If you are active in the Church, you are going to have bad days. Here are some tips for making it until you are with the Lord in Heaven.
- Big picture – One of the recent popes was asked how he could handle all the pressure of leading the Church. He said that every night he went to sleep with a final prayer: “Lord, it’s your Church, I’m going to bed.” It’s good for us to remember that we have a small but important part to play in the life and work of the Church, whether we are the parish electrician or pastor. The Church is not really in our hands: we are in the hands of God, who has promised that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” God has the big picture, and we have to trust Him.
- Perspective – It sometimes feels as if we are unique in our problems. For us, the whole world might be the parish or diocese. Elijah the prophet once felt this way, too. “I alone am left,” he said to God. The LORD replied to him that there were prophets unknown to Elijah that God was keeping faithful. In the history of the Church, there has always been a vast army of faithful people that served God in humble and quiet ways. In his book, “Orthodoxy,” G.K. Chesterton says that though historians usually view kings, queens and presidents as the important figures of history, God does not necessarily see it that way. The “little people” are the really important ones, for each one lives a life that is bound for glory, if they will be faithful to the end.
- Prayer – We must spend time in prayer. Though we must, of course, pray for patience and perseverence, we should spend most of our time in simple companionship with God. We can contemplate God’s love for us, the changes He has wrought in our lives, the history of the Church or some particular teaching of the Church for which we are thankful. In the Mass, we can be caught up in the mystery, marveling at the bread-made-flesh. As we think about the Sacrifice at Calvary, we can offer our own small sufferings in imitation of our Lord, like a small version of the Passion. Through all this, try to remain in constant prayer. Keep a running conversation going with God, in whatever way works. If you can’t think of anything, pray “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Sometimes, fall silent, and let God comfort you.
- Scripture – St. Augustine said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of God.” It is also ignorance of the struggles of the early Church. As you read the book of Acts or some of St. Paul’s letters, you can get an understanding of the politics and conflicts that plagued the infant Church. There have always been termites in the house of God, but they won’t last past the end! In the Old Testament, the same kind of problems existed. Moses was challenged as leader numerous times, the prophets were afflicted by kings and false prophets, and slipping into pagan ways was always a threat. Read Scripture and see how Moses, Jeremiah and Gideon coped with their problems.
- Magisterium – The teaching body of the Church is alive and active. The new catechism is well worth reading, as are the various letters from the popes (encyclicals). Some people think the recent Church teaching is OK, but it was bad before that. The papal proclamation Sublimus Dei was written in 1537, and its beauty and justice will shock you. The Magisterium has not usually been followed by the majority, but it is reassuring to know that the teaching of the Church (real teaching, not some weird idea peculiar to a small group) will always be without error. If you are frustrated with the Church over a real teaching, such as abortion or interfaith communion, and you think it should be allowed when the Magisterium says it must not, then you are wrong, and need to repent! Concentrate on Prayer and Scripture, above, and find a patient, faithful spiritual director or catechist to help you understand the teaching.
- Saints, saints and laughter – There is a great song by Geoff Moore and the Distance, “Home Run.” He refers to the Church Triumphant (the saints in Heaven) as previous players in the Game (baseball is a metaphor for life). He depicts them as watching us from the grandstands, chanting (doing the wave?) and cheering us on. It’s a reference to St. Paul’s comment, “Since we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses…” The saints in Heaven have been through all this before, and they are praying for us. The saints on earth are praying for us whenever they pray for the welfare of the Church. Find the saints among us, and be one, too. Find at least one day a week to spend with some holy people (not the phony kind of course). Share your struggles, your hopes, your mistakes, and listen to theirs. Find the humor in these situations whenever you can, and learn to laugh at yourself. C.S. Lewis says there is a kind of mirth only possible among the saints. Good times with our brothers and sisters is the closest we get to Heaven while still on earth.
