Pat Farrell’s paper delivered at CORI Conference 25th April 2014

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Pat Farrell, OSF


I am delighted to be with you, especially during this time of Easter week, and in this holy land of Ireland.  Twenty years ago I did have an opportunity to come to Ireland and found it to be a unique and soulful kind of homecoming.  Needless to say, a lot has changed in twenty years, in each of us, in Ireland, in the world, in the Church.  Even as I speak, I am aware of what an understatement that is.  We’ve recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II.  In 1965, just as the Council was concluding, I entered my congregation.  My entire experience of religious life, and I’m sure that of many of you as well, has been one of continual change.  Years ago I expected the climate of change to eventually level off and that life would return to some sense of normalcy.  I now realize, however, that the only constant is change which is, if anything, only deepening and accelerating.  These have been painful years in the Church, and concretely in the Irish Church.  I cannot pretend to know what your lived experience of that has been. However, having been the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) during recent difficulties, I do know deeply the pain in the Church.  While we don’t stand in one another’s realities and can’t fully understand or address our different circumstances, we do share in the same context of upheaval, and the same desire for transformation and rebirth.

Let me share with you one of my very favorite poems that speaks so much of the moment we’re living.

The human heart can go the length of God.

Cold and dark it may be

But this is no winter now.

The frozen misery of centuries cracks, breaks, begins to move.

The thunder is the thunder of the floes.

The thaw, the flood, the up-start spring.

Thank God our time is now

When wrong comes up to meet us everywhere

Never to leave until we take

The greatest stride of soul that people ever took.

Affairs are now soul-size.

The enterprise is exploration into God…

                                    Christopher Fry – A Sleep of Prisoners

I love hearing about wrong coming up to meet us everywhere interpreted as spring breaking through, and as exploration into God.  I cannot articulate a better description of transformation than that.  While I am certain that change is a constant, I am equally certain that transformation is the work of God’s Spirit.  Transformation is beyond our control but dependent upon our cooperation.  It is less something we do and more something that we allow.  It has both internal and external dimensions and the two are mysteriously and inextricably intertwined.  Transformation has a rhythm and timing of its own but carries within it a sense of urgency.  It is that sense of urgency that inspires my talk today, “Sustaining Transformation.”  What can help us to allow, to be available for, to cooperate with, and to sustain the process of transformation that God is somehow working in us, in our world, and in our Church during these times? What graces do we seek?  How do we live with change in a way that makes us malleable to processes of transformation?

 I turn to the prophet Jeremiah for insight.

Jeremiah lived during one of the most turbulent periods of the ancient Near East.  His forty long years as a prophet saw the fall and exile of the kingdom of Judah and the downfall of Jerusalem.  As you know, he was sent to deliver a message of doom and gloom, forewarning of war and calling the people to relinquish idolatry and return to fidelity to the covenant.  His unpopular message brought him opposition and persecution and even an interior crisis of faith in his mission and his God.  Through lyrical images and poetry he embodied the sorrow and pain of the community.  He explained the cause of exile and gave the exiles hope for the future.  Ultimately he understood that only God could change the hearts of the people.  Only God could bring about a new order, uniting Judah and Israel, and only after the experience of exile had purified their hearts. 

When I recall all this about Jeremiah, I hear good news and bad news.  The good news is that the same faithful God can bring about in our times a new order and hearts that are transformed.  The bad news is that I think we as women and men religious in the Church find ourselves in a situation much like that of Jeremiah. 

Perhaps we, too, are called, like the prophet Jeremiah to embody the pain and sorrow of the community.  Walter Brueggemann says that “a primary pastoral task is to voice the felt loss, indignation and bewilderment that are among us… to cut through the enormous self-deception of political-economic [and I would add, ecclesiastical] euphemism.”   To deny or minimize abuse is emotionally intolerable to those who have suffered it.  For perpetrators and those who are complicit to acknowledge, assume responsibility, and process the related emotions is very difficult.  Yet it is not humanly easy for any of us to see ourselves as we really are, not as we’d like to be, or as we think we should be, but as we really are, in all our magnificence and frailty.  Similarly, to see and accept the world around us as it really is, just as it is, is a grace.  Idealism or cynicism can easily alter our view of things.  Or we can spiritualize or intellectualize experiences and unwittingly distance from real emotional responses.  Jeremiah, on the other hand, leads the community in lamentation, naming pain by its right name so that it can be faced.  There is a paradoxical energy in doing so. Psychologists tell us that the way past pain is through it. The poet says to us: “Thank God our time is now when wrong comes up to meet us everywhere… the thaw, the flood, the upstart spring.”  This Easter season invites us to look evil and death in the eye, to not deny or run away, knowing that it does not have the last word. 

