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By PAT TRAVERS
September is the month when many people of all ages experience times of transition.
For our children and young people still in school and higher education, a new academic year brings with it the end of summer vacation and new teachers, classmates, and experiences of learning. This is especially true for those who are transitioning from elementary to middle school, from middle school to high school, and from high school to college or university. For many young people, this month marks a transition from the time in school that has become so familiar to them into the world of work — the jobs that introduce a whole new way of relating to the world and to others. Other young men and women have joined the Armed Forces and have begun their introduction to the rigors of military life. For these three groups of young people, these changes in what they do might also bring about changes in where they live—frequently away for the first time from parents, siblings, and familiar surroundings. For those they leave behind — parents, especially — the departure of the young people brings with it changes in their own lives, which perhaps for many years have been focused on the raising of their children.
These transitions are, for the most part, more or less voluntary, or at least can be expected and planned for as normal developments in a person’s life. There are other transitions that are forced on us by unforeseen developments, such as serious illness, the loss of a job, or a natural disaster such as a fire, flood or earthquake. These unpredictable transitions can be even more difficult than the others, which have sometimes been planned for years in advance.
There are two elements that all these transitions have in common: an experience of ending and loss, on the one hand; and the arrival of a new beginning, accompanied by new possibilities and opportunities.
For those of us in the Christian faith tradition, the most familiar metaphor for these experiences is provided by verse 24 of the twelfth chapter of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus says: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
When we are in transition, our movement from our previous routines and patterns of life can seem very much like a death, the ending of an important part of our lives that might be very precious to us. And yet we know that, unless we experience and accept this “death,” whether it be voluntarily or involuntarily, we will not be able to encounter the possibilities and opportunities of the “resurrection” that lies before us, if only we allow it to happen. We will be like a seed that, for whatever reason, fails to grow into a plant bearing fruit and flowers: it retains its identity as a seed, but in the end is good for nothing. So it is that, while clinging to what is familiar and predictable to us is almost always the easiest and most comfortable approach in the short term, it will in the end prevent us from experiencing the possibilities that are being offered to us to grow and to contribute more fully to the lives of others.
Between the “death” and the “resurrection” of transition often exists a period of time that my late friend Father Francis Dorff, a wonderful spiritual advisor, called the “awkward in-between.” It’s the time after we have experienced the death of our old way of life, but before the new possibilities and opportunities of our new situation start to become apparent. Sometimes the hardest part of experiencing transition is navigating the disorientation and uncertainty of this “in-between” period, allowing God and the kindness of others to fill the emptiness we feel.
I personally have tended to experience transition as the “turning of a page” in the “story” of my life. Indeed, some of the biggest transitions, like leaving my life as an attorney to begin preparing for ordained priesthood, seemed more like moving between chapters or volumes of a book! By allowing those pages to turn, however hesitantly or even unwillingly, I have always found the continuation of the story to enhance and give new meaning to what went before. As we remember and pray for those who are undergoing transitions at this time of year, may we always allow the pages of our stories and the seeds of possibility in our lives to turn and grow, and help others to do so as they experience change and transition.
The Rev. Pat Travers is pastor of Holy Name Catholic Church.
Perspectives is a regular column sponsored and written by members of the Ketchikan Ministerial Association.