Written some time ago, starting in novitiate:
The moment when I decided to begin something entirely new came rather unexpectedly. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was sitting in one of the pews in the abbey church of a Benedictine monastery. The church was mostly empty, except for a few others who had come to attend the same retreat that was my reason for being there. It was the third week of Lent, and the retreat had been offered as a preparation for Easter. I had just received the sacrament of reconciliation. Now I sat there, having completed my prayers of penance, and remained in the silence of this sacred space. Slowly, a new thought began to take hold of me. I realized that I was about to change my life.
After some time had passed, the monks walked in and took their places in the choir. Their evening prayer was about to begin.
“God, come to my assistance”, chanted one of them.
“Lord, make haste to help me”, responded the others.
The monks began their evening liturgy, and I joined in their prayer.
The day before, I had left work early to go home and pack my bags for this weekend retreat. But when I was actually supposed to go, I was no longer sure. I wondered whether I really wanted to do this.
The days progressed at a slow pace. I remember little of what was said in the conferences. What I do remember is how the experience of being in the monastery started to work on me. It was the beginning of a process of discernment about my life. Eventually, I became a Franciscan friar. I now belong to the community of men founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1208. I gave what I had earned in my life to charity and made permanent vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. However, I do not live in a monastery. Friars are meant to be in the world, among the people.
Before I became a Franciscan friar, I spent 20 years as a scientist working in various fields of biochemistry, cell biology, and medicine. My story is not about turning away from this past, but rather about how my scientific worldview was transformed by the experience of learning to be a friar. In the spirit of St. Francis, this is about how his insight into the fraternity of all that is leads to a deeper appreciation of nature, our place in nature, and our relationship with God.
Why should you bother to read this? Our world, in spite of all its promises, is rather troubled. One can argue that scientistic modernism, even though it outlived other 20th century ideologies, is now also headed for the dustbin of history. Now is a moment of transition, at the end of secularism and at the beginning of something that has yet to be named. This calls for need new means to understand the present. My story is not about restoration of traditionalist religiosity of a past age, but about how Christian faith lives on and becomes stronger and more powerful as the world matures.
With this, I began a rather lengthy reflection about my path towards becoming a Franciscan friar. Next week, I will return to the same monastery where this happened, which is Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC. This time, I will be the retreat director, and the theme is “Finding God in All Creatures and in All Creation.” I wonder how much progress I have made towards the rather ambitious goals that I set for myself many years ago.
The first conference will be Friday evening, and it’s title is “Gazing into the Night Sky: God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth.” The second day will continue with a conference about “The Vision of St. Francis: God the Son, Conceived by the Holy Spirit and Born of the Virgin Mary.” The first conference is about the grandeur of God revealed in creation as a whole, the vision of God accessible to all, but the second conference is about the encounter with God in the individual person, and even in all creatures, made possible through the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. On Saturday evening, there will be a the third conference: “At Peace in the World: God the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Communion and Forgiveness.” This will be about how our faith can give us peace in the midst of a scientific-technological world. And then there is a little bit of time left on Sunday for a shorter conference on our mission in the world: “Ite, Missa Est: Going into the Modern World.”
In spite of thinking about all this for many years now, I still have still much work to do before I am properly prepared. Nevertheless, I very much look forward to this retreat!