torn cloth

The untidy mix of old and new

The other day, I went for a walk along a road in Indiana between cornfields and luxurious homes, and I saw horseshoe prints and Amish buggy tracks in the frozen mud. While I moved through what felt like a strange crossroad of rural America, icy wind swirled flurries around my feet and numbed my cheeks. As I walked I listened to a Pray As You Go meditation through my cellphone and heard Jesus’ words from long ago — a warning about creating something new from an item that is old.

No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.MarK 2:21-22

I have never tasted wine that was stored in a wineskin, and I am pretty awful at sewing patches. I am, however, living in a time when what is old influences what is new — when the lines between old and new are blurry. As a Franciscan sister in the Roman Catholic tradition who is passionate about justice, I think a lot about social movements, change and human invention. I notice how what’s new and needed sprouts from what’s old and dying. This is the stuff of cycles, of nature and development, but change doesn’t work without holistic integration of history and healing.

Speaking of history and integration, the day I was out for that walk was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when we honor a man whose teachings or importance is far from old or outdated. If he hadn’t been murdered for his prophetic voice he would have turned 93 years old this week, younger than the oldest humans now alive. Younger than several people I know. Dr. King lived a life in color yet we prefer to see him in black and white images, as an icon of history not as a stain of sin. This nation, the United States, both uplifts and celebrates prophetic voices and we shun, silence and murder them. Besides the media moments and tidy memes, how did we celebrate and heed Dr. King’s teachings on Monday? Or more importantly, in the last year? A white police officer was put in prison for killing a black man, yes, and the longest war that the US has ever fought ended, true. Yet neither event comes close to justice or liberation. The horrors of violence, racial and economic injustices persist, and we are a very long way from freedom. New people, old problems, recycled teachings, same disappointments.

… the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins.

The tension between justice and tradition is especially felt within religious communities. A few days before I went to Indiana for retreat with my housemates from The Fireplace, I gathered in a Zoom room with some of my Franciscan sisters and affiliates. During the meeting I felt the important challenge of developing into an antiracist congregation, of unlearning our thinking and reforming our ways. I also felt saddened to remember that I am called to detach from old things that I love (such as the tagline “modern lives, sacred traditions”), even if they were constructed with good intentions. Part of the unlearning and reforming requires the decentering of white comfort; after all, and when people of color remind us that our tradition has caused harm, we must listen and respond. Beloved tradition of colonization and oppression. Out with the old, in with the new? The same tradition that has caused such harm is also a tradition of liberation, beauty and truth. To repair and repent likely requires reconstruction, not throwing out the old to make room for what is new.

the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.

If I am really honest, I can admit that I struggle with the complexity and layers of harmful history mixed with hope. The events of my daily life show me how the mixing of old and new is common and messy. Just as blood and water flow, we carry the shadows of history with us into the present moment. We move from this moment into the next fed by food we earlier consumed. There is no escape from the tension of disappointment mixed with desire. There is no pure protection from the past.

… one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.

I would like to sit down with Jesus and have a heart-to-heart about this in real time, but I fear that no matter how he says it, I am too dense to understand. Is the point that we ought to avoid getting stuck? Are we supposed to make sure our containers fit the new systems we are creating? I don’t know, but I feel the struggle. And I see that to really honor Jesus and Dr. King, we must work on healing and integration; we have to be open to letting go.

Photo by Eddie Kopp on Unsplash

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