Sabbath Moments: Finding Balance in Your Life
To help avoid burnout, spend time with God every day
The challenges many deacons experience in achieving and sustaining balance in their lives frequently has been noted. Indeed, according to a recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, some 31 percent of deacons report that they experience difficulty in this regard.
All too often, responsibilities associated with the deacon’s personal faith journey, his family, his secular work and his ministry compete for attention. As a result, a deacon can pingpong between two seemingly incommensurate personae: on the one hand, his identity as a married man with a family who also labors in the secular world; on the other, his identity as a deacon. Most married couples seem to manage this tension reasonably well, due in no small measure, I suspect, to the forbearance of deacons’ wives. We know in terms of work, however, that some deacons seek professional positions in the Church in order to ease the cognitive and emotional dissonance they sometimes experience.
However, others despair and can experience ministry as unfulfilling. As noted by Deacon James Keating in his book “The Heart of the Diaconate” (Paulist Press, $12.95), “A temptation for the deacon is to make his own complex vocation easier by simply situating himself more firmly with one or the other camp, priests or laity.” This is unfortunate, since the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council had hoped for the diaconate to serve as a sign of God’s presence in the secular world.
This concern about the health of a deacon’s work-life balance is important for several reasons, not the least of which is the potential for burnout, which may be more common than we think. It is broadly accepted, as well, that a deacon needs a deep interior life. This can be difficult to achieve when he is running continuously from pillar to post. With respect to ministerial service, a newly ordained deacon may think that he can do it all, but most of us discover otherwise in very short order. Quality in ministerial service is at least as important as quantity or sheer breadth of service, and it can be very difficult, indeed, to ensure quality, let alone presence, when a deacon is overwhelmed by competing demands.
Forming a Plan
To address these kinds of conflicts, deacons often are told to give priority to God first, to their families second, to their jobs or professions third and, only fourth, to their diaconal ministries. This advice certainly is well-meaning, and it makes sense at a certain level, but it is problematic nonetheless, and not just because it sanctions an artificial kind of mental compartmentalization.
More seriously, prioritization schemes of this sort fail to recognize that a deacon is a deacon by virtue of who he is rather than by what he does. The diaconate is a 24/7 vocation. The permanent deacon is no less a deacon, in fact, when he is with his family or when he is laboring in his secular job than when he is standing at the altar on Sunday morning. Given this, the deacon’s commitment to radical availability applies, ideally, as much to his wife and his children and to those who employ him as it does to those who encounter him in ministerial service.
How, then, can a deacon achieve and sustain balance in his life? If the kind of prioritization scheme noted above is suspect, how do we proceed? Consider what might be called “Sabbath moments” as an alternative. The Jewish Sabbath (or Shabbat) is observed from a few minutes before sunset on Friday evening until a few minutes after the appearance of three stars on Saturday night. This time of rest recalls the creation story in Genesis — an account that imagines God resting on the seventh day. It also recalls the gift of the Torah at Mount Sinai, when God directed the Israelites to set the seventh day of the week aside and keep it holy. Shabbat is best understood as a joyful day — a day in which observant Jews are freed from the labors of everyday life, a time of rest in which they can pray and spend time with family. On the Sabbath, Jews are invited to restore their right relationship with God, on whom all depends, and their right relationships with one another as well.
Understanding Sabbath Moments
Sabbath moments can come in all shapes and sizes, and they certainly can include the following: aspirational prayer (for example, short prayers such as the Jesus Prayer, which are repeated throughout the day); lectio divina and other forms of sustained prayer and reflection; retreat experiences of various kinds; and the faithful observance of the Sabbath in keeping with the Third Commandment. More broadly, Sabbath moments include time with family and friends and the pursuit of other satisfying interests and avocations.
Consider two ways in which the disciplined practice of Sabbath moments can help deacons cope with the dissonance that often accompanies a conflicted life. First, a deacon’s spiritual development requires an ongoing appreciation of God’s presence in his life. A deacon cannot be radically available to others as a deacon unless he first makes himself present to God. Recall Psalm 46:11: “Be still and know that I am God!” Knowing God requires prayer. Knowing God requires Sabbath moments. In his book “The Sabbath” (Farrar Straus Giroux, $14), renowned Jewish rabbi Abraham Heschel described the Sabbath as a “sanctification of time.” As deacons, we are invited to sanctify time when and where we can. In Sabbath moments, we make ourselves available to God.
Second, the kind of radical availability to others to which we are called also requires Sabbath moments. In “The Deacon Reader” (Paulist Press, $24.95), Deacon Keating writes: “Availability takes on the character of hospitality. The deacon begins to be a man who allows others in need to lay a claim upon him. … This type of character is formed by a steady commitment to prayer, rest, study and time with spouse and family, and by a realistic knowledge of the limits one’s marital and parenthood status puts on the deacon’s ministry to those in need.” Keating wrote in “The Heart of the Diaconate” that a “man who is consumed by distractions will be of little help to parishioners who look to clergy to guide them out of a consumerist, materialist and experientialist culture.” The key, however, is to embrace this kind of downtime sacramentally (for example, as Sabbath moments) rather than as an abandonment of one’s post or an absence without leave.
Not a Cure-all
Can Sabbath moments provide a measure of coherence in what, nonetheless, will remain a very busy life? Perhaps, but only to the extent that this understanding is incorporated into a deacon’s way of being in the world. It takes disciplined practice. Irrespective of the outcome, however, this approach to living one’s vocation is superior to the prioritization scheme more typically prescribed in deacon formation programs because it recognizes that a deacon is a deacon by virtue of who he is. He is one person, not a hodgepodge of mental silos. (We should also note that the kind of prioritization scheme noted above does not appear to be working particularly well for many deacons. Sequential prioritization schemes do not serve us well.)
Will this solve all of the challenges deacons face in trying to balance their lives? Certainly not. As noted by Deacon William Ditewig in his book “The Emerging Diaconate” (Paulist Press, $24.95), we lack an applied theology that fully integrates our understanding of marriage and the diaconal vocation. Considerable work is needed on this topic. Additionally, we lack an applied theology that integrates a deacon’s work in the secular world and his vocation as a permanent deacon. We have an increasingly viable theology of the diaconate, and a more robust understanding of work has emerged over time as well, most notably within the framework of the Church’s social justice tradition.
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We still lack, however, a conceptual bridge that can help a deacon fully realize his identity as a member of the clergy who remains, nonetheless, fully engaged in the world of secular institutions. Lacking an integrating theology of this kind, some deacons will continue to struggle with dual identities. More work also is needed with respect to this concern.
Still, a commitment to Sabbath moments can serve deacons well. A vibrant prayer life, time to recreate — time to truly re-create oneself — with family and friends, and time to focus on other satisfying interests and avocations should be recognized as essential aspects of a deacon’s life. These kinds of Sabbath moments can engender a sense of integrity in a deacon’s busy life — an integrity that some now find elusive.
DEACON DANIEL LOWERY was ordained in 2013 and serves as president of the deacon community association for the Diocese of Gary, Indiana.