One week back in February, I attended an Ignatian Retreat. On Wednesday, the midpoint of the retreat, one of the suggested passages was Luke 12: 22-31, the famous “Consider the lilies” passage. Wonderful, I thought. Who doesn’t like to consider the lilies? I sat with God for half an hour and kept expecting that field-full-of-gorgeous-lilies peace and stillness to settle in. Instead, I felt angrier and angrier. “Do not worry”... what an infuriating thing for a deity to say to a planet full of anxious people, many of whom have legitimate cause to worry about their next meal, or clothes that fit.
As part of the retreat, I spoke with a spiritual director after each meditation about the experience and my takeaway from that time with God. Shoutout to my assigned spiritual director, who ended the retreat by giving me a bunch of poetry, a big hug, and a healthy suggestion that I should seek regular therapy of some kind. Ma’am, you were very kind and very correct.
We talked about how Christ indeed says, “Do not worry,” but takes care not to say, “Do not be angry,” or, “Do not grieve.”
She was also patient and understanding with what I was trying to express. She made many good points. The fact that Christ, for example, says “Do not worry about what you will eat or wear”, and not, “Do not worry about your neighbors or how others will find food to eat or clothes to wear.” How worry implies a kind of paralysis, and how worry might precede an act of love or protection, but is rarely present during the action itself. How “Do not worry” does not necessarily mean “Take no action” or even “Take no joy” in providing food and clothes for oneself or for others.
We talked about how worry often asks, “What if?” without offering an answer to give or a decision to make. How many times I could (and did!) refresh news pages for hours, finding new, terrible headlines to worry about, without once donating to a cause or even searching for ways to help. There is a terrible numbing sensation, a kind of closing-off from the world, in constantly absorbing new tragedies and taking no further action. And by contrast, there is a terrible vulnerability in allowing oneself to believe there is an action to take that will make a difference, or even just allowing oneself to feel other emotions besides worry. Anger, for example, or grief. Then we talked about how Christ indeed says, “Do not worry,” but takes care not to say, “Do not be angry,” or, “Do not grieve.”
We talked for a long time, well past our scheduled half-hour. But even as we talked, I could feel my shoulders knotting, as if tensing up for a fight. When we finished talking, she watched me for a long time, and finally said, “You’re not at peace with this yet. You need to keep bringing this to God.”
She’s right. I am a natural worrier, even under normal, things-besides-the-current-state-of-the-world circumstances. I had a friend in college who would often randomly point at me and yell, “You’re fretting! Stop fretting!” When I worked at a cookie store, coworkers would force me to pause mid-crisis, take a deep breath and say out loud, “It’s just cookies!” You may be familiar with the “It’s Not That Deep” meme - it was well-circulated within my friend group.
And now, even with the extraordinary privilege of being able to stay inside and work from home during a global pandemic, worry naturally comes seeping up through the floorboards. I have gone through these past few weeks alternating between wanting to stay inside forever, and wanting to disappear into the woods forever. It’s hard not to sit in my apartment every day, stare at my laptop, chew my nails, and worry. It’s hard to find the energy to get up and do anything else.
I try to keep bringing it to God. I try to sift through all the sleepless nights and brain fog looking for the kernels of emotion I’m trying not to give any weight, like limping around a rock in my shoe. This one is anger, that one helplessness, that one grief. I track down each feeling like a teacher calling a failing student’s parents and come up with creative projects, productive ways to fill the time, moments of rest and quiet. But it’s a patient, painstaking process, and I don’t know about you guys, but I’m tired as hell.
It’s a lesson I keep unlearning and relearning my whole life. Do not worry. Consider the ravens and lilies and the humbling truth that to God their worries matter no less, and ours matter no more. Realize the shocking futility of all those hours of worry, like water so cold at first it feels boiling hot. Look down at the fist you’ve made with your hand, nails digging into the palm. Uncurl your fingers, slowly, shakily, one by one. Feel the bone-deep pain of letting anything go.
I planned to write something much more productive about burnout, specifically spiritual burnout, and steps I’ve taken in the past that have helped me through. But I don’t know, I’m having a hard time with all this, and it’s okay to acknowledge that. Three months ago, I was having a hard time in my spiritual life for different reasons, and it was good to talk to someone about it. That spiritual director had no way of knowing how worrying things would get three months later. It feels good to still hold that conversation we had in my heart, and keep bringing it to God. And go to therapy.
Spiritual direction does not take the place of mental health counseling, and mental health counseling does not take the place of spiritual direction. Many Fratres Dei Spiritual Direction & Ministries directees benefit greatly from alternating every other week between sessions of counseling and spiritual direction. If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, once you find a mental health counselor, explore supplementing your treatment with spiritual direction. Your first session is free, and your subsequent sessions are on a pay-what-you-can sliding scale. Schedule here (online sessions available). We wish you many blessings of joy, rest, and peace.
Caroline Crook, Fratres Dei Spiritual Direction & Ministries Communications Manager
May 4, 2020 | Denver, Colorado