One of the great battles in the spiritual life is mastering our emotions, by God’s grace. Our emotions are not evil, but they are unruly and easily manipulated by the world and the devil. Our own flesh (fallen nature) also contributes to the difficulty of self-mastery.
Yet as I have often testified, if we are faithful to the Lord and to prayer, growth in the spiritual life happens. Many of my once-unruly emotions have become more stable and are more quickly assuaged when they arise. I feel very good and confident about the progress I have made because I know it is the Lord who has accomplished it. Yes, I did my work: prayer, spiritual direction, Scripture, confession, Mass, and psychotherapy, but I know it was the Lord. For example, I remember awaking one morning and realizing that some very deep hurts from the past were gone. I couldn’t say when they had left; it seemed as though they had just evaporated. God was signaling me that it was over; they were gone, just gone. I felt a forgiveness, even a compassion, for those who had hurt me. I knew that I wasn’t the one who had accomplished this. Without God’s grace, I was prone to cling to my anger and resentments and rehash the injustices I had felt. Thankfully those feelings have never returned.
Anxiety was always the unruliest of my emotions. Beginning at ten years of age I would have crippling bouts of anxiety and panic. During these periods I could barely sleep and would obsessively ruminate over the fears that seized me. As a boy, I was terrified of various things: a house fire, someone breaking in and killing our entire family, etc. As I grew older and had more duties and responsibilities, I would have periodic attacks of extreme anxiety about assignments or about presentations/sermons I had to give.
The sporadic nature of these bouts seemed to confirm their demonic source. I could go for months, even years at a time, and be fine; suddenly, and usually for no apparent reason, I would feel an overwhelming panic or anxiety. For example, when I had been a priest for over ten years and been preaching and teaching with ease, I suddenly went through a period of grave anxiety over my Sunday sermons. I would worry all week long about the upcoming sermon.
Whether or not these were satanic attacks, the fact is that demons are opportunistic. They found doorways in my psyche and I, with the Lord, knew that deliverance prayer alone wasn’t going to be enough. The doors had to be closed. The work of grace and my cooperation with the Lord was going to have to win the day.
The heart of the battle occurred during a ten-year period, from my mid-thirties to my mid-forties. The medicines were these: prayer, spiritual direction, psychotherapy, sacraments, liturgy, the purification of the intellect (since most feelings come from thoughts), and learning by grace to trust God.
As in any battle, the victories came, but there were also setbacks and relapses. Little by little, trust triumphed over anxiety. A more stable, serene, and confident joy became my set point.
Now in my mid-fifties, I can say that the most recent ten years have been largely and increasingly victorious. I am seldom anxious about anything today. Thank you, Lord, and thank you also for all who have helped, guided, consoled, and encouraged me in my journey!
Every now and again, usually for just a moment (or no more than a day), I am reminded that I hold this treasure in an earthen vessel and that I need to stay “prayed-up”; I need to maintain the disciplines I have learned. Maybe it is a dream in the middle of the night from which I struggle to recover. Perhaps it is just a memory that seems all too real. Maybe it is the looming possibility of a new duty. Thanks be to God, though, the reminders are brief and whatever anxiety comes is manageable. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to God for this gift!
St. Catherine of Siena writes of these “reminders” in her major work, The Dialogue of Divine Providence. God the Father teaches her why He permits them:
Sometimes I resort to a pleasant “trick” with [the spiritually mature] to keep them humble …. For the sensual emotions slumber [even] in the perfect soul but they do not die. This is why, if they relax their efforts, or let the flame of holy desire grow dim, these emotions will awaken. It is essential to remain in holy fear of me …. Otherwise … the emotions seem to be asleep and it seems that they do not feel the weight of great sufferings or burdens. But then, in some tiny thing that really is nothing (that they themselves will later laugh at), their feelings are so aroused that they are stupefied. My providence does this to make them grow and go down into the valley of humility. [I do this] to give them give opportunity for merit, to keep them in the self-knowledge whence they draw true humility, to make them compassionate instead of cruel toward their neighbors so they will sympathize with them in their labors. For those who have suffered themselves are far more compassionate to the suffering than those who have not suffered
(The Dialogue of Divine Providence, p. 145).
We still need pricks and blows lest in our progress we become prideful or think that something is so far in the past that we forget to be grateful for our deliverance. The point is that we should never lose heart nor think that all progress is lost when we see a simple reminder of our frailty. With God we are strong, but only with God. Salutary reminders of this are necessary and the Lord, who loves us, provides them.