A WORD ON ANXIETY AND THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
The following post is a combination of two homilies that really go together as a unit, comprising mainly what St. Paul has to say about anxiety and contentment along with some similar insights from the gospels of the past two weeks.
St. Paul writes:
Brothers and sisters:
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
That is great advice. Have no anxiety about anything. I wish I could do this one myself. It is far easier said than done, though.
The Greek literally says “do not have worry” (māden merimnate). The word for “worry” comes from the Greek verb, merizo, which means “to divide.” So literally what the passage is saying is “do not be divided about anything.” But isn’t that a great word for anxiety? Isn’t that what happens to us when we are anxious? Usually, we are worried or anxious because we are split over something? My grandmother still used the expression “to be of two minds about something.” Ever heard that one? My grandmother did not know that her expression was straight from a Greek word in the bible. That is exactly what happens to us when we worry. Just think for a moment about the word, disease – dis-ease. We are not at ease. That is what anxiety is. That is what anxiety does. It causes disease.
Why are we anxious? We are anxious because our minds are scattered across several problems, or we are worried that we will lose something we have, or worried we will not get something that we want, or our mind wants one thing and our hearts seems to want something else. And so we live a life of division. And this doesn’t even cover the fact that anxiety can be exaggerated by a medical or chemical condition brought about by the crazy medicines we take and the bad food that we eat.
In both the Old Testament and the gospel we heard spiritual parables about a vineyard. Jesus actually uses this word for anxiety or dividedness in the context of talking about the spiritual life. If you remember the parable where the father scatters the seed of the kingdom of God all over the earth and some falls in shallow soil, some on rocky ground, some in thorns, and some on good ground. Remember that one? This is what Jesus says about the seed that falls in THORNS: “Other seeds are thrown among thorns: these are [the people] who hear [the word of God] but the cares of this world (MERIMNATĒ), and the lure of wealth and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing (Mark 4:18).” The famous Greek poet once said, “The crust of bread eaten in peace is better than a whole banquet eaten with anxiety.” Desiring other things is fine, my friends, but not when it chokes out the presence of God in our lives. What does Jesus say at the end of the Gospel today? It is a warning: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to those who will produce its fruit (Matthew 21:43).” Are we producing prayer and thanksgiving, peace, joy, justice and love? Or are we producing fights and gossip, complaining anger and anxiety?
Here is a kind of test that I use when I often feel divided over something. There is another passage in the gospel which Jesus says the following: “Where I am, there also will my servant be.” Are you divided over a decision? Use your imagination and ask yourself for a moment, WHERE IS JESUS? It’s a little more spiritual than asking the usual trite thing, “What would Jesus do?” If you’ve found Him, then you need to go there.
There are so few things that we truly have direct control over, my friends. Often, decisions that divide us are simply made FOR us. When I was trying to decide what to choose between the Diocese of Baton Rouge or going back to the monastery or going to Alexandria or New Orleans – I ultimately threw up my hands in complete surrender and said, “God, YOU take care of this because I haven’t got a clue.” Within two days, my abbot told me that he didn’t think it was a good idea to return to the monastery, The bishop of Baton Rouge said he wouldn’t see me for weeks, Alexandria put me in a position that I knew I would dislike and the Archbishop of New Orleans told me to be in his office the next morning. And the rest is history
Jesus has a few other things to say about this condition of being anxious or divided:
“You cannot serve both God and Mammon.”
“Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness and all these other things will be given to you besides.”
In both of these passages, what is Jesus directly addressing? He is trying to make us single-minded and single-hearted. And that one mind and one heart are supposed to do one thing – seek him. Surrender everything else. And if faith and hope are real, then we will be given what our heart’s truly desire.
St. Paul’s Word on Spiritual Well-Being II:
If someone told you that he had the key to happiness, would you listen to him? This is actually what St. Paul tells us. What does he mean? One of the great things about preaching is that I often preach to you what I myself want to learn – I struggle with the sacred texts myself, and then I let you basically eavesdrop on that struggle. That way I think what I have to say is more REAL, and not just something academic. Let me read to you again what he writes to the Philipians:
Not that I say this because of need, for I have learned, in whatever situation I find myself, to be self-sufficient. I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.
Wow. St. Paul is telling us he has learned the secret of being happy in every circumstance, whether that circumstance is humble, painful, or joyful. That is very impressive. Anybody interesting in learning what that secret is.
First of all, I need to correct myself. St. Paul does not exactly say that he has learned the secret of being happy, he says that he has learned how to be “self-sufficient.” Those of you who have heard me preach know that sometimes I get fascinated with a word, and I really want to try to get to the bottom of how it is being used in Holy Scripture, because I think that there are secrets to the spiritual life hidden in that sacred text. Please try to follow me as I track what it means to be self-sufficient or content in Sacred Scripture, because I think that NOT being content and self-sufficient is a big problem in modern spiritual life.
The greek word is autarkās – it is a combination of two other Greek words meaning, respectively, the self (autos) and the verb (arkeo) to have enough. So the one who is autarkās has “enough in himself.” He has what he needs. He is content. That is another translation of this word – contentment. Because think about the word content – if you are content, it means your CONtent (what is inside you) is enough for you. You don’t need anything else. And St. Paul is telling us that he has learned that lesson. What a fabulous lesson to learn – to be content or self-sufficent!!
This word is only used in two other places – both by St. Paul. The first one is in 2 Cor 9:8, which reads:
“And God is able to provide you with every favor and blessing in abundance so that you may always in everything have enough (autarkās), that you might exceed in every good work.”
The second time this word is used is in 1 Timothy 6:6-7, which reads:
“Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment (autarkās), for we brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”
Ok. You might say, “Ok, Fr. Basil, what does all that mean?” I will try to summarize it for you. St Paul is teaching us the following lessons:
- Constantly bring your requests before the Lord in Prayer.
- Constantly rejoice in what you have, no matter what your circumstances are. In other words, cultivate the practice of being content with what you already have rather than chasing after what you don’t have.
- Have faith that if you do these things, you will receive a strength from God that this world cannot supply.
Imagine setting a trap for a mouse. That mouse might be so clever that he actually knows on a certain level that the trap is going to hurt him – but he wants that cheese SO BAD that he runs headlong into the trap anyway. SO, ARE YOU THAT MOUSE?
How often do we do this as Christians? How often do we reach out for things that we know can damage us or hurt us, but our desires are ruling our behavior? Saint Paul is telling us that we need to learn a little discipline here, and trust that if we say NO to that trap, we will actually be rewarded with precisely what we were seeking in the first place – God will reward us with some peace, some joy, and some CONTENTMENT!!
Once my brother planted a butterfly garden. I never knew such a thing even existed. Apparently, there are some flowers and herbs you can plant that can attract butterflies. I have some fond memories of seeing my little nieces chasing Monarchs through the garden…. As I pondered this image on spiritual level, I find it has profound applications. The flowers that attract the butterflies are likenened to those activities I can do which help my life attract peace and joy. In other words, planting those flowers doesn’t assure that those butterflies will come, but it sure as heck makes it more likely! I can certainly perform some activities that will chase the butterflies away, like putting a big box fan in my garden! (This would be like continuing in a habitual sin or addiction that is chasing away my peace and my joy)
Think about it this way: how successful have you been in the past with just changing your mood because you just FELT like changing your mood? If you have learned the secret of doing this, please inform me of it after mass. I have learned that I do not have a magic wand in my possession that I can wave to just be peaceful and thankful and joyful. But I can certainly DO some things that make it MUCH MORE LIKELY that God will give me the gifts of being peaceful and joyful and thankful.
Modern capitalism is based on marketing schemes trying to convince you that what you have is not enough, and who you are is not enough. You need better electronics, better food, you need to be prettier or stronger or have a better car – whatever it is.
In the fifth century, a man named Arenius determined to live a holy life. So he abandoned the conforms of Egyptian society to follow an austere lifestyle in the desert. Yet whenever he visited the great city of Alexandria, he spent time wandering through its bazaars. Asked why, he explained that his heart rejoiced at the sight of all the things he didn’t need. Those of us who live in a society flooded with goods and gadgets need to ponder the example of that desert dweller. A typical supermarket in the United States in 1976 stocked 9,000 articles; today it carries 30,000. How many of those items are absolutely necessary and how many are just luxuries? Is our society HAPPIER do you think, then it was fifty years ago because we have more stuff and better electronics?
When you consider that the suicide rate has just about tripled since then and the number one drugs prescribed in our society are anti-depressants, what do you think the answer to that question is?
I have heard about a study where a population of people were gathered together who suffered from depression. They actually wrote a list of things they were thankful for every day for a period of time, and it was scientifically demonstrated that doing this was just as effective or MORE EFFECTIVE than an anti-depressant! Maybe St. Paul is on to something when it comes to being thankful?
(See the following book: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0618620192/petewill-20)
And every billboard and commercial sends you the message that the whole world is having a party to which YOU ARE NOT INVITED. But isn’t that exactly what the gospel is about? We are all supposed to be invited to a wedding banquet – God’s wedding banquet. But in order to prepare ourselves for it, we have to say “no” to some other things that prevent us from GOING to that banquet. We hear that there was one man who went to that banquet and what happened to him? He was thrown out because he was not dressed properly. (The Greek actually says that he was not wearing a “wedding garment.” Imagine that you showed up to a wedding in regular clothes and the person that is actually supposed to get married is YOU — I think that is partially what the Lord is saying. He wants to we himself to His people…)
We dress ourselves properly with thankfulness. We dress ourselves with prayer. We dress ourselves with trying to be a cheerful giver of what we have rather than a greedy taker of what we DON’T have.
We all pray to God sometime to get things or change our circumstances in some way. And that is not a bad thing. But maybe we try something new. Maybe we should ask him instead to make us content with what we have.
So here is my prayer for all of us:
“Lord, give me the grace NOT to be the mouse caught in the trap of the world. Make me content to smile at the butterflies when they come, and the grace to wait for them when they are gone. Make me content that I am invited to a wedding feast that never ends.”