Jeremiah tries to make sense of things for the people of his day with his image of the potter’s house.  You know the story.  The potter molds the clay a certain way, then starts over and makes it into another kind of a vessel.  Jeremiah then explains God’s way with peoples and nations of sometimes tearing down and destroying and sometimes building up and planting.  “As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in mine, House of Israel.” 

In this prolonged season of breakdown, upheaval and diminishment in religious life and in the Church, this image of clay in the hands of the potter invites surrender and trust.  It doesn’t make loss any less intensely felt, but it does surround it with meaning.  It suggests that God has in mind a new design for another kind of vessel. 

But the Scriptural story gets worse before it gets better.  The people don’t listen to Jeremiah and turn against him, digging a pit for him and plotting to kill him.  In response, Jeremiah rails against unfaithful Israel with another clay pot image.   He throws the pot and breaks it into pieces beyond any possibility of repair, foretelling the extent of imminent destruction and Israel’s need for conversion.  That, of course, doesn’t make him more popular, and the text continues by describing Jeremiah’s internal crisis and sense of betrayal.  “You have seduced me, Oh God, and I have let myself be seduced,” and so on.   

How does Jeremiah’s situation interpret our own?  I think the progression of the two clay pot images has something important to say to us.  Just as the people of Israel were in denial about the magnitude of change and destruction about to take place and needed the shock of a more dramatic symbol, I think it is equally difficult in our time to take in the enormity of the paradigm shift taking place and the magnitude and depth of our need for letting go.  The tendency is to underestimate the extent of the macro transformation in which we are immersed.  We’re tempted to rush past it on our way to an attempted return to business as usual.  But it is much more helpful to be with the chaos and grief and to allow it to lead and teach us.  It reminds me of this poem by the Persian poet-mystic Hafiz:


Don’t surrender your loneliness

so quickly.

Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you

as few human

or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight

has made my eyes so sad,

my voice

so tender

my need of God



Can we stay with the chaos, the loss, and the breakdown long enough to allow it to ferment and season us?  It will make our need of God absolutely clear.  The more deeply we can let go of the past, the more capacity we will have to midwife the future transformation trying to come to birth. I saw a graphic example of that when I worked with returning refugees in El Salvador.  Whole communities had fled aerial bombings of their villages and made their way across the border to refugee camps in Honduras.  They returned to nothing but charred ruins but with a clear sense of how much they needed each other and God.  Because the destruction of their villages had been so complete, they had the unique opportunity to start over to rebuild their community, including consciously redesigning how they wanted to be together.  It was amazing.  They created farming coops, organized work groups to rebuild houses, distributed tasks, involved everyone in the community in serving the needs of the whole, all while still surrounded by the danger of ongoing civil war. 

For us, as well, massive breakdown and loss can herald approaching transformation.  In our situation of mega paradigm shift, of paradigm distress, we have been gradually peeling back successive layers of change.  One change leads us to uncover the next layer that needs to be reconsidered.  We are now undergoing major changes in world view, inviting us to nothing short of a transformation of consciousness. Slowly we are moving beyond dualistic thinking to a more unitive consciousness.  Scientific discoveries of the evolving universe just keep stretching the imagination.  The clay pot of some of our assumptions about the world is being shattered beyond repair even as whole new vistas open up to us.  In many cases the new wine of exploding information no longer fits into the old wine skins of disappearing worldviews.  The language, the concepts, the mental categories, the underlying philosophies, indeed the consciousness, that were adequate before no longer are.   When that inadequacy begins to show itself in our lives of faith, in religious life and the Church, the risk for loss is even greater for us.  What is at stake is precious.  When former language, practices, structures, and relationship patterns fall short it can lead to a crisis of meaning. We have given our lives in service of God and the People of God and could easily feel the sense of betrayal Jeremiah experienced.  How can things be turning out this way?  “You have seduced me, O God, and I have let myself be seduced.” Can we dwell with those kinds of feelings, resisting the temptation to run away?   Can we allow them to cut more deeply, to carve out in us a larger space for transformation?  It is counter-intuitive to do so.  Generally speaking, we do need to live primarily in the new mind-set, defined more by our new situation than the old one. Both are important, especially when we’re between the limited light of the past and the pre-dawn time before a new day.  Fortunately, we have mentors.  The paschal mystery we have just celebrated coaches us to approach transition primarily as a birth, not death.  In the shifting demographics of religious life, our elderly companions facing diminishment and death, many who have been important role models and outstanding congregational leaders, teach us so much about ultimate surrender, indeed about the power of letting go.  The deeper our surrender, the deeper will be our availability for real transformation.

