Wednesday, July 29, 2020

CHANGE: Part TWO of a Three Part Series

Rev. J. Ronald Knott
(originally written for the Diocese of Lafayette, Indiana)

for a video version

With all the changes that are coming at us, it is important that we understand the difference between a “change” and a “transition.” In last week’s column, I wrote about “change.” A “change” is any event that can shake up our understanding of the world and our old priorities. A “transition,” on the other hand, is a three-phase psychological reorientation process that people go through when they are coming to terms with a “change.” In a “transition” there is an ending, a neutral zone and a new beginning. 

Phase Two - Managing the Neutral Zone

The neutral zone is an area of great discomfort. This phase is reminiscent of the People of God wandering around a desert between Egypt and the Promised Land. These are the days after the funeral, the job loss, the resignation, moving into the nursing home, moving from one parish to another, leaving a spouse abuser and after a divorce. These are the pain-filled days when there is a temptation to want to return to the familiar for relief. The secret of success in the neutral zone is to “stay the course” and “get through” it. 

The “neutral zone” phase of transition is a no-man’s land where people wander between two worlds, one dead and the other not yet born. It is a dangerous time. It is rightly called a “grieving period.” Some remain in this phase for years, suspended between death and life, pitifully clinging to a past identity, afraid to let go and afraid to move on. A mistake the Fathers of Vatican Council II made, was not warning us about a painful neutral zone. They forget to tell us about the “desert.” In pain, we have some who are yearning to go home to the “fleshpots of Egypt.” 

I have spent so much time in the neutral zone phase that I wrote a book about it. It is the closest thing to an autobiography. The book is called

One of my very favorite “neutral zone” stories from that book happened a few weeks after my ordination fifty years ago, This “change” was unwelcomed. 

All through seminary, after spending years in rural areas, my heart was set on an urban assignment. I had a fabulous chance of seeing that dream come true because newly ordained priests typically became associate pastors in large urban parishes. 

When the call came from the Priest Personnel Board. I was told that I was being assigned to the “home missions” of our diocese, in Appalachia, down along the Tennessee border. The area was what the Glenmary Fathers called “No Priest Land.” 

Unable to change their minds, I went into a depression, angrily packed my bags, bought a map and drove toward my hated assignment. Halfway there, I had a conversion experience. I learned something about all unwanted “changes” - I could change my mind! I started telling myself, “If you don’t get what you want, you can always want what your get!” Because of that mind change, it become a great assignment, better than I could have ever imagined. 

Another favorite “neutral zone” story from my autobiography, happened as I left the Archbishop’s office after I told him, after fourteen successful years as pastor of our Cathedral, that I thought it was “time” to move on. Even though this “change” was welcomed, I remember sitting in my car feeling like I had just burned my life’s most important bridge. In the following weeks, I felt like my niece after her husband’s funeral, “I knew who I was yesterday, but I don’t know who I am today.” My time in the “neutral zone” was shortened greatly because of all I had learned about change. In a year or two, I found myself in yet another “Promised Land” as a staff member at Saint Meinrad Seminary. 

At the end of those wonderful fourteen years, I “induced labor” yet again and went into retirement. Even though that transition did not go smoothly, and the neutral zone was painful, I came out of it again and arrived at a new level of excitement as a volunteer in the Caribbean Missions. 

Now, another unwelcomed change has challenged that serenity, an international pandemic. This time I am confident that I will get through this neutral zone too. I am doing what I have always done during times like this, I engage in “self-talk” by journaling and reading collected wisdom literature on “transitions” and pray that I can embrace yet another “new beginning,” believing that it too will be good. 

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