All work and no pray

ANNE SATORIUS IS A PRETTY TYPICAL HARDWORKING, faithful Catholic. She teaches catechism at her parish in Milwaukee; she and her husband, Tim, edit the newspaper at their daughter’s school (where they also serve on the PTO); she looks after her aging parents, helping with yard work and more; she is a full-time dental hygienist.

“Life takes us in a lot of directions,” says Satorius. “It gets pretty stressful sometimes, and I can’t give everything as much time as I would like. But when we had our daughter after years of being convinced we could not have children, we made a decision to arrange our life around her. And that included getting involved back in the parish and at school. I wish I had time for things like retreats, but our life is just too full. Sunday morning Mass is the thing that really holds everything else together for me—it really keeps me going.”

Satorius, like so many of us, is bubbling over with everything at once: stress, gratitude, guilt, exhilaration, and a touch of wistfulness.

Like Satorius, I have a busy and sometimes complicated life. There is rarely a day when I don’t feel like I am letting somebody down. Either I have left things undone at work or I have shortchanged my children by not giving them enough attention. Or I haven’t taken time for my wife or my parents. Even when I do cover all the bases, I’ve often squeezed out exercise from my day, and I worry that I am not being responsible about my health.

Then there is prayer. It’s so easy to let it slide. Nobody really notices whether or not I take time to pray. I know that prayer is very important, and if I intend to last a long time in my work for social justice and in my many commitments, I have to find balance between prayer and action in my life.

The late Father Henri Nouwen said, “Prayer and action...can never be seen as contradictory or mutually exclusive. Prayer without action grows into powerless pietism, and action without prayer degenerates into questionable manipulation. In prayer we meet Christ, and in him, all human suffering. In service we meet people, and in them, the suffering Christ.”

The question is: How can I take time to pray when my life is already filled to capacity? Too many times I have heard and read advice on prayer from people who seem to have pretty controlled lives. I’m never quite sure if their lessons translate well into lives that can be chaotic, where silence and calm are in short supply.

But as I look around, I also find people who have been busy for years and still exude a sense of calm and balance. They are genuinely and obviously spiritual people. They seem to have found a way to be contemplative and prayerful even as they have led busy lives. Some of these people—I call them “spiritual survivors”—have, over the course of 20 or 30 or 40 years, managed to avoid burnout and have not allowed cynicism to overwhelm their faithful ideals. They have chosen the difficult road and battled against the odds yet remain excited about their life and their work and their faith.

For the Rev. Joseph Jackson a healthy spiritual life starts in the bathroom. “Like most people, that’s the first place I go in the morning. I keep a supply of spiritual magazines, devotional books, articles, and so forth. I have everyone from Howard Thurman to Henri Nouwen to Desmond Tutu in there. Before I have a chance to start thinking or worrying about anything else, I pick one of those and start reading. It’s the first of what I call ‘monastic moments’ that I try to spread throughout my day.”

Jackson is the pastor of Evergreen Missionary Baptist Church—a small, struggling congregation in the poorest part of Milwaukee, a congregation desperately in need of a new home. Evergreen seems never to be able to save money for a new church because so many other human needs demand immediate attention. Jackson also is the president of Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), a large and influential organization that fights for social justice. He is a sought-after spiritual advisor, a mentor to new hospital chaplains, and a devoted husband and father.

Asked how he maintains his balance in the midst of so many daily battles against poverty, despair, injustice, and intolerance, Jackson says, “I need those monastic moments—five minutes to read or to pray or to think about the challenges ahead and offer them to God. And you’ve got to have heroes. You’ve got to keep paying attention to people you want to be like.

“I try to learn from Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa. I also have people in my life I look up to. I think about Joe Ellwanger [a retired Lutheran pastor who has dedicated more than 40 years to social justice struggles]. Joe said to me that his greatest promise to himself long ago was, ‘I will not allow myself to become a cynic.’ I remember that, and I watch him keep that promise year after year. I know I can follow that example.”

Below are five strategies Jackson and others follow to incorporate spirituality into their daily lives:

1. Like it or not, discipline is essential.
“A long time ago I realized that no matter what degree I have, I still have to practice for the rest of my life if I don’t want to lose that gift,” says Judith Williams, who has a master’s degree in music. “My spiritual life is no different.”

