On a retreat some years ago, several of us were spending time in prayer together. Each man in the circle took a turn at sharing with God and the rest of us in the group an intention or request or thought that was weighing on his heart and mind. There was talk of family members who were ill, people looking for work, children seeking a direction in life.
That’s when one of the men whispered what has become one of the simplest, best prayers I ever have heard.
“God, get rid of the nonsense in my head,” Ron O’Connell said.
And that was it. Ron was in his 70s at the time. I had heard a lot of his story. A tall man, he had been a pretty good first baseman in his youth. Those were some good memories. There also were some difficult days way back in his past. He had endured because he was strong, inside and out. His faith in God was solid. A Eucharistic minister at Mass, in recent years he would slowly hobble on a couple of bad knees to the front of the church to help distribute communion. Afterward, he would hobble out of church but always give me a smile, a firm handshake and a “man’s hug.”
Ron passed away recently. I will miss that greeting from him. But I will think of him regularly because I have adopted his prayer as my own almost daily.
God, get rid of the nonsense in my head …
I don’t know what all was rolling around in Ron’s head that day. I do know that there is a whole bunch of nonsense in my brain every day. Most of it is unnecessary; I’d like to do without it. There are distractions that won’t seem to leave me alone – especially when I’m in prayer, at Mass, waiting to fall asleep, trying to write.
The depression that is a fact of my everyday life fills my head with nonsense, some of it more than a little frightening and almost all of it completely irrational to “sensible Mike.” Anxiety also puts nonsense into my head, because shortly behind anxiety, worry always comes tagging along.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness says that “a mental illness is a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood and may affect and his or her ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis.”
I have come to believe that worry is actually an unrecognized, and probably the most common of all mental illnesses. Worry is concern and caring taken to an extreme. Many times, it is a symptom of a mental illness, not just depression and anxiety but a variety of others as well. Other times, it can be a triggering state of mind, as intense worry about a situation can lead to the depths of despair, crippling anxiety and debilitating panic attacks.
A Swedish proverb says: “Worry gives a small thing a big shadow.”
There is so much truth in that, of course. I remember my grandmother always being concerned about each of her 20-plus grandchildren, often to the point of worry. When my children started driving, I was worried every time they went out or when they returned to college, and they knew to call or text as soon as they arrived safely.
That’s normal, I think. To someone with severe depression and anxiety, however, the emotion inflates to something much larger than regular parental or grandparental concern. It becomes completely unfounded, illogical. Explained to a “normal” mind, the basis and scope of the worry simply makes no sense.
To a man or woman deep in the throes of depression or anxiety …
For me, the trigger often can be thoughts of my sinfulness. Although in my heart and soul, I know Jesus died for my sins, forgives me when I go to him seeking his forgiveness and then completely forgets about all of those trespasses. But in my head, the nonsense of guilt takes root and isn’t pulled out easily.
I found a kindred soul in an unlikely place recently: 16th-century saint Teresa of Avila in her work “Spiritual Testimonies.” She wrote:
I spent two or three very troublesome days over the remembrance of my great sins and because of some fears of my being persecuted that had no foundation. … And all the courage I usually have for suffering left me. Although I wanted to encourage myself, and I made acts and reflected that this suffering would be very beneficial to my soul, all these actions helped me little. For the fear didn’t go away, and what I felt was a vexing war. I chanced upon a letter in which my (spiritual director) refers to what St. Paul says, that God does not permit us to be tempted beyond what we can suffer. That comforted me a lot, but it wasn’t enough. … I had no one to whom I could have recourse in this tribulation. It seemed to me I was living in great loneliness.
St. Teresa, a Doctor of the Church, fretted over her sins. Her courage in the suffering left her. A friend who could comfort her wasn’t available, so she felt a great loneliness. Her fear grew into a “vexing war.”
A saint lived what I have lived! St. Teresa worried! I have read that passage numerous times the last few weeks. Her words and her experience have provided me great solace.
I have especially needed that solace the last couple of weeks, beginning with the anticipation of my mom’s surgery to remove a brain tumor May 19. There was worry as the surgery and expected recovery cast a big shadow – I’m not sure a brain tumor qualifies as a “small thing,” not in Sweden or anywhere else.
I agonized at watching what my mom endured after the surgery and hurt when she passed four days later because of the aggressiveness of the tumor and swelling in her brain. Throughout that time, there was a great deal of prayer, acceptance of reality and an inclination toward hope. There never was overwhelming spiritual worry or fear. The “vexing war” never developed.
St. Teresa experienced, endured, persevered. Her courage in suffering returned. That gives me hope.
Ron O’Connell, whom I believe is now a saint in heaven, showed me how to ask for the concern, the guilt, the worry to be dispelled.
There is grief and sadness. But there is no despair about my mom suffering or fear about her soul. There is no nonsense. Instead, there is peace. A heavenly peace.