Sunday, March 30, 2014

Let us be upstanding

Last week I visited All Souls St. Gabriel's School in Charter's Towers in North Queensland. Br. Nathan is the chaplain there. The students come from all over northern Queensland, most from very remote farms, or "properties" as they are called. It is not an elite prep school, but founded by the Anglican Church to serve students in underserved areas. These are places so remote there are no schools within easy commuting distance. Many of the students see very few people apart from family and farm workers when they are at home. The school is one of those that several generations of a family may have attended. It is rich in traditions and yet forward looking too, working hard, to my eyes, to prepare students for life in the 21st Century.

During the course of my first evening, which was The Feast of the Annunciation (St. Gabriel's Day) there was a formal dinner. A student went to the podium and called for our attention. Once we were quiet and straining to see, she told us to "charge your glasses" (with mineral water) and then "be up standing" (i.e. stand up) and toast the Queen: "To the Queen of Australia and the Head of the Commonwealth!"  And all the students around me: "To the Queen!"

I've been in stranger circumstances, and this had more charm than a pledge of allegiance.

Private boarding schools address the whole student, and this particular evening was one of two formal dinners the school hosts for students, so that they will know how to comport themselves at such events. It was very exciting, especially for the new students. One asked Br. Nathan, as the food was served: "Is this what it is like to eat in a restaurant?"

Early each morning a group of about 14 boys race from the dining hall to the chapel for a quick Eucharist. (The first one there gets to read the Gospel.) I was surprised by the number, the most I ever got at a voluntary school Eucharist when I was chaplain was on average 0-1. The boys led much of the service, Br. Nathan celebrated and gave some apt remarks, and we stood around the small altar to share communion. Our celebration was one of the millions of points of light that give light to the world.

Standing in the crossroads of rural and urban, sacred and secular, churched and unchurched, public and private, young and old, friars serve a huge variety of people. We point to what is upstanding in the world and worthy of praise, seeking to collaborate with goodness and creativity wherever we find it. We challenge the places where people are being led astray. We make friends with lonely boarders, we visit the sick, pray with prisoners.

In all these places (and more!), and among all these people, we see Jesus.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Prison Visit

This morning (Sunday, March 16) Br. Hilton Togara and I went to the Central Prison in Honiara at Rove with the Chaplain, Fr. Ellison, to conduct a Bible Study. It is a tiny prison, but with all the razor wire and concrete to confirm it as the real thing. Waiting until 9:00 we sat in a leaf roofed shelter with a Roman Catholic seminarian and two Catholic laywomen.

We signed in and were patted down. This being the Solomon Islands, the guards were all friendly and there was laughter and exchange of pleasantries. It was a pleasant though stark contrast to security guards in the US prisons I have visited. We were led to B block and went in to a smallish concrete room, with three concrete tables and "benches." A television was bolted to the wall. The men live through another door, which appeared to lead into an open room.

About 24 men gathered, some sitting on the benches some on the floor. We introduced ourselves, and then one of the men took up a guitar and started leading praise songs. I learned later he is one of the men sentenced for life. Lifers live among the general population, but have special roles, especially as cooks for the jail.

Inspired by the Bible studies we led on the Simply Living Mission to England last year, we used some questions about the Beatitudes. Our text was "Blessed are the merciful for they shall be shown mercy" (Matthew 5:7). Hilton divided the group into two, and I sat with about a dozen men. They weren't quite sure what "mercy" meant, but one launched into a long sermon about "the blood of the Lamb." Finally I got one or two to share about times they did NOT hurt somebody else no matter how richly they may have deserved it. A third spoke of realizing he needed to be merciful to all the people he hated and how he had to accept all God's mercies: food, water, air, clothing, even when he had no freedom, God is merciful in so many ways.

Out of the depths O Lord, we call to you...

As we left the Chaplain, Fr. Ellison said he is so grateful to the SSF Brothers because they are his partners in the hospital and prison ministries every Sunday, starting at 4:30 a.m. Holy Communions in the Hospital and the 9:00 a.m. worship in the prison.

For his part, Hilton was simply grateful to be able to be with "his brothers" in prison.

Lord make me a channel of your peace...where there is despair, hope, where there is sadness joy...

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Vanga Point

This weekend Br. Clifton Henry, the Minister Provincial and I went to Gizo in the west of the country, to visit a brother living and studying at Vanga Point a Rural Training Center run my the Marists Brothers.

