The next and the now

Big questions matter.

“How do you believe that change is possible, when the present seems to be filled with the same old things?” An undergrad at Georgetown University asked me this as I came to the end of my remarks on the nature of vocation and the role of smart, Catholic women in the church.

“How do you find your place in the world?” another young woman asked the next day as I sat on a panel of women of different faiths.

“What do you do when the questions shift from should I do this with my life to will I do this with my life?” a student looked me square in the eye as we talked about her journey and call.

Looking at each one of these women, I took a deep breath and answered to the best of my ability.

There is something striking about these questions. Listening to them intently, I could hear the heart behind them. There are individuals on the other ends of them; people trying to figure out life. Or at least trying to get a grasp on what their lives might be.

These questions are as big as they are deep. They deal in theory and theology, while also dealing with life. They straddle where the questioner is now and what holds promise for them next. Simple answers will not suffice to these questions; they, much like life, are far more complex.

This may be true, but I still tell the young adults I work with to learn to ask big questions. And perhaps more importantly, to let themselves fall in love with big questions. After all, whether you can answer these questions clearly or not is secondary to the fact that you are looking for Truth, and Truth is looking for you.

Big questions matter. That’s the point God keeps on underlining in my life these days. I’ve spent the last month answering such questions; from lectures and panels to conversations on discernment retreats and the everyday work of my life as a campus minister, the big questions keep on coming.

What’s next? I find myself being asked over and over.

To be honest, I am still discovering what is now — what our reality is . . . what my reality is as a woman religious. Our world, our church and our congregations are at a critical point in time. We find ourselves in a liminal space, where change is pressing in and new life is imminent. At least it feels that way.

Here in this liminal space, the next and the now are in coexistence. Each one is reliant on the other. Today is lived in hope of tomorrow, and tomorrow cannot be without faithful living today. Perhaps the real question at this moment is: What will we allow to be birthed in us?

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In a public conversation a few weeks ago, I asked a question of the presenter, a sister who’s served in prominent leadership roles in religious life. The discussion, hosted in honor of the Year of Consecrated Life, focused on passion for and identity in religious life. I’d been invited as a younger voice to the conversation and yet, unlike other experiences, I didn’t feel like a token newer member.

The group of women religious gathered from various congregations seemed engaged in the question of how to better live into the future. Uninhibited and with genuine interest, I posed a question to the presenter, “Since I am part of a very small group in religious life, how do I/we get our voices heard?”

She paused to think for a moment and then replied: “I don’t know if there’s anything you can do. The issues of the majority are not yours, and so while they’re distracted by whatever they’re occupied with, you’re being given the opportunity to evolve.”

Distraction that allows for evolution — a novel idea, I thought to myself.

The truth is, part of the future lives in what we are doing or not doing right now. What are we talking about? What aren’t we talking about? Those are the things that the future will hold whether we want it to or not. The next steps in life reflect something of our present reality, whether we can conceive of that or not. The need then is to live intentionally now since we don’t know what will be called forth in us next. We can be assured that the experience of life we are engaging in today will contribute in some way to what comes next. Living with such intention (in community, in prayer, toward the charism and in relation to the world) increases the likelihood that whatever it is that is next, we will be grounded enough to grasp it.

Distraction may foster evolution for some, but it also poses the threat of diverting the energy of the whole system. If we are caught up in the pressing needs that the majority identifies, we can’t put in the energy needed for growth. And yet, we can’t forgo the now for the next. Ultimately, the two need to be held in balance.

This is a theme I return to continually with the college students I work with. The paper due this week plays into a much bigger picture; just as four years of education fits into the picture of a much bigger life. It’s easy to get hung up on the midterm to the point where you don’t see the long view.

I think back to that first question: How do you believe that change is possible, when the present seems to be filled with the same old things?

There are so many layers to that question.

How do you trust that change will come, and how do you ensure you are a part of it over time? How do you hold onto hope that things will get better when daily life can be so ordinary . . . even monotonous? How do you live life?

“How?” I turned the question back on the student who’d asked to bide my time before responding. “How?? . . . You remember that today is linked to tomorrow. And that even if the present moment involves the work of everyday life — the seemingly ordinary — it is still leading you towards tomorrow.”

I have to trust that. The faith I have in the now is the hope I carry into the future. Life isn’t always clear cut; we don’t always know if we’re on the right track but we still have to try. And in the process of that trying, we, hopefully, discover better ways of being and doing. We draw off of where we’ve been and the ways we’ve been prepared for the next, even if we didn’t know we were being prepared at the time. Holding on to that trusted truth, we engage the present moment knowing what’s next lies somewhere in the now . . . somewhere in us.

By God’s grace, we can hope that we’ll see what’s next as it evolves . . . that we will have been attentive enough to the now that we’ll rise to the occasion when it comes time to reconcile what is now and what’s next.

That is the work of active trust and intentional living we’re being called to right now. It’s our response to the big questions of life. A response that echoes our life and speaks to a faith lived out in the past, present, and future.

[Colleen Gibson is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as assistant director of campus ministry at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.]

Adrian Dominican Sr. Nancy Murray is a writer and actor in her own right. GSR interviewed her about her work and her family, which includes her brother, Bill Murray.
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