Monday, February 15, 2010


When Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed, in his bed, into an enormous bug.
The Metamorphosis, Kafka

“Who are you?” asked the caterpillar. “I hardly know, just at present”, replied Alice. “At least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.”
Alice In Wonderland, Carroll

Alice and the unfortunate Gregor share one thing: they are each the recipient of unwelcome and unexpected change – with all the attendant disorientation, demands for adjustment, paucity of ‘management guidelines’, and gamut of emotional response this might evoke.

As I sat in vestry this past Sunday and listened to the ebb and flow of conversation and opinion that surrounded recent events unfolding in St. James, I was struck by the intensity, diversity, and polarities of the views expressed; and equally, the capacity of sudden change to evoke in the individual, a characteristic stance likely representative of his or her unique ‘take’ on the vagaries of life itself – if that’s not too grand a proposition. Opinions ranging from the ‘save the building (at all – or nearly all – costs)’ to the ‘we are not bricks and mortar, we are community (wherever we might meet)’; and many stations in between. And so the first lesson of change: faced with crisis (or indeed, opportunity), what is one’s ‘typical’ response. Again, content aside, what do such changes as dislocation from one’s ‘comfortable pew’ teach us about ourselves? What are our attachments? Our fears?

There’s an old aphorism in my trade that goes something like: Neurosis is the logical result of applying old solutions to new problems. And its Karmic corollary: we will continue to be presented with variations on a theme (opportunities, if you will), until we get it right – think Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day. The second lesson: do we continue to do the ‘same old’ – with the same old result?

I think it’s fair to characterize the potential for a church’s roof to collapse in the face of nature’s next ‘design event’1, the ensuing necessity of moving first into the adjoining spaces of upper and lower parish halls, and now rather unceremoniously split into a ‘two-point parish’ as the functional equivalent of tumbling down the rabbit hole. The familiar touchstones of one’s customary pew and all the attendant trappings no longer exist. The comfortable routine of Sunday mornings (and a good deal else) is effectively ended. And as soothing as it might be to portray this as a ‘temporary inconvenience’, this may be at the very least naïve; at worst, a costly and unredeemable error in judgment.

As with most endings, a number of more or less predictable responses, emotional and psychological may and perhaps should occur. A process of disengagement2 may have already begun for some of us; but for many, it’s early days. The urgency to ‘restore’ (witness the somewhat euphemistic moniker of the committee charged with examining options) is very strong. It represents a return to the familiar and with it, a reassurance that this is ‘just a bad dream’ and that, once awake, we’ll be back in Kansas again. Disengagement, an integral and necessary part of the process of transitioning, requires the courageous (and distinctly ‘non-neurotic’) acknowledgement that the old, the existing is forever altered, most likely no longer available. Once daddy is glimpsed placing the presents under the tree, Santa ceases to be. Clinging to his existence may serve some purpose for a time, nostalgic mostly – but the threshold has been crossed.

To return to Kafka, for those unfamiliar with this seminal morality tale, Gregor’s family (following his unfortunate ‘change’), initially horrified and embarrassed by his transformation, make efforts to soldier on. They take jobs and accept boarders to replace the lost income resulting from his inability to work (and to support the family as he had traditionally done); they care for their son/brother; they compensate for and rationalize his presence – until his unexpected entry deprives them of their last vestige of income. Only when the family is confronted with his demise – in rather too graphic terms, when they view the corpse – are they able to accept the reality that a large (and fiscal) burden has been removed from their lives; to acknowledge that they are ‘better off’ without their resident apparition; and to viably plan for the future. The Samsa’s had ‘disengaged’.

A second and equally inevitable aspect of transitioning, disidentification, describes the confusion and uncertainty that follows the removal of the familiar outer trappings, and with it the role-identity that comes with what was – but no longer is; the now sitting in plastic in the club room versus that familiar pew in the nave. In short, who am I once the old identity is removed and I find myself a displaced St. Jamsian sitting in a Knights of Columbus Hall, having ashes imposed in Zion Lutheran. As with disengagement (the separation from the venue, the ‘building’), disidentification, (the distancing from old identities) is every bit as essential to the transformative process.

