FRANCISCAN CORNER - November, 2018
Ears of the Heart

In October, the LI Fellowship of the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis met for Eucharist at St. Margaret’s followed by a meditation and discussion in the Undercroft. Our topic was the meaning of “heart-listening.”

The Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict begins “ausculta,” or listen: “Listen carefully to the master’s instructions and attend them with the ear of your heart.” This echoes Proverbs 22:17 – “Incline your ear and hear the words of the wise and apply your heart to my knowledge.” In the same way, St. Francis of Assisi is always seen bringing his feelings to Christ, seeking an intimacy beyond words and thinking. Francis strips away all that would compete for his attention so that his whole being was an act of listening in rapt attention to the intonations of the Spirit. 

Our Fellowship conversation was very rich. We explored the many distractions and interior noises that often block our being able to listen with the heart. Brothers and sisters spoke of the need for more silence in their lives, more simplicity, more time for just being together without an agenda, and recognizing how much we fail to hear the deeper story lost to our filters and blind spots. More than anything else, we agreed that divine listening (of the kind invoked in Proverbs and by Benedict and Francis) demands being vulnerable: being willing to not know, not say or doing anything. In effect, to give up control and entrust ourselves to the Spirit.

From this wonderful day of sharing, I traveled the very next week to Omaha to facilitate a meeting of a nine-person leadership team that is adding two new members. The intent was to celebrate and integrate the new members and reconnect after a meeting we had back in May. The goal was to accelerate movement toward an ever-stronger level of trust and mutual dependence. Here, in a business context, the same conversation arose.

We spoke about how feelings have taken a back seat to analysis and thinking. Attendees spoke of how only by leaning on each other could they be strong in the face of stiff headwinds, uncertainty and happenstance. We asked: What gets in the way of being more truly ourselves back in the office? The reluctance of many to be as open back on the job was attributed quite simply to fear: fear of being judged, of being viewed as weak, of not being somehow “good enough,” talented enough, or possessing the “right” image. Our humanity is constrained and tortured in so many environments in which people are walking as if on eggshells. 

Emotions are what determine whether and how deeply and richly we think. As Jill Bolt Taylor so beautifully said after her 12-year recovery from a massive stroke in which she lost all speech and memory, her own name and knowledge of all those around her: “We are feeling beings that think.”It’s not the other way around. In fact, while we spend most of our time in the West focused on the capacities made possible by the so-called higher functions of the neocortex, in evolutionary terms, this is actually the youngest part of the brain. The older part of the brain contains the limbic system, the seat of our emotional lives. The oldest of emotions is fear, and, when it rises, thinking is quite literally suspended and reflex actions kick in.

Isn’t it telling how often Jesus encourages his disciples to “be not afraid?” Yet, we are surrounded by things that trigger memories that are full of negative feelings that leave us breathless. In the blink of an eye, our composure crumbles and old shadows rise, and, in such instances, we say things we regret and we act in unthinking ways. If we truly are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we first must examine our fears. In admitting them more openly, sharing them, being vulnerable and reflecting on these deeply rooted emotions, we can better attune to our own hearts and the hearts of others. But, none of this can be rushed, and we live in a rushed world. Social media, email and texting, on which we increasingly rely, may be efficient, but it is a cheap substitute for engaging with one another — it robs us of real dialogue.

To listen with the ears of the heart, we need to calmly take time to pay more attention to feelings in ourselves and others. Only in this way can we truly share the blessings of our common humanity. When we do so, as the nine leaders in Omaha discovered, we feel freer, see more clearly, recognize that we are more alike than different, and are better able to be stronger in the face of uncertainties and happenstance. Instead of dwelling on analyzing and solving, we discovered the power of just opening space for real conversation without any agenda except to be open and honest.

At the close of the meeting, all agreed that somehow trust and having each other’s backs was in a better place for having shared so openly and, in many instances, touchingly. For me, this has been a call to prayer, to quiet time and praise for the mystery of Being and Loving in our brief time together on earth.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I wish you a time of real presence with loved ones to revel in the stories that make us who we are. 

 ~ Brother Anton Armbruster, TSSF


In Praise of Strangeness 

Everything, literally everything, has a hidden dimension, an invisible set of qualities and a reality about which we are unaware.

