Through much of my life I did not take stress seriously. I looked upon it as something light and artificial, a maladie imaginaire afflicting intellectuals and other idle people. Nor did it occur to me to think of stress, or anxiety, in religious terms— any more than I might turn to the Church for an explanation of asthma. Indeed, I now accuse myself of having been rather insensitive to the claims of persons unable to laugh off life’s little setbacks—tax audits, lawsuits, death threats, disabling illness, the prospect of starvation and exposure, the foreboding of eternal damnation.
Having more recently suffered myself from this maladie imaginaire, and discovering through my own body the remarkable effects stress can have even on a person who seems to have retained his sense of humor, I have revised my views. The causes were commonplace—pressures on me that have been placed on many others, including what I have come to see as the real killer: the discovery that one has become victim of a terrible injustice by the malice of a personal enemy, an injustice that one may never escape, so long as one lives.
Surprisingly, the Church considered human stress—anxiety—only obliquely through the many centuries before Kierkegaard. The agony of Gethsemane and the Cross was hardly nothing, however, and the interpretation of that experience was not neglected. The early Christians could not possibly have been unfamiliar with stress, any more than the believing Christians today who find themselves under active persecution, especially in the Islamic world, under Chinese Communism, and elsewhere.
When, a few years ago, I traveled briefly among the Copts in Egypt, I began to appreciate an entire religious culture that had adapted over centuries to the outward hopelessness of its worldly condition as a persecuted minority, yet still clung to its identity as did the first Christians (or the Jews of Europe). This appreciation began by finding something positive in the experience. Something of the spirit of those first Christians survives among the Copts, and to attend their often rather secretive Masses, as well as witness the conditions of life among the Zabaleen—the Christian inhabitants of Moqattam, at the rocky cliff edge of the Eastern Desert, who carved cavernous cathedrals out of that rock, while sustaining themselves by collecting and recycling Cairo’s street garbage—is to be uplifted.
Yet it is especially under the easy economic conditions of the modern West that anxiety has become an “epidemic,” and in the United States it has been diagnosed as the leading cause of mental disease after drug abuse. In this sense, my original insight, associating anxiety with spiritual idleness, cannot be entirely wrong, and I can fairly accuse myself of acedia.
What I have failed to do is take this acedia seriously enough. It is what the late theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrestles with in his own remarkable tract The Christian and Anxiety, which fell into my hands recently.
To those in the throes of stress we may say, too glibly, “Offer it up!” This is something that must never be said lightly. Yet the profound solution to stress—once it is confronted theologically as well as medically, psychologically, and philosophically—is to offer it up. More precisely, to make the leap by the grace of God from the person who has victimhood imposed to the person who embraces it as Christ embraced the Cross, applying that stress in prayer not only for one’s own sake, but for the world’s salvation, and accepting the physical wounds it may impose.
Anxiety and stress simply happen. There is no medical cure that will not also deaden the soul. Being fully alive can only mean using it, to the edge of the human condition, where fear is mysteriously subsumed in joy.