Can stress be a channel of God's grace?
We live in a much-too-hasty age. There is little or no time to process what happens to us each day. This is even true in religious life.
I remember the images I had as a young girl of what it must be like to be a nun: hours of silence, of prayer, of walking on the hillsides. They were, no doubt, images I had seen in vocations ads or in movies. Needless to say, that certainly didn't materialize!
The speed and complexity of today's everyday world offers new challenges to any Christian trying to live an intentional life, even in a convent. Our access to information far exceeds that of our sisters and brothers in former centuries. Neuroscientists tell us we take in more information daily than our brains can possibly handle. We have to make so many microdecisions from morning to night that we become exhausted just from that.
The type of work we do, the computers and devices we use, the requirements for accountability to government and church, and the need to work in teams requires constant assessment and reflection. Email alone puts us in a "relationship" with more people in a day than people 100 years ago — who may have lived their entire lives in small villages — knew in a lifetime.
The other day, I found myself in a situation that could happen any week of my life lately. The need to be available to assist another department with designing a webstore was added to my already-too-full task list. I could feel my frustration level rising as the first meeting wore on, and it became clear that the preliminary groundwork for this project had not been done. Every question a colleague and I asked seemed to turn up a hundred unexpected issues to which no one had the answer.
Mentally, I began calculating the amount of time that would be required to see this project through. While I was attempting to see the big picture, another sister was trying to nail down the details. One of the team members was trying to catch up since he had just come on board. The questions he raised caused another person to clamp down on the information in order to control the chaos. We didn't feel we had the luxury to calmly work through the issues because we were on a six-week schedule, which was set at the signing of the contract.
Shortly after that meeting, I was blessed with our monthly retreat. I finally had time to look at how I was reacting to the situation. The key words here are "I" and "reacting." In the silence of the chapel, I reflected on what was underlying the anger and frustration I was experiencing.
Anger and frustration are often more the fruit of an assumption that is operating within us than an accurate gauge of a problem. After talking to Jesus about what had happened and sitting with how I felt toward each of the people in the meeting, I realized that my assumption was: "I don't matter."
That was really the problem: not the website, not the unanswered questions, not... I was upset because I believed the sister who had started the project, whom I'll call Sr. Ann, felt I didn't matter as a person. I was there to get the work done that she couldn't do. It didn't matter at what cost to me.
When I am not at peace, I bring together in prayer the situation I am in and the presence of Jesus. Using my imagination in contemplation allows my heart to gradually receive the "water" of grace. So I imagined Sr. Ann standing between Jesus and me and waited for some mystery of the Lord's life to come to mind.
The image of Mary holding Jesus taken down from the cross came to me. As I reflected on this sad time in Mary's life, I realized that no one had asked Mary whether she was ready for the experience of the tortuous death of her son. I spent hours that day watching her, feeling for her, learning from this beloved mother. When I imagined myself kneeling beside her, she turned to me and held my face in her hands.
As I felt her affection in that act in the core of my being, I learned from her the terribly difficult shift I needed to make; a shift from being angry that I didn't matter to offering affection to Sr. Ann.
In the following week, I juggled my schedule to clear enough time to contribute to the website thoughtfully, doing the research required. In the interim, another sister took over the management of the project, and things have begun to move ahead as we address each issue in turn.
Will we make it in six weeks? Probably not. But the difference now is that I can intentionally respond to what has become God's invitation in my life to live in love.
We all face surprises, pressures and difficult situations. The good news is that by making a few small changes to the way we work through them, we can shift from angry assumptions to intentional love.
A three-step tool I use when I'm angry or frustrated may be helpful.
First: Step away. Slow down. See what's beneath the surface.
We need to give ourselves space to process our lives. I physically remove myself from the offending situation, if possible. I schedule in some "retreat" time, whether that's a traditional retreat for a half a day or simply an hour at a coffee shop, staring out the window or doing nothing. It's important to let the dust settle. At the end of the time, I'll jot down some notes, sketch out a few options, and tuck them away to see if they mature.
Second: Picture the person (or situation) in your mind's eye. On the other side of the person, see Jesus, so that to see him or her, you also see Jesus, and to see Jesus, you also see the person.
Allow one of the mysteries of Jesus' life to become the focus of your prayer (that is, see him on the cross, healing, teaching, at his birth, his resurrection). I place myself in the mystery, noticing what happens, being a part of what is going on. I allow Jesus to be part of this situation I'm in and observe any shift in the emotional charge the situation has for me. In the case of the webstore development experience, by reflecting on Mary's sorrows as she held her son, something was aroused in me that gave me the courage to want to love. It was not a resolution; it was a gift, a graced shift that I gratefully received.
Third: Revisit the difficult situation, seeing if and how you can accommodate what is being asked of you by the situation you have brought to prayer and by Jesus. Then make a plan.
The most important thing in the webstore situation wasn't fixing things, whether the website or the relationship; it was the gift of a heart that had been aroused to love.
Jesus wants to be part of even our stress-filled lives. Articles abound about how to balance our lives, reduce stress, live in peace. Walking in the country and long hours spent as we please would certainly give us lots of time to integrate our lives.
But I like to think that even stress can become a channel of God's grace if we contemplate together what is overwhelming in our lives and the Lord who loves us.
[Daughter of St. Paul Sr. Kathryn James Hermes is the author of the best-selling book Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach as well as a number of other titles. Everything she does or writes has one focus: giving people the tools for joy by radically shifting their focus through Presence. She works with individuals online at pauline.org/heartwork, and her newsletter can be found at pauline.org/sisterkathryn.]