Is there balm in Gilead?
My previous blog post may pose an interesting question: What promotes balance within the cleric’s life? In other words, how does an ordained person avoid the gaping maw of those destructive characteristics described in the last post? Are we merely to live life as it comes with the phrase que sera, sera, as our fatalistic approach to life?
No, we are not. There are ways to achieve some modicum of balance in our lives, though, by necessity, it will be a dynamic balance – always subject to shifting, movement, and adjustment.
Following are some remedies to prevent the downward spiral caused by tendencies such as isolation, despair, anger, overwork, mania, emptiness and addictions:
· Consistent Spiritual Disciplines – This may seem like a “no brainer” for a priest, but sometimes the tendency is to be so wrapped-up in “church work” that we forget to tend the vine which nourishes us. A personal discipline of prayer, quietness, mindfulness, and solitude will contribute significantly to a foundation for the healthy exercise of the ordained vocation. There are many variations and forms of this discipline. The key is to have some form as part of your daily life. (I would note that many people find a frank, open relationship to a spiritual companion/director very important.)
· Exercise – Exercise which a person enjoys is good for the body and the soul. There are physiological changes, on several levels, which occur with exercise and any thorough description of those effects is well beyond my expertise. I know from personal experience that moderate exercise serves to clear the cobwebs from my head, allows me to release pent-up frustration in a healthy way, and provides a sense of vitality and relaxation that is good for me. My personal form of exercise is walking. And while it is not the same as running a marathon, the recommended 30-minutes per day, five-days per week is a good standard for maintaining balance.
· Collegial Support – I have said to Mississippi clergy that if I had one gift to give all clergy, it would be the gift of a self-selected peer support group. Such a group – which has as its foundations candor, confidentiality, and accountability – can be a meaningful means of support. It helps the ordained person realize that the vocational journey need not be an isolated one; that others walk a similar path and share similar experiences. The characteristics of candor, confidentiality, and accountability are important. Otherwise, the exercise becomes meaningless and has reduced benefits. This particular concept is at the core of Post Ordination Consultation and Fresh Start.
· Time with Loved Ones – The concept of balance, at its core, should provide time for those we love. I know that relates to many permutations of relations – family of various sorts, and friends of many types. An important factor is that this is time away from the vocation and an opportunity to share life with those for whom our vocation is irrelevant. It is in such times that we are able to delve into the connections by which our lives are fed and by which we express our gratitude – by time and presence – with those who are important to us. In many cases, the vows we have taken – in marriage or at the baptismal font – precede our ordination vows. Those meaningful relationships should not be cast-off or sacrificed on the altar of vocation.
· Fun – Life can become heavy and burdensome in the ordained ministry. We deal with matters that have significant impacts on people’s lives. We must hold much of it within the corners of our own hearts. Much that we deal with cannot be easily solved or resolved at all. Many times we live grasping the tragic remainder. We are subject to projections and transferences, for better or worse, that are out of our control. All these factors mean that we need to have sources of joy that are outside of the vocation. There is a limitless list of possibilities: various hobbies, such as cooking, golf, tennis, model railroading, knitting, painting, photography and others; hiking; bicycling; music; and sporting events. These, and others, can be yeast to provide airiness to life when it becomes too oppressive.
· Intellectual Stimulation – I was told by a friend that she had mentioned to another acquaintance that she was reading a specific book that was popular at the time. The acquaintance responded, “I don’t read.” If we find ourselves encountering life without the intellectual curiosity that is so characteristically human, we lose an important part of ourselves. The intellectual stimulation which is encouraged here is not necessarily something that contributes directly to our vocational exercise. I am not saying that a cleric needs to be poring over the volumes of Church Dogmatics by Karl Barth. I am suggesting that it is important to find a stimulating intellectual area and pursue it. Find an area of literature or life that you enjoy, and then go deep into it. It will likely yield benefits to your life and vocation (and, yes, conversation) on many levels.
· Laughter – Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her much-admired book Team of Rivals, wrote of Abraham Lincoln’s bountiful sense of humor, even in the darkest days of the Civil War. He had a tendency, even in the tensest of moments, to recall a story or anecdote which brought levity to the direst circumstances. As the portion of Reader’s Digest is named, “Laughter is the Best Medicine.” If our vocations become so heavy that we lose all sense of perspective, we are of little use to anyone. One saying states it so well, “Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly.” Laughter, in an appropriate setting, can prick the balloon of seriousness and allow us to move forward, perhaps not with happiness, but at least joy.
I have found that in this blogging, there is joy for me. I am able to organize rather convoluted and disorganized thoughts, and bring them into a cogent set of concepts. This is an exercise of balance for me.