Labyrinth Season

brotherTrees_webThey’re kind of like monks, is what I usually tell people. They wear the brown robes, they pray four times a day, they bake bread.

But this doesn’t say it all, not even close. It doesn’t say what they’re really about or who they are or what they mean to me–these guys in brown robes that I like to hang out with.

Their way of life is so ancient that it seemed immovable. It seemed like they would always be here.

*     *     *

Little Portion Friary is four miles from my house, and we are both oddities here in suburbia. I grew up on Long Island, but I came of age at a mountain college in Vermont. I feel most alive in spunky intimate communities and green wild places by the sea, and that is exactly what Little Portion is–a tiny community of Franciscan friars who live simple lives of poverty, celibacy and obedience on 60 wooded acres by Mt. Sinai Harbor. They are also some of the most progressive Christians I know, extending warm hospitality to everyone, gay or straight, rich or poor, religious or not.

Almost every Friday since my son Charlie was a toddler, we have walked up to this door

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and opened it

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and walked down the stone steps to the underground bakery,

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where we leave our money in a box and choose a loaf of cinnamon raisin bread, still warm from the oven.

Then we take a short walk…

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to “the little house,” as Charlie calls it–a white gazebo where we munch on hunks of bread and watch whatever wildlife is in season.

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We play on the labyrinth, the circular prayer path just outside the brothers’ back door. It’s meant for meditative walking, but given the fact that Charlie is four and wild, sometimes we run the labyrinth, or dance or piggyback-ride it.

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Sometimes we proceed to the outdoor chapel, where Charlie decorates the altar with pine cones, and baby Milo crawls on moss-covered steps. Above the altar, two trees grow out of a boulder.

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Sometimes we go inside and visit with Brother Eric, who lets Charlie feed carrots to the guinea pigs. Br. Eric has an encyclopedic knowledge of history and political science. He likes zombie shows and bands like Vampire Weekend, and he owns a pretty sweet pair of turquoise sneakers. Just in case you thought friars were stodgy.

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Sometimes we run into Brother Dunstan, who is 92 years old, and has lived here since just after WWII. A few weeks ago on St. Francis Day, during the blessing of animals, he blessed Charlie’s stuffed dragon, Fluffy.

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The short version of my history with Little Portion: In my early 20s, while on a long spiritual search, I stumbled on the website for Little Portion Friary but was too scared to visit the place. I was fascinated but intimidated (also how I felt about Christianity in general, to be honest). So for seven years I periodically checked that website, which warmly broadcast labyrinth walks and retreat days, but I never dared to actually set foot on the grounds.

After much seeking, visiting many churches, trying to find a community that would feel like home for a twenty-something,  thirsty-but-skeptical seeker like me, I came upon a brand-new church called True North Community Church (where I now work). It was there that everything started to click. I encountered a transformative Christ. This God was so real, so love-charged–so different from the bumper-sticker, conservative-political-rally god I’d always equated with the name “Jesus.” At True North I met this God of grace in a way that knocked my socks off, changed my life with hurricane-force, rock & roll glory.

Life went on. I grew. So did True North–burgeoning from 300 people to well over 1,000, and graduating from its little building to a renovated warehouse.

I started grad school for writing; had a baby; was exhausted. I began to thirst for stillness. I knew True North would always be my home, but began to feel a pilgrimage stirring.

One night I mustered the courage to attend a full-moon labyrinth walk and potluck dinner at Little Portion. I immediately felt the same kind of magnetic attraction I’d felt when I first walked into True North. Someone was divvying up a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and then a brother in brown robes walked by strumming a mandolin. The atmosphere was festive and warm and kind of surreal, and I was hooked.

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On Sundays, the brothers held services in their tiny, ancient-looking chapel, with its wooden statue of St. Francis and wax-splattered brick floor, and I began to attend every week. It was so quiet, but it was not an empty kind of quiet, not at all; it was rich and intimate and full of the music and poetry of Scripture. My son toddled around the altar as we stood in a circle sharing Communion, passing the plate and cup from person to person: The body of Christ, the bread of heaven. Amen.

At True North I thrived on serving, volunteering. I designed graphics and served coffee and organized food drives and would have gladly cleaned toilets if they needed me to. But when I arrived at the friars’ doorstep I was spent and sleep-deprived, and over the course of time, I began to realize something: I didn’t have to do anything here. Certainly they did need people to keep the place running with money and time, but for me, in that season of life–at that moment, it was enough for me to just be. Somehow, when I walked in, me and my wild toddler, they acted as if our very presence was a gift.

Just show up and be.

I know God more deeply because of this.

*     *     *

Recently I haven’t been able to make it to Sunday mornings at Little Portion. I buy bread on Fridays, I try to make it for Eucharist on Saturdays, but on Sunday mornings I work at True North.

A few weeks ago, though, Brother Eric asked me to come on a certain Sunday. He said it was important.

During his sermon, he announced that the friary will be closing and the building put up for sale.

The short version of the story: The number of Episcopalian Franciscans in the Americas is dwindling to the single digits. Many of the brothers are old or very ill. So they’re moving all the brothers to one friary in Los Angeles in hopes of focusing their energies and reviving the order.

I’d pictured my sons growing up learning manhood from these kind of men. I know of no other community like this one. These wonderful friends of mine–who love to laugh, who let my boys crawl around on their stone chapel floor, who have advised me spiritually and given me space to write and pray–are moving away.

And Little Portion Friary–this sacred place that’s been there for nearly a century–could be purchased and torn down to make way for…what?

Someone’s McMansion, someone’s heated swimming pool?

“Have hope, lovey,” Brother Dunstan said to me.

I do have hope, but I am grieving. I will miss my friends so much.

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*     *     *

I’ve never been that interested in money. I’ve never fantasized about winning the lottery or aspired to a high-powered job–not ever. But suddenly, for the first time in my life, I find myself wishing I had the millions it would take to save this sacred, wild place.

Odd glimmers of daydreams visit me. I wonder if they contain any scrap of God’s dreams for this place. I wake up at night thinking about Little Portion.

“Pray the Holy Spirit leads and guides us,” Brother Dunstan said, and so I do.

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