I will never forget the half-joking remark conveyed to me by a friend, made to him by a priest, about zealous Catholic converts having a “five-year shelf life.” After that point, presumably, one’s faith must mature – beyond that initial, largely natural zeal, toward a supernatural wisdom and charity – or perish.
The remark was all the more memorable because at the time I had only recently passed that five-year mark, and felt myself at a turning point. My friend, a fellow convert, had run into frustration and disillusionment after a half-decade or so; and my own experience was beginning to look similar.
Of course, the language of “shelf-life” is only half-serious, and there is no precise timetable for religious burnout. I have seen it develop more quickly, and more slowly. Some people seem to struggle with it less than others. It is quite individual in some ways.
Yet in other ways, it is universal. Religious burnout is a potential challenge for all believers, for lifelong Church members as well as converts and reverts. It can threaten the faith, hope, and love of any committed Christian.
I have never intellectually doubted the faith, since the time of my conversion. But I have certainly had to fight against religious exhaustion and frustration.
Through these struggles, however, God has given me a glimpse of the hidden grace – the disguised blessing – that lies within the experience of burnout.
From my experience, and others’, I have identified three forms of religiosity that lead to burnout: religion as a form of self-rejection; religion as a quest for one’s own perfection; and religion as devotion to an ideology rather than to God Himself.
The blessing of burnout lies in this simple fact: It is actually an act of mercy for God to destroy these forms of religion.
He allows them to burn out, in order to lead us back to the simple, infinitely more beautiful truth: that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”
Life itself is exhausting in many ways; natural enthusiasm waxes, wanes, and often returns in time. But profound religious burnout is something deeper: a sign of disconnection from the heart of the Gospel.
We burn out when we are driven by something other than God’s love. We grow tired and frustrated when we live for some other purpose than to receive and reflect God’s compassion for us in Christ. And it is a blessing, a mercy of God, for these plans to fail.
Self-rejection can easily hijack religion and cause burnout. Often it occurs when we are unconsciously persuaded of an insidious lie: that God does not love the real person I am now, but only a different, hypothetical person, the ideal person I might someday become through intensive effort.
Besides the impossible effort to “earn” God’s love, another unconscious premise often underlies religious self-rejection. It is the assumption (which I have discussed before) that God’s grace is limited to explicitly religious things and activities, rather than being present always and everywhere.
Combined, these two premises produce an unhealthy self-scrutiny. Examining his personal tastes, interests, and hobbies, the self-rejecting believer starts to belittle and cast off anything in which he cannot see an explicit “religious” value. All such things must go, even if they have great personal meaning.
I know this problem from experience. Years ago, I embraced Christianity as a rather offbeat 21-year-old, with broad and unusual artistic and intellectual interests. Yet I quickly set to work suppressing much of that, trying to meet a rigid artificial standard that I derived from historic Christian culture.
I never fully bought into this delusion: God often reminded me of my true personality, and the reality of the divine presence throughout all creation. Still, I spent plenty of time and energy working to downplay my idiosyncrasies and become a “Catholic cultural exemplar” of sorts.
This project drained me, and burned itself out, over time. I did not have enough genuine personal enthusiasm for this artificial template to which I was trying to conform. My real interests kept veering off the self-imposed grid.
But the burnout of this project was a great blessing, a relief from a disordered form of religion. God does not ask us to check our personalities at the door of his Church, or to exchange our tastes and interests for a set of tropes.
Just as a Jewish or Hindu convert to Catholicism would retain a certain cultural “Jewishness” or “Indianness,” I will always feel connected to the culture of late-twentieth-century postmodernism. To deny this is simply a form of self-rejection.
The idea of personal authenticity – “Be Yourself” – has been abused by modern society. Yet it remains spiritually valid, insofar as grace does not abolish nature, but rather brings it to perfection. God does call us to repentance, but repentance and self-rejection are as different as night and day.
Self-rejection is never spiritually fruitful. We all have sins to repent of; but we are never called to cast ourselves aside or become “someone else.”
When our religious practice degenerates into habitual self-rejection, God may mercifully let us run out of steam rather than continue. But we must distinguish between the faith itself, and our distortions of it, so that a loss of enthusiasm for one’s self-generated religious project is not mistaken for a loss of faith.
The same is true in cases where religion becomes a self-absorbed quest for one’s own perfection. Here, too, we should understand our burnout as a chance for deeper conversion and awakening to God’s grace.
If we see ourselves as obedient and orthodox in our faith, we are liable to think that the worst error in religion is that of laxity and carelessness. We may forget that there is an equal or greater danger in a self-centered perfectionism that seeks, in practice, to accomplish salvation by its own power.
In a sense, self-absorbed perfectionism is what happens when self-rejecting religiosity does not burn out in failure, but starts to succeed on its own terms. It is a deeper level of delusion: one imagines he is succeeding in the quest to earn God’s love through doctrinal orthodoxy and moral obedience.
This is the malady that Pope Francis, in a much-misunderstood passage, identified as “self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism.” Five decades earlier, in The New Man (a book that I suspect influenced the Pope directly) Thomas Merton described the same problem:
“It is very common to find, even under the formulas of impeccable orthodoxy, a raffishly Promethean spirituality which is avid not so much for God as for ‘spiritual perfection.’ The language of prayer in such cases may be the language of the most consummate humility. Grace becomes everything. Nature is worse than nothing: it is an abhorrent nothing. And yet such a spirituality may be completely self-centered.”
Merton and the Pope invoke the Greek myth of Prometheus, who steals the fire hidden from mankind by the gods, in contrast with the truth of God’s gracious offer of salvation in Christ. Yet even Christian faith, Merton warns, can become “Promethean,” if one seeks “not the glory of God but his own perfection.”
For all his moral virtues, the Promethean Christian lacks the humility and love that consist in simple self-forgetfulness. “He has forgotten the terrible paradox,” Merton writes, “that the only way we become perfect is by leaving ourselves, and, in a certain sense, forgetting our own perfection, to follow Christ.”
Humble self-forgetfulness cannot coexist with Promethean spirituality. For those who labor under the delusion of self-centered perfectionism, religious burnout may be the shortest way back to truth and love.
Pope Francis has also aimed strong words at those who reduce the Christian faith to “ideology.” I read this as referring to a form of religion in which the heart of the Gospel – God’s saving compassion for humanity, in the person of Jesus – takes a backseat to political concerns and the prestige of the Church.
I have offered my own commentary, in two previous columns, on the type of warped Christianity that gives absolute priority to the “culture wars” and the strength of the institutional Church. I feel qualified to critique this version of religion mainly because I have, at times, practiced it myself.
For that same reason, I can say with confidence that this ideologically-driven form of religion – not a faith concerned about truth and the common good out of love, but an all-too-human zeal to name and neutralize the supposed enemies of God – often causes religious burnout among those who practice it.
If “Promethean spirituality” is the devotion to one’s own perfection rather than God, then “ideological Christianism” is the overflow of that tendency into the world. Its concern is the restoration of order; God’s love becomes an afterthought, of no public relevance.
For people of a certain disposition, the first phase of ideological religiosity is energizing: Finally, people who see with clarity! A movement to strike society’s problems at the roots, to alleviate the chaos that has caused such suffering in my life, and so many others’ lives . . .
Such movements often fail, causing burnout by disillusionment. But even when they garner a measure of success, they tend to undermine and hollow out the religious faith of their adherents: religion becomes simply a moral crusade, one that an atheist with the right ethical principles could conduct nearly as well.
When a lesser good takes the place of God, it is an act of mercy for God to remove it – even by painful means – for the sake of our salvation. Thus, when an ideological program takes God’s place, as the “Alpha and Omega” of one’s life, it may be better to burn out than to succeed.
Failure and frustration have their purposes. The death of mere human zeal is natural and necessary; the end of our natural strength can be the beginning of supernatural patience, love, and wisdom. God tries our works by fire, so that the destructible may be replaced by the indestructible.
Burnout should not be an end for us, but a beginning. The place of silence, darkness, and difficulty, is often the place where one truly learns to pray.