There was an anonymous comment yesterday suggesting that I might be suffering from ministerial burnout, and that it might be the cause of my impatience with some of those whom the Holy Spirit has given me the privilege to serve in the parish ministry. In his or her charity, whoever wrote the comment promised to pray for me, and I'm grateful for that.
It kind of pierced me to the heart, and it invaded my prayer for the rest of the day, in a good way. Not every invasive thought that comes to us in prayer is a distraction; often they are something screaming to be looked at.
There is something there; some truth to the comment. On the psychological level you might call it burnout. Perhaps it's more or less the same thing that would be called acedia on the level of the passions and temptation. Whatever you call it, there is an internal challenge going on, and I'm grateful that somebody took the time to point it out to me.
This is a very personal sort of confession, but I've always meant this blog to exist partly for those who are curious about religious life and priesthood, about the struggles and joys of the life. I do it especially for those who might be discerning their own vocations.
So what's up? What is the trouble? As I've been reflecting on this since yesterday and examining my conscience, I think I want to describe it as a kind of emotional fatigue mixed with a mood of disappointment.
First, let me try to describe the emotional fatigue. In the parish ministry one deals daily with folks in intense emotional states, both good and bad. There's the zeal of converts and the distressed vertigo of those who feel they are losing their faith. There's the recently bereaved and the new parents. There's the tragic self-imprisonment of the scrupulous and the happy liberation of those who realize their salvation.
As a priest you are called to meet the intensity of these states with a certain commensurate degree of reverence. It is your joy to do this as a human witness on the part of God's Church, but it can also wear you out. I only realize now, with this job, what a quiet life I have led for much of my time on earth until now. I may have been happy or sad at any given moment of my life, but it was all pretty calm.
Second, let me try to describe the low-grade mood of disappointment that gets mixed in. One gets into this sort of vocation, whether religious life or priesthood or both, with a desire to live the Catholic Christian life in a particularly intense and directed way. You have found a call through your own prayer and are eager to answer it. You fall in love with God in a certain way that seems to demand an exclusive relationship, and you're ready to jump in with wholehearted trust and giddy zeal. But then you then find yourself in a community not only overly committed and spread thin, but also having trouble knowing its own corporate identity within the Church and the world. (I don't mean my province or Order in particular, but mainstream religious life here in North America.)
It can also be hard for you as someone once set on fire for prayer, observance, and the seeking of God, to be sent in the parish ministry where you suddenly have to deal with the average North American Catholic, who, as we know, does not practice the faith in a measurable way. Nevertheless, the average Catholic still wants their baby baptized even though they don't give evidence of being able to make the baptismal vows on the baby's behalf in good conscience, and the average Catholic still wants a priest to come say a prayer for their deceased loved one at the funeral home, even though they might not intend to give him a proper funeral or burial. Having these sorts of conflicts day after day on the phone and in the parlor wears me down. I want to infect these folks with the love of the God who is so good, but sometimes they seem to just see me as someone who is refusing to give them the customer service they want and are (often) willing to pay for. 'What sort of donation can fix this trouble, Father?'
All of this can be very wearying, and brings up the internal trouble or temptation of burning out. You're bored with the job and the people because you've lost sight of the grace in your own life and in theirs, respectively. You start to minister mechanically, working out of mere human charm and cleverness. This is particularly dangerous, because you can fool people if you're good, and you may even become more popular because you no longer have any prophetic edge or challenge to give your people. In the end though, you start to resent the people as a distraction; lacking God, you now have only you're own interests, pleasures, and diversions to interest you, and are annoyed when called away from them. Under different names and aspects, I have been aware of this temptation and struggle in myself.
In the end, though, I'm begging the question. For me, the heart of the Franciscan charism consists of two utterances: First, that of Francis confessing his own conversion: "The Lord granted me, brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way..." By our Franciscanism we confess that our lives are no longer our own work, but the Lord's, who has given us the grace of "beginning to do penance," of turning ourselves from our miserable and boring selves to God and his poor. Second, that of Christ crucified to Francis: "Go, Francis, repair my church, which you can see is being completely destroyed." To be a Franciscan is to be a repairer of churches, a restorer of the Body of Christ.
Therefore, a Franciscan should not be surprised to find that the Holy Spirit has put him in a corner of the Church where the thing seems to be falling down and broken. To be there is his mission. That it is overwhelming and often disappointing on the human level must drive him ever more to Christ crucified whose call and Church it is in the first place. The strength for this must come from prayer. It is only from there that I can find a way to be burned through rather than burned out. It is only there that the injuries that would be the selfish wounds of disappointment and resentment are transformed into the selfless stigmata of the Cross.
"That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men."
Thanks as always to readers, for keeping me honest and humble.