Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Spiritual Discipline of Anxiety

If anyone strives to be delivered from his troubles out of love of God, he will strive patiently, gently, humbly and calmly, looking for deliverance rather to God’s Goodness and Providence than to his own industry or efforts.

But if self-love is the prevailing object he will grow hot and eager in seeking relief, as though all depended more upon himself than upon God. I do not say that the person thinks so, but he acts eagerly as though he did think it.

Then if he does not find what he wants at once, he becomes exceedingly impatient and troubled, which does not mend matters, but on the contrary makes them worse, and so he gets into an unreasonable state of anxiety and distress, till he begins to fancy that there is no cure for his trouble.

Thus you see how a disturbance, which was right at the outset, begets anxiety, and anxiety goes on into an excessive distress, which is exceedingly dangerous.

. . . Birds that are captured in nets and snares become inextricably entangled therein, because they flutter and struggle so much.

Therefore, whensoever you urgently desire to be delivered from any evil, or to attain some good thing, strive above all else to keep a calm, restful spirit,—steady your judgment and will, and then go quietly and easily after your object, taking all fitting means to attain thereto.

Francis de Sales (1567-1622): Introduction to the Devout Life, 4, 11 (Quoted on Enlarging the Heart blog)

When I read this I thought immediately of a frequent soul dynamic of mine that occurs when my “devotional” time is not as fruitful as I had hoped. When my quiet time results in greater frustration and anxiety rather than peace and joy, I get angry. I experience this occasionally in my daily quiet times, but even more profoundly when I go on weekend silence and solitude retreats. My most frequent “retreat experience” is of angst, frustration and anger.

Francis de Sales counsels us to watch our hearts during these times, for it is self-love and not love of God that produces frustration and angst. Perhaps that is the purpose of such times, to reveal our hearts?

His image of a bird trapped in a net, getting more and more entangled as it tries to break free is similar to the dynamic I feel when after a frustrating quiet time I resolve to try harder next time, to find that magical “spiritual reading” or biblical text that will bring me peace. There must be a key somewhere!!

Sigh. My only hope in such times is to let go of control. I must surrender these times and my own heart to God, and trust that these times of frustration are helpful in revealing what is in my heart. What is there is not consoling, but troubling, so it is only natural that I feel anxiety! Peace can come (not guaranteed) as I let go of my works, my efforts to “manage my spiritual life” or “work harder to discipline my soul.” In such times I have lost the rhythm of the Spirit and replaced it with the oppressive beat of the taskmaster’s drum.


Andy said...

So true.

ben said...

Thanks for posting this, Scott. I needed to read this today - Ben