Dear Sister & Brother Vincentians,
Peace be with you. I hope that you are successfully getting through another Michigan Winter.
Our Council serves hundreds of thousands of people a year. We run a business with an eight figure annual operating budget. A core value of our mission is service. It is a source of quiet inspiration to reflect upon what our Council does, together, for so many in need.
Our overall commitment to service as Vincentians can be very challenging. Given the incredible number of people we help in so many ways, our mission is often exhausting, thankless, and, at times, overwhelming. So many to help, so little time and resources to do so! Such a situation, as noble as it may be, can and does result in “service fatigue.” For example, even when serving others, it is quite possible to experience loneliness, depression, underappreciation, or exhaustion.
Everyone – neighbors in need, Vincentians, staff, and all those who serve SVdPD – experience bouts with Service fatigue. From a Vincentian standpoint, it can arise from: a) too much to do and not enough time or colleagues to do it; b) feelings of being underappreciated for extended hard work and efforts; c) stress that results from caring for and helping suffering people; and d) a host of other causes. It can seem as if one is being asked to keep doing more without having had the opportunity to recharge. In turn, that can cause: irritability; decreased ability to function; fatigue; and even depression. On top of that, a nagging feeling that “I am doing God’s work. I shouldn’t be feeling this way” can further compound the situation.
So what can we, as Vincentians, do to help each other – fellow Vincentians and staff alike- who find themselves fatigued?
I, of course, have no answers. But I do believe that our journey back to God is a communal one. Our Vincentian Rule expressly encourages us to journey together toward holiness. In that spirit, therefore, I share the following in hopes that some may find it helpful. As always, I encourage anyone so motivated who reads this to do the same.
I. The Power of Prayer – Spending Time With God
Each of us needs to grow spiritually. But many struggle to develop true conversations with God. I surely do. In those moments, I tend to resort to formal prayers, which are beautiful and impactful. But rote repetition can allow my mind and heart to drift. Familiarity permits me to use “auto pilot”. On occasion, therefore, I just offer to God whatever my emotions may be at that moment. The very act of expressing joy, gratitude, grief, disappointment, or even confusion begins to assist me to a new level of understanding and peace of mind.
Our Council offers several opportunities to pray or to grow spiritually together. Our Annual Meeting features a spiritual component. This year’s Evening of Reflection is scheduled for Wednesday, March 11th. Bishop Donald Hanchon will lead the evening. And our Council, District, and Conference meetings feature prayer and a spiritual element. Collectively, these group prayers and reflections help to build a sense of community within our ranks.
Jesus taught us to “be not afraid.” He will not leave us, especially in times of service fatigue. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln, during his days of unimaginable fatigue and prodigious challenges, said this: “Without the assistance of God, I cannot succeed. With that assistance, I cannot fail.” There is peace and joy in prayer. To follow Jesus is to grow continually in a deep love relationship with Him. It offers us the chance to draw near to the mind and heart of God and then to share the fruits of that relationship with the world.
Our Rule expressly contains the same concept, “Convinced of the truth of the Apostle St. Paul’s words, Vincentians seek to draw closer to Christ. They hope that someday it will be no longer they who love, but Christ who loves through them.“
II. Choosing to Love
I attended a funeral recently for an extraordinary lady who enriched the lives of so many during her remarkable, 93 year journey. The beautiful ceremony included a reference to Galatians 22. The reference reminded me that all our lives, many, many times each day, we are faced with a basic choice: to love or to hate. Choose love!
And here is the truly remarkable reality: each of us holds the capacity to increase our faith through the power of love! As an expression of love of God, whenever we choose to love our neighbor, we grow closer to God. Each time one chooses to act with love, e.g. joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, it increases our faith by living the gospels and not just paying convenient, self-serving lip service to doing so. On the other hand, choosing to do otherwise is irreconcilable with the tenets of our faith and our Society.
When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited; and we suffer. We cannot accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings. In effect, we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things do not make us suffer anymore. We have much more understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are. Our Rule provides that we do not judge. In the words of St. Louise de Marillac, “I know that we all have faults, and I more than anyone. However, the support we owe to one another should prevent us from noticing the weaknesses of our sisters, except if we are able to help them.”
To truly follow Jesus is to grow continually in a deep love relationship with Him. Even if a fellow human being may not, in your opinion, “deserve” to be loved, choose love anyway as a sign of your commitment to Jesus. By doing so, one’s capacity to love others grows, too. How truly exhilarating! So the big question is: how do we help our hearts to grow and thereby be better able to say “yes” to choosing love?
The disciples of Jesus asked a similar question. A gospel from Luke tells us that they requested that He: “increase their faith.” Jesus responded that it is not the amount of faith one has. Like the tiny mustard seed, even a small bit of faith can accomplish extraordinary things.
In another gospel, Jesus encourages us to “be the light” for those who are weary. When a neighbor in need, a fellow Vincentian, a staff member, or anyone else finds themselves in the darkness of fatigue, choose to be the light! Acts of kindness are how we “increase our faith”. In still another gospel, Jesus says that the rich shall become wealthier. He is clearly speaking of the wealthy of heart. The hearts of those followers who love their neighbors grow with every act of kindness. Actions in God’s name are a most holy kind of prayer.