Williams is executive director and the only permanent resident of the Catholic Worker House of Waukesha, Wisconsin. Recently she was recovering from a difficult period: “We had a series of five refugee families who stayed here, and it was a lot of work. The father of one family had died in an Afghan refugee camp, and the family was awfully dysfunctional. It was just really hard. At the time I didn’t notice the toll it was taking on me.”

Did Williams feel her physical and emotional fatigue were signs she had taken on too much? “Not at all,” she says. “We are called to love with all our heart and mind and strength. I did that, and I’m glad. We’re supposed to help bear the cross—that’s serious stuff, and it hurts sometimes. But you also have to know when it’s time to heal and rest.”

Discipline is not a fashionable concept. It seems to have lost some ground in the “work smarter, not harder” era, when people assure us we can achieve great things without breaking a sweat. There are no magical shortcuts. Spiritual survivors speak of the need to pray every day and accept that sometimes life is hard.

But theirs is not a harsh kind of discipline. None of them spends hours each day in prayer and study; none feels a need to seek out penances greater than those their lives and ministries give them. Most spend a few days or a week on some sort of retreat each year. All spend significant and consistent time reading, reflecting, and praying daily, and stress that consistency is the most important part of their spiritual practice, even if it is for short periods of time.

As a part of discipline, they also stress the need to enjoy things like music and gardening. It takes discipline to maintain balance.

2. Spiritual survivors have heroes, mentors, and communities.
Steve O’Neil is a good example of this strategy. “It started when I was in grade school. I had a teacher named Sister Damien. She was always talking about Father Damien, whose name she took when she became a sister. Father Damien was compassionate, but he was also a rebel. He wasn’t afraid to stand up to civil or even church authorities. Ever since then I’ve seen the saints as pretty cool people.”

Most days for O’Neil include some time to read from Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (Crossroad). “It includes not just the traditional saints but also people like Mahatma Gandhi and Dorothy Day. Every day gives you another inspirational person.”

O’Neil has been a prophet and a witness for 30 years. He has been a social worker, an organizer, and an activist. He has worked with family farmers and the urban homeless; he has done neighborhood organizing and church-based organizing. He and his wife, Angie, have been part of the Community for Creative Non-Violence in Washington, D.C. and the Catholic Worker. Their journey has brought them to Duluth, Minnesota, where O’Neil works with the congregations of Churches United in Ministries (CHUM) to confront issues that affect the poor people they serve.

Like other spiritual survivors, O’Neil mentions a range of interesting people he has sought out, people who helped to keep him grounded and focused. He attributes his longevity in social action to prayer and to the people who cared enough to hold him accountable for being prayerful.

“Every day, every month, every year, you have to make an effort. I’ve had wonderful mentors, especially some Franciscan and Benedictine sisters. A lot of people have helped me stay centered. I try to read a little scripture every day, and I read from Living With Christ [a daily devotional] and the lives of the saints. It’s not any one big thing; it’s a lot of little things that remind me to have hope—because, after all, that’s what we have to offer.”

Spiritual survivors become members of serious communities of faith and commitment. Most go beyond that, though. They actively work to create and build community. They often see an evolution in their lives: They move from being lone rangers to team builders who enlist others to share their work, their struggles, and their joys.

3. Dare to be different, dare to be interesting.
Long-term activists reach outside of their own tradition or the generally accepted “normal” channels for spiritual inspiration. The Rev. Jackson not only turns to fellow African American Baptists like Thurman and King as role models but also to Nouwen and Mother Teresa.

Judith Williams attends Mass with a quiet, mostly Anglo crowd, then takes part in the Latino charismatic prayer group. She also practices a Hindu meditation technique and looks to a Lutheran pastor for guidance.

Despite—or because of—the fact that spiritual survivors surround themselves with many people, they have many deep relationships and accept advice, help, and inspiration from many corners. They see the world differently from the way others do.

Williams says one of the most important times in her life was in prison. (She and the late Philip Berrigan were among the first to serve prison time for civil disobedience in protesting the School of the Americas.)

“The six months I spent in prison in 1991 marked a real turning point in my life,” she says. “Because of that experience, I understand prisoners better. And I can help. Even though I’m a thorn in the side of prison officials and am always critical [of them], the people who run the jail now call me and ask me to help when they see an inmate who’s really in trouble.”

