Friday, June 14, 2013

A Word for the Fretful

One of the things a priest learns as he hears confessions and counsels people (note: these are not the same things) is that many folks are given to worry and fretfulness, which can be a real cross to them. In some cases, it enters into what is called scrupulosity--but to be clear, not everyone who is given to worry is scrupulous.

There are so many times when I'm talking with someone who is getting more and more tangled up in worry, and what I want to do is find the one word, or offer a pill or something, to relieve them of it. But I haven't found it.

Perhaps with a few more than one word, here, I can offer some help? Pray for me that this post does some good!

What do we worry about? It seems to me it's possible for people to worry about almost anything. People worry about their own problems. They worry about the problems of others. About the problems of the world. About when the world might end, and is that soon? They worry about their worrying. They worry that they don't worry enough (I'm serious about that).

OK, here comes the one word--well, two: Stop it!

See, that didn't work.

So how about this:

1. For some people, worrying is a kind of hobby. I mean that while it isn't exactly a pleasant experience, it's something that is so much a part of that person's life that s/he wouldn't quite know how to get through the day without it. Sort of like smoking, or gossip, or complaining. It's a kind of hobby.

So one thing I'd say is, face this fact: however many ways this hobby is unpleasant, and self-destructive, it's still something involving an element of choice. You're doing it, in part, because it gives some meaning and structure to your life. You "get something from it."

2. What might that something be? Well, I'm not certain, but I think this is where our ego can be at work.

Part of what we do when we worry about things is play God. Why is President Obama doing thus-and-so? What a mess. Oh, it's terrible, terrible. Everything is going to hell. Why, if only (and here comes the ego) they would do thus-and-so...

See how that works?

How can someone be so certain things are wrong, without being certain about what "right" looks like?

In other words, the way I think things ought to be.

Now, there's a world of difference between having definite opinions and judgments about such questions (and I don't mean to limit it to politics or government; it applies just as much to family life, business, sports, etc.). I went to a Reds game recently with some friends, and we all agreed that the manager should have done a double-switch; he didn't; and subsequent to that, the Reds lost.

But I didn't lose any sleep over it. There are two good answers to that line of thinking:

a) I think I'm right, but at the end of the day, maybe I'm not.

b) All this is in God's hands; I'll let it be his problem.

And I think that works equally well for small things--such as who wins the pennant this year--or big, such as questions of national policy or war and peace.

Actually, there's another response that falls between "a" and "b," above: doing something.

I could write the Reds manager a letter giving him my opinion. I chose not to. (And if you're reading this Dusty, go Reds!) More seriously, on political questions, I get to vote, and I get to voice my views to those in power, and working with others, that can sway things.

But after that, then it's to the second answer: put it in God's hands.

So it occurs to me that, to some degree, worrying can be a sign we need to exert more faith.

And--when there isn't anything we can really do about what is worrying us, then that's when we know: we're playing God. ("Oh, what Susie needs to do with her husband is...hmm, how can I get her to do the right thing? Hmm...")

3. Another way this fretting and worrying shows itself is in how some folks over-analyze their own spiritual lives, and worry, worry, worry, worry about whether they're doing it right.

Again, my simple advice: Stop it!

Stop and think about your image of God. Who do you suppose God is? What sort of personality do you imagine for God?

Do you really suppose that God, watching you in your attempt to work out your salvation, is going to "flunk" you on a technicality?

More pointedly, consider this: what sort of image of God are you communicating to others in this approach? When you agonize over these things, does this make being a disciple of the Lord attractive?

Take a look at the Gospels. When did our Lord encourage this sort of thing? Meanwhile, you can find many places where our Lord waved it away. Martha fretted; and our Lord counseled her against it. Critics of his fretted and complained about his observance of the Sabbath, about his disciples eating grain as they passed through a field, and so forth. What did our Lord say? "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you." And he said, "Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?"

Trying to be diligent in examining our consciences, and in trying to be faithful followers is good. Thinking through the implications of our Faith, and trying to apply it fully, is good.

But God doesn't ask us to have perfect knowledge; God doesn't ask us to make perfect judgments.

But he does ask us to be forgiving, to be generous, to care for others, and to trust him.

Remember what the Lord said: if we are generous in our forgiving, we will be forgiven in a generous way.

4. Beware of Pelagianism--the heresy that says we can do it ourselves.

Catholics get accused of practicing "salvation by works," and it happens; but I think this is an error to which almost all people are prone. Because this is pride at work. We want to be able to say, we did it.

So anyone who thinks s/he has extirpated all pride within you? Now start looking for sloth. And presumption.

When it comes to our reclamation and our salvation, we won't be able to say that.

Even the works we do, which God--in his generosity--chooses to reward, are themselves a fruit of his grace. So said the Council of Trent.

When we worry--I mean, really worry so that we're fearful--we might ask ourselves: have we forgotten God? Do we forget that God created the world by choice, fully aware that humanity would sin? Do we forget that nothing surprises God? Do we forget that while we are stumped and see no solution, God is never stumped. He has a plan?

So we're back to playing God again; because maybe part of our reaction is this: we're impatient with God's timetable. He's too patient. He really ought to be acting, putting things right. Why isn't he?

But the main thing I would counsel those who fret and are fearful: remember that God is everywhere, and God is love. God is not stingy with his grace. On the contrary, the entire Creation, both in its origin and then in how God is working for its redemption, is all about God's love and generosity.

Everything that exists, exists for God, and for his purpose. His purpose toward humanity is salvation.

Therefore, all Creation, visible and invisible, is God's "conspiracy of grace."

You come to confession: it was God who brought you there. God is waiting there with a shower, a torrential downpour of grace and mercy. Do you really suppose God will say: tut, tut, you didn't cross that T quite right; no grace for you?

You come to Mass. It was God who drew you there. He wants you there; he meets you there. So you're tired. So you're grumpy. So you don't feel well. You do your best. You feel guilty about your bad attitude, or complaints. Or you are distracted (who isn't? I can't speak for any of the saints, but I just bet they were distracted). But you make your act of faith. You're trying to do it the right way.

Oh, but you don't "feel it." Did you blow it?

Again, do you suppose God, who planned his own incarnation, precisely so that he could hang in agony on the cross, for you and me--will say, "ah, she blew it; strike that name from the Book of Life"?

Sometimes our feelings are out of whack. There are many reasons why. I don't know them. I don't understand myself fully, so what hope is there I'll understand you or anyone else. But the fact remains, sometimes our feelings are in conflict with the reality. Something good happens--we receive absolution, or communion, and yet we don't feel it. Does that mean something? Am I bad? Am I doing it wrong?

See what happens there? Where does the gaze shift? From God--and what he's doing (absolving, giving himself in the Eucharist, or some other encounter)--to ourselves.

C.S. Lewis, in his masterful Screwtape Letters illustrates this phenomenon brilliantly and with great humor; he imagines a senior devil teaching a newer one on this tactic: get your "patient" (i.e., the one you are charged with tempting) to turn his focus, his thoughts, from God and his works, toward himself, his thoughts, his feelings, etc.

Can you imagine John the Baptist, when he cried out, "Behold the Lamb of God!" stopping, and muttering, "you know, I really could have said that with more feeling"? Or, "I hammed that up--who do I think I am?" John knew what we must remind ourselves constantly: "it's not about me. It's about Lord, who is here to save me. That's enough for me."

It's ego that says, I'm the worst sinner in the world. It's ego that says, my sins must really baffle the priest; I'm sure he's shocked. On the other hand, it's rather humbling to realize that sinner that I am, I'm a rather mediocre one; and my sins are terribly boring.

Before I close this out, a word about scrupulosity.

As indicated, some people can take this fretfulness so far that it becomes obsessive and even disabling. And I think sometimes this is partly explained not merely by habits of thought and belief, and by ego or vanity as I suggested above--but also by some emotional or psychological causes as well. Just as sometimes our bodies don't always work just the way we need or want them to, the same can be true of our emotions and our minds. This doesn't make us bad people, just people who have troubles we don't understand.

If you think that's you, do not--do NOT--try to work this out here. It won't work. I won't be able to help you through comments.

Go see a priest and talk to that priest in person.

And for all of us: God is love. He has offered us the helps we need to find him, and having found him, to remain in him. Do as he asks, and then trust that he will do as he promises.


Jennifer said...

"But I didn't lose any sleep over it."

This is a good idea. So many things happen that are completely out of our hands.

And it is true that sometimes my mind and my emotions do not work as I would like them to. I accept that sometimes I just get a bit weepy and shrill. I have come to accept that my hormones are sometimes more of an influence on me than I would like. It is unpleasant, but it must be God's will. And I can deal with that...

johnnyc said...

Wonderful advice Father...thank you. Seems like it was directed right at me. I pray all the time that I could just release this particular thing that I know is affecting my spiritual life negatively, into God's hands and be done with it. Sometimes I think I understand and take a step forward but then something happens and I go back two steps. It actually keeps me up nights too. I do need to talk to a priest about this.

Mary said...

Some of us have minds that tend "to race" - that is, thoughts keep popping up all the time. It might be thoughts of worry, fear of what others think of us, or just lots of ideas running rapidly around. Recognizing this is the first step.
The second step is recognizing that I can only have one thought in my mind at a time and that I CAN change that thought. I do not have to be a slave to my thoughts.
Then recalling Romans transformed by the renewal of your mind," I can CHOOSE to change my thoughts into THANKING GOD for something - any little thing like thanking God I have two arms, two hands, and if I am paralyzed and cannot use my arms or hands, thanking God I can still see or that my heart still beats. It can also be big things, thanking God that Jesus died for us, that God is all-knowing, all merciful, etc.
Turning each thought of worry, or fear into a thanksgiving can bring much joy to a person. I know...been there and with God's grace, have implemented the habit of thanksgiving instead of worry. But it is a choice on my part each time those racing thoughts pop up, and it can be continuous thoughts sometimes, but it is worth the effort to turn my thoughts to thanksgiving. Even in the midst of horrible situations, I can still thank God for Who He is and what He has done for me, and joy comes from doing that!!!
I hang onto Romans 12:2b knowing that with God I CAN replace my insecure thought with a secure thought of THANKSGIVING! Thank you, Jesus for all the joy that comes from thanking You and Your Father!!

McCall1981 said...
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