We’ve been looking at transitions of people during a change of job, a change of location and the arrival of children. The Bible alerts us to the many spiritual possibilities in these changes. Pope St. John Paul II (in I Will Give You Shepherds) and the US Conference of Bishops in (The Basic Plan for Ongoing Formation) indicate that elements of temptation, the assurance of grace, and the invitation to discernment will inevitably be present.
The changes we have discussed alter life patterns, routines, and expectations. Everything is shaken up. This is a ripe time for temptation. Change of job or location assignment marks a loss. One might have to leave hard-earned accomplishments and successes behind. There is the formidable prospect of having to start all over again. One might realize how much more there was to do. A person can suffer an abiding sense of unfinished business. In either case, temptation arrives as a pull to discouragement and to lose heart.
One can also be tempted not to face reality. Avoiding change can manifest itself as an unwillingness to adapt to a new situation. This inclination of inflexibility can tempt one to an unproductive form of anger. This is sometimes compounded by a sense of injustice. If one feels treated unfairly in the process, past hurts can emerge at the time of transition to fuel a spirit of resentment.
Finally, a very human and understandable temptation is to fear. Change uncovers our fragility and vulnerability. Nevertheless, this is the fear that Jesus frequently seeks to dispel in his disciples. In the Gospels, we hear him say to disciples, “Do not be afraid.” This is the exact phrase that St. Pope John Paul II uttered as he first appeared on the Vatican balcony after his election as Pope.
The change of assignment, a new job or the arrival of children is also an occasion of grace. God’s presence is more manifest and when we recognize that we move not simply by our own power but in virtue of the one who loves us. The primary grace of this kind of change is participation in the paschal mystery of the Lord. The change that implies loss includes a kind of dying. It also affords a promise and an invitation to new life.
Another grace is the opportunity to renew one’s commitment. Shifting circumstances in a marriage—a first child, a new job, a death in the family, the empty nest, the aging process— offer an occasion of renewal of the commitment of a couple. So too, priests’ shifts of circumstance occasioned by a different assignment become an occasion of grace for renewing commitment. This is a chance to take up one’s ministry and life with new deliberateness.
Contemporary resources can lighten the load of such transitions. People in transition may avail themselves of the help afforded by Christ-centered psychology. People can seek out advice from people who have gone this pathway before. Life coaches and mentors can offer perspective and encouragement. This can be beneficial. This help, however, is insufficient. Another dimension is faith. We believe our lives are more than the sum of biological, psychological, and sociological processes. They are a journey to God. Discernment enables us to identify and embrace our lives of journey to God by viewing events and movements in faith.
Discernment starts with personal prayer and a dialogue with a trusted spiritual director, mentor, confessor or prayer partner. This conversation can uncover or discover the meaning of the change or transition in terms of one’s relationship with God. The shape and dimensions of one’s relationship with God are not always evident. Discernment reads events with the eyes of faith. How does such a transition bear on our relationship with God? How might it draw us closer to God? What response is being summoned from us?
Another discernment has to do with “detachment.” Every movement forward in the spiritual journey is also a departure, a letting go. What do we need to leave behind or jettison? Some detachment may clearly and easily be identified because it involves external realities. A more subtle and significant invitation to inner detachment might exist from reluctance, fear, or old securities. This detachment is “apostolic” because it connects closely with our “mission” in life.
The discernment process may touch on very practical matters. Although one is called to detachment and departure, some continuity and connection can remain. To what extent? In what way? For how long? Human wisdom offers a perspective on these questions. God’s holy wisdom offers another perspective that enables us to identify God’s will and direction.
Programmatic Responses to Transitions
Healthy transition does not create itself. Something programmatic needs to be in place to address the event, the tasks, the challenges, and the discernment that are part of this transition process. Four essential ingredients can help: (1) Sharing the experience, (2) Apt solitude and silence, (3) Appropriate breaks, and (4) Follow-up.
Sharing of Experience. In large measure, managing the transition process belongs to the individual. It should not be done in isolation. Sharing experiences with other priests, religious, parents, couples, friends or colleagues can contextualize one’s particular journey. It can draw strength and support from others. It offers comfort. It also offers an opening to be challenged when necessary. Confession and spiritual guidance from a priest religious or prayerful lay person is also a necessary component.
Apt Solitude. Although solitude cannot be programmed, the conditions for it can be arranged. In solitude and quiet, a person can notice what is happening in their vocation, their occupation, their ministry and their life. In solitude a person can move beyond managing the transition. They can allow themselves to be carried by the love of God and the faith of the people they serve. In solitude one can arrive at a stable center in Jesus Christ who is beyond all change.
Appropriate Breaks. In addition to solitude, breaks for refreshment, healthy entertainment and recreation need to be scheduled. Sabbaticals (if possible) are an appropriate break in the transition process. Extended periods of study, prayer, and rest between assignments are necessary. Sometimes, a retreat, an extended vacation, can create space in the transition and be useful. Whatever the form, and that will vary according to individual circumstance, appropriate breaks are essential to engage the formational process that is latent in transitions.
Follow-Up. Finally, it is helpful to have a designated person (or persons), in place to accompany a person in transition. The designated person can offer encouragement and provide some challenge to the person in transition. He may also help to identify and facilitate the need for time away on vacation or on retreat. Most importantly, the designated person can remind the person in transition that what is happening is a holy moment, a part of the Church’s larger mission and an offer of grace. As noted earlier, accountability to Christ, the Church, the bishop, and the people served must mark the process of growing in and through the transitional process.