The well-being of spiritual leaders, and how it affects their families and flocks, is a personal issue for me.
Living it for 22 years as the wife of a priest, I have witnessed at first-hand how a healer can indeed become the wounded—physically, emotionally, mentally, and also spiritually.
My husband, Fr. Stepanos Doudoukjian, recently dealt with a sudden health-crisis, which initially brought him down emotionally and dampened his spirit. It was not necessarily a surprise, as it was something that had been brewing with his non-stop schedule. He was clearly wearing himself down physically, which was impacting his overall health, and in turn, taking a toll on our family. While I know he receives energy and joy from assisting others and sharing the Word of God, with all this running, doing, and constant church-related work, it allows for little time to spend with the family, and even less time to care for oneself.
There have been numerous occasions through the years when we have had family plans that changed due to last-minute pastoral situations or calls. It is not that a priest puts his family second; it is that a priest is a priest 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He is always on call; the collar is on in everything he does, thinks, and speaks. His profession is not just a part of him, it is him: it’s what he chose the day he was anointed to the Holy Order of the Priesthood—not your average, everyday vocation, but certainly one of the most rewarding.
While the purpose of a priest is to reach out to bring Christ’s healing to those who are wounded, a priest needs to also look out for himself in order to do that effectively.
That was the theme struck by Diocesan Primate Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, during the just-completed series of retreats for the clergy that occupied the period of Great Lent. “As clergy, we too are human,” he said, “therefore it is very important that we take care of ourselves.”
Beneath the collar, a priest is not a fictional superhero in a cape, but a real person who sometimes needs to slow down and be still, to renew and reconnect.
Retreating to Reconnect
That was the message at this year’s Clergy Lenten Retreats—an annual series of three-day gatherings in Eastern Diocese’s New England, Mid-Atlantic and Mid-West regions.
Clergy of the Eastern Diocese also gather for regular meetings and an annual clergy conference, but while these are business-oriented, the smaller, more intimate Lenten retreats though are a chance to take a step back, share camaraderie, and learn from fellow clergy. Great Lent is the ideal time to hold these gatherings because it is a period for clergy and laity to pray, meditate, and regroup spiritually.
“These retreats are a wonderful opportunity to make us strong spiritually, to reflect and receive guidance, or hear about other clergy’s experiences,” explained Fr. Hratch Sargsyan, pastor of the St. Gregory of Narek Church in Cleveland, OH, who attended the Mid-West Retreat.
“Without these retreats, I would hardly know most of the clergy as human beings and men of God, with their strengths and struggles,” he said.
In the New England area, one of the clergy who opened up about his recent struggle and spiritual journey was Fr. Shnork Souin, pastor of Sts. Sahag and Mesrob Church in Providence, RI. Fr. Souin is awaiting a heart transplant and recently went through a long, and at times extremely challenging hospitalization.
Though through it all, he never questioned, “why me,” nor felt depressed. Rather, he felt resilience through God’s presence and the support of his brother clergy.
This is why he was determined to attend the retreat this year, despite the advice of his medical team. He wanted to not only share his experience through a reflection he offered, but also to thank his fellow clergy and to be with them to pray and learn together. “It was very important to me and I’m so glad I went. It felt good,” said Fr. Souin.
“If spiritual leaders are not strong, they cannot serve the spiritual needs of their people,” said Fr. Sargsyan, reiterating the sentiments of Archbishop Barsamian regarding the greater purpose of the Lenten retreats. Yet this simple concept is often overlooked by parishioners and by priests themselves.
“Even the Lord Jesus from time to time would leave the throngs of his followers and go into prayerful isolation for a time,” pointed out Fr. Simeon Odabashian, the Diocesan Vicar General and organizer of the retreats.
“The greatest spiritual leaders, past and present, have followed this example,” he said. “I hope our parishes see the benefit of their pastors going on spiritual retreat for a few days each year, whereby they can be spiritually edified and renewed so that they can return to serving the faithful with greater vigor.”
Solitude to Heal
While my own husband was not able to attend this year’s Mid-Atlantic Lenten Retreat due to his health situation, he is now resting and regrouping, realizing that to continue to be successful in his role as spiritual leader, he must take this needed time—now and in the future—to spiritually nourish himself.
He is also receiving calls, notes, prayers, and visits of support not just from friends, family and parishioners, but from his fellow brothers in Christ who clearly understand the struggle of balance and self-healing.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” says Jesus in St. Matthew’s Gospel. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Jesus calls for us—priests and people alike—to place our burdens upon him. It’s an appropriate reminder in this season of Resurrection, Hope, and Life. He is the nourishment needed to sustain us in all aspects of our lives.
By Yn. Paulette K. Doudoukjian
Above: At this year’s New England Clergy Retreat, Fr. Shnork Souin shares his personal story of physical and spiritual healing.