Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
August 30, 2010
New Franciscans break the mold
Isenor on journey from homelessness to holiness
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
It's hard not to notice the tattoos etched into Billy Isenor's arms, marking a storied past that's led him from homelessness to the path of holiness.
His favourite tattoo is on his forearm depicting a graveyard scene with a skull, moon and three crosses to represent the graves of three of his friends who've died.
"When it's finished it will have a resurrected Christ over top with a Scripture quote from 1 Corinthians: 'Death, where's your sting?' because we (Christians) have no sting from death," said Isenor.
Sitting inside Mount St. Francis Retreat Centre in Cochrane, just days before Isenor made his solemn profession of vows on Aug. 20 to commit his life as a religious brother with the Franciscan Friars of Western Canada, he mused that obedience will be the most difficult vow he makes.
"I just have a streak of rebellious nature," grinned Isenor, 33.
His defiance got him kicked out of his house and onto the streets of Vancouver at age 18 where he lived with other homeless youth panhandling and begging for his keep.
"Me and my friends were partly into activism and social rights, but also very anti-conformist, so issues with obedience, but definitely believing in a better society," said Isenor, a self-described former punk-rocker who used to sport a Mohawk hairdo and leather jacket.
Isenor's firsthand experience of poverty and being on the fringes of society are valuable lessons he takes with him into his Franciscan ministry.
"To live the Gospel in today's world is quite radical and it's still about social justice, serving the poor, being brothers to those who don't have anything and bringing the life of the Gospel to the world in how we live and how we preach," he said.
Bill Isenor came in from Penticton, B.C., to witness his son make his solemn profession of vows. "This is the day I'm been waiting for for a long time and I'm extremely happy," he said.
"Billy was a normal teenager with a few problems, but I've got a lot of faith in some ways. I don't claim to be an angel, but I just kept saying the rosary, I knew Mary would look after it."
Born and raised in Penticton, Isenor and his two older sisters grew up in what he calls "a good old-fashioned Catholic family saying the rosary every day."
But at the age of 13 his parents divorced, leaving him confused with anger issues.
"Obviously, a traumatic experience, but my dad is pretty solvent in his faith. It was something that he continued to try to pass on to us kids," he said.
Nevertheless, at age 17, Isenor stopped going to church and when he became too much to handle, his father kicked him out of the house.
"My dad probably did the best thing he could by kicking me out," said Isenor. One year later, like the prodigal son, Billy returned home.
He started a rewarding career as a chef, apprenticing under various chefs and ultimately winning an international award in culinary arts. But by the time Isenor turned 22, he realized he was not leading a fulfilling life.
YEARNING FOR GOD
"I wanted more meaning in life and I realized that yearning was God, so I came back to the Church and began helping the poor through St. Vincent de Paul who my dad introduced to me," he said.
He started discerning God's will for his life and by the time he turned 27 he had entered St. Joseph Seminary in Edmonton for the Nelson Diocese. He enjoyed the prayer life and fraternal aspects of the seminary, but within the first year it was clear he didn't feel called to be a diocesan priest.
While at St. Joseph Seminary, however, he met the Franciscan Friars and experienced their community life.
"They invited me over for dinner and won my heart with their cuisine," laughed Isenor. "It was incredible that first time. It is almost an etch in my memory. It was a Gospel hospitality. . . . It's about opening up the doors and inviting people to sit at the table, sinners and saints.
"There was just something, a light there, a real drawing and attraction to that community life - people speaking freely about wanting to live the Gospel life. I said, 'That's for me.'"
The following year, at age 28, he started his five-year formation process with the Franciscans and he said he hasn't really looked back.
LIFE AS A BROTHER
Isenor still doesn't feel called to the priesthood, but rather to pastoral counselling as a Franciscan brother.
"I'm open to the Spirit at this point, but this is where I feel I'm at. I may be called at a later time, but there is no rush. Our main focus is the brotherhood first," he said.
Isenor takes confidence knowing he is joining an established 800-year-old order.
"Our life is about unity, which is rooted in God's love to the world. It's relevant by the fact we are trying to help the world live the same way.
Living the Gospel "is to love God, your neighbour and yourself, by serving the poor, loving your enemies, being hospitable, sharing with one another and trying to live in peace and unity the best that we can.
"We're like a heartbeat. We gather for prayer or dinner, we go out to the world, we come back in and we beat like a heart."
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