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The Long Walk

Blog Headers 2023-24 (3)

Editor’s note: Not all formation comes from a classroom or book.  Missioner-in-formation Ralph Anderson, OFS, shares what he learned on a self-directed day during his 3-month Formation program in Washington, DC.

I can hardly  believe that I have been living at Casa San Salvador in Washington DC for six weeks. Time has flown by. I arrived three weeks early to prepare the building for the new missioners and DC Service Corps Volunteers. Three weeks of intense formation and my brain is full. No more room on the hard drive and I was in need of a reboot with some new software. I made a decision to take Friday off.

Crucifixion scene at the Francsican Monastery of the Holy Land in America in Washington, DC.

The first stop on my journey was the Monastery of the Holy Land. I needed to clean out the cobwebs in the dark recesses of my mind. I entered the church and climbed up the stairs to the altar dedicated to the crucifixion. The statuary is immense and I felt I was right there. There are no pews in this area so I knelt in awe on the hard marble floor searching the dark areas of my heart where the pain lives.

I got up and moved towards the altar and I could see the square in the marble covering the relic. No one else was in the church so I placed my hand upon the relic area and asked for guidance. I felt the peace of the Holy Spirit descend upon me and I knew it was going to be a good day. I went downstairs to the next altar and knelt at the railing. I heard a stirring noise behind me like some wood was being moved across the marble. I turned around and no one was there. I went back to prayer and heard it again. No one was there. I got up and then I saw the red light above the door, which meant there was a friar from the Order of Friars Minor that I could talk to. Thank you, God.

For Franciscans, called the “friars minor,” the emphasis is on MINOR–a priest who considers himself one of the least. I was blessed with someone who would not talk down to me. We had a conversation about classism in the Catholic Church and the fact that my lack of a college degree has nothing to do with God’s calling to serve. He helped me to see that those I will serve have also experienced classism and I should focus on them. I left the Monastery knowing that I needed time in nature.

Trail at Rock Creek Park.

On my way to the metro station a woman asked me to buy her something from seven eleven. I recognized her and said, “Hey, I remember you, I bought you a soda last week.” She smiled at me, and I could see her swollen gums and all her teeth rotted off at the gum line. I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Maybe she had a stroke at some point in her life. She was not hungry; she made that clear. She kept repeating herself until I understood that this woman wanted a strawberry milk. I told her to wait right here. I went into the store and quickly came out with a bottle of strawberry. I gave her the bottle and asked, “What is your name?”  After several attempts I finally understood and was able to say her name correctly. She smiled with a sweet look and a light came into her eyes. It was like her face had a glow about it. I felt as though the light of Christ was reflected back to me. This person in front of me, my sister and my equal, we connected, and for a moment we shared the same silent language. The language of the heart. Not all formation comes from a classroom or a book. It comes through action. Going from Gospel to life and from life to the Gospel. (Article 4 of the Secular Franciscan Rule.)

I took the metro and then a bus to get close to Rock Creek National Park. I got off the bus about a mile from the entrance and began my hike through the urban jungle. Eventually I found myself at the park. There was no side walk or trail to walk on so I would have to walk along the roadway. Soon I came to a trail head and followed it into the forest. As I walked deeper into the forest I began to realize I had found my La Verna–the place in Italy where Francis of Assisi took refuge from the world.

I walked and I walked with peace and joy. Every sound. Every creature. Every smell an encounter with the beauty of God’s creation. I started to see people coming up the trail towards me. I was back in the world. So I pulled out my phone and rejoined society. I had walked 6.7 miles. Thank You, God, for a wonderful day of formation.

Question for Reflection: How can you view your life as formation? What is God teaching you?

Ralph Anderson, OFS, is from Eugene, OR. He was born in California and spent 63 years of his life there until he retired. During his working career, he made many short-term trips to provide clean drinking water in the developing world in Latin America. He served in Ecuador, Honduras, and Mexico. He became a Secular Franciscan and his heart remained in mission at home and abroad. Before he knew about Franciscan Mission Service, he felt God tugging at his heart to serve full time in a foreign mission. When he served in Honduras, he learned the importance of being present to the people you are serving and avoiding being focused only on the success of a project. When he discovered FMS at a Lay Franciscan gathering in Phoenix, AZ, he knew what God was calling him to: practicing a ministry of accompaniment in a foreign country; not to teach them "our ways," but to learn their culture and traditions, and to learn how we can best serve them; building a relationship of mutual respect with a spirit of humility like Saint Francis of Assisi.