Our flight from Honiara was uneventful--thank goodness. We arrived at Gizo Airport--it is an island all to itself, the airstrip and buildings cover the whole island. A boat takes passengers to a larger island where the small town of Gizo is located. You get off the boat right in front of the Gizo Hotel. The open air market is there too. So Clifton and I loaded up on a huge supply of potatoes, papaya, cabbage, eggplants and other vegetables , then bought a dozen fish. By this time the brothers and students from the Training Center sent over to get us had arrived and we loaded up and headed across the open sea. It is about an hour to cross. Although the sun was shining, the sea was rough. Twice the engine stalled. I kept repeating, mantra-like: "Not to worry, not to worry!  These guys are mechanics!"  They proved to be at least resourceful boaters; the second time the engine stalled they ripped the straps off one of the two life jackets to bind the engine together more tightly (I think that is what they did...). I used the rest of the life jacket as a cushion to soften the thumps on my behind.

Vanga Training Center is a rough looking place. The tsunami a year ago took out the wharf, and it hasn't been replaced. The classrooms and outbuildings are rusted and partially collapsed. Everywhere there is rusted out machinery, overgrown fields and paddocks. But there are about 130 eager young men there, and the SSF house is right in the middle of campus, next to the chapel. It is home to Br. Selwyn Tione and former brother Ezekiel Kelly. There are about 25 Anglican students in this Roman Catholic place, and they were very excited to have us visit. They came by all evening to meet us and sit and "story." First on their list of events for us was an Anglican Eucharist Saturday morning. But since it was to be held at the usual Saturday prayer time, 6:00 a.m., attendance was compulsory for all students. Clifton celebrated in a whisper, which I thought was a bit perverse in an huge open air chapel with 130 people there, but nobody seemed to mind. The Anglican students sang out the responses with intensity. They all like my homily, and were quite gleeful that I was the first white visitor to speak pijin fluently.

After Mass and breakfast a small group of us headed out to explore, and ended up hiking several hours through the jungle. We reached the house of a local family who gave us pommelos (gargantuan grapefruits) to eat on the beach. Back at the training center we had lunch with the assistant principal and his wife, and then went for a swim in the bay. Later we watched the students play soccer.  A cataclysmic thunder and lightening storm ended the play, and I was glad for a rest. At six we were back in Chapel for the Roman Catholic Mass. Since we all use the same lectionary, it was practically duplicate of the morning--except the preacher didn't have an American accent. Its hard not to think about the sadness of the divisions that separate two traditions that are so very, very close. And then to think about the validity of the differences and to be glad I am an Episcopalian...

Following the Eucharist Clifton and I were to give "encouragements" to the students.  I wasn't sure what this was expected to be so let Clifton go first. He gave a part testimonial, part pep talk. So I followed suit, telling about my call as a student to seek ordination to the priesthood, and how that matured into a call to religious life. I then told them about how I nearly derailed on alcohol, and the joy of my life today. My pep talk consisted mostly of telling them the most important thing isn't what they become but the sense of dignity and self respect that they have about who they are, and their commitment to living honestly. The homely lessons of my life.

Finally it was dinner at nearly eight o'clock, then bed. All during the night excited groups of students were coming and going from the small friary. Selwyn had organized the long suffering Anglicans to prepare a feast for us, and all through the night they made traditional pudding, peeled tons of sweet potatoes, and a group of 5 went diving and caught quite a number of fish. They absolutely did not want us to help--it was to be a sort of surprise, I think. Or at least a way of honouring us.

After yet another Eucharist we ate our feast. One of the Marist brothers came, the Principal and assistant, and all of the Anglicans. It was quite a happy time. A number of them finally summoned the courage to speak with me directly and I was very touched by their reciprocal testimonials and expressions of gratitude for our visit.

All too soon it was time to go. We boarded the boat and pounded our way back across the bay, getting soaked with spray, so I had to get them to take me to a local friend's house to change my clothes. Then over to the airport island, and back to Honiara.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Sow and her Farrow

Last week we had some excitement at Hautambu. I noticed Br. Guilford rushing around looking extremely excited. He is the pig keeper, and one of our sows had just given birth to eleven piglets. We had bad luck with the previous birth, the sow crushed some, others died of cold. But this time we were ready, and we built a small fire near the pen and loaded the pen with burlap sacks and banana leaves warmed over the fire . Brothers sat up all night with the new family to be sure Mother didn't flop over on the babies. Now in their second week, all are thriving and have doubled the population of the piggery.

While at Hautambu for Chapter, I had a chance to re-connect with a former brother, Ashley Vaisu. He grew up near Hautambu in Maravovo Village. In March 1996 the brothers had an accident and Ashley's forehead was crushed causing a little brain damage. After recovering, he couldn't settle down and finally withdrew from the noviciate. But he has stayed connected over the years. Currently he is staying with us, reading voraciously in the library, and helping out. It was a real pleasure to sit and remember life together nearly 18 years ago.

