Thank God for the communion of saints. Remarkably, there isn’t much in our crazy busy lives that the saints haven’t dealt with in some other iteration. Even though the world we live in seems angrier and more anxious than ever before, the basics of human nature haven’t changed much. We have the same faults, sins, struggles, and hopes that we have always had, through dressed in modern circumstances.
Anger and anxiety have tried to strangle people and cultures with their icy hands for centuries. Like good friends who have walked a road before us, the saints give us advice and hope for living a life of joy, peace and courage in the midst of the storm.
Winning the War against Anger
We are living in the age of rage. Hearing the news or scrolling through social media, it seems everyone is angry about something or someone. Since Cain killed Abel, anger, also known as ‘wrath,’ has been a part of the human existence. The saints were not immune to this sin either.
St. John, the apostle of love, was once known as one of the ‘Sons of Thunder’ who wanted to call down fire from heaven to destroy a town that snubbed them. You may be thinking that if you had the chance to spend three years at Jesus’s side, it would cure you of your anger too. Well, maybe. Perhaps that’s an important lesson. Prayer changes us. St. John lived prayer. He rested on Christ’s chest at the last supper. He was so aware of the love of God for him that he came to name his identity as ‘the apostle that Jesus loved.’ That’s how he knew himself. Spending more time in prayer, especially in adoration, changes our hearts and makes them less thunderous and more loving.
Prayer guides us in how to control our anger, especially when interacting with others. St. Therese of Liseux, who was candid about how easily she was irritated by fellow nuns wrote:
“When you are angry with someone, the way to peace is to pray for that person and ask God to reward them for giving you the gift of suffering.”
Whoa. Think about it. We all want to be patient, but the only way to grow in patience is to have it tested. When we are irritated we can identify red flags in ourselves- bits of selfishness and pride that the perceived affront is irritating an causing to flare in our hearts.
It’s a gift to be able to recognize these faults and to ask God to overcome them in us. According to Therese, an irritating person is a gift from God with a big red bow on them, and obviously a gift we don’t deserve since we don’t know how to accept it very well. For some practical advice, St Francis de Sales tells us that when someone makes us angry we need to refocus on that person’s good qualities instead of stewing on their faults.
Anxiety is epidemic in our world today. Our Lord speaks out against this, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” (John 14:1) But the fact that he addresses this issue confirms that he knows how hard it is for us to fight our natural inclination towards anxiety.
Let’s be clear. Clinical anxiety is a problem that cannot be wished away or simply prayed away. For those who struggle with clinical anxiety, the help of a professional is a gift from God, a very practical, and completely proper way to help your heart not be troubled.
Whether it’s clinical anxiety or milder stress and worry, we still need to turn to Christ and give him our fears, finding our peace in Him.
Many of the saints struggled with anxiety too, including one near and dear to him during his time on Earth, Martha. Poor Martha. Forever known as the one who DIDN’T choose the better part. I wonder if she stressed out over that…. But Martha wasn’t defined by her anxiety. Christ saw her for who she was, not for her faults and weaknesses. In fact, she was the first person to whom he said: “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) Important lesson: anxiety does not define you. You are defined by who you are in Christ, and the more deeply you know yourself as his, the more anxieties fall away.
“Courage is fear that has said it’s prayers.” -Dorothy Bernard
St. Thomas More, British martyr, is a testament to the strength of God when anxiety tries to weaken us. After he was imprisoned by Henry VIII for refusing to support his divorce and remarriage, he was imprisoned, awaiting his trial. He wrote to his daughter
“I will not mistrust Him, Meg, although I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear. I shall remember how Peter at a blast of wind began to sink because of his lack of faith, and I shall do as he did: call upon Christ and pray to Him for help. And then I trust He shall place His holy hand on me and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning.”
St Perpetua, with her friend Felicity, is mentioned in the litany of the saints prayed by the Church and immortalized in countless placid stained glass windows that portray her serenely awaiting her execution.
Her last days before martyrdom were chronicled in The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity by Tertullian. In this record she exclaimed,
“What a day of horror! Terrible heat, owing to the crowds! Rough treatment by the soldiers! To crown all, I was tormented with anxiety for my baby…. Such anxieties I suffered for many days, but I obtained leave for my baby to remain with me, and being relieved of my trouble and anxiety for him, I recovered my health and my prison became a palace for me.”
In fact, after being mauled by wild animals, Perpetua was to be beheaded. The executioner trembled before her poise and courage and she herself had to guide his sword to her neck.
Prayer does not always remove the circumstances which make us suffer, but it opens us to allow God to give us his peace and strength, reminds us of his closeness to us, and assures us that as St. Teresa of Avila said, He is all we need:
“Let nothing disturb you, nothing cause you fear. All things pass; God is unchanging. Patience obtains all. Whoever has God needs nothing else; God alone suffices.”
Pope St. John Paul II, a strong and encouraging father whose wisdom is still a guiding beacon for us today, implored us in his very first homily after being elected pope,
“Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power… Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ.”
In the end, the cross will always be there, always. Guaranteed. But God is not distant. Looking at the crucifix, we see him not just on his cross, but on ours. And held in Christ’s arms on our own cross, dying to ourselves, our anger, and our anxieties with Him, we will also come to the resurrection with Him. He makes all things new.
In the words of St. Paul, who knew many anxieties, many temptations to anger, and many crosses,
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[a]neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)