Principal Acts of Prayer
  • Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Community of the Franciscan Way | Durham, N.C.

By Leigh Edwards

A priest friend once said, “The Daily Office will save your life.” True. Subtly and irrevocably, a commitment to praying daily the prayers of the Church, especially with others, turns upside down the routines and comforts of anyone willing to take on the discipline. I’ve seen it happen multiple times, taking anywhere between one and six years. If drawn into a commitment to prayer, the Christian inevitably comes to a point where her life seems almost unrecognizable to a recently younger self. It’s a beautiful, discomfiting, and slow alteration, and though its end differs as much as does each person, it is the way that most becomes a part of the Community of the Franciscan Way.

Before coming to the community, I spent more than four years in intentional communities, which shaped my reception into the community where I now find myself. I still love my former housemates dearly, but we were a house with few common practices except the ones we created for ourselves, inevitably ones added to our already enormous to-do lists. Our struggle to enact the intimacy and commitment to one another that we imagined only highlighted what I think is the inherent flaw with “intentional communities,” namely, that they need be intentional. Needing to name our shared life with other Christians highlighted its unsuitability to the habits we had. I have learned since that the struggle to find time to “connect” or simply be at home together is a challenge that follows more communities than just ours.

Community of the Franciscan Way is an Episcopal Catholic Worker community in the Diocese of North Carolina, composed of seminarians, lay persons, and clergy, that seeks a life of prayer, simplicity, study, and fellowship with the poor. The source and goal of members’ life together is the Daily Office and Eucharist according to the Book of Common Prayer in conjunction with a commitment to the corporal works of mercy, particularly among the poor. CFW seeks ways to support resident clergy who would sustain the liturgical life of Clare Chapel, located in the main hospitality house, as well as to be present on the streets of Durham. Please be in touch if you are interested: cfw.dionc.org.

Images by Pilar Timpane are from her short documentary Christ Room (2013), presenting a day in the life of Maurin House in Durham, a modern community in the tradition of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin’s Catholic Worker movement. The Rev. Collin Miller, founder of Maurin House, calls it a place where community can be formed through daily prayer and meals with people who would not otherwise meet.

The primary motive to seek intentional community — namely, a temporary lack of commitment to any family — is also the ill that plagues communities. Right now, the general model of middle-class life in America is to live with roommates after college — likely either already part of your friend group or someone with whom you get along but upon whom no expectations are placed beyond paying rent and leaving the place clean and quiet-ish. This is the young adult limbo between college and moving in with the person with whom you will be bound, hopefully by sacrament and children.

It is often in this time between adolescence and marriage that Christians pursue something like “intentional community.” Inherently each person is looking forward to goals, career, and friendships that will extend beyond the time in this particular household. In my case, we struggled, despite our affection for one another, to find compelling reasons to put aside our chosen friends, avocations, and work to sacrifice a few precious hours a week with our housemates to … do what?

Perhaps the issue was that we were not really sure what we were supposed to do together. We already had Christian friends and churches with whom we each prayed and did not live, and these were the churches and friends we were committed to first, and more long term, than the ones in our houses. The challenge was always to persuade ourselves to take more of our free time to spend with these people in this house. We struggled to explain why these (temporary) relationships in particular should merit the sacrifice of time that would otherwise go to Christian friends we would make the effort to stay in touch with after this community ended.

With some anxiety, I moved out a year before the community disbanded. I promised to give myself at least a year of guiltless quiet in a “normal” small, two-bedroom apartment. In some ways this terrified me. I had always had people to go home to and scheduled activities to assure me I was not alone. Questions plagued my decision to move out. Was I dooming myself to a life of mid-20s loneliness and malaise? Was I distancing myself from my Christian vocation? Was I only going to exacerbate, rather than alleviate, the stresses in my life?

As it turned out, moving into my own apartment was wonderful. My roommate, Kelly, came along and was someone who I hoped would help support and maintain this newly gifted space. One way I had assuaged my anxiety about moving out of my former house was to commit to praying the Daily Office with my church and to spending time with my fellow parishioners. Kelly began to come along to Morning and Evening Prayer, a couple of blocks away. She had only recently come to Christianity, converted via a nondenominational Christian group in college. She was a good sport, and even prepared to brave the Maurin House, a nearby Episcopal Catholic Worker house that was a part of the Community of the Franciscan Way.

As we prayed the Offices and Compline at the Maurin House, often around meal times, we found ourselves eating with the other folks who prayed. And the more committed we became to these prayer times, the more we said no to other demands on our time. The prayer began transforming our lives, not least as we spent more time with people we may not otherwise have chosen as friends. This time, our bond was not an abstract commitment to Christians spending time together, but a common sharing, to different degrees, a defining rhythm of life: daily prayer and Eucharist.

Soon, a married couple from the church returned to town and wanted a place to live. Kelly hoped to move in with them, and I — affected by the difficulty of the last four years — resisted. When faced with the question of why any of us would take time out of our schedules to be some sort of meaningful community, I saw that our common prayer already provided an answer. Following my prayer with people to whom I was already bound, I moved in this time not to participate in “intentional community” but simply to share the burdens and joys of life.

A cohesive common life — community — can only be about, simply, the Church. If the disciplined round of prayer does not naturally yield community, then it will serve as a source of dissonance. The fact is that the only real unity we broken sinners can know is founded on life in Jesus Christ. We come to know Christ fully through the gracious reordering of our disordered lives — that is, through worship of the Lord. For this reason, the Church rightly presents us with Morning and Evening Prayer and the Holy Eucharist as the principal acts of Christian life. It seems that Christians sensing a lack of community should first look to a commitment to these common habits as a remedy. These gifts form our true unity, and so should be the focus of any commitment to charity for one another. However else this community may come to look, it must be founded upon common prayer and celebration of the Eucharist, or else it is in vain.

I have found, as well, that making worship, rather than companionship, the means and goal of life together allows the rest to fall into place. Gone is anxiety about having to keep everyone satisfied so that they will hang around. Gone, moreover, are disputes about community identity or what our “ministry” is. People may come and go, without worry or instability, because the prayers dictate our life, and they may continue even with only one person present. Our people, called the Community of the Franciscan Way, have decided to order their lives — to varying capacities — to the services of the Church. True, we eat together, some of us live in houses together, we forbear with one another, we offer hospitality, but the community is not a “ministry.” We pray we are not attached to these activities as they look now for each of us, and want to be open to our vocations leading otherwise. If and as change comes we will still pray, because we are members of the Church who pray in order to save our lives.

Leigh Edwards is an editor and tutor at Durham Editors in North Carolina.

Christ Room from Pilar Timpane on Vimeo.

Principal Acts of Prayer


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