I Desire Mercy, Not Masochism

In the Experiences of Ministry Project one of the indicators of clergy burnout was that it was more likely in those who sacrificed the most. Clergy reported how often they made sacrifices and how often those sacrifices were significant. The data can be seen below, if you zoom in…

I was mulling this over while I was on a course last week and we ended with a worship service that sent us out with the words of St Brendan:

Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home?
Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea?

Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy,
without silver, without a horse,
without fame, without honour?
Shall I throw myself wholly upon You,
without sword and shield, without food and drink,
without a bed to lie on?
Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Your yoke?

Shall I pour out my heart to You, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness,
tears streaming down my cheeks?
Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach,
a record of my final prayer in my native land?

Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the sea can inflict?
Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean?
O King of the Glorious Heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea?

O Christ, will You help me on the wild waves?

The poetry is beautiful, but I am instantly worried about St Brendan – will he be terribly isolated? Is he sacrificing too much? Will he have a breakdown or burnout?

Reading the story about St Brendan he goes on his journey with 14 monks, (so not isolated), he believes he is on a voyage to discover paradise (so has a strong sense of vocation) and he is a skilled navigator (so his greatest skills were meeting the highest challenge). His journey is actually likely to increase his wellbeing (see the definition of wellbeing here).

For me, that journey would be awful – I would be sick, I can’t navigate my way out of a cardboard box and anyway I don’t believe paradise is a sea journey away. It is too easy to read the prayer above and think that our calling or vocation will be a sacrifice and that will diminish our wellbeing somehow, we will suffer and become spent. But I think the opposite should be true. I love the way Nadia Bolt-Weber puts it:

“Jesus says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” He says, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” and infuriating things like “if you seek to find your life you will lose it but those who lose their life will find it.” And every single time I die to something—my notions of my own specialness, my plans and desires for something to be a very particular way—every single time I fight it and yet every single time I discover more life and more freedom than if I had gotten what I wanted.”

Jesus says “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13), he tells the Pharisees to learn what that means. I’ve been wondering about this. Of course there is the literal meaning of going out and being kind rather than going and doing an animal sacrifice and then feeling self-righteous. But on a deeper level I think it means that when we are taking up our cross (not anyone else’s cross) it will be because we are showing mercy, we are loving someone, we are being kind, we are building relationships… and yes the reality is that it will be a sacrifice but perhaps our sense of vocation will be such that we don’t see it that way, because we end up with more, not less… we end up more human, a better version of ourselves.

Of course that is easy in theory, but what does the reality look like? Next time that I am aware that I am sacrificing things I am going to ask myself a few questions:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • Do I have to do this?
  • Do I need to have a new strategy so that I don’t do this in the future?
  • Am I doing this because it is a mercy?
  • Or am I simply a masochist?

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