Time under Tension
“Time under tension is what makes us stronger,” says the barre instructor as I struggle to do one more rep. After four years of consistent barre workouts, I have to concede that she is correct. When I first started attending class, I could barely complete any section of the workout without taking multiple breaks. The instructors were always encouraging, though, and they would always say, “Take a break if you need to and jump back in!” So I did. Over and over again, I would stop, shake out the burning muscle, and try again. It was humbling—no one else in the class seemed to need so many breaks—but worth it. Today, I can keep up better, but it is still an effort. Sometimes I exclaim, “I can’t believe this is still so hard!” There is an obvious analogy here to the current synod.
As we grow older, most of us experience tension with our faith. Things no longer seem as simple as they were before. We know more. We grow up with a rosy picture of marriage, and then we watch friends get divorced (and in some cases, annulled). We believe children are a gift from the Lord that naturally follows marriage, and then watch as friends struggle with infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth. We see priests as selfless men of God, and then note that father is drinking a lot and seems to be spending too much time with Mrs. So-and-so. Things we have always believed come into conflict with things we see, and something has to give. Either we figure out how to reconcile the two, or we join the movement to “deconstruct” our beliefs in order to resolve the tension. But time under tension, as my barre instructor says, is what makes us stronger.
Time under tension means not having all the answers. It means acknowledging that God is infinitely more than we can understand or put into words, and that we are not going to have total clarity in this life. It means holding, at one time, that being a stay-at-home mom is beautiful and so is being a working mom, and so is not being a mom at all. It means recognizing that one partner’s mental illness may make staying in a marriage untenable, and yet marriage is a lifelong promise. It means that receiving the Eucharist on the tongue or on the hand is receiving a gift that no one deserves. It means that children are welcome at Mass and the faithful are called to worship in silence. It is uncomfortable and may even feel painful at times, because it means following God’s voice in your life—knowing that in the past, what you were content to think of as God’s voice was really just what you wanted (which became the content of your confessions).
One of the potentially helpful things about the synod on synodality is that it has brought much of this tension in the Church out into the open. With its focus on listening and on experience, the synod has asked participants to share their lives, and thus their moments of tension. While we do not know what anyone said in their small groups, various interventions and stories shared in the press conferences or public reflections have suggested that tensions have not been shied away from, and that can be a beautiful thing. It is the Holy Spirit’s role to draw together a people who are wildly different into one body. He is the one who ensures that the tension does not falsely resolve.
As this phase of the synod comes to an end, I expect that there will be a lot of speculation about “what it all means.” Signs of tension have come to the surface, and people will argue about how to resolve it. Having faith in the Holy Spirit may not prevent all anxieties, but it ought to affect how wrapped up we get in the arguments. We all have enough tensions of our own to resolve, tensions that echo the Letter to the Romans, “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” (Rom 7: 19). We must turn to God to resolve these tensions, and to make us stronger in the time until then.