A Word for the Weary

Weariness is something we all experience from time to time. For some, it is a more or less chronic condition that goes along with being the parents of small children, illness, or caring for someone who makes huge demands on our energy and patience. Today, in the U.K., I sense a kind of collective weariness about our forthcoming General Election. People are beginning to tire of the debate, the endless accusations, the promises that don’t quite add up, the gimmicks, the shoutiness of social media. For those of us observing Advent, there is also a kind of mid-season weariness to be factored in as well. Can we really be so close to the third Sunday of Advent when we don’t seem, to ourselves at least, to have even begun? Is there a word for the weary we can all take to heart, that will provide balm for our souls and encouragement for what lies ahead?

What a gift today’s Mass readings prove to be! Isaiah 40. 25–31 comforts us with the reassurance that even the young may stumble and tire but the Lord will bear us up as on eagle’s wings. Then in Matthew 11. 28–30 we have those comforting words of Jesus himself, inviting those who labour and are overburdened to come to him and share his yoke. But there is a snag. There always is a snag. Most of us don’t recognize that we are weary or overburdened. Those who go around proclaiming how tired they are or how much they need a holiday are not usually exhausted. They are still able to register what they think and feel. Their judgement is still at work. The truly exhausted are no longer able to judge their own exhaustion but tend to go on, becoming wearier and wearier, often more and more silent or sending out cries for help that go unnoticed by others. In my experience, it is not those who can articulate their distress who tend to have the break-downs but those who can’t. Can anything or anyone reach such depths of weariness?

The conventional answer to that question is that grace can touch and transform anyone at any time. Weariness is no obstacle to God. I agree with that, of course, but I think I would want to add a small nuance. St Benedict is very eloquent about the mutual support community members are to give one another. Much of it is unspoken, rather understated, but it relies on being aware of others and their needs. To give a simple illustration, last night was wet and windy and I admit to shivering a bit. When I went to bed I discovered that someone had put a hot water bottle between my sheets — unasked, just because she noticed. Hot water bottles are a very practical response to a perceived need, but it isn’t only, or even especially, practical needs we can help with. A smile, a prayer, a little patience may be all it takes to give someone else the courage to face another day — and in helping others, we may find that we have been helped, too. Those eagle’s wings take many forms.

General Election 2019
Whenever we have an important decision to make in the monastery, we stop discussing it for twenty-four hours before voting on it in chapter. That gives us time to think and pray without being distracted. Accordingly, apart from posting our prayer intentions, we shall be abandoning social media until tomorrow so that we can reflect more deeply on the choices we and the rest of the country have to make in the Election.

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Eagles’ Wings

From time to time we are all affected by ‘Elijah sickness’ — the temptation to lie down and give up. We become tired, scratchy, fed up. It is no good trying to hector ourselves, still less hector others, into going on. We have instead to resort to a little trickery, stepping to one side rather than meeting a difficulty head on, even retreating in order to advance. Better still, we can rely on another to give us the necessary oomph. I love the imagery of eagles’ wings used in today’s reading from Isaiah (Is. 40.25–31) and elsewhere in scripture to convey the idea of being supported, lifted up, by God when we are wont to droop. It is especially powerful at this time of year when even the most equable can feel torn in many different directions.

I don’t think, however, that we should ignore the fact that the image is not an entirely comfortable one. The eagle is not a tame bird. To be close to one is unsettling (at least, for me it has been). The power, the unpredictability, the amazing beauty and sheen of the bird are a  little frightening — in a good sense. We can also see eagles’ wings as a metaphor of God’s otherness. Throughout Advent we are called to explore this otherness and resist the temptation to domesticate God. Babies in cribs are easy to coo over, but the desert imagery of Isaiah and the other prophets confronts us with something stranger and more terrible: a God who is beyond human understanding, whose love is searing. We have a bad tendency to project onto him our own ideas, as though God should conform to our version of perfection, conservative, liberal or whatever it may be. In our foolishness, we ignore the question Isaiah poses.

Today’s gospel (Matt 11.28–30) invites us to yoke ourselves with Jesus, to walk with him, work with him and, ultimately, die with him. It is not something we can do by our own efforts. Sometimes we need to be reminded that we are but mortal — but with what a destiny!

At your bidding, Lord,
we are preparing the way for Christ, your Son.
May we not grow faint on the journey
as we wait for his healing presence.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Note
This Advent I am deliberately using the daily Mass readings as the basis for my blog posts. If you would like to know more about Advent itself, see our main website here.
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Exhaustion Point

Yesterday we finally admitted what had been staring us in the face for the past few weeks: we had reached, not exhaustion point exactly, but somewhere on the road to exhaustion where the warning signs were plain to see. So, instead of doing all the things we thought we should (unpacking, answering correspondence, getting the monastery accounts up to date, scything down the savannah that has sprung up overnight in the garden, sorting out the 1001 things that have to be sorted), still less all the things other people thought we should do (complete as appropriate), we decided to do very little.

The monastic version of very little takes quite a lot of time: prayer and reading, Mass at Belmont, which was beautifully celebrated, with some fine singing from the boys and girls of St Richard’s School, and a community meal (the first properly cooked one for a few days), but it was not taxing in the way that working against the clock is taxing; nor was the tiredness beyond our control. We had not, in fact, reached exhaustion point.

There are many people who have reached, or even gone beyond, exhaustion point. Work, the pressure of caring for others — children, elderly parents, perhaps a husband or wife with severe disabilities — trying to struggle by on too little money or in the face of hostility and bullying: all these can bring people to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion. For us, the solution to our temporary exhaustion was easy: we just switched off for the day. For others, it is not so easy; and sadly, it is often the people who most need help who are least able to ask for it or least likely to receive help if they do.

One of the most sobering statistics I have read for a long while concerns the number of children in the U.K. who are the principal carers for their parents. At an age when most of us were probably leaving our bedrooms in a mess and flouncing out of the house ‘at all hours’, these young people are cooking, cleaning, tending to their parents in ways that properly belong to adults. There are systems in place that are supposed to pinpoint children at risk, but we all know that much goes on behind the walls of our houses that is hidden from view. And in countries not so blessed with security and material wealth as our own, children face even worse problems.

Perhaps today, if we are beginning the working week feeling a little tired and jaded, we could spare a thought and a prayer for those who are truly exhausted; for the children coping with adult challenges; for all who are weary and see no hope of an end to their weariness.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail