Anxiety that Surpasses Understanding

Friday, March 7, 2014 – Week of Last Epiphany, Year Two

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office:

Psalms 31 (morning) // 35 (evening)

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

Philippians 4:1-9

John 17:9-19

In a recent issue of The Atlantic, the editor Scott Stossel has an article called “Surviving Anxiety.” As he chronicles his life with intense anxiety and a blend of phobias, he lists many techniques, treatments, medications, and intoxicating substances that he has tried to help him cope. He then announces, “Here’s what works: nothing.”

Our reading from the Letter to the Philippians this morning seems, at first, to prescribe something different. Here is the prescription and the promise: “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” But does this really work?

For the most part, I’m a person for whom this advice actually works. Just reading those words brings me peace. Articulating my needs to God brings me peace. Recognizing the good things in my life with gratitude brings me peace. Hearing those last few words on Sundays in the blessing at the end of the Eucharist also brings me peace.

But for the chronically anxious Stossel, it doesn’t seem like these things would produce peace. In fact, he lists prayer, meditation, and yoga alongside cognitive-behavioral therapy, Xanax, and bourbon among his various regimens. Nothing has worked.

Stossel’s story makes me realize how I have often viewed “peace” as a product manufactured by my own spiritual discipline. I have often used spiritual practices to calm myself down. I have often felt that when I am connected to God, I proceed through life in a balanced, centered, and peaceful way. And, because of my own chemical and philosophical make-up, this peace is indeed a predictable outcome of my time in prayer.

I wonder, though, whether something else is eluding me. Do I see restlessness, fear, humiliation, and stress as holy—or simply as emotions to suppress and avoid? Am I making peace with them, or am I just smothering them with “peace”?

I don’t have a lot of answers this morning. The experience of people willing to speak about chronic anxiety has made me realize that there is a lot more to the peace that God extends to us in Christ. Indeed, this peace surpasses understanding and often eludes our grasp. Today, I want to pray for all those who are fighting valiantly to make incomprehensible peace rather than methodically manufacturing something that passes for the “peace” that our faith can offer.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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