On the first weekend in March that we were told that we could not celebrate Mass publicly in our churches, I had what I can only describe as a panic attack. During the first few weeks of the closure of the churches, I struggled with a great deal of anxiety. I was terribly worried about how our parish, which struggles financially under normal circumstances, was going to pay its bills through this crisis. I was fearful that it would be necessary to lay off our parish staff and I did not know how I was going to look after the parishioners during this time of closure or how our huge property could be maintained without our staff. The anxiety and stress that was causing me to panic was based in the fact that I thought I had to solve these problems on my own and the illusion that I could be in control in these difficult circumstances.
As the weeks passed, I slowly came to learn that I could not deal with these issues on my own. I sought support in prayer, from friends, and learned from others that many other people were feeling the same way that I was. It certainly helped a great deal that many good people at our Archdiocesan Chancery worked with the bishops to come up with a solution to many of the parish’s concerns. The situation was also aided by the support that many of us have received from the government during this crisis. However, what I really had to accept and learn during this time of uncertainty is the lesson that Jesus announces in this Sunday’s Gospel. This life-giving and freeing message of the Gospel has been hidden from the “wise and the intelligent and revealed to infants.”
When I was studying at St. Augustine’s Seminary, my favorite teacher was my liturgy professor, the late Bishop Attila Mikloshazy. One of the things I remember Bishop Mikloshazy saying was that the most important lesson in the spiritual life to remember is “that God is God and you are not.” This is not an easy thing to always remember. So often, the temptation for all of us is to try and always be in control. Most of us hate uncertainty. When problems arise, we want to solve them and have a plan to feel confident that everything will be all right from our human perspective.
The reality of life is that we need to be aware of the things that we can control and to be able to accept and live with the things that we cannot control. In fact, there is a great prayer that is used in twelve-step groups that captures this reality. It goes: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This is such an important prayer for me to pray when I am tempted to forget that God is God and I am not.
It strikes me that this is what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel.
Let me share an example with you. Imagine how ridiculous we would think it to be if a two-year-old infant were to get a job and feel responsible for providing for her or his family. In a healthy family, no infant is expected to care for her or his parents. The infant trusts the parents and does not even think about the mortgage payments and paying the bills. There is nothing an infant can possibly do about these things.
Although we might be slow to admit it, and uncomfortable to accept it, the reality is that as God’s children, we too must in certain situations trust God, our loving Father. We are His children, powerless over certain things, and we must trust in His loving providence. There are things that we can control and there are responsibilities that we need to tend to in life. However, at a certain point, there are things that we cannot control—like natural disasters, illness, accidents, pandemics, the hour of our death, and a whole list of things that make us all uncomfortable.
We can, if we wish, pretend that we are in control of these things. However, as we try to control those things that are beyond our power and abilities, in all likelihood we will find ourselves creating unnecessary stress and anxiety for ourselves. The more we think that we are able to live up to the unreasonable expectations of control that we bring to situations that are beyond our control, the more likely we are to find ourselves panicking in the face of our reality. As we come to terms with the fact that we are powerless in certain situations, it is then that our hearts are ready for the comforting words of Jesus, as He says to us in today’s Gospel: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Sadly, these words that should bring me comfort, are words that I often struggle with putting into action. Because of my pride, I often have the curse of falling into that category of people who think of themselves, as Jesus says, among the “wise and the clever of the world.” Those of us who struggle with this problem, always think that we can solve things on our own. Even in prayer, we might come to God looking for the insights to use our intelligence to solve and deal with the situations before ourselves. When we do this, we end up closing our hearts and minds to the presence of the loving God who is at our side to assist us and give us the grace we need to walk tranquilly through those situations that we cannot fix and solve. When we rely only on our own strength, we become blind to the God who desires to walk with us at our side. The result being that the mysteries of the Gospel are hidden from our eyes, as they are revealed only to God’s children who know that “God is God and I am not.”
So, what are we to do when trials come our way?
Well, I think the first thing that we are to do is the best we can and use whatever prudence and common sense the situation calls for in order to care for self and our neighbors. But, once that has been done, and we have been wise enough to recognize that the situation is beyond our control and power, we must hand it over to God in prayer if we are to enjoy serenity and peace in these situations. The alternative is to keep it for ourselves and to bring upon ourselves anxiety, stress and needless panic.
Now, I used to hear people say, “give it to God,” and I had no idea what that meant. I have since come up with my own notion of what that means. This is how I do it. For me, to give something to God, requires prayer in a quiet place—ideally before the Blessed Sacrament in the church. There, I like to imagine myself in conversation with Jesus, who loves me and you very much. As I come to Jesus with my fears and anxieties, I imagine myself giving these to Him. Sometimes as I come to Him, I do so as a child; at other times, I do so as an adult coming to a friend or brother. And when I say that “I give Jesus my fears and anxieties,” I mean that I imagine myself physically handing them to him to carry. If things are really bad, I imagine Him as the Good Shepherd carrying me on His shoulders and me as the helpless sheep that He has come to save. Sometimes it happens quickly; at other times I need to sit there with Him for a long time until the burden begins to lift. Sometimes I really have to sit there a long time, but I don’t leave until I understand the meaning of His words: “For I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
It is said that Saint John XXIII, Pope from 1958 to 1963, would go into the chapel every night before he went to bed and say: “Lord, it’s your Church, I’ve done my best today. I’m going to bed, you look after it.” Despite the great responsibility of his office, as Pope, he always exuded such peace. Pope John XXIII knew how to be a child of God. Jesus invites us to that same confidence of His presence in our lives.
In this Sunday’s reading from the Book of Zechariah, we hear how God came to His people to protect them at a time of war. The people rejoice because the Lord came to rescue them from the war horses and chariots from Ephraim by riding humbly on a donkey. The temptation for all of us is to try and solve every challenge with our strength, intelligence and wisdom. Yet, we are all of us God’s children and as His children there are certain things that we must entrust to His care and providence. When certain things are beyond our human power, it is futile to fight them or to weigh ourselves down with the burden of anxiety, stress and panic trying to solve a problem or challenge over which we have no power. These situations call us to take up the invitation of Him who says to us in today’s Gospel: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
May we all learn the joy of being God’s children and giving to Him the fears and challenges of those things beyond our control. When fear and anxiety are about to overtake you, stop and be still and know that God is God and you are not. By doing this, you will experience the freedom that only Jesus can give.
Fr. Michael McGourty
Pastor—St. Peter’s Parish—Toronto.
This reflection based on the readings for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A: Zechariah 9:9-10; Psalm 145; Romans 8: 9, 11-13; and Matthew 11: 25-30.