- Love – “Above all these, put on Love…” writes St. Paul. The greatest is Love. If we love with the Love of Christ, some frustrations will disappear. We will not have many of the false expectations that a lack of love allows. Thomas Merton (and many others) say we tend to see ourselves as the center of everything, and fail to see others as “real” people. Love helps us remember why we are doing what we do, and warns us when we are doing something we had better not. If we don’t love the people we serve, we should change ministries. There are no jobs in the Church that don’t require love.
- Study – The more we know, the less we can get caught up in our own little circle of illusions. Study Church history, study Scripture, go to talks (usually offered by your diocese). Study the history of your country or state. Study the history of other countries, especially ones ignored by most people. Take an art history class. Read really good books, not the drivel that passes for literature, but works of lasting greatness that speak to the core of human experience. Watch people, and try to understand them, and see what you have in common. Above all, study yourself! “Know thyself,” is good advice now, as it was for the Greeks, 2500 years ago. Know your predominant fault, and get a spiritual director to help you delve into who you are. We are often our own worst enemy, so we had better know ourselves.
- Change – If the pain of our problems is too great, and our relationship with God and others is being damaged, we need to change – either ourselves or the situation. Perhaps we need to reduce our expectations to something reasonable, or maybe we just need to leave a ministry that we just can’t cope with. We should not make a habit of running away from problems, but sometimes it is the right thing to do: “Those who fight and run away live to fight another day.” (I don’t know who said that. It is not in Scripture). If nothing else, our problems should draw us closer to God. If not, we are the problem! Look at your life: Do you have a history of running away? If so, maybe you are being called to personal change, not situational change. If you tend to keep trying, maybe you need to learn when to leave the situation and try something else. A word about obedience: If you are under a vow of obedience, all you can do (sometimes) is ask your superior for change. If your request is refused, accept it as God’s will. This may apply to lay people in problem parishes. Generally, we should “bloom where we are planted.” If the pastor is really a problem, we just have to do what we can, when we can. Changing parishes is rarely the right thing to do, although there are cases when it is the only way to cope.
- Act! – Sometimes, situations are serious enough to require action even though it may add to our stress. We can often depend on our brothers and sisters to help us, but there will be times where we will be alone in our convictions. If we are close to God through continuous prayer, obedient to Church teaching and humble enough to know our own faults and merely accepting the situation is likely to cause physical or spiritual harm to others, we may have to act. Whatever we do must be done in charity and without thoughts of revenge or judgement of others. Act according to the problem at hand, and don’t attack the person(s) responsible. Motivated by love, we must strive above all for fairness and never act out of hearsay or rumour. Occasions where bold action is required are extremely rare and are very dangerous for our souls since they can lead to pride and self-righteousness. Martin Luther is one of the best examples of this, as is Peter Valdes (see Waldensians). In both cases, a holy desire to right wrongs missed the mark and caused great damage (although some good may have come from it). The most dangerous ministry in the Church is that of reformer: Avoid it if you can.
- Remember Heaven – In the end, we will all be perfected (provided we persevere in faith) and join with our brothers and sisters in perfect union with God and each other. As we “work out [our] salvation in fear and trembling,” we should keep our “eyes on the prize.” All of us are destined for Heaven or Hell, and we are helping each other to one destination or the other. There is no problem now that will not be put right in the end, when Jesus returns in glory.
- Humility – Conflicts often arise because of the collision of our Pride with the Pride of others. According to most traffic laws, the one responsible for a collision is the one that could reasonably avoided it. By crucifying our pride and humbling ourselves, we can avoid most conflicts. Many of the Saints known for their great preaching and teaching were known also for their humility when challenged by others less gifted. When St. Thomas Aquinas was reading to his community, his superior corrected his pronunciation of a word. Thomas re-read the word according to the superior’s correction, even though it was wrong. When asked about it later, Thomas said that the correct pronunciation was less important than obedience to the superior. Thomas practiced humility. Of course, Jesus is the perfect example of humility. “He humbled himself and took the form of a slave… being obedient unto death: death on a cross!”
The case could be made that Jesus did all of these. While Jesus has no peer among men, He is one person of the Trinity, and His relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit is a model for our relationship with our brothers and sisters.