Battling burnout: The spirituality of Fr. Merton


By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

Last year, a Medical Economics survey revealed that 9 out of 10 medical professionals have felt “burned out” at some point in their careers. This year’s survey revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased these feelings for 65 percent of medical professionals.

“What can our faith do to help combat this?” asked Tim Millea, president of the St. Thomas Aquinas Guild of the Quad Cities, during a virtual presentation Nov. 21.

Plenty, he suggested; additional studies show lower suicide rates among medical professionals who attend religious services regularly. However, he noted that medical professionals don’t always make time for themselves. The writings of Father Thomas Merton can offer a blueprint for doing that and provide guidance on how to develop a healthier sense of self, Millea said.


The American Trappist monk (1915-68), was a writer, theologian, mystic, poet, social activist and scholar of comparative religion who “wrote 47 publications in 26 years. There are 54 posthumous works based on his writings.”

Millea said many driven individuals, medical professionals included, struggle to set aside time for prayer and contemplation. “They cannot believe they are pleasing God unless they are busy with a dozen jobs at the same time, but this is a self-defeating rationale,” Millea suggested. “Don’t be the person who is lighting the fire and then smothering it. All God wants you to do is be quiet, keep yourself at peace, and pay attention to what his will is. It’s a tall order in this day and age. We are bombarded with information and (obligations), but sometimes we have to back off.”

Setting aside time for reflection is not a selfish endeavor, Millea said. “If you don’t have time set aside for yourself, you’re not just going to suffer alone. Everyone in your life is going to suffer.” Inspired by Father Merton’s writings, Millea offered the following fundamentals for successful contemplative prayer:

Surrender. This is hard for professionals whose self-worth is buoyed by self-sufficiency and personal accomplishments. Asking God for help is important for a healthy sense of self. “When we resist his help, that’s when things start to go downhill,” Millea said.

Detach. Detachment and insensitivity are not the same thing, Millea said. It means taking breaks as necessary to focus on God and his will. “You detach so you can be more sensitive to others.” Catholic Christians, medical professionals or otherwise, don’t need to find a hermitage or spend a weekend in retreat to take advantage of

Father Merton’s guidance on preventing burnout. “Find some place at your office, home or in your car where no one can disturb you.” In those moments, “do everything you can to avoid the noise….”

Remember the big picture. Father Merton says that Catholic Christians have one vocation, regardless of “what you do or who you are,” Millea said. This means leading a deep life of prayer and passing on the faith to others through word and example.

Stay in the moment. Focus on what you are doing right now. “Unite yourself to God’s will in your work,” Millea said. “When you’re working with one patient but thinking of the next three, you aren’t doing your work carefully and well.”

Reject perfectionism in prayer. You cannot measure success in prayer by the brilliant ideas you get, the great resolutions you make or the feelings and emotions produced, Millea said. Father Merton saw purpose and intent in prayer as more important than performance. “It’s not just how you do it, but that you do it,” Millea said. “Work yourself free of earthly concerns” and give “God praise, honor, thanksgiving and love.”

Millea said it is natural for medical professionals to get so involved with their duties and responsibilities that they forget to take time for themselves to pray. “But we’ve got to take that time. We will be better people because of it.”

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