Provincial Chapter finished last Saturday, and we all felt it was a really good one. Sometimes Chapters are exhausting and people leave feeling frustrated. But this time, there was a sense of celebration. For one thing, the finances are strong!  In the black as we say in USA. Their self-support projects now supply fully one third of their income. In other ways there was a sense of growth and stability.

The Vows Book has been distributed to the brothers in SSF as well as large numbers of books given to the other three religious orders. The Mission Secretary of the Anglican Church of Melanesia is hoping that a special Solomon Islands  edition can be printed at the Provincial Press in Honiara. He says the book could be crucial for the renewal and revitalization of the religious orders in Melanesia.  This is very gratifying--I feel as if I have done what I set out to do. The SSF brothers love the book, some reported staying up all night, reading it with their torches. One said it made him cry.

I was carrying a box of books up the hill to give to the Melanesian Brotherhood yesterday and two SSF brothers came along. They wanted to carry the box for me, but I said no, this was my baby. When a father carries his baby, it never feels too heavy!

New life: baby pigs, a box of books.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Trip to Ysabel

I just returned to Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands from Ysabel, the longest island in the Solomon Islands, as Br. Patrick reminded so many of us during the Melanesian Mission to UK last March--June.  I went to visit the new SSF work on the Island, and it happens to be just 5 k from Br. Patrick Paoni's village of Koragu. We disembarked at Haivo, and walked 6 K into the bush to the brothers place.  It was marvellous to be back on land after nearly 18 hours ploughing through the Solomon Sea.  We had spent the night perched on the narrow ledge outside the ship's bridge. Fortunately the view of the night sky and the close up looks at so many villages were fantastic. At one stop I saw a former SSF Brother Fr. Reginald Kokili, known to me as Br. Zeph. He lived with us at Little Portion in 1990 for a time and whetted my appetite for life in Solomons. We were both completely surprised and a bit emotional as we hallooed back and forth ship to wharf.

Two brothers have undertaken the work on Ysabel, Br. Jones (pronounced Jonas...) and John Kogudi. Armed with machetes and sheer determination they have cleared several acres of land and planted crops which have given bumper yields.  They live almost entirely on sweet potatoes and tinned fish, near as I can tell.  We stayed in the Senior Priest's house, because the SSF house doesn't have a floor or walls yet!  We may as well have been sleeping on the ground, given the abundance of stinging, biting, burrowing critters that seethed up through my woven mat.  Exhaustion can overcome the worst sleeping conditions and I even felt refreshed in the morning.

Br. Patrick, Br. Steven and I, as visiting brothers, were given light duty our first morning, cutting half a cord of firewood and lugging it on our backs to the thatched kitchen. It was brilliant weather and I love that kind of labor, so it was a really good time. That afternoon, a huge rainstorm shattered the day, thunder, lightening and torrential rain (the palm thatch withstood it all, hallelujah!). I seized the opportunity to shuck off my sweaty clothes and bathe in the rain cascading off the roof. The others regretted not doing this as the stream flooded and they didn't wash in the thick muddy water. Carpe diem I say.

The next day, Wednesday, we trooped up to Patrick's home village, a fantastic walk through thick jungle and rolling sweet potato gardens. The road was quite good, though narrow and often edged by precipitous drops. Our arrival in the village was quiet (no leis and singing) but that was okay.  We went to the river to swim, and by the time we got back Patrick's sister had laid on a nice array of fruits and other food.  We basically ate the whole 24 hours we were there. Dinner was a highlight with all the freshwater crayfish you could eat!!

For me a huge surprise was to meet a baby boy, Patrick's nephew, named Douglas Clark Paoni. When his parents were casting about for names Patrick mentioned mine, so though he is known as Doug usually, that day we called him Clark.  He joins Clark Kae Kae--also of Ysabel heritage who is now 4 years old. These boys are particularly smart and handsome I think!!!

We got a lift back down to the friary, and after a final meal, and Night Prayer we went to bed.  Friday we walked back to the beach and caught our leisurely paced scow back to Honiara.

Do you know how many cockroaches can dance on the back of a ship passenger's seat?  Don't ask.

