by Sr. Kathryn J. Hermes, FSP
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!
You may have experienced this yourself. As a student you may have had one image of what teaching would be like. Having your own classroom and a full schedule of teaching might have looked quite different. Looking forward to your own family is one thing, the day to day tussle is another.
The speed and complexity of today's everyday world offers new challenges to any Christian trying to live an intentional life. 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.
As the manager of a digital department the number of micro-decisions I need to make has exploded. I can imagine as a teacher the same is true for you. As a teacher, every decision you make regarding each of the students in your classroom is an important decision that influences your relationship with that child and her or his parents, and you know as well that these decisions have a powerful impact on the children themselves. That is a powerful responsibility. Add to this relationships with your colleagues, teacher meetings, conflict, confusion, a bit of chaos, fatigue, sickness, mixed in with the joy and excitement and beauty of teaching…. When our world is moving too fast we don’t always have the time to reflect on what is happening to us or within us. We don’t have the energy sometimes to wonder why we felt angry at that person’s comment, or threatened by this other person’s conversation. With little chance for the personal reflection needed to be wholly present to ourselves and others, we might find ourselves blaming or bitter or frustrated without really knowing why.
Recently I found myself resenting the fact that I was part of a project which was unexpectedly asked of me. I felt that I didn’t really matter. What was important to others was that I could do the work that needed to be done. 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 the person responsible for this problem 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 and kindness to others.
The project is going ahead. Perfectly? 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.
Here is a three-step tool I use when I'm angry or frustrated. As you begin this school year you may find it a helpful model for de-stressing.
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 experience I related above, 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 situation isn’t fixing things. It is the gift of a heart that had been aroused to love.
Jesus wants to be part of all of our lives, even our stress-filled days. 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.
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