Recently I committed to a nine-month Ignatian Exercises “Adventure.” This involves an hour, first thing in the morning, of prayer.
So far, so good, but it turns out a ground squirrel — which, not to put too fine a point on it, is a giant rodent — has dug an extensive warren and set up camp beneath the foundation of my rented house. I know tolerance levels vary in this area, but my level happens to be extremely, extremely low.
As I’m trying to pray around 5:30 a.m., in the cold, dark, and silence, the thing might suddenly start scratching about in the wall or under the floor, a deeply unnerving sound that floods my body with cortisol.
All through the day, every so often I hear it. When night falls, I take to my bed, set YouTube to 10 hours of white noise, and clamp in my earbuds.
That the squirrel has evaded Mike the Sainted Pest Guy’s best efforts doesn’t help. Every afternoon for a week, Mike has come by, checked the various kinds of traps he’s laid, admitted he’s stymied, and reminded me, “It can’t get inside, and it’s only a matter of time. We just have to wait.”
Meanwhile I’ve been reflecting deeply on the concept of anxiety. Anxiety isn’t physical pain but it is profound, pervasive suffering that colors all of existence.
I’ve thought much about Christ, sweating tears of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Take this cup from me, Father. But Thy will, not mine, be done.” Any anxiety, large or small, is subsumed within that ultimate anxiety of Christ’s, when he took all the terror of the human condition upon him the night before he died.
I’ve also been especially drawn to the Blessed Sacrament. When fear makes reasoning difficult and relaxation impossible, sitting in a quiet chapel, say, praying the Rosary, becomes almost unimaginably consoling — and a rich source of insight.
Last Monday, for example, the joyful mysteries took on a new light. Each of them, though life-giving and hope-centered, had to have brought Mary profound anxiety.
The Annunciation: Overshadowed by the angel Gabriel, Mary is told she will conceive in her womb and bear a son who will rule over the house of Jacob forever. But she’s never known a man! Who wouldn’t be “troubled”? Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Then the angel departs from her.
The Visitation: Mary, pregnant, sets out across “the hill country” to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant and whose husband Zechariah has also had an encounter with the angel Gabriel, and been struck dumb. Strange happenings are afoot.
However elated the two were to see each other, their visit must have been clouded by terrible uncertainty.
The Nativity. With no room at the inn, Jesus — the Savior of the world — is born in a manger. Now it’s Joseph’s turn, in a dream, to hear the message of an angel. Imagine Mary’s heart, her body still bruised by labor, as she gazes upon her newborn son and learns that he is hunted by Herod and that the family must flee to Egypt.
The Presentation in the Temple. Jesus is being consecrated body and soul to God. Beautiful. A moment of peace. In the midst of the celebration, the prophet Simeon informs Mary that her heart will be pierced by a sword. That would put a damper on things.
The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple. Twelve years pass. A strange boy, Jesus, but devoted to God nonetheless. He speaks with such authority that even the elders listen to him. Again, beautiful.
The family journeys to Jerusalem for the annual Passover festival. But this year, on the way home, Mary and Joseph realize Jesus has gone missing. They double back and after three frantic days, find him teaching in the Temple.
“Why have you done this to us?” asks Mary. “Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety!”
Jesus responds curtly, “Why? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?”
“But they did not understand what he said to them” (Luke 2: 48–50).
And those are the joyful mysteries!
God doesn’t will us to suffer anxiety but, given the human condition and the order of creation, we are bound to. Knowing that we are in solidarity with all the anxiety of the world doesn’t calm our nervous systems, but it does allow us to offer our suffering to relieve someone else’s.
I have thought often this past week about the children of Ukraine, the people waiting to hear the results of a biopsy, the families praying for the drug cartel to leave the neighborhood. My ears on high alert, I have thought especially of the daughter who hears her violent alcoholic father come home from the bar and lies in terror on her bed, her ears tuned to the slightest sound: the clink of ice in a glass, a curse word, a doorknob turning.
May she be comforted by the angels and saints. And as Mike and I continue to wait for the squirrel to clear out, may my anxiety go to relieve, if only by the smallest iota, hers.