Trusting God is an act of the will

I’m a cancer survivor, although mine was more of a “skirmish” than a battle. It was brief and relatively easily treated. But one long term consequence of even a cancer skirmish is that the doctors are hyper vigilant about new cancers, so periodically they see something suspicious and I spend an uncomfortable week waiting for test results. I haven’t had a cancer scare in several years. But it will most likely happen again.

When I’m healthy and my life is going great, I read about people courageously facing illness and I think “I would do that — I’d be brave and trust God and put a big smile on my face.”

And then “it” — or even the vague threat of a possible “it” — happens, and I crumble like stale coffee cake.

I’m not generally a worrier. But when it looks like something big could be wrong — well, sometimes I am. It turns out that I, with a brain wired for overthinking and a first-born’s penchant for control, apparently have a very difficult time just “letting go and letting God” when the stakes get high.

When the rubber actually hits the road, this whole “Jesus, I Trust in You” thing is much easier said than done.

I try. I read all of those lovely Bible verses about being not afraid, and the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and all. Nope, still afraid. I pray surrender prayers — the ones that talk about how if we would stop worrying and surrender to him, he would take care of everything. Then I worry that he won’t take care of everything because I am still worrying.

Of course, in the rational parts of my mind, I know that God loves me, and that he has a plan and he works good out of everything. I know that he is my loving, all-powerful Father, and thus eminently trustworthy.

And still, it can sometimes seem impossible to stop worrying and just trust. I can say the words, but it’s a lot more difficult to make the emotions follow suit.

Not long ago, I stumbled upon a tiny little book by Father Jacques Philippe about St. Therese of Lisieux, entitled The Way of Trust and Love. He writes, of course, about the Little Flower and her incredible, childlike trust in God. The kind of trust that makes the rest of us feel like sinners and heathens because we can’t seem to manage to emulate it.

But he also goes into great detail about her insistence that God knows and understands our weaknesses, and that “the good God does not demand more from you than good will.”

Good will? I think I can do that!

Good will doesn’t mean being satisfied with mediocrity. It doesn’t mean that we don’t try because God loves us just as we are. It simply means that, despite our weaknesses and our humanity, if we are doing the very best we can to follow Christ, and to do what he calls us to do, God will honor that.

Which, in this case, means doing the best we can to override our natural human fear and trust him during a difficult time.

Trusting God is not primarily about our feelings. It is an act of the will. Our emotions — influenced by neurotransmitters controlled by everything from our heredity to what we had for lunch — are often out of our control, and cannot be reliable indicators of our holiness or lack thereof. But we can still decide that, no matter what our emotions may be doing, the rational part of our minds, the part that can freely choose, is choosing to trust God. Making that choice doesn’t automatically mean that our anxiety magically and immediately disappears. It just means that we are choosing, to the extent we are able, to trust him.

As we continue to override our fear and surrender to God despite the anxiety, frequently something beautiful will gradually begin to happen. We will begin to feel a sense of peace that overcomes the fear. When that happens, it is beautiful. But it is not our doing. We are utterly incapable of making it happen. It is his action, his Spirit moving in our hearts, overriding our hormones and our emotions to allow us to begin to experience that “peace that surpasses all understanding.”

Ironically, the most notable time I have experienced that peace was when I actually had cancer. It came the night I was waiting for my final diagnosis, when I was praying in the Blessed Sacrament chapel and I said “Well, I guess if you want me, I’m coming.” In acknowledging my complete powerlessness and dependence on him in the midst of an actual crisis, he gave me a deep sense of peace that lasted throughout my treatment.

So I know it can happen.

If there is one thing that is certain in life, it is that difficult times will come — for me and for all of us. When they do, I highly recommend, even if your anxiety is off the charts, repeating over and over this line from the Novena of Surrender: “Jesus, I surrender all to you. Take care of everything.”

And, in the ways known only to him, believe that he will.

COMING UP: Meeting Christ in the Mass and sacraments

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As Catholics, we recognize Jesus’ Eucharistic presence to be the source and summit of our faith. Nonetheless, we can take His presence at Mass and in the tabernacle for granted. We pray through our liturgical rituals, but our words and gestures can lack meaning when we simply go through the motions. When we use the beautiful ritual of the Mass and sacraments to guide our prayer, however, they can lead us into a deeper encounter with Christ.

Two recent books can help us to understand the Mass and sacraments better and to approach them with fresh eyes: Christopher Carstens’ A Devotional Journey into the Mass: How the Mass Can Become a Time of Grace, Nourishment, and Devotion (Sophia, 2017) and Msgr. Nicola Bux’s No Trifling Matter: Taking the Sacraments Seriously Again (Angelico, 2018).

Carstens takes us on a “devotional journey into the Mass” to approach it in “a more profoundly spiritual way” (29).   He writes with a broad sacramental vision which embraces not only the Mass but also the symbols surrounding it. A great example of this comes from the first chapter, “how to enter a church building,” which reflects upon how to approach the physical building of the church itself. “So the door to the parish church, which stands before us now — is no ordinary entrance. It appears different because it is different: it is a mark of God’s house and a sign protecting those within, as at that first Passover. It is an entrance into the Great King’s city and His Temple . . . where we touch God, as in Jerusalem” (13-14). Carstens uses a “sacramental principle” to help us recognize “how God communicates with us through sensible signs” (9).

This devotional journey takes the reader through the stages of the Mass to perceive the deeper reality that we access through faith. In order to reap the fruit that God wants to give us at Mass, Carstens teaches us that “proper disposition . . . is paramount” (88). Through all of the outward actions, signs, and rituals, God aims at “something deeper:  . . . the heart of man. . . . the undivided love of man” (60; 61). For this reason, in the need for intimacy with God, “silence is an essential ingredient for both individual and corporate prayer” (35). The participation and prayers we offer at Mass should foster our relationship with God. The “conversation should take the form of prayer — a prayer of surrender” (92). Taking a devotional journey through the Mass, with Carstens’ help, should prepare us to enter into this conversation of surrender more fully each week.

Msgr. Bux, an Italian priest and professor, takes us deeper into the sometimes-forgotten history, theology, and liturgy surrounding the Mass and the sacraments. He walks us through each of the sacraments, building upon the teachings of the saints (especially St. Ambrose and Padre Pio), but also the difficulty of experiencing the spiritual reality of the sacraments in the modern world. He also leads us deeper into the Mass, “the greatest and most complete act of adoration,” noting the “interdependence between the Eucharist and the other sacraments: . . . they flow forth from the Eucharist and flow together into it as to their source” (86). The centrality of the Eucharist comes from the fact that through it we enter the heart of God.

The other sacraments reinforce this contact, as “we touch Christ” through them. This entry into the divine life begins at baptism and deepens in confirmation. Bux supports restored order confirmation, speaking of the need for strengthening and equipping for battle at an earlier age, rather than giving into the flight that usually occurs after it is received in the teenage years. When it comes to confession, Bux speaks of how “Christ pardons everyone who recognizes himself to be a sinner,” though the sacrament aims at “sincere, overwhelming interior repentance that brings the soul to be reconciled with the Creator” (103; 104). He also speaks beautifully of how through the sacrament of marriage, “spouses participate in the power of [Christ’s] love” in their love for each other. “Their love, responsible fecundity, and humility, their attitude of mutual service and their mutual fidelity, are signs of Christ’s love, present in them and in the Church” (166).

Both authors teach how to appreciate and enter into the Mass and sacraments more fruitfully, so that, in Bux’s words, we can experience “a prolongation of the liturgical life of the Church” in our own lives (196).