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The Lord Gave Me Brothers: Lockdown Lessons from Religious Lives

“You can discern that the Lord has called you to community life; the one thing you don’t get any say in is who you live with,” says Father Maximilian Wayne OFMConv, one of six friars living at Greyfriars house. Despite widespread changes to life as a result of the pandemic, the daily schedule at the Franciscan friary based in Cowley hasn’t changed much. 

The day begins at 7:15 with morning prayer, followed by private study or work with additional prayer meetings at midday and in the afternoon. “Routine helps us get through difficult moments, whether it be a COVID moment, or a non-COVID moment,” says Father Giles Zakowicz OFMConv, who joined the Franciscan Order 55 years ago. 

In the evenings they cook a communal meal where “we get to appreciate the abilities and the expertise, and sometimes the limitations, of the individual brothers,” Fr. Giles says. Since Greyfriars is a formation house for novices to discern if the Franciscan way of life is right for them and prepare for their ministry, “the conversation around the meal table is quite often whatever particular philosophical or theological concepts [our two novice friars] have been working on that day,” Fr. Max says. When people visit Greyfriars, they praise the diverse conversations, ranging from science fiction to sports to music to politics, all shared in light of the Gospel, says Fr. Giles. “We talk a lot in this community, we laugh a lot in this community, we share a lot in this community.”

Because Franciscans don’t vow to stay in one monastery but move to different friaries around the world, their living situations are always in flux. “St. Francis said once ‘The Lord gave me brothers,’ and you can hear that in one of two ways,” says Fr. Max. “You can either hear him saying ‘Yippee, the Lord has given me other brothers to come and share this wonderful life,’ or sometimes you can hear it with him rolling his eyes.” 

When conflict does arise, “we have to deal with it, otherwise our community fragments,” says Fr. Max. “[We realise] Brother does this because that’s him, that’s how the Lord has made him, and [the Lord] has made me this way. We both have something affirming and positive to offer in our attempted service.” In order to witness the love of God to the world, Franciscans “promote the spirit of unity, of fraternity, of brotherhood and sisterhood,” says Fr. Giles. “And of course, it has to be learned.”

After dinner, the brothers have time for recreation where they play chess, card games, or even watch The Office US. However, having others physically around you isn’t an automatic cure for loneliness. Friar John Paul Banks OFMConv, the newest friar in the house, believes loneliness happens when “[people] fail to find their own purpose, or they just don’t like being with themselves. I do like my own company, even for all my faults and weaknesses, and all the problems that I have.” Similarly, Fr. Giles’ speaks of a time when he was surrounded by people while serving as a missionary in West Africa, but for the first year felt he was “not being understood, or perhaps the feeling of not being valued.” 

Despite the brother’s deep joy, they share in the sadness of scuppered plans and the heaviness of heart brought by COVID-19. Their trip to Europe was cancelled, they haven’t been as able to assist charity work around Oxford, and ministry is over Zoom. Greyfriars shares a compound with their residential home for the elderly, so they have to be especially careful. 

Ten minutes away, another intentional religious community, the Buddha Vihara temple, houses seven Buddhist monks. They wake up at 6:30am and start their day by chanting together and meditating together, before time for private study and talks about mindfulness topics. 

Nyarti Kham, a monk from Thailand, tells me that many laypeople with “some mental health issues come to the temple, so we try to help them to overcome their suffering.” The monks get calls from people who can’t sleep at night or students who can’t focus. During the pandemic, “some [people] have lost their family, they are not being happy. It’s never been like this before. Some of them have tested positive and then some of them die, so, they are not happy,” Nyarti says. “We understand what they feel so, we try to explain to them that this is not just you, not just me, everyone in the world is [experiencing] this.” 

A woman whose mother died from COVID-19 is staying at the Vihara to learn from the monks there, and they have certainly dealt with feelings of loss. Nyarti was sent to live in a monastery at the age of five after his father died and his mother re-married. “I’m trying to understand the nature of a human being but I also can learn in some way from the chicken. Some chickens have many with a big group, some are just one.” 

To pass on good karma, every day “I have to help someone out and then I have to do [something] for myself,” says Nyarti. For himself, Nyarti works on his dissertation about Aristotle’s and the Buddha’s teachings, which Nyarti hopes will enlighten future generations. “At least I should help two or three people, and when I go to the city centre, when I see the homeless, at least one pound or two pounds, I must give them.”  

Whenever totalitarian political regimes take hold, men and women following religious lives are often the first disposed, because governments know they are far from harmless. “When I came into [religious] community, [people asked] isn’t it a bit like running away from the world?” says Fr. Max. “If that’s what people think, try it for a while, because you almost kind of go sprinting straight into the world and grasp it with both arms.” The one official change the brothers made to their schedule is a weekly COVID-19 prayer meeting. Every Friday, they gather for the people who have died, the people who have lost loved ones, scientists researching a vaccine, those undergoing family tension at home, the homeless, and any other prayer requests they receive. No matter what lies ahead, there are communities around the world praying for us and thinking of us, and that is a comforting thought.

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