III. Understanding Our Faith
We are encouraged to “live the gospel”. Wonderful advice. But what does it really mean?
Jesus left no writings Himself. Rather, four men – at different times and locations – wrote gospels – depictions of the teachings of Jesus. They relied heavily on parables, stories meant to promote reflection and discussion. To my knowledge, they never “compared notes.” But they wrote about many of the same occurrences, albeit with a somewhat different perspective.
Obviously, the gospels themselves play a central role in what one needs to know. In order to “live the gospels”, therefore, one should familiarize oneself with them. To be sure, a gospel is read at every Mass. So there is exposure to the Word for those who choose to attend. But with the realities of listening as part of a large group, not every word can always be digested properly. For me, it helps if I can slow things down and think on things. It also helps immeasurably to discuss matters of faith with others. Our journey back to God is communal.
A. Book Clubs & Gospel Groups
More than three years ago, our Pastor invited me to join a small group of men from our parish to discuss the gospels. At the time, the other lay participants were strangers to me and to each other. The idea was simple enough: we would read the gospel for the next Sunday and then meet bi-weekly for one hour to discuss it. In a sense, the undertaking would “increase our faith” one gospel at a time. My initial reaction was to decline respectfully. I was busy enough!
By then, my dear wife had been in a Book Club for many years. She had commented many times about how much she enjoyed the friendship among the group’s members. Somewhat like finding a friend to work out with, she also appreciated the discipline that being part of a group brought, e.g. encouraging one another. Although I had some doubts, I decided to give it a try.
Since then, our gospel group has discussed scores of gospels, with and without our Pastor. Candidly, there have been many nights when I have quietly rued having to go to the meetings because of other commitments, inconvenience, or sheer exhaustion. But I have never left a meeting thinking anything other than that I am so grateful that I chose to attend and how blessed I am to be part of this extraordinary group.
Let me be clear: other than our remarkable Pastor, our group has no member with particularly keen spiritual insights. But we have gathered in God’s name, prayed together, and freely shared different perspectives in good faith. By doing so, we have created mutual respect and treasured friendships.
During many of our meetings, I quietly think about the different perspectives in the four gospels. I also think about the inspirational teachings of St. Vincent de Paul and his emphasis on spiritual growth and friendship.
Be assured, my only reason for sharing these remarkable experiences I have had is to advance our Vincentian goal of journeying together toward holiness, i.e. helping one another. Participating in these gatherings has helped me immensely. Perhaps many Vincentians have already had a similar experience. I encourage all fellow Vincentians who have not to consider doing the same.
B. The Paradox of Our Faith
Many of us were introduced at an early age to the Baltimore Catechism. American Bishops in the mid-1800s wanted a Catechism for Americans. There were several “versions” to it. The version used for the education of students, utilized a straightforward, question and answer format. That hardly promoted (or even allowed for) discussions among its readers about, for example, how to reconcile the form answers with personal experiences! We were to memorize it, not discuss it. It surely served a useful purpose. But adults need more. Many find themselves not only believing, but also questioning. This inner conflict can cause angst.
At its core, faith clearly involves the need for doctrine, e.g. what our Church believes. “Increasing one’s faith” also involves reconciling doctrine with one’s experience, i.e. adapting beliefs to the world one inhabits. That’s a paradox. Rather than cause angst, however, faith and questioning should go hand in hand. Ultimately, together, they lead to communion.
So rather than feel “conflicted” by questions about our faith, I urge you to embrace your questions and discuss them with those who may be struggling with “faith questions”, too. Doing so may relieve fatigue and “increase” or strengthen your faith.
As my friend and very distinguished author, Rick Tarnas, opined, “We must be careful not to be like those chief priests and scribes in their structured world in Jerusalem who did not bother accompanying the Magi seeking the birth of the divine child, perhaps because, being “experts” in their field, they were blinded by their presuppositions to the great reality that was happening at that very moment. We must always remain open to the unexpected birth of that miraculous divine human synthesis.”
This time of year, Michigan weather can make even the most routine activities become chores. We all can relate to that reality. It contributes to a sense of fatigue. But we can also relate to the truly uplifting feeling we get when the brilliant sun makes an occasional appearance. So not if, but when, fatigue, frustration, or even anger come knocking, harden not your heart. Rather, regardless of whether one “deserves it”, choose to treat others with kindness or compassion, pray, or commit to learning more about our faith. If you do, you will convert a moment of fatigue into one of spiritual growth. Doing so can have the same uplifting effect – on YOU and others – as seeing the bright sun this time of year.
Particularly in your moments of fatigue, may you feel God’s love and support. The song, “Deep Within” so beautifully describes God’s love for us,
“I will give you a new heart, a new spirit within, for I will be your strength.”
It is my hope that you find what I have shared herein to be practical and helpful. Like everyone, I struggle. When I do, the actions shared herein, while certainly not a panacea, help. As Fr. Richard Yost says at the conclusion of each Mass he celebrates, “Let us love and serve the Lord by serving all who we meet.” Amen.
Thank you for all you do on behalf of our Society, Council, and all those we serve, including each other. God bless.