Discouragement is a universal topic. It relates to every human being; every culture, race and gender. In our recent monthly retreat we watched Fr John Bartunek’s Retreat for Easter, “A Cure for Discouragement”. Easter, usually being a season of joy and hope, seemed like a strange time to present the topic of discouragement, but in a conflicted world where “happiness” seems all to elusive, it was the very topic that all could embrace, even on this lovely spring day.
To highlight the retreat videos content, we begin by meditating on a quote by Pope Benedict XVI regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“It was an utterly unique experience, which burst open the normal boundaries of experience and yet for the disciples was quite beyond doubt. This explains the unique character of the Resurrection accounts”.
In other words, no one knew what to expect of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It had never been done before. So we begin by looking at DISCOURAGEMENT from the “somewhat confusing” view of the disciples after their Lord has been put to death and disappeared, or so it seems. Fr Bartunek’s introspection of the utterly human feelings the followers of Jesus must have been experienced after his death is profound in helping us understand our own sense of being “let down” by life, even things that should make us “happy”.
I began my meditation by asking God to expand my own understanding of Jesus’ resurrection into something “utterly unique” for renewing my spirit.
“Help me Lord, to go deeper than my own understanding of a situation, to what You intend for me to glean and learn to become the servant you need me to be. Refresh my spirit as only You can.”
FIRST MEDITATION: “Two Discouraged Disciples”
Two of Jesus’ followers are walking to a town called Emmaus after his death and encounter “a stranger” which they are soon to discover, is Christ himself. Luke describes these two as “looking downcast”, disheartened; as Fr Bartunek explains, the Greek word for this translates to “gloomy and morose”. Can you put yourself in the moment with these two? Perhaps because of having witnessed a violent death of their Lord, and no restoration of his body after his tomb was discovered to be emptied, they are completely discouraged. The point of this first meditation, is Father’s differentiation between sadness and discouragement.
He states that discouragement “…never comes from the Holy Spirit. The emotion of sadness, however, can be in harmony with the Holy Spirit’s work in our souls, because this fallen world has legitimate causes for sadness–death, loss, sin and the destruction wreaked by sin, for example.” Sadness can assist us in have a more meaningful understanding in life, Fr. Bartunek explains, like Jesus says in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4), .
Discouragement, he compares, is “sadness gone wild”, or festering sadness. To be literally “without courage”, he defines further, “to play with the temptation to give up, give in, to stop trying.” He describes the difference of sadness being a very human condition, not “bad” in moral nature, importantly noting that it doesn’t “paralyze us and extinguish our hope.”
During our silent reflection after this first meditation, I had a vision of a scene that was an actual memory of mine I later recalled. We were renting canoes in Florida and it was cloudy and a little misty, we were getting ready to go out and all of a sudden a very thick fog rolled in, seemingly out of no where. Where as the mist and clouds (sadness) made it not as fun to row about it, the fog completely stopped all progress of our boats. Everyone was forced to beach their boats and find safety on land. Discouragement stops us from moving forward. Stops us from hoping or seeing a goal ahead.
I once heard Joel Osteen relate a story of a man who swam the English channel and wanted to be the first to cross successfully. After an arduous attempt in the freezing waters and miles of swimming behind him, a thick fog settled on the water. He lost sight of what was before him and it eventually caused him to give up. He couldn’t visualize the finish anymore. He got into the little boat that was following along side him for safety and soon discovered that he was only about 50 yards from reaching his goal. The fog had stolen his hope. Like discouragement, the fog robs us of hope, and can be immobilizing, unless sadness which may slow us down a bit.
Fr. Bartunek digs deeper into the causes for the disciples and our own discouragement. It begins with shattered expectations. Many of the Jewish people were anticipating a prophet that would come and deliver them from the current social climate, more like a war hero; a general or even a soldier. The true deliverance he brought was a standard of justice that greatly surpassed their own understanding in time and eternity, rather than localized discomforts they were experiencing at the time from oppression and persecutions. They could not possibly conceive what great things the Creator of the universe was doing behind the scenes of the natural world. We too set up situations, circumstances and events in our own minds of how they should look, and when they don’t turn out our way, we are greatly frustrated and discouraged. My sister used to tell me all the time, “People cannot disappoint us if we aren’t expecting anything of them.” Not in the way that people are always letting us down, but why does the world have to run according to my own ideas? There are so many people, each with their own ideas and presumptions, and too many factors at play with human will. We don’t like when things are beyond our control, and we forget that GOD’S DIVINE PLAN is much better than the way we would do things. Why are we putting pressure on others and ourselves? Our faith is not rooted in people. It is rooted in God. This is where Fr. Bartunek’s defining remarks go one step further; our expectations are often from our own loss of control…letting God be in control of our lives is the pinnacle point of this section…in other words, faith.
