Tomorrow my son, Bear, starts his first day of PK 3, and as excited as he is about school, my wife and I are feeling weighed down by his fear of being in a new place without us. Bear is a very shy little boy, and although he can be very social, he doesn’t have much experience being outside the presence of family. Tomorrow is also his birthday! Three years ago we were living with my mom, grandmother, and brother and brought our newborn baby into a home with their loving support. Two years ago we moved to Atlanta and lived in the basement of LauraAnn’s parents where Bear continued to be in the loving presence of close family. Moving to Texas is of course a big step for myself, but it might just be an even bigger step for Bear who has never been anywhere in his life without family, and yet now, his mother will be working, his father will be in seminary, and he will be in preschool!
As I mentioned, Bear is very excited, but already twice since moving we have had to leave him with a babysitter where he screamed and cried for hours until we returned. So we are nervous about how school will go. It’ll be easier with time, but it sure is heavy on our shoulders at the moment.
Tonight, the night before school begins for Bear and orientation begins for me, I am feeling something weighty, and I’m not sure what it is. It’s part emotion, part thought, and part physical sensation. It’s a mix of deep gratitude and pain. It feels like birth and death. I can sense it pulsing in my shoulders and down my arms into my hands, and I can’t quite place its meaning. After some time in prayer it drove me out of my new home barefoot into the streets to walk and listen and sense late into the night. So much is going on in our lives right now and I think I am simply feeling all of it bearing down on me.
And while I say it feels like pain and death, I also say it feels like gratitude and birth. After walking around the block I sat on the steps leading up to our seminary’s place of worship, Christ Chapel, and I just felt an incredible amount of gratitude for being here. I whispered into the night, “why the heck am I here?” I say those words with a sense of fear and confusion as in, “why did I come half way across the country instead of stay home?” But I say them also with a sense of unworthiness and gratitude as in, “why am I here, in this holy place, where you have invited me?”
Like Bear, I have spent my whole life seeking the shelter of family and the protective presence of the things I know and with which I am comfortable. At Bear’s age, I too, cried for hours in the church nursery. In Kindergarten I remember my dad sitting for a while in the back of class because I refused to let him leave. I was shy growing up. And while now I may be able to go to school without dad sitting in the back of my classroom, I have found other ways to gravitate towards comfort and security.
When I was visiting seminaries to choose where might be a good fit, the bishop’s office asked me to be aware and open to surprise. When we came to Seminary of the Southwest, I initially felt no connection or desire to move here. For one, I had no intention of moving to TX, but also, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the ethos of the community. I was looking for something solid in a seminary. I imagined being in a place as close to a monastery as I could get. I wanted tradition, formality, high academic expectations, depth, and a sense that I was connected to an ecclesial tradition that went all the way back to the great councils of the church. But here in Austin, the chapel doesn’t look like a chapel, the professors go by their first names, and smells and bells seem to be in little demand. I was not looking for a place like this. But upon spending a day or two visiting, my family and I felt a deep sense of peace and a great desire to be here! Where on earth did that come from? We were indeed surprised! Later that week we visited another beloved seminary that met the marks on all those “solid” things for which I was looking, a place I had already spent a good amount of time and knew I loved, and immediately upon arrival, we mysteriously felt completely out of place. I truly believe that God has called us here to Seminary of the Southwest.
I have a book entitled, “The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton.” It’s a bit of a funny premise because for those of you that know Thomas Merton, he was a Benedictine, Cistercian monk, not a Franciscan friar. While Franciscans are known for being more casual, doing active work, and planting themselves right in the middle of the insecurity of the world, Benedictines are known for planting themselves away from the world in a very disciplined and structured life of prayer and work. Both Franciscans and Benedictines often value very similar things, but they tend to put their emphasis in slightly different places. Benedictines tend to be solid and Franciscans tend to be fluid. To put it entirely too simplistic, Benedictine communities could be characterized as introverted and Franciscans extroverted. Thomas Merton, as a Cistercian monk, was in a very solid place. And yet, the book points out, long before he became a monk, he pursued a life as a Franciscan. Thomas’ personality was extremely extroverted, artistic, and fluid. He loved experiencing all the world had to offer and had no intention of leaving it. But through an interesting series of events, somehow God surprised him and led him to the Cistercians. If you know much about the life of Merton, you’ll know that he certainly didn’t become the typical monk and he greatly challenged the balance and ethos of the community. He constantly pushed the norms and found himself the exception to the rule. And yet Thomas, himself, was also deeply stretched by the experience. God had called him out of the world for a while to a place more solid than his fluid personality, and found his big personality countered in a way that brought a new balance he never could have experienced while in the world. Thomas Merton may have been Franciscan spirited, but God called him to a Benedictine community to perhaps prod that community out of spiritless routine a bit and bring discipline and structure to his free spirit.
Sometimes God calls us to a place that might be the opposite of where we feel like we most fit in. I have always craved stability, structure, and discipline—some place solid and away from the world. But God has consistently led me to the very opposite.
After college when I was looking for a spiritual community I was deeply attracted to the Benedictine way of life, but somehow God led me to the Franciscans where I have been stretched, challenged, balanced and loved in a way I couldn’t have been somewhere else. As a Franciscan tertiary in the Third Order, Society of St. Francis, I am continually finding myself in places I least expect and most need to be. I think the same thing is happening here at Seminary of the Southwest.
Sitting there on the steps of Christ Chapel, I noticed how much the building represented this tension in me. I’ll be honest, the chapel, architecturally, has been a disappointment to me. It doesn’t seem to make sense. It doesn’t look like most churches. It only has windows on one side and the roof slopes not to the center, but to the side without windows. Nothing is balanced or symmetrical about it. The chairs and setup of the furniture shifts according to season, but no matter how they are set up, they never seem to look quite in place. There is no crucifix or cross on the inside, and it has sliding glass doors. When I first entered I felt disoriented, out of place, and honestly wondered if the building had been badly converted into a chapel after a previous life as some kind of storage facility. Besides the stones themselves, there is nothing solid about this chapel. And yet, I realized that is entirely the point. Christ Chapel invites us into impermanence, flexibility, movement, fluidity, and openness to the world. You cannot retreat from Austin in Christ Chapel. Even the cross is intentionally placed outside of the structure beckoning the worshiper back out into the streets. With that little shift in understanding, my eyes opened to the great beauty of the building. While sitting there on the steps tonight, I became so keenly aware of the holiness into which the building invites us. Christ Chapel is an absolute work of genius (and I can’t wait to read more about its architect, Arthur Fehr, who has other works in the Austin area).
Impermanence, flexibility, movement, fluidity. These are the exact things I need in being formed as a priest. If left to my own devices, I’d retreat from the world and never come back. Some people (like perhaps Thomas Merton) need to spend some extra time away from the world. But I am not one of them. Sure everyone needs to take a retreat sometimes, but I am the one who naturally wants to run from the world and bury my face in my mom and dad’s arms. I am the one who too often wants to hide from the world. I am the one who wants to feel sheltered in the Power and Strength of an Age-Old and Time-Tested Church. I want everything to be firm and solid!
So I don’t need to work much on being more solid. I need to work on being more fluid. I need to work on engaging the world. I need to experience what it feels like to be in flux and in the street. And in doing so, I think I will continue to find a deeper balance between the internal and external, the contemplative and active, the Benedictine and Franciscan. Not everyone is called in this way, but I am certainly noticing it becoming a common theme in my life.
I am incredibly grateful to be here in this place and surprised by the great wisdom, mercy, and calling of God. I am so utterly grateful. I pray that I continue to be open to surprising things and the unpredictable moving of the Spirit.