Friday, January 28, 2011

Prayer & Stress Management

"What good does it do to pray?", people ask. "There's nothing practical that can come from it; you're just deceiving yourself." This must sound familiar to those among us who work with young adults, or high school kids, or who have friends that have lives filled with self, stuff, and stress.

And actually it's not a bad question. There are those who wouldn't even bother with the question, dismissing prayer and the spiritual life outright. As it is, the capacity to ask the question reveals a potential for hearing the answer. You can only "get" answers to the questions that you have, not to the questions that you don't have.

This afternoon I read an article on "Psychospiritual Stress Management." The key to dealing with stress, according to the author, is hardiness or resilience, defined as "Being committed to finding meaningful purpose in life, the belief that one can influence one's surroundings and the outcome of events, and the belief that one can learn and grow from both positive and negative life experiences." Such beliefs lead to active coping measures and the perception of difficult situations as less threatening, even as learning opportunities.

For those with belief, spirituality is part of the coping process. "As spiritual beings, the act of finding meaning in adversity, of facing difficulties with courage, becomes a spiritual endeavor." I can't help but to think of the saints, and especially St. John Baptist de La Salle, when I read those words. From the time that he made a commitment to the education of the young, especially the poor, stress flew at him from all directions - opposition, disappointment, lawsuits, failure, physical pains, abandonment, and so on. Yet despite all that, or perhaps because of and through it, he grew into a spiritual giant, with enough resilience for ten people, with enough resilience to lead his Brothers for some forty years. And at the end? As he lay dying and the Director asked him whether he accepted his sufferings, he said: "Yes, I adore God working through all the events and circumstances of my life." The more difficult things became, the more resilient De La Salle became. Not in a weird, self-deceptive, or pie-in-the-sky-when-I-die way. Just the opposite. As he engaged real life, dealt with the challenges, and responded as positively and faith-filled as he was able to, the depths of that life opened up to him in ways that most of us probably cannot fully appreciate. It's one of those things that you just have to do in order to understand - like getting married, or joining religious life, or even as simple as doing something good for the person in front of you. Jumping into something with faith, with others, with resilience, makes for a whole new definition of success. De La Salle is pretty good proof that a spiritual life context is transformative, really and practically.

Research seems to support this. Recently, a study of men over 55 who had heart surgery showed that 25 percent of them died in the six months following the surgery if they had no social support and no religious beliefs, as opposed to 4 percent of those who reported both social support and strength from religious belief. In addition, there was a 25 percent "reduction in mortality associated with church/service attendance after adjustment for established risk factors such as healthy lifestyle, social support and depression."

One only has to look to Viktor Frankl's observations during World War II for confirmation. He saw that survival in the concentration camps "was based on finding meaning in the suffering. He noted pointedly that, when a prisoner lost faith in his future, he seemed to lose his spiritual grip and to sink into a psychological and physical state of decompensation." Frankl wrote that "Among those who actually went through the experience of Auschwitz, the number of those whose religious life was deepened - in spite of, not because of, this experience - by far exceeds the number of those who gave up their belief."

Paying attention to one's inner life, to what's going on during the quiet times, is eminently practical, especially when things are tough. You have to feed the soul. Our grandparents could have probably told us that. But by the time you discover something like this, you also realize that people have to learn it for themselves, and the best thing you can do is to lovingly support them as they do so. Sounds like God work.

What good does it do to pray? More than we can possibly imagine.