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Angela Tilby: What relief there is for exhaustion    

25 March 2022

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LAST week, on the first day of spring which actually felt like a spring day, I cleaned my formal black leather shoes, probably for the first time in two years. I also noticed that my favourite surplice (all right, it must be nearly 30 years old) had developed small brown patches that refused to come out in the wash. Further investigations of my wardrobe revealed that all my clothes look tired and tatty, and in need of a clearout. The spring-cleaning instinct is bubbling up, but I cannot find the energy to respond to it. Our Covid war is supposed be over. But we all know that it is not. Lots of people have symptoms, some for the second or third time.

I get the impression than many of us are also now experiencing exhaustion: physical, emotional, and spiritual. After two years, we have got used to living on the edge of fear and grief trauma, and we still don’t know when it will end. Meanwhile, difficult memories are etched in our brains. I am still reliving the shock of empty churches and the sense of abandonment that they produced in so many. Church and churchgoing may never the same again.

Trauma leaves a legacy, and we still don’t know the true cost of interrupted school, of elevated levels of domestic violence, of lonely childhoods in small flats, of care homes with no visitors, of important anniversaries missed, of friends and relatives dying alone, and funerals sadder for being so small. All this stays around in the form of unexpected bursts of emotion, strange sensations, vivid dreams, and unwanted daydreams. The burden is heavy on many: teachers, doctors and nurses, carers, and, of course clergy.

The term that we often use is “burnout”, suggesting what is left after a devastating fire. Burnout is depletion, a loss of inner resources, even when most outer ones appear to be repaired or restored. Burnout is a sickness of the spirit, when it can no longer respond to the demands of the will. There is no immediate solution, because this condition needs time as much as it needs rest.

But there are things that help and things that don’t help. If I were in parish ministry now, I would not be wanting to implement big plans or shiny new initiatives. I would be hoping for a gentle Holy Week, a modest Triduum, an Easter joy no less real because restrained.

“This too will pass” is a Persian proverb for hard times. Recovery does happen, but it can’t be scheduled. St Paul speaks of the “slight momentary affliction that prepares us for an eternal weight of glory”. There is renewal in the soul as in the earth. Glory is for the next world, but its buds still emerge, shy and green, in this one.

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