In a way, that recent New York Times essay about the lives of Brother Julian and Brother Adrian Riester — twin Franciscan friars who died, on the same day, at age 92 — seems like the perfect example of a religion story that gets it, that shows faith as a powerful factor in the lives of these intriguing people.
The writing is gorgeous and I mean that. The tone is light, but the Dan Barry essay takes the brothers seriously. There are heavy issues lurking in the background (such as an elitist, caste-like culture among the Franciscan academics), but they do not burden the reader in ways that destroy the mood. The text contains scores of fascinating details.
As one faithful GetReligion reader said, when sending in the URL:
Unadorned and guileless reporting, like the two brothers.
Here is the opening of this first-person piece:
ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y. – They were like paired birds of Franciscan brown. If Brother Julian was gardening in front of the friary, Brother Adrian weeded in the back. If Adrian was driving the van, Julian sat by his side. Preparing the altar for chapel, chopping wood for kindling, exulting in ice cream at the Twist & Shake, the identical Riester twins were together, always.
For many years at my alma mater, St. Bonaventure University, these simple men were workers, not teachers, and so ever-present in the pastoral setting as to be unseen. Taken for granted, like the rushing hush of the Allegheny River at the university’s edge, or the back-and-forth of the birdsong in the surrounding trees.
Two weeks ago, the twins died on the same day in a Florida hospital; they were 92. Brother Julian died in the morning and Brother Adrian died in the evening, after being told of Julian’s death. Few who knew them were surprised, and many were relieved, as it would have been hard to imagine one surviving without the other.
To cut to the chase, the poignancy of their deaths, in the age of social media, turned into a news flash that zipped around the world — in part due to people forwarding a short news story in the Buffalo News. Now, stories about the brothers are all over the place.
So, having praised the Times article, what else can I say about this piece?
Well, it is in first person. It’s not a news article. Thus, we could say that the contents of this piece tells us as much about Barry as it does the twins. It may tell us quite a bit about life at St. Bonaventure, too (where, we are told, the number of Franciscan brothers is in sharp decline).
However, after reading the article, I was somewhat troubled. I immediately searched the text for the word “Jesus.” Nothing. How about “Mary”? Nothing. So, a “God” search found a reference to the twins living in the “God-given now,” as opposed to living in the past or worrying about the future. We also know that they finally had a wreck while driving the friary van — they were both praying the rosary. We know that they used to sit in the chapel and pray, because the story ends like this:
Last week, Brother Julian and Brother Adrian Riester were returned to St. Bonaventure for a memorial service and a side-by-side burial. Their coffins were carried by, among others, a few of the dozen or so Franciscans still on campus; their brothers.
The solemn and joyful day encouraged more stories about the twins. How they adorned the friary trees with birdhouses. How they toured the campus on identical bicycles, one with a pinwheel on its handlebars. And how they often sat in prayer in the chapel, so still that you might not know they were there.
That’s beautiful stuff. However, I was left wanting to know, well, why these men gave their lives to Jesus Christ and to the Catholic Church. Was there any actual content to that testimony or were they absolutely, completely silent? We are told:
Sister Margaret Carney, the university president and a Franciscan scholar, gave great thought to the why. Her conclusion: “The twins incarnate something that people have a hunger to know.”
OK, I’ll ask: Know what? What is it that people hunger to know? That service to one’s fellow man is beautiful and worthwhile? Yes, that is certainly true. But we are talking about men who lived their lives dedicated to a very specific approach to faith. Could readers learn just a bit about that?
We are told that they argued over the fine details of woodwork. That’s interesting and colorful. But is that essential? Would it help to know just a bit about the actual beliefs and faith and shaped their whole lives? We are told that they stripped life to its essence and that this helped others. Fine. A detail or two, please?
Once again, we have a story that is “spiritual,” but not really “religious” in the sense of offering any insights into the content of the lives of these two men. Maybe they really were silent (they were friars, not priests), but I doubt that. I think that it is likely that the church, Jesus and the saints are in there somewhere.
We end up with a gorgeous, but strangely empty, story. Sorry, but that’s how I see it.