In considering what can sustain us in this vocation of transformation, I would like to turn to the Scriptural image of another clay pot.  Second Corinthians says:  “It is the same God who said, ‘Let there be light shining out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to radiate the light of the knowledge of God’s glory, the glory on the face of Christ.  We are the earthenware jars that hold this treasure, to make it clear that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us.” (2 Cor. 4: 6-7)

Let’s try to look with faith and basic psychology at the earthenware vessel of the human condition.  Perhaps trying to see it as it is rather than what we’d like it to be, or think it should be, can be instructive.  What does our human nature typically look like in times of change and transition?  What helps us to manage change in life-giving ways that keep us open to transformation?

I am encouraged by the certainty that there is imbedded in our human nature a certain drive toward growth and newness. Within us and within all of creation there is an impulse toward greater life, greater complexity, greater wholeness. Think of it as a hidden purposefulness, or as the unique imprint of the divine in each of us and in creation.  There is some basic pattern or gift in each of us that wants to unfold, to develop, to come to fullness.  It only occurs with our intentionality and cooperation, but it is there and it is quietly insistent.  I imagine it to be like the inner drive in children learning to walk.  They just want to walk and walk and will cry and fuss if you pick them up and try to carry them.   They are developing a new skill and are happily driven to practice it.

In spite of that impulse toward growth, it is also true that very few people like change.  It pretty quickly activates our insecurities and can easily move into crisis mode.  Interestingly, in a crisis situation, we are likely to bump into both the best and the worst of ourselves.  It is helpful to notice both.  I find it heartening that crisis and change can activate extraordinary responses.  We do rise to the occasion when times are difficult.  We may catch ourselves acting out of a strength or a generosity we didn’t know we had.  There can be new energy, surprising creativity, fresh ideas and insights.  Relationships come more easily in an environment of shared vulnerability.  There can be a particular tenderness toward one another that manifests, a shedding of reserve, a caring that is more demonstrable. Conversely, challenging times can bring out the worst in us.  Change initiated more from the outside than sought out from the inside is seldom welcome.  When we’re dislodged from “normal” circumstances and suddenly thrust into insecurity, defenses surface spontaneously.  It usually looks like regression.  It’s not pretty.  Patterns of reaction that we thought had been laid to rest can reappear.  It’s uncomfortable.  None of us likes being irritable and defensive.  We probably like it even less when other people are that way with us.  But all of it is predictable.  What helps, then is to name the tendency, to normalize it, to anticipate it, to embrace and accept it, and to be compassionate with ourselves and with one another.  What if our work at this time is to recognize and deal with fears and anxieties, and to create emotional safety for the significant though difficult conversations?

Resistance is, after all, a sacred place.  It signals to us that we are in danger of real change.  Whatever is disturbing to us can reveal important new information.  Margaret Wheatley expresses it this way: 

“Noticing what surprises and disturbs me has been a very useful way to see invisible beliefs.  If what you say surprises me, I must have been assuming something else was true.  If what you say disturbs me, I must believe something contrary to you.  My shock at your position exposes my own position.  When I hear myself saying, ‘How could anyone believe something like that?’ a light comes on for me to see my own beliefs.  These moments are great gifts.  If I can see my beliefs and assumptions, I can decide whether I still value them.”

Allowing ourselves to be disturbed and confused is ultimately how we are able to become aware of and to break patterns that can keep us stuck.  That’s easier said than done.  Congregational leaders know that when promoting change we can expect resistance.  Sometimes that takes the form of indecision or ambivalence.  To move forward it is helpful to name and challenge it.  Ray Dlugos says “Ambivalence looks for a place that is comfortable and where it can just sit.  We can challenge ambivalence in ourselves and others by raising rather than lowering expectations, which will inevitably evoke a reaction of greater resistance…  If we are going to overcome the ambivalence that is paralyzing us, we need to withstand the initial resistance to doing anything new or different, absorb the initial reactivity that will come with a fury, and to continue to expect more of ourselves and one another rather than less.  However, while we need to raise expectations, it is essential that we communicate those raised expectations in a manner that is not judgmental or demanding. In the face of condemnation and demands, ambivalence grows stronger and causes us to dig our heels in even deeper.  The raising of expectations has to be accompanied by a lot of love and reassurance that makes it possible for us and others to go forward with some security.” 

