Given recent circumstances and events, having Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday is a bit inconvenient this year. And yet the Liturgical calendar transcends time and current contexts and summons us beyond the merely present to the eternal realities of God.
Nevertheless I must say that I changed my approach to this Sunday based on the current violence and murder in Connecticut. St. Paul’s second reading has moved to the forefront ahead of the Gospel and I would like to focus attention here. For St. Paul does not just say “rejoice,” he says how.
We tend in modern times to link our notions of happiness and inner well-being to external circumstances and happenstance. And thus happiness will be found when the things of this world are arranged in the way and quantity we like. If we just get enough money and creature comforts, we will be happy and have a better sense of mental well being.
And yet, it remains true that many can endure difficult external circumstances and yet remain inwardly content, happy and optimistic. Further, many who have much are still not content and are beset with great mental anguish, anxiety and unhappiness. Ultimately happiness is not about happenstance or circumstances, it is an inside job.
St. Paul says,
For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (Phil 4:11-12)
Interesting, Paul wrote theses words, and the words of today’s Second reading from Jail. So its not a bunch of slogans.
In today’s second reading he tells us the “secret” to this contentedness, to joy and mental well-being whatever the circumstances. He gives a kind of five point plan, that, if we work it, will set the stage for a deeper, inner peace, a sense of mental well-being and contentedness not easily affected by external circumstances. Let’s review what St. Paul has to say as a kind of five-point plan. (I am indebted to Rev. Adrian Rogers for the alliterated list, though the substance is my own reflection).
Here is the text of St. Paul’s five point plan for better mental health. And then we look to each point.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your moderateness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Phil 4:4-9)
Note that the final verse is not in today’s liturgical proclamation, but it seems well to include it in these reflections, so I do.
Step I. Rejoice in the Presence of the Lord - The text says, Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your moderateness be evident to all. The Lord is near.
Of supreme importance in the Christian life is to request, receive and cultivate the gift of the presence of the Lord. We are too easily turned inward and forgetful of God’s presence. To become more consciously and stably aware of God’s presence is to be filled with joy and peace.
As an aside, note that the text mentions joy, (χαίρω – Chairoo) but it also mentions moderateness. The Greek word here is ἐπιεικὲς (epieikes) which means to be gentle, mild, forbearing, fair, reasonable, or moderate. Epieíkeia relaxes unnecessary strictness in favor of gentleness whenever possible. Such an attitude is common when one is joyful and unafraid. By contrast, an unbending and unyielding attitude often bespeaks fear.
There are of course times to insist on precision and to not easily give way. But often there is room for some leeway and the assumption of good will. A serene mind and spirit which are the gift of the presence of God can often allow for some leeway and presume good will. There is an increasing ability to allow things to unfold rather than to control and manipulate conversations and outcomes and to win on every point.
But the central point is, as we become more aware of God’s presence and thus serene and less conflicted within, we no longer need to shout or win in every moment and on every point. We insist on what is true, but are able to express ourselves more moderately and serenely. We are able to stay in the conversation and are content to sow seeds rather than insist on reaping every harvest of victory.
Cultivating a joyful sense of the presence of God and the serenity and moderateness that are its fruits are a first step toward and sure sign of greater mental health and contentment.
Step II. Rely on the Power of the Lord – The text says – Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition…present your requests to God.
There are very few things as destructive to our mental health as worry. Worry is like sand in a machine. It not only hinders the working of the machine, it damages it. But simply being told not to worry isn’t very helpful. In this case St. Paul is not simply saying “Don’t worry.”
Paul has already laid a groundwork for the diminishment of worry in telling us to cultivate a sense of the presence of God. Some years ago when I was a little boy, my Father left for the Vietnam war. For the year he was away, I spent many anxious nights worrying about a lot of things. But when my Father returned my fears went away. Daddy was home, everything is alright.
And for all of us, to the degree that we really experience that God is near, so many of our fear just go away. My own experience is that as my awareness of God’s presence has grown, my anxieties have significantly diminished.
Paul also says, that the power of God is only a prayer away. Here too, I and many can testify that God has a way of working things out. He may not always come when you want him, or handle things exactly as you want, but when I look back over my life, and I think things over, I can truly say that God has made a way for me. And whatever my struggles and disappointments, none of them has ever destroyed me. If anything, they strengthened me.
Whatever it is, take it to the Lord in prayer. And ponder deeply how he has delivered you in the past, made a way out of no way, and drew straight with crooked lines.
Let the Holy Spirit anoint your memory to make you aware of God’s saving power in your life and recall how God has delivered you. These memories give us serenity when we consider how prayer is both effective and an every present source of power.
Antidote - So much worry, which is a kind of mental illness just goes away to the degree that we experience God is both present and that his power is only one prayer away.
And here is the second step to greater mental health, knowing by experience that God can and that God will make a way.
Step III. Remember the Provision of the Lord - The text says, with thanksgiving,
Thanksgiving is a way of disciplining the mind to count our blessings. Why is this important? Because too easily we become negative. Every day ten trillion things go right, and about a half a dozen things go wrong. But what do we tend to focus on? You bet, the half a dozen things that go wrong. This is a form of mental illness that feeds our anxiety and comes from our fallen nature.
But gratitude disciplines our mind to count our blessings. As we do this, we begin to become men and women of hope, and of confidence. Why? Because what you feed grows. If you feed the negative it will grow. If you feed the positive it will grow. And the fact is, God richly blesses us everyday if we will but open our eyes to see it.
Step three is disciplining our fallen minds to see the wider reality of our rich blessings. This heals and gives us us great peace and serene minds.
Step IV. Rest in the Peace of the Lord - And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
As we begin to undertake these steps our mental outlook and health improves. Gradually, serenity becomes a deeper and more stable reality for us. The text here says that this serenity will not only be present, it will “guard” or as some translations say “keep” our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. In other words as this serenity grows it screens out the negativity of this world and the demons of discouragement. Having this peace allows us to see the Lord, and seeing the Lord deepens that peace… and the cycle grows and continues!
It has been my experience that the profound anxiety and anger that beset my early years has not only gone away, but also the serenity I now increasingly enjoy makes all that anxiety unlikely to return. I am guarded and protected increasingly by the serenity God gives.
Step V. Reflect on the Plan of the Lord - Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.
Maintenance plan – And as this serenity, this sense of well being, this mental health, comes to us, St. Paul finally advises a kind of maintenance plan wherein we intentionally and actively focus our thoughts and attention on what is Godly, true, good and beautiful.
What you feed grows - While it may be true that we need to stay up with the news of the world, be careful of too steady a diet of the 24/7 news cycle. They focus on the bad news, on what is controversial and adversarial. If it bleeds it leads. Too much of that and you’re unsettled before you know it. Limit your portions of this and focus on the greater, better and lasting things of God. Ponder his plan, his truth, his glory, his priorities.
And old song says, More about Jesus would I know, more of his saving mercy show, More of his saving fulness see, more of his love who died for me.
Yes, more about Jesus, less of this world. How can we expect to keep our mental health and serenity on a steady dose of insanity, stinking thinking, wrongful priorities, endless adversity, darkness, chaos and foolishness?
Do you want peace? Reflect on the plan of the Lord for you.
So then, here are some steps to better mental health. It all begins with the practice of the presence of the Lord, calling on his power and being grateful for his providence, savoring his peace which inevitably comes and turning our attention more to the things of God and less to the things of this world.
Here’s to good mental health for us all! In times like these we need to balance our sorrow with the capacity to rejoice in God’s ability to draw good even fro the worst of circumstances.