ALL HIGHEST, ALMIGHTY
The mountains of British Columbia had imprinted themselves on my soul, and the memory of green trees, of white clouds swirling in blue, would return to me whenever I closed my eyes.
I sat by a window in the Vancouver airport, jotting thoughts in my Moleskine journal and sketching with simple lines the recollection of a Victoria shoreline. The fact that I was about to board a plane to Rome was not yet quite real. For a long time, I had imagined what it might be like to visit Assisi, as in ‘St. Francis of ’, but until now the dream never had the option of becoming real.
Francis had first captured my imagination many years before, in the hippyish vision of a square Italian filmmaker and in the poetry of a contemporary Christian folk singer. He was a joyful, if mysterious, figure; a man who communed with nature and loved the poor.
But Francis began to take on flesh and form, to walk among my thoughts and days, when I moved to California. Though I had been involved with Youth With A Mission (‘YWAM’ for short) almost since leaving high school, I had imagined that I would eventually move into the world of acting and comedy, and while I worked with our small YWAM team in Kitchener, Ontario, I was taking classes and becoming involved with The Second City in Toronto. I had done very well there, and when I auditioned for the touring company (the first step toward the Main Stage), I was taken on as an understudy. It was around this time that my plans for a career in acting hit the first bump on the railway tracks.
My friend and fellow YWAMers Chris and Amie had moved down to Modesto, California to begin a work among the poor and homeless of the Central Valley town. When, at around the time of my audition, Chris came for a visit to tell about this burgeoning mission, I began to wonder. I wondered if God might not be calling me to something different from what I had been planning on. Later that year, as I studied Second City scripts in preparation for that call from the troupe that as yet had not come, I took a three week excursion to Modesto.
And while we walked through those October days, handing out bread, talking with homeless guys and laughing together, something dangerous started happening in my heart. And sure enough, as the plane lifted off from SFO, I knew that I was leaving home.
A short time later, I had made my decision, and my resolve was sure. I was going to move to Modesto. Cue the phone call from Second City.
“Hey, man. We loved your audition, but there wasn’t a place for you at the time. But something’s opened up, and if you’d like to, we’d love to have you be part of the touring company!”
I took a deep breath. “Actually, I kinda just made a big decision….”
For about five minutes I wondered what the H I had just done. But it didn’t take long to realize that, in a weird way, this was God’s stamp of approval. I wasn’t leaving behind a career in comedy because I wasn’t good enough. I was leaving for something better. Something unknown, but something better.
So it was that I arrived in Modesto the following February. I went there to help a good friend begin a small, simple work, and, like Francis and his first companions, we didn’t know what we were doing. We just wanted to hang out with homeless people. Within a year, two more good friends of ours moved their family to Modesto, and suddenly we were a community.
It was around then that another artist, a Greek novelist, came to me with his own vision of Francis, and the first “friar minor” would become more than just a distant figure that served as a bit of inspiration. He would forever be part of my consciousness.
His life of simplicity, his great love for those people the world found the most difficult to love, and his holy way of being quite insane would be character traits which I would continually long for and pray for. I even began to wonder if I might be called to be a Franciscan friar, and went so far as to prayerfully contemplate this with a group of Franciscans from Sacramento. I attended a weekend retreat at a friary in southern California that, along with those artistic visions of Francis, would ultimately help to form my Franciscan consciousness. (When my car blew up, that weekend retreat was extended to nearly a week, but that’s another story. Let’s just say that if you’re stranded somewhere, it’s nice to be stranded in a Franciscan Mission.)
Ultimately, however, I had decided that I was not being called away from our work in Modesto to join the Franciscans. For good or ill, I had become too attached to the community that had been born there in that town that, like Assisi, was full of both the poor and the prosperous. Our little community was flourishing, in its own way, and I chose to believe that my calling lay in some way with this strange little band of brothers, sisters, mentors and friends.
It was, therefore, a bit of a surprise when I was kicked out of the country.
Well, “kicked out” is a harsh term, if not precisely inaccurate. For most of the seven and a half years I had spent in California, confusion and miscommunication had reigned over my visa situation. And while I did my best to do exactly as I was told by the myriad of officials with differing opinions, Immigration officers would inevitably open my passport and make the scrunched-up face of a person who just doesn’t get it. Finally, after two botched Green Card applications, I consulted a lawyer. More correctly, I consulted a lawyer that actually knew what he was talking about. On a trip to LA, Chris, friend and brother, sat with me at the lawyer’s desk, anxiously awaiting what wisdom would come from the barrister’s mouth.
The words “leave the country” were not what we were expecting. The lawyer advised me that it would be best for me to leave the US for at least one year, and return with a fresh, new visa when my time was up.
The drive along the 99 from LA to Modesto was a melancholy one to say the least.
Taking the lawyer’s advice, I said good-bye to my Modesto home, and returned to Canada in time for Christmas. I still felt relatively sure that God still wanted me in California, that I would return just as soon as the government allowed. But an experience like this tends to shake up your world, and can make all those things that you thought you saw so clearly become more than a little blurry.
Though I had decided that joining the Franciscans in California was not a “fit” for me, the desire to live a truly Franciscan life had remained. With this year ahead looking hazy, so uncertain, my thoughts began to swirl. Was there a message somewhere in all this? Was God trying to get my attention? Was there something I wasn’t seeing? As I began this “year in exile,” (as I started to call it) questions remained about if, where, or how I might formally take the Franciscan vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Thus began a year of being virtually homeless, and oddly free. I started by spending three months in Thailand. Jimmy and Kelly and their children had felt the call to move from our Modesto community and begin a work in Thailand. They were working to build friendship and give support to struggling Burmese families and children living on the Thai/Burma border, and to minister to other missionaries taking on difficult tasks and no small amount of heartbreak. My time with them is the stuff of another story, but let it suffice to say that there were literally blood, sweat, and tears. It was a time rich with love, troubles, frustration and friendship, and I will never forget it.
From Thailand, I had been led to a three week adventure of faith in Israel, a family trip to Holland, back to Ontario, and on to beautiful British Columbia. What began as a commitment to one month at a Native reservation on Vancouver Island soon became a three-month experience of immersing myself in the people and place of some of the most gorgeous land in Canada, and creating new friendships among the poor of nearby Victoria and those that worked to bless them. I was witness to an immense and gracious beauty. There were eagles soaring over salt water, and baby seals greeting me on a wood-lined shore. There were Fry Bread Fridays with elders and friends in the Native community. And there were people like Charlie and Carly living with little-to-nothing on the streets of Victoria. There were days spent with good friends, and fishing poles on open waters, and drives down winding island roads (which the deer so graciously shared with us).
But finally, in mid-September, it felt like it was time for another adventure.
The idea of visiting Assisi, of a pilgrimage to the home town of the saint who had so influenced the desires of my heart and so shaped the landscape of my dreams, had been hiding in the back of my mind since my year of exile began. When I realized that actually making it happen was within the realm of the possible, I nervously clicked the “purchase” button on the discount airfare website. I had just enough to get there. Remaining there for three weeks, however, was another matter.
All of this had now resulted in a man with an army surplus backpack and a lightly dented MacBook sitting on the sill of a window of Gate 23, taking in the tall trees of British Columbia one last time. The world, charged as it is with the grandeur of God (to paraphrase and plagiarize a poet), had sung to me songs of providence and trust. The sky was overcast, but calling nonetheless. I had no choice but to follow.
All-highest, Almighty Good Lord,
to you be praise, glory, and honour
and every blessing;
To you alone are they due,
and no man is worthy to speak your name.