Everywhere I looked the landscape in my wooded hideaway kept changing as each colorful leaf gently touched the ground. I had planned to walk a familiar path but my pup had other plans and I yielded to her lead like a grateful child in a candy shop. Satisfied for taking the risk, this new trail led me under a canopy of brilliant golden leaves which fell slowly upon my capped head. It felt good to act with spontaneity given my ‘control type’ personality. Wandering through the shifting trees, I was reminded of a quote by well-known theologian and Catholic convert, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Thus I found myself pondering the many recent changes in my own life.
There was a time when the idea of change frightened me. But over time, change just kept happening in my life – and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. So my challenge was one of personal response – would I remain static – stuck in an old ways of thinking or would I evolve using the gifts and experiences that a changing life had afforded me?
A recent visit to a women’s prison reminded me that I have indeed evolved over the years. My attitude about visiting prisons has certainly changed. Many years ago, a priest friend invited me to participate in a Mass at a local prison and I reluctantly agreed. Back then, I was afraid of the experience as I thought only of my own security and well being. I had no idea of the gifts awaiting me inside the barbed wire and stone walls.
Twenty years later, after enduring years of spine health challenges which have left me a little bit broken, but hopefully wiser and certainly more grateful for the gift of my changing journey, I now enter the prison ready to meet the women inside with solidarity and friendship. Reflecting back, I realized that in my youth, the person I thought most about was me. I worried about my comfort, security and happiness rather than what I might be able to offer the women I would be visiting, or better yet, what they might offer me.
I am not entirely sure what Newman meant when he wrote, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. But given his willingness to convert to Catholicism at the height of his Anglican career at Oxford, it might mean something like, “a willingness to trust your heart enough to know when Truth is inviting you to change course in life.” Oftentimes, this change of direction comes with pain, as it did for Newman and as it did for me. But that is not a reason to avoid change. In chapter sixteen of Matthew’s gospel, our Lord told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (MT 16:24-25) When we follow the voice of Truth, we do indeed save our life because we surrender our will for God’s holy will which always leads to our ultimate happiness amidst all life’s unexpected changes.
Gazing upward at my canopy of beauty, I mused that a New England tree endures a lot of annual change – frigid cold and ice in winter, blazing heat in summer and wet rains in spring. Yet every autumn, these changes – difficult as they may be – result in stunning beauty for all to enjoy. It is no different with us when we surrender our lives to the Author of Life. The same God who commands the oceans and turns green leaves to gold, safely guides us through the rush of life’s changes. Like Newman, we can also grow in strength, faith and wisdom if only we have the courage to change.