In a quiet moment while we were all trying to catch our breath in the midst of recent events in the parish, your three priests began describing where in our bodies we feel stress and anxiety. Candice said it hits her like a band across her stomach. I feel a trembling triangle across my chest and into my core. Daniel feels a cord reaching from the back of his throat down into his stomach, twisting tighter and tighter. Maybe the fact that your spiritual guides get pretty stressed out may cause you to feel a bit of panic but I share that to ask you to consider where in your body you feel stress and anxiety.
Matthew 6:25-34 is a lesson on stress and anxiety. On the surface the teaching is simply telling us not to worry because it doesn’t help. “Don’t worry, be happy” it seems to say. Easy enough in theory. But pretty difficult to carry out in this life where stress and anxiety are regular companions. It almost sounds like being we’re advised not to bleed when our skin is cut. At that point, it’s a natural reaction beyond our control and not something we can will ourselves not to do.
Digging a little deeper, the passage reveals reassurance that God cares for us when we are stressed out and anxious. The great Being who makes all things possible doesn’t stand far off and dismiss us for worrying. The nurturing God, similar to the image Jesus uses of a hen spreading her wings over her chicks, comes to us when we panic, feels for us, seeks to protect us and comfort us. So the passage isn’t so much a shaking finger but a gathering arm from a loving God. God feeds the birds, the passage says, so naturally God will care for us when we need help.
After the passage offers that comforting image of God, it suggests a way of addressing stress and anxiety. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Here Jesus offers a model of prayer, a time of focusing on God’s love for us even as we suffer anxiously here in our lives.
Typically in stressful times we focus more on the anxiety than we do anything else. Pain is that way: it makes us self-centered. And lots of self-centered thoughts run through our minds: I shouldn’t be feeling this way; I’ve got to find a way to make this go away; what am I doing wrong here? I. Me. I. Me. Like kerosene on fire, self-centered thoughts on top of anxiety lead to full-blown panic.
Just to think about God for a moment in times of stress is helpful. Any way we do that is considered prayer. Even if we childishly get a little ticked at God for putting us through all this, at least we’ve set our gaze beyond ourselves. Considering that God is near and understands our plight helps soothe things. Taking a deep breath and emptying ourselves into God’s arms is effective. It’s the wordless I-can’t-handle-this-but-you-can sort of prayer. Slowly but surely that prayer leads to relief.
Being faithful isn’t a matter of finding the tools to avoid those times of stress. It’s more about finding ways to pray our way through anxiety, letting go of that which is beyond our ability to control, reminding ourselves to trust that in time all shall be well.
Your priests are paid to pray for you in your times of stress. Meanwhile we have our own stuff to deal with and we rest better knowing that we are in your prayers as well. As we pass through these valleys, we find God mighty to save, nurturing us back into our situations, assisting us with grace, reminding us that we are alone only when we push God away. Even then, God only needs the slightest opening to touch us again.
When you are anxious seek God, and all that you need will be provided for you.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.