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Stilling The Storm of An Anxious Soul

The Temptation of Anxiety

Anxiety, or disquietude, is not merely a temptation itself, but it is a source from which and by which several other temptations arise. Sadness is that mental pain which is caused by the involuntary evils which affect us; whether they be external, such as poverty, sickness, and contempt; or whether they be inward, such as ignorance, dryness, aversion, and temptation. Thus when the soul is conscious of some such evil, she is dissatisfied because of it, and this produces sadness; forthwith she desires to be free from it, and seeks the means thereto; and so far she is right, for it is natural in us all to desire that which is good and avoid that which we hold to be evil.

If the soul seeks means of deliverance for the love of God, she will seek them with patience, gentleness, humility and calmness, rather awaiting such deliverance from the goodness and providence of God than from her own exertions, industry, or diligence. But if it is through self-love that she seeks deliverance, she will be eager and restless in the search of means thereto, as though it depended more on herself than on God. I do not say that she considers this to be so, but that she acts as though it were. Consequently, if she does not speedily find what she desires, she becomes impatient and greatly disturbed. This, instead of diminishing the original evil, makes it worse, and the soul is distressed and grieved beyond measure, her courage and strength failing, so that she believes her trouble to be irremediable. Thus you see how an uneasiness which in the beginning is justifiable, engenders disquietude, which in its turn brings on an increase of anxiety which is highly dangerous. Anxiety is the soul’s greatest enemy, sin only excepted.

Where Does Anxiety Come From?

Anxiety proceeds from an ill-regulated desire to be delivered from the evil we experience, or to acquire the good to which we aspire; nevertheless, nothing aggravates evil and hinders good so much as anxiety and worry. When birds are taken in a snare or net they cannot escape, because they flutter and make all kinds of disorderly exertions to get free, by means of which they do but entangle themselves the more. Therefore, if you earnestly desire to be delivered from some evil, or to attain to some good, above all things calm and tranquilize your mind, and compose your judgment and will; then quietly and gently pursue your aim, adopting suitable means with some method.

“My soul is continually in my hands: and I have not forgotten Thy law,” was the exclamation of David. (Ps. 118:109). Frequently during the day if you can, but at least night and morning, examine yourself whether your soul is in your hand, or if it has not been snatched thence by some passion or anxiety. Examine whether your heart is under your control, or if it has not escaped thence in pursuit of some ill-regulated emotion of love, hate, envy, lust, fear, vexation, or joy. And if it has strayed, before all things seek it, and softly lead it back into the presence of God; steadying your affections and desires under His guidance and in obedience to His holy Will. Just as those who fear to lose some precious treasure hold it carefully in their hand, so, imitating King David, we should always say, “My God, my soul is troubled, but it is always in my hand, therefore do I not forget Thy law.”

A Remedy for Anxiety

However small your desires may be, do not allow them to disquiet you, for if you do, they will be followed by greater and more important desires, which will find your heart more disposed to anxiety and disorder. When you feel disposed to worry, commend yourself to God, and resolve in no way to gratify your desire until your anxiety is entirely allayed: unless it concerns something which cannot be deferred, in which case you must gently and quietly restrain the course of your desire, softening and moderating it as much as possible, and, above all, acting not in accordance with your inclination, but with reason.

If you can disclose your anxiety to the guide of your soul, or at least to some pious and trustworthy friend, doubt not that you will be speedily relieved; for sympathy in the sufferings of the heart has the same effect upon the soul as bleeding upon the body of one laboring under grievous fever; it is the most effectual remedy. Thus St. Louis counseled his son, “If thy heart be ill at ease, hasten to open it to thy confessor, or to some pious person, and by means of his comfort thou wilt be enabled easily to bear thine affliction.”

This article is taken from a chapter in An Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales, which is available from TAN Books.

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