Communities of Transformation
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When I was invited to come to the Monastery to test my vocation as a postulant, I received a packing list. It was sparse. In part, there is simply a limitation on space. I used to have a one-bedroom apartment with all the furnishings of home. Moving into a new home, which I would be sharing with a dozen others, meant that there were some things I didn’t need, some things that just didn’t fit, and some things that I would learn to live without. These were all outer manifestations of inward dispositions as well. To enter this community meant that there would be some things I didn’t need to provide for myself, some that just didn’t fit in this particular configuration, and some ways of being that were superfluous to this life. I never got the sense that I had to pretend to be something I’m not, but there has been an ongoing negotiation of learning what belonging to a community of transformation is like and how it will ask me to grow and change.
A sense of belonging often conjures up feelings of acceptance, unconditional love, being “at home.” Those are healing balms for anyone, and especially for those who have felt marginalized and isolated, even shunned. If you’ve ever “found your people” or discovered a “chosen family” you know what this feels like.
We are invited to know this kind of belonging in our life with God. Belonging is at the heart of the promises of Christ who said, “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). The completeness of Jesus’ loving embrace cannot be overestimated. Jesus’ own parables describe God who searches, and seeks, and scours to bring everyone home and every part of them back into his love. And yet, his is not a static, fixed embrace that leaves us unchanged. In fact, Jesus first pointed to the transformation of a grain of wheat that falls to the earth and dies so that it bears much fruit (John 12:24). It is only by planting, entrusting the seed to the earth and the process of transformation, that it is able to become more than just a single grain. Jesus doesn’t wait for us to be perfected before he accomplishes the work of reconciliation, but he reconciles us first so that we may be transformed into the creation we were always meant to be.
Entrusting ourselves to that kind of transformation is a daunting and risky prospect. Being accepted and loved are the first and foundational conditions that have to be in place if a person can endure the pangs of growing into new life. There are true horror stories of people whose lives have been traumatized and deformed by violent forces which imposed their will on them under the guise of formation, training, or development. It’s no wonder that many people are suspicious of anything that smacks of a requirement to change, to leave something behind, or to choose to go without. And yet, that is part of the invitation of stepping into God’s love. Certain things simply cannot abide in God’s loving presence. Some appetites and desires, wrongly directed, will block us from God’s love. They must be transformed and brought into their true likeness if they are to persist.
A captivating image of this kind of transformation comes in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. He shares an imaginative vision of the afterlife, in which the people from earth find themselves getting off a bus at the foot of a mountain. As they progress upward, the passengers instantly become aware of how physically insubstantial they are, like mere shadows. As they try to walk along the grass it feels hard and unyielding to their wispy feet. They find that those who have progressed up the mountain have become substantial and bright. And these bright spirits come to help the new arrivals on their journey farther up and further in. Each of the new arrivals faces some barrier to their progress, usually tied to a disordered attachment, a misunderstanding of how life on the mountain works.
In a particular vignette, one of the new arrivals appears to be carrying a lizard on a leash like a little pet that he wants to keep with him. The lizard has since been interpreted as the man’s lust, but it could really be any little pet sin that we know isn’t the kind of thing that can go up the mountain, yet which we have a hard time letting go of. The bright spirit approaches the man, offering a solution. He will kill the lizard for the man but only with his permission. All manner of excuses are offered about why the lizard doesn’t need to be killed: he’ll behave; look he’s asleep; I’m just not feeling well right now; maybe if you had just killed him without me knowing. The lizard tries to ingratiate itself to the man by promising to behave, questioning how he could possibly live apart from his pet. But, in the end, the man concedes to the bright spirit, whimpering, “God help me, God help me.”
When the bright spirit finally closes his burning hands around the lizard, the man groans and shrieks with pain. The bright spirit tells him that it will hurt, but it won’t kill him. Finally, the lizard lies dead on the ground and just when the observers think the end has arrived, the man suddenly begins to grow solid and splendid like all the other bright spirits. Liberated from his pet he finally takes the form he was destined for. And not only that, but what once was the shameful lizard grows bright and solid as a golden stallion to gloriously gallop the man up the mountain.
I’m captivated by the full arc of transformation this man experiences. The fear, denial, and negotiation are so palpable; as is the thrill and surprise of a resolution that is more than we can ask or imagine. Lewis’ playful description of resurrection and redemption mirrors so well the notion of life-long conversion that is a hallmark of the Religious Life. Although this was framed as a single event, I think it’s exactly the kind of transformation that we can expect in a community of sanctification; that is, a community with the intent of utilizing the crucible of life together as the conduit to further purify and strengthen its members.
Transformation is a process that may repeat over and over as new levels of integration are reached. Some moments may be more painful than others, and the progress may not be strictly linear, but the transformation is palpable. Our Rule of Life speaks directly of this sort of pain when it says, “we expect emotional and spiritual trials to be part of the experience of the novitiate; many stages of genuine transformation are marked by experiences of confusion and loss.” What we also say in our community is that the taking of vows only sets us on the path of an ongoing and unending novitiate. We are never done transforming, no matter how far along the path we come.
