“Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your known your requests known to God.” Paul makes it sound so easy, doesn’t he?
I do not know about you, but it seems, at least in my life, that the times when I am most likely to be attentive to prayers of petition are precisely those times when I am prone to anxiety. I am sure you have had similar moments in your life. Someone you love is seriously ill, or you are facing some tragedy, you have lost a job, or something like that. Or, perhaps the anxiety producing events are not so significant as the serious examples I have mentioned above, but they produce anxiety none the less.
Yet Paul tells us to have no anxiety at all. How is this possible? For I suppose that when we prayer God does not always answer our prayers in the way that we want. Sometimes we have to acknowledge that God does in fact, know best. We cannot always be clear what is best for us. If that were true, then we would never had made any mistakes, never do things we regret, or do things that we are not proud.
How then do we seek to have such faith that we can avoid anxiety? Fortunately Paul also gives us important clues. Of course the primary means is to ask God for the grace to increase our faith. We are in good company if we ask about this, since the disciples asked Jesus to increase their own faith too. For anxiety is a human reaction that is a normal when we face situations that have or appear to have negative outcomes.
What is Paul’s solution? It is simple. Be sure to keep your gaze fixed on Jesus. Paul expresses this by telling us what it is we need to think about. Think about these things: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, anything worthy of praise.”
At the heart of Paul’s answer is a very basic way to be spiritual and to strive for holiness. It all matters what we look at, what it is upon which we focus our attention. For example, do we watch movies or engage in conversations that reflect “whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious” or is it that we focus upon those things that bring out the best of our humanness since we are made in the image and likeness of God.
It is also important to think about these same things when we consider the people we call friends, for example. Do we seek out people who are “true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious”, or do we seek people who lead us away from these things?
This strategy of Paul is a good one because it helps us to become more aware of God’s presence. And when I think of the times of anxiety I mentioned earlier, I know my anxiety is reduced when I surround myself with people who exemplify the qualities Paul mentions.
And so ultimately the solution resides in things we probably do already. Certainly making the regular presence at Sunday Mass is a way to focus upon “true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious”, since we encounter the very person of Jesus in the Eucharist, in God’s word, the ministers and the people. Each is a helpful means of receiving God’s grace.
In the Eucharist, we experience Jesus himself. We hear the very word of God. Have you ever had the experience that you are wrestling with something and the words of the Scripture at Mass seem to be addressed to exactly the situation you are dealing with? As a priest, I have had experiences where people have made pretty significant classes based upon what they heard in the homily. I have, more importantly, had instances where what people heard was not what I said. I am confident they heard something of the Holy Spirit.
And thanks to the mystical Body of Christ, when we surround ourselves with other people of faith, I think we can find it much easier to focus more on God and less on our anxiety.
It is important to note that I am talking about faith, something that depends upon a relationship. I am not talking about magic. This is not a suggestion to engage in escapism. It is to recognize that God does not want us to be alone. God gives to us a relationship that leads, if we let it, to eternal life. It calls us to become more and more aware that not only does God dwell in others, but God dwells in us. We are in fact, surrounded by the presence of God. We are never alone, we are always in God’s presence.