28 January 2012

Anxiety = Distraction

4th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Paul writes to the Corinthians: “I should like you to be free of anxieties. . .[so that you might adhere] to the Lord without distraction.” How does he suggest that we avoid anxiety and thus adhere to the Lord without distractions? Don't get married! “An unmarried man [or woman] is anxious about the things of the Lord. . .a married man [or woman] is divided,” he says, between pleasing the Lord and pleasing a spouse. Looking out over the congregation, I daresay, by Paul's standard, we have a lot of anxious folks here this morning! But this nothing to be worried about. Paul adds, “I am telling you this for your own benefit, not to impose a restraint upon you. . .” In other words, though he believes it is better to remain unmarried and thus undivided in the service of the Lord, he is not imposing celibacy as a restraint. Keep in mind that Paul's advice to the Corinthians is coming from personal experience—he had been a married man.*  He knows all about the anxieties and distractions of having a wife. And that's his point, that's what he is teaching—not celibacy or virginity (worthy, even preferable choices) but the importance of serving the Lord without the anxiety of distractions. The unclean spirits possessing the man shout at Jesus, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Jesus casts out the man's uncleanliness by saying, “Quiet! Come out of him!” And the man is distracted no more.

How do we become possessed by the unclean spirit of anxiety? It might go something like this: an ordinary seed of responsibility sprouts as a worry and that sprout of worry, with careful nursing, blossoms into a poisonous vexation. That poisonous vexation, if not quickly and mercilessly pruned, is left to ripen and become an anxious fruit, which then drops, bursting with rot to plant its distracting seeds in your spirit. Then the cycle of responsibility, worry, vexation, and anxiety to distraction not only repeats but it repeats in every part of your life. What might start as an ordinary responsibility to pay a bill can sprout, blossom, ripen, and rot into a distracting anxiety about money. “I have a bill to pay” becomes “If I can't pay this bill, I am a worthless husband, a useless wife.” If and when this happens, then you know that the unclean spirit of anxiety has possessed you. To that unclean, disquieting spirit, our Lord, say, “Quiet! Come out!” 

You might have noticed that I left something out of my description of how we might become possessed by the unclean spirits of anxiety. I said that an ordinary responsibility can sprout in our souls as a worry. What can cause this? What is it that transforms a mundane responsibility like paying a bill into a worry about where the money will come from? To answer this question, we need to think about what anxiety is in Christian terms. And how anxiety is a distraction in our service to the Lord. There is no official Church definition of anxiety, but there is a revealing mention of it in the Catechism, a mention that gives us a powerful clue in figuring out exactly how anxiety hurts us spiritually. In its discussion of the Tenth Commandment, the one against coveting a neighbor's goods, the Catechism says this, “Abandonment to the providence of the Father in heaven frees us from anxiety about tomorrow. Trust in God is a preparation for the blessedness of the poor. They shall see God”(2547). If abandonment to the providence of God frees us from anxiety, then it is reasonable to assume that refusing to abandon ourselves to the loving-care of the Father enslaves us to worry. Anxiety then is the unclean spirit that possesses us when we fail to trust that God will provide for our needs. The job of this unclean spirit is to distract us from serving the Lord by focusing our time, energy, and talent on trying to solve the very problems we have created for ourselves by not heeding the Lord's will in the first place. I hope the irony of this doesn't escape you. . .

OK. We've all heard some version of “abandonment to God's providence” all our lives. It's right up there with “Offer it up” and “think of it as a few more days off purgatory.” What does the phrase mean though? When we think of abandoning something we think of leaving it behind, surrendering it, giving it away. We think of abandoned cars, houses, even abandoned children or spouses—those thrown out. When we abandon something we sever all ties to it, cut our affections, distance ourselves. But none of those really fit the idea of abandonment TO God's providence. We're not giving up on providence or cutting ties with God's loving-care. What we are doing to falling into the hands of God w/o looking first to see if He's really gonna catch us. Think of bungee jumping off a bridge w/o the bungee cord. You abandon your perch in order to abandon yourself to the rush of the wind and the pull of gravity. We always fall down. Spiritually speaking, when the need arises, we always fall into God's loving hands. Like needful objects hurtling toward the earth, at our most desperate, we tumble toward the Father. There is no question about this. It is His will. The question is whether or not we will acknowledge this as His will, give Him thanks for His care, and then continue on in the full knowledge that we have already been caught and cared for. The unclean spirit of anxiety is exorcised the moment we say to the first inkling of worry, “Quiet! Come out of me!” And when family and friends see that you are calm, collected, and cared for, they will be astonished. 

Let's set the record straight on one important point: God's loving-care for you in your time of need will not likely appear in your checking account or as a magically transformed spouse or as suddenly obedient kids. His love for us can manifest as material goods. More often than not, His love for us sits as a reminder beyond this life that our lives here are impermanent, always in transition toward to a higher end with a greater purpose. God is not a heavenly banker, or a miracle-working therapist, or revolutionary psychotropic medication. He loves us b/c it is His nature to love, and the love He gives us is given so that we can transform our relationship to Him, to others, to ourselves, and to the things of this world. This means that all those relationships that invite the unclean spirits of anxiety into your life must be re-ordered behind your first love: God. Love your spouse b/c you love God first. Love your children b/c you love God first. Love your house, your car, your career, your hobbies b/c God comes first, before everything and everyone you love. That way, when your spouse passes, your kids move away, your car breaks down, and you lose your job, you still dwell faithfully in the only permanent source of love, Love Himself, God. 

The Psalmist writes, “Come, let us bow down in worship; let us kneel before the LORD who made us. For he is our God. . .” Your life will be ruled by that which you love most. To place God at the center of your life, to make Him your heart—remove whatever else, whoever else occupies that place of honor and abandon yourself and all those you love to the only living source of Love: Christ Jesus and him alone.

*I changed this portion of the sentence b/c I'd confused Paul with Peter.  Paul was probably a widower.

Follow HancAquam and visit the Kindle Wish List and the Books & Things Wish List

Recommend this post on Google!


  1. Anonymous4:33 PM

    St Paul married? Evidence?

  2. Yikes! I was rushed to finish up this afternoon and confused Paul with Peter. However, good arguments have been made that Paul was a widower.


  3. Anonymous8:45 AM

    I love your homily!

  4. Thanks for providing such useful information. I really appreciate your professional approach.