Anxiety

FR. JOSEPH ESPER

Some saints were as prone to worry and anxiety as the rest of us are.

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and
supplication with thanksgiving let your requests
be made known to God.
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding,
will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

But, by placing their trust in the Lord's presence and care, they were able to overcome their fears. Some of these fears were relatively minor ones, as faced by Bl. Helen of Udine, who, during a period of distress, was terrified even of loud noises. Others were serious fears, as faced by St. Augustine of Canterbury, the abbot of a monastery in Rome. In the year 596, he was chosen by Pope St. Gregory the Great to lead a group of forty monks on a missionary journey to England. (There were some scattered Christian communities there, but the island as a whole was pagan and uncivilized.) Augustine and his companions set out, but on reaching France, they were frightened by stories of the dangerous waters of the English Channel and the fierce temperament of the Anglo-Saxon tribes. Leaving his companions there, Augustine hurried back to confer with the Pope. Gregory encouraged the worried missionary and sent him back on his way, after telling him, "He who would climb a lofty height must go by steps, not by leaps." Augustine returned to the other missionaries; they crossed over into England and there experienced great success in spreading the Gospel.

It's said that the words "Be not afraid" appear in Scripture 366 times — one for each day of the year (leap years included). Certainly we need this sort of ongoing reminder and encouragement; life can be difficult and is often filled with anxieties, great and small. Jesus told St. Martha that, unlike her sister Mary, she was "anxious and troubled about many things." Martha took this correction to heart and learned to trust in the Lord — so much so that later, even as she grieved the death of her brother Lazarus, she was able to acknowledge Jesus as the Resurrection and the life. Martha's sister St. Mary Magdalene likewise acknowledged Christ's power on this occasion; she was one of the few followers of Christ who, on Good Friday, dared to proclaim her loyalty to Him publicly by standing beneath His Cross, and for her courage and devotion she was rewarded by being the first witness of the Resurrection.


There's a saying that "Courage is fear that has said its prayers." Prayer is indeed the key to overcoming or coping with anxiety, for it reassures us of God's presence and reminds us of our need to rely on His strength, not on our own. As St. John Vianney said, "God commands you to pray, but He forbids you to worry."


All Christians are called to be a source of strength and courage to others. One who understood this was St. Catherine of Siena, who — centuries before women were acknowledged as equal to men — used her tremendous influence to guide the affairs of popes and kings. The papacy had found Rome to be hostile and unpleasant and had taken refuge in the French city of Avignon. This "temporary" arrangement dragged on and on, to the detriment of the Church. Catherine finally persuaded a timid Pope Gregory XI to leave Avignon and return to Rome.

Another woman of strength and courage was the early third-century martyr St. Perpetua, a young noblewoman (and presumably widow) who had recently given birth to an infant son. After being arrested as a Christian with some companions, she kept diary in prison. She wrote, "What a day of horror! Terrible heat, owing to the crowds! Rough treatment by the soldiers! To crown all, I was tormented with anxiety for my baby. . . . Such anxieties I suffered for many days, but I obtained leave for my baby to remain in the prison with me, and being relieved of my trouble and anxiety for him, I at once recovered my health, and my prison became a palace to me and I would rather have been there than anywhere else.”

St. Perpetua, her companion St. Felicity, and several other Christians were mauled by wild animals and then put to death by the sword; according to legend, the executioner was so shaken by Perpetua's brave demeanor that she herself had to guide his sword to her neck.

Compared with what the martyrs suffered, the things we worry about may seem trifling, but God offers us the same gifts of courage and strength that sustained the martyrs in their trials.

There's a saying that "Courage is fear that has said its prayers." Prayer is indeed the key to overcoming or coping with anxiety, for it reassures us of God's presence and reminds us of our need to rely on His strength, not on our own. As St. John Vianney said, "God commands you to pray, but He forbids you to worry."


"I will not mistrust Him, Meg, although I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear. I shall remember how St. Peter at a blast of wind began to sink because of his lack of faith, and I shall do as he did: call upon Christ and pray to Him for help. And then I trust He shall place His holy hand on me and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning."


This attitude of confidence applies even to our encounters with evil, for St. Teresa of Avila notes that every time evil spirits fail to terrify us or dissuade us from doing good, "they lose strength, and the soul masters them more easily. If the Lord is powerful and they are His slaves, what harm can they do to those who are servants of so great a King and Lord?" Nothing can happen to us without our Father's knowledge and permission, and He is able to arrange all things for our good. We, for our part, however, must avoid useless speculation; as St. Francis de Sales tells us, "It will be quite enough to receive the evils that come upon us from time to time, without anticipating them by the imagination."

According to St. Jerome, facing our fears and doing our duty in spite of them is an important way of taking up our cross; thus, we can reassure ourselves that in our efforts to be brave, we are actually serving Christ.

One who understood this was St. Thomas More, who from his prison cell wrote to his daughter, "I will not mistrust Him, Meg, although I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear. I shall remember how St. Peter at a blast of wind began to sink because of his lack of faith, and I shall do as he did: call upon Christ and pray to Him for help. And then I trust He shall place His holy hand on me and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning."

As this English saint notes, we must keep our focus on Christ, not on ourselves; once we turn to Jesus in trust, we are ready to follow the advice of St. Francis de Sales: "If you earnestly desire to be delivered from some evil, or to attain to some good, above all things, calm and tranquilize your mind, and compose your judgment and will; then quietly and gently pursue your aim, adopting suitable means." Jesus offers us His peace; if we accept it and use His grace, nothing shall overcome us.

For Further Reflection

"Let nothing disturb you, nothing cause you fear. All things pass; God is unchanging. Patience obtains all. Whoever has God needs nothing else; God alone suffices." — St. Teresa of Avila

"Stop listening to your fears. God is your guide and your Father, Teacher, and Spouse. Abandon yourself into the divine bosom of His most holy good pleasure. Keep up your spiritual exercises and be faithful in prayer." — St. Paul of the Cross

"Anxiety is the greatest evil that can befall the soul — sin only excepted. . . . When our heart is troubled and disturbed within itself, it loses the strength necessary to maintain the virtues that it had acquired. At the same time, it loses the means to resist the temptations of the enemy, who then uses his utmost efforts to fish, as they say, in troubled waters." — St. Francis de Sales

Something You Might Try

  • St. Paul of the Cross advises us, "When you notice that your heart is moving away even the tiniest bit from that inner peace that comes from the living faith-experience of the divine presence in the soul, stop and examine what the cause of this anxiety might be. Maybe it is some worry concerning your house or children, or some situation you cannot change at present. Bury it in God's loving will." Remind yourself that nothing can happen without the Lord's knowledge and permission — and as a loving Father, He will never abandon or forget you.

  • Sometimes anxiety is not merely a spiritual problem, but is caused by a mental disorder. If you suffer from a severe case of anxiety or from panic attacks, consult your doctor, who can suggest homeopathic or natural remedies or prescribe a medication for you. You might also consult the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.

Further Reading

Scripture:

Matthew 6:25-27, 34; 1 Corinthians 7:32.

Classics:

St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises

St. Francis de Sales, An Introduction to the Devout Life.

Contemporary Works:

Carlos G. Valles, Let Go of Fear

Brother Daniel Korn, A Way of the Cross for Anxious Times.

 

Almighty God,
who knows our necessities before we ask,
and our ignorance in asking:
Set free Your
servants from all anxious
thoughts for the morrow;
give us contentment with Your good gifts;
and confirm our faith so that,
according
as we seek Your kingdom,
You will not suffer us to lack any good thing,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

St. Augustine

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Fr. Joseph M. Esper. "Anxiety." chapter two from Saintly Solutions to Life's Common Problems — from Anger, Boredom, and Temptation to Gluttony, Gossip and Greed. (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2001): 9-14.

Reprinted with permission of Sophia Institute Press.

THE AUTHOR

Fr. Joseph Esper has written articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and other publications. He's the author of Saintly Solutions to Life's Common Problems, More Saintly Solutions to Life's Common Problems, After the Darkness, Lessons from the Lives of the Saints, and Why Is God Punishing Me?: Coping with suffering and guilt.

Copyright © 2001 Rev. Joseph M. Esper




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