The anxieties and troubles we undergo often vex us irrationally.
As I write this, I find myself having to console a frightened dog and am, therefore, in a position to observe non-rationality where it best remains: in a beast. Our priory dog, Huan, heard an airhorn that the school Headmaster has just begun to employ in an outdoor game our IHM schoolboys are playing. In Pavlovian fashion, little Huan recalled that same rare sound as the warning signal right before an earth-shaking dynamite blast: a terrifying recollection from demolition work on our property some eight years ago. So the poor thing has curled himself up in the hem of my tunic and is shaking like a leaf while awaiting some canine eschatological event.
Useless was my attempt to explain to him that the dreaded sound has an entirely different meaning in this context. We humans can reason about the conventional signs we employ; dogs cannot, not even Huan.
Whereas dogs are non-rational by nature, humans are rational, but the effects of the fall often result in our acting contrary to reason and therefore acting irrationally — whether this is due to some disordered passion or, worse, a malicious will. (Sins of malice are worse than sins of weakness.) But I do not plan on writing about sin here, not mortal ones, anyway; rather, I wish to consider those lesser irrationalities we commit that might lead us to sin or keep us from properly advancing in the life of virtue.
For instance, we often find ourselves fearful or anxious, and more often than not about things that are unknowns: dreaded future disasters, merely anticipated reversals of fortune, the bad news tomorrow’s mail might bring, the governor’s next viral diktat, fresh apostasies, treasons, treacheries, etc. Various “airhorns” we hear, or think we do, summon our negative emotional reactions and we become anxious.
At the risk of being accused of pietism, let me say that the remedy to such irrationalities is so very simple: It is none other than God’s goodness. He was good before we came into existence; He is good now (whether “all is well” with us or not); and He will remain so — semper idem — even tomorrow, and tomorrow, and centuries of tomorrows per omnia saecula saeculorum, Amen. He remains so whether our circumstances are “good” or not. Moreover, while we do not know what our circumstances will be from day to day, we know by faith that God is good and will remain so no matter what. Since that is the case, we should not worry.
If only we could tap into that infinite Goodness, right? That would be great.
We can, of course. Saint Paul uses a curious expression in his Epistle to the Ephesians (6:10) that I think helps to illustrate how: “Finally, brethren, be strengthened in the Lord, and in the might of his power.” This is a peculiar command. The Apostle does not wish that the Lord would strengthen the Ephesians, but he commands (imperative mood) that they themselves “be strengthened.” The Vulgate Latin is in the imperative, too: confortamini. My knowledge of the Greek is sketchy, but from the word study I did, it appears that it is a command in Greek as well, though the sense is that Saint Paul is commanding them to “put on” (ἐνδύσασθε) the “full armor” (πανοπλίαν) of God. Still, it is a command; it is not a prayer wishing that God Himself would arm the Ephesians.
By prayer, by meditation, by simply turning ourselves to Our Lord with our minds and hearts, we can “be strengthened” and put on His armor; we can access His goodness — and, therefore, we need be neither anxious nor fearful in any situation. To do that, of course, takes grace on God’s part and conscious attention and willing cooperation on our part. We have to pay attention to God, look to Him, heed Him. Asking Him for His strength helps, for prayer, as Saint Augustine reminds us, disposes us to receive His gifts.
While considering the above verse, another came to mind: “For which cause I admonish thee, that thou stir up the grace of God which is in thee, by the imposition of my hands” (2 Tim. 1:6). These are Saint Paul’s words to Saint Timothy, whom the Apostle ordained to the episcopacy. Saint Paul is admonishing his younger brother bishop to “fan to a flame” (ἀναζωπυρεῖν) or “revive” (resuscites) grace. (I like “stir up,” but the curious reader can find multiple alternative translations at Biblehub.) But just what is the Apostle commanding his young charge to do? If the grace of Holy Orders, with all its effects, remains in Saint Timothy, then there is nothing that can be done to eradicate it. Yet, Saint Timothy can remind himself of the effects of that sacrament, and can call to mind that he will be given by God all the actual graces he needs to live the obligations he undertook in willingly receiving it. To do such prayerfully would be to open himself up to God’s action in his soul.
Those of us who are not ordained can do the same in reference to our sacramental Baptism and Confirmation, each of which gave us a pledge of the actual graces we need to live the obligations consequent upon that sacrament. We can “stir up” the graces of holy Baptism and Confirmation as Saint Timothy could “stir up” those of Holy Orders.
What got me started meditating on Saint Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians is the spiritual reading I’ve been doing lately from Blessed Jordan of Saxony (readers may recall, “To Heaven with You!”). Blessed Jordan employs that admonition — sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly — in his magnificent letters of spiritual direction to Blessed Diana d’Andalò.
I will finish these lines with two paragraphs from one such letter. In it, Ephesians 6:10, so often quoted explicitly, is in the background.
LETTER 46 of the Blessed Jordan of Saxony, OP to the Blessed Diana d’Andalò, OP
(Jordan’s location is unknown; the letter is believed to have been sent in the Spring of 1234.)
To his beloved daughter in Christ, sister Diana of St. Agnes’ at Bologna, brother Jordan, useless servant of the Order of Preachers: eternal health.
Beloved, you know well in your wisdom how for as long as we are detained in the exile of this world we are all burdened by innumerable defects and cannot arrive at that stability which will be given us in the world to come, so that we fail to accept with equal mind all that befalls us, being sometimes too elated by good fortune, sometimes too much cast down by bad. It should not be so: since our desire is to attain to immortal life in the future we ought even now to conform ourselves in some measure to that future life, establishing our hearts in the strength of God and striving with all our might to fix on him all hope, all trust, all stability of purpose, so as to become like to him, who remains always firm and unmoved in himself. He is that secure refuge, never failing, always abiding, whereto the more we flee, the more steadfast we become in ourselves; whence it is that the saints, who had so great a trust in the Lord, were able so easily to make light of whatever misfortunes befell them.
Do you therefore, beloved, more and more flee to him; then, no matter what hardship or sorrow may befall you, your heart will be established upon so solid and firm a foundation that it will never be moved. Think often of this and impress it deeply upon your heart, and urge your sisters to do likewise.