by Steve Doughty
Over the years I have been much nurtured by a band of persons I regard as “the holy resilient.” When subjected to the fiercest pressures of change, the holy resilient do not just endure or bounce back. They become more: more compassionate, deeper, simpler in their desires, and more focused in how they use their time. Resilience for them is not a matter of getting back to normal, nor is it about adjusting as well as they can. It is about transformation. It is about moving beyond where they were at the start of the change. It is about becoming new persons. This is so whether change broke upon them through a diagnosis, a pink slip, an unexpected phone call, or a technological innovation that wiped out cherished patterns of working with others.
Words of others confirm what I see in the holy resilient. “Joe is so much more thoughtful now.” “Sarah has a stillness I never knew in her before.” “The crisis is over for them, but Tamara and Tom live with so much more trust and courage than they had before it all began.” Those speaking such words are moved by what they see.
What I ultimately find in these people is a kind of holiness. Most of them would blush at this suggestion. They remain as down-to-earth as ever. They still laugh some days, weep others, wear out, get cranky, and, more often than they wish, have to say, “I’m sorry.” But through the fires of change they have opened to something new. It is taking hold. It shows in their courage, their patience, and their new freedom. It sings in the widening circles of their love. Whether they articulate the matter or not, they are putting on Christ.
Such holy resilience shines forth from groups as well as individuals. Now and again a congregation, a religious order, or a small fellowship that has gone along the same way for ages, finds its back to the wall. Instead of collapsing or cooking up some way to hang on for another decade, it enters the dark uncertainty of change. After much struggle, it emerges bearing new life for its members and for people all around.
As I think on the holy resilient, I find myself wondering how they do it. What aids them? How do they open themselves for such growth? In answer, the holy resilient steadily offer me two gifts. First, they show a sacred rhythm I can learn from. Secondly, they pose a cluster of questions I can use in my own seasons of change.
The rhythm of the holy resilient is twofold. It is the rhythm of releasing and taking hold. Sometimes with ease, often with struggle, these people let go. They may have to abandon long cherished dreams, set aside life patterns that are harmful, or jettison practices that once worked well for them but no longer do. Valued relationships, joy-giving activities, routines as steady as tying a shoe or teaching the same class one more time may be gone forever. Justifiably, those letting go may be angered by the change that has swept upon them. Grief, confusion, or naked fear may darken their days. They do not, however, let such matters pronounce the final word.
The holy resilient take hold. This may demand much time, but it happens. With wisdom and often much prayer, they take hold of any fresh graces they see growing both around them and within themselves. They do this not in a forced effort to look on the bright side but to seek new glimmerings of God’s love; they know that even through the darkest Gethsemanes God can lead us to new life.
An image of resilience that grew over many years hovers in my mind. It instructs me in letting go and taking hold. I see a young man. I look at him through my eyes as a child. “He’s your uncle,” I have just been told. Thick black hair frames his smiling face. He is trim and athletic. He laughs a lot, calls me “Stevie.” Half a century later I fly to Virginia for the last of our by now countless visits. He lies in bed. His muscled body has become a sack, his hair gone glacier white. The disease has silenced his voice. His eyes, though, shine. He has let go of much during the last five years. Some say he has let go of everything, but that is not so. He has held ever more wholly to love. A smile claims his entire face as we part. He gazes at me and the gaze is a burning fire. Twelve years have passed. I still feel the warmth.
Another image claims my attention. This time it is communal, and it too stretches over years. I see a formal black-and-white photo taken in the 1950s. Forty-five young women, all beaming, stand in front of the immense four-story structure that is their home while they discern whether to take their final vows of religious life. “This place buzzed with us then!” an older voice said as I studied the picture hanging on the wall in front of us. “So many came here each year, novices, just beginning. That was the ministry. They’d take us in and teach us and love us!” The sister turned and started slowly down the hall. I joined her. We walked in silence, thinking gratefully on the same thing. The place still buzzed! Not with the sounds of novices, but with people of the surrounding city: men coming on retreats, caregivers prayerfully seeking renewal, ecumenical groups worshiping every Wednesday of Lent and Advent, clusters of people passionately addressing issues of the environment and social justice. And all these were still welcomed, taught, and loved by that community of nuns.
