Contemplation, the fraction and priestly absorption

I increasingly believe that, no matter how superior or refined a theological education, clergy are ill prepared for dealing with, engaging with and protecting themselves from the melting pot of human emotions we find in our differing sectors of ministry.

I recently gave a lecture using various pieces of art focusing on the representation of the crucifixion from the second century Axeminos representation right through to Guido Rocha’s The Tortured Christ. At the core of this lecture was my assertion that I hold only three certainties: I was born, I will die, God is. The rest is complex, messy, wonderful, challenging, joyful, joyless, exciting and disappointing. Such is the stuff of the human condition.

Church congregations abound with every human emotion that exists. Entering into this space is profoundly wonderful and desperately challenging and requires the priest to be centred in a life of stillness and of immense self knowledge. Theological college is invariably not the place where we learn this.

I was graced with twenty-three years of teaching experience, thirteen as a Headteacher underpinned by the ongoing process of psychotherapy and well-being coaching. I worked over ten years in three separate periods, with two different psychotherapists and a well-being coaching. My theological education was mostly very good, but my psychotherapeutic and emotional education was better. I continue to see my last psychotherapist who now acts as a work consultant, having worked with me as I transferred from education to full time priestly ministry and now works in tandem with a spiritual director.

At the centre of my life has been the seeking for a place of stillness and silence, accompanied by a desire to understand who I am within myself and how I impact on others. Psychotherapy for me was and remains an act of contemplation. Whilst not currently being in psychotherapy this reflective process of contemplation sustains me as I attempt to ‘lead’ and ‘serve’ a church community which like any group of people is a melting pot of human emotion, some wonderful, some just plain dangerous.

I use the word dangerous deliberately. The great danger for any priest is that of excessive absorption. Priests absorb. We absorb the hopes and fears of those we serve. We also absorb their darkest moments, unspoken secrets, the inner terrors, their shame, their guilt. This is right. We are there to witness to the transforming love of God, to the sacrificial offering of Christ and to the comforting, challenging and convicting power of the Holy Spirit.

But, we also absorb their anger, their unacknowledged and unresolved emotional lives, their ongoing disappointments, even their distaste and their disgust often thrown at us as priests. One cleric I knew was once publically told that she was a disgrace and that she disgusted the accuser. Her crime, she would not allow the poppy wreath to lay on the memorial in perpetuity and was merely following the instructions of the Diocesan Chancellor who had by now been drawn into an abusive and highly toxic situation. Like many of us, she went home after that meeting, living on her own, wondering what she was to do with such vitriol, where to place it, how to deal with it. In the end she left, a good priest moved on.

Father Richard Peers in his recent blog post hits the nail on the head. Our lives must be shaped most firmly by the regularity of prayer and sacrament no matter how we feel. Indeed, our feelings are often the most unreliable lens to look through. For me, the primary lens must always be the breaking open of Christ at the altar, the place of limitless love and sacrificial giving, the place within which all of our own sin and hurt along with the endless toxicity of many a human relationship, properly belong. Within my own life and ministerial context we have moved to daily Mass, the impact this appears to be having on many is seemingly positive and comforting. I know the stories of those who attend, who come quietly with reverence and expectation into thirty minutes of sacramental offering. I know the impact this is having on me and on my ability to absorb that which I am properly called to absorb and that which gets chucked at me and left on the doorstep of my own heart.Some might say that the idea of daily Mass is just ‘one more thing,’ it certainly is. For me in a round of Daily Office, set community prayers (Sodality of Mary) and silent contemplation I find the ‘one more thing’ to be exactly what the day is about, a necessity and a place where I can let go of what I have absorbed.

The uncertainty of human emotion and the challenge of human interaction is a factor in the downfall of many a good priest, wrung out by the rigours of the role and their own generosity seeking to unfailingly serve the faithful and the communities of which they are part. Without contemplation, without sacrament, without those regular prayerful moments throughout the day we place ourselves in stormy unchartered and threatening waters and we will drown. It is only within such still and silent places of prayer that we can begin to make sense of what it is that we absorb. By entering willingly and joyfully into a routined and disciplined engagement with stillness, silence, placing ourselves and the whole of humanity within the repeated breaking open of Christ we have a greater chance of being kept safe from drowning in the wonderful and dangerous melting pot of human emotional need. Stormy waters or stillness and silence? I know where I would rather be.

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