“There it is, the source of all spiritual discouragement: a faltering faith, and unwillingness to believe in God’s way of doing things, a reluctance to accept the revealed truth that all salvation, all growth in holiness, all progress in spiritual maturity must pass along the way of the cross. When things go wrong, it doesn’t mean God has abandoned us–the Crucifixion isn’t the end of the story; the Resurrection is.”
SECOND MEDITATION: Three Antidotes to Discouragement
A powerful beginning to help us wade through the mud of discouragement, Fr Bartunek begins this next section by calling out the lie and how to handle it.
“In the end, spiritual discouragement is always cause by a lie, the lie that God really can’t handle it when things go wrong.”
Jesus reminds the two who are walking to Emmaus that they have once again been “bamboozled” about the reality of a situation (my words) and then begins to repeat the scriptures to them from the time of Moses.
How many times do we listen to the doubt and fear in the world? Fr Bartunek tells us how important it is to hear the truth. We need to steep ourselves in God’s word on a regular basis. When we read it, we will have that amazing feeling like these two did at the familiarity of the truth and how it resonates with us.
When I was a youth minister, many years ago, one of the first activities I did with the kids was to have them write down any questions they had about faith, religion, God, morality, etc. I spent hours researching the questions using my bible and the Concordance (a reference book for scripture, that can be topic based), and EVERY SINGLE TIME I went to record the answer to the question, it was the answer that had already been in my heart… BEFORE I researched it. You may think I was already well-educated in the faith, but I was not. I had been a volunteer in a friend’s youth ministry program, and I had been to some seminars that were more activity based. I had been a counselor for years, but I didn’t have any formal ministry education. I truly sensed the Holy Spirit at work through the living word of God. Anytime we open the scriptures with a sense of reverence, the Holy Spirit will show up for us.
My favorite part of this meditation is of course, the Eucharist. This is the second of the three answers for discouragement. It was in the breaking of the bread that the two travelers to Emmaus recognized Jesus. “So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.” (Luke 24:28-31)
Fr Bartunek focuses on these four steps of the Eucharist, where were the same used at the last supper, and not the last time we see these steps in scripture. “Then he (Jesus) took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them.” (Luke 22:19) Also see Acts 20:11, 27:35, 1 and 2 Thessalonians and Hebrews.
It is this sacred set of actions that are the crux of the sacrifice of the Holy Mass. This Eucharistic (thanksgiving), is where the miraculous happens. It was this action that Jesus chose to constantly reveal himself to his disciples. They knew him in the breaking of the bread. We can go to mass on a Sunday, or during the week (somewhere in the world at every moment a mass is being offered somewhere and the cycle is never broken). Even if we can’t get to mass, there is a chapel somewhere near you that is calling your name.
The third way to combat discouragement, Fr. Bartunek tells us, is the community of believers in the church. The strength we have in numbers is not only a source of comfort and belonging, but the Holy Spirit is truly in our midst when we are two or more gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20). I heard another interesting example of this power from Joel Osteen, when he talked about redwood trees. They live for thousands of years yet they have such small roots in comparison to their strength and height. The secret that keeps them from blowing over in a big wind or storm is that their roots are intertwined with all the other redwoods, forming a system of support. He used this example to explain the importance of community in believers.
Fr Bartunek gives an example as well in God, Himself. “God Himself is a community of persons–a Trinity. And we are created in His image. We cannot continue to fight the good Christian fight on our own; we cannot persevere to the end without giving and receiving encouragement. Just as no one can baptize themselves, or forgive their own sins, so too none of us can resist the onslaught of discouragement for very long without the loving embrace of fellow believers.” I love the Holy Mass as it is my strength; but my shot in the arm comes from my prayer group every week, where we are reinforcing each other for the mission to which we are continuously called to share the gospel.
Sadness and discouragement may come to us all at times. We can remember that sadness is normal and will lift sometime soon, taking with it the misty haze it can sometimes cast. But when discouragement comes to visit, we know by Fr Bartunek’s excellent guidance that we must turn to scripture, the Eucharist and the community of believers Christ has placed in our life and fight the good fight with hope.
Fr Bartunek ends the retreat with the “Conference”, which is where we all discuss and review the very practical tips for spreading the cure for discouragement!
For the complete retreat guide and other retreat topics: https://rcspirituality.org/