Franciscan Influences: Gezelligheid

Frederick Pratt Features

This is the 19th in a series of essays by the Province’s partners-in-ministry. The last installment, by a former team member of the Christ House retreat center, appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of HNP Today.

Below, a Pennsylvania resident who was a member of Holy Name Province from 1999 to 2003, uses the Dutch word “gezellig” to describe Franciscan ministry and charism. The author was baptized by the Franciscan friars in St. Mary’s Church in Pompton Lakes, N.J., and attended Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y.

At this time of year when many of us prepare, in a variety of ways, to celebrate holidays that largely center around Christmas in both a religious and secular manner, I am reminded about how important beginnings are to a good story. As I reflect on the past few weeks of readings and anticipate the infancy narratives, I try to cull from these stories where and how God inserts divinity. We are presented with a prophet in the wilderness, an unmarried teenage mother, migration, a lack of hospitality, shepherds, angels, strangers from afar, and the threat of an insecure ruler. All of these stories are calling us and challenging us to be in relationship with those around us and to seek out relationships with the others we too often keep a distance from.

Our own infancy narratives are usually much different, not to say that there weren’t angels involved or even a stranger or two. Growing up with a Dutch mother and an American father (who happens to also be an executive chef and chef educator) the three Pratt children all learned about “Gezellig” or “Gezelligheid.” Dutch people love this word, we are fiercely proud of it and all it represents. One could go as far to say that gezelligheid is the modern day religion of the Dutch. We love it, we need it and we respect it. In fact, Dutch people or those raised or living in the Netherlands are going to ask you if you know what gezellig means. Once you do know its meaning, they are then going to ask you over and over again if you know how to pronounce it (heh-SELL-ick).

As I attempt to capture what gezellig is, I must get one thing straight: this word has NO accurate English translation. People will attempt to tell you that it means cozy…or quaint… or familiar…or friendly… or a nice atmosphere… or a fun time; no one word can sum it up. Gezellig and gezelligheid are less about a word and more about a feeling and, truthfully, gezellig(heid) can only be felt. I do have a suspicion that many people reading this newsletter know exactly what gezellig is and now have a word to capture that feeling and for those of you who also speak German, believe me gemütlich and gemütlichkeit are close – but are simply not the same thing.

Early Years
I was baptized by a young William Scully, OFM, 38 years ago when he assisted on weekends at St. Mary’s Church in Pompton Lakes, N.J. When I was about three or four years old, my brother Gil and I addressed all of the friars at St. Mary’s by the same name — Jesus. There was one exception however to this holy moniker by which we addressed these varied men in brown that must be noted — Michael Carnevale, OFM — who was always “Father John” to the two of us. Michael understood how to create an atmosphere of gezellig. Even to this day on Christmas Eve, I imagine I am back in my family’s pew hearing Michael retell the story of Alfie the Christmas Tree followed by his leading the entire community in the song It’s in Everyone of Us. That song, with its Scotian themes planted seeds in what would become a core belief in my life. When friends from those days reminisce, we all acknowledge how influential the St. Mary’s community was for us during those magical years — whether it was through a Journey Weekend on a trip to the St. Francis Inn soup kitchen or simply by witnessing the welcoming of strangers and friends week after week. St. Mary’s is gezellig.

St. Mary’s led me to Siena College, where my Franciscan education continued and led to the varied experiences that college provides – so many friars, professors and staff at the college believed in my abilities when I often doubted it. Of particular note was the indefatigable Mrs. Connie Owens, an affiliate of HNP who passed away in 2008. I learned more about radical hospitality from Connie than any other person in my life. She had an amazing ability to seek out and welcome students, faculty and staff that were looking for a home – everyone truly belonged when they entered her Post Office or her enchanting home in Watervliet, NY. Many friars — and former friars — were charmed by this matronly character over the years. Connie Owens was heel (very) gezellig.

In my short time as a friar — I was only a member of Holy Name Province from 1999 to 2003 — I began to realize the centrality of making room for the other in the Franciscan tradition and to see that the best place to learn about hospitality is often from those who are on the margins. I slowly was being exposed to the practice of being a stranger myself, of having an intentional marginality that has become a part of my spiritual life as an adult. Those liminal moments helped me to recognize the sea of Grace we are all awash in at every moment.

Today, I spend my days teaching theology and practicing counseling at a private, all-girls academy on the “Main Line” of Philadelphia and have realized that institutions are essential to the practice of hospitality. Authentic hospitality is not simply a matter of exchanging pleasantries with students, colleagues and co-workers but of finding ways to identify with the experiences and perspectives of marginalized people.

Although I deeply believe in the importance of being a “good host,” my spiritual journey has led me to believe that one can’t claim the role of host all the time; it is a gift to be willing to be a guest and to share in people’s lives as well. Thomas Gallagher, OFM, masterfully guided us in living out this dynamic during our novitiate. To this very day, Tom’s wisdom and that of the late Flavian Walsh, OFM, are with me daily in my life as a teacher and counselor as I become a Connie Owens for others.

In addition to teaching in what most understand as a traditional classroom, I have found that journeying with young people year after year through urban, rural and international immersion trips to be one of the finest vehicles for introducing people to embracing a life of welcoming the stranger. Many of these communities, following the influence of the Catholic Worker [movement], use the language of hospitality.

One community that I have become quite familiar with over the past five years is Bethlehem Farm in Somers County, West Virginia. The caretakers and volunteers there live by the four Gospel cornerstones of community, service, prayer, and simplicity. I believe that rooting ourselves in the ever-ancient practice of hospitality will help us to breathe new life into our varied communities. Although this stance of welcome is certainly a personal practice, it is never just personal. Often, the people who offer the best welcome tend to be people who are marginal to the institutions and the communities they belong to themselves, people who have experienced themselves as strangers in some way.

Franciscan Tradition
Those of us who have become really comfortable in the various institutions we belong to, find our predictable patterns reinforced. When we are fully connected, fully located, it serves to reinforce our status and power. Welcoming strangers into our lives can threaten those things, and so we become hesitant or entrenched into our position of privilege. In Scripture, some of the most important accounts of hospitality are stories that have both the blessing and the tension that’s associated with offering kindness to strangers.

In the same way, when we stop living and telling stories about generosity as a practice, it evaporates. Part of the crucial aspect of recovering any practice is telling the stories about it. There is so much blessing associated with this type of openness; when we tell the story, our imagination about what our communities could mean and what they could look like is activated.

I think that those of us who carry on the Franciscan tradition in many and varied ways have to embrace our stories and see what the larger institution we belong to has lost and that leaning into lives that seek Gezelligheid will serve as the leaven to help restore authentic Gospel values to the Church.

 Frederick Pratt, a theology teacher and counselor at Merion Mercy Academy in Merion Station, Pa., was honored in 2010 with the “Voices of Inspiration” award for his influence on young people to lead lives of service and justice. He holds a BSW degree from Siena College as well as graduate degrees from the Washington Theological Union and Neumann University. He continues post-graduate studies at Villanova University, where he and his wife Erin are members of the parish.