Life of the spirit is habitual change

  • April 11, 2024

I am about to do a new thing.

Isaiah 43: 19

When I accepted the position of President of St. Mary’s University in Calgary, I had to convince my family that it was exciting to give up our life on the beach and move to a glorious mountainous winter wonderland. I must have been convincing because they immediately agreed. But when we left Sydney, Australia, at 40 degrees, and landed in Calgary at -40 degrees, my daughter looked at me sternly: “This is child abuse!”

Needless to say, it took some time for her to acclimatize and now, some 13 years later, she is on the verge of forgiving me. This, however, may have more to do with another transition. After 11 years, I decided to retire as president of St. Mary’s University, and after two weeks of being gainfully unemployed, the phone rang once again, this time luring me even further west. I now find myself approaching the second year of my presidency at Corpus Christi College and St. Mark’s College at the University of British Columbia.

While the move from the antipodes to North America may seem more dramatic than a shift sideways from Calgary to Vancouver, the truth is that the latter has been much harder. As a single father for near on a decade, I have never lived apart from my children. With the exception of a few days of travel here and there over the years, we have always been together — the three amigos. So moving to Vancouver upset a rather more complex apple cart for me. I had to learn a new city, and understand a new, but complex, portfolio; but that is really nothing compared to being separated from those you love.

I recognize that I am so fortunate to live in an age where I can pick up my phone and Facetime my children. When I first moved to Australia in the 1990s I could barely afford the cost of the long distance phone calls to my parents. And when they died suddenly, it was touch and go whether I would be able to afford the airfare back to attend their funerals.

Now I am in an entirely different position, able to fly between Calgary and Vancouver on a monthly basis, and to talk easily and effortlessly to my children whenever I need to. But getting used to living on my own again, after the chaos of a busy house, cooking for three to five kids a night, has been harder to get used to than I expected. Hugging my kids good night was not something that I ever took for granted; but I sure didn’t expect that I would miss it as much as I do. Change isn’t easy. And sometimes it’s the little things you miss the most, like a quick hug, a warm goodnight and the gentle turmoil of family.

Of course, there is another change that comes with this type of move — the shift from one parish to another. Having lived in a number of countries, it has always delighted me to see how different languages and cultures modify the Mass that we all know so well, so that we can often follow when familiar prayers are being said in a different language. The cadences of the prayers, chanted and sung, are surprisingly familiar even if they are recited in Ukrainian, French, Italian or Spanish. The hymns, too, are always reassuringly identifiable. I believe it was C.S. Lewis who described the liturgy as a dance, one that we come to know instinctively, and even small changes can cause us to stumble and to think about the mechanics of the moment, instead of the spirituality of the act. Until, that is, we become used to the change.

Part of the joy of parish hopping is that you get to see the many different styles of preaching, the different rhythms of congregations, even the quirky approaches that priests will adopt when they deliver parish announcements. At my current parish, one priest will faux-naively ask his colleague if there are any announcements, knowing full well that there will always be a long list of items to present. Everyone settles amicably, often with a good-hearted chuckle, as the key events are enumerated.

In the end, I truly believe we are creatures of habit, especially around our faith life. But we are also social creatures, and our parish community life matters. The differences, just like the comfort of familiarity, are part of the fabric of who we are as people of faith. Given that, I wouldn’t change a thing.

(Turcotte is President and Vice-Chancellor at St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College, University of British Columbia.)

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