I can confirm that the novitiate can bring deeply felt, unexpected challenges. I was clothed as a novice in our community on the first Sunday that we were closed to the public, in March 2020, at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic. So many of the natural aspects of learning to grow into conversion of life were super-heated for me in the crucible experience of the pandemic. While my context may have been unique, I know I am not alone in this experience. Many people experienced the pandemic as a sort of cage that forced them to confront and work through – rather than deny and avoid – the interior struggles that made themselves known. This is exactly the kind of opportunity that allows anyone confronting a new way of being, to do the hard work of transformation. And, in so doing, to set new patterns for engaging when life presents new trials of spiritual growth. The novitiate isn’t meant to simply end when a sufficient level of harrowing has occurred. It inaugurates a perpetual stance of readiness to adapt.
And this ongoing novitiate is entirely meant to be lived in the context of a community of belonging. Which is to say that a person will need help and support, just as the man on the mountain did. Community like this is more than a simple affinity group; it offers a way of becoming more fully who God has created us to be. It is also a risky venture. There are several critical components to engender such a community of transformation, namely: trust, solidarity, and compassion.
Now, most of you reading this will not be members of a religious community. You will not have entered into a formal novitiate. And yet, your ongoing life of transformation in Christ is also an “ongoing novitiate” of sorts. And so too do you have communities of transformation waiting to support you. You are likely already situated in some network of community where all of this can happen. Family is perhaps the closest example: a grouping of people bonded together, of various ages, abilities, and temperaments. But, in a family, not everyone may share the same values. Different life experiences will color their attitudes. Even birth order will shift the perspective of siblings. It’s always fascinating to me the way my sister, three years younger, can have memories of the same events I recall, but painted with a completely different palette. Workplaces, teams, music groups, and other communities are the fertile ground for mixing with those with whom we find ourselves in friction and with those who can support us in reaching new levels of integration and wholeness through transformation.
Communities are complicated ecosystems. There is risk involved in belonging, and it should not be counted as failure when inevitable frictions appear. Varied levels of trust will always exist between members of a community. It may not be possible that all members of a community will be able to support a person equally, but having a few trusted people is vital for each of us. In fact, the intimacy and vulnerability required for this kind of transformation can usually only be shared with a few others at a time. Everyone in the community can lend their prayerful support, and a few are needed to be present in more deeply intimate ways. These intimates need to be able to offer solidarity in the face of the trials and pain involved in transformation; not stoic detachment, nor enmeshed co-dependence, but a solidarity of spirit that is willing to acknowledge the reality of the suffering and abide throughout. They should also be able to affirm and mirror the victories won along the way. This kind of solidarity refuses to put someone through an ordeal that they have not successfully navigated or that they are unprepared to support in its duration. Too many forms of coercion and abuse have been perpetrated by those who demand others undergo a process of change that they would not choose for themselves.
There is a blessed hope in belonging to a community of transformation. Although it presents certain limits, like that packing list I received, it also offers a trajectory of increasing freedom and generosity. My Brothers often present me with opportunities for transformation in the form of what seems like regular human friction. They are also the source of support and healing for me. If I had not had particular Brothers to lean on and trust during difficult, confusing, and painful times of disillusionment and conflict, I would not have had the fortitude and resolve to actually confront my own dispositions and let God transform them. I would likely have chosen an easier, softer way that offered accommodation and comfort, but not healing and growth. The process of transformation is inherently uncomfortable. It’s a process of tearing down and building up, like working out a muscle or training to play an instrument. Like so many things, the effort pays dividends in the end.
Are there people with whom you find yourself at odds, or who challenge your worldview? Rather than dismiss or avoid them, you may consider how they offer an opportunity for you to reflect on your own responses, challenge your own patterns, and consider new ways of engaging. Conversely, look for support in those people who can do more than just commiserate with you, but really trudge through alongside you to the path of transformation. It’s entirely possible that in your constellation of relationships people will alternately fill both roles. Finding our guides up the mountain will help us to discover the courage to face the difficult experience of crucifixion and resurrection; dying to old ways of being and adopting new life. Belonging to a community of transformation offers more than the sum of its parts. It is a foretaste of the unending dance of the communion of saints and the self-giving love of the Trinity.
Wonderfully written and preached! I loved the C.S. Lewis illustration- it reminded me of Henri Nouwen’s description of the struggle of a woman tightly holding a coin as she was struggling against opening her hand. He thought that learning to open ones hand to release what is being held so tightly as the beginning of prayer. I appreciate your description “community of sanctification” and your message. You have given us a gift to unpack throughout the Advent weeks ahead.
Hope all is well in Cambridge!
Todd – as a novitiate myself, I find your writing timely, insightful and relatable. Thank you, thank you!
Thank you so very much for this honest account. It gives us the courage to trust and go forward along our pilgrimage.
Thank you Br. Todd. So nice to read this reflection on this life. And I love the mountain/afterlife.
Have a wonderful advent.