Three of a kindBALSANRI, Gangwon province -- Brother Stephen picks up "Discourses of Confucius" from his library. "It's my favorite book of philosophy," he says in Korean to Brother Christopher, who answers, in English, "I want to read it sometime, too."
Languages and nationalities pose no problems to these Franciscan brothers who live tucked away here in this remote mountain village. The brothers usually dress casually in their friary, an informal monastery. During prayers here, and at church meetings, they don robe-like habits. On this sunny, relaxed day, Brother Stephen, 40, is wearing shorts and a T-shirt that says "Mercy from Buddha," while Brother Christopher, 45, is wearing shorts with a Be the Reds T-shirt. Brother Lawrence, 31, in his gray shirt and black pants, looks like any 31-year-old Korean man you might pass on the street in downtown Seoul.
These three brothers are the only Franciscan friars in Korea, though there are more than 150 Anglican Church priests and 30 sisters of the Anglican Church. The church's priests, who have received ordination, are free to marry, while the church's friars, who live in a religious community, are not.
The Korean Franciscan Brotherhood is not exactly your quintessential friary, such as the one depicted in the novel "The Name of the Rose" by Umberto Eco. The brothers' home is a brick house where the family of a priest of the Anglican church lived until last October, and is open to everyone and everything. Now it is home to three brothers, the only friary of the Anglican church in Korea.
An hour and a half train ride from Seoul brings a visitor to this place, which is small but steeped in utter tranquility. The hosts of this blissful world are three brothers of the Anglican Church -- Brother Christopher from New Zealand and Brother Stephen and Brother Lawrence from Korea. Together, they make up the Korean Franciscan Brotherhood.
Though a friar usually refers to someone who leads a solitary life, these three Franciscans are not that way at all. The life of a friar is thought to be flat and unvaried, but it's quite the opposite here. The three friars' lives are full of silent but busy daily routines. Their friary is secluded from the outer world, but is waiting for the world to come. For those weary of the world, these brothers are ready to help.
"Some people say with aloofness that we would be happy to be by ourselves left in utter solitude," says Brother Stephen. "But that's not quite true -- we are not alone because we are always ready to take guests with open arms." To reach out for the helping hand, a visitor first grabs a train ticket to Gangchon, a small village in Gangwon province that college students use as a base for revelries. From there one takes a 20 minute ride on a small public bus to Balsanri village, which sits alone on a green mountainside. The provincial office calls Balsanri a "village without crime," which befits the home of a friary. Brother Christopher says, "Living in this country town makes you realize the power of nature."
Brother Christopher came to Korea in 1994 to help the Korean Anglican Church. He landed first in Incheon, then arrived in Balsanri last October, when the friary opened. One of the first things the brothers needed after moving in was a digital clock -- the ticking of the building's old clock was far too loud in the quiet of this place.
Anybody who wants to get away from the world is welcome at the friary. Kim Young-ho, from Chuncheon, the closest city, is here for that reason. "I come here whenever I need some peace," he says. The small, one-story friary is indeed a good spot to seek refuge. The brothers use the biggest room as a chapel and the second biggest as a library. For private space, each brother contents himself with a space barely big enough to lie down in. The library, decorated with calligraphy and oriental paintings, is full of books of various kinds, from "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez to one titled "When Christianity Meets Buddhism." The brothers have one more guest room in the basement, but it is too damp now to be used. The most fascinating place in the friary is the chapel, a spacious place with old wooden walls decorated with refined icons of the Virgin Mary and other figures from the Bible. Brother Stephen makes those icons himself; the other two enjoy making candles.
After the tour, lunch is served. "For 360 days a year, we have a simple menu of soybean soup with rice," Brother Stephen says, exchanging smiles with Brother Christopher. The meal is indeed frugal, with side dishes of black beans boiled with soy sauce, dried shrimp, kimchi and three pieces of grilled mackerel. "Soon, we're going to serve eggplant fresh from our own garden," Brother Stephen says with a proud smile. Does Brother Christopher miss Western food? "I try to cook a turkey on special occasions like Christmas, but you can't do much with this microwave oven," he says.
To go shopping for anything besides the basic necessities, the brothers must travel to Chuncheon; but fortunately they don't have to do it too often. "We have well-meaning visitors who love to make contributions," Brother Lawrence says. "Thanks to them, our refrigerator is always filled with loads of food, from kimchi to ice cream."
Back in 1982, Brother Christopher had no idea that he would someday be living in a secluded village in a country in the northern hemisphere. Raised in an Anglican family, he happened to pay a visit to a brotherhood in Australia once, where he says he felt very welcome. "I felt that I was in the right place," he recalls. He joined the brotherhood the following year. Eventually the Korean Anglican Church asked for help in establishing a brotherhood here, and Brother Christopher got his calling. Soon after arriving, he met Brother Stephen and Brother Lawrence.
Brother Stephen came to the brotherhood on a quite different path. His childhood dream was to be a Buddhist monk, but his destiny led him to serve in the Anglican Church. In the early 1990s, he was involved in a labor movement against the government. While participating in a demonstration, he was seriously injured when he was fleeing riot police. He managed to find the house of a doctor, who happened to be a member of the Anglican Church.
"On the threshold of the other world, I came to reflect on the meaning of life," he explains. And I decided to join the Anglican Church, which saved my life."
Korea did not have a Brotherhood of the Anglican Church back then. In time, Brother Stephen met Brother Lawrence, who wanted to be a friar, and the two decided to establish a brotherhood. Under the guidance of Brother Christopher, the Korean Franciscan Brotherhood was born in 1994.
The daily routine at the friary begins at 6 a.m. with morning prayers. Then the brothers move on to a list of things to do -- taking care of the garden, doing house chores and meditation and taking care of guests. In dealing with all these tasks, no language barrier constrains them, because the brothers are fluent in each other's languages. When Brother Stephen and Brother Lawrence speak in Korean about Brother Stephen's schedule to accompany a stone collector to a mountain, Brother Christopher adds, in English, "Take care." Regarding this way of communication, Brother Stephen says, "The only English I really understand is Chris's."
Though the friary itself is not grand in size, it houses a hidden treasure -- Mother Nature. Around the small building the brothers have a big and beautiful esplanade of pine trees along the mountainside. They also built a Way of the Cross exhibit beside the esplanade, which visitors often mistake for a cemetery. Right next to the friary flows a small stream accompanied by the brothers' precious garden. Brother Christopher looks especially delighted to show his garden of basil, eggplants, parsley and pumpkin. Pointing at one plant, he cries out like a child: "Look, I didn't know that it grew that big already!"
The esplanade, with its tall and stately pine trees, instills you with a sense of piety. The place is so tranquil that you would feel ashamed to hear a cell-phone ring. Brother Christopher is beaming with joy while talking about a plan to build a new center for guests. Construction will be complete next summer, he says.
Back at the friary, Brother Christopher talks about the vows the brothers take ?poverty, chastity and obedience. "Being single gives us the freedom to serve God," he says, sipping green tea. But there are no rules regarding smoking or drinking. "If you want to kill yourself, you can use your own pocket money to smoke. It's up to each individual friar," Brother Christopher says, smiling.
Life as a brother does not appear easy, but these three friars are happy with their callings. "The happiest moment comes when it seems that nothing is going to happen, but suddenly you realize it does happen," says Brother Christopher, speaking of the moment of spiritual awakening.
Brother Christopher makes a joke on remaining single: "It's harder for men to be free," with his wholehearted warm smile. But this Friday afternoon, in the bright sunshine and fragrant basil leaves, these three brothers were as free as anyone could be.
The Korean Franciscan Brotherhood welcomes visitors who are interested in a retreat. For more information, call 033-263-4662.
by Chun Su-jin