“Why can’t you?” The question stung. Here was a friend and fellow religious asking me, sincerely, why I couldn’t add something else to my already overflowing proverbial plate. I was hurt and somewhat annoyed, but that only lasted until the doubt settled in. Maybe he’s right? Maybe I can make this work. It’s not that big of a commitment. Am I being lazy or selfish? Perhaps I just need to be better about time-management. It’s not as if he’s asking something of me that is outside of my skill set or comfort zone. And it’s a need for the people of God, for crying out loud. He is asking me to do something that will benefit others. This is what I am supposed to do, no? I’ve been reflecting on our conversation that chilly morning a great deal. Should I be doing more?

Our society places a high value on efficiency, productivity and doing. We are a society on the move, always connected, always producing. Workaholism is rewarded in our society to a great extent. A Cadillac commercial that premiered during the 2014 Olympics exemplified this American obsession. The commercial begins with actor Neal McDonough (you may remember him as the Brie’s creepy husband from “Desperate Housewives”) standing with his back to the camera looking out at his backyard pool. “Why do we work so hard? For what? For this? For stuff?" These are the first words we hear in the commercial that goes on to boast of American productivity as honorable and deserving of imitation by those in other countries who take two-month-long vacations and lunch breaks that include naps. The premise of the commercial is that we work hard without long vacations or time for rest because we like it and we’re good at it. It’s integral to who we are. The material things are our just reward for this highest of American values. According to the website AdAge, Fox Business News praised this commercial as a “tremendous celebration of profit-seeking, productivity and, yes, enjoyment of material goods.”

As I was watching the Olympics, this commercial horrified me. I saw it as, and still do, perpetuating a sort of illness that pervades American society. However, even though I could judge this 90-second ad as perverting priorities, I also recognize that those of us in religious life and lives of ministry are not immune to the sickness of workaholism. It is often disguised because our reward isn’t the accumulation of material goods, but recognition, a feeling of being valued or esteemed, an increase in ego or self-worth. The accumulation of “stuff” is internal, but no less dangerous than the accumulation of wealth.

It is true that in apostolic religious life we seek to live a balance between ministry and contemplative prayer – one feeds the other. We bring our ministry to prayer and prayer supports us in our ministry. This is the ideal. If we are not careful, though, our ministry can overtake the contemplative space in our lives. Our world is in such great need. There are more injustices, marginalized and oppressed peoples, and persons in abject poverty than I can list in this article. And it is true that it is our moral obligation to address these needs in the ways we are able. But in so doing we cannot afford to lose our center, our foundation, our very souls.

This past summer on my annual retreat I did a lot of praying and spiritual reading related to this topic. With a clear understanding of all that awaited me in the current academic year, I felt called to a sort of preparation. One of the books I read, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives by Wayne Muller, quoted Thomas Merton in stating:

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence . . . [and that is] activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the faithfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

Far from advocating laziness or acedia, the author makes a case for sane balance. We are called to meet the needs around us with the gifts and resources God has given to us. We are also called to a life of joy. If we launch headlong into the work without the necessary Sabbath, the ministry becomes draining of life and energy and possibly without the crucial partnership with God. And indeed, to carry on the work of ministry without the contemplative grounding is to do violence to ourselves.

In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis cautions all those who work in ministry with these words:

The problem is not always an excess of activity, but rather activity undertaken badly, without adequate motivation, without a spirituality which would permeate it and make it pleasurable. As a result, work becomes more tiring than necessary, even leading at times to illness. Far from a content and happy tiredness, this is a tense, burdensome, dissatisfying and, in the end, unbearable fatigue. . . . Called to radiate light and communicate life, in the end they are caught up in things that generate only darkness and inner weariness, and slowly consume all zeal for the apostolate. For all this, I repeat: Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of evangelization!

(EG 82, 83)

And how does one maintain the joy of ministry? By remaining deeply rooted in the Source of all life. In other words, by cultivating and continually nurturing the contemplative spirit. 

You may be wondering whether or not I eventually said yes to my friend’s request. I have not.  

[Nicole Trahan is a member of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (Marianist Sisters) who teaches sophomore religion at Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School, serves as the National Director of Vocations for the Marianist Sisters, and is director of the pre-Novitiate program for her province.]