As a licensed and practicing therapist, I can often stumble into viewing things through a therapeutic lens and the results can be very funny. That happened recently as I was preparing this mediation. Upon reading the letter to the Philippians telling us to “Have no anxiety at all,” I audibly murmured, “Well that’s not helpful.” My partner was on the other side of the couch and asked me what I was talking about and I replied, “St. Paul’s just giving crappy mental health advice.”
For anyone who’s experienced anxiety, the admonition to just “not worry” or “stop being anxious” is usually ineffective and often feels like a dismissal. Anxiety spirals are overwhelming and attempts to reason our way out of them are typically ineffective in the face of powerful physical and emotional responses. In the wake of COVID, anxiety became an intimately familiar feeling as a result of the pandemic and its ongoing effects. I never thought that having a panic attack just going to a crowded grocery store would become a common shared experience, but here we are. And while the holidays are festive for many of us, for others this is a time of struggle and painful reminders of loss and broken relationships.
So in the midst of our shared struggles, I encourage us not to focus on denying anxiety, pain, or fear, but rather to heed the main and most powerful message of today’s reading—joy. The first reading and the psalmist exort us to rejoice, reminding us of the promises God has made, the care God has shown, and most importantly, the way God takes joy in us. Joy is the proclamation of knowing and feeling that we are loved by God. It can exist in times of pain AND happiness. Pope Francis reminds us that “Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.” Joy is not predicated on perfection, serenity, or having it all together. It begins and ends in the reality of a loving and faithful God who cares for us.
Susan Haarman is the associate director at Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Experiential Learning, facilitating faculty development and the service-learning program. She has degrees from Marquette University, Loyola University of Chicago, and the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, and previously served as the faith and justice campus minister, also at Loyola University Chicago. In addition to having a Masters in Divinity, she also holds a Masters in Community Counseling, a certificate in directing the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises, and is currently in a doctoral program. Her research focuses on the intersection between social justice education, civic identity, and imagination. She is also an improviser storyteller in Chicago.