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Posted June 9, 2010

Combating Pressure with Joy: A Priest’s Perspective

Eugene Hemrick
Human Development. Old Saybrook, CT.
Vol. 31: Number One: Spring 2010

Table of Contents for Vol. 31:

– Psychospiritual Stress Management

– Stress Tip Sheet

– 10 Ways to Build Resilience

– Financial Stress

– Two Major Causes of Stress: Loss and Unrealistic Expectations

– Combating Press with Joy: A Priest’s Perspective

– Confessions of a Time Manager

– Living Faithfully with Stress

– A Perspective on Stress Among Roman Catholic Lay Ministers

– Stress in the Life and Work of Lay Ecclesial Ministers

– Prayer — A Family’s Best Stress Management Tactic

– Twenty Stress Busters

In this life, no one is exempt from undesirable pressures!

Pressure, the dictionary states, denotes affliction, being squeezed, compressed, crushed, and crowded. When it takes hold of us, it can take the very breath out of our spirit.

Pressure also has a good side, it connotes hugging. When we love a person, we apply pressure in order to squeeze him or her closer to us. Another of its advantages is encouraging us to address issues needing immediate attention. It is the perfect prescription for countering procrastination and inaction.

The topic of pressure has been a concern of mine as a priest- social-science-researcher for more than thirty years. In this article, I wish to address the pressures priests experience in particular, and what I learned during my lifetime about coping with them. To begin our discussion, we need to ask, “What pressures weigh on priests most these days?”

Priestly ministry, like most public ministries, contends with the unpredictable and unexpected pressure filled moments. As a young priest, it was common to be called out in the middle of the night to administer the last rites to dying parishioners. Funerals were frequent, requiring us to drop our planned schedules and attend to the bereaved. After celebrating a morning mass, people often came to the sacristy unannounced needing counseling or confession. Less common, but not unusual, were perplexed or angry people who didn’t agree about this or that and would unload on us. And then there were the little mundane pressures like toilets clogging, and this or that breaking down.

Mundane happenstances, psychological, physical, spiritual and personal problems are an integral part of priestly ministry, and as one wise old priest reminded me, “They go with the territory.” However, when they become accumulative and gang up on us in the short space of an hour or day, they can become crippling if not handled properly.

During my first parish assignment, I remember almost losing my composure totally after a hectic evening in which I listened to one problem after the other. In one of the counseling sessions, a couple nearly came to blows. After the last appointment, I took a long walk and wondered whether anyone in the parish was happy, or for that matter, sane. That night was a good learning experience in that it taught me how much the problems of others can weigh on us even though they aren’t our problems.

Today’s priests not only experience the above pressures, but they face a new and more pressing one: ministering to multiple parishes. At a convocation I gave to priests in the Midwest I asked, “How many of you have two parishes?” Several priests laughed and said, “You’re asking the wrong question, how about three or four parishes?”

I once rode with a priest who was serving several parishes. He was called a circuit rider, an image that dates back to the days when priests were few and rode horseback from one town to another ministering to their people. As glamorous as it may have seemed, most of those priests burned out. Without question, serving parishioners in multiple parishes is one of today’s biggest pressures for priests.

Priests aren’t the only ones experiencing new and weightier pressures. I frequently wonder how parents survive raising children these days. Feeding, clothing and tending to them is a twenty-four-hour non stop task, let alone being very expensive. Add to this sickness and the worry this creates and trying to hold down a job at the same time, and we see that family life is anything but a calm existence.

Families aren’t the only ones experiencing undue pressure. As free wheeling as persons living an unmarried single life seem, a closer look reveals that they too experience enormous pressures. In the morning I routinely look out my apartment window and watch young single women and men hurrying off to work and wonder about the pressures they face. In our tight job market, do they fear job security? Are they troubled about the next bills to be paid, and when or if they will meet the right person for marriage? Who will take care of them if they are sick? As we can see, no walk of life is exempt from the weight of daily pressures.

One of the questions I am asked as a priest is how I have coped with pressures over the years. As one layperson half joking put it, “As a priest who has God’s ear, what has God taught you about coping successfully with pressures?”

Recently I came across Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Exhortation on Christian Joy. To my surprise, I found he identifies the very means I employ when grappling with pressures. I learned early on in my priesthood that joy is the best antitoxin against extreme pressures! [It should be noted here that joy is an essential quality of love, and that ultimately we are talking about love]. What is the meaning of joy, and how should we practice it in everyday life?

