The past several weeks have been some of most pressured weeks in my life. I have been trying to balance the pressures of teaching a three-hour-a-day intersession course, my duties as an administrator, a series of emergencies to do with the deaths of a couple of close friends, along with trying to sustain some kind of prayer life, all the time nursing a nasty viral cold. It's been a pressured time.
We've all had similar seasons in our lives, sometimes lasting for years, not just for a couple of weeks. Sometimes the pressures of life simply put us on a treadmill from which, for a while at least, there is no stepping off. What happens at those times is that we tend to beat ourselves up for getting caught in that situation.
Frequently too, friends and spiritual directors join in, berating us for not taking better care of ourselves, for not saying no to more things and for not having the discipline to schedule regular prayer, exercise and leisure into our lives.
Their challenge is not without value. We do need to take care of ourselves and it is not always a virtue to respond to every need that presents itself. But, that being said, it also needs to be said that sometimes, perhaps most of the time, the pressures of life, those duties and demands that rob us of leisure and rest and time for formal prayer, are not necessarily a bad thing. There is a fasting and prayer too, by conscription.
Jesus, the Gospels tell us, once went into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, taking no food and no nourishment. He fasted. In essence, what this says is that he deprived himself of the normal comforts and supports of ordinary human life. He voluntarily submitted to an asceticism designed to help move him to a deeper level of understanding, love and maturity (the purpose of all voluntary asceticism). He actively sought out the desert.
Sometimes, however, the desert finds us. Whenever a season of our life is so full of pressure as to deny us the normal comforts and supports of ordinary life, then we too are in the desert and afforded the opportunity to use that deprivation as an asceticism that can help move us to a deeper level of understanding, love and maturity - except in our case the asceticism is conscriptive rather than freely chosen.
Former spiritualities tried to teach this through a concept they called living out our duties of state. In an oversimplification, the idea was this: God puts us on this earth not just for leisure and enjoyment, but also to serve others and to give our lives over in unselfish duty. Our private happiness, and indeed our private sanctity, is not our highest goal.
Once we accept this and begin to give our lives over in service, the duties innate within marriage, family, vocation, Church, society and the needy will, at times, consume us in ways that can for long periods of time take away our freedom, our leisure, our rest and even our time to pray as we ideally should.
But that response to duty is also a healthy asceticism, albeit a conscriptive one, which can do for us the very things that private prayer and voluntary fasting can do, namely, push us beyond a self-centred life.
Biblically, this is captured in Jesus' remark to Peter at the end of John's Gospel: After Peter had three times affirmed his love and commitment, Jesus turned to him and said: Up to now, you have gird your belt and walked wherever you wanted to go, but now, after this commitment, others will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.
What Jesus is telling Peter is that the duties that will now follow upon his commitment of faith and love will rob him not just of his leisure and his own plans for his life, but ultimately too they will rob him of his freedom and his very life. Duty can do that and often does.
I know a woman whose children are now grown who once confessed to me that, while her children were toddlers, she sometimes went through long periods when she could not even carve out sufficient time for herself to go to the bathroom, let alone find time for leisure or time to pray or sit in solitude.
Today she is one of the most unselfish and prayerful persons I know. Obviously her time in the desert of her own home, her feet held to the fire by duty, fasting by necessity from ordinary leisure, did for her what the desert did for Jesus and what the conscriptive rope did for Peter.
Unwelcome pressure, tiredness that we haven't the luxury to address and duties that take us beyond our own agendas - if accepted without resentment - can function as God's conscriptive, ascetical hook, taking us, as if against our own will, to deeper and more mature places.