Leaders commonly make the mistake of lowering expectations or of pulling back on our affection.  Group member often collude to disempower the leader, consciously or not.  Leaders can then be afraid to call members to more than what we are willing to do voluntarily.  Our role as leaders is to call people to something greater and higher through a relationship of affection.  The more tumultuous the situation, the more we are in need of one another’s support and affection.  Community is critical.  Ray Dlugos also points out that “we need to give members the time, space, permission, and guidance to go into their own emotional life and see what it is really revealing about themselves.”  Resistance is not to be judged.  Change has its own timing.  It is like the bud of a rose, gathering energy to open.  When the bud has not yet accumulated the energy necessary to open, to try to hurry the blooming does violence to the process.  However, once the bud has gathered the energy to open, there is nothing that will stop it.  

In addition to resistance, another human dynamic that is predictable in times of change and turmoil has to do with accepting responsibility. It is helpful to understand it.   In critical times there is a tendency in people to look for a place outside themselves to lay both blame and praise.  Both tend to fall on leaders and usually reveal some degree of misplaced responsibility.  Let’s look at the case of idealization, first.  Pope Francis recently expressed his frustration with the tendency to make him into a hero, and often reasserts that he is a simple normal person, which is disarming and refreshing.  A misplaced responsibility could be on the part of those who are thrilled with his attentiveness to those who are poor and glad that the Church is now clearly opting for the marginalized.   But are those same people making that kind of option personally?  Idealizing the pope can be a way of not taking responsibility to concretely do the same.  It can be a way of getting off the hook and not even being aware of it.  

Blaming is the opposite side of the same coin.  The scandal of sexual abuse comes to mind here.  There is, of course, an ethical urgency that any perpetrator accept full responsibility for his or her actions, accept appropriate consequences, do everything possible to mitigate the harm done.  Equally urgent is the acknowledgement of cover-up and moral and legal accountability for complicit behavior.  When that has not been the case public outrage is the appropriate response.  I also believe, however, that blanket blame of priests and religious in general can mask the need for other individuals and for an entire society to examine the roots of abuse in patterns of power in the home, in personal and socially accepted attitudes about sexuality and about women, for instance.  Excessive blame can detract from the need for broader self-examination and social critique.  Anything too painful to look at is easily projected onto someone else.  That is the human tendency.  It is a challenge both to accept responsibility and also not to accept responsibility when either is appropriate.

In trying to manage that, a useful skill to cultivate is non-violent communication.  It involves being non-judgmental toward others while also accepting the judgment of others non-violently.  In my leadership of LCWR I was so aware of the need for creating an atmosphere for complex conversations that don’t further divide.  I found myself exploring more in depth the skills of non-violent communication.  Like most of you, I’m sure, I was aware of the basic practice of communicating feelings and expectations without judgment.  I knew how to use “I” statements and to choose words carefully.  There were two additional principles that I found particularly significant.  I learned that non-violent communication often breaks down when the speaker moves into self-judgment.  When I begin to judge myself negatively in the conversation, when I disconnect from self-compassion, my ability to communicate non-judgmentally with the other usually begins to fall apart as well.  Self-compassion is as important as compassion for the other. 

The other principle I found helpful was that of non-violent listening in addition to non-violent speaking.  When another person speaks verbally attacks or condemns me, non-violent listening tries to hear not the judgment but the feelings beneath it and the possible source of those feelings.  I can hear what is being said as an attack against me, or I can hear the person’s anger as fear of losing something important, for example.  When I can hear underlying feelings with some measure of understanding of where they might be coming from, I am listening non-violently.  I might even be able to respond in a way that addresses the feelings and demonstrates my compassion.  If, on the other hand, I only hear the judgment and anger directed at me as an attack, my response is more likely to be one of defensiveness or counter-attack.  Or I might internally add fuel to the fire by blaming or condemning myself, accepting the judgment directed toward me, taking it in and allowing it to affect me.  The more I am able to stay connected to my own self-compassion the more I will be able to assess what information coming to me is accurate and legitimately calls me to change, and what is not. 

To sustain transformation in these difficult times we, of course, we need all the usual practices of basic self-care, particularly that of supportive relationships.  Our connectedness to one another has never been more important and the quality of our relationships in community matters now more than ever.