I've given my book to a few people, holding back from wholesale giving out til the 250 copies I mailed from New York arrive. But early reaction is very positive, and we are now looking into printing an edition at the Provincial Press in Honiara. This weekend is the Religious Life Weekend, and they'd planned a workshop on the Vows, so I am now a featured participant. They rather thought to depose the Roman Catholic Dominican, but we finally decided to keep him on and I'd make an Anglican response.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Provocative New Title in Religious Life--THE VOWS BOOK

Release Date:  February 2, 2014

Text Box:
Provocative New Title in Religious Life--THE VOWS BOOK
Release Date:  February 2, 2014

The Conference of Anglican Religious Orders in the Americas (CAROA) is proud to announce the publication of The Vows Book: Anglican Teaching on the Vows of Obedience, Poverty and Chastity by Clark Berge, Society of St. Francis.  This book presents the traditional vows of religious life as resources and inspiration for all who seek to live a life following the teachings of Jesus Christ.
“What is needful in the vowed religious life is not really different from what the rest of us need,” said Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, priest, author and spiritual director.  “This is why the enduring classics of the contemplative tradition, most of them from the pens of nuns or monks, can strike so many responsive chords with those of us whose daily surroundings are so different from theirs.  Brother Clark writes to his brothers, but he stands in a long line of religious whose words speak comfort and challenge to us all.”
The book is written in simple, direct language, in the “Easy Essay” style of Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement.  “I wanted to communicate in such a way that people for whom English is a second or third language would understand it easily. This includes almost all of the Anglican religious in Melanesia and many other parts of the Anglican Communion,” Br. Clark said. “The Vows Book is written in simple English, but addresses many of the complexities of religious life. It is simple, not dumbed-down.” Dr. Petà Dunstan, fellow and tutor at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, and editor of the Anglican Religious Life Year Book agrees:  “In direct and accessible language, Brother Clark examines the vowed life to reveal the wisdom it offers to all Christians.”
Susan R. Pitchford, author of Following Francis, God in the Dark, and The Sacred Gaze said, “The Vows Book is what happens when an author has both uncommon gifts and unusual perspective.  And Br. Clark’s long experience of religious life, coupled with his visits to Franciscan communities around the world as Minister General, prevents his treatment of the vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity from being culture-bound.  This is a wise, loving, and deeply honest look at what it means to choose life in a religious community.  It will be an invaluable resource for his own order, but will be inspiring reading for other religious and for lay people as well.”
The Vows Book: Anglican Teaching on the Vows of Obedience, Poverty and Chastity is available at after February 6.
Copyright © 2014 The Society of St. Francis, All rights reserved
Media Contact
Clark Berge, SSF
Vest Pocket Publications
P.O. Box 399
Mt. Sinai, NY 11766


Saturday, December 28, 2013



Last night I encountered this chestnut in a novel my sister gave me for Christmas. It made me laugh out loud because I had no idea what it meant. Scrambling for the dictionary, I learned it means “of, relating to, or dependent on charity.”

A really worthy word.

I savored the word, re-reading the dictionary definition and imagining conversations:  “I just met someone with deep eleemosynary tendencies!”

“Contemporary eleemosynary institutions compete for philanthropists’ largess.”

I found it hard to keep hold of the spelling, getting up once in the middle of the night to look it up again. It’s that double “e” that seems so exotic and hard to remember.

I've been a sesquipedalian from way back, a love that dares not speak its name in country schoolrooms, except at spelling bees. Though I never studied, I usually won. Thank goodness I never got "eleemosynary."
I remember using big words as a boy to bolster a tender, flagging ego. I prized big words because few people understood them. It was a way of feeling special, of (intuitively perhaps) not giving up entirely to the self recriminations with which I would excoriate myself after another failure at sports, or after false and shamed efforts to date and be popular.

Logically enough one of my many family bonds is a shared love of a statement of my Grandfather’s that was apparently popular in one version or another in the 19th-Century. I don’t know where he learned it, perhaps from his father or brothers, all of whom like himself attended Amherst College. I wonder if it was a way to overcome his shyness and master the overpowering feelings of homesickness I hear he suffered from. I imagine his landlady’s surprise when the awkward, shy young man from Tacoma, Washington pushed back from the table announcing: “My gastronomical satiety admonishes me that I have reached the ultimate culinary limitations consistent with the code of Aesculapius.” This was the closest we ever came to a football chant in my natal home, all of us practically shouting it together. It was a Berge thing. Mom knew we loved her food.

As an adult, normally I work hard to write and speak simply, using a vocabulary that helps people to know better about God. This is such an important goal. I often scrub out words that take attention away from it.
Living in community we discover words can shred us. Living cheek by jowl we know just what to say to hurt or diminish or force one another into silence. Words wound.

Fortunately the travails of intimacy are not the last word on religious life.

Franciscan life is very eleemosynary. Without charity, without love, it is nothing. The community is also a place where old hurts are healed. It is a place where we can be ourselves and speak simply of the truth of God’s love acting in our lives. Words heal.

There were some curious lapses in my education. Somehow I got to seminary with no clear idea what “incarnation” meant. I remember a classmate’s astonishment as he said, “You know, Christmas!”
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Word saves.

It’s eleemosynary, my dear Watson.