By L. Roger Owens
As I shared the news with Larry, my spiritual director, he could hear excitement in my voice and see enthusiasm in my gestures. I was telling him about our new pastoral appointment: my wife and I, who had co-pastored a rural church for three years, would be moving in a few months to become the pastors of an urban congregation in a city we loved. We were ecstatic, and Larry’s office was a place where I did not need to contain my joy.
As usual, he joined me in my thanksgiving. But he also gave me gentle advice. He pointed to a small, handmade sign fastened by a magnet to his metal filing cabinet. In a frame painted by his granddaughter were three words drawn in the broad strokes of a preschooler: “Keep in touch.”
A memento from his granddaughter became a word for me.
Larry knew I was entering a period of transition, a time between times. I was still a pastor in my current congregation, but my imagination had leapt over the next few months and was already inhabiting the future. His gesturing to those three simple words was a reminder to maintain a contemplative grounding in the present. Remember, you are still here, he was saying. Don’t lose touch with now. You are still these people’s pastor. Don’t leave them, and don’t leave this place, yet. In other words, keep in touch.
We live in a culture of innumerable and overlapping transitions. We are always, it seems, coming or going, or both. The transitions are myriad: a new marriage, the birth of a child, a divorce, relocation, a newly empty nest, a new job or the loss of one, a grown child moving back home, retirement, a move to a retirement community or a nursing home, the death of a loved one. Our culture itself is transitioning just as rapidly, undergoing what sociologists call “discontinuous change.” It never stops. We cannot escape transition.
The most common language for helping us with transition is the language of managing. We are told we need to manage transitions. At its best, the language of “managing” invites us into an awareness that transition is deeper than change, so that we are not blindsided by transition’s emotional, psychological, and spiritual upheavals.1 Unfortunately, it’s not at its best very often. More often the language of “managing” plays into the myth that we are in control of our lives, and it offers our false selves the assurance that with the right insights and skills we can take charge of our transitions so they won’t take charge of us.
Larry was offering me a different path into transition than the one our culture offers. He was inviting me to experience deeply this period of transition by rejecting the seemingly safer path of good management, and instead staying attentive to the present with my full physical and spiritual senses. Transition is a ripe time to recognize the work of God in our lives. It’s also one of the easiest times to miss the work of God, distracted as we might be by fantasies about what’s up the road, or blinded by a desire to maintain the illusion of control in the midst of change. Larry was inviting me, in a period of transition, to do what contemplatives have always known to do: receive the sacrament of the present moment, for that sacrament’s grace tastes particularly sweet during times of transition.
Transition is a ripe time to recognize the work of God in our lives.
I wasn’t able, at that time, to grasp and live fully the wisdom of those words, “keep in touch.” Since then, however, I’ve had a number of other transitions, most significantly the death of my father and the birth of my third child—chances to practice the wisdom of these words. So when my family recently moved again, this time to another state so that I could start teaching at a seminary, I was ready to pull out those words again and receive the gift of them. And here’s what they told me: keep in touch in three ways—with the people around you, with your truest self, and with God.
Larry was helping me to see that, until I moved, I was still a member of this community; I was their pastor. He knew well what we all know, that we can be with people without being with them. Fear, anxiety, or excitement about what’s coming up can blind us to the people around us, the real flesh-and-blood people of the present with whom our lives are linked. So this time when I moved, I did my best to keep in touch with the people around me. I brought the names and faces of my parishioners into my times of prayer. I walked the church halls more slowly and kept my office door open, inviting interruption. I sat more often with my children and lingered in their rooms at bedtime; for they, too, along with my wife, were people in my life I could have ignored in the tidal wave of transition.
How easy it is to imagine we are already there, to imagine how our new colleagues will be better than our current ones (wittier, more competent), how our new neighbors will be more agreeable than our current ones (friendlier, quieter), how, if we are ministers, our new parishioners will be more faithful than our current ones (more regular attenders, tithers). When we do this we miss the gift that comes with keeping in touch with those around us now, the gift to which St. Patrick’s breastplate attests: that Christ is in the eyes and ears of those who see and hear us, that God encounters us through the people who inhabit the landscape of our lives.
In the eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus turns to Jerusalem, a transition time in his ministry evident in the repetition of the phrase “on the way”—Jesus is now on the way to Jerusalem and the cross. And it’s precisely during these crucial few chapters that he invests in his disciples, teaching them more intently than at any other time. A great tribulation awaits him, but he stays attentive to his community and to whoever crosses his path.
On the way, when the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest, Jesus took a little child in his arms and told the disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Mark 9:37). I like to think that Jesus wasn’t just using the child as an object lesson, but was demonstrating the very hospitable attentiveness he expects of his followers to the ones in our lives we can easily overlook, especially in times of transition.
My in-laws were helping us pack. They were outside doing more work than anyone should have asked or expected of them. I walked inside to get lunch. I loaded my plate with leftovers and put it in the microwave. “My folks will want some of that, so don’t take so much, please,” my wife said to me.
“Have they asked for some? Did they say they wanted it?”
“No,” she said, “that’s not how they work.”
“Well, that’s not my fault,” I said, slamming the microwave door in anger. I marched out of the house, got into the car, and drove away. In almost eleven years of marriage, I’d never driven away in anger.
Once I calmed down, I was able to register surprise: Where did that come from? How did it sneak up on me? The anger seemed to have come out of nowhere, but with some thought I was able to see that it had been building gradually, alongside the growing stress and anxiety of an imminent move.
But I was out of touch. I was not paying attention to my truest self, living out of my deepest identity “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Instead, my false self was given free reign, the self that feeds off of anger, fear, and anxiety; the self that could easily become bitter about my in-laws’ presence even when they were there to help; the self that was annoyed by their typical southern reticence. Driving around in the car, calming down, I saw Larry in my mind, pointing to that handmade sign: keep in touch. I knew I hadn’t been doing it, but I was going to start.
There are practices that can help us keep in touch with ourselves, like the daily examen; they are helpful all the time, but even more so during times of transition. In the examen we look reflectively at our day, paying special attention for moments of consolation and desolation—periods of stillness and peace, periods of fear and anxiety. The practice is done in the conviction that, as Paula D’Arcy has said, “God comes to you disguised as your life.”2 Your whole life, so it’s worth paying attention. Practices like the examen don’t help us manage our transitions, but they do help us keep in touch with our very selves. They help us remain open to receive the full gift of transition.
There are few times when we are more likely to abandon our spiritual practices than during the turmoil of transition. And, there are few times they are more necessary.
Our spiritual practices—like lectio divina, corporate worship, spiritual direction, and silence, among others—keep us available to the presence and action of God’s Spirit in our lives. During times of transition, when the false self is particularly vulnerable because its illusion of control is unmasked, maintaining our practices of staying with God, open and receptive to God’s presence and work, is crucial.
God works in our transitions. God worked in the people of Israel, laying the foundation of their life with God as a people, while they wandered in the wilderness for forty years. In times of transition, whether a physical move or a transition in our spiritual lives like a dark night of the soul, God’s Spirit can be at work helping us discern who we are and who God is. Our job is to stay available to that Spirit. Carmelite nun Ruth Burrows has written, “On our side prayer is simply being there: open, exposed, inviting God to do all God wants.”3 Our practices and disciplines help us to be there. We keep in touch with God by being available for God to keep in touch with us.
Before I moved, I said goodbye to Larry, knowing my out-of-state move would require me to find a new spiritual director. But after I moved, he suggested that we continue spiritual direction over the phone for at least six months. He knew that I keep in touch with God’s own keeping-in-touch best through the practice of spiritual direction. It made little sense, when everything else in my life was changing, to look for a new spiritual director at the same time. Transition was the time to stay with the practice, not to change it.
I’m well into my new place now, settling in to new home, job, and church family. The once foreign streets, hilly and winding, are increasingly familiar. The rough waves of transition have calmed. But I’m realizing something: while we have these clear transitions in our lives, each moment marks a transition as well, the present moment always moving into the next, each step a transition into a new present. “Every step an arrival,” in the words of poet Denise Levertov.4 And so the wisdom of those three words, keep in touch, is not just wisdom for identifiable times of transition; it’s wisdom for the whole of life. It’s wisdom for living in touch with the ever-present One, by keeping in touch with others, our truest selves, and the practices that keep us in touch with the God who longs to keep in touch with us.
Recall a period of transition in your life. What spiritual practices sustained you during that time?
From “Keep in Touch: Contemplative Wisdom for Times of Transition” by Roger Owens. Published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, February/March/April 2015, Vol. 30, No. 2. Copyright © 2015 by The Upper Room.
1 William Bridges in Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (New York: Perseus, 1993) popularized this language and is an example of it at its best.
2 Quoted in Richard Rohr, “Epiphany: You Can’t Go Home Again,” St. Anthony Messenger, http://www.americancatholic.org/messenger/jan2001/feature3.asp.
3 Ruth Burrows OCD, The Essence of Prayer (Mahwah, NJ: HiddenSpring, 2006), 28.
4 Denise Levertov, “Overland to the Islands,” in Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 2002), 7.
Photography by Timothy Flippo / Unsplash