Professional burnout is something that we have grown more sensitive to, not only in the secular world but also within the church and within monasticism. Spending oneself in loving and self-giving service to others can be life-giving, but when imprudently done can also drain us and leave us empty, listless, and unable to function. And yet, weren’t some of the saints imprudent in seeming to burn themselves out in heroic self-sacrificing love. One thinks of saints like John Vianney who is reputed to have spent sixteen to eighteen hours a day listening to confessions, subsisting on little more than potatoes, and sleeping very little. So too in our own day someone like Pope Francis—despite his age—seems to be constantly spending himself and taking very little time to come away and rest a while.
And this is, of course, something of the mixed message that Jesus gives in today’s gospel: On the one hand he says to the apostles, come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while; and yet when the crowd arrives he feels pity for them and begins to teach them many things. Presumably, this would have involved the apostles too as their deserted place of rest was invaded by the crowd. So what are we to make of this ambiguity and what place do rest and personal time play in the life of the Christian? This is an especially pertinent question for present-day monks who, because of reduced numbers, often have to juggle several roles and responsibilities that encroach on what we like to call holy leisure.
In answer, there are probably three main factors to consider: The first is simple personality and psychological make-up. Whether it’s the extrovert versus the introvert traits (or other psychological strengths and vulnerabilities), it is a fact that we all have differing capacities and limitations. And so what constitutes a need to come away and rest a while will differ to some degree with each person. A second factor is more difficult to discern and concerns those instances when God is calling us to go the extra mile and extend ourselves when we perhaps feel already overextended. However, discernment is essential. Otherwise if overextending oneself is part of some personal agenda and not Spirit-inspired then sustaining grace and strength may not be provided and we’ll be on our own.
The third factor in assessing when we’re taking on too much is one that Saint Bernard warns against. Using the analogy of the reservoir versus the canal, he explains that rather than emptying ourselves in service to others (as does a canal) we need to be like reservoirs that are filled and overflow to others, giving without depriving ourselves. And so he warns, you squander and lose what is meant to be your own if, before you are totally permeated by the infusion of the Holy Spirit, you rashly proceed to pour out your unfulfilled self upon others. And this, perhaps, helps explain why people like him and John Vianney were able to spend themselves without destroying themselves: they were permeated by the infusion of the Spirit and were those overflowing reservoirs whose giving never left them bereft of the grace they so freely poured out on others.
And so seeking to accurately discern our valid need to come away and rest a while, is only possible with deep authentic self-knowledge. For it is through self-knowledge that we will be in touch with our natural inborn strengths and weaknesses. It is also through self-knowledge that we won’t confuse God’s call to go the extra mile with our own self-centered motivations for helping others. And it is only with humble honesty that we can discern whether we are that full and overflowing reservoir able to assist others without depleting our inner reserves and becoming another burnt out casualty on the spiritual highway of Christian service and ministry.