As a parish priest, there were days when I began to feel overwhelmed by the great sorrow of the people around me. My parish hosted a day shelter for homeless women and children every day, and a feeding program for the street community every Sunday morning, so I was in close contact with many people whose suffering was quite acute.
Homeless people routinely dropped by my office, sometimes to ask for money, sometimes just to talk. Their tales of woe were bone-rattling, and permanently cured me of the notion of God as a Lone Ranger-type rescuer. While I heard my share of heart-warming and sometimes miraculous turn-around stories, more often than not I was witness to an unending parade of unfortunate events that very few people ever gain the resources to rise above: chronic poverty, mental illness, addiction, disability, debilitating disease, and just plain old ordinary very bad luck.
But as extreme as these tales of woe were, it was even more difficult to cope with the daily suffering of my parishioners. Their stories, while usually less dramatic than my homeless friends, were more difficult for me because, of course, I loved them so much. Eleven years as a pastor in one church was enough time to feel a bond even with the least involved of my parishioners.
I watched many beloved "pillars of the church" progress from a healthy and lively maturity to feeble, incontinent, institutionalized nursing home residents, then swiftly on to the illness that killed them. I watched as parishioners entirely forgot about nursing home residents who had once served as Senior Wardens and committee chairs. I witnessed surviving children spend far more time bickering over who got the treasured keepsake than over how much they missed their mom or dad.
There's a brilliant novel about a young pastor who is assigned to his first church in a small Midwestern town. After about a year, he begs his bishop to re-assign him - not because he's not getting along well with his flock, and not because he's not an excellent fit for them, but because he has realized, to his horror, that if he stays in that parish for any length of time, he will have to bury these beloved people. He's fallen in love with them, and can't bear to think of watching them die. Thus the title of the novel, The Solace of Leaving Early (by Haven Kimmel).
Over time, this constant river of suffering takes its toll. Like doctors, nurses, and home-care providers, clergy need to find a way to have compassion without it killing them. I learned to cope by inventing a method of prayer which I now realize was very similar to the Buddhist practice of tonglen. I would go into meditation, visualize the person I was praying for, see the suffering on their faces, and then imagine the light of God shining on them, warming them, healing them, bringing them into smiling wholeness.
In this short video, Pema Chodron introduces the method of tonglen. It's a method that helps us have compassion without being afraid of the suffering we see: we can take it in, and let it go, without the suffering overwhelming us. For pastors who encounter as much sorrow as we do in the course of our days, I highly recommend this practice.