Volume 19 Number 6
Life of Change
01 December 2006
Mary Lean reflects on a major upheaval in her life.
'YOU MUST have seen a lot of changes in your time?' the visitor asked the ancient churchwarden. 'Yes,' he replied, 'and I've opposed every one of them!'
I can identify with that. I hate change. It makes me edgy, fearful and insecure— particularly if I don't know where it is leading.I'm the sort who likes to know what I'm doing. If it's not broke, don't fix it. And if it is broke, don't tell me.
So it was a surprise to find myself, almost exactly a year ago, deciding that the time was coming for me to stop editing For A Change—even though that might mean the end of the magazine in its present form.
The decision has been a long time coming, and was, of course, bound up with such practical factors as staffing and funding issues, and falling subscriptions. At the same time visits to our website were mushrooming: a fact which has led to the decision to relaunch the magazine as an internet publication.
But it was also tied up with my personal journey.
I have hardly missed an issue since For A Change was launched 19 years ago. Although the magazine was not my idea, it quickly became my baby. I was (and am) passionate about bearing witness to the points of light and hope in the world, which are as real—but much less reported—than the darkness. I've always seen this as something more than a job: a calling from God, to whom I gave my life 35 years ago.
The magazine also, to a large extent, became my identity. Any criticism or suggestion felt personal. So when, two years ago, it was suggested that its days might be numbered, I was incandescent. At the same time, my life was beginning to take a new direction. In 1999, I had taken part in a .week of accompanied prayer' in my local community, a form of retreat in the midst of everyday life. Each day I met with a trained spiritual director, who helped me to edge towards a deeper relationship with God. At the time I felt as if I was poised on the top of a cliff, about to leap into something completely new.
After the week was over, I went on seeing my director, who continued to listen with huge patience to my inner circlings. She was trained in the tradition of St Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who has been described as the first psychologist—a man with a deep understanding of the forces, both internal and external, which pull good people away from serving God with true inner freedom. Out of his own experience of seeking God, Ignatius developed his Spiritual Exercises, a programme of prayer and meditation which can be undertaken on a total immersion basis during a 30-day silent retreat, or spread out over several months alongside one's daily life.
I embarked on the second form of the Spiritual Exercises in 2000, and they changed my life, opening my heart and mind to the God who loves me as I am and longs for me to fulfil my full potential, and to a rediscovery of Jesus, the person at the heart of my Christian faith. The experience set me on a path which has led me to get training in how to accompany people in their journey of faith.
One of the things Ignatius was particularly keen on was letting go of inordinate attachments'—the non-negotiables that we put between ourselves and God. The first step is often to recognise that one has these attachments and to be real about them: to admit to God that there are limits to what one is prepared to do—however much one would like this to be different.
Which is about where I was in October 2004, when the suggestion that For A Change should close first came into sharp focus.
Over the next few months, I wrestled with the external conflict about the magazine's future, and the inner conflict between my passion for the magazine and a faint sniff of a change in the wind, suggesting that the time might be coming for me to do something new.
On a couple of occasions I found myself praying with a story from the New Testament. Peter and his colleagues are cleaning their fishing nets by the lake, when Jesus arrives. He asks Peter to row him out in his boat, and uses it as a floating platform from which to address the crowd who have followed him there. Afterwards he suggests that the fishermen let down their nets. They point out that they have been fishing all night without catching anything, but do as he suggests. The catch is so great their nets nearly break, and once they get to shore, they leave everything and follow Jesus.
This is a wonderful story, but I found myself getting hung up on the fish. There they all are, flapping around on the shore, and Peter and his partners just get up and leave them. What a waste! And, if you'll forgive an unflattering comparison, the fish came to symbolise the readers of For A Change, who drew inspiration from the magazine, and might feel high and dry if it closed.
In July 2005 I went to an island, off the west coast of Scotland, for a silent retreat: no books, four times of personal prayer a day, and a daily meeting with a director. I was scared about all the silence and space: but loved it. The setting was beautiful: views of islands floating between the sky and the sea; orchids on the roadside and in the hills; rockpools sparkling on the shore. It was a chance to take off my protective armour and begin to recognise the tone of voice in which God speaks to me: gentle, practical, often humorous, so different from the strident and censorious accents I tend to ascribe to him.
One day it was suggested once again that I pray with St Peter's call. I imagined the story as if I was Peter: my pride when Jesus asked to use my boat, my scepticism when he suggested I had another go at fishing, my astonishment at the catch, my eagerness to get everyone organised to deal with the fish, my arguments for staying with the job in hand rather than going with him to do something new—and ended up feeling, ‘how can I possibly not go with you?’
‘But what,’ I asked him later that day, ‘if I just can’t leave the fish and come with you?’ And I felt he was saying, ‘Then you can’t, and I’ll ask you another time.’ I found this both disconcerting—I like to get on with things—and a relief.
I returned to work with a lightness of spirit which lingered on beneath the surface. As opportunities began to open up for me to use the skills I was learning on my training course, the new scent on the wind grew stronger. That November, an email from a colleague who was having to withdraw for health reasons convinced me that the time was coming for the print version of For A Change to close. I discussed this with my colleagues and realised that even if others decided to continue the magazine, I was going to leave. I could not believe how peaceful I felt about a decision which I had been fighting only months before. God had waited for me and asked again, and this time I was able to respond.
So now I am back on the cliff edge, wondering whether the wings of the hangglider will carry me. It’s a scary place to be, but an exhilarating one as well.
The experts say that every transition begins with an ending and ends with a beginning. In between there is a ‘neutral zone’, the period when the circus performer is in mid-air between the two trapezes. The temptation, they say, is to try to fill this space, rather than allowing oneself time to say goodbye to the old and grow into the new.
All processes of transition go through these stages: even if sometimes they are jumbled or concurrent. Even a change for the better—a marriage, a much desired pregnancy, a promotion—involves a loss, which needs to be acknowledged.
For the truth is that we can’t live without change. Of course it is easier if, as in my case, we have some control over its pace and time. But even painful endings open the door to new beginnings.
In fact, the only thing I hate more than change is staying the same.
Letting go of a person in friendship but caring at the same time is a double process which involves pain. This pain needs to be taken to prayer. The pain is not taken away in the time of prayer, but somehow one receives the the strength to cope with it. My best friend of nearly 20 years whom I helped through many bouts of depression met a man friend. When she talked about him and all the things they were doing together I felt I was going to lose her. In a way I have, but I still see her once a week. I feel stronger now. The friendship changed: although we are not as close the bond we share remains the same. I have more freedom now. Maybe I am in this vacuum you speak about.
sharon walker, 20 April 2007
Luis & Evelyn Puig, 31 May 2007
We all need the experience of being between the trapezes - leave the fish... We are now 80 both of us and it is time to slow down. We find it hard...
We will be in Caux in August for the Tools for Change session, and hope very much to see you Mary.
All the best,
Luis and Evelyn