Editorial by Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P.
The two disciples who encountered the Risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus race back to Jerusalem and recount to the others what took place on the way and how Jesus made himself known to them in the breaking of the bread. As they are still speaking, Jesus himself stands in their midst and says, Peace be with you. Their response? They were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost (Lk 24:36-37). Really?
Anxiety gets the better of us when we least expect it. In the presence of the Resurrected Jesus, anxiety should be the last thing we feel. But the truth is that only the power of Christ’s Resurrection can transform anxiety and bless us with the grace to live in Gospel peace, even amidst the daily barrage of anxiety in our life.
Anxiety and its effects
Saint Thomas Aquinas speaks of anxiety as a sorrow that “so weighs on the spirits that there seems no escaping it.” It is fear of the unknown—fear of “a disagreeable situation” that is “unforeseen and unforeseeable,” fear of “future misfortune.” Maybe there is no way to make anxiety completely go away…and maybe there is some anxiety that is actually beneficial, for even Saint Paul speaks about his anxiety for all the churches (see 2 Cor 11:28).
Trouble comes when we let anxiety determine and dominate our life. The Book of Proverbs tells us, Anxiety in a man’s heart depresses it (Prv 12:25). This is so, as Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque pointed out, because anxiety “withdraws the soul from God.” That withdrawal puts us in a most precarious state, for, in the judgment of the North American martyr Saint Charles Garnier, “It is by the feelings of anxiety that the devil harms us more than any other means, and unless you are extremely watchful, you will fall into his snares.” Which is why Doctor of the Church Saint Francis de Sales will say, “With the single exception of sin, anxiety is the greatest evil that can happen to a soul.”
How to deal with anxiety
No wonder, then, that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us over and over again, Do not worry about your life (Mt 6:25-34). In his very first parable—the parable of the sower and the seed—Jesus warns us about the seed sown among thorns, that is, worldly anxiety, the lure of riches, and the craving for other things that intrude and choke the word, and it bears no fruit (Mk 4:18-19).
If anyone had a “right” to be anxious, it would be the Apostle Paul, given all the sufferings, and persecutions, and ordeals that afflicted him. But instead, Saint Paul directs us with commanding certainty, Have no anxiety at all (Phil 4:6). He can order this because something stronger than anxiety has transfigured his life!
These Scriptural counsels show that much of the anxiety we experience is of our own making. Too often the cause of our anxieties is a hidden trust in our own strength and understanding. We try to operate out of our own, false self-sufficiency. The anxiety that gets the better of us is the fear that we will not be taken care of. Anxiety of this sort stands as a deep mistrust of God’s Providence, of God’s Fatherly protection of us. Anxiety makes us doubt that love is enough; it makes us doubt God himself.
Pope Benedict XVI explained this: Living in dependence on God means not being one’s own master, not wanting to take charge of the world oneself; it means saying good-bye to the dream of autonomy and of being one’s own boss, it means recognizing that we cannot do it on our own, and learning to accept our life day by day from his hands, without anxiety and full of confidence.
With this in mind, we can understand why the Catholic philosopher Louis Lavelle labeled anxiety as the opposite of purity. For the pure of heart is one whose life is focused and whole, open and disposed to receive every gift. But anxiety “unfailingly creates a division in the soul.”
The advantage of anxiety
Anxiety is the voice of Jesus calling us to him and away from ourselves. In this respect, it remains a great help to holiness. As Servant of God Elisabeth Leseur observed: In times of anxiety and suffering, God sometimes gives, in that deep place in the soul where human torments can no longer reach, movements of joy and an intense awareness of spiritual realities, so that one can return to life with its struggles and sorrows. Divine illumination makes the road more luminous and enables us to see our destination.