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Commitment, Balance and Management of Change

In the Community of Celebration, one of the vows we take is stability. Concepts more familiar to religious life such as poverty, chastity and obedience seem to suggest a form of self denial, but stability is more subtle. It is less heroic, more human, more suited to the ordinary person - yet in its own way, every bit as demanding.

Commitment

So what are some of the key ideas behind the notion of stability? As we begin to live into it, we can distinguish at least three. The first is commitment. It seems to me that the meaning of this word as a strong attachment to a cause is a typically twentieth century usage. The last century was an era when commitment was praised because of the increasing lack of it in normal life. Modern development has given us options which were never dreamed of in earlier times. Thus, a degree of engagement once considered normal now requires commitment to sustain it.

In the service of Christ, commitment is needed at many different levels. Years ago, a parish priest was telling me about a friend who had become priest to a new council housing estate in Manchester, England. It was a desperate place, full of people whose own communities had been destroyed and who had no sense of community in the new. "This place needs bones," said the newly arrived priest. "I shall die here."

Few of us would consider committing ourselves to that degree. I was once involved in a discussion about whether or not it was reasonable to expect people to attend the daily offices on a regular basis. As daily offices were a normal part of community life, I remarked, "We're used to that sort of commitment". But I was surprised at the response. What seemed normal to me (and necessary to achieve such an end) was apparently not at all normal in parish life.

The nature of all Christian work is that it takes time and patience, and a willingness to give oneself over the long haul. Most of us want instant results. We give up after a few setbacks. We scrap whatever we were doing and try something else, or we simply decide that we've had enough of that and it's now time to move on. We don't want to get too involved, lest we are unable to extricate ourselves and others assume too much of us.

The classic Christian image of a seed growing speaks of the need for the stability of commitment. It only takes days to grow a blade of grass, but it takes decades to grow a strong, sturdy tree. A seed which is not watered or which is being constantly dug up will not grow into a tree. A seed which never gets the chance to put down deep roots will wither like the plants on the rocky ground in the parable of the sower. Long term commitment is essential to build anything worthwhile in the Christian life. The tree which allows the birds of the air to nest in it is not brought into being by people who dabble in Christian commitment. The implicit challenge of Christ is whether we will be part of the tree or merely one of the birds.

Commitment has two dimensions, in degree and time. In the early days of our community life, our whole lives were committed but the time frame was open ended. While the degree of commitment may determine the size of the plant, it is the stability of the long haul which will decide if the plant turns into an oak tree or, like the gourd which sheltered Jonah, flourishes overnight and then withers away. Commitment over time is the key to stability.

Balance

A second aspect of stability is balance. Most of us would subscribe to the idea that we all need a balanced life. Our Rule speaks of a balance between work, recreation, study, prayer and family life. It is not that equal amounts of time are given to all these things, but that none of them dominates to the exclusion of others. Without a balanced life, tensions and frustrations build up as real human needs are neglected or denied. Eventually something has to give. It can often be the lack of balance, or the competing claims of different priorities, which strain relationships to the breaking point.

Balance is essential to stability, but not always easy to achieve. The pressure is always to give priority to those things which seem most important. Work in particular has a habit of claiming the lion's share of our lives. In community, it may seem at times that we are only just beginning to get into our daily task when it is time to stop for one of the daily offices. Yet it is only by such deliberate choices that a true balance can be found which reflects what is really important in life.

For most of us, the idea of a balanced rhythm to life is ideal, but the choices needed to attain it are quite likely to impinge on issues of lifestyle which are real stumbling blocks. It is not necessarily as simple as watching less TV or eating a more healthy diet, or even going on retreat every now and again. Many of us are locked into careers and mortgages which make demands that cannot be set aside without a major upheaval in our lives.

That is why, in the religious life, a fundamental choice about lifestyle is made at the outset. A balanced life may be healthy, but it won't make us wealthy. On the other hand, the massively acquisitive nature of western societies is a powerful force, sucking in resources which are desperately needed in areas trapped in extremes of poverty. So a balanced life is not only healthy but something to be recommended as a Christian ideal. It is ultimately connected to questions of justice. As the Apostle Paul expressed it (citing Ex. 16:18): "he who gathered much had nothing over, and he who gathered little had no lack" (2 Cor. 8:15).

The church needs people whose lives are disciplined by the religious idea of balance, not simply in their personal lives and witness but also in their approach to Christian ministry. One way of understanding Jesus' dealings with Pharisees, and his making room for the outcasts, is to see it as restoring that charism to a situation that was hopelessly skewed. He did not dismiss religious agendas, but made sure that need rather than politics was the governing factor.

Management of Change

A third element of stability concerns the management of change. One might imagine that stability implies the minimum of change, but it is in fact a dynamic concept. Stability in Christ is not the stability of a stone pillar. The Body of Christ is a living organism, about which there has been an enormous amount of teaching in our community life over the years. The stability of a living body is a different order of stability than that of the stone statue.

A living body is constantly changing. It has to, or it will die. It is not even like a machine, whose parts operate in constant, predictable patterns. A body is highly sensitive to its environment and to the changes taking place within it. It is constantly growing and evolving, replacing cells which die, and so on. Change and adjustment are part of what it means to be alive. But change can also get out of control. Cancer is a form of uncontrolled growth in cells. In emergencies, the aim of hospitals is to bring the patient to a stable condition. Change is essential for stable health, yet it also needs to be managed.

Over the years, we have learned a good deal in community life about change. In early days, change was seen as a response to the Spirit. Feel a change a-comin', went the words of a song, and that was how it was. My own family changed household on average about every three or four months in the first few years of community life. It made for an incredibly dynamic life which at times was exhilarating. But it was also inherently unstable.

What we learned was that the willingness to change was a vital aspect of following the Spirit. We also learned not to put limits on the kind of change we would tolerate. It eventually became apparent that for long term stability, change needed to be more orderly. In the name of following the Spirit, the old communities expanded, relocated and split up. Later we learned the value of a more institutional framework and a regular rhythm to life.

How we relate to change, therefore, is crucial in establishing a dynamic stability. The problems of an institution are self evident: traditions and practices become so entrenched that change is impossible, even when it is the difference between life and death. Individuals can become locked into roles and jobs which are untouchable. Yet a return to uncontrolled change is not the way to health. In a vow of stability there must always be a willingness to confront institutional inertia when it becomes evident that change is necessary for the long term health and growth of the body.

Is this notion of stability relevant to ordinary church life? We think it is. Commitment, balance and the willingness to manage change are not easy options, as anyone will find out when they begin to work through the underlying meaning of stability. They will draw from us all our resources for Christian discipleship. That is why, to strengthen our resolve, we take a vow. But we believe these matters are for all the church, not only for those in religious communities. Wherever we are, we look for those kindred spirits.

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