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Self-Care through the Holidays

Tips for managing Christmas challenges in this time of pandemic

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While every year my heart begins to anticipate Christmas long before December, remembering colorful lights, delicious treats and singing carols with family and friends, I must remind myself that Christmas is also my most stressful time of year, especially as a priest. Though Holy Week is more liturgically challenging, Christmas carries with it personal memories that trigger more emotions.

This year, a pandemic has compounded the normal chaos of planning Christmas liturgies, concerts and parties with a different form of stress. How can a parish (or the multiple parishes many priests serve) manage social distancing and serve full congregations this year, when Christmas is on a Friday, followed by a Saturday vigil and then Sunday?

Or will the people even show up?

COVID-19 has made our lives less predictable, and many feel a lessening of control over daily decisions, both large and small. The inability to envisage what will happen each day can be a formidable stressor. While we might accept that life will throw us curve balls on occasion, to live in a constant state of waiting and not knowing what is ahead can debilitate even the strongest people over time.

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Advice during Pandemic

Transition from crisis to stability is essential for health. Every priest should reflect on his psychological and spiritual process of adapting to change. To serve others, one must have a reservoir of strength, which comes from good self-care, and be disposed to the source of life (cf. Jn 4:14). After healing the sick and casting out demons, Jesus took time to pray (Mk 1:32-37). The call to greater humility is apparent in these times when the most determined and zealous of priests are powerless apart from God. — Father David Songy, OFM Cap, “Maintaining Good Mental Health,” The Priest, May 2020

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Many years ago behavioral scientists designed an experiment, placing rats in one of two cages. Both had steel bottoms, permitting the researchers to send a slight electric shock to startle the rats. However, one cage also had a light that came on just before the electric shock was administered. After a period of nine months, autopsies revealed that those rats without the warning light had stomach ulcers. Even though they experienced the same number of shocks, the trauma was greater for those rats that could not predict when the shock was coming.

This stress of not being able to predict the immediate future is also evident in people who suffer from mental illness. The depressed person, in the present moment, cannot envision feeling energetic or lighthearted. The anxious individual constantly focuses on unrealistic thoughts. The schizophrenic may be unsure as to whether what he is seeing or hearing is real. To be uncertain is debilitating.

How can a priest address the greater stressors in this time of pandemic and healthily approach the Christmas season? In an earlier article on self-care for priests (The Priest, December 2016) I provided a series of questions for a self-care inventory, examining six areas: physical health, emotional health, social support, ministerial environment, spiritual health and leisure. That inventory is still an excellent tool, but I would like to suggest adaptations for this holiday season.

Physical Health

These days, regular exercise and diet habits have been cast aside by many as we adapt to changing circumstances. Often-routine medical and dental checkups and procedures were canceled or delayed. To get back on track, we can ask ourselves the following questions: How much weight have I gained (or lost) in the past nine months? Has my exercise routine changed? Is there a medical appointment I have postponed because of the pandemic? Am I taking all my medication as prescribed?

If significant changes are apparent in weight or exercise habits, or if a potential health issue is being ignored, it is essential to create a plan of action. Many medical visits and procedures that doctors had suggested we delay are now available. A telehealth checkup with a primary care physician would be in order for most priests. The adage rings true: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Besides, the sooner we return to routine behaviors, such as a physical examination, the easier it will be to achieve our physical health goals.

Emotional Health

One constructive aspect of recognizing increased stress is that it helps us gauge how well we modulate our emotions and process intense feelings. Instead of being afraid of the overwhelming nature of certain emotions, we have an opportunity to explore them. Are there any emotions that I have felt in the past nine months that surprise or scare me? Am I more uncomfortable when confronted by strong emotional responses in others? With whom do I speak about my feelings? Have I been faithful in speaking with my counselor or spiritual director? Telehealth and Zoom meetings may be less desirable than in-person encounters, but such support may be essential during the pandemic. Taking advantage of this stressful situation to explore and reflect on emotional health can lead to better skills and practices to manage the range of emotions we experience.

