Anxiety develops in three ways: the tidal waves of sudden tragedy, the rising flood of compounded stresses, and that heavy, salty air of ambient anxiety caused by constant tension or worry.
Save me, O God,
for the waters have risen to my neck.
I have sunk into the mud of the deep
and there is no foothold.
I have entered the waters of the deep
and the waves overwhelm me. (Ps 69:2–3)
Anxiety is the fear that builds up when we sense an evil closing in around us. This mental awareness gives rise to a fear that reverberates through the body. We feel a tension, a weight, a darkness, an ache. It begins to hang from our shoulders or coil around our chests. Our thoughts are mottled, and we compulsively tap our feet or drum our fingers to vent our nervous energy; the wringing of our hands embodies the knotting of our heart. Even when we are focused on something else, this trembling sensation lurks just beneath the surface, stirring the waters.
Fear is our natural and appropriate reaction against bad things, but the devil likes to contort it for his own use. Into our healthy caution the adversary plants lies and deceptions to make us feel weak, uncertain, and alone. The tensions persist or form over unimportant matters (the “10,000 little things” of life). He turns fear into worry and worry into despair. Jesus, with complete abandonment to the will of the Father, himself began to experience the torment of anxiety more and more as his hour drew near.
The Gospels describe Jesus before his arrest as being “deeply distressed and troubled,” or literally, “weighed down” (Mk 14:33), and “very sorrowful,” or surrounded by grief, “even unto death” (Mt 26:38). But this fear began well before the garden. “Reclining at table with his disciples, Jesus was deeply troubled and testified, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me’” (Jn 13:21). Something similar is found when he earlier prophesied his own suffering, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour” (Jn 12:27). Going beyond the biblical data, one could make reference to the tradition behind the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, that the child Jesus saw angels bearing the instruments of the Passion; frightened, he darted to the security of his mother’s embrace, even breaking a sandal in his retreat.
It can be easy to imagine Jesus as some unflinching superhero—he is God after all! Yet he chose the emotional pains of fear and anxiety that come with assuming human nature and its weakness. “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Is 53:4). What is most astonishing, however, is that the Almighty chose to save us through suffering. The same pangs and wounds that we receive were accepted by the incarnate God who alone could bear them perfectly. Without affecting his sublime divinity, the many pains were really endured in his humanity. He took up not only the cross, but our worries and our frustrations in order to transform these, too, into sources of grace. He takes them up, but not away. He elevates them, lightens their load, and blesses those who bear them; to take them away would be to take away our unique path to holiness and our way to Heaven.
For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. (Heb 12:2)
We will suffer. Jesus has promised us this much. But what we do with these sufferings is what really matters in the end. God uses our suffering for his glory. Patience, which itself means “suffering,” is the virtue whereby we endure pains, and longanimity or longsuffering is the virtue of enduring expected pains. God graciously pours these virtues into his children and works with us to strengthen our souls to better imitate Jesus, to remain in the state of grace and grow toward perfection. The Son dwells in the baptized by grace in order to take to himself through us the many stings of life, bearing them in us, and giving us strength enough to face them with him.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress;
he made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven. (Ps 107:28–30)
“It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. (Jn 6:16–21)
Image: Aleks Dahlberg, Darkness