The sun was NOT shining bright on our old Kentucky home. Not consistently at least. Until the last day. Before that, it would take turns with the rain clouds, giving our work clothes just enough time to dry out before the next drenching. When the sun did shine, it was sometimes uncomfortably hot. The hill we trekked up and down several times per hour as we hauled lumber up to the construction site alternately slid under our feet or clutched our boots, threatening never to let go. On one or two occasions it even transformed into a shallow stream. We got dirtier and smelled worse with each passing day.
In short, it was a lot of fun.
Readers who are already involved in our Marist world have at least some awareness of the extent to which our spiritual identity is shared not only among our Marist Brothers but also a large number of colleagues, alumni, students, and others. Like the Marist Brothers, they exude the characteristics of simplicity, presence, family spirit, love of work, and they do all this in the way of Mary. This past week, 24 of us rolled into Breathitt County, Kentucky for a week-long mission trip. The group consisted of college students (nearly half!), two Marist Brothers, long-time collaborators in ministry, and friends, some already of retirement age. Most participants regardless of age have come to explicitly embrace, reflect, and assume varying degrees of responsibility for our Marist mission of incarnating a version of the Catholic Church that emphasizes love and relationality more than heavy-handed doctrine and hierarchical rigidity.
Our hosts in Kentucky were a married couple who serve as lay pastors for a small priest-less parish in the town of Jackson—the only Catholic parish in Breathitt County, serving all of the area’s 25 Catholics. In addition to their duties with the parish, Ellen and her husband, Joshua are in the early stages of starting a Catholic Worker Farm that will eventually provide short-term housing and food relief for vulnerable families while also providing a rustic retreat venue for those seeking to draw closer to God. It is natural that this humble power couple would have such heart for the poor: After all, Joshua has been formed by the Franciscans, and Ellen is thoroughly Marist—I first met her when she herself was a Marist Young Adult leading youth retreat groups before she later volunteered in Senegal for two years with the Marist Missionary Sisters. This week, our groups to built a chapel in the woods on their Magnificat Farm which, over the years, will serve as a beautiful place of reflection and solace for any number of future retreatants and guests.
The work conditions I described at the beginning of this post may not have sounded particularly appealing. For me though, the challenge and discomfort added both to the novelty of the experience as well as the strength of the bonds built during this time. One of our students shared on the last night that his love for the Marist community has grown ever stronger over time—there is no other person or group of people for whom he would have endured all of this week. But again, the kinship among us was not one that merely allowed us to persevere through suffering, but rather transformed our shared trials into a rich experience of joy-filled laughter that smoothed over our aching muscles.
I was already friends, or at least familiar, with a significant portion of the group. Nonetheless, I was particularly touched by the relationships that formed and/or deepened between myself and the young people in the group, some of whom I had known since they were in high school, as well as those that I saw growing between others. Blessed by our labor and its fruits, and worn down by exhaustion, a number of us visibly and audibly wept joyfully as we blessed the new chapel in a closing ritual that both honored the mission of Ellen and Joshua as well as our own contribution as collaborators.
There is a special love that characteristically exists within our Marist family, and this way of relating to each other draws people in more than any theological insight or devout practice ever could. Although the chaste celibate life involves forgoing spousal love and the love of having and raising children, there is a rich and different life of love that I am privileged to enjoy through my ministry. While a number of married people and unvowed singles find ways to remain immersed in this reality over time, and others return to drink from the source regularly, I imagine for myself that it would be difficult to plug into this love if I had my own family obligations to take care of. Even this week, some of the young adults expressed directly expressed their gratitude that I had become a Marist Brother who was led to spend this week with them instead of marrying, which would have placed me someplace entirely different this week, well outside of their acquaintanceship.
Some of these young adults will hopefully find ways of being lifelong Marists regardless of whether or not they eventually enter religious life. Some will have to content themselves with the consolations of nostalgia as their lives take other terms. While my role in this community will continue to transform as I age, as one who has a formalized and lifelong commitment to the Marist family and mission, I am gifted with the ability to easily remain part of this life of love; I try not to take this for granted, and I wish only that I could more easily share these riches with others in my life that I care about.
This week’s “Ear Candy” is simply the old standard, “My Old Kentucky Home”. The “Brain Food” is an essay from a few years back that a Yale student wrote reflecting on her intense experience of community in college. Each beloved community is wonderfully unique, and I evaluate hers in comparison to ours or vice versa. However, I feel that the title, “The Opposite of Loneliness”, in itself may evoke some feelings of our intense community experience this past week.
Ear Candy: “My Old Kentucky Home” written by Stephen Foster, performer unknown
Brain Food: “The Opposite of Loneliness” by Marina Keegan
Come back next Saturday for a new post!