Our relationship with God needs to anchor us deeply, to nourish and sustain us.  It is the most fundamental place of transformation. When so many external aspects of religious life are in flux, we’re thrust back onto the essential impulse of vocation, the desire for God.  Isn’t that where our common journey began?  Isn’t that what brought us to religious life and has kept us here?  The longing for God draws us into our deepest selves, to the surest compass that guides us towards the newness that hasn’t yet shown itself with clarity.    Rilke says:

“I love you, gentlest of Ways,

who ripened us as we wrestled with you.

you, the great homesickness we could never shake off,

you, the forest that always surrounded us,

you, the song we sang in every silence,

you the dark net threading through us,

on the day you made us you created yourself,

and we grew sturdy in your sunlight…”


In the surrender of contemplation God takes us to a deeper inner place where another kind of wisdom and resiliency become accessible to us.  Contemplation is the crucible where the treasure we carry in earthen vessels is purified and where God’s way unfolds from our most authentic selves. 

Nancy Sylvester, IHM, describes it this way:

When we can keep going to our deepest core with all its passion, that perspective changes our priorities, it changes our behaviors, it changes our beliefs.  A contemplative approach to life is a way of being and if we embrace it, it can change everything…  We might not be able to change situations, but a contemplative approach can help us change the way we enter into a situation, how we respond, how we are creating it…  The contemplative posture is one that opens us up to ambiguity, paradox, and the unknown because it releases for us a lot of our preconceived ways of being and thinking and it releases us of our ego. 

We cannot do that of our own power.  It is not the fruit of willfulness and striving.  It is the gift of the Spirit who moves in us.  The transformation that happens in us is, again, more like allowing, being available, surrendering to the reshaping that the Spirit brings about, usually through life as it comes to us.  We can be tempted in times of loss and chaos to try harder and to do more, but what is needed is the opposite.  We need to slow down and to go deeper, to carve out space and time, to be with the fertile but difficult emptiness, the deep power of letting go from which hope arises.   I conclude with a final poem, my prayer that each of us will be energized to move forward in hope toward the future promised but not yet visible. 


I want to feel it,

radiant, flowing, lifting the near-dead weight

of me.

But instead

it comes as bracing wind,

slap to sluggish limbs,

wake-up call,

hurricane lamp cupping frightened flame,

sound pitched past human hearing

that stuns the circling beasts,

CPR when the heart fails.

Hope’s half-life lasts and lingers.

Supple, shape-shifting,

it erupts from sleep,

like Lazarus climbing through rock,

tearing off his shroud,

like a dead girl snapped awake:

“Talitha, cum,”

like the sly woman

who made the prophet laugh

as she gathered crumbs,

until her punch line

turned him full around.

Hope rides on the air.

I need to fill my lungs with it –

great gulps to carry me

through long litanies of waiting.

I need to breathe it

in, out.

I need to choose its rhythm

for my life’s song.

Regina Bechtle, SC


Regina Bechtle, SC, Navigating the Shifts, A Reflective Journal (Silver Spring, MD: LCWR, 2013)

Walter Brueggemann, Edited by K.C. Hanson, Remember You Are Dust, (Eugene, Oregon :  Cascade Books,  2012)

Ray Dlugos, CSA, Leading Through a Time of Change, (Silver Spring, MD:  LCWR, Occasional Papers, Winter, 2008)

Pat Farrell, OSF, Living and Leading in a Time of Sustained Insecurity, (Silver Spring, MD: LCWR, Occasional Papers, Summer, 2009)

Hafiz, The Gift, Translations by Daniel Ladinsky   (New York:  The Penquin Group, 1999)

Rainer Marie Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours, Love Poems to God, edited by Anita Barrows and Joanna Marie Macy (New York:  Roverhead Books, 1996)

Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D., Comunicacion No Violenta, un Lenguaje de Vida (Buenos Aires: Gran Aldea Editores, 2008)

Luisa M. Saffiotti, Ph.D., Re-Imagining Leadership  (Silver Spring, MD:  LCWR, Occasional Papers, Winter, 2008)

Nancy Schreck, OSF, The Journey to Newness: Mining the Wisdom of the Exilic Literature (Silver Spring, MD:  LCWR, Occasional Papers, Winter, 2011)

Margaret Silf, The Other Side of Chaos, Breaking Through When Life is Breaking Down (Chicago:  Loyola Press, 2011)

Nancy Sylvester, IHM, Contemplative Practices and Religious Life Leadership, (Silver Spring, MD: LCWR, Occasional Papers, Winter, 2009)

Pauline A.Viviano, New Collegeville Bible Commentary:   Jeremiah, Baruch (Collegeville, Minnesota:  Liturgical Press, 2013)

Margaret J. Wheatley, So Far From Home, Lost and Found in Our Brave New World, (San Francisco:  Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2012)


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