My vacation has come to an end and I am back in Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Maryland. I am so thankful for the time off, to have had the chance to reconnect with my friends and family before continuing with my formation as a Franciscan friar.
I spent a large part of my vacation reflecting on the importance of my relationships, especially those with my family and friends outside of religious life, and I am filled with gratitude for these abundant blessings. For the presence of love in my life, I am truly grateful. In her Vida, St. Teresa of Ávila writes, “We may think it humility not to realize that the Lord is bestowing gifts upon us. Let us understand very, very clearly, how this matter stands. God gives us these gifts for no merit of ours. Let us be grateful to His Majesty for them, for, unless we recognize that we are receiving them, we shall not be aroused to love Him.”
What a great gift friends and loved ones are! Despite my own failings, foibles, and idiosyncrasies, my life is filled with people who have been effusive in showing me love and kindness. This was especially true in the period leading up to and immediately after my first profession of vows. It seemed like everyone I knew, friends, family, and friars, all rejoiced with me at the occasion. I felt unusually, particularly loved, as if the whole universe smiled upon me and poured out every blessing on to me.
How easy and natural it is for us to see the beauty of God in our loved ones! In their smiles and faces, we can easily see the smile and face of the Divine. For me, it is this encounter of Love, this desire to love and this realization of being loved by Love Itself, that lies at the heart of the vow of Chastity. The challenge then, for those of us in religious life (and for all), is to just as easily see the smile and face of the Divine in those whom we may not be so readily inclined.
I sometimes hear friars joke that the vows can be described as, “No money, no honey, now do as you’re told.” While this witticism contains certain comical elements, I wonder if this apophatic approach to the vows misses the germ that lies at the heart of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. In regards to Chastity in particular, I think “no honey” (the singular focus on celibacy and abstinence) prevents one from seeing the beauty and possibilities that open up when one adopts a disposition of love towards all.
I had an interesting chance to reflect on Chastity when I was on vacation in Barcelona. One of the reasons I love Barcelona so much is that the city is a near perfect mix of all one could ask for on a vacation: art and architecture, history, shopping, gastronomy, and most importantly, the beach! As such, it is an extremely cosmopolitan and international city, attracting people from all over the world and offering each traveler all the beauty and diversity they bring with them. In the summer, and especially in the steamy heat of August, Barcelona becomes a fleshpot of the first order, an assault of carnal pleasure on one’s eyes.
Surprisingly enough, it was not the sun-kissed, gym-toned bodies that provided the biggest challenged to my vow of Chastity. The challenge came from the suspicion and pent-up prejudice that emerged after my pickpocketing experience. It was a suspicion and prejudice that emerged from vulnerability and fear (the fear of being pickpocketed again, of assault, of violation of boundaries). I could sense the suspicion within me rising, a distrust of those who “fit” the profile of pickpockets and thieves, a profile based solely on external characteristics: race, clothes, gender, and economic status. This suspicion then created separation, an emotional and relational barrier between me and my brothers and sisters. Because this progression from suspicion to separation was rooted in fear, I recognized the incompatibility of fear and Chastity. If the vow of Chastity calls one to see the love of the Divine in all, and to respond to that love with great solicitude and reverence, then fear has no place in the equation.
In these early days of my life as a professed friar, fear and uncertainty seem to be just a stone’s throw away. Returning to Holy Name College was not without struggle and my train ride back to Washington, DC was spent mostly in reflection and prayer. Thoughts, concerns, and worries flooded my mind and I all of a sudden was gripped with doubt. Am I making the right decision? Am I cut out to be a Friar Minor? Can I do this? I also began to greatly miss my friends and family.
I suppose it is natural to experience fear and its offspring, doubt and suspicion. These are all feelings that come without any effort on our part and in certain ways, they help us and protect us in dangerous situations. And yet, at this point in my journey, I feel called to look beyond the surface of things, to try to see and discern God’s activity in every event, even in those situations that cause fear, uneasiness, and doubt. In the same way that the vow of Chastity called me to abandon my fears and suspicions when I encountered my brothers and sisters in Barcelona, perhaps Chastity is also calling me to abandon my fears and doubts in my discernment.
Furthermore, Chastity calls us to respond to these moments of fear with thanksgiving. Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity encourages us to “… grow in thanksgiving. If you walk rooted in Christ, strengthened in your faith, you will live in thanksgiving: the love of the (children) of God! I wonder how a soul that has sounded the depths of love the Heart of God has for it could be anything but joyful in every suffering and sorrow.” (The Greatness of Our Vocation, 12)
As I reflect on these words, I feel compelled to give thanks for all in my life who have shown me the smile and face of God and I pray that, with the vow of Chastity, I may be able to return their love in equal measure.