Sunday, 12 September 2010


A lobster is one of the tastiest dishes -also one of the most expensive in an English restaurant. But it's not the flavour, but the life-style of the lobster that intrigues me.

While watching a TV programme I realized that the lobster is a very strange and fascinating beastie. Instead of having an internal skeleton which grows, it is encased in a hard shell, which doesn't. So, the lobster has a problem. It's body's growth is restricted by the size of its shell. It can only get bigger by shedding its small shell and growing a larger one. After a time that also becomes too small and it has to go through the process again, and again, and again....

During the period between shedding one shell and growing the next the lobster is very vulnerable to predators. But it has to take that risk, otherwise it would always remain small and immature. In fact, it's only while the lobster is free from a hard non-stretch shell that it is able to grow. For the lobster growth and vulnerability go hand in hand -or claw in claw!

This got me thinking about myself and the Church. Certainly I don't have a hard shell, restricting my growth. But young ladies used to be trussed up in tight whale-bone corsets, to give them a slim waist-line. And my brother Peter found himself in a similar situation! When he complained about a severe stomach ache mother told him to loosen his trouser belt. Although that relieved the pain he was vulnerable to his trousers falling down! And Medieval knights were encased in metal armour. Youngsters began with small suits, which were replaced by larger ones as they grew. Between suits they were vulnerable to attack. How very lobster-like!

If we have been damaged in a relationship we may be afraid of getting involved with anyone else. Instinctively we grow a protective shell to prevent anyone getting through our defenses and harming us again. We prefer lonely security to risking becoming vulnerable to other people. But only when we come out of our protective shells and make ourselves vulnerable to rejection can we develop as people, once more capable of giving and welcoming love. It takes courage to risk being hurt, but that's far better than becoming turned in on ourselves in lonely isolation.

It also occurred to me that the Church's life-cycle is similar to that of the lobster. Periodically, the Church, like the lobster, becomes uncomfortable with the hard shell she has developed. She realizes that if she is to develop she must abandon some ofher protective, rigid defenses, which may have grown over several centuries. That happened between the Council of Trent and Vatican II. Old and familiar structures were questioned and some of them were discarded, as having served their purpose. Some feared that we were betraying our heritage. They mourned the loss of what had become so familiar and dear to them. They felt they and the Church had become very vulnerable.

But this kind of oscillation between periods of rigid structures and change has always been true of the Church's life. She is very different today from what she was like in Apostolic times. As she has grown and spread throughout the world she has had to become more organized. Prayerful reflection and the need to respond to attacks on our faith have led the Church to gaining deeper insights and greater clarity in expressing what we have always believed. Between these periods of growth there have been times of stability, with little change. These have mirrored the lobster, encased in its hard shell. These have been followed by lobster-like vulnerable development, after the hard shell has been shed. This process is a sign of vitality.

We and the Church resemble the lobster in two other important ways. First of all, none of us can return to the shell we have shed. We've outgrown it; it no longer fits. We can't return to our childhood and refuse to grow up. The babe must leave its mother's womb, and can't return there. It must then grow into childhood, become a teenager and finally an adult. There's no going back to an earlier stage in our life-cycle. So too, the Church cannot, and should not want to, return to the simplicity of Apostolic times. We've developed over the centuries. This rhythm of periods of flexible vulnerable growth followed by stability will continue throughout the life of the Church until it has grown into its full maturity in the kingdom of heaven.

But it's reassuring to remember that throughout all the changes the lobster, and the Church do not lose their identity. Nor do we, as we develop from a unique tiny embryo, through childhood into mature adults. As we leave one state behind and grow into the next we remain the same individuals. As for the Church, well, the Holy Spirit guarantees that she won't lose her unique identity, as He inspires and guides her development.

Perhaps it's worth noting that while the lobster's new shell is simply a large version of the old, discarded one , our growth and that of the Church is much more complicated and subtle. Far from just being small people -or the infant Church -growing physically bigger while looking exactly the same, the quality of our lives should be enriched as we leave one state of life behind and grow into the next.

Like the lobster, we must all shed the various protective shells, which restrict our growth, not only as human beings, but also as followers of Christ.

Incidentally, although the lobster's life-cycle requires it to have periods of vulnerability, it doesn't take dangerous, unnecessary risks. Nor should we, nor the Church.

Isidore O.P.
Next Fr. Peter will reflect on 'Meeting God through Petty Cash.'

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