The friars of the South Bronx

Brother Tansi looked out the window of the chapel at the St. Crispin Friary in the South Bronx

I just came across this fascinating NYT article about a burgeoning monastic community that was established in the Bronx in 1987 by the Franciscan friars. They take vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity, spend up to five hours a day in prayer, and spend time visiting and helping the sick, poor, and elderly.

One interesting thing is the relative youth of the friars. The oldest and longest-serving resident at St. Crispin’s is the Rev. Rich Roemer, who is relative young 39, while the youngest friar is Brother Juanmaria Arroyo Acevedo, at a mere 24.

In some ways the community reminds me of FWBO (Friends of the Western Buddhist Order) residential communities, which also represent an attempt to create a realm of simplicity and spiritual practice in the heart of urban environments. The impetus for these communities has waned over the years (it’s interesting that the Franciscan friary has been growing) but it wasn’t (and isn’t) uncommon for people to live very simple and even chaste lives, although chastity in the FWBO is a matter of personal choice rather than condition of membership.

One big difference is that most people in the FWBO have to work for a living, and so there were (or are) right livelihood businesses in which people can work together with other Buddhists. In some places this means that a person can live in a community and work in a right livelihood business, practicing mindfulness throughout the day and in some ways coming close to the full-time ideal that the friars represent. I lived this way myself for many years. I imagine that the friars are supported in some way by the church.

I’m heartened by the fact that the friars exist, that they’ve chosen to live in a challenging urban environment, that they are young, and that their numbers are growing. And I find myself wondering if the pendulum in the FWBO will start to swing back in the direction of a more collective and communal form of practice. While communities and team-based right-livelihood businesses thrived in the 1970s to 1990s, fewer people in recent years have wanted to move in that direction. There’s been a general trend towards a more self-expressive form of practice, which is many ways has been good because people don’t feel that they have to shoe-horn themselves into one particular lifestyle, but in other ways there has been a loss of what can for many people be a very supportive spiritual environment. People have increasingly decided to marry or otherwise pair up, or to live alone, and to work in more conventional jobs.

Given that the world is going though a major period of financial readjustment, possibly (and hopefully) accompanied by a philosophical shift represented not only by a return to more centrist values in the form of a new presidency but also an analysis of the forces of greed and ignorance that got us into our current mess, I think it’s conceivable that people will be looking for a more collective form of practice. Perhaps in some regards the friars of the South Bronx are bellwethers — early adopters of a more authentic way of life.

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