What?! Me Worry? - 2/28/2017

In the summer of 1969, I and a Jesuit priest and five of my high school classmates embarked on a great adventure.  Every summer Fr. John Eagan, S.J. led a group of six Marquette High Juniors-about-to-become-Seniors on a two-week camping trip around the shores of Lake Superior. 

After a restless night of anticipation, we headed North. Fr. Eagan drove the station wagon. Two students sat next to him in the front and three in the back seat.  One got to lay down in the back of the wagon behind all the equipment.  We came to think of him as the lucky one and we took turns in that spot.  For as soon as we hit the highway, Fr. Eagan pulled out a rosary and invited us to pray.  We rolled our eyes, thinking this wasn’t  looking like it was going to be the fun trip we thought it would be. 

Two weeks later, when it was my turn to have the choice spot in the back where you didn’t have to pray the rosary, I declined and offered to sit up front.  Somehow I had come to enjoy praying the rosary every day as we drove.

I returned from the trip feeling like a new person.  The rosary, the beauty of God’s creation, the sense of community, Mass along the shores of Lake Superior at sunset—all of these worked together to get me past a difficult year.

I’d always done well in school and much of my self-worth was tied to my grades.  But in Junior Year I took Trigonometry and Chemistry and my grades went down.  With my grades went my self-image which also took a beating as I argued with my parents over curfew and the use of the car.  And why is it that just before Homecoming a big zit appears on an adolescent boy’s forehead turning him into a cyclops? 

That summer camping trip helped me turn a corner.  I began Senior Year feeling a lot better about myself.  A seed had been planted.  I thought that perhaps I would enjoy doing for others what Fr. John Eagan had done for me.  Maybe I should become a Jesuit priest like him.

But at seventeen, with my whole life ahead of me, I thought: “There’s plenty of time for that.  I want to see the world first.”  So I went to Dominican College in Racine, Wisconsin. I know: “See the world from Racine!?”  OK.  I wanted to experience more of life before going into the Jesuits. 

Before going off to college, I and a good friend from the previous summer’s camping trip decided, for old time’s sake, to do it again.  We took off, knowing that we would cross paths with Fr. Eagan and a group of six guys from the class behind us.  We camped near them and around the campfire one night we made fun of one of those Juniors.  Bill was an athletic kid, a cross-country runner, but during the day when we came to streams and had to cross by walking on logs, Bill got down and crawled across. 

The trip ended and I went off to college.  In September Fr. Eagan called and asked me to pray for Bill. He’d been diagnosed with a brain tumor.  In November I went to his funeral.  Seeing him laid out in the coffin turned the heat up on my vocation discernment. I decided not to delay doing what deep in my heart I felt called to do.  I visited the Jesuit novitiate, applied, was accepted, and entered the Jesuits after one year of college at the age of nineteen. 

The thought of our mortality—that we do not have forever—gives perspective to life.  Every Ash Wednesday we are reminded that we are dust, that our life on earth is not forever.  We begin Lent asking whether we are on the right track. 

A lot changed for me during those camping trips and what followed.  But one thing hasn’t changed—worry.  On our way back from that first camping trip we gave out awards for the best swimmer, diver, cook, etc.  The award I received was “Worry Wart of 1969.”  Throughout the trip I planned for the worst and asked questions: “What if it’s raining, how can we set up camp and cook? What if it’s dark?  What if we run out of repellent or lotion? What if, what if…?

When I told Fr. Eagan that I was going to apply to the Jesuits he challenged me about the worry.  He said that if I became a Jesuit my path, my future would be a great unknown.  I would have to let go of worry and be flexible.  I couldn’t prepare for every eventuality. 

That has certainly been true.  I entered the Society of Jesus to teach in an urban, Jesuit, college-prep school like the one I’d gone to.  I’ve never done that.  And if I’d known then about what I would face in my forty-five years as a Jesuit, I would have been too afraid to apply.  But I’m glad I did.  I would not have grown or become the person I am today without all those things I would have worried about.

Worry saps our energy and leads to stress that takes a toll on our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  Worry borrows tomorrow’s possible problems and crams them into today.  As Jesus said, “Sufficient for a day is its own evil” (Matt. 6: 34).

Worry fosters a negative attitude.  We see the world through dark glasses as we prepare for the worst.  Such preparation can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Worry was the “original temptation.”  Prior to the Original Sin, our ancestral parents worried about whether they could really trust God.  Maybe God wasn’t telling them the whole story.  Maybe God wouldn’t be there for them.  Wouldn’t it be better to get control?  There is a saying: “If you worry, why pray? And if you pray, why worry?”  When we worry we try to be in control, to be gods.  So what’s the point of praying if you are trying to be God?  When we pray we put our trust in God and not in ourselves, so there’s no point in worrying and trying to be in control of everything.

Since worry is a temptation, it comes from the devil who wants to get us anxious.  The devil disturbs our peace so that we take our focus off God and put it on ourselves.  When we worry we listen to the devil and not to God.

You might ask: “So Father, why do you still worry?” 

I think worry is inevitable, just as temptation in general is.  Temptations challenge us to exercise.  Virtues are “spiritual muscles” that require nourishment (prayer and the sacraments) and exercise (fighting temptation).  When worry comes my way I know I have a choice.  I can obsess or I can exercise by practicing its opposite—trust or faith.  This is where I find certain slogans from Twelve Step Recover programs helpful: “Let go and let God;” “One day at a time;” “This too shall pass.”  I also use the prayer that Jesus told St. Faustina to put on the image of Divine Mercy.  I take a deep breath and pray “Jesus,” holding this “name above every name” (Phil. 2: 9) in my heart and in my lungs as long as I can.  Then I breathe out my worries with “I trust in you.” 

Ultimately trust involves believing in the words of Isaiah 49: 15: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.”  God loves each one of us with a deep maternal love.

St. Teresa of Kolkata once said:  “People say that God will never give you more than you can handle.”  Then she added: “I just wish God didn’t trust me so much.” 

Yes, God trusts us.  God allows temptations so that we can grow.  God wants us to grow in the trust that will bring freedom and peace.  Though loving parents are tempted protect their children from all pain and suffering, the world is not free of those.  Painful challenges are part of life.  Some decisions lead to suffering from which children learn important lessons about consequences.  God, loving us like a parent, does not protect us from challenges and consequences.  God trusts us more than we trust ourselves.  Through painful challenges we grow stronger.  Through suffering we learn empathy.

Easier said (or in this case written) than done.  I pray that I remember the words I’ve written the next time I start worrying….