2016 felt like a chaotic year, didn’t it? There was a difficult presidential campaign season in the U.S, and meanwhile presidents of other countries were impeached and even put on trial. There were horrible terrorist attacks across the globe. Syria’s bloody civil war ground on with the bombing of hospitals, churches, and homes, leaving thousands of people dead and thousands more fleeing for their lives.
Will 2017 be less chaotic? We can hope so. But even if it isn’t, there are ways to find courage and move forward with our lives and in our faith.
One thing that gives me hope is knowing that I’m not alone. People around me are experiencing distress and asking difficult questions. People in history have experienced distress and have asked difficult questions, too. We’re not the only ones to live in a world of turmoil and challenges; every generation has had to face hard times. And the questions surface again and again from all of those generations, all of those people: how can we live out our beliefs in a chaotic world? Where do we find balance when everything around us is changing? Why do we have to experience conflict?
And, of course, even if I cannot always take courage from these shared experiences, there is one bedrock of calm and assurance that I can turn to: the presence of the Living God in my daily life. “Be anxious for nothing,” wrote St. Paul wisely to the Philippians, “but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
The truth is, that’s the only peace that ever really works. Anything else is the spiritual equivalent of a Band-Aid. I don’t know if this has happened to you, but I’ve noticed that every time I choose to handle a problem or situation alone, I end up worried, anxious, and tense: ah, there’s that chaos slipping in again! I stress myself out because I’m not giving God a chance to calm me. I think I can handle things without God, and all that does is create less control in my life, not more.
We’re all good at turning to God when we want something. We’re also super at turning to God when we’re afraid (I imagine there are no prayers like those when a plane is about to crash, for example). But it’s somehow easy to lose the habit of turning to God when we’re puzzled, or uncertain, or need advice. In fact, it seems that as a culture we’ll turn anywhere else first! Psychics, psychologists, advice columns, talk shows, friends… they all dispense their take on what we should do and think and be every day. The result is often even more chaos in our lives as we rush to implement their recommendations.
Here’s what we need to understand. We’re never going to comprehend the chaos in the world. We’re never going to grasp why bad things happen to good people—and why good things happen to bad people. C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Problem of Pain wrestling with the questions that are behind all the fear and anxiety that we experience.
There is chaos. There is fear. There is uncertainty. Those are the realities we must deal with. But we’re also given the assurance that when we turn to God, he will be there for us. “Cast all your cares upon him,” writes Saint Peter, “because he cares for you.” Saint Pio of Pietrelcina—best known to us as Padre Pio—wrote words that I keep on my desk: “Pray, hope, and don’t worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer.”
And then there are the words of Saint Francis de Sales. During his lifetime, his counsel became the lifeline for hundreds of people, and Salesian spirituality flourishes today precisely because it is practical everyday spirituality for living in the modern world. Courage in Chaos, a collection of Saint Francis de Sales’ thoughts on dealing with the anxiety of the world around us, provides a compact volume that you can slip into a pocket or purse… and turn to when you need to reconnect with God, to ask God for reassurance. Chaos requires courage, and we all have it… as long as we look for help in the right places!
Excerpt from Courage in Chaos: Wisdom from Francis de Sales:
Not Too Anxious
The care and diligence due in our ordinary affairs differs greatly from worry, anxiety, and restlessness. The angels care for our salvation and seek it diligently, but they are wholly free from anxiety and solicitude. Since care and diligence naturally accompany their love, anxiety would be wholly inconsistent with their happiness. Although care and diligence can go hand in hand with calmness and peace, these angelic properties cannot abide together with solicitude or anxiety, much less with overeagerness.
Therefore, be careful and diligent in all your affairs. God, who entrusts them to you, wants you to give them your best effort. But try not to be too anxious or solicitous, that is to say, do not set about your work with restlessness and excitement, and do not give way to bustle and eagerness in what you do. Any form of excitement affects both judgment and reason, and hinders a competent performance of the very task which is making us anxious.
Our Lord, rebuking Martha, said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things” (Lk 10:41). If she had been simply diligent, she would not have been worried, but giving way to disquiet and anxiety, she grew hurried and troubled, and for that our Lord reproved her. The rivers which flow gently through our plains bear barges of rich merchandise, and the gracious rains which fall softly on the land fertilize it to bear the fruits of the earth. But if the rivers swell into torrents, they hinder commerce and devastate the country, and violent storms and tempests do the same. No work done with impetuosity and excitement was ever well done; hence the old proverb, “Make haste slowly,” is a good one. The Son of Sirach said, “One may toil and struggle and drive, and fall short all the more” (Sir 11:11). We are always finished soon enough when we do our tasks well. The bumble bee makes far more noise and clamor than the honey bee, but it makes only wax, not honey. In the same manner, those who are restless and eager, or full of noisy solicitude, never do much, nor do they do it well.
Flies harass us more by their numbers than by their sting. Similarly, great matters disturb us less than a multitude of small affairs. Accept the duties which are entrusted to you quietly, and try to fulfill them methodically, one after another. If you attempt to do everything at once, or with confusion, you will only burden yourself with your own exertions, and by entangling your mind, you will probably be overwhelmed and accomplish nothing.
In all your affairs rely on God’s Providence, through which alone your plans can succeed. Meanwhile, on your part, work on in quiet cooperation with God, and then rest satisfied that if you have entrusted your work entirely to God, you will always obtain that measure of success which is best for you, whether it seems so or not in your own judgment.
Imitate a little child, who holds tight with one hand to his father’s, while with the other gathers blackberries from the wayside hedge. Even so, while you gather and use this world’s goods with one hand, always let the other be secure in your Heavenly Father’s hand, and look round from time to time to make sure that he is satisfied with what you are doing, at home or abroad. Beware of letting his hand go, seeking to make or receive more—if God forsakes you, you will fall to the ground at the very first step. When your ordinary work or business is not particularly engrossing, let your heart be fixed more on God than on it; and if the work be such as to require your undivided attention, then pause from time to time and look to God, even as navigators do who set their course for the harbor by looking up at the heavens rather than down into the deeps on which they sail. Doing this, you will see that God will work with you, in you, and for you, and your work will be blessed.
— Excerpt from Introduction to the Devout Life, Part 3: Chapter 10
Excerpt from Courage in Chaos: Wisdom from Francis de Sales.
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