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A Christian’s guide to stressing out

Fr. Lou DelFra | Tuesday, April 17, 2012

It was at the 10:30 p.m. Dillon Hall Mass last Sunday night that I saw it. I opened Mass 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. Stress. You mumbled “And also with you,” with an energy and interest that was slightly less than awe-inspiring. 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 grade-changing miracles. Days of performance-induced stress offer a real spiritual challenge, and the way to meet that challenge is never clear.

Why is it so hard to pray 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 actions, such as “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” or the calming of the stormy sea.

But this is only part of his message. The Gospels, it must be admitted, include equally prevalent references to Jesus’ sleepless nights, stressful confrontations and the daily self-sacrifice he takes upon himself and demands of others: “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? How to hear his call to the self-sacrificing work that he invites us to engage (“Give away what you have and come follow me!”), enkindling our hearts to embrace the present 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 give ourselves away selflessly – to eclipse the other. The overemphasis of Christ’s consolation, without any nod to his call to sacrifice on his behalf, can lead 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 call to carry our crosses, without any experience of Christ’s constant and unconditional love for us, can lead to an overblown sense of the challenges before us, a distorted view of the importance of our work, inner anxiety and even eventual burnout. So, neither emphasis on its own seems to bring the true peace of Christ.

We need to search for prayer that both reassures and provokes us, that both calms and inspires, relieves and strengthens. We need prayer that puts our work into a proper perspective, focuses 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 its accompanying increase of stress. Jesus constantly searches in prayer for the presence and consolation of his Father, and we can see the peace and confidence 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 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 here, He seeks true peace in the midst of the greatest stress, placing the challenge of His cross directly into the hands of God, yet without a sense of escapism – “Father, if this cup can be taken from me …” Yet, it also asks for the perspective, strength and hope that make His cross meaningful: “But reassure me of Your will, and knowing that this work is in Your plan, and will benefit others, this will be sufficient to give me peace and strength to carry the load.” Perhaps in His prayer at Gethsemane, in the hours before Jesus’ final challenge, we can find a model, and a way to pray for true peace during stressful times.

This week’s column is written by Fr. Lou DelFra, director of pastoral life for ACE and member 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.