Water changes from vapor to liquid to gas as a function of how fast or slow the molecules are moving. If slowed down enough, of course, we get ice. I’m fascinated by the phase just between liquid and freezing, when things are on the cusp of change.

All of life is a matter of the release and generation of heat. Even our thoughts produce heat. Love is heat and its presence is fundamental to the evolution of life. There is sacred presence in the exchange of heat. 

The joys of science rest in the fact that the universe is exceedingly strange. Beyond what we experience through our senses and perceive, everything is mov-ing; everything is going somewhere; and everything has mystery at its center.

Having spent most of the summer in Florida, I catch myself noticing subtle differences in daily life. The morning soundscape brings the songs of frogs and toads rather than the symphonies of cicadas that are familiar up north. Cloud formations erupt and change quickly. Towering cumulus and nimbus spires bring ferocious lightening. Torrents of rain arrive like clockwork between 4 and 6 p.m.

The lightening is beautiful. Often, it illuminates the sky in wide sheets. High altitude light flashes, often appearing red (called “sprites”), frame the drama of lightning bolts striking ground. The speed of change in the sound and visual landscape brings an arresting strangeness.

One afternoon, Linda and I went to the beach at Fort De Soto Park in St. Petersburg. Shortly after we arrived, dark clouds tinged with a menacing green rolled in from east to west. The Gulf water was an azure blue and remarkably warm, so it was easy to just wade right in and then hard to leave. That said, we stayed a bit longer than we should have. 

When lightening began visibly striking the water some miles to the east, we (and about 100 others) got the message that it was time to leave. Linda made it to the car, while I stayed to pack up our gear.

The rain and wind rushed in and I entered the car soaked to the gills, while others found poor cover under pavilions outsmarted by sideways rain. In seconds, the weather turned from quiet and sunny to something that for 10 minutes felt like a serious cyclone. Palms went flying by on strong winds and the rain was so intense that visibility was zero. When the turbulence passed, many commented on how strange it had been.

And, it was breathtakingly beautiful!

The lightening was exhilarating. The wind was commanding … without question, we were all fully present. A divine mystery and sacredness arose from deep inside the moment.

Funny thing is that, arriving home, I spent extended time enjoying the weather channel again with a heightened appreciation and, as providence would have it, there was a special on lightening.

When things are strange, we simply pay more attention. Since that experience, I’ve taken time to investigate what science reveals beyond the obvious about lightening forms. What’s happening underneath natural events that can’t be seen elevates them and engenders a prayerful disposition. Digging past the surface enriches both the fun and the wonder of it all and deepens our seeing.

Strangeness is God’s perpetual invitation to come closer, look inside and be amazed!

In returning to Long Island, I know my watching and listening will be heightened along with my gratitude for His Presence, especially in catching a faint glimpse of strange things out of the corner of my eye.

~ Br. Anton Armbruster


Under Construction

Linda and I returned from our winter in Florida with two things on our minds: renovate and head back!

But first, we need to address a problem. While we were gone, our bay window sprung a leak and warped sub- flooring behind the couch. We now need to find the source, fix it, repair the floor and lay down some new hard wood. We decided that while we’re at it, we’ll rip out the 1950’s paneling, and (oh, why not) redo the fireplace in stone.

So, May will be re-building month at the Armbruster residence. May is also one month shy of the time the miraculous, blessed “construction” of Zoey Ava will be completed. Then we return to Florida to celebrate and support the birth of our daughter’s first child.

All this set the stage for a recent dream: I was walking down corridors, opening hidden doors and revealing rooms in our house that I didn’t know existed. This, by the way, is a very popular dream that people often report. “What does it all mean?” asks the analyst in me.

It means, “keep looking, there is so much more to find!” Just when you think you’re done exploring, another room pops up.

I had a dream just like this eight years ago. It was so powerful that I asked a handyman to construct a special library in our house. The shelves were built into the door so that, when pushed closed, the way out vanishes. This sanctuary allows me to be blissfully surrounded by a museum of ideas and creative energy: old friends on the shelves dating back to my youth and souls reaching out over centuries.

“Under construction” sums it all up. So we are in the womb, so we are at birth, and so we are every day of our lives. The illusion is that we are “all growed up.” Nope. Only if we let it be so does the construction stop.

Our faith affirms that “construction” continues even as we eventually assume our place in the halls of the Infinite. As we lean toward Pentecost, we await the arrival of the Holy Spirit that forever ushers us toward a next “room.”

