We ache to change, and yet so often fall short. We seek change in our personal lives, to become better versions of ourselves – happier, healthier and more productive. We seek change in our families and relationships – more meaningful, more connected, more life-giving. We seek change in our communities of faith – more relevant, more engaging, more caring, welcoming and nourishing.
T.S. Eliot wrote, “Between the idea and the reality…Falls the Shadow.” So often, we may begin with good intentions, yet our efforts not only fall short but create a negative space, the darkness of failure and desperation. And we may seek to turn from that shadow, convincing ourselves that the present reality is not so bad, or worse still, beginning to believe that our version of reality is not only good, but necessary and not to be challenged. As individuals, families, workplaces and communities, we protect ourselves from change, believing it as too soon, too hard, too messy or maybe even resulting in making things worse.
St Paul puts it this way. “You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’—but not everything is good for you. You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’—but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Cor 10:23)
We are allowed to stay as we are, but we know that we are always called to be more. Jesus calls us to live life to the full (John 10:10). I suspect that Jesus was not suggesting we reach some perfection at 4pm next Thursday then never have to change again. Change is a constant. Deep down, whether it be individually, relationally or communally, the question is not should we change, but how can we change to become more authentically the individual or community Christ calls us to be.
Three profound change agents have assisted many people for a great many years. While these appear to be only Lenten practises, they inform our everyday journey.
Prayer. At its deepest level, prayer is a recognition that we do not possess within our own self alone the means to change, and that there is a higher Power who cares for us, and in whom we place our trust. For those seeking to overcome addiction, these are the first steps along the path of recovery. It may sound dramatic to couch our own need for change in terms of addiction. Perhaps the test is a simple one. If we can easily change what we want to change in our personal, relational or community setting, then there is no addiction. However, if we revert to our original space, then perhaps we must admit that our present reality, however seemingly unsatisfying, holds some sway over us. To admit this, and to surrender to God, becomes an important step. For one thing, it is a recognition we are not alone, and that with God, we can begin a process of change. Our prayer may be very simple. “God, please help me. I can’t do this alone…we can’t do this alone.” This may lead us on a path of humility, seeking enlightenment and help from God and others.
Fasting. This ancient practice may seem somewhat outdated. However, fasting refers not only to refraining from food, but to fast from those areas of our lives that are diminishing us. If we possess power over another, then we may be called to sacrifice our power, enabling the other equality and self-determination. If we are clinging to victimhood, we may be called to sacrifice this status, and seek to become a survivor or agent in our own circumstance. If we crave reform, we may be called to sacrifice this passion for change and seek to encounter the goodness of our present circumstance. If we desire conformity, we may be called to sacrifice our need to preserve the present and seek to be open to new ideas and approaches. Fasting at its heart is not that interested in external diminishment of the flesh, but interior diminishment of a false ego, to enable a space for God and others to offer perspective and accompaniment out of our present quagmire. Self-assessment of areas from which we need to fast may be difficult. A trusted friend, a therapist, or allowing an independent other to assess our current approaches – individually or communally – may offer rich insights, overcoming blind spots in our own self-awareness.
Almsgiving. Giving of self is a recognition that we are not an independent agent, or independent community. The turning away from self-interest, to care for the other, to the outsider, offers a space for growth and change. It is the age-old paradox, that in giving we receive, in pardoning we are pardoned, and in dying we are born to eternal life. As individuals and communities, when we reach beyond ourselves in simple and gradually more significant ways, not patronisingly, but in a desire to be in fellowship with the other, and with creation, we become swept up in the rhythm of life, losing the desire to preserve our current space, in favour of adapting to serve in the larger sphere of God’s creation.
Prayer, fasting, almsgiving. Ancient practices, forever new in their invitation to call us to change, offering us solid foundations for renewal in our personal and communal spheres.
Richard McMahon is the Director of Pastoral Planning & Implementation for the Diocese of Parramatta.