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How can I deal with fear? Advice from St. Ignatius of Loyola

IGNATIUS IN ARMOR
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Saintly wisdom from the past holds the key to peace, contentment, and a sense of purpose during these trying times.

We live in strange times. Cases of COVID-19 increase, and decrease, and then increase again, depending on where you live. Whether or not to use standard medical precautions has become a political issue. It’s up in the air whether or not our children will go back to school for the fall semester. Jobs are being transformed, eliminated, and created… In short, the future is anything but certain, and people on opposite sides of the political spectrum are living in increasingly different mental and physical spaces.

All of us are bombarded with warnings about “enemies” who threaten our way of life, our values, and the world we will leave our children. Indeed, it’s difficult to ignore the alarming news, or to focus on something else and not get caught up in the spiral of fear.

How can we cope with this time of uncertainty? By rediscovering St. Ignatius of Loyola, the author of the Spiritual Exercises. Based on his own experience of seeking God’s will in his life, the founder of the Society of Jesus gives several pieces of advice that are surprisingly as applicable today as when he wrote them hundreds of years ago. We can learn from him how to find serenity, with this essential idea: Each one of us has the freedom to choose how we want to live our daily trials, and we can all can emerge victorious.

1
Obey reality

It’s not easy to find the right attitude to adopt in the time of the coronavirus. The first thing is to accept the reality that we are entering a “new normal,” although it’s still not clear exactly what that will be like long term. Ignatius of Loyola’s phrase “Find God in all things” means finding inner peace and then accepting a state of affairs as a new “normal” state, with all its consequences. This begins by paying attention to the recommendations of doctors and scientists and changing some of our behaviors in order to protect ourselves and others.

2
Accept fear

It’s normal to feel fear when faced with the current situation. For St. Ignatius of Loyola, the key strategy is not to allow ourselves to be dominated by it. Fear is not a good counselor; it quickly becomes paralyzing and never leads to good decision making. What we need to do is recognize the fear, then go past it and act in the most prudent way. Our fears may be well-founded, and what we fear may come true, but our every-day life is made up of overcoming obstacles. Life cannot consist in avoiding danger at all costs.

3
Discern with God

The word “crisis” comes from the Greek krisis (κρίσις). It means the need to make a choice. Of course, life is a series of situations that require us to discern, often in the face of uncertainty. For St. Ignatius of Loyola, however, uncertainty is not a problem. On the contrary, it’s an opportunity to listen to God’s will, even when it’s not what we would normally choose.

St. Ignatius sometimes used the expression “agere contra,” that is, to “go against” or to do the opposite of what one would do spontaneously. Discernment means taking advice, giving oneself time, being patient and above all remaining connected to God in order to listen to him.

4
Focus on what we can realistically do

St. Ignatius of Loyola is very clear: It is essential to focus only on what we can do at a given time. Rather than shutting ourselves away in worries, a crisis allows us to seize the opportunity to do what we are led to do in the best way we can. A crisis is the time to awaken all the dormant talents within us and make them bear fruit.

To do this, St. Ignatius of Loyola advises us to take a moment at the end of the day to remember all the events of the past 24 hours and to identify those that have been positive and creative. This is the best way to build up a treasure—the treasure of our good deeds—and to continue in this direction.

5
Put ourselves in the presence of God

Prayer is a way to be connected to God. It is a heart-to-heart conversation between two friends that touches on the meaning of our lives. For St. Ignatius of Loyola, the secret is to present ourselves to Him just as we are, with all our worries, all our weaknesses, and all our fears … This means giving up all control.

It’s difficult to let go and ask for help when an individualistic and solitary existence is increasingly the norm among contemporary lifestyles. This time of uncertainty, however, is an opportunity to understand that we’re all in search of a true community where self-giving and welcoming others are of the essence.

6
Advance step by step

St. Ignatius of Loyola recommends that we keep our eyes fixed on our path, one step at a time, advancing resolutely. In times of crisis, the risk is to lose sight of what’s important by turning our eyes away from our goals and towards fears, distractions and obstacles. But in order to really move forward, now as always, we must keep a balanced life and be attentive to our physical and mental well-being.

In concrete terms, this means ensuring good food, physical exercise, alternating activities, staying connected to others, not isolating ourselves … What if this uncertain time is an opportunity for us to start new and better ways of doing things?

7
Work on our weak points

The current health and economic crisis is causing the fear of loss of control, which can lead to panic behavior. An Ignatian rule in the face of this type of situation is to work on the weak points and fight them. This is what will strengthen self-confidence and consequently the control of one’s weaknesses. Psychological techniques can be useful in dealing with them, and of course a prayer centered on this point helps immensely by bringing God’s grace.

8
Keep looking to the light

How can we let ourselves be guided by the light when we’re under the pressure of negative thoughts? St. Ignatius of Loyola advises us to keep in mind the dynamics of the Cross. It’s in moments of darkness and apparent abandonment that God is at work in the most powerful way. The light and joy of the Resurrection always follows the darkness and anguish of the Cross. In this way, a crisis opens up new opportunities to be more attentive to others, to show more solidarity, and to be in touch with neighbors, especially the elderly or vulnerable, or to spend more time with one’s own family.

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