4. Failure is an option, it’s just not a big deal.
Spiritual survivors are not strangers to failure. O’Neil remembers a campaign he organized that would have guaranteed shelter for homeless people in Washington, D.C. “It lost by half of 1 percent. I looked back and saw where I made some pretty serious mistakes, and I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if I’d done just a few things better.”

Disappointments do not daunt O’Neil. Recalling Mother Teresa’s adage, he says, “We won’t be judged by our successes and failures; we’ll be judged by whether or not we’ve been faithful. I also look at people like Nelson Mandela and what he suffered, or what many of the saints suffered, and I realize my setbacks are pretty small by comparison.

“One other thing I find helpful: People are empowered and grow even when things go wrong. It’s not about me looking successful; it’s about inviting people into a hopeful process.”

On the same theme, Jackson reveals yet another attitude. “It’s funny. I really don’t think about failure. I really don’t see failure; I see God setting up the next challenge.” Spiritual survivors don’t dwell much on the past. They are always more concerned about what comes next.

5. Look for love in all the right places.
Spiritual survivors are passionate about their ministries and their work but do not expect that the work itself will give them affirmation or encouragement. When it does, they accept it as a gift.

Olga Anglada keeps things simple, even amid some of life’s most horrible situations. As a social worker in the Chicago Public Schools she encounters high school students who are homeless, abused, and addicted. It is her responsibility to reach out to students who are deeply angry, frightened, and confused.

“I just listen,” she says. “I tell them, ‘I don’t have an agenda except what will help you.’ I am a professional social worker, but my first responsibility is to be a Christian. I don’t talk to them about religion, but I do talk to them about values and try to teach them some skills that will help them the rest of their lives. I see in each one a child of God, and I work hard to establish a positive relationship because they have experienced so much rejection.

“Just yesterday, I heard one of the school personnel being rude and sarcastic with a student. Later in the day I got a call; the student was refusing to talk to anyone. On our way to my office I said, ‘I want to apologize for the way some adults treat you.’ That’s all it took. She opened up. It turns out that her mother is a drug addict, they are homeless, and she has been abused. I was able to get her some help.”

Anglada starts every morning with prayer and scripture readings. She tries to maintain that prayerful attitude all day. “When I’m walking from the office to a classroom,” she says, “I pray for wisdom and an open heart and the right words to say.” Like her role model, St. Teresa of Ávila, Anglada strives to be spiritual even as she is practical.

Anglada says she does not look to troubled students to make her feel good about her work, or resent them when they are not grateful. Her fulfillment comes because she knows she has been faithful to the God she meets every morning in scripture.

Spiritual survivors do not rise and fall according to the praise they are given. They expect that they will meet cynicism and sadness, despair and anger. When they do, they simply respond as best they can. They embody St. Francis’ prayer: Where there is hatred let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith.

Sometimes I pine for the good old days. I remember back when I was in high school and college. I loved that end-of-the-semester feeling, the moment I walked out the door of my last exam or last class. I was done. Nothing was pending; nothing was due. I was finished. Free! I don’t get that feeling any more. Even when I’m away for a few days, I know things are piling up. Worse yet, I know the forces of injustice have not taken the same vacation.

Spiritual survivors have stopped looking for the finish line. There are cycles and there are seasons, but there is no finish line in this world.

T. S. Eliot wrote, “We had the experience, but we missed the meaning.” In our modern times life comes at a dizzying pace. We have so much information to process, so many opportunities, so many new challenges; there is so much noise. According to Franciscan Father Richard Rohr, in the midst of all that we need the gift of discernment.

“The ability to see truthfully, to read between the lines, and to hear what is really happening,” writes Rohr in the September/October 2004 issue of Radical Grace, “is called the gift of discernment and is listed by St. Paul as one of the essential gifts of the Holy Spirit. It has been one of the most unrecognized, unappreciated, and untrained gifts in the church and in the West in general. We thought we would not really need the ‘gift of discerning spirits’ if we covered every situation with a law, every question with a clear conclusion, and every person with a prepackaged role and status.”

Our action and our love give meaning to our lives; our reflection and prayer help us to know that meaning, even in the midst of our busy lives.

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