[We look] into the world of aviation for an image that may be helpful for understanding the magnitude of the evolution taking place in religious life and the dynamics of the shift we are making. Flight has figured in the imagination of people since primeval times, as is evident in early mythology, and human beings finally broke the bonds of earth a century ago. It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that aviation moved beyond a few experimental flights and we took to the air in ever-growing numbers. Wolfgang Langewiesche, a German immigrant to the United States, was an early aviator and journalist. He remains one of the most quoted authors in the field of aviation and many contemporary aviators still revere his 1944 book, Stick and Rudder. He writes:A wing is an odd thing, strangely behaved, hard to understand, tricky to handle. In many important respects, a wing’s behavior is exactly contrary to common sense. On wings it is safe to be high, dangerous to be low; safe to go fast, dangerous to go slow. Generally speaking, if you want the airplane to go up, you point its nose up; but point its nose up a little too much, and you go down in a stall or a spin. In landing an airplane, to make it sink down on the runway and stay down, you move the controls much as for an extreme upward zoom. (3)
Langewiesche tells us what it takes to become aviators, to become “people of the air.” we have to begin by learning a lot about how airplanes work. More importantly, we have to learn to leave aside our instincts as people of earth and take on the instincts of people-of-the-air.What makes flying so difficult is that the flier’s instincts—that is, his most deeply established habits of mind and body—will tempt him to do exactly the wrong thing. (3)
It is the job of the flight instructor to help the people of the earth to become people of the air. The change is partly learned and partly instinct, partly science and partly art.
Learning to be people of the air is somewhat like learning to grow in the mystical life. As we learn to pray, we read about God, we use prayers, images, and symbols. we sing, and we study the great spiritual traditions. This is all good, but it is the prayer of the earth. As we deepen our relationship with God and our prayer life, we find ourselves called to leave aside these good things of God, to be free to experience God directly, without image or symbol, word or concept. Our instincts of prayer of the earth gradually fall away as we respond to the call to prayer of the air. The two are not mutually exclusive, but there is a definite shift, and it calls us to respond to invitations that draw us out of our comfort zones, away from deeply seated instincts. “It is safe to be high, dangerous to be low; safe to go fast, dangerous to go slow.” The contours, the requirements, the responses of prayer of the air are different from those of prayer of-the-earth. and it is all good. An experienced spiritual “flight-instructor” can help us navigate the shift.
Take another application of this same image. Most of those in religious life today have lived as religious of the twentieth century. Our instincts have been honed by life as religious of the twentieth century, by our experiences, our culture, our prayer, our community, our ministry, and all the changes we have been through. Those instincts will not serve us well in living as religious of the twenty-first century. Some can live both, some can make the transition. Many of our elder sisters and brothers don't have to make the transition. They can live their lives in peace, affording succeeding generations the freedom to make the necessary adjustments, just as they had the freedom to remake religious life as they inherited it from their elders.
And what are the contours of the shift? “It is safe to be high, dangerous to be low; safe to go fast, dangerous to go slow.” This is not a matter of either-or, but a case of both-and, because we are always both. As we move into the twenty-first century it is important to point out the changes that are occurring, changes that require a distinctive response from religious as we pivot our communities and our individual lives to respond to new demands.
Let's take a look at one aspect of flying an airplane, namely the wing stall:
Once the wing is stalled, it is no longer able to hold the airplane aloft, and the airplane goes out of control and will fall out of the sky. The “normal” response it to pull the nose up further, but this is exactly the wrong response. Instead, if you let go of the controls, the plane will right itself. The response to a stall is to point the nose level, or simply let go.
We are in a time of changes in society, the church, and religious life. We can understand the process in the wider world as a shift from institution to ecosystem, requiring a corresponding shift in our identity and in our way of doing community, spirituality, and mission. The overlapping circles of community will help to provide the resilience we need to nurture this evolutionary process.
Over the last one hundred years, our social context has changed, and the particular expression of religious life that had rapidly expanded and served generations of Catholic immigrants have struggled to keep pace with these changes. The broader church has likewise struggled with the same issues, but the contours of the struggle and the response have differed from those of women religious. For both religious life and for the wider church, living the timeless elements of faith within the time-bound circumstances in which we find ourselves is an ongoing challenge. In describing today’s increasingly multilateral world some use the acronym VUCA, signifying volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.
These conditions call for a new set of skills and strategies. Because the inner dynamics of human society point to the continuation of the archetype of religious life, it is possible for religious life to meet the challenges posed by today’s VUCA context. What is required is that today’s religious communities open themselves to ongoing evolution while continuing to witness to the timeless.
All God's creatures have a place in the choir,
Some sing low, some sing higher,
Some sing out loud on the telephone wire,
Some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they’ve got now!
Listen to the top and the little birds singing
The melody with the high notes ringin'
The hoot owl sighs over everything,
The blackbird disagrees.
Singin' in the night time, singin' in the day
Little duck quacks and he's on his way
And the otter hasn’t got that much to say
The porqupine talks to himself.
The dogs and the cats they take up the middle
As the honey bee hums, the cricket fiddles
The donkey brays and the pony neighs
The old grey badger sighs
Listen to the bass it's the one on the bottom
Where the bullfrog croaks, the hippopotamus
Moans and groans with a big to-do,
The old cow just goes “Moo!”
It’s a simple song a little song everywhere
By the ox the fox and the grizzly bear
The dopey alligator and the hawk above
The sly old weasel and turtle dove