Pope Paul IV tells us it is finding peace and satisfaction in possessing a known and loved good. When we possess that good, it creates harmony with nature, with people and within ourselves.

St. Thomas Aquinas adds an important dimension to joy in stating that joy is to desire as motion is to rest.

When we combine Pope Paul’s idea of joy with Aquinas’, we learn that once we possess a loved good, an inner harmony is created. Possessing a loved good and having our desire fulfilled is the key to being at rest and countering the restlessness that pressures create. Having our heart’s desire puts us at ease. In other words, the pressure is off.

These are profound philosophical and theological ideas. How do they apply to everyday life, and how do they counter pressure?

The first quality of joy that Pope Paul VI points us to is the joy of elation. Simply put, it means drinking in the beauty of Mother Nature and enabling the elation it contains raise our spirits. The Canticle of Daniel 3:57-88, 56 captures this spirit par excellence.

“Bless the Lord and the works of the Lord.

You heavens bless the Lord.

All you waters above the heavens, bless the Lord.

Sun and moon, bless the Lord.

Stars of heaven, bless the Lord.

All you winds, bless the Lord.”

One by one the Canticle ticks off God’s gifts of Mother Nature, reminding us to stop and note their beauty, and to rejoice in and be grateful for their abundance. It is a canticle of celebration filled with the joy of God’s nature. In all humility I have not only prayed this canticle, but lived it.

I live close to the botanical gardens in Washington, D.C. This year’s flower arrangements were spellbinding! I often went down to see them and each time I did I said to myself, “Only God could create the awesome mixture of dazzling colors contained in these flowers!”

The exaltation that comes from stopping to smell the roses not only is one of my most memorable joys, but my means for reducing pressure. When we let our spirit become uplifted by the awesomeness of God’s nature, the very powers of our spirit needed to support weighty pressures are generated.

Joy of austerity is another of joy’s qualities, meaning happiness over work well done. Here we have the picture of stepping back, admiring the fruits of our labor and letting the moment fill us with happiness.

In my seminary days I worked as a gardener during the summer. That time was one of the most enjoyable periods in my life. Why was this so? Because I used to step back after a day’s work and imbibe in the joy of work well done. I remember planting flower beds and at the end of the day standing there in admiration of the way they enhanced the surroundings of the mansion where I worked. There were also times in which I cut the lawn in unique patterns and relish their novel geometric designs.

What made that period in my life so wonderful was coming home at night and falling asleep thinking about the beauty I had seen and created. It taught me that if we take joy in our work, it can produce the heavenly sleep and rest needed to generate the strength for meeting the pressures of the next day.

I need to add here that years later I came across the spiritual practice of theological reflection, which deepened my practice of reflecting on the day and relishing its moments. Theological reflection encourages us to review our day each night, to reflect on the people with whom we have had a significant encounter, and to recall how God-graced the day was. This practice taught me that we have a good number of significant encounters with people, many of which are very nourishing and joyful. We may have received a compliment here, an encouraging word there, or had a friend truly listening to us in a moment of stress. They are moments that should be reflected on repeatedly because they contain joys that should be preserved. Theological reflection reminds us to rejoice in these moments and to thank God for the grace and strength of spirit they contain — the very strength needed to stand strong against pressures.

One of the most devastating pressures I hope to never experience again is the darkness of depression. Thanks to my gardening experience and a wise old Benedictine monk I was able to subdue it before it took hold of me.

I had changed jobs after working twenty years at the Bishops’ Conference in Washington, D.C. In hindsight, the move proved to be a blessing. However, at the time I changed jobs I was twenty years older than when I came to the Conference. In trying to make new adjustments, I quickly learned I wasn’t as flexible and free spirited as I was then.

My new job was in the President’s Office of The Catholic University of America. It was nothing like my past position as director of research. There was new routines, extensive travel, many more meetings, and I didn’t have the community life of priests I had enjoyed while living at the staff house of the Bishops’ Conference. I found myself alone and filled with anxieties in a completely new and unfamiliar world. One day I arrived at work not knowing how I got there. This experience was the result of the extreme pressures I was undergoing. I also feared that I didn’t have the strength needed for my new job, nor that I have the luxury of time and the breathing space that goes with conducting research.

