Midterms are Purgatory for college students. I would suggest they’re even harder than finals; at least during finals week there are no other classes and no other homework due. But during midterms, students juggle all the rigors of their regular schedule while simultaneously finding extra time for intense exam prep-work. Purgatory. Caffeine-driven, sleep-deprived Purgatory.
Such were my thoughts two weeks ago as I rose from my desk, shaking and exhausted, to hand in my theology midterm. One of a few students left who had not yet turned in their test, I had been anxiously glancing up at the clock, frantically racing to finish my essays before time ran out. As I handed him the little blue book and turned to exit the classroom, my professor pulled me to one side. Looking me in the eye, he said quietly: “You know, Lauren, you should give up worrying for Lent.”
I was a bit taken aback, not by his admonition, but how incredibly pertinent it was. Not 10 minutes previously, I had just finished an essay about St. Francis de Sales’ advice on “spiritual circumcision,” the trimming away of anything that hinders us in the spiritual life, such as gossiping or keeping bad company. For Christians who wanted to get serious about this sort of mortification, de Sales suggested letting somebody else ply the knife—to allow someone who might have a better insight into your failings than you do to choose your penance for you, given the typical human blindness to our own faults. This practice is doubly good, he said, because it not only gives us an objective glimpse of our sins, but also cuts deep at the root of all sin—our pride.
Now, with de Sales fresh in my mind, here was my theology professor “wielding the knife,” gently but with piercing precision. He had seen my abundant anxiety and stress over this test and over the struggles of college life in general, and so he was offering some simple and honest fraternal correction. I worried too much, and he knew it, and so he suggested that I try to give it up.
I stared at him blankly a moment, and then confessed abashedly: “That would be really hard.”
You see, worrying is one of my pet vices. I’m a great worrier: I can worry about anything. Or nothing. If my schedule is packed, I worry. If my schedule is empty, I worry. I worry about my family and about my friends. I worry about getting assignments done well and on time; as soon as I’ve handed them in, I worry about getting my grade back. By the time that happens, I’m busy worrying about something else. I worry about my vocation, about finding God’s will in my life, about doing the right thing at all times.
Of course, I justify my worrying by saying that I’m being practical and responsible and conscientious, and am trying to take proper care of all the people and things God has placed in my life. But as Lent rolled around this year, I gradually realized that this particular habit of mine was a vicious habit; my constant anxiety was nothing less than a manifest failure to trust in God. As Servant of God Fr. Solanus Casey once said:
“Worry is a weakness from which very few of us are entirely free. We must be on guard against this most insidious enemy of our peace of soul. Instead let us foster confidence in God, and thank Him ahead of time for whatever he chooses to end us.”
Fr. Solanus was very right: worry is indeed an “insidious enemy,” a direct and dangerous hindrance to Christian peace of soul. It attacks the human heart even in times of peace and quiet; it is the devil’s attempt to rob us of our trust in God. In my worst worrying moments, I have had a false sense that, if I wasted enough energy and time being anxious and distressed over everything going on in my life, I might somehow by virtue of my worrying take care of it all—and, moreover, that if I didn’t stress about it, it would not be taken care of. Such a mentality completely excludes a child-like trust in the loving
of the Lord; it shifts the focus
from “All my cares are in God’s hands,” to “All my cares are in my hands alone.”
And the antidote to this false vision of reality is, as Fr. Solanus pointed
out, confidence in God. Providence
After all, truly living out the Christian life requires a total confidence in Our Father who provides and cares for us as His children. As a good friend recently warned me, “You shouldn’t worry, because God told you not to!” He was thinking of Luke 12:22-26, where Christ tells his disciples point-blank to stop worrying, because their anxiety over daily cares does them absolutely no good: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life . . . Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest?”
So I took my professor’s challenge. I resolved stolidly that I would give up worrying for Lent.So far, I have utterly failed. As it turns out, bad habits are hard to get rid of. But with God’s grace, I’m not giving up on this battle; the longer I fight the temptation to worry, the more necessary I realize it is for me to surrender myself trustingly and completely to the Providence of God, without holding back any little desires to fear, to fret, to worry things out on my own power. It’s an up-hill struggle, but with time I hope to learn how to put this one simple fact of confident trust into practice: because I am not God, I do not have ultimate control over everything in my life. But He does, and He knows what He’s doing.