Facing Change With Flexibility
Learning to be flexible, adaptable, changeable is a crucial lesson for the life of a priest
In my early priestly monastic life, I spent 10 years in the Peruvian Andes in a gorgeous, but dangerous, valley. Living at about 10,000 feet was an adjustment at first, but with time I grew to appreciate the beauty of Andean life and culture. Often in the afternoon, when the winds built up, I’d go out and lay down beside one of the many tall eucalyptus trees that dotted our monastery-seminary land. Not too many types of trees thrive at such an altitude, but these huge trees grew to great heights. Laying down beside one of these on the windward side, I marveled at their tremendous flexibility as they swayed wildly in the wind.
Like so much of my Peruvian experiences, they taught me about the great need for flexibility in our Christian and priestly lives, the capability of moving under the guidance of the Holy Spirit’s wind. Life demands so many changes as we make our merry journey to the Kingdom. Learning to be flexible, adaptable, changeable is a crucial lesson — especially in the life of a priest today.
An Artful Message
A crucial part of our Christmas celebrations is the feast of the Epiphany in which we ponder the great mystery of the manifestation of the infant Lord to the three Magi. The final section of the feast’s Gospel ends: “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way” (Mt 2:12). Fortunately, these seekers were open to listening to divine inspiration and being flexible. They changed their plans due to divine inspiration.
An extremely talented medieval artist, the Romanesque sculptor Gislebertus, expressively demonstrates the Magi’s flexibility to change their original plans at the inspiration of an angel. In the remarkable Cathedral of St. Lazarus of Autun, France, Gislebertus marvelously created a series of capitals for the nave and choir that vividly display the Magi narrative.
Known for emotional expressiveness, one of these gorgeous works depicts the angel’s attempt to instruct the three sleeping Magi. The angel smilingly instructs the dreamers to continue to follow the star that brought them from the East and not return to the palace of the plotting Herod the Great. Thus Gislebertus teaches us viewers to carefully discern our path and to be flexible in our following of the will of the Lord. The sculptured story instructs us to be open to God’s guidance as we seek to live our Christian lives in the form of prayerful attention to the will of God. Prayerful discernment is a key to successful flexibility in the face of constant change.
Trito-Isaiah succinctly expresses this wisdom: Where God guides, God provides (see Is 58:11). Most priests are almost daily invited to seek the Lord’s guidance as they confront not only their own changing parish world but a world in constant flux that often challenges members of their congregations. Using times of prayerful reflection, the priest seeks God’s guidance so that he can guide others on their journeys to the Kingdom. All of this demands a great bit of openness and creativity along with careful listening and discerning.
Employing the wisdom of Dr. Richard Johnson, a medical doctor in St. Louis, Missouri, who studies human maturity and wellness, we can say that even though change is the natural order of human life, change is certainly not eagerly sought as an agent of growth and personal enhancement. Most of us enjoy being comfortable in our daily routines of ministry and prayer, relaxing in our self-made ruts.
Douglas Smith in his informative book “Taking Charge of Change” (Basic Books, $18.95) summarizes our human tendency: “Threatening circumstances and challenges compel both performance and change much more effectively than mere opportunities and good intentions.” So often for us hesitant pursuers of growth it takes a physical, emotional or spiritual crisis to motivate us to grow. Rarely, do we consider change as a “total health enhance,” as Dr. Johnson says. Thus, we very reluctantly embrace the changes that life offers us while they can serve as a great benefit to our personal, spiritual growth.
Books have always been such a great gift to this monk-reader. For that reason, I got my advanced degree in English literature and taught it for 13 years in our seminary college. Several books have come along to help me approach this brief article. First of all, Thomas L. Friedman wrote his New York Times bestseller, “Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving In the Age of Accelerations” (Picador, $18). Like so many other authors, Friedman considers the accelerated speed of change in today’s technological world. In his second chapter (“What the hell happened in 2007”) he considers the tremendous impact of the iPhone upon the acceleration of change in 21st-century folks.
Since I began writing this article, another book has been published that might be most helpful to those of us who fail to welcome change in our daily lives. Leonard Mlodinow creatively approaches this subject in his book, “Elastic: Unlocking Your Brain’s Ability to Embrace Change” (Vintage, $16). One of the first points he makes is that the speed of change has accelerated over the last century: “Today it is we humans who must adapt, for our physical, social, and intellectual environments are changing at an unparalleled pace.”
Change has become an essential ingredient in our daily lives as the world changes from moment to moment. This creates a greatly increased amount of stress upon all us humans — stress felt by all. As we minister to the faithful we are increasingly challenged to help them be flexible as they confront the inevitable changes of life — changes now increased moment by moment. Prayerfully, we take a moment to teach these faithful the power of prayer that facilitates change as an agent of personal growth.
Yet another book, “Communicating For A Change” (Multnomah, $11.99), came into my life recently. In this book, Andy Stanley and Lane Jones focus on the art of preaching As life-giving pastors of our flock, we not only assist our faithful in the changes in their lives, but we seek to bring about drastic change in their Christian lives. Such a change is only possible if we can communicate well and succinctly the core of the Gospel’s message. This very practical book invites us to grow in our communication skills while internalizing the message before trying to communicate it to others.
FATHER NOËL MUELLER, OSB, is Benedictine monk at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Saint Meinrad, Indiana.
A Personal Approach to Change
Some of my fellow monks with whom I shared that I was writing this article commented that you certainly have had to face change lately. Although my name is Noël (pronounced like the Christmas song), this past Christmas was full of abundant changes in my monastic life. In the fall, I was a formation dean for one of the five “houses” in our seminary community. My life was extremely busy with guiding these dedicated young men while also giving retreats and spiritual direction. At 76 years, I got sick (a dangerous salt deficiency), was hospitalized and relieved of my deanship. That change was costly in many ways but proved to be a great blessing for me personally because of learning to be flexible to change. May the wise Magi teach us always to be so!