“Change is good!” So proclaimed a brightly smiling instructor to her dismayed class, who’d just learned their school was being moved to a different corner of the city. Somehow it didn’t feel quite as good as the neon smile and cheery voice pronounced it should. “Change is good” — perhaps, but change is hard, and we fear it, too. The way to kill an old person, as my mother likes to remind me, is to change the furniture. Even for youth, the September winds of change, from summer heat to autumn coolness, from Grade 2 to Grade 3, can be scary and tough. Something in us seeks change, but something also fears it.
We’ve reason to fear change. “Have you no concept of change, of progress?” queries a man in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Caspian replies: “I’ve seen both in an egg. We call it ‘going bad.’ ” Change is decay, corruption, death. If you leave the house for a week, things will be changed when you come back, even if it’s only dust on the furniture. Change is a Florida man swallowed up by the bedroom floor in his sleep, bed and all, when a sink-hole suddenly opened beneath him.
Change is what the fallen world offers as fulfilment. These days, we’re mobile, peripatetic and itinerant, changing jobs, friends, romantic interests, Internet servers, credit card companies, appointment times, hair colour — and trying to find meaning in that. When we pursue it, change becomes addictive, luring us on, leading us farther into frustration and defeat. We end up “running after less and less, mistaking it for more and more,” as St Augustine observed 1,600 years ago.
On the other hand, sometimes the more we try to change, the more we become stuck. We seem to progress, then find ourselves seemingly back in the same old place of fear or anger or helplessness. In 2014, marking a century after the beginning of the First World War, many commentators noted that the same 1914 problems still beset the globe. Violence, control, domination, remain with us. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Why is change so difficult and so desirable at the same time? Is it our restlessness that makes us seek change, our resistance that braces us against it? Some early Greek philosophers concluded the only thing in the universe that’s constant is change itself. Dickens’ character Miss Havisham, jilted on her wedding day, tried in vain to keep everything the same, never removing her wedding dress, leaving the wedding cake on the table, while everything decayed and crumbled, her body grew old and wrinkled and her spirit increasingly bitter.
Change and decay are the consequence of sin. Sin confuses us into thinking that changelessness is paralysis, and change itself is our salvation. We can’t stop change, can’t control it, can’t quite come to terms with it, can’t find true rest or meaning in it. What, then?
The alternative to change is the cross.
Fittingly, we celebrate the cross in mid-September, season of change. At about this time, one year, I had the chance to visit southern Spain. In a church in Sevilla, an elaborately dressed wooden figure looked down upon us from above the altar: the Virgin of Hope of Macarena. We went closer to see her. My sister, looking through a zoom lens, turned and exclaimed: “Elle est triste! She’s sad!” Indeed, she’s famous for the glass tears that bedew her cheeks. Her clothes change with the seasons, the people and society change beneath her as centuries pass, but her love and her sorrow don’t change. Her spiritual and artistic style is less popular in our part of the world, but the whole church celebrates Our Lady of Sorrows (Sept. 15, the day after the Triumph of the Cross), Mary who was told: “A sword will pierce your heart” — the sword that pierced her son on the cross.
The cross is the antidote to both our fear of change and our longing for change.
“The cross stands steady while the world is turning.” This is the motto of the Carthusian order (Stat crux dum volvitur orbis), a centuries-old contemplative community. The motto is portrayed visually in their symbol, a cross planted in a circle. The Carthusians know change, and constancy. In our world, last year’s model is obsolete, and you fear for your job when you turn 30. This August, the Carthusians celebrated their 931st anniversary. And for them, the cross is planted in change. The cross stands still while all else moves. Only the cross can lead change to fulfilment. Only the cross can answer our longing for the unchangeable.
The unchanging God is a surprise, unpredictable but ever the same, stillness in movement. Thankfully, we’re changeable — we can change from broken to whole, sinful to forgiven, stuck to free — but unchangeably made in the image of God, unchangeably beloved. “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: praise him!” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)
Marrocco is a marriage and family therapist, teacher of theology, and writer, and co-ordinates St. Mary of Egypt Refuge. She can be reached at email@example.com