After a severe panic attack, I happened to remember the words of an old Benedictine monk who taught at St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Illinois. Periodically he would tell his class, “You have enough under your scull cap, now it is time to get dirt under your finger nails,” and off the class would go to work on the adjoining farm.

Remembering this, I dropped everything I was doing, put on coveralls and returned to my days of gardening, pruning trees, cutting lawns, planting and digging up weeds. Each evening I came home filthy and exhausted. And to my delight, within a week I was back to normal.

That experience taught me an enormous lesson in combating pressure. When we use our hands, work with soil and imbibe in the outdoors, it is therapy par excellence. Why is this so?

One reason is that our hands contain touch and are one of our best means for keeping us in touch. When anxieties attack us, it is common to freeze up, become paralyzed and lost touch with everything. We tend to go into a protective shell and avoid all forms of contact. Manual labor forces us to break out of our shell and move into action. It puts back into contact.

When we work with the earth’s soil, we are put in direct touch with life itself because from the earth comes all that sustains our life: food and water. When pressures take hold, it is common to become divorced from all forms of life because we blame life for our pressures. To reunite with it through its soil is an excellent way of reminding us earth’s life is our friend and is there to help us. Watching seeds produce new life and growth is life giving.

When I was cycling through Germany, I learned yet another lesson for combating pressure. It was common to see elderly couples hiking up mountain passes. For many Germans, the outdoors are considered therapy and a way of staying fit. In conversations with them, I learned that they see the outdoors containing the healing powers that keep our spirits, as well as our physical well being, uplifted. Getting out is a way of also getting away from pressures that have taken hold of us. The clear, fresh air the outdoors provides is an excellent means for clearing our head where pressures tend to lodge.

The joy of sharing and serving is yet another quality of joy to which Pope Paul points us.

In an interview with Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, he was asked why he was so generous in funding projects that fight malaria.

He replied, “God has been very good to us. Now it is time to pay back that goodness by sharing it with others.”

When he said this, you could see him light up.

No doubt all of us has felt the same uplifting and freeing spirit Gates reflected. When we give of ourselves, the inner harmony of which Pope Paul spoke surfaces, causing real joy — the joy that contains the perfect antidote for combating pressure.

The joy of chaste and sanctified love is yet another quality of joy.

In his Exhortation, Pope Paul observes we have lost the meaning of sanctified love and hence the meaning of true happiness. He writes, “Technological society has succeeded in multiplying the opportunities for pleasure, but it has great difficulty in generating joy. For joy comes from another source. It is spiritual. Money, comfort, hygiene and material security are often not lacking; and yet boredom, depression and sadness unhappily remain the lot of many. These feelings sometimes go as far as anguish and despair, which apparent carefreeness, the frenzies of present good fortune and artificial paradises cannot assuage.”

I believe that our culture has lost much of its sense of true joy and that behind this is the missing sense of a sanctified life. One look at the way marriage, home life, the business world and government are portrayed in the media immediately tells us that something critical is missing for their well being. More often than not, we are seeing marriage portrayed as a convenient bond rather than a sacred bond, home life as hectic and dysfunctional rather than as a sacred community, the business world and governments as dog eat dog jobs rather than sacred duties. Asking what really counts in life for our salvation isn’t politically incorrect. Questioning what is and is not authentic isn’t relevant. Speaking of God isn’t acceptable in our growing pluralistic society.

Throughout the bible, God is portrayed as a God of joy who desires joy for us and who has provided joy throughout his creation. In doing this, God has deemed us and his creation sacred. When sacredness is no longer respected, so too, is joy diminished.

In pointing us to sacredness as a means of joy, Pope Paul alludes to the ultimate weapon for combating the deadly effects of pressure. When we are under extreme pressure, sacredness reminds us that God ultimately is in charge of our life. The Germans have the word weltanschauung, meaning world view. The way we see the world often dictates how best we can cope with it and its pressures. When we see pressures through the eyes of the world, they become necessary, meaningless evils. When they are envisioned through the eyes of God, they are seen as coming from God for a purpose, and encourage us to pursue that purpose. Searching for and seeing God’s purpose is our best means for deflating pressures that we feel we suffer only.

These are my secrets for coping with pressure. Allow me to share one more with you. When I intone “Lift up your hearts,” at Mass, I recall the qualities of joy we have discussed and pray for the grace of God to practice at least one of them during the day. All it takes is enjoying the exultation of a beautiful flower arrangement, or sharing my good fortune with a street person to become uplifted and stronger in the face of daily pressures.