Let us proudly hang the sign on our front doors: “Under Construction. Excuse the mess.”

~ Anton Armbruster


Flash Sense

I was too long inside, busy with work and in need of a stretch. Opening the door for some fresh air, I was temporarily blinded by brilliant sunlight. For a moment, I couldn’t see a thing. Everything was bathed in intense light - so bright in fact that, for a split second, I, too, was light.

We’ve all had this experience. Our eyes adapt, the blindness passes quickly and we get on with life. But, it got me thinking about Eastertide. The long night ended when the Son rose in the east, making all things luminous.

Each dawn reminds us of this central mystery. In a flash from the east, the night ends and a new day begins. This is the moment when dreams are renewed. Many Long Islanders have traveled to Montauk and Orient Points to see the “green flash” seconds before sunrise.

The first Easter also came in a flash, after the dark time of sorrows. I imagine the moment Mary Magdalene greeted a man she assumed was the gardener. As he stood at the opening of the now-empty tomb, the light behind him obscured his features. After hearing him call her by name, imagine her sudden realization that he was her Lord. In a flash, tears of mourning dissolved into expressions of joy.

Dwight Kalita wrote a captivating and insightful book some years back entitled, “Light Consciousness.” He tracked all the references to light in both the canonical and apocryphal gospels, and he saw light used as metaphor for revelation over and over again.

Light is mentioned 90-97 times in the New Testament, depending on the translation. Darkness is mentioned less than half as often, about 41 times. But in the physical universe, light makes up less than 5% of what’s out there. All the rest is an unknown dark stuff that bears no resemblance to the matter we know and are made of (electrons, protons, etc.). Light is dwarfed by all the darkness from which it emerges.

The message strikes me with clarity: Resurrection is the triumph of light over the persistent darkness. I think on these things with special focus following the recent death of Dr. Stephen Hawking, whose life was a passionate dance with the mysteries of light and darkness. While not a religious man, he spent the time he was given contemplating the mind of the cosmos.

Among his contributions is the notion of “Hawking Radiation,” the realization that elementary particles do emerge from black holes from which otherwise nothing (well, almost nothing) escapes. The triumph of the light is more glorious when placed in the context of ineffable and pervasive night. Even “black holes” ultimately cannot contain an exuberant fountain of energy.

The perpetual tension between light and darkness quickens our senses and feeds our hope as we awaken each morning to the task of being children of that same light in the world. Ours is the joyful obligation to be bearers of light in imitation of the Way-shower.

What form does this “light” take? Well, interestingly, the word “love” appears 221 times in the NRSV. Pure and simple, Light Consciousness is love consciousness and recognition that my brothers and sisters are everyone and everything, everywhere. The work of conversion rests in locking arms and, to quote a character from the movie Stardust, “Let’s do what stars do … Shine!”  

I pray our Easter season continues to fill us with the Light of Love that overcomes all despair, hopelessness and crushing darkness.

 ~ Br. Anton Armbruster, TSSF


A Lenten “Sostenuto”

This is the season to downshift and linger on moments of meaning. Hit “pause” and cultivate the art of stopping time. 

Lately, in prayer, I hear the instruction to “look and linger.” The fruits of doing so can be summed up in one word – awe! Driving west toward Clermont, Fla., from Orlando, Linda and I have often been treated to arresting sunsets. Deep oranges, and yellows and, later, indigo marked by flourishes of red, all dance into view. For a moment, all other thoughts subside. We can only say, “look at that!”

A few nights ago, we arrived home after midnight. Our neighborhood is especially dark at night with few street lights to wash out the sky. It was profoundly quiet. I grabbed some packages to bring inside and started walking toward the house. Then, as if someone had gently laid hands on my head to tilt it upward, I saw the stunning canopy of stars. Only one word came to mind: Wow! 

I was looking straight at the Great Nebula in Orion. The stars were especially bright and I could almost see the great Nebula M53, a nursery of stars, at the center of the constellation. In that moment of wonder, there was no need to hurry inside. Time itself had stopped.

Recently, I was doing some paperwork and stopped briefly for a short walk. I was startled when, out of the corner of my eye, something moved. There, very slowly climbing up the outside wall of our house, was a frog. Remaining completely steady, I walked close to catch a photo. I was mesmerized by this little creature, able to climb so deftly straight up the wall and going about his mission so silently!

Awe is defined in one dictionary as “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” In fact, the origin of the term from Old English, “ege,” refers to terror and dread. Research is now revealing that awe is more nuanced than that. In last year’s July issue of New Scientist, science journalist Jo Marchant refers to the first scientific definition of awe, “the feeling we get when confronted with something vast that transcends our frame of reference that we struggle to understand. It’s an emotion that combines amazement with an edge of fear.”

In various studies, researchers are finding that true awe changes us. After an awesome experience, people are more positive overall, more ethical and generous, and they feel more connected to others. They report feeling happier and less stressed. Surprisingly, they feel that they have “more time.” Awe, it seems, stops the clock, or surely slows the tempo.

In music, Italian notations are used to instruct performers on the composer’s intent when it comes to mood and tempo. One term especially comes to mind this month: “sostenuto,” the instruction to slow it down and move to legato playing or singing, (that is, from one note to the next on one smooth, uninterrupted breath). For Lent, I am working to cultivate the “sostenuto,” to linger more, peering more intently at all things, large and small. The goal is clear as I move through the 40 days to Easter: practice the slowing until I reach the state of “fermata,” a musical full stop, a note to be held and sustained.

Wishing you and yours such times of awe as we move to the moment of Christ. 

 ~ Brother Anton Armbruster, TSSF


I Hear His Voice in You

Februum, Latin for purification, is the historical root of the name for this month. Its traditional symbols include the amethyst birthstone, signifying piety and spiritual wisdom. As the last month of meteorological winter, it is also the transition to the rebirth of spring. We are quite literally told by history and timing to get ready, to prepare and to purify.

With this in mind, I’ve been thinking a lot about the joy of anticipation and what it means to get ready for the miraculous. At Thanksgiving, Linda and I were on pins and needles awaiting the big “reveal” of the sex of our first grandchild. A friendly local baker received a secret notification from the obstetrician’s office, keeping the baby’s gender from everyone, including the parents. We picked up the cake and, with family and friends dialing in via video Skype, our daughter made the first cut: the icing inside was a vibrant pink. So, after weeks of wondering, with a single slice, we were celebrating the coming of Zoey Ava.

Wednesday, Feb. 14, opens our 40-day Lenten season of anticipation that carries us to Easter, the ultimate “Divine Reveal,” the great consummation of the promise celebrated at Christmas: new life in Christ. 

In the Franciscan Rule of Life, one of the nine elements of daily practice is self-denial. Postulants usually relate to this as giving something up (like those addictive fudge brownies). Perhaps self-denial can take the form of curbing cell phone use. One postulant recently chose to give up romance novels. These are all certainly fine and fasting is a customary part of self-denial, but we are encouraged to go so much farther. Getting ready for a blessed event means jettisoning all that distracts us from the Sacred main events in our lives. 

Real Februum, interior purification, is denying oneself altogether. It means putting our own thoughts and preoccupations aside and placing others in center view (listening, learning, appreciating, being fascinated by their stories and their worlds). The LI Fellowship of The Third Order of the Society of St. Francis is launching a Province-wide search for members with whom we have lost contact. As part of this, we are establishing the “Emmaus Travelers” program, identifying companions who will stay in touch with those who have been out of touch. Many are unable to participate in fellowship meetings owing to personal or family illness or great distances. Some have been out of touch for as many as five or more years.

I spoke on the phone to one brother in his 70s, home with his wife who has been ill. He is a therapist and a person with a wonderful story of continuing spiritual growth and adventure. I discovered, in this one call, that, like me, he has long wanted to see a marriage of sacramental worship and Quaker silence. Another, we just learned, was an engineer that helped NASA put a man on the moon. How is it that their stories went silent? 

We are asking these folks to write for us and share their stories, and we now have well over 100 stories pledged that we will compile as a book on Amazon. So powerful is this movement among us, that we are extending it to all brothers and sisters (with emphasis on those who are ready to tell the story of how religious life has evolved as they’ve aged). 

My Lenten ritual will be a time of deep listening to the stories of others; celebrating the wisdom of age spoken in the diverse voices of soon to be new friends with extraordinarily rich and diverse occupational, social and spiritual backgrounds all bound together in Saints Francis and Clare. May you too find Christ in others whose stories are a great blessing.

 ~ Brother Anton Armbruster, TSSF


January 2018