Finding Serenity and Joy in the Midst of Conflict and Sorrow. A Mediatation on Gaudete Sunday

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.

13 Replies to “Finding Serenity and Joy in the Midst of Conflict and Sorrow. A Mediatation on Gaudete Sunday”

  1. I am glad I dropped by again before shutting the computer off. God reward you for writing this, Monsignor Pope, and for consoling many with your inspired words.

  2. Thank you for your consoling writings.You have no idea how much hope you inspire. Keep up
    your great work,we so need direction. May God richly bless you.

  3. Dear Msgr,
    I had the duty, and indeed the great privlege, to be the homilist at our two Saturday masses last night here at St Rose of Lima in Newtown ,Ct. My challenge was, as you state, to let the Liturgy continue- to let the Holy Spirit lead us to Joy this Gaudette Sunday that is also a source of tremendous strength and comfort. It was as you rightly say, an “inconvenience”- what I had planned to say was, as I told parishioners later on, a “bit too pink”. But as I’ve learned these last six months as a permanent deacon (ordained this past June for the Diocese of Bridgeport) is the incredible power of the Holy Spirit’s presence when I had to lean on Him the most. Our joy this weekend is not just simple happiness, but the resilience and spirit of that happiness; one that is tried through trial and tribulation, but still whole, peaceful and grace-filled as it leads us to look forward to tommorrow with comfort and conviction. We have suffered greatly here, but the world is beginning to learn what we in Newtown already know- we are a deeply knit caring community, a wonderful place to live and grow and we will not be deterred by a Darkness that has chosen to overcast our skies. The light of hope and love in this community cannot be overshadowed, and by our willful abandonment to God’s grace will get through this. Your words, comments and insights have been a wonderful source of learning and resource to me through formation and now into active ministry. Thank you again for your prayers and consolation on our behalf.

  4. G. K. Chesterton described St. Thomas Aquinas as optimistic. Étienne Gilson said that Chesterton’s book on St. Aquinas was one of the best every writtnen. So, if you want to be counter-cultural, I say, read some St. Thomas A..

    Beautiful meditation.

  5. I just started reading “Abandonment to Divine Providence” by Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, while everyone is trying to make some sense of the tragedy in Connecticut and looking for human answers, I think the only consolation is what the title of the book is: abandonment to divide providence, place all of our tears, pains, sorrows, anger, etc at the foot of the cross, there was a part of the book that caught my attention which I included below, also one of my favorite prayers came to mind as I was praying for the victims.

    Faith is never unhappy even when the senses are most desolate. This lively
    faith is always in God, always in His action above contrary appearances by which the senses are
    darkened. The senses, in terror, suddenly cry to the soul, “Unhappy one! You have now no resource,
    you are lost,” and instantly faith with a stronger voice answers: “Keep firm, go on, and fear nothing.”

    Petitions of St. Augustine

    O Lord, Jesus, let me know myself, let me know Thee,
    And desire nothing else but only Thee,
    Let me hate myself and love Thee,
    And do all things for the sake of Thee,
    Let me humble myself, and exalt Thee,
    And think of nothing else bu Thee,
    Let me die to myself and live in Thee,
    And take whatever happens as coming from Thee.
    Let me flee from myself, and turn to Thee
    That so I may merit to be defended by Thee.
    Let me fear for myself, let me fear Thee,
    And be amongst those who are chosen by Thee.
    Let me distrust myself, and trust in Thee,
    And every obey for the love of Thee.
    Let me cleave to nothing but Thee,
    And ever be poor for the sake of Thee.
    Look upon me, that I may love Thee;
    Call me that I may see Thee
    And forever possess Thee. Amen.

  6. My sixth-grader is required to complete sermon reports as part of her Confirmation program at my Lutheran church. Because we also attend Mass with my husband, she also (under some duress) reports on homilies. The report includes the date on the church calendar, the name of the preacher, on which reading the sermon was based, the sermon’s title, and a few key points.

    The priest at last night’s Mass earned an irked look from my daughter when he announced that because of the Newtown incident he was going off-topic, and didn’t have a title for his homily. She spent the homily busily taking notes, pausing occasionally to glare at the blank space on her form, the space for the homily title.

    After some contemplation, and using the back of the report form to write a large-lettered statement The World is Not Going to End Next Week, my daughter decided to title the homily Free Will. Her take-away from the homily was that we have been given the choice whether to follow Christ or to listen to Satan, whether to accept God’s comfort or to let Satan break our spirits.

  7. Grieve, I say again grieve. Our secularism, hedonism is known to all. We think GOD is far or does not even exist. Our materialism makes us anxious in all. We do not pray, we do not thank the GIVER. Then the turmoil of evil, our relativism, closes our understanding and we rebel against CHRIST JESUS. Miserere.

  8. Msgr: A great posting. It reminded me of one of my favorite sayings. It was said by St. Seraphim of Sarov (Russian Orthodox): “Acquire the spirit of peace and around you a thousand souls will be saved.”
    And to my brother deacon, I pray that your ministry brings consolation to the people of Newtown. We prayed for your town and its families at our Masses.

  9. Many around the country are including both those who died in Newtown and their families in our intentions for our rosaries each day.
    Grief upon the death of a child is difficult. That leads a hole in your life (mine too), although our daughter was nearly 45 when the cancer claimed her. Violent death of the type experienced on Friday is even more heart-wrenching for the families who survive.
    The O.T. book of Job is a lengthy meditation on why bad things are permitted to happen to good people.
    Others, including C.S. Lewis have also written on this.
    May the Lord provide lasting consolation for these families.

  10. Many have commented on the event of last Friday, including a good friend of mine who lost his daughter as the result of a road accident. His eloquence has touched me in a way no-one else has, and Friday had a particular, painful resonance for him, taking him back to that summer three years ago. What he wrote about sorrow and pain and how we cope reminded me of accounts of martyrdom, particularly those of Sts Edmund Campion, Maximillian Kolbe, and Edith Stein, to whom I add Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In all four cases, the serenity of their countenance was noted by those around them – for which St Stephen could be considered a precedent. Pope John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio that it is at the Cross that we find the limits of human reason, if I remember rightly, and another Christian writer remarked that if we could understand God he would not be God. St Paul describes what we see as through a glass darkly – we have to have patience! One day, all sorrow and sighing will flee away ….. but the waiting time is hard.

    I heard that people in Dunblane, Scotland had sent a message to Newtown; they had a similar incident and I hope their words will bring consolation.

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