In a time for falling
Lately, falling has been on my mind. The season for this is approaching, as leaf after leaf will soon let go and make its journey downwards, trusting the winds to take them where they need to go.
I have been thinking about the sensation of falling, but not for the reasons you might expect. It has little to do with the approach of the season of autumn, or my clumsy nature. (I'm no stranger to falls of the physical sort!) Rather, falling is on my mind because I am in transition. I recently moved into a whole new ministry and living situation, so I have been adjusting to and enjoying my new environment. During the first week here, I awoke in the dark of the night with the thought that this time of transition that I am in — and this time that we all are in together — is a time of falling.
This time of falling is both personal and universal. There is a momentum around me; things in my new community are in motion and I am trying to catch on to what's happening. Outside my window, the leaves are just starting to launch themselves out into the bare, quivering air. Together we are going somewhere and eventually things will settle down. But for now, we're in motion, up in the air, and often uneasy about how — or where — we could land.
Leap of faith
Nine years ago I requested entrance into the novitiate of my community. There were parallels between my vocational discernment and my experience on a ropes course challenge called the Leap of Faith. I had attended and worked at a Bible camp with a high and low ropes course used for skill- and team-building. The Leap of Faith challenge was thrilling. Secured by a harness, cables, carabineers and the help of a person acting as a belayer, you first climb 40 feet to the top of a telephone pole. Then you stand upright, secure your balance on top of the pole and then jump off toward a trapeze before falling straight toward the ground. At about 8 feet above the Earth, the belayer suddenly stops the ropes and you dangle, tightly pinched by the harness and ropes, while you are slowly lowered down.
At my novitiate entrance ceremony I spoke to my new sisters about my experience on the ropes challenge, likening it to moving forward into religious life. The safety I experienced in knowing God's infinite goodness and being part of a supportive community was my harness. The rootedness offered by entering into the traditions of religious life felt like the connections offered by the ropes. I had put my trust in the ropes and the belayer before jumping. Entering religious life required me to put my trust in Jesus, the ultimate belayer who will always catch me and help me return safely to solid ground.
I ended my reflection at that novitiate entrance ceremony with the words, "And so, I leap."
Shortly after saying those words I was officially received as a novice with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. I took a real leap of faith by entering into religious life with all its mystery, a path I haven't turned from since. I took a leap, and I started falling then. Now, after many stages of formation, incorporation, growth, final vows, and changes in ministry and living situations, I continue to fall.
Obedience as choreography
I'm still falling because I am a woman religious in the Catholic church who is called to humbly let go of much of my independence and personal interests for the sake of God's reign, for the common good. I am called to leap away from my selfishness and fall into a life of relentless hope that God's reign will one day fully reveal peace and justice for all people. I direct my movements away from the traps of possession and power and fall into the liberating sensation of love. I fall because I am free and I trust in the possibilities of God's goodness.
Just like women religious throughout the globe, I aim to give up my selfishness and particular preferences and fall into God with trust. We all do this when we leap and fall and then are buoyed up by our faith. In each sacrifice we make in serving others, we let go and fall a bit more deeply into God's beauty.
The vow of obedience has choreographed the patterns of my falling. Saying yes to God's voice heard in silence and in circles of communal discernment has provided a structure, a shape, for this awkward and beautiful movement. The fits and starts, the flutterings of my journey, echo the uncertain path the leaves will soon take outside my window. Although I may dream a lot about what the future could hold for me, it is not mine alone to define. Going along with God's will, I truly could go anywhere and end up doing anything that fits with the mission of my community. The itinerancy of this life is a type of falling.
Especially as a young woman religious I continually fall into a future full of change and mystery. Our numbers are decreasing, but the effects we have on society will not diminish. Even with few laborers and many needs, God can utilize our willingness for great purposes. We are accepting the changes in motion with hope and curiosity. Together, we do the things that make up falling: hope, leap, trust, let go, and lean into the sensation of freedom.
Falling away from fear and into love
In many ways, like it or not, we all are falling. It's an intrinsic aspect of living a life of discipleship. Even so, many of us have trouble enjoying the experience because our fears are so intense. The tragedies and terror of these tumultuous times can cause many of us to feel out of control and helpless, much like it is when we are falling at great speeds. When fear is too great, we close our eyes and become blind to the beauty. We fail to enjoy the ride, the moments full of wonder, because we are letting our fears control us.
During a recent dinner conversation, a friend told some sisters and me about her experience skydiving and what it felt like to fall through the sky. She described jumping from a plane with her parachute and tandem jumper ready and then being slowed as a column of air caught her. She felt her skin stretch upward and sensed that, even while she fell at a speed of over 100 miles per hour, she was held up by the cushion of air, allowing her to gain balance and move with strength and grace. I was in awe as I listened to the beautiful nature of physics, of God's wonders in effect.
For me, the most amazing part of my friend's story was her admission that she had an intense fear of heights. Despite her fear, she freely decided to take the risk and go skydiving for spiritual reasons. Her "yes" to falling showed that she was bigger than her fear, and it opened her to an amazing experience of joy known in the sensation of falling. She modeled for all of us how to fall into mystery and the cushion of God's love.
I felt in awe of her courage, her willingness to step into the unknown, despite her overwhelming fears. I want to bring some of that willingness into my own transitions; to allow myself to let go and let God, to trust the breezes to carry me unharmed through this unpredictable journey.
I fall, willingly, trusting in the arms of God to guide me safely to where I need to go.
[Julia Walsh FSPA is a retreat presenter and blogger found online at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]
Check out Horizons, featuring reflections younger sisters.