Change is the only constant, we are told. Some changes we expect – the weather and seasons, aging, elections, the routine going and coming of people at work. Other changes, less expected, we think of as disruptions.
Most good stories pivot around a disruption. Three movies made in years past, but recently watched, reminded me of this.
In How Green Was My Valley, a working family in a Welsh coal mining village sees the end of its way of life as the industry changes, and most of the brothers leave for new fortunes far away while the sister marries unhappily into a wealthy family. The father turns to Psalm 23 for comfort before dying, while his wife is simply mystified by the rupture that has taken her children away on foreign adventures.
In Fiddler on the Roof, the Jewish father opens with a song celebrating tradition as the strength of his local people. He then watches as each of his three older daughters moves progressively away from the tradition of arranged marriage within the faith, before his family is finally uprooted in a pogrom and must move on to a new life in a strange land.
In the more recent animated film UP, a man clings to his home against the encroachments of developers after losing his wife and companion since childhood. The film’s opening depicts their meeting and their discovery of a shared love for adventure, their wedding, their loss of a child and subsequent inability to have children, and her death just before they were to leave on the long-awaited adventure voyage of a lifetime. His next adventure is a surprise.
Disruption is often the kick-starter of adventure in literature. JRR Tolkien’s Hobbit starts with the unexpected arrival of the dwarves and Gandalf, upsetting the pleasant calm of Bilbo Baggins’ life in the Shire. Chesterton’s novels, when he wasn’t writing mysteries, began with sudden upsets. The first volume of C.S. Lewis’ science fiction trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, begins as the hero Ransom, seeking only a room for the night, unexpectedly encounters an altercation and meets an old school friend. “The last thing Ransom wanted was an adventure. . . .” But an extended adventure was what he got, in this world and out of it.
C.S. Lewis’ own life was one of early disruptions, with the death of his mother and his enrollment at a boarding school that harbored all the horrors we associate with English “public schools” but offered a meager education. From those beginnings, which could easily have led to a life of stunted sadness, we got one of the greatest Christian apologists of all time and one of the most trenchant critics of the twentieth-century West.
Disruption is the hallmark of the lives of many saints and great churchmen, of course. The martyrs all faced disruption and the temptations against the faith that it presents. Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy is a gift of the confusion of the later Roman Empire. One thinks of the Jesuits who boldly ventured far from Europe to evangelize distant lands. St. Patrick was kidnapped as a child and enslaved. St. Thomas More saw a career as a senior-most public official disrupted by the events that led to his execution.
An adventure story full of disruptions
Outside of fiction and beyond Church history, the potential of disruption is readily seen. Plato and Aristotle produced some of the greatest political and philosophical thinking of all time during a period of tremendous turmoil for Athens. More recently, Francis Fukuyama described the profound cultural changes in America and the West in the 1960s and 70s and their effects on family, community, and other institutions in his book, The Great Disruption.
Catholics saw that same cultural disruption reflected in the aftermath of Vatican II. While they have heard the last two popes teach the interpretation of the Council as correctly one of continuity rather than rupture, the disruption in the pews has been real.
But perhaps the greatest “disruption literature” is scripture. The fall and expulsion from Eden, the adventure of Abraham and his descendants, wars and exile all fill the Old Testament. Jesus disrupted the lives of his apostles with his call to drop what they were doing and follow Him. He assured us He came not to bring peace but the sword.
Yet somehow, with all of that sacred and profane testimony, we still expect, deep down, peace and quiet. Very few of us escape the longing for security, ease, and comfort. The material advantages of contemporary life for so many make this urge seem normal, no matter how much our reason tells us that we should expect disruption and, sometimes, suffering.
Even by the standards of recorded history, the last century has been a time of disruption on a grand and awful scale. The prayer to St. Michael the Archangel was commended to the Church by Pope Leo XIII in anticipation of this period, and recommended by Pope John Paul II who had lived through much of it.
Fiction, history, and inspired revelation all tell us to expect disruption. The abrupt resignation of the pope is but one example, and as Benedict begins his new life of prayer, we wait to see the next steps in the adventure that is the life of the Church.
Whether we are ending a lengthy period of turmoil, or entering a time of accelerating disruption and consequent trials, we cannot know. All we can know is that disruption goes with calling, and with it, adventure, welcome or unwelcome. And the truths we are called to follow are the only things that do not change.