June 9th, 2020

One of the greatest dangers in life is to feel overwhelmed. Many of us have felt that way during the pandemic. But even before it, we found it easy to feel overwhelmed in a world of enormous challenges, and in a time that includes a never-ending spate of negativity and toxicity, much of which goes against the grain of our deepest values and too often promotes the destruction of life and an erosion of what it means to be human.

If we have an ounce of compassion in our being, we are naturally drawn into the effort to resist evil and promote good, seeking to be “instruments of peace” in situations that are bereft of it. Each of us does this through various means and in differing degrees. But none of us can do it relentlessly or indefinitely. If we try to be “all in all the time,” burnout and bitterness are inevitable. Fatigue (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) emerges, spiraling downward into frustration which eventually turns into a sense of futility. It is what St. Paul called “growing weary in well doing” (Galatians 6:9).

This descent into darkness is so strong that we must exercise willful resistance to it. We must cultivate our spiritual life in relation to the pattern of engagement/abstinence. [1]. It is the pattern we first see in creation, where God worked but also rested. It is the pattern we see in Jesus (Luke 5:15-26), in his formation of disciples (Mark 6:31), and thereafter across the centuries through the witness of the saints. [2]

We must cultivate the pattern of stepping away, even from good things. It is possible to drown in clean water as much as it is in dirty water. It is not the quality of the water, but it's being over our heads that does us in. The disciplines that enable us to survive what someone has called, “the feverish round of unceasing activity” are sabbath keeping, solitude, silence, meditation and simplicity.

The overarching word for it is fasting. But as Richard Foster has taught, it is fasting from more than food. Today, I believe that the essential non-food fast is from our devices — from the tumultuous onslaught of social media. It not only never stops, it also is designed to keep us stirred up and reactive. It upsets us. This is not healthy, and over the long haul it is deformative. At the extreme, it is an addiction as hard to break as any other. We must fast from the media.

But there are other things we need to fast from; in fact, there are many — too many to name. We find them in our lives wherever we feel “consumed” by something. Fasting in this sense is stepping back from anything that has us in its grip. Most of the time, we can identify these things and exercise our wills to be free of them. At other times, we need spiritual direction to see them and deal with them. And on some occasions, we need professional counseling to overcome the things which are overwhelming us. Any means to freedom is a means of grace.

But any practice of the discipline of abstinence must be in the context of the larger pattern of engagement/abstinence, so that our actions are rooted in and are expressions of the natural rhythm of our life. In spiritual formation there is a deeper question than, “What are you doing?” It is the question. ” How are you intending to live?” We are helped by good actions in a given moment, but we are shaped by the intentions we establish underneath them. The engagement/abstinence pattern is a formative intention. It is the sacred rhythm of life that prevents us from becoming overwhelmed.

[1] I first saw this pattern in Dallas Willard’s book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, in which he organized the spiritual disciplines to show how they establish the action/reflection cycle in our lives. 

[2] I have observed and studied this pattern in the lives of many ancient and modern Christians, e.g. the early desert mothers and fathers, Sts. Francis and Clare, John Wesley, E. Stanley Jones, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Susan Muto, and Richard Rohr — to name a few.

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