|*Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner|
(blog by Fr Jeremiah, CFR)
Many families, at some point in their history, have experienced a certain amount of anxiety due to money. My family, unfortunately, was one of them. When my father was shot in his left shoulder during the Vietnam War, he lost the use of his left arm. Without a college degree and able to use only one arm, the odds of him ever finding a well-paying job were slim.
Throughout most of my childhood, my father usually worked two jobs at a time. The best jobs he could find were as a security guard and janitor. Even though he was grateful for those jobs, both of them only paid him little more than minimum wage. With two young children at home, it was never enough. Money always seemed to disappear before all the bills were paid.
When I was lying in bed at night I would often hear my mother and him discussing financial matters. “How are we going to pay for food this month, their school clothes, doctor visits, etc?” I would often hear them say. At the time, I was too young to comprehend the seriousness of not having food, clothes for school or not being able to go to the doctor’s. What I do remember though, from those conversations, was the anxiety in their voices. Without realizing it, and certainly against the will of my parents, their anxiety found its way into my heart.
Thankfully, I always had food, clothes for school, and was able to go to the doctor’s when needed; however, this early childhood experience left a deep mark within me. Rather than embracing life and looking forward to the future, I grew up afraid of life. The anxiety I encountered from growing up in a poor family convinced me that I was ill prepared for life. I felt alone, scared and lost in a world that, at least from my own experience, appeared to conspire against me.
Whenever I was faced with a challenge, whether it was in school, sports or human relationships, I immediately became anxious. Since I already felt ill-prepared for life, I naturally believed I was incompetent to face all of life’s challenges. This anxiety manifested itself through a series of “what if” questions. “What if I fail this test?” “What if I lose the game?” “What if this person doesn’t like me?” What if…?
Unfortunately, after my return to the Church, this anxiety did not disappear. Not surprisingly, I brought this attitude with me into religious life. Several weeks before I entered the Franciscans I was again plagued with more questions. “What if I can’t live in New York City?” “What if I am called to be a Benedictine monk and not a Franciscan friar?” “What if I am supposed to get married?” These questions, fueled by my inherent anxiety towards life, pestered me throughout my initial stages of formation.
It was during this time that I began to look more deeply at the life of Mary. I found, through the various episodes of Mary’s life portrayed in the Gospels, that she, perhaps more than anyone, had the right to be anxious at times. Whether it was at the Annunciation, the flight into Egypt, or the Crucifixion, Mary was never exempt from the trials and uncertainties of life. In fact, her privileged role in salvation history only thrusts her more deeply into them, as Simeon prophesies to her: “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Lk 2:35).
What struck me most by meditating on Mary was how she responded to life. Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation is essentially the same response she uttered her entire life: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:39). Despite the heartache, confusion and sorrow that accompanied Mary’s life, she said yes to everything that God allowed. Intrigued by Mary’s disposition, I focused my prayer on how Mary said yes to God’s mysterious will.
As I compared my situation to Mary’s, I began to notice a fundamental difference. Due to my tendency towards anxiety, I approached almost every situation by asking “What if…?” “What if I can’t do this? What if these people don’t like me? What if this situation doesn’t work out, etc.?” These questions created more questions, which, incidentally led to greater anxiety, causing me to become paralyzed before much of life. Mary, on the other hand, had an entirely different approach. Even though she may have asked “What if…?” at certain moments in her life, Mary, I believe, moved forward by asking another question: “What is…real?”
By asking the question, “What is real?” Mary rooted herself in reality: the reality of God’s Fatherly care. This question reminded Mary, beyond all the twists and turns of life, beyond the darkness and confusion that we all must face at times, that God, as a loving father, is near, trustworthy, and in control. Regardless of what our minds or our hearts might like us to believe, by asking ourselves “What is real?” we are reminded that the trials and struggles we have to face in this life do not have to cripple us. Faith, as Mary demonstrates, is a light that penetrates through our darkness, revealing to us that we are not alone.
These insights into Mary brought about a radical change in my mind. Instead of being afraid, I attempted to approach life not by asking “what if” to every situation I faced, but, like Mary, reminding myself of what is real: that God is a loving Father whom I can trust. I began to live more in reality as opposed to all the many “what ifs” that don’t exist.
Anxiety, unfortunately, was as natural to me as the air, and as I first began attempting to let go of it, I felt felt like I was swimming upstream. As I placed my trust more deeply in God’s care, however, a deep peace began to resonate within my soul. Now, many years later, the grip that anxiety once held on me has loosened. Even though I still have to struggle against it at times, Mary reminds me that life flows most gracefully when we imitate her faith and trust in God.