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Stressing out with God

Father Lou DelFra | Wednesday, April 16, 2008

It was at the Dillon Hall Mass at 10:30 Sunday night when I first saw it. I opened the Eucharist with the Sign of the Cross, and as I looked up in greeting – “The Lord be with you” – it was staring back at me. Late-semester fatigue. And stress. You mumbled “And also with you” with an energy and interest that reminded me of my last PLS Seminar before Senior Week – not a good time to assign The Brothers Karamazov. So, I mentally cut my homily in half, and doubled my volume, but the message was clear – “Father, we love Jesus, but unless He’s writing my papers this week, please keep it short!”

I’ve always found it hard to know what to pray for during stressful days – and the last weeks of the semester are almost inevitably stressful – some of the most difficult days of the year. I often find myself, on days when the heat is on and I’m behind, sending up prayers of desperation – prayers that ultimately only feed my stress, and of course produce no paper-completing miracles. Days of performance-induced stress offer a particular spiritual challenge, and the way to meet that challenge is never clear.

Why is it so hard to pray confidently during stressful times? Perhaps because, though Jesus does offer us a way of peace, it is not a simplistic way. On the one hand, Jesus continually offers us words of comfort, like “Come to me all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest. For my burden is light.” And many other consoling words and images – Jesus calms the storm or “Do not let your hearts be troubled” and the like.

But this is only part of his message. Pop spirituality books take snippets like these and offer whole “Guides to a Peaceful Life” from them – ignoring the Gospels’ equally prevalent references to Jesus’ sleepless nights, arduous itinerant preaching, and the daily self-sacrifice he asks of us: “If you wish to follow me, be prepared to take up your daily cross.”

So, how to pray during stressful days? How to take Christ’s words of consolation seriously (“Take courage, for I have conquered the world”), allowing Him to calm our hearts … While also hearing his call to the work and self-sacrifice that He invites, even needs, us to engage (“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few”), allowing our hearts to embrace the challenges of our daily lives?

Perhaps one answer, which is not nearly as simple as it sounds, is to try not to allow either of these two realities – Christ’s consolation and Christ’s call – to eclipse the other. The overemphasis of Christ’s consolation, without any nod to his call to work on His behalf, leads to escapism – and often procrastination. And this, of course, just leads to more stress, rather than breaking us out of the stress cycle. On the other hand, the overemphasis of Christ’s encouragement to sacrifice, without any experience of Christ’s constant and unconditional love for us, can lead to an overblown sense of the work before us, a distorted view of why this work is important, inner anxiety, and even eventual burn-out. So, neither emphasis on its own seems to bring true peace.

We need to search for prayer that both reassures and provokes. That both calms and inspires. Relieves and strengthens. Puts our work into a proper perspective, and also awakens our desire, and galvanizes our energy, to engage the work. This is not easy or straightforward prayer.

As always in prayer, our primary image of God is extremely determinative here. If we see God primarily as the Great Escape, someone to whom we run to make our troubles disappear, we set up the near-certain result of disappointment and increase of stress. Jesus constantly searches in prayer for the presence and consolation of his Father, and we can see the peace and boldness with which this Presence fills Him, especially at stressful moments. Yet, in these prayers, Jesus rarely asks His Father to do things that make his life easier. Rather, He asks for the reassurance of God’s presence and clarification of God’s will, or often asks the Father for the ability to complete works that relieve other people’s sufferings. This understanding of his work as fitting into the plan of God, and as ultimately benefiting others besides himself, brings Jesus peace.

If, on the other hand, our primary image of God is a Divine Taskmaster, who demands and accepts only our continual excellent performance while contributing little to the endeavor – and for my fellow perfectionists, this is always a temptation – we run the risk of praying to a God who is merely a projection of our own ambitions, or other authority figures in our life. That our stress is not relieved by such prayer is hardly surprising. But this God too is not to be found in the prayers of Jesus.

Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is a beautiful example for our purposes. For it seeks peace without escapism – “Father, if this cup can be taken from me .” Yet, it also asks for the perspective and hope that makes his work meaningful: “But reassure me of your will, and knowing that this work is in your plan, and will serve others, will be enough to give me peace and strength to carry it out.”

Father Lou DelFra is the director of Bible studies in the Office of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at

delfra.2@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.