Were the saints stressed? One of the most striking things about the saints is the fact that they faced uncertainty, overwork, persecution and death — with peace. They fought back against what the world threw at them…without becoming a “stressed saint.”
But this time of year (at least at our house), it is easy to feel overwhelmed by graduations, 1st Communions and Confirmations, finals (!), house guests (!!), office moves (at least this year), college move ins-and-outs, starts of summer play practices and ends of spring recitals and — well, you can imagine!
It’s true that some saints experienced a sense of divine abandonment and inner turmoil (often called the “Dark Night of the Soul”). However, these men and women encountered these periods of intense spiritual suffering with faith and continued to follow God’s Will. They did not allow this affliction to overcome them.
You would think that an individual faced with what the saints were faced with would be stressed. Yet we consistently read about the saints calmly, and even joyfully, facing these afflictions. Why is this? Why weren’t the saints stressed?
Here are some thoughts that have come to me:
- The saints gave up control. They realized that God was ultimately in control of everything and had faith in him. St. Clare told her sisters that the God who cared for the birds of the air would care for them, too!
- The saints practiced self-control. How often are we our own worst enemies? We often bring stress upon ourselves. We procrastinate, bring about a stressful interpersonal situation by our own bad behavior, etc…. The saints realized that they couldn’t control anything – but, with God’s grace, they could control their own behavior. Thus, they cultivated mastery over their emotions and appetites by consistently obeying God’s commandments, as well as by personal sacrifice and fasting. They also understood that they needed God’s grace to practice self-control, so they asked for His help. (And don’t forget the fasting! Achieving that little bit of self-mastery opens us up to the Holy Spirit’s transformation!)
- The saints were humble. Stress is often brought about because we worry what others will think of us…or because we want a painful interpersonal situation to go away, but we are too prideful to apologize or reach out to the other person…or because we are afraid to honestly evaluate our own actions and spiritual life, so we distract ourselves as much as possible, not taking adequate time to rest. The list goes on-and-on. Whether we immediately realize it or not, pride is often at the root of our stress.
- The saints sat in silence. Silence is a form of prayer in which we listen to what God is telling us. So often, we are afraid to listen to what God has to say. We tell him what we want, instead, and go ahead with our own plans – which are frequently not in our best interest and also not likely to work out (then we get more stressed because our plans were thwarted!). Yep: going through with our own plan may ultimately cause us more stress! But, God has an even better plan for us in mind if we just take the time to listen and then obey His holy will – and, by doing this, we will save ourselves a lot of stress in the long run!
- The saints were more focused on the suffering of others than their own. When he was imprisoned in Auschwitz, St. Maximilian Kolbe, radiated peace. Although he suffered tremendously, he gave others his meager food rations and heard confessions, although if he was caught he would be severely punished. Father Kolbe looked outside of himself; he was attentive to others instead of just focusing on his own sufferings. His focus on others helped him to remain peaceful amid the horrors of Auschwitz. This practice of focusing on the suffering of others can also help us to combat stress by making us less self-centered (and possibly get a reality check about how relatively insignificant our own problems are).
Current research shows that the way we view life situations influences our level of stress (as well as our physical and emotional health).
In other words, our way of thinking about situations is the primary cause of our stress.
The Saints figured this out centuries ago.
They knew that trusting in God, practicing self-control and humility, and taking time for silence, as well as focusing more on others than themselves, would ultimately bring them the most peace here on earth.
Of course, these virtues can be difficult to practice, especially at first.
Most of us will struggle as we seek to develop these habits, but with perseverance and prayer, we can use these five spiritual weapons to transform difficult situations into an opportunity for spiritual growth, rather than a breeding ground for stress.