As a columnist, I rarely write about what is actually happening in my own life, given that my opinions already betray more than enough. I suspect that people who read this piece weekly know more about me than they really need to know to give them an adequate perspective on what I write. In this particular column, however, I want to share personally about a major change taking place in my life.
Six years ago, I was enjoying a sabbatical, my first, when, one morning, I got a phone call from France, where the General Council of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the religious order to which I belong, were meeting. They were asking me to serve as Provincial Superior for one of our provinces of Oblates in Central Canada. My life changed in an instant, and quite drastically too. I drove my car from Oakland, California to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, abandoning not only an unfinished sabbatical and an unfinished book but a myriad of unfinished plans and dreams as well. I must confess that, as I made that drive, I felt considerably less enthusiasm than depression.
But God was good. And Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, was also good. I loved the city, it air, its water, its beauty, its parks, its pubs, its university, and especially its people, with their own particular warmth, humour, intellectuality, character, and faith. This is a good city. Perhaps most of the world cannot find it on a map, but that only proves that it is one of the better-kept secrets in the world and difficult to spell!
The job? Being Provincial Superior to an order of priests and brothers had its ups and downs. Whatever else it was, and it was many things, it was always interesting, always challenging, and it always stretched me and took me to places I would rather not have gone, in terms of geography and in terms of the heart.
It had a downside: one cannot be in a major religious superior for any length of time and not be forced into making decisions that will hurt some people, no matter which way those decisions are made and no matter if they are made at all. I had no previous experience with any of this and everything in my temperament is stacked against it, but I had no escape and I now have baggage I was free of six years ago. One loses one’s innocence when one is in authority. Would it were otherwise!
But there was also a major compensation, the dedication and faith that I witnessed, both among the men I served and the people to whom they ministered. In all organizations, about 10-12% of the persons you are dealing with are, as it is put today, dysfunctional. That can be discouraging. However, and this is what needs to be kept in perspective, this means that about 90% are not. 90% are honest, loving, faith-filled, generous, dedicated, and healthy. That is also true of the men to whom I served as provincial. In nine out of ten of them, I witnessed a faith, generosity, and dedication that left me humbled. Service is always more privilege than burden. We always receive more than we give and gratitude eventually dwarfs the scars. At least that was true of my six years as a provincial superior.
But it ended late this spring. In our congregation, we serve six-year terms as provincials. Mine is now finished. So what is next?
More immediately, sabbatical. From summer, 1997, to summer, 1998, I will be living with our Oblate community in Toronto, resting, praying, reading, attempting to write a book, taking in some baseball and football, and walking in the sun whenever possible. The book which I hope to write while on this sabbatical does not, as yet, have a name. It does have an aim. It may seem grandiose, and indeed it is, but I hope to write a book, a spirituality book, which, in essence, is an apologia for belief in God and (especially) in the church in today’s world. Teilhard de Chardin once commented that he always found it amazing that so many sincere, good, searching people could not believe in God. His conclusion? They, unlike himself, must not have heard about God in a palatable way. His writings set out to address this. I do not put myself in the same class as Teilhard de Chardin, not by a long shot, but my attempt, modest by his standards, will try to address essentially the same issue.
What happens after summer of 1998? I leave that in the hands of God and the hands of my community, the Oblates. I have a simple enough faith. It believes that wherever I am sent will be the right place. No place, as Rilke says, is poor in its capacity to fire gratitude. There will be good people to meet, I am sure, wherever I go.