Finding Peace in a Time of Panic

Dr. Jim Langley

Dr. Jim Langley is the Executive Director of St. Raphael Counseling.

All things in life are an opportunity to grow as a person. We can always become better spouses, better parents, better friends, and better Christians. This is the first (and hopefully the last) time that essentially the entire world has had to fast from the sacraments. Masses are cancelled, weddings are postponed, and people are dying alone without an anointing. It is not hyperbole to say that this is an unprecedented time in human history. Yet, God has allowed all of this to happen, and He never ceases in His call to each and every one of us to become holy. “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48). From my perspective as a Catholic husband, father, and psychologist, I have observed some lessons during the pandemic we can all stand to learn:

Our Utter Dependence on God

Being deprived of communion for the first time in my life has left my soul feeling “rusty.” I feel okay, but I’m a little more tense and a little less charitable. Yet, I am grateful because this is just a tiny glimpse of what it would be like to be truly deprived of God in my life. We rely on Him for our very being and there is nothing that we can accomplish without His grace. Because of this, gratitude should be our fundamental response towards anything life brings, even in the midst of fear and sorrow.

If you watch typical news headlines, it is clear that we live in a culture that idolizes itself. We lavish adoration on celebrities and the science and technology gurus would have us believe that we are on the brink of endless prosperity, power, and even immortality. I don’t think that God sent the coronavirus as a plague to punish us, but it certainly reminds us how silly our self-worship is and just how easily our delusions of grandeur can be stripped from us. Now is a time for all of us to reflect on the idols in our own life and embrace a penitential attitude that is despised by the rest of the world.

Fear is the Enemy of the Spiritual Life

This has been echoed by saints across the ages, and Jesus Himself tells us many times throughout the gospels to “be not afraid.” Fear makes us hide. It turns us inward and makes us selfish. This is different from “fear of the Lord” as a gift of the Holy Spirit, which draws us out of ourselves and into union with God. But given the circumstances, you are either a saint or totally naïve to be anxiety-free in the midst of this crisis, and anxiety is just a fancy word for “fear.” This is okay, but we all have to work to manage it. Practically speaking, anxiety has several negative side effects. First off, it is contagious. Think of the last time you had a conversation with someone who was really stressed out. When the conversation was over, you probably felt a spike in your own stress levels. This is especially true with our children who soak in their parents’ emotional states like little sponges. Anxiety also makes us turn away from one another. When we’re preoccupied, we don’t slow down to connect with, listen to, or even lean on the people who love us the most. Because fear makes us turn selfishly inward, we need to be intentional about getting outside ourselves. We have to be socially distanced, but we don’t have to be socially isolated. Find creative ways to connect with others. Believe me, there are many people who are suffering more than you in this crisis. Call them, send them a little gift, and find ways to get outside of yourself.

Refocus Your Priorities

There are a million forces that pull us away from God and away from our families. We always have bills to pay, diapers to change, and careers to build, and so we put off those things that are truly important until tomorrow. But why wait until tomorrow? With bars, malls, and stadiums closed, God has done us the favor of making us give up things for Lent whether we wanted to or not. This really is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to deeply assess your values, relationships, and spirituality. Your values (and how well you live them out) are your recipe for happiness in life. How well is that recipe working for you? In the end, the prescription for surviving the coronavirus is the same one for a successful Lent: pray, give, and fast.

In this time of uncertainty, it’s easy to get caught up in our own anxieties, perhaps even more than usual. Besides the fear of possibly getting sick, being cooped up at home only heightens that feeling of anxiousness. However, as Paul writes in Phillippians 4, “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In this time of panic, let us be intentional about asking God for the peace that only he can provide — and provide it he will.

COMING UP: A man for strengthening others

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.