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How to Change A Church

Yesterday I sat on the steps of Harvard Divinity School with Tim, a learned, enthusiastic lawyer who has returned to grad school to study church history.   Guided by Tim’s astoundingly well-rounded studies, our conversation weaved in and out of a number of topics, including our faith lives and religious traditions–he, a practicing Mormon, and I, a practicing Catholic.

In an effort to gain insight into my personal convictions, I think, Tim asked me an interesting question: “If you were instantly declared Pope, what would you change about the Catholic Church today?” I laughed along with Paul, another lawyer and fellow Catholic student at HDS who had joined in our conversation. What a question…

My response sort of surprised me.  Had Tim asked me what kinds of reform I would like to see in the Church, I would have confidently recited the well thought-out list. But that is not what he asked.  “I couldn’t possibly initiate all the changes I’d like to see,” I told him. “And, honestly, I probably couldn’t initiate even one of them right away if I was magically elected Pope.”  I was being absolutely honest, and it was hard to admit this to Tim, and to myself.  “We have a global church and a history spanning thousands of years.  If even the smallest thing is going to change, a lot of work and time must be invested into helping people make sense of these shifts from within the faith tradition.  If something “new” is going to happen, we have to use the old authorities–scripture, doctrine, liturgy, etc.–to help people at all levels of the Church make sense of it within the context of their religious identities and communities.  Otherwise it won’t mean anything to people. It won’t stick. It will be confusing. We have to help people make sense of it religiously before we implement it.”

This is why I want to be a theologian. I know I may never see very tangible progress in the type of Church reform that I think is right and just and good, but I think that teachers and writers and ministers and theologians can do work now that helps people make sense of the potential reforms we will not witness, in all likelihood. This work must happen if, one day, the average person is going to think of a married or female priest in a Catholic way, for instance.

On numerous occasions I have been asked to articulate what I’d like the Catholic Church to look like, but Tim brought out another, perhaps more complex and pressing, question–how?  How is the Church going to look like that? And for that matter, how did the Church end up looking like it does today?  How do individual paradigm shifts, or major institutional reformations, occur?  If you’ve got any of these figured out, please let me know…

Do I have patience, even for this?

MeditationBell “When I lead retreats, a bell sounds to indicate our transition from one part of the day to the next. The bell sounds, and immediately we shift mental gears, moving from meditation to preparations for mealtime.  What will lunch be today? Where will I sit? The bell rings, and we shift from walking meditation to preparations for a sitting meditation. Where did I leave my seat cushion? Will my aching back be a distraction during this sit? So much of life is like this–we are so quick to escape the present moment with anticipation and anxiety about what’s coming next.”

On Tuesday evening I joined my cousin for a meditation class facilitated by the Seattle Insight Meditation Society.  The class commences with a 45 minute meditation sit, followed by a lesson by one of the society’s Meditation teachers. That night, the talk focused on patience, one of the ten paramis, or “qualities of character that can be developed to support the path of awakening,” in the Buddhist tradition practiced by the group.  The teacher used this illustration about the bell on his retreats to demonstrate how much impatience we often have for the present moment.  Mainstream perceptions of life have taught us that the present is to dismissed for what ever is next.  We so hastily move from one thing to the next.

The teacher said that he has begun to ask his students to pause when they hear this transition bell at the retreat. It is an exercise in patience.  Rather than eagerly fleeing the moment, they exercise attention to the present by remaining where they are while the impending transition awaits its proper time.  The teacher said this intentional pause between one thing and the next is incredibly difficult for the retreatants.

This does not surprise me, for the bell has rung and I also struggle to pause in the present as I await the major impending transition in my life.  It is not that I don’t want to be here in the present, in Seattle, right now.  On the contrary, it is not the present that makes the pause difficult.  In all honesty, I deeply wish this city and its community could remain a present reality in my life for a very long time. It is the awareness that the present is fleeting that makes it hard.  It feels a bit like I imagine it would feel to fall in love with someone who was dying.  It is hard to be present, to be freely, extravagantly present, to something that is simultaneously slipping away.  I’m not yet enjoying the goodness that the next phase will bring, only grasping desperately at every bit of goodness I can garner out of a present that is dying its own little death.

But it is better to have loved, isn’t that right? Better, yes. But harder, too. The teacher encouraged us to recite this mantra to ourselves in moments of anxiety and impatience, “Do I have patience, even for this?” I find that when I ask myself that now, it feel so silly to reply with anything but, “Yes.”  Of course I can endure the difficult patience required for this–for this home that I love so much.  For the friends and family I cherish.  For the opportunities afforded to me by the transition ahead.  For the goodness I know I will find in Boston. Of course I have patience for this. This patience is better, yes, but harder, too.

Image from www.chrisandrephotography.com