Social Support

While a reflection on various social supports for personal health is vital, the season of Christmas, as a special time to connect with close relatives, provides an opportunity to explore how supportive family interactions are for each priest. For example, a “virtual” Christmas gathering may exacerbate any historical frustrations or friction with family members. In addition to reflecting on how my family relationships are supportive (or not), I need to consider my overall experience of social support. Who were my healthy social supports (family, friends, colleagues) nine months ago? How did we spend time together? Which of these social supports are still available to me? If my social support is less available, how do I compensate for this loss? Am I spending more time on social media, drinking alcohol or engaging in other less healthy behaviors? Recognizing the need to reach out for appropriate support and companionship can help a priest avoid recourse to unhealthy behaviors. Ask yourself, is there someone with whom I can freely share my innermost struggles? This pandemic may also be an opportunity to explore ways to increase connections with other priests in my diocese or religious order.

Ministerial Environment

Closing and reopening churches, the need to lay off employees and a host of other logistical, financial, pastoral and personnel problems have created a ministerial environment quite different from nine months ago. We need to assess how this is impacting our attitudes about going to work. Do I look forward to the day and still view ministry as a gift? Am I overly concerned about finances? Do I feel supported by the diocese or my superiors? How do I feel about my priestly identity given the changes in my daily routine at the church? Fortunately, many dioceses and religious orders have organized virtual meetings and continuing education events to address the drastic changes. Being aware of my ability to adapt to such changes is key. Is there someone I can speak with as a consultant or supervisor, helping me to adapt to the major changes in my ministerial environment?

Spiritual Health

Assessing spiritual health is straightforward. What is the frequency, quality and consistency of my prayer? Do I have a spiritual director, confess regularly and take time for a retreat? Given the pandemic, I need to ask myself, How has my spiritual health changed in the past nine months?

In addition, this Christmas season suggests another important consideration. Unlike most other years, Advent has greater spiritual potential. The pandemic and subsequent insecurity touching all of humanity place us in a perfect mode to cry out to the Lord, “How long?” We know what it means to wait. The daily readings provide ample resources for deeper meditation on themes that touch on the times.

Christmas celebrates the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. After so many months of promoting spiritual communion, both priests and laity need to embrace again the tangible nature of the sacraments. Hands that touch and bread and wine consumed are essential elements of the sacraments.

Leisure

Generally, assessing healthy leisure consists in evaluating the frequency and quality of relaxation activities. However, the pandemic offers priests a chance to consider the nature of leisure in their lives. At least initially, many of us had plenty of time on our hands. Did we use this opportunity to read good books, journal or engage in healthy, relaxing activities at home? What helps us to unwind, and is it healthy? In the holiday season, many of us are used to a flurry of activity. How much of it is restful? With the work of the season, where do we build in regular (daily or weekly) opportunities to recharge and feel rejuvenated? This year is an excellent opportunity to reassess our leisure choices.

I have read several articles that address the positive consequences of this pandemic. Each points to various changes in the environment, economy or personal and corporate relationships. As priests, we are challenged to recognize, in the face of fear and the unknown, whether we look first to God. Those who wish to be physically, psychologically and spiritually healthy see God beside them.

My last question on my version of the self-care inventory is this: “Do I see God beside me today?” If the answer is “yes,” I enjoy the peaceful moment. Often it is “no,” but I then have the opportunity to ask for mercy and to begin again. Both responses to the question are healthy.

FATHER DAVID SONGY, a priest of the Capuchin Province of Mid-America and a clinical psychologist, is president of the St. Luke Institute, an international treatment and education center for priests and religious.

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The Love of Christ Urges Us On

St. Teresa of Calcutta is credited with saying: “Do not think that love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired.”

She was not suggesting that we not work hard in loving and serving others. Her labors were heroic! Rather, she was pointing to the source of our strength. As St. Paul writes, Caritas Christi urget nos, “The love of Christ impels us” (2 Cor 5:14).

For so many priests, hard work has characterized most Decembers, as we try to prepare people to experience the beauty of Christmas. This year offers an opportunity for greater reliance on the strength of Christ, already present in priests through baptism and ordination.

Of course, poor self-care could mean that many of us do not take advantage of this particularly promising Advent and Christmas. Burnout, a persistent, work-related state of ill-being characterized by exhaustion, cynicism and reduced professional efficacy, has been increasing in all areas but is particularly troublesome when found in priests. Most of us can handle the hard work and long hours of our ministry. However, when cynicism takes over, we are at greater risk for burnout.

For many priests, this could be a first experience of acedia — that is, sadness about a spiritual good. Many of us believe that the dark night of the spirit and other serious invitations to spiritual growth is reserved for those destined for sanctity, and such hopes are often abandoned not long after ordination. To believe that God still desires to give more to me is a healthy spiritual attitude.

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