By: Fr. James Gross
Some years ago a psychiatrist that I met told me about a study that was conducted here in the U.S. The study concluded that up to 50% of Americans, at some time in their lives, suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition. They weren’t referring only to severe or debilitating diseases, but the point behind the research was that a lot more of us are dealing with these struggles than we may think. I remember guessing that the number would be much lower than 50%, and I think I concluded naively that mental health issues were much more the exception than the rule. How many people do I know that “keep a stiff upper lip” and tell themselves that others have it worse than they do? We just need to suck it up, push through, and put our best foot forward, or else we probably are just making a mountain out of a molehill.
I’m bringing this up because of the numerous times Jesus refers to worry and anxiety in today’s Gospel. I dare say that a lot of us experience anxiety in our day-to-day lives, and for a good number of us, we turn to medication and/or therapy to cope with them. My Grandma Gross, for example, had what I’m pretty sure was a form of anxiety disorder, even though doctors may never have given that it name when she was alive. What are we supposed to do with what the Lord tells us?
First of all, we know that God wants us to live life to its fullest and enjoy health of mind, body, and soul. The message of the Gospel is not a stoic, “tough love” approach that turns a blind eye to our moments of misery. Neither is the Gospel message a version of that old 1980’s pop song from Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It’s a disservice to reduce the words of Jesus to an airy cliché. I’m probably going to regret mentioning that song; I hope it doesn’t stick in your mind like an earworm and distract you the rest of the mass.
The anxiety of which Our Lord speaks today comes from false assumptions. First of all, we can falsely think that there is a limit to the bounty of God’s gifts. We fear that they are rationed thin, and when our ration runs out, then what will we do? Secondly, we can falsely think that God is not interested in the needs of His children, as though he can’t be expected to “sweat the small stuff.” Also, we can tell ourselves that personal success is all on our shoulders. This is the residual effect of the Enlightenment period, and the attempt to remove God from our lives as an active cooperator in meeting our needs.
Should we be conscientious? Should we play by the rules? Should we live responsibly? Should we make our best effort? Absolutely, but insofar as we give glory to God as the one who makes it possible. By using terms like worry and anxiety, Jesus is confronting the doubt we can harbor in His desire for our true welfare. As Isaiah poetically put it, we should no more expect a mother to forget about the child in her womb than we would expect God to forget about us.
Stresses and pressure will come at us from the outside. The key is that, through God’s grace, we can control how we respond to them. Here’s how I like to think of what Jesus is saying. During the Mass, after we finish reciting the Lord’s Prayer, I pray that, “by the help of God’s mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress.” The distress is the unavoidable garbage that comes at us. Anxiety is the permission we give external distress to overwhelm us and lose hope in God’s providence. That is the very thing Jesus teaches us to wage war against.
Consider the beautiful examples Jesus gives from nature: the value the Creator places in birds of the air, providing creatures with sustenance, and the exquisite detail of flowers that soon perish. I imagine the Father saying to us, “I have plenty of everything. Do not be anxious that there may not be anything left for you.” That being said, the Lord warns us that we cannot serve two masters. God must be God of our lives, and everything else must stand in proportion to Him. As he said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.” Otherwise, we begin to live like idolaters, depending on ourselves or something in creation to satisfy our desire for lasting happiness. Then we chase after the wrong kinds of things and start believing that God won’t really come through for us.
This past week, during Msgr. Shea’s mission talks, he reminded us of how important it was that God commanded the Hebrews, through Moses, to keep the Sabbath day. God’s people were freed from slavery. They did not have to act any longer like they were still slaves. They could enjoy a day of rest every single week, following the standard God set in the Book of Genesis, where all unnecessary work or errands get put on hold. We take this to mean that we can concentrate on taking care of each other and allowing Holy Mother Church to nurture us.
It takes discipline to make the most of our Sundays, to be here right now, and not to treat this day as “Saturday, part two.” Perhaps many of you already carry anxiety in your heart about what you have to do on Monday morning. But is that how God asks us to live? Ironically, many of those who feed their anxiety with all sorts of busy-ness on Sundays don’t really feel like they are caught up. Instead of being tranquil and dispelling the anxiety, it somehow gets revved up and moves even closer to the center of their thoughts.
You may be saying, “Yes, Father, but I’m still anxious. I’ve got problems that weigh heavily on my heart.” Certainly you do; far be it from me to trivialize them. But God’s shoulders are broad. Will we trust that our Heavenly Father knows what we need better than we know it ourselves? Will we take the risk that comes with the virtue of faith to ask in humble prayer for what we need? Will we trust that God can provide for His children what we cannot provide for ourselves?