tree_roots“Mine O Thou Lord of Life. Send my roots rain.” wrote G.M.Hopkins in a poignant sonnet that voiced his disappointment with life. It’s here and worth a read.

It came to mind when I was pondering from where true renewal comes in the Church. I’m now in my sixties and I’ve seen a new idea, a new gimmick, a new movement or a new method, resource or course every few years. Each one is going to bring renewal to the parish, renewal to the individual or renewal to the whole church.

I’ve been to big conference where they give pep talks. I’ve been to intense prayer meetings and Bible studies. I’ve seen the Omega of the Alpha and this On Fire and that On Fire and this Aflame and that Aflame. I’ve seen years of mercy and decades of Evangelization. I could go on. You get the idea.

But when you read church history this is never how renewal happens. Instead it grows organically. One person starts to do what he can with what he has where he is. Mother Teresa hears the call, sets out to help the poor doing what she can–teaching. St Francis starts by building San Damian one stone at a time. St Benedict starts a little community in the hills and there they do what they can where they are with what they have.

True renewal in the church has two characteristics which balance one another. The first is that it has deep roots in the tradition. The second is that it is outside the box, freewheeling and empowered by the unpredictable Holy Spirit. These two aspects are seen in St Benedict and St Francis. One is rooted and stable in a life or prayer, work and study. He is rooted in the literature, the tradition and the spirituality of the past.

St Francis, on the other hand, does something new and fresh. He is a young man with a young man’s heart and passion. He steps out in faith and does something beautiful for God and risks everything to stand naked before him.

But at the same time Benedict does something new and Francis is rooted in the past. The two must always go together in a delicate and Spirit led balance.

We can use these tools to assess different movements and tendencies in the church. If a group is only traditionalist and is making a little idol of the Latin Mass and a little rule book of regulations, then they will soon sour into negativity, pessimism, disappointment and suspicion. On the other hand, if they are always open to the Spirit and seeing what fresh and new things God is doing, then their love of tradition will be enlivened and brought to life in a powerful and vital way.

Likewise if a group or individual is wanting to do something new, but is not rooted in the tradition, then their efforts will be ephemeral. They will fizzle out  like a flower with no roots when the sun comes up.

One falls into imbalance according to one’s personality type. Traditionalists may fall into the trap of legalism and self righteousness. Progressives may fall into the trap of heresy and a division. It is just as easy to make an idol out of a modernist ideology as it is to make an idol out of an archaic liturgy.

But when there is both-and–both Benedict and Francis–real renewal can happen from the ground up.

And for that to happen we need the Lord to send our roots rain.