“Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”
Jesus spoke these words to his disciples (Jn 14:27) at the Last Supper, when he himself had every reason to be afraid of what was to come over the next 24 hours.
Then again, maybe not, because Jesus also knew what would happen once that frightful period was over — that he would rise from the dead, speak to and eat with his disciples, and ascend to heaven. But it took time for his disciples to fully comprehend, and believe in, the meaning of “Do not be afraid.”
So, too, with us. As faithful to the Lord and his teachings as we try to be, there are times in nearly every day when fear gets the better of us. Will my children be safe at school today? What new infection or disease will my spouse’s blood tests show? How will we pay these bills if I’m getting laid off?
Today’s state of the world is enough to arouse fear in our hearts. Will the pandemic strike us or our loved ones? Will our country’s people ever again speak to those of opposing views with civility and without rancor? What part of the world will erupt in violence next?
It is important to note that fear is a passion and, in and of itself, “neither good nor evil,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1767). Fear of the Lord, moreover, is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that “complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them,” notes the catechism (No. 1831). “They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.”
Both the prophet Isaiah (“His delight shall be the fear of the Lord,” Is 11:3) and St. Bonaventure (“Grant us fear, by which we may draw back from evil and submit to what is good”) allude to the gift of the fear of the Lord — a gift that, writes the late Jesuit Father John A. Hardon in his “Modern Catholic Dictionary,” confirms the theological virtue of hope.
Yet for many people, it is not “fear of the Lord” that absorbs or exacerbates their “fear quotient.”
“As Christians, we are not immune to feelings of anxiety from facing a health crisis such as the coronavirus outbreak or other life-changing events such as the death of a spouse or other loved one, workplace complications, financial problems and so on,” said Elizabeth Galanti, a Catholic licensed mental health counselor in Buffalo, New York.
“However,” she added, “the phrase ‘fear not’ is used over 80 times in the Scriptures because fear decreases our hope when we face difficult trials.”
How so? Galanti cites St. Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy: “God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control” (2 Tm 1:7).
“We need to calm our fears,” she said, “by resting in our faith in God and in the knowledge that our God is a loving God and he is in control. We might still feel afraid, but we can believe that God is with us. We may not be in control, but we can put our trust in the One who is. We may not know the future, but we can know the God who does.”
Other therapists and counselors with a religious perspective and/or affiliation, like Galanti, say prayer and Scripture study can be viable tools for calming and eliminating fears. So, too, are various techniques to promote exercise, relaxation, healthy diet and dialogue — deep breathing, spiritual reading, less alcohol and caffeine, support groups — that aren’t necessarily tied to faith.
Sometimes, though, professional counseling or therapy may be needed, which for some who profess faith in God seems almost heretical, as if to suggest that God alone isn’t enough. For these folks, it is necessary to broaden their understanding of God, church and faith.
“To sit back and expect divine intervention to change things without any effort or insight on your part can be presumption,” said Allison Ricciardi, a licensed mental health counselor in New York and founder of CatholicTherapists.com. “We work together in the body of Christ, and when help is required there is no shame in seeking it out.”
For Catholics, therapy is most beneficial when the faith is integrated into the process, asserted Ricciardi. “Ultimately, good Catholic therapy will help you to transfer your dependence on the therapist to God and the faith. Therapy can help heal the wounds and impediments to healthy relationships and that relationship with God is the basis for true happiness.”
Just “taking the risk of starting therapy,” she added, “is an act of faith in and of itself. It says that you believe that things can change and that you can have a happier life.”
And although our lives can get “derailed” by the realities of daily life, “God’s desire and plan for your happiness doesn’t change,” said Ricciardi. “He will use all of your pain and regrets for your ultimate good. Therapy is one vehicle he uses to help you move from a painful past into a happier future. Don’t let your fears get in the way.”
Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.