The opposite of stability

December 19, 2006 in General, News

Welcoming poverty of spirit in a time of changeIt is a grace, not a curse, to be born into an age of instability, argues Paul Andrews. Jesus himself sought to rock people in their comfortable worlds, and this remains a feature of life for those who follow him.

The church is sometimes seen as a force for stability in society. In the French Revolution, the Italian Risorgimento and the Russian Revolution of 1917, the institutional church sided with established authority rather than wave the red flag. Ireland was different; the rebels in 1798 and 1916 tended to be Catholics, often fervently so. The same is true in South America. The prospect of radical change in society pushes us all to the dilemna faced by Jesus.

Dismantling the ego
Jesus destabilised people, but was not a political rebel. He pulled people away from their trade, whether it was fishing, prostitution or tax-collecting. He pulled them from their families. But he did not want to be a king, nor to set up any new political system (as he told the sons of Zebedee). Rather he was and is dismantling our ego, rocking our comfortable sense of having an unshakable place in an unshakable society. Marriage at its best can do this, invading the other’s ego. In marriage (and also when you are teaching children), you are regularly reminded of your shortcomings.

That sort of abrasion can be missing from the celibate life. There is no intimate Other to get under my skin, and emotional inertia can easily prevail. Small things can upset me, a strange bed, a blanket instead of a duvet, Little Chip instead of chunky marmalade, unexpected breaks in my routine, new work at which I do not shine, a new boss, losing the prospect of a holiday, being bad-mouthed. They break into my ego, destabilise me, show the limits of my inner freedom and the defences I erect to defend my way of being me. We can be grateful for these destabilisers.

The humbled church
The church too is experiencing its destabilisers. We live under the Chinese curse: May you be born in an age of transition. It was a fate familiar to the Psalmist and the Old Testament writers who saw the people of Israel through periods of adversity, exile, persecution, irrelevance. St Luke, by contrast, writing of the beginnings of the Christian church, relished the signs of expansion.

Forty-six years ago I lived in USA, where the church was in an upbeat mood: 40 million Catholics, one of them running for President. Like the man in the Gospel with a rich harvest, they built bigger barns to house their riches, the young men with vocations. All across the states you saw massive noviciates, seminaries and houses of study. Few of them survive today.

In Ireland we have witnessed something similar. Our big houses were built to supply educational, health and other services that the state has now taken over. We have seen religious houses pass into other hands (Irish Jesuits think of Emo, Tullabeg, Rathfarnham, the Crescent church). And we have handed over schools to other managers. We pass them on with sadness, with their legacy of prayer, companionship and high standards. We show our vitality to the extent that we develop real poverty of spirit and can travel light.

It is a grace to be born into an age of dispossessing ourselves, with fewer large establishments and greater readiness to share others’ lives. In a society which changes rapidly, we still need monasteries to offer stability, religious centres that last; we treasure our Mellerays and Glenstals. The rest of us, the light cavalry of the church, should be mobile and carry small packs. We live, as it were, on campsites. Let us pray for poverty of spirit to match our shedding of buildings and land.