Part 4 in a series on pain, sin, and grace.
Which two ordinary words, when combined, can lead to panic, hysteria, and even sin? These two: “What if …?” Novelist Stephen King says that’s the question he asks himself before starting yet another terrifying novel. “What if …?” can trigger the imagination, and King lets his imagination travel unchecked into the darkest dimensions, returning with images of horror and doom.
“The Lottery Ticket,” a brilliant short story by Anton Chekhov, depicts a married couple imagining what they would do with their lottery winnings. This leads to disputes about how to spend the money (that they’ve not yet collected) and resentments stirred by anticipated conflicts while taking trips together, financed with the lottery money—money, I remind you, that they’ve not yet collected. The story ends with the couple more miserable than before, as they realize that they don’t hold the winning ticket. They now have a long night and a longer winter ahead of them, with their minds and hearts poisoned by the experience of grievance that was spurred by events that never actually happened.
As I wrap up this series on the potential link between pain, emotions, and sin, I’m thinking of what happens when “What if …” takes over, leading us to places where we should not go, where we are spiritually vulnerable. A gentleman once confronted me after Mass, indignant over my homily. “Father, you made me so angry when you said that abortion is the only morally significant issue.” I assured him that I said no such thing. “But I heard you say it!” Telling him that I’ve been preaching for 25 years and I never have and never would say such a thing did not slow him down. “And when I hear people talk like that, it reminds me of those awful people who say …” He was getting himself worked up. His breathing had changed, his hands were shaking, he was looking into the distance. This process had to be stopped or it could spin out of control.
I raised my voice and said, “Look at me!” He stopped, returned his attention to me, and almost seemed surprised by what he saw. “I’m not any of those people, am I?”
“And none of those people who upset you are here now, are they?”
“Then you’re safe with me and there’s no one to argue with is there?”
If we are unaware of the power of residual memories of discomfort and pain, we can be overwhelmed, suffering a physiological response of fight, flight or freeze—as if we were being hunted in the dark woods. That emotional panic can cause us to respond with hurtful words or physical harm.
And if we are aware of those phantoms? We can still permit panic. “What if they’re back? All the people, places and things that caused me such pain and shame—what if they’re all here right now?” From the spiritual point of view, this is where the enemy can step in: “See, God has abandoned you—again! He’s unreliable and never liked you. Now listen to this offer…”
That panic-state has physiological and spiritual components. If the heart rate exceeds a certain point and the adrenaline starts churning, we can overwhelm our ability to reason or be reasoned with. In that moment we need tangible and visible reminders that we are safe, and that we can afford to return to a state of normalcy.
Assuming that we don’t go into full emotional overdrive, we can still let our disproportionate upset propel us to spiritual danger. In a state of what St. Ignatius Loyola called “desolation,” it’s our spiritual enemy who seeks to become our counselor and guide. The Jesuit founder then gives this advice: “… it is very helpful intensely to change ourselves against the same desolation, as by insisting more on prayer, meditation, on much examination, and by giving ourselves more scope in some suitable way of doing penance.”
When it looks like we’re entering a spiritual danger zone, step one is prayer—that is, to cry out to God. Such prayer turns a bright spotlight on the enemy, and liars hate that.
Step two is meditation—recalling that God, who has been faithful in the past, is still God now.
Step three redirects our attention from the fear to the cause of our fear—painful memories being relived can masquerade as present threats, and these phantoms must be confronted.
Finally, a suitable penance—some small sacrifice or discipline to remind us that we are not helpless and that we can act against even very powerful moods.
The moral of the story is: We do not need to surrender to our fears and pains.
When I write next, I will speak of a neglected aspect of the spiritual life. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.