Avoiding the slough of despond?
At this time of year, many involved in ministry begin preparations for their annual leave. The short break following the Easter Triduum will seem some distance away; overtaken by sacramental programmes, parish school masses and, in most churches at least, wedding preparations.
The idea of a short break away from parish responsibilities will be welcome. Whilst others may use this time for their spiritual exercises or retreat, the more energetic may embark upon pilgrimage of a more physical kind. For those in these islands, destinations may include: Walsingham, Knock, Lourdes, Ars, or even Santiago de Compostela. On their travels they will be following in the footsteps of millions of pilgrims who - like them- have committed themselves to a journey intended to recuperate and rejuvenate their faith.
As they prepare for their journey, some will be aware of their fatigue and need for spiritual nourishment. Others may welcome a change of scenery; a different perspective.
Whatever their position, the path of travel requires careful consideration. In his Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan narrates the journey of 'Christian'. Along the way, he encounters others of varying characteristics; including a fellow named Pliable. As his name suggests, the hallmark of Pliable is his susceptibility to the views of others and an absence of inner resolve. Bunyan describes how Pilgrim and Pliable, through lack of vigilance, find themselves wallowing in the mire. Christian calls for Help and he came. Having extracted both from their difficulty, Help enquires of Christian:
"Why did you not look for the steps?"
"Fear followed me so hard that I fled to the next way, and fell in."
The story confirms how this difficulty was enough for Pliable to abandon his pilgrimage; finding a ready excuse for this purpose.
The episode provides a timely reminder that in the company we keep and the matters which we allow to occupy our thoughts, vigilance is key. What does this mean for priests and religious preparing for their annual vacation?
There can be no doubt that the Church is, in our present times, assailed by many difficulties. For those of a particular vintage, thoughts and anxieties may range from the diminishing numbers of clergy, the lack of adequate lay formation or engagement, the migration from populo Dei to Populo Dei Inc, or, a concern that pastoral efforts are in vain. All priests and religious (and other laity) are right to be alert to the difficulties and the dangers they pose. They would not be faithful stewards of the people entrusted to them if these matters left them untouched. However, concern is not the same as anxiety; nor can it be allowed to serve as the portal for fear or despair.
When we become preoccupied with such things, it is a short step to the helplessness encountered by Christian in the slough of despond. We have, like Christian, failed to see the steps. We have allowed our senses to obscure from plain sight the reality that ministry must be and remain the continuing work of Christ's own salvific mission. It is the means by which - in our journey- we seek to transmit His message, not our own. When we do so in faith, we cannot fail. True, the gestation period of prayer is unknown, and the fruits of the vineyard may give the appearance of a slender harvest. Nonetheless, it is and remains His Work, His vineyard, His Harvest. Having embraced this Truth, all of those embarking for annual leave may wish to draw upon the psalms when reconfiguring their "spiritual satnav":
"This is the day the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it."[ps.118]
"Your word is a lamp for my feet, and a light to my path, O Lord." [ps.119]
With both, despond may be averted and rest assured. Unlike, the fictional Christian, we are able to say too:
" Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth." [ps. 124].
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom: pray for us.