Why do the young men walk?

francisThere is much to praise in that recent A1 feature in the Washington Post about the Franciscan friars who decided, as a spiritual discipline, to go for a very long walk. If you want to get into the mood to read it, click through this nice slide show of photos that ran with the online version of reporter William Wan's story. The double-decker headline was particularly nice:

Just a Closer Walk With Thee -- Friars Trudge 300 Miles and Find Kindred Souls on the Way

And here's the nicely detailed top of the feature:

They've been mistaken for Jedi-wannabes headed to a Star Wars convention. They've been investigated by police, approached by strangers, gawked at from cars and offered gifts of crumpled dollar bills and Little Debbie snacks.

After trekking along more than 300 miles of dusty Virginia country roads and suburban highways, six Franciscan friars reached Washington ... having seen it all during an offbeat modern-day quest for God.

For six weeks, the brothers walked from Roanoke with only their brown robes, sandals and a belief in the kindness of strangers to feed and shelter them. The sight of six men in flowing habits, trudging single file on the side of the road, prompted many to pull over and talk, even confess. People on their way to work described their loneliness. College students wanted help figuring out what to do with their lives. Children, mistaking them for the Shaolin monks in movies, ran up to ask the friars if they knew how to beat up bullies.

"Dressed like we are in our habits, it's like a walking sign that says, 'Tell us your life's problems,' " explained Cliff Hennings, the youngest of the friars at 23.

Later, we are told that the friars were trying to "emulate the wanderings of their founder, Saint Francis of Assisi" by taking this journey.

Which raises an interesting question: Is it really accurate to say that these friars were engaged in a "modern-day quest for God"? Would it be better to say that they had already found God -- taken vows to serve Him, in fact -- and making a kind of symbolic pilgrimage to share that with others or to seek the face of God in other people along the way?

Just asking.

After all, almost everything about the friars is symbolic -- from the tops of their heads to the details of those famous brown robes and the triple-knots on the chords that bind their waists. There is much to explore here. Trust me.

IMG_6860It's also clear that the journey fit into lives of these young men in another way. This is part of their initiation rites into their new lives in this order.

Joined by two older friars supervising their training, they picked as their destination a friary in Washington, D.C., called the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land -- a symbolic gesture, because the actual Holy Land was too far away. ...

They tried to live by the ascetic rules Jesus laid out for his 12 disciples: "Take nothing for the journey -- no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic." The less they brought, they reasoned, the more room they could leave for God. The friars did make a few modifications, carrying a toothbrush, a wool blanket, water and a change of underwear ("a summer essential," one explained), as well as one cellphone in case of emergency.

Some rules, however, had to be made on the fly. They had agreed not to carry any money, but just minutes into their first day, strangers were pressing dollar bills into their hands. So they made a pact to spend what they received each day on food, often high-protein Clif bars, and to give the rest to the needy.

That's wonderful, detailed material. I simple wanted to know about their calling and their ministry -- in the same kind of detail. Some readers wrote GetReligion, for example, asking what kind of Franciscans are these? What order? What specific missionary calling?

Good questions.

So in the end, we know where they are heading and a little bit about who these men are. On one level, we know why they are walking from point A to point B. We have lots of details of the walk. What we don't know is the bigger WHY of the story, the ultimate question what this short walk has to do with the much bigger -- even eternal -- walk that is ahead of them.

In other words, this is a story about a religious calling. There is more to walking this walk than, well, the walk itself.

Just a closer walk with Thee. OK, who is this "Thee"? Are they searching for Him or have they already found Him? Both, you say? Both parts of that equation need to be in the story.

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