A couple of months ago I led my local SCM group in an evening about stress. We closed the workshop by listening to A Blessing For One Who Is Exhausted from John O’Donohue’s Benedictus. In this blog I’m using some of those same words to think about stress and faith.
When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight.
The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laboursome events of will.
Does that sound familiar? What causes stress in your life? Deadlines, money, relationships, job, church, booking that GP appointment? Pretty much anything can be a source of stress – anything that we perceive as a demand on us, or on our time or emotional resources. Some stress can be a good motivator, but when it becomes too much then even apparently small things might feel impossible. There is a difference between stress and the kind of experiences that might be diagnosed as a mental health problem (such as depression or anxiety), but the two things are related. High levels of stress impact a person’s mental and physical health, and experiencing mental distress makes everyday stress much more difficult to deal with.
Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free…
Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
There are things that we can all do to try and manage our stress and increase our resilience. The Mental Health Foundation has a good list here (mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/s/stress). We can also find resources in our faith and Christian heritage. Christian communities throughout the centuries have recognised the value of seeking silence, rhythm, and space. Mental distress is not a sign of spiritual failure, nor will spirituality necessarily improve mental health. These things are intertwined in ways more complex than we often like to imagine. But prayer, contemplation, and worship can act as a set of stabilisers when the path is rough.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.
Sometimes individual actions on their own aren’t enough to reduce long-term stress. Some experiences are stressful in themselves, and ‘feeling stressed’ or even being depressed or anxious is a justified reaction to a difficult situation. Sometimes, things that are ‘meant’ to be good for us (like going to church) actually add to our stress. Student life has lots of benefits but it also comes with stresses that aren’t always noticed by churches. If you need to, be excessively gentle with yourself.
Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.
Having said that, many people find that being part of a Christian community (whether that’s physically, or online, or through praying the same prayers that people have prayed over the centuries) is an important part of a sustainable spiritual life. It can increase that sense of being stabilised, or rooted, when life gets rocky. It can make it easier to pray, or worship, or read Scripture. And it’s an opportunity to share wisdom – each of us bringing our gifts and glimpses of God – as we together learn how to be rooted and grounded in love, rather than in stress and busyness.
Written by Anthea, a University chaplain in Leeds and a part-time PhD student researching Christian theologies of mental health.
The full poem by John O'Donohue can be found here.