As I drove home that afternoon I thought on the community’s simple, daring rhythm. Over the years its members let go of nearly everything, including any claims to control their future. What they held to was the one thing that mattered: their charism, their special call to host, teach, and love others in Christ’s name. Finding how to live that call amid great change had been a struggle. The loving buzz now echoing through that venerable building spoke volumes about how life-giving this struggle turned out to be.
Whenever I see the holy resilient, they humble me. The roots of their rhythm are as demanding as they are deep. They reach back to one who began his ministry by releasing any claim to worldly power and ended it yielding his life on the cross. Doing this, he took hold of life rich beyond imagining and now offers it to us all. The rhythm of the holy resilient is Jesus’ sacred, life-giving rhythm. I see this, and I wonder all the more, “How do these people do it? How do they find the way?” Here I encounter their second gift.
When I must live with change, the holy resilient offer me questions that have been of help to them. Whether they always asked these questions outright, I do not know. I am certain, however, that on some level of their being, they dealt with them. If I am to live faithfully with change, I must take up the questions myself. I suspect the holy resilient have dealt with the questions the way I have to: repeatedly. We can only absorb so much at once, and clarity often comes slowly. I take comfort in assuming that the holy resilient do not treat the questions in some tidy order but jump back and forth the way I do. On rough days, I suspect they may even confront all the questions in a jumble.
The questions apply equally to personal and communal change. Each invites much prayer, both for discerning the answers and for living the answers once they come. I offer them in gratitude to those whose holy resilience declares how life-expanding these questions can be.
1. What must I/we let go of?
Even asking this question can be painful. The answers are seldom better. They point to everything from abilities we cherish, to comfortable ways of ambling along, to life itself. Demanding as these circumstances may be, this much is clear: only if we ask the question, and only if we seek God’s grace to act on the answers, will we grow in new ways.
2. In the midst of this change that is taking place, what abides?
It can be helpful to pause periodically and make a list. What continues when so much is altered? Is it my capacity to love? Is it the Loving One I turn to in prayer, even though sometimes my prayers are angry or confused? Do special memories endure and bless me with their presence? Is some larger purpose I/we long valued now inviting renewed attention? The question “What abides?” restores perspective. It also opens us to added dimensions of growth.
3. What of Christ am I/are we invited to put on?
As followers of Jesus, we are to be transformed by him. We are to seek the fruits of the Spirit he sends and to grow into him who is the head of the body we share (Rom. 12:1-2, Gal. 5:22-23, Eph. 4:15-16). So is it patience we most need to put on during this particular time of change? Or is it kindness? Generosity? Faithfulness? Love? During a confusing change in my life a friend counseled, “What grows within you during this time may be more important than all the changes whipping about you.” He knew that however great the outward changes may be, the most hallowed transformations often come within.
4. What fresh glimpses of God’s grace do I/we see amid all that is going on?
We may quickly find answers to this question. We may have to ask it for a very long time. Either way, as we live with change it is important to remain sensitive to the tiniest signs of God’s fresh blessings. Something as simple as another person’s smile can remind us we are not alone. The idea that strikes us out of the blue or the need we suddenly spot in our neighborhood can open us to whole new ways of living and reaching forth.
5. What models of faithful change can I/we look to?
We need to ask this question not just in the midst of change but also when everything seems settled. What people do we know, and what groups have we seen, that grew through change? What kinds of change did they face? What lessons do they teach us? If we watch for models along the way, we are more prepared when our turn comes. We have already spotted a few well-chosen guides.
6. How might what I am/we are learning help others?
This question turns us outward. The changes we deal with may consume all our energy while they are taking place. Ultimately, though, the lessons we learn along the way are not just for us. Nor is any growth we undergo. To be attentive to how our experience may help others is not prideful. It is an act of compassionate remembering. It is recalling how God has helped us in a multitude of ways and then remaining sensitive to how what we have received may aid others. It means being prayerfully open to a word we might speak, an encouragement we might offer, or a span of time we might give.
When I think on this last question, I remember the holy resilient who have helped me. I am reminded of how humble and completely natural they are. They call no attention to themselves. Rather, they point to a growth that perhaps even they did not anticipate. I realize I need to keep watching them. They shall, I am sure, always have much to teach.
Who are the holy resilient people in your life, and what gifts have they brought to you?
From “Gifts from the Holy Resilient” by Steve Doughty. Published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, February/March/April 2013, Vol. 28, No. 2. Copyright © 2013 by The Upper Room.
Photography by Jason Weingardt / Unsplash