Hope in the Lord — A burnt-out case

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz

I have begun to read some of the writings of Graham Greene. Born in 1904, he did most of his writings from the 1920s to 1970. In 1926, he converted to Roman Catholicism, and his novels reveal a theme that is consistent with the deepest mysteries of the Catholic faith. Thus, he is listed among those who are considered a Catholic novelist, but not because he writes about the Church. Rather the subjects at the heart of his novels present the mysteries of the dignity of the human person, the reality of sin and the gift of salvation.

Years ago, I read “The Power and the Glory” about a priest with an alcohol problem who served in the state of Chiapas in southeastern Mexico during the time of the persecution of the church and of priests. Despite his faults, this priest emerged as a priest with a truly pastoral heart for his people. I just finished another of his novels, “The Quiet American,” which takes place in Vietnam in the 1950s and gives an astonishingly deep portrait of the reality of war.

Last week, I began reading a Graham Greene novel that I have wanted to read for some time, “A Burnt-Out Case.” It is the story of an architect who became disillusioned with his life and journeyed to central Africa to get away from everything. Eventually he began to work at a place caring for those who are living with leprosy, now called Hansen’s disease.

While he eventually served those with great need, he discovered through the help of a doctor that he had spiritual symptoms that were remarkably similar to the physical symptoms of a person with Hansen’s disease. These symptoms include nerve endings burning intensely until suddenly they all go silent as if turned off by a light switch. There no longer is any feeling. The architect’s doctor wisely identified this lack of feeling in the soul of the protagonist of this novel. The architect had been successful in his career in the eyes of the world, but he felt a deep emptiness. When he asked the doctor the name of this disease, the doctor simply said, “burn-out.”

This novel describes a condition that touches the lives of so many people who say in exasperation, “I am getting burnt out.” The enthusiasm and passion they first felt for their life’s work has vanished from their life. All becomes humdrum. They need a change.

What a great precursor to Ash Wednesday in the season of Lent! It is less than a month away, and it is the ideal recipe for the symptoms of burnout. Just as the architect returned to the deep true values in his life by serving others, so too, the spiritually awakened person can be renewed — not through his or her own effort — but through the grace of God pulsing through the veins.

Keep your eye on The Record and your parish bulletin for opportunities to make this Lenten journey one in which you are cured of burnout and are renewed. It will make your Easter alleluia on April 12 that much more resounding.

By the way, this is also a time to feed your intellectual and spiritual life with good books, beginning with the New Testament and even including some novels from Catholic authors like Graham Greene.

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