Why It’s OK to Be Honest About How You’re Feeling Right Now
So many lives have been turned upside down due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. It has affected every person from every walk of life in our country. Suggestions abound these days about coping with the newfound anxiety from COVID-19. I feel like some of the suggestions appear too obvious to be useful. Obvious or not, the best way to deal with feelings of anxiety is to approach the problem from the lens of our Catholic faith. What do we do with these feelings? The simple answer begins with confronting them in an honest manner. Yet it’s not enough to just be honest: don’t stay there. Take the hand of Our Lord and get out! We have the promise of our Lord and Savior that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). Even further, Jesus reassures us that our heavenly Father knows what we need. “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself” (Matt 6:32-34)
Confronting Uncertainty & Anxiety
The coronavirus has interrupted everything normal and ordinary in our lives: work, family gatherings, going to church, sports, and school. Social distancing and the stay-at-home orders across the country adds a mental aspect. Yes, things are closed, but I cannot go to Mass. I cannot watch a live baseball game. If I stop to think about it too much, it gets overwhelming. On top of the cabin fever, will I get sick? Will I cause someone else to get sick? What if it’s serious? What about those I know and love in the vulnerable demographics? It’s easy to tie mental knots (not to mention develop muscular ones in our backs) and sink into a degree of anxiety and depression.
Even for those that don’t consider themselves anxious people, these are still difficult times. Do things that normally bring you joy have less of an effect? Would your family, coworkers, or friends think you’re doing fine, or that you’ve been more irritable? Do you have any of the physiological effects of stress that aren’t usually part of your life?
Confronting Difficulties in Faith
Those concerns don’t even broach the topic of faith during a crisis: where is God in all of this? We can’t even go to Mass to receive the Eucharist. We can’t be with our parish families like we did before, regardless of our virtual efforts. Getting weighed down by fear and anxiety necessarily affects our life of faith.
Some might be proud to have little anxiety; others may feel guilt at their faith being shaken. Both of those extremes do not come from grace, but from the evil one. In my experience, times of high stress have a blinding effect. All I can see is what’s in front of me: the fog of suffering. Prayer gets difficult, and the practices of the Catholic faith don’t often bring the kind of peace that they usually do. It’s a miserable place to be in.
The Way Out
Now that we’ve brought up aspects of the problem, let’s move onto the grace-based solutions. No further steps can be taken to move away from anxiety than first admitting it. St. Thomas Aquinas tackled the issue of dealing with sorrow in his Summa Theologiae (I-II, q. 38). One of his principles applies to actively dealing with feelings:
“because a hurtful thing hurts yet more if we keep it shut up, because the soul is more intent on it: whereas if it be allowed to escape, the soul's intention is dispersed as it were on outward things, so that the inward sorrow is lessened.”
That this is common sense is highlighted by a 13th century theologian. Dealing with hurtful things—whether they come from sorrow, anxiety, fear, or anything else—has been a fact of life since the fall of Adam & Eve.
Examining honesty goes down multiple avenues. In the business world, what we want to do is root cause analysis. Addressing symptoms may help temporarily, but the root cause needs to be tackled in order to move forward. And that is a really important point! Confronting feelings with honesty is half the battle. God always loves us where we’re at, but He loves us too much to leave us there. Here are reflections on each of the three theological virtues that I hope will help.
Faith: Jesus in Gethsemane
The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus was like us in all things but sin (cf. Heb 4:15). This is on full display in the garden of Gethsemane, on Holy Thursday night. Jesus prayed in great anguish, to the point of sweating blood (Luke 22:44). In St. Mark’s account of Our Lord’s agony, Jesus quickly goes from being greatly distressed and troubled (14:33) to “very sorrowful, even to death” (14:34). Three times Jesus prays the same words to the Father: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to Thee: remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what Thou wilt” (14:36). This was a horrific night for Him! After praying, Jesus stands up and goes out to meet his oppressors. He didn’t passively sit by; He went out to engage the battle rather than let the battle come to Him.
Whatever difficulties in faith that the coronavirus crisis has raised, follow the example of Our Lord and get on your knees. Look next to you—Jesus kneels beside you in Gethsemane, thinking of you while undergoing His Passion. Ask Him for the strength to confront your battles in the same way He did.
Hope: Martha, Mary, and Lazarus
Sometimes I feel like I go to Jesus, but get nothing in return. It doesn’t feel fair, since that’s what we’re supposed to do. In those instances, I think we have an unofficial patron in Lazarus—who was miraculously raised from the dead by Our Lord (see John 11:1-44). How did Lazarus feel, waiting for Jesus to come? Immediately after St. John notes that Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (11:5), Jesus decides to stay two days longer before heading to the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Both Martha (11:22) and Mary (11:32) lamented to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s not a stretch to hear the anguish in their voices; I actually think Martha and Mary were remarkably composed after just watching their brother suffer, wait for Jesus, and die. Yet there still remains a glimmer of hope: for the hope is founded on trust in Jesus.
His plan is rarely clear to us; regardless, Jesus calls us to come to Him. A bit of stubbornness would do us well when we hold onto the faith. “We must be convinced, if we want to go to the limits of our Christian faith, that God IS sufficiently good and powerful to use whatever evil there may be, as well as any suffering however absurd and unnecessary it may appear to be, in our favor” (Fr. Jacques Philippe, Searching for and Maintaining Peace, pg. 31).
What if your suffering has a remarkable conclusion, like it did for Lazarus? Think of the past, of the ways God intervened in your life, and listen to St. Peter: “with the Lord, one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but if forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:8-9). How could He deny Himself and not be faithful in our time? God hears and will answer in His own time. Instead, hope.
Love: The Interior Life
The crowning theological virtue of love imbues the entire Christian life. Faith and hope are not only wrapped up in love, but they're impossible without love. In these times of uncertainty, have you found it difficult to trust God? The road forward goes through love. That's easy to say, but how do we move our hearts? Love for God is expressed in prayer: certainly in written prayers, form prayers (like the Divine Mercy Chaplet, for example), and liturgical prayer. But it is in meditative prayer that we lay the groundwork for an intimate relationship with Our Lord. Only from a position of intimacy can we have confidence!
“The heart does not awaken to confidence until it awakens to love; we need to feel the gentleness and the tenderness of the Heart of Jesus. This cannot be obtained except by the habit of meditative prayer” (Fr. Jacques Philippe, Searching for and Maintaining Peace, pg. 35).
Does that mean that everyone is called to the monastic life? Naturally not, but meditative prayer can be done by anyone. Anyone in any life situation, in any vocation, in any age, and in any time. The Communion of Saints contains examples of holiness in every conceivable walk of life: farmers, doctors, theologians, priests, nuns, religious, moms and dads, and fishermen. The common denominator is baptism, in which every saint--and all of us that are baptized!--is incarnated into the Body of Christ. Because of our union with Jesus, we have the same titles: priest, prophet, and king. In the priesthood of the baptized, we can offer praise to God in prayer; we can offer the sacrifices of our day, joining them to the cross (see Col 1:24). It's a special gift that we have an inside track to approach the throne of our Heavenly Father. I can attest from my own experience of living with and without daily meditative prayer. It's really true: it will change your life.
It’s what we were made for, temporally and eternally. Prayer is the language of love; that requires communication and trust. Prayer is the matter, so to speak, and our hearts are the form.
Honestly confront your feelings when they arise, then allow Jesus to walk you through the three theological virtues. A marginal or convenient faith will be of little use during these troubling times. Dive deeper into the love of God!