March 8, 2009

Radical Fraternity

On Saturday, I interviewed Fr. Conrad Osterhout of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal who is giving a retreat in Boulder, Colorado this week. He and Brother Simon stayed with us after completing another mission in Craig, Colorado. Father Conrad has had decades of experience as a Franciscan, first with the Third Order Regular and later as a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal. I first met Father Conrad at Steubenville. He oversaw the pre-theology program household of which I was a founding member. He later was involved in the pro-life movement and imprisoned in solitary confinement for protesting and counseling at abortion clinics. His stories about those experences are quite profound, and I hope someday to write about those. What I asked him about this time, however, was his spirituality. His answers, a small part are presented here, will be part of a book on prayer that I am preparing.

I have always been impressed with the joy, the prayerfulness, the discipline and the poverty of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. I once asked Father whether the reason community looked so attractive and was so effective in the ministry was its rediscovery of a more austere form of poverty. Simplicity of life is something they work on together as a community, and they do this in the spirit of Francis of Assisi who himself had a love affair with Lady Poverty. According to Francis' ideal, whatever is not necessary for a friar's apostolic work is renounced for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Following this, the Friars of the Renewal do not own much by way of personal property - basically, the clothes on their back (which mainly includes a very simple habit) and what can be held in a small hand bag, and a toothbrush, if necessary. I suspected that Franciscan joy was the freedom from the anxiety that owning a lot of material things can bring.

Father Conrad thought I only had a part of the picture. He explained that he was also first impressed with this freedom from things. He said there was a lot more fluidity and hospitality that living simply made possible. He gave as an example on of his first experiences as a Friar of the Renewal. In his previous religious experience, travel between houses had to be planned, and they were not really set up for taking guests on the spot. This was probably because each house felt responsible to provide proper hospitality to visiting Friars, and spontaneous visits did not help in preparing for this. But as a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, while he was visiting one of the houses, his brothers asked him to stay the night. He complained that he had not prepared for an overnight stay and thought he should get back to the convent he had come from. His brother asked him simply, "God has provided everything. What else do you need, a toothbrush?"

Father Conrad was impressed by this experience. Because of the greater simplicity the Franciscan Friars lived out, he really did not need very much at all. He had all he needed, and he could trust God and his brothers to provide the rest. He discovered an aspect of Lady Poverty's beauty which Francis himself must have also appreciated. Freedom from things allows for a greater freedom to be with one's brothers.

This is where Father Conrad shared an important insight about his way of life. The recovery of the Francican Tradition, which the Friars of the Renewal have devoted themselves to, is really a rediscovery of genuine fellowship in the Lord. By placing their fraternity above material comforts, they are rediscovering how to live with one another as brothers in Christ. Father Conrad explaiend that it was not their radical poverty but their radical fraternity which was the true witness of their way of life. The real question their community was committed to answering together was not so much how they could live more simply but how could the simply build one another up in the Lord. By eliminating material distractions, they could begin to work on being more patient with each other. Father Conrad, reflecting on the richness of this experience, quote psalm 133: "Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity."