By Father James Behrens, OCSO | Published February 11, 2019
The first thing I noticed when I walked into our abbey church yesterday was the smell of sawdust. It was a pleasant smell, brought to my mind other times I smelled it—at construction sites in New York City, or the Clam Broth House in Hoboken, New Jersey, made famous for the sawdust all over its floor.
I looked toward the rear of the church and saw the dismantled and sawed old choir stalls. Our renovation has begun and it will take a long time before it is finished. Our Abbot Augustine approached the microphone after yesterday’s Mass and told our guests that we would do everything possible to accommodate them during the renovation project, since the places that they normally occupy would soon no longer be there.
We all are going to have to do a lot of stretching while old and familiar routines give way to new needs, new ways of doing things, new ways of finding our place in the changing church.
In the New York Times obituary for Henri de Lubac, SJ, dated Sept. 5, 1991, the Times referred to him as an “architect of the church’s renewal.” And indeed he was. He is a favorite theologian of Abbot Augustine’s and also of mine and in the obituary, de Lubac was quoted as having said that “the church is a perpetual construction site.” And so it is we now find ourselves gathering for Mass and prayer in the midst of the rubble of upheaval that is the present state of our church. We are on the way to something new.
I wonder if any of the monks suffer from sawdust allergies. I do know some of them, including myself, have allergic reactions to change. We like to hold onto the well tried and familiar. But the wrecking ball is swinging here and I have chosen to trust its sway and see where everything ends up. Most are much in favor of it. Some are cautiously watching it. All of us feel varying levels of anxiety. Some monks are more confident than others. Overall, there is a readiness, if not an eagerness, to go with the flow of the ball.
As we go about transforming our church here, the universal church is as well undergoing a lot of much needed reconfigurations. These are troubling times for the institutional church as it struggles to find its footing on a path that is no longer as secure and comfortable as it once was. It is becoming more and more a path that is shared by fellow believers, believers who are calling for change, renewal, honesty and integrity from bishops who, up until fairly recently, led the way.
The renovation of our abbey church will take a long time. That of the universal church even longer. My hope is that when the smell of the sawdust gives way to the occasional odor of incense here, the church at large will still be working its way with and through the fine mists of sawdust as they rise from construction projects all over the world.
If I may quote the de Lubac obituary once again, it stated that “he never shied away from troubling times.”
Nor should we. We have each other. We have our hopes. We have our plans and a path to walk, a path always just ahead, promised us by the Spirit, the master architect of big and small churches, churches always on the move.
Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers.