isn’t very heroic or courageous or spectacular.  You just do it.  And I think, in the general scheme of things, those common little loving things we do that are pretty ordinary and sometimes even a bit boring might have more significance than we realize.
            In a recent homily (on the Vigil of Pentecost), Pope Francis encourages us to “make present in society the leaven of the Kingdom of God”, primarily through “the witness of brotherly love”.  But he also warns us to beware of the risk of “falling into the trap of hyper-efficiency.” It’s very easy to start thinking that we must be “wise” about where we spend our time and energy, to make the most of our efforts and bring about “maximum results”.  But there is danger in that way of thinking. As the Pope points out, the Church is not an NGO. God’s Kingdom isn’t about being politically correct or well-organized or specially qualified – it’s simply about being connected with others. It’s about loosening your grip on your ego, instead of feeding it.  When we just naturally (without strategizing and weighing the benefits) are helpful and kind and loving to the folks around us, something cosmic is going on.  We’re bringing more of God into the world, because God is love.  We’re doing combat against the darkness. 
            This week I listened to a talk by Peter Kreeft, and he speaks about how much easier it is to love “humanity” instead of your neighbour or, as he puts it, “the idiot you live with”.  The truth is that Jesus is not looking for high achievers, or winners in some moral attainment contest.  He is looking for people who are willing to help each other in simple, ordinary ways; willing to walk the talk; willing to open their hearts and be led by the Holy Spirit; willing to “do the right thing” even if it’s inconvenient or not very exciting.
            This Sunday is Trinity Sunday.  It puts a spotlight on the fact that God is all about relationship – a giving and receiving of mutual love.  The universe is held together by that kind of love. Through the mystery of the Trinity, God Himself invaded our world disguised as a homeless carpenter’s son who roamed the countryside dispensing friendship and hope and forgiveness to whoever came across his path. He connected with people. We are called to do the same, because friendship and hope and forgiveness actually have the power to change the world. And, not incidentally, change us, too.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Irish Stew

Patience has become almost a dirty word in our fast-paced western world.  We all want fast food, immediate answers, speedy service and short lines at the grocery store.  Even conversing with someone who talks a bit slow can be frustrating to people like me who, shall we say, sometimes lack patience (ask my husband and children!) Quick wit, quick analysis of problems, quick completion of tasks – these are the things that are rewarded in our corporate culture. In most of my past jobs, especially when I was a school administrator, superior time management was the most prized quality; inefficiency the greatest sin. I subscribe to a great podcast called Radiolab, and I recently listened to an episode all about SPEED.  It was illuminating and rather scary to hear about the mad race to bring out newer, faster technologies to satisfy our collective impatience.

Contrast this with Mary, who exemplifies patience.  What an enriching Lenten exercise to meditate on this aspect of her character…her patience in accepting the Angel Gabriel’s announcement that she would bear God’s Son, without demanding to know all the future implications for her life; her patience with Joseph as he came to terms with her pregnancy; her patience while she waited for the birth of Jesus; her patience as she witnessed her Son’s life and ministry unfold and pondered all these things in her heart; her patience as she stood at the foot of the cross, waiting for Him to die; her patience as she walked alongside the apostles in the challenging early years of the church.

I sometimes get depressed when I contemplate my son’s slow advancement towards better health.  As much as I’d love to rush the process, it’s obvious that we have a long road ahead of us with his neurological disorders.  There are no easy answers or quick fixes for Tourette’s Syndrome. But in order to cope I’ve been forced to live life one day at a time – noticing and celebrating the small successes as they come.  Basically, it has required me to stop rushing around like an impulsive, crazy little rabbit, and most especially to stop basing my actions on my fears for the future.  Instead, God has been inviting me to slow down and open my eyes fully to the present – and that has been a wonderful gift.  I see the truth in Mother Teresa’s warning to us all: “We cannot find God in noise and agitation.”

Revelations 3: 20 always touches me deeply: “Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with Me.” The way that the Creator of the Universe paints Himself in this picture of patience is a clear illustration of His commitment to us.  He refuses to barge in – but He also doesn’t walk away just because no one answers His knock.  His example of loving patience, standing at the door and waiting, leads me to want to return that commitment, to work in partnership with Him in the growth and restoration of my own spirit and that of others.

The journey to Profession as a Secular Franciscan is not rushed. It’s a time of formation – and transformation – not just a time of instruction. It’s spread over three or four years to allow for exploration and study and reflection, in community with other travelers on the same road. For me, it’s been a good lesson in learning to accept God’s pace, whatever that might be, in the midst of a world that seeks instant gratification.  It necessitates making certain choices, kind of like the choice between microwaving a processed, pre-packaged meal for supper, or taking the time to dig out the slow-cooker early in the morning, find my mom’s Irish Stew recipe, do some chopping and slicing and then let the ingredients simmer for hours.  No question about which one requires more effort…but also no question about which one tastes better at the end of the day.

“Live deep instead of fast.”
-Henry Seidel Canby