And so on to disenchantment. And this is where things get really tough. A regular reading of Michael Valpy3 is all it takes – and for that matter, lame responses from the Bishop of Toronto don’t much help (‘proximity to death is an expected state for Anglicanism’ – oh really!). A third aspect then to dealing with the ‘endings’ inherent in transition is a letting go (if that’s not too clichéd) of treasured beliefs, cherished views, sentimental and idealized perspectives. To paraphrase William Bridges in Transitions: To really change – not just switch positions – requires a realization that a significant part of one’s reality is in one’s head, not out there. And further: One needs to consider that the old view or belief may have been an enchantment cast in the past to keep one from seeing deeper into oneself. The disenchantment experience is the signal that the time has come to look below the surface of what was thought to be so (p. 101).

The significance of a compromised roof on a building in Stratford has but drawn this particular congregation’s attention to a ‘situation’, to put it mildly. To respond to this awareness with redoubled efforts to restore the status quo with ‘time-honoured’ interventions (read the ‘same old solutions’), without first considering (again in clichéd terms) the ‘big picture’ or reading the ‘writing on the wall’ is at the very least reactive and perhaps even irresponsible. Valpy’s article, which I would encourage all to read (and hopefully by the time this piece appears, will be available on our website), is but one in a growing series that have appeared over the past few years; all tracking the trajectory, together with credible explanations as to the ‘why’s’, of church life in Canada. In sum, the data show clearly that the current generation of attendees is quite likely functionally the last for the church as we know it. This, no doubt, is about as ‘disenchanting’ an awareness as one might muster. And it is increasingly doubtful that a kiss from a passing prince will break this spell.

Disorientation – the final piece of the transitioning puzzle – begs the question of ‘which way is up’; in short, how do we reorient and plan for the future. Historically, being disoriented, feeling lost, scared, and uncomfortable was an accepted part of change. Nobody welcomed it; most endured it. Our modern ways lobby strongly against allowing the discomfort that disorientation drags along with it. Instead we bounce between unbounded (and unfounded) optimism (bless Norman Vincent what’s his name) and tragic catastrophizing (‘the end is nigh’). We do our level best to ‘fix’ what’s making us unhappy – to make this ‘bad state’ go away as quickly as possible; or avoid even the thoughts of it. Disorientation is indeed the ‘dark night of the soul’ of transition, our existential crisis. And, if we’ve learned anything from the writers, thinkers, philosophers, we should have learned that we need to struggle through this stage, whether in the belly of a whale, engaged on a ten-year Odyssey, or hung on a cross. (Not surprising that I found myself thumbing through Psalm 22 the other morning.) Not just close our eyes and jump.

With endings come new beginnings. And perhaps some productive (maybe even helpful) ways of being in transition. Finding a regular time and place to be alone and reflect – imagine meditating one’s way to insight and a little deeper understanding of self! Journalling, written reflection (I suppose that’s what I’m doing as I craft this offering) may help clarify and focus thought, decision making. Simulating the journey, in individual terms, that the community is about to undertake. What does it feel like to be contemplating a project without clear fiscal parameters or defined utility, were it my journey? Taking one’s time to facilitate fully informed, understood, thoughtful decision-making – a sentiment contentiously debated at vestry. Arranging temporary structures. Resisting acting for the sake of taking action – addressing pseudo-urgency. Identifying the ‘real’ source of discomfort – separating the worry around a compromised building from the deeper, visceral angst of setting off on a journey without having one’s vehicle fully serviced and prepared. Talking – town-halling the process. And even more important, listening – hearing what’s said. Exploring the ‘other side’ of change – if not the obvious or compelling path, then what? And taking care of self in all this process.

1A sufficiently severe, natural event (heavy snowfall, ice storm, or sustained wind storm).

2Bridges, William, Transitions: MakingSense of Life’s Changes. (Addison-Wesley, 1980).

3Valpy, M, “Anglican Church Facing the Threat of Exticntion”, Globe and Mail, Feb. 9, 2010.

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