Have no anxiety at all (Phil. 4:6)…unless you have anxiety (2 Cor. 11:28), part I

The writings of Fr. Walter Joseph Ciszek, S.J. are such a powerful witness to Christian hope, as he tells of his mission work in Soviet Russia, and especially of his time spent in prison camps. I especially love this passage:

I realized God’s will was not hidden somewhere “out there” but that the situations in which I found myself were His will for me. He wanted me to accept those situations as from His hands, to let go of the reins and place myself entirely at His disposal. He was asking of me an act of total trust, allowing for no interference or restless striving on my part, no reservation, no exceptions, no areas where I could set conditions or hesitate. He was asking a complete gift of self, nothing held back. It demanded absolute faith in God’s existence, providence, his concern for the minutest details, his power to sustain and protect me. It meant losing the last hidden doubt, the fear that God will not bear you up. Like the eternity between anxiety and belief when a child first lets go of all support — only to find that the water truly holds him up and he can float motionless, and totally relaxed.

I recently exchanged emails with a friend, and in our exchange I recalled something I had not thought of in quite a while. Back in the early 1990’s I suffered from crippling anxiety. Among other things, I wound up in the hospital. Eventually I learned to discern my anxiety’s origin and developed enduring strategies for managing both the internal and external factors that fed into it. For those who have suffered from any form of anxiety disorder, you know there is no more fearful experience than suffering the chaotic storm of terror deep within that threatens to fragment you at the core of your identity. I once prayed to God, “You ask me to give myself to you, but much longer and I will have no self to give.”

Through the combined wisdom of a skilled counselor and a spiritual director, I learned to integrate my faith into my anxiety. I found what I might call redemptive healing, . by which I mean a healing that does not seek freedom from the cross but freedom to bear the cross. When St. Paul thrice begged God to remove his “thorn” of suffering, Jesus replied: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Such extraordinary words. In the very next verse, St Paul, now reshaped by those words, exclaims: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” Those verses were, and are, at the heart of my journey to healing of anxiety. I do not expect my anxiety in this life will ever vanish, as it is so much a part of my bio-chemical and personality makeup. Coming to understand something of its genesis in my life, its causes and triggers is freeing, as knowledge is power. But far more significant and transformative for me was discovering how to join anxiety to acts of faith and hope. More specifically, two psalms, 88 and 91, along with St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ agony in the garden (especially Luke 22:44) became a pathway to radical honesty with God and to redemption in the midst of the terrifying night of anxiety. There I found Emmanuel, God-with-us, descending into each of our hells. This has become an immovable anchor of hope, discovering the slain God inhabiting my night, bearing with Him the future promise of triumphant resurrection already manifest in power now in my weakness. I abide in Holy Saturday.

Let me drill down just a bit into this redemptive healing point again. As with my own struggle with anxiety, I have known many people over the years who suffer from psychological disorders or various addictions — e.g. food, alcohol, sex — and, by means of a recovery process, experience God’s healing touch. Yet, they discover, as did I, that healing is not a fast-food, “once saved always saved” experience but a long and complex process that admits of no neat and tidy edges. So, though some aspect of the disorder may be alleviated, reduced or even removed, what soon becomes clear (especially as time elapses) is that the complex cognitive, emotional, behavioral and relational web into which that disorder was once woven remains in need of long-term work — transformation, purification and growth. To again invoke St. Paul’s image, though one thorn may have been removed, others are left behind, in spite of our fervent petitions and protests that God take them all away.

Why? Well, my spiritual director said to me as I came out of the darkest part of my anxiety: “That storm has passed, but you now have lessons of weakness to be learned — humility, trust, abandonment to divine providence, poverty of spirit, deeper compassion for others’ suffering, the willingness to rely on others for support.” There are incalculable riches to be found in the struggle itself — an array of natural and theological virtues. The Council of Trent offers a keen insight here. Baptism, Trent tells us, removes the guilt of all sin and its consequent eternal punishment. But Baptism does not eradicate all of Original Sin’s effects. There is left behind in us the festering wound of concupiscence, which is the tendency toward sin; or what medieval theologians called the “tinder for sin.” Concupiscence is never entirely healed in this life. Why? Responding to this question, the Council offers a striking metaphor: concupiscence remains “for the sake of the battle.” In other words, God wishes redeemed humanity to freely cooperate in its own salvation. As St. Augustine memorably put it: “God created us without us, but he did not will to save us without us.” You could say that Jesus, the God-Man, is God’s resolve to redeem us and the whole cosmos with our cooperation and never apart from it.

We might say also, to steal the language of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that God does not wish to grant us cheap healing that simply trades our sorrows away, but only costly healing that elicits from our freedom inestimably greater things than God alone, without our cooperation, could have given us. In this way God honors the dignity of our being created in His image and likeness, inviting us to be collaborators in His work of re-creating all things in Christ.

What a thought! Out of my unresolved and insignificant struggles, woven into the fabric of Christ’s wound-riven Body, is born a new creation built out of the ruins of the old. Even out of my own ruins.


10 comments on “Have no anxiety at all (Phil. 4:6)…unless you have anxiety (2 Cor. 11:28), part I

  1. Joanna Brady says:

    Dear Dr Tom, thankyou so much for these deep and timely meditations.i don’t have access to a spiritual director,but the Holy Spirit himself leads me to a variety of places and people to sustain me in the journey,your blog is such a reassuring help.my sense is that during this year of Mercy,the Lord wants his mercy to fall abundantly on us and we are best placed to receive it,in that place of weakness and total trust.Wishing you Gods Blessings …

  2. Ben Patterson says:

    Great topic that is a struggle for just about everyone I know, myself included.

  3. Wow! Thank you so much for sharing your heart with us! Through your wounds God is drawing many to encounter His transformative healing Grace!

  4. Bill says:

    Thank you for passing on through your vulnerability this mighty lesson that Love is behind all that the Father allows into our lives. Your words and testimony are, for me, a confirming and encouraging witness to continue to abandon to that Love.

  5. Marta says:

    It’s funny how I don’t always have time to read all my e-mails but the Holy Spirit knew I needed this today. I recently had a situation where I wanted to react as my typical self but found myself holding back and trying to take it to prayer first. Your words were so healing today. I think God is leading me to a much deeper examination of my own self, but I’m going kicking and screaming all the way. I felt so much comfort in your words from “Him” through you. God bless

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