27th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Phil. 4: 6ff.
Do not tell me that we don’t live in an age of anxiety! How many people today are taking pills to calm their anxieties? The drug companies and psychiatrists can tell you, because they’re making a killing trying to treat people’s anxieties. People worry about all kinds of things, their health, their money and its future buying power, their pensions, the threat from terrorists, the random violence of criminals, the breakdown of families, and all kinds of other things that are going wrong in our society. Of course anxieties are not new to the human race, but today anxiety seems a much greater problem, because there are so many new threats to life itself, and the value of human life has been greatly diminished in our time posing ever new dangers for all of us.
The loss of respect for life, of course, did not begin in our time. It began in the beginning, with the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. This first attack on human life then spread like cancer in the human race and took all kind of forms, war, mass murder, infanticide, abortion, the killing of the aged. All this is as old as mankind, but it has certainly been magnifed in our day with the loss of belief in God and the access to and abuse of new forms of technology that pose a threat to human life in all its stages as never before.
Christianity made great strides in reducing the crimes against humanity and mitigating the evils of war and human violence of all kinds. The teaching of God’s commandments and as expressions of the law of love, and the power of the sacraments were tremendous helps in the battle against evil and for respect for human life. But there was never a total victory over such grave evils, because Christian teaching has never fully penetrated the social and political orders of any human society.
But in our day, evil has magnified because there is little or no influence of Christian doctrine on the social and political orders, and fewer and fewer people have recourse to the grace of the sacraments. Since the breakup of Christendom, during the Protestant revolt against Catholicism, and the total secularization of human society that was the end product of the enlightenment and the French Revolution, it has been a downward spiral as fas as the Church’s influence on civil society and the political order is concerned. The incredible destruction of human life in two world wars, and the unending smaller wars since them, were/are the product of a godless culture and a civil order deprived of any moral consensus that could prevent these wars or even mitigate their monstrous evils. And there was no moral consensus available because the only moral teacher with any serious authority, the Catholic Church, had long been set aside as of no relevance for the secularized modern world order.
But even the destructive evil of these wars and the consequent loss of respect for human life has been far surrpassed by the death tolls unleashed on our world by the power of modern technology unrestrained by any moral limits due again to the absence of any effective moral authority in our world. The deaths of tens of millions in these great wars is now far surpassed by the murder of hundreds of millions of human beings since the end of World War II. The new technologies that have been developed since then has been the instruments for killing literally hundreds of millions of human beings in their mothers’ wombs, and growing numbers of the sick and aged through euthanasia. Indeed, over forty million unborn children have been killed in this country alone which is at least half the estimated total number of deaths in World War II. And when you add the tens of millions of abortions in Russia and China alone each year and the abortions committed worldwide,
those numbers of the victims begins to swamp the total of both world wars.
Can anyone seriously doubt that this kind of human carnage is at the root of the massive loss in our time of respect for human life in general? And is it surprising that, as a consequence of this widespread and tremendous loss of respect for all human life, more and more people feel that nothing in this life is secure today, starting with life itself? It is not a bad dream that the moral order has largely collapsed around us, and that means that no one is safe. That is definitely a rational source for widespread anxiety.
And yet, today we have St. Paul speaking to us and telling us not to be anxious at all! It’s really amazing, especially when we think about this in the context of the problems we face today, that St. Paul would simply command us not to be anxious, that we should simply dismiss all anxiety from our minds. And Paul is not talking here about anxiety that is caused by a psychological disorder, because such a command would make little sense. After all, people suffering from a clinically treated form of anxiety are as little able to control this by their own free will, as say an alcoholic is able to control his drinking simply by willing it. Paul is not talking about clinical anxiety, but about the common anxiety we experience in the face of great instability in our lives, and that is not abnormal on the human level.
Paul is saying to us Christians, then, that most of our rationally based anxiety has a cure but not by pills or medical expertise as with a psychological disorder, but as a spiritual disorder. Such anxiety, based on a rational view of the disordered world we live in, is in fact a symptom of a spiritual failure, a weak faith, a lack of trust, a lack of prayer, a lack of consistency in our Christian life between our faith and our approach to daily life. And Saint Paul’s remedy for such anxiety is rather simple. For people suffering from such anxiety, rationally grounded upon social, economic and political disorders, Paul suggests more prayer, that they are simply not praying enough, and this indicates that they are not trusting enough in God’s Providence. Men become anxious when they look at society and at themselves, rather than God, as the primary source of peace and stability in human life. And this recourse to ourselves as the solution may well indicate another spiritual problem at the root of such anxiety, that we tend to focus more on our material needs than on our spiritual resources.
Because we have so many tangible material need as human beings, we tend art times to place our material needs above our spiritual needs which are not so tangible. And then we have tendency to see ourselves as the primary source of our own material security in this world. Like the man in Jesus’s parable who built his barns larger against possible future problems with food supply. So also today, when people think of the material needs as primary, they turn to God only as a last ditch effort, when problems seem really impossible to solve. It always ends in anxiety, and probably begins in anxiety as well.
On the other hand, when people place their spiritual needs first, they naturally turn to God for their help. But is God not the ultimate source of material well being as with our spiritual well being? Now it’s not particularly surprising that unbelievers would think of themselves and other human beings as the primary source or cause of their material well being and feel deep anxiety when the economy or the peace of society is in deep trouble. But it is surprising that Christians should think this way and would tend to use God simply as a backup when human beings don’t come through.
Christians, after all, believe in a loving and provident God, which means that God is concerned not only about our spiritual well being, but our full human well being, which includes both our material well being. In addition, this belief in divine providence means that we believe that God is not just concerned in some vague sense, but is in fact the primary source of both our material and spiritual well being, and that we are simply the secondary source. Such a belief, supposing it has taken deep root in the human soul, will naturally lead us to prayer as fundamentally the key to our total well being, both material and spiritual. Thus while Christians of deep faith will work hard to secure their well being, they will also instinctively turn to prayer and ask God primarily for their daily bread, with the deep inner assurance that God is working at all times and in mysterious ways to assure our complete well being. Did not Jesus say, your Heavenly father knows well that you need such [material’ things, but seek first His Kingdom.
Such prayer and petition, and the faith they manifest, is thus the key to dismissing anxiety from our lives. Such prayer is at once the sign and fruit of a deep faith that God is truly our Father, and thus the primary provider of the needs of the human family. The spiritual logic of all this is as follows. Since we know that God has the power to accomplish all things, and since we believe that he is a loving Father who has charged himself with the responsibility for his creation, and above all for our well being as his children, then we also must trust that God will provide all that we need in this world to become all that He wants us to be in the next.
Of course, this may well mean that certain of our prayers for material goods or temporal well being , or for our being delivered from evil will not be answered, at least in the way we may think they should be. But that should not disturb our peace of mind, given that we believe in God’s Fatherhood, God’s Providence, and believe that God’s love for us always works to our best interests. To believe anything else would mean that we really do not believe in the God of Abraham, who is also the Father of Jesus Christ and through Christ our Father as well.
Finally, St. Paul, in addition to prayer and petition, gives us an additional spiritual advice about how to put our minds to rest. He simply says that we should keep our minds directed to what really matters in this life, understood in terms of its final destination. Certainly we need to think about material things, including our material needs, not only because we are part of the material creation as bodily beings, but also because we have a significant role to play as God’s subordinate partners, in the working out of divine providence in this world. However, within this plan of providence, man is not to live for bread alone, to quote Jesus again, as if man were simply his body, but above all for the bread that comes from Heaven, every word, the Word, that comes from the mouth of God.
In short, man’s material well-being is subordinate to his spiritual well-being, and thus at times man’s material well-being has to yield to his spiritual well-being. One of those “times,” or better “places,” concerns man’s thinking. Because our destiny, even in the flesh, is ultimately spiritual in nature, that is, union with God who is Spirit, our thinking has to be primarily directed to, fixed upon that end.
So Paul says that our minds and thoughts should be “wholly directed to all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, admirable, decent, virtuous, and worthy of all praise.” But notice that Paul says “wholly directed,” and thus since we must think of material things at times, even these things have to be thought of according to those standards he just mentioned. We can’t help but think about material things since we need them in this world, but we should think about material things and needs truthfully, honestly, purely, admirably, decently, virtuously, that is, spiritually, and in such a way as to give praise to God.
If we think about material needs, including bodily life, in thisa spiritual way, and we pray for these needs as Paul did, we will never make these things the end of our life, and thus will come to know the deep peace of God in our lives. God is our Father. That’s our simple but deep faith, and that faith is the key to a life in which anxiety has no place in our hearts.