Even in the West, where we have built up huge walls to keep it out (and bread and circuses to keep us busy when the siege is strong and infiltrations are many), pain makes its way into our lives. Pain may not be the right word; I’m not talking about the sudden “oops I stubbed my toe” sensation, but about that deep bone ache that sneaks its way into our core and threatens to infect our lives from the inside out. It g a crows into a constant, throbbing anguish that leads us to question not just meaning, but the very possibility of meaning. It labors to transform our hearts from temples of the Living God into the worshipful abode of the demon of noonday. Instead of every moment delivering us onward and upward into the bliss of our life in Christ … every moment becomes an eternity of pregnant misery expanding sideways a thousandfold before dragging into the next moment… a moment that only offers more of the same.
Priests are susceptible to this, as well. In fact, some of us are set up for it early on: neither pious idealism nor love of liturgy nor a desire to serve “the least of these” nor even infatuation (it always looks like true love to the neophyte) with Christ Christ Himself can long survive the realities of parish (or even seminary) life. Innumerable deaths, caring for the terminally ill, serving the indifferent, liturgizing with the tone-deaf… the “straws” add up, eventually proving to great a burden for the most energetic camel’s back. Throw in the complexity of our personalities, chemistries, and relationships, and the risks mount ever higher.
Google “priestly burnout” and you will see how real this problem is.
The most obvious response is to double down and attempt to rekindle the fire that brought us to priestly service in the first place. This can work, just like honeymoon encounters and the like can help jaded spouses feel young love once again… but such results are often ephemeral (and, it must be added, the paradigm itself is flawed and leads far too many into adultery).
The best thing to do when we find ourselves losing the battle (or even beginning the battle!) with the demon of noonday is to GET HELP. There is no stigma in getting help, even from secular sources. Far too often, we try to gut it out. There are a million reasons for this (pride, work ethic, fear), but there is no real excuse for it. We can help each other with this by making treatment a normal part of our conversations with one another and by being honest about our own struggles.
Having said this (and it is the most important point I hoped to make), gutting it out is often the right response, and our ascetic disciplines are designed to allow us to work through hard times. And I honestly do believe that asceticism and self-discipline is the best individual-level tactic for keeping the demon of noonday at bay; but we are not meant to battle alone and the best tactics are unit tactics. Every soldier is part of a team and ever commander has advisers. We need this, too. For married priests, a healthy marriage gives a wonderful adviser in the form of the priest-wife; but even that is not enough. All of us need other priests, not just as confessors and role-models, but as trusted counselors, friends, and comrades-at-arms. Trust is a huge issue, and violations among clergy are far too common (and themselves breaches the enemy can widen and use)… but I can tell you from experience that there is no greater camaraderie than that enjoyed by priests who love one another, trust one another, serve one another, and sacrifice and fight for one another.
I know we are busy, and I know that making time to hang out with (and serve with) other priests is hard. But its as necessary for the health of our priesthood as our ascetic, liturgical, and charitable disciplines are.
Good friends won’t just help diagnose your wounds of the demon of noonday (or even his inhabitation); camaraderie will actually help keep it away. “For wherever two or three are gathered in my name…”
We are not saved alone; please do not struggle alone